From The Editors Technology

New Hypersonic Aircraft Will Cut Down NY-London Flight Time to Just 90 Minutes

Earlier this week, Atlanta-based aerospace startup Hermeus announced its plans to develop a hypersonic aircraft capable of transporting passengers from New York to London in just ninety minutes at speeds of up to 3,800 miles per hour (6115.5 kilometers per hour).

​“We’ve set out on a journey to revolutionize the global transportation infrastructure, bringing it from the equivalent of dialup into the broadband era, by radically increasing the speed of travel over long distances,” Hermeus co-founder and CEO AJ Piplica said in a press release.

The release announced the Seed round, which, in addition to being led by Khosla Ventures, had participation from other private investors, as well.

The May 13 release also announced the advisory board, which includes the likes of former Blue Origin president Rob Meyerson, former Lockheed Martin Skunk Works general manager Rob Weiss, and former FAA associate administrator George Nield, among others.

“Collectively, these advisors help define the Hermeus strategy with respect to safety, markets, technology, and development in order to accelerate innovation in aviation and connect the globe,” said the press release.

As fancy as the idea of a Mach 5-capable commercial aircraft boasting a 4,600-mile range may appear to be, Hermeus says it will be based on current technology and materials; nothing radically out of the ordinary.

“The product’s design enables it to operate with minimal changes to current aviation infrastructure,” says the company website.

Hermeus CEO Skyler Shuford echoed this when he told Ars Technica that the company was not “getting into anything too miraculous,” adding: “We want to do engineering, not science.”

Khosla Ventures founder Vinod Khosla said that not only can the Hermeus aircraft revolutionize commercial aviation with drastically-reduced flight times but it can also have “great societal and economic impact.”

Ars Technica reports that titanium is one of the primary materials that Hermeus plans to use on the super-plane, while the “propulsion system will be powered by a turbine-based, combined-cycle engine.”

Shuford also told the website that it would take around five years to develop a demonstrator vehicle capable of Mach 5 speeds and another three to five years to produce one for commercial operations.

Hermeus, by the way, is not the first company to go the hypersonic way, what with Boeing HorizonX, Rolls-Royce and BAE Systems coming together last year to invest $37.3 million in Oxfordshire, England-based aerospace company Reaction Engines, which is working on its own version of a hypersonic propulsion system.

Also, Spokane, Washington-based startup HyperSciences has used SeedInvest, an online platform for equity-based crowdfunding, to raise $9.2 million on a ram accelerator system that can be used to launch a projectile at 6,700 mph, about nine times the speed of sound.

Last year, NASA awarded a $125,000 grant to the startup to develop a “robust, cost effective, automated hypersonic launch system and encapsulated projectile bus  capable of delivering small payloads to altitudes as high as 100Km.”

About Hermeus

Hermeus was founded as recently as last year by AJ Piplica (CEO), Glenn Case (Chief Technical Officer), Mike Smayda (Chief Product Officer) and Skyler Shuford (Chief Product Officer), all of whom have previously worked for Atlanta-based Generation Orbit, where they helped develop the Air Force’s X-60A hypersonic rocket plane.

Smayda and Shuford also have the distinction of having worked at SpaceX – Elon Musk’s Hathorne, California-based spaceflight company.

The company recently opened offices at DeKalb-Peachtree Airport in Georgia, just north-east of state capital Atlanta.

Hermeus describes itself as a “startup developing a Mach 5 aircraft with the goal of massively reduced flight times and increased safety for long haul, business class air travel.”

The company’s Board of Advisors includes:

o Rob Meyerson – Former President, Blue Origin

o Rob Weiss – Former EVP/GM Lockheed Martin Skunk Works

o Keith Masback – Former CEO, US Geospatial Intelligence Foundation; Director, Source Operations, National Geospatial Intelligence Agency; Director, ISR Integration, US Army.

o Katerina Barilov – Founder, Sparkplug capital+ and Managing Director, Shearwater Aero Capital

o Dr. George Nield – Former Associate Administrator, FAA

o Mitch Free – Founder and CEO, ZYCI and Former Director of Technical Operations, Northwest Airlines

From The Editors Science

Blue Origin Unveils Full-Scale Mock-Up of Lunar Lander ‘Blue Moon’

In an invitation-only event at the Washington Convention Center in Washington, DC., members of the press and space industry representatives witnessed the unveiling of a life-size mock-up of ‘Blue Moon’ – spaceflight company Blue Origin’s lunar lander.

