Archive for July, 2013


If the sun simply “turned off” (which is actually physically impossible), the Earth would stay warm-at least compared with the space surrounding it-for a few million years. But we surface dwellers would feel the chill much sooner than that.

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Within a week, the average global surface temperature would drop below 0°F. In a year, it would dip to -100°. The top layers of the oceans would freeze over, but in an apocalyptic irony, that ice would insulate the deep water below and prevent the oceans from freezing solid for hundreds of thousands of years. Millions of years after that, our planet would reach a stable -400°, the temperature at which the heat radiating from the planet’s core would equal the heat that the Earth radiates into space, explains David Stevenson, a professor of planetary science at the California Institute of Technology.

Although some microorganisms living in the Earth’s crust would survive, the majority of life would enjoy only a brief post-sun existence. Photosynthesis would halt immediately, and most plants would die in a few weeks. Large trees, however, could survive for several decades, thanks to slow metabolism and substantial sugar stores. With the food chain’s bottom tier knocked out, most animals would die off quickly, but scavengers picking over the dead remains could last until the cold killed them.

Humans could live in submarines in the deepest and warmest parts of the ocean, but a more attractive option might be nuclear- or geothermal-powered habitats. One good place to camp out: Iceland. The island nation already heats 87 percent of its homes using geothermal energy, and, says astronomy professor Eric Blackman of the University of Rochester, people could continue harnessing volcanic heat for hundreds of years.

Of course, the sun doesn’t merely heat the Earth; it also keeps the planet in orbit. If its mass suddenly disappeared (this is equally impossible, by the way), the planet would fly off, like a ball swung on a string and suddenly let go..

Good times ahead.

Ref: Pop Science

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Even though scientists have dreamed of human-powered flight since the days of Da Vinci, it’s really, really hard to pull off. Case in point: In 1980, the Igor I. Sikorsky Human Powered Helicopter Competition offered $250,000 to the first team to build a person-powered craft that can hover above 3 meters (or 9.8 feet) for longer than a minute. That prize went unclaimed for 33 years, until a team won it today.

The team of Canadians flying for AeroVelo launched their Atlas helicopter on June 13, and the flight – 64 seconds, up to 3.3 meters – was just certified by the Sikorsky Prize judges.

Despite the prize going unclaimed for so long, the competition came down to the wire. The Atlas team was going up against two other aircraft, and one of them, the Gamera II, met the time requirement and came pretty close to the height requirement last year.

But lest you think this is the end of the three-decade-plus story, the American Helicopter Society, which oversees the prize, has announced “another grand challenge” coming soon.

 Ref: Pop Science

The viruses that we’re most familiar with, like the influenza virus, are small and simple. Influenza is about 100 nanometres across, and has only 13 genes. But scientists are beginning to realize that there’s no reason a virus needs to be that small or that simple – and in fact, there are “megaviruses” that can be much, much bigger and more complex than any virus you’ve seen before.

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In a study published today in Science, researchers describe a newly-discovered megavirus that’s the largest of its type ever seen. By volume, according to Carl Zimmer at the New York Times, it’s 200 times larger than the flu, and has a whopping 2,556 genes. Even crazier, only 6 percent of those genes are familiar to us. The rest are completely new.

The researchers have decided to give the virus the genus name “pandoravirus,” referring to the likelihood that the discovery will lead to all kinds of new knowledge about viruses. The first pandoravirus found, pictured above, turned up in a routine dig off the coast of Chile, and puzzled the researchers until they realized that it contained no bacterial DNA at all, and must in fact be a giant virus. But it’s not one of a kind; shortly after, in an Australian pond, they found another. The researchers believe this indicates that pandoraviruses aren’t rare at all, though much is still unknown about them (like, for example, why they’re so much bigger than other viruses).

They might be huge, but the pandoraviruses discovered so far live only underwater and don’t seem dangerous to humans. “This is not going to cause any kind of widespread and acute illness or epidemic or anything,” said Eugene Koonin of the National Institutes of Health to NPR. 

