Category Archives: Science

NASA to announce new details on mission to ‘touch the sun’

USA Today Network Mary Bowerman , USA TODAY Network 1:16 p.m. ET May 29, 2017


NASA is set to release new details this week about the agency’s “unprecedented” mission to “touch the sun.”

The mission, Solar Probe Plus, will launch in summer of 2018 and marks the agency’s first mission to fly into the sun’s atmosphere. Data collected during the mission is expected to improve forecasting of space weather events that impact life on Earth and the lives of astronauts, NASA said in a statement.

“Placed in orbit within four million miles of the sun’s surface, and facing heat and radiation unlike any spacecraft in history, the spacecraft will explore the sun’s outer atmosphere and make critical observations that will answer decades-old questions about the physics of how stars work,” NASA said in a statement.

NASA will make the announcement live on NASA Television and the agency’s website at 11 a.m. ET on Wednesday.


A multinational group wants you to join ‘Asgardia’ — the first outer-space nation with a mission to defend Earth

asgardia space station mission earth protection James Vaughan


A new country called Asgardia, named after Norse mythology’s city in the skies, could be the first nation ever created in space. The hope is to embark on a mission to mine asteroids and defend Earth from dangerous meteorites, space debris, and other threats.

That is, if everything goes according to an uncertain, open-ended, and audacious plan put forth by its founders.

The group behind the Asgardia project includes space experts based out of Canada, Romania, Russia, and the United States, and they announced their sovereign ambitions from a press conference in Paris on Wednesday.

Their core concept is to launch a robotic satellite within the next 18 months (60 years after Russia launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite), then eventually follow up with a permanent space station “where people can live, work, and have their own rules and regulations,” one founding member told Business Insider.

The hope? To “democratize space,” they say.

Ultimately, the organizers envision Asgardians building “a state-of-the-art protective shield for all humankind from cosmic manmade and natural threats to life on earth such as space debris, coronal mass ejections and asteroid collisions,” according to an emailed press release.

“We must leave [Earth] because it’s very much in the nature of humanity,” Ram Jakhu, the director of McGill University’s Institute of Air and Space Law and an Asgardia project founding member, told Business Insider in a phone interview before Wednesday’s press conference.

“Humanity left Africa and covered the whole globe. The resources of Earth will be depleted,” he said. “Third, I would say, we have a wish to go where nobody has gone before.”

Who is behind Asgardia?

Timothy Wild, a spokesperson for the consortium, would not disclose which researchers or other experts are currently aligned with the project, nor how many, during our call.

But we count at least five so far, according to materials shared by the publicity company that Wild works for:

  • Igor Ashurbeyli — founder of the Aerospace International Research Center (AIRC) in Russia and the new chairman of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) “science of space” committee
  • David Alexander — director of Rice University’s Space Institute
  • Ram Jakhu — director of the Institute of Air and Space Law at McGill University
  • Joseph N. Pelton — director of the Space and Advanced Communications Research Institute (SACRI) at George Washington University
  • Dumitru-Dorin Prunariu — a Romanian cosmonaut

Wild noted that the project is in its “early stages” and is hoping the initial publicity will attract engineers, scientists, and other talent.

“What we’re doing now is a call to arms, so we want to widen the net,” he said.

In addition to experts, Asgardia is calling on you to join its ranks.

“[T]he site will allow the first 100,000 people to register to become citizens of Asgardia alongside their nationality on [E]arth,” the release stated.

Asgardia is also crowd-sourcing its flag, insignia, and even national anthem.

How is it funded?

Wild would not disclose the organization’s current funding level, but claimed Ashurbeyli had put forth a substantial amount of money to get the Asgardia project going.

“We’re absolutely confident the satellite will launch within 18 months,” Wild said. “But in terms of absolute numbers [of money], we’re not there yet.” Wild would also not disclose how Asgardia’s founders plan to acquire cash to fund its future efforts.

It will likely need tens of millions of dollars to start out, and later perhaps billions to sustain itself.

Substantial, fist-size satellites called nanosats can be built and launched for roughly millions of dollars. But sending up larger objects requires more powerful and expensive launchers.

Right now, one of the cheapest rides into orbit a couple of hundred miles above Earth is a Falcon 9 rocket, and SpaceX charges roughly $60 to $65 million for the whole ride (some companies will share payload space and split the cost).

Meanwhile, it took 18 nations and about $100 billion to build and operate the International Space Station (ISS).

Can you actually form a new nation in space?

asgardia space nation website logo An image of Asgardia’s symbol featured on the supposed nation’s website.