Ref: Popscience

One company has designed a system, called Sweat Machine, to wring sweat out of clothes and turn it into potable water.

The Sweat Machine heats and spins clothes to extract the liquid from them, then filters the extract with a membrane developed with the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm. Yum.

The filter is the most sophisticated part of the machine. It’s “a bit like Goretex,” one of the machine’s designers, engineer and Swedish TV host Andreas Hammar, told the U.K.’s The Independent. Water vapor passes through the material easily, but it traps bacteria, salts and fibres from the clothes.

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The demonstration is supposed to draw attention to the fact that 780 million people around the world don’t have access to clean drinking water. Contaminated water can be deadly, especially for children. UNICEF will be raising money for a more practical solution for those kids-water purification tablets.

Ref – PopScience

Moon Express, a private ‘lunar commerce’ start-up, and the International Lunar Observatory Association, a non-profit devoted to moon observation, have teamed up to put the International Lunar Observatory, a 2-meter radio antenna, on the Moon to observe the galaxy without the interference of Earth’s atmosphere, which absorbs some kinds of radiation.

ILOA plans to start small, establishing a scientific presence on the Moon, and eventually move on to human exploration and settlement. A preliminary mission with a smaller telescope will launch in 2015.

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The full observatory, slated to arrive in 2016, would provide “scientific research, commercial broadcasting and [enable] Galaxy 21st Century education and “citizen science” on the Moon,” according to a press statement from the two organizations. Its access and controls will be available via the Internet to the general public, as well as researchers.

Moon Express will also send a small rover to prospect for resources, including metals, minerals and water, that could be extracted from the lunar surface and one day sold on Earth.

According to Moore’s law it shouldn’t be long until they have the ability to open up a soda plant using local water – watch this space.

Ref – Wired

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Cancer researchers looking for a breakthrough might want to relocate to the International Space Station. Biologists have found that microgravity research and other space-based experiments provide greater insight into abnormal cell behavior.

In Earth-bound labs, cells grow flat, unable to fully mimic the three-dimensional architecture shaped by proteins and carbohydrates of a working human organ. This gap provides an obstacle for scientists studying changes in cell growth and development.

In space, cells clump together easily, arranging themselves into three-dimensional groupings that better replicate cell activity. They also experience less fluid shear stress, a type of disturbance that affects their behavior outside of the body.

Many of the cells in space will likely die due to a lack of blood vessels providing necessary oxygen and nutrients. That might seem like a disadvantage, but it actually resembles the condition of tumors with areas of dead tissue at their centers, biologists say.

While the unique physical conditions of space have proven apt, research on Earth is also making headway with the construction of 3-D cell structures using a collagen gel matrix. Combined with microgravity studies, such research advances could greatly help biologists understand the cellular changes that lead to cancer and develop ways to prevent them.

A few years back, scientists discovered a giant cloud of hooch floating around in space. The 288 billion-mile cloud of gaseous methanol, an alcohol present in antifreeze and some moonshine presented a conundrum: How do alcohols, which are fairly complex organic molecules, form in space.
In the vast expanse of interstellar space, temperatures are so low that chemical reactions shouldn’t be able to occur, following the classic rules of chemistry – there’s just not enough energy. Yet they do occur, and with an even faster reaction rate than at room temperature, according to a study online in Nature Chemistry this week. These impossible reactions can be explained through a phenomenon called quantum tunneling, the authors theorize.

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As temperatures plummet, chemical reactions slow down, as there is less energy and fewer collisions between molecules to rearrange chemical bonds. But, according to the team of chemists from the University of Leeds in the UK, some reactions might skirt the classical rules of chemical reactions through quantum tunnelling, a process in which a particle wiggles through the reaction barrier (the energy required to start a reaction) even when technically it doesn’t have enough energy to overcome it.

Heard and his colleagues plan to study how other alcoholic reactions occur in the extreme cold. “If our results continue to show a similar increase in the reaction rate at very cold temperatures, then scientists have been severely underestimating the rates of formation and destruction of complex molecules, such as alcohols, in space.

All I know is that any omnipotent being that creates a Universe so he/she can brew moonshine is alright in my books…

Ref: PopScience

The TARDIS, a time- and space-traversing, police-box-shaped ship from the long-running sci-fi TV show Doctor Who, is really heading into orbit

220px-TARDIS2 The Tardis had seen better days…

This November is the 50th (50th) anniversary of Who, and to celebrate, a father-daughter pair built a tiny TARDIS-replica satellite. In May, they sought $33,000 on Kickstarter to launch of the satellite. They plan to strap the satellite onto a rocket and drop it into Low Earth Orbit. It’s loaded with a camera for snapping shots of the Earth below, along with a hard drive, so backers can send a small amount of data on board.

The project may sound a little optimistic, but it’s probably doable. We’ve seen CubeSats, which are small, cheap-to-produce boxes that get strapped on to rockets. Once CubeSats get high enough, they fall off the mothership and into orbit. The TARDIS’s creators don’t specify the launch plan for their project except to say the TARDIS will be strapped to someone else’s payload – so the setup might be similar to that of CubeSats.

I can’t wait to see their next project where they plan to distort space and time…

Ref: PopSci

 

 
Italian neurosurgeon Sergio Canaveri has recently released a paper entitled “HEAVEN: The head anastomosis venture Project outline for the first human head transplantation with spinal linkage,”

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Sergio Canaveri makes a claim straight out of science fiction: that the technology required for successful human-head transplantation is finally here, and that it could be used to help people with irreparable damage to their bodies and spinal cords.

Before human head transplantation could enter the realm of consideration, scientists would have to perform multiple successful experiments on primates, Stephen Latham, a bioethicist at Yale University, says. And none of those, he believes, would be condoned by any reasonable ethics committee.

But say the primate experiments did pass the ethics test. And so did the human trials. The fact remains that a head transplant is a bit outrageous for the needs of most patients, Latham says. In the case of quadriplegics, or individuals with full-body paralysis, scientists would perform less invasive surgical procedures before they attempted to replace the patient’s entire body, he says. “If you’d have the technology to attach spinal columns, you’d have certainly developed the technology to repair somebody’s broken spinal column,” he says, laughing.

Personally I think it’s a great idea, although possible going a little too far. That said, it certainly is a great option not only for those suffering from paraplegia but also those inflicted with a case of the uglies.

Ref: PopScience

 

A few months ago, physicist Harold White stunned the aeronautics world when he announced that he and his team at NASA had begun work on the development of a faster-than-light warp drive. His proposed design, an ingenious re-imagining of an Alcubierre Drive, may eventually result in an engine that can transport a spacecraft to the nearest star in a matter of weeks — and all without violating Einstein’s law of relativity.

The idea came to White while he was considering a rather remarkable equation formulated by physicist Miguel Alcubierre. In his 1994 paper titled, “The Warp Drive: Hyper-Fast Travel Within General Relativity,”
 
Alcubierre suggested a mechanism by which space-time could be “warped” both in front of and behind a spacecraft.
 
Michio Kaku dubbed Alcubierre’s notion a “passport to the universe.” It takes advantage of a quirk in the cosmological code that allows for the expansion and contraction of space-time, and could allow for hyper-fast travel between interstellar destinations.
 
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Which is great news when you consider that recent research has effectively doubled the estimated number of life-friendly planets in orbit around red dwarfs. And remarkably, the astronomers attribute the revised figure to the presence of clouds.
 
Astronomers theorize that red dwarfs, which make up 75% of all main sequence stars in our galaxy, feature circumstellar habitable zones (HZ) that are considerably more interior than those of G stars (of which our sun is one). And in fact, owing to the low energy output of these stars, their HZs are about as close as Mercury is to our sun. But it’s within these sweet spots that water can remain in its liquid state — an important precursor to life.
 
So with the advent of NASA’s (theoretical) warp drive we may be heading out on our five year mission to offend alien species before we know it…