In an emailed press release, Ashurbeyli said that “Asgardia is a fully-fledged and independent nation, and a future member of the United Nations — with all the attributes this status entails.”

However, according to current international space law, the country that launches an object into space is responsible for it, including any damage it causes to denizens of Earth.

“The project is creating a new framework for ownership and nationhood in space, which will adapt current outer space laws governing responsibility, private ownership and enterprise so they are fit for purpose in the new era of space exploration,” the organization said in its emailed release. “By creating a new Space Nation, private enterprise, innovation and the further development of space technology to support humanity will flourish free from the tight restrictions of state control that currently exist.”

How would that be different from the ISS?

“The ISS is a joint venture. There’s no entity called ‘ISS,'” Jakhu said. “It’s just one facility, parts of which are controlled by different nations. It’s more or less a condo.”

And when asked about the laws behind forging a country on a yet-to-be-launched space station, Jakhu acknowledged the challenge, but he seemed optimistic.

“We have not seen any nation attempt this before. So this will be a first,” he said. “We’ll start small and eventually people will be going there, and working, and having their own rules and regulations … This facility will become an independent nation.”

Business Insider contacted the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) for clarification on whether or not current space laws would permit a new country to declare itself in space — from the ground, with an uncrewed satellite, or even with people aboard a space station. We also asked the organization how (if it’s not yet permitted) a new nation like Asgardia might need to change space law to form itself.

UNOOSA representatives did not immediately respond to our query.

How will Asgardia get built?

permanent space colony 1 Future Human Evolution

While painting an ambitious vision of a peaceful future in space, Asgardia is curiously quiet on the specifics.

Business Insider pressed its representatives for details about timelines, funding, satellite and space station designs, launch vehicles, personnel, and more, but Asgardia declined to provide that information.

“At this point we’re trying not to give too much technical detail away,” Wild said. “We have some ideas, but it’s not at the level of understanding to put into the public domain … [W]e’re taking a measured approach. We’re explaining what we want to do now and not jumping the gun on too many details.”

Jakhu and Asgardia’s organizers expect to draw plenty of critics, including analogies to the fizzling Mars One project — an effort that continues to claim it will set down astronauts that it has recruited on the red planet, though multiple investigations suggest it lacks the funding, manpower, and expertise to pull off the feat.

However, Jakhu and Wild pointed out that trying to form the first space nation a couple hundred miles above Earth is a lot different than trying to colonize Mars, as Elon Musk of SpaceX and Mars One intend.

“I’m sure people will ridicule [Asgardia], but I’m not worried. Anyone who tries out-of-the-box things is initially ridiculed,” Jakhu said. “Everything that’s amazing starts with a crazy idea. After awhile science fiction becomes science fact, and this is an idea which is just being initiated.

Asked if Jakhu would live in Asgardia, he responded, “why not?”

“I think it’d be less risky than going to Mars,” he said. “And you could more easily come back to Earth if you didn’t like it.”


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Earth’s Gravity Dips from Antarctic Ice Loss


Oct 1, 2014 01:23 PM ET // by Patrick J. Kiger

Of all the effects on the Earth from human-driven climate change, this one might be the weirdest.

The rapid loss of ice from the West Antarctica’s ice sheet between 2009 and 2012 was big enough to cause a slight dip in the Earth’s gravitational field over the region, according to the European Space Agency. Scientists based the finding upon measurements made by the agency’s GOCE satellite, which from 2009 to 2013 used new technology to map the Earth’s gravitational field in unprecedented detail.

NEWS: Massive Antarctic Iceberg Sets Sail

While we might think of gravity as being the same all over the Earth, it’s actually not quite uniform, because of variations in the Earth’s surface such as mountains, valleys, ocean trenches and, in the case of the polar regions, the ice sheets, according to NASA Earth Observatory. But since a mountain or a valley generally is in the same place from year to year, shifts in gravity in a particular spot usually only take place gradually over very long periods of geologic time.

But in the case of the west Antarctic ice sheet, change is occurring rapidly. Data from another ESA satellite, CryoSat, shows that since 2009, the West Antarctic ice sheet’s rate of shrinkage has increased each year by a factor of three.

While the change in Antarctic gravity is so slight that it wouldn’t be noticeable from the ground, it’s a warning signal.

NEWS: Antarctic Sea Ice Growth Could Reverse

The breakup of the West Antarctic ice sheet could have much more serious effects, according to NASA. It the ice disappeared completely, it would raise sea levels by as much as 16 feet. The most vulnerable portion of the sheet is the Amundsen Sea region, where the glaciers don’t have big enough ice shelves to stem ice flow, and mostly aren’t pinned down by obstructions such as islands.

Additionally, a warm current rising up from the sea bottom accentuates the instability of the ice. The breakup of the Amunden Sea ice alone could cause the planet’s oceans to rise by 4 feet.


Recreating 1918-19 Spanish Influenza: New Influenza Pandemic Danger?

June 27, 2014 by Paul Dunne

Spanish influenza patient attended by masked hospital staff, US Naval Hospital New Orleans, Louisiana, USA autumn 1918. Photograph courtesy of US Naval History and Heritage Command.

Professor Yoshihiro Kawaoka and his colleagues at the University of Wisconsin-Madison successfully reconstituted a virus 97% similar to the Spanish Flu of 1918-19, partly from fragments of avian viruses. Does this research put us all at risk?

The Great Pandemic

According to the United States Department of Health and Human Services article, “The Great Pandemic,” the Spanish Flu killed an estimated 40 to 100 million people in the immediate aftermath of World War One.

In response, Simon Wain-Hobson, a virologist at Paris’ l’Institut Pasteur, described how this research renders the avian viruses H5N1 and H7N9, which currently circulate in Asia, more readily transmissible to mammals and argues that this research ensures that the world is now a potentially a more dangerous place.

Researchers have known the genetic sequence of Spanish Influenza H5N1 since 1997 primarily due to research carried out on the tissues of the victims of the 1918 pandemic by Jeffrey Taubenberger at the National Institute of Health, Bethesda, Maryland, USA.

The Presence of Avian Viruses Facilitated the Reconstitution of 1918 H1N1 Influenza Virus

Professor Yoshihiro Kawaoka maintains there is sufficient strain in the current avian viruses to naturally reconstitute the famous H1N1 of 1918. Professor Kawaoka found eight sequences in currently-circulating avian viruses to recreate the H1N1 influenza virus. He then tested the virulence of the reconstituted virus and found it is 1,000 times less infective than the flu of 1918.

The LD50 measure (i.e. the number of virus particles required to kill 50% of test mice) required 100,000 virus particles. Laboratory animals proved more susceptible and the virus more transmissible due to their closer, more confined living conditions. Fortunately, Oseltamvir (Tamiflu) offers robust protection against newly-created viruses.

Spanish Flu virus

Newly-Created Viruses Could Lead to Seasonal Deaths

Simon Wain-Hobson of l’Institut Pasteur asked about ‘the chances of eight viral segments reuniting in nature?‘ Kawaoka could not respond.

If this occurred, this combination could possibly result in 250,000 – 500,000 deaths as per seasonal influenza. In “Do We Need to Fear Influenza, Again,” Patrick Berche of L’Hopital Neckar in Paris asserts the level of security for these newly-created viruses was P3 and was not maximal security.

During the last two decades of research at least a dozen accidental escapes from laboratories at level P4 security have occurred.

Research into Dangerous Viruses Make No Provision for the Safety of Human Lives

Kawaoka countered Berche’s warning when he insisted he used antiviral safeguards and he warned public health officials in case of a pandemic risk. Kawaoka further insisted his own vigorous security precautions in his laboratories were adequate to reduce chances of the newly-created pandemic flu virus escaping.

Fouchier’s Ferrets

Kawaoka research could be less of a threat than other risky experiments. The research community feared problems after the recent revelation that Ron Fouchier rendered the Avian Virus H5N1 more transmissible between ferrets.

The creation of this ‘supervirus’ led to a temporary moratorium on this type of research. At the end of 2013, 56 scientific establishments combined to interdict these extreme experiments, without success.

Viruses and The Future

There are documented and verifiable occasions worldwide in which scientists work on these types of substances and compounds where there is no accountability, potentially resulting in a lethal pandemic which threatens humankind.

The scientific community must hold Professor Kawaoka, and others studying such volatile research, accountable for laboratory conditions and the safety of the public.

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Scientists can implant false memories into mice

By Melissa Hogenboom Science reporter, BBC News


Optical fibres implanted in a mouse’s brain activated memory forming cells

False memories have been implanted into mice, scientists say.

A team was able to make the mice wrongly associate a benign environment with a previous unpleasant experience from different surroundings.

The researchers conditioned a network of neurons to respond to light, making the mice recall the unpleasant environment.

Reporting in Science, they say it could one day shed light into how false memories occur in humans.

The brains of genetically engineered mice were implanted with optic fibres in order to deliver pulses of light to their brain. Known as optogenetics, this technique is able to make individual neurons respond to light.

Unreliable memory

Continue reading the main story

“Start Quote

Our memory changes every single time it’s being recorded. That’s why we can incorporate new information into old memories and this is how a false memory can form…”

Dr Xu Liu Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Just like in mice, our memories are stored in collections of cells, and when events are recalled we reconstruct parts of these cells – almost like re-assembling small pieces of a puzzle.

It has been well documented that human memory is highly unreliable, first highlighted by a study on eyewitness testimonies in the 70s. Simple changes in how a question was asked could influence the memory a witness had of an event such as a car crash.

When this was brought to public attention, eyewitness testimonies alone were no longer used as evidence in court. Many people wrongly convicted on memory statements were later exonerated by DNA evidence.

Xu Liu of the RIKEN-MIT Center for Neural Circuit Genetics and one the lead authors of the study, said that when mice recalled a false memory, it was indistinguishable from the real memory in the way it drove a fear response in the memory forming cells of a mouse’s brain.

Continue reading the main story

How a memory was implanted in a mouse

This cartoon explains how Dr Tonegawa's team created a false memory in the brain of mice

  • A mouse was put in one environment (blue box) and the brain cells encoding memory were labelled in this environment (white circles)
  • These cells were then made responsive to light
  • The animal was placed in a different environment (the red box) and light was delivered into the brain to activate these labelled cells
  • This induced the recall of the first environment – the blue box. While the animal was recalling the first environment, they also received mild foot shocks
  • Later when the mouse was put back into the first environment, it showed behavioural signs of fear, indicating it had formed a false fear memory for the first environment, where it was never shocked in reality

The mouse is the closest animal scientists can easily use to analyse the brain, as though simpler, its structure and basic circuitry is very similar to the human brain.

Studying neurons in a mouse’s brain could therefore help scientists further understand how similar structures in the human brain work.

“In the English language there are only 26 letters, but the combinations of letters make unlimited words and sentences, this is also true for memories,” Dr Liu told BBC News.

Evolving memories

“There are so many brain cells and for each individual memory, different combinations of small populations of cells are activated.”

These differing combinations of cells could partly explain why memories are not static like a photograph, but constantly evolving, he added.

Continue reading the main story

Erasing memories?

Brain artwork

Mice have previously been trained to believe they were somewhere else, “a bit like the feeling of deja-vu we sometimes get”, said Rosamund Langston from Dundee University.

A possibility in the future is erasing memories, she told BBC News.

“Episodic memories – such as those for traumatic experiences – are distributed in neurons throughout the brain, and in order to make memory erasure a safe and useful tool, we must understand how the different components of each memory are put together.

“You may want to erase someone’s memory for a traumatic event that happened in their home, but you certainly do not want to erase their memory for how to find their way around their home.”

“If you want to grab a specific memory you have to get down into the cell level. Every time we think we remember something, we could also be making changes to that memory – sometimes we realise sometimes we don’t,” Dr Liu explained.

“Our memory changes every single time it’s being ‘recorded’. That’s why we can incorporate new information into old memories and this is how a false memory can form without us realising it.”

Susumu Tonegawa, also from RIKEN-MIT, said his teams’ work provided the first animal model in which false and genuine memories could be investigated in the cells which store memories, called engram-bearing cells.

“Humans are highly imaginative animals. Just like our mice, an aversive or appetitive event could be associated with a past experience one may happen to have in mind at that moment, hence a false memory is formed.”

Silencing fear

Neil Burgess from University College London, who was not involved with the work, told BBC News the study was an “impressive example” of creating a fearful response in an environment where nothing fearful happened.

“One day this type of knowledge may help scientists to understand how to remove or reduce the fearful associations experienced by people with conditions like post traumatic stress disorder.”

But he added that it’s only an advance in “basic neuroscience” and that these methods could not be directly applied to humans for many years.

“But basic science always helps in the end, and it may be possible, one day, to use similar techniques to silence neurons causing the association to fear.”

‘Diseases of thought’

Mark Mayford of the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego, US, said: “The question is, how does the brain change with experience? That’s the heart of everything the brain does.

He explained that work like this could one day further help us to understand the structure of our thoughts and the cells involved.

“Then one can begin to look at those brain circuits, see how they change, and hopefully find the areas or mechanisms that change with learning.”

“The implications are potentially interventions for diseases of thought such as schizophrenia. You cannot approach schizophrenia unless you know how a perception is put together.”