The company’s founder and CEO Jeff Bezos says Blue Moon is capable of carrying 3.6 metric tons of large payloads, including rovers, satellites, and scientific equipment to the lunar surface.

Also, a subsequent “stretch tank” version with a 6.5-ton payload capacity will be able to put astronauts back on the moon by as early as 2024.

“This is an incredible vehicle, and it’s going to the Moon,” Bezos said after the historic reveal, adding: “If that does not inspire you, you are at the wrong event.”

Bezos also revealed a new BE-7 engine that will power both versions of the lander with a thrust of 10,000 lb using liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen propellants, instead of a storable hypergolic propellant.

“It’s very high performance,” says Bezos. “Ultimately, we’re going to be able to get hydrogen from that water on the moon, and be able to refuel these vehicles on the surface of the moon.”

The advantage of using liquid hydrogen is manifold; not only can its boiloff be used as a coolant for the liquid oxygen, but it can also be fed into a fuel cell system where it can generate enough electricity to power the lander during the two-week long lunar nights.

“We chose hydrogen fuel cells for this vehicle rather than solar cells because we want to be able to survive the lunar night,” he said.

Blue Moon’s fuel-loaded lift-off weight of 33,000 lb will reduce to about 7,000 lb at the time of lunar touchdown.

Bezos has always had a fascination with space and the limitless possibilities it holds, with an early interest in the idea of “space hotels, amusement parks, colonies and small cities for 2-3 million people orbiting Earth.”

It was this obsession with space travel and exploration that led Bezos to found Blue Origin, back in 2000.

So, the Amazon billionaire didn’t really surprise anybody when speaking at the International Space Development Conference, in May last year, he said that his company Blue Origin was open to working with NASA, SpaceX or the European Space Agency (ESA) to realize his vision of colonizing space.

And, what better place to start than the moon, not only because of its proximity to Earth but also because of the presence of large deposits of water ice near its poles, not to mention the fact that the lunar surface gets plenty of sunlight.

Addressing a group of students at Seattle’s Museum of Flight, Bezos stressed upon the importance of moving equipment and supplies and assembling them on the surface of the moon with the help of advanced robotics and machine learning, before humans can actually populate the place.

“I think we should build a permanent human settlement on one of the poles of the moon, and it’s time to go back to the moon but this time to stay,” he said.

“And, there you’d want to preposition a whole bunch of equipment and supplies before the humans show up; and some of those things need to be assembled on the surface of the moon and that’s the kind of thing that could also be done by advanced robotics with machine learning systems on board,” Bezos added

There are other players, both private and government, who would likely be interested in partnering with Blue Origin, including SpaceX, although Elon Musk is more fixated on the red planet than the moon.

The European Space Agency’s ‘Moon Village’ vision is particularly appealing to Bezos, who says that the idea of building individual lunar outposts by different companies in close proximity to each other would lead to inter-lunar cooperation among different outposts, helping each other out in times of need.

“The Moon Village concept has a nice property in that everybody basically just says, look, everybody builds their own lunar outpost, but let’s do it close to each other,” Bezos said.

“That way, if you need a cup of sugar, you can go over to the European Union lunar outpost and say, ‘I got my powdered eggs, what have you got?’” he quipped.

“Obviously, I’m being silly with the eggs, but there will be real things, like, ‘Do you have some oxygen?’” he added.

Bezos is also convinced that there’s no better place than the moon for Earth’s heavy industry because in times to come, Earth will not remain the best place for it.

“The Earth is not a very good place to do heavy industry. It’s convenient for us right now, but in the not-too-distant future — I’m talking decades, maybe 100 years — it’ll start to be easier to do a lot of the things that we currently do on Earth in space because we’ll have so much energy,” he said.

The ever-increasing population and the resultant demand on the dwindling resources on Earth, plus the fact that there will be no dearth of solar-powered energy in space outposts, do give credence to Bezos lunar logic.

“We will have to leave this planet,” Bezos said. “We’re going to leave it, and it’s going to make this planet better,” he said, adding: “We’ll come and go, and the people who want to stay will stay.”

While the moon is where Bezos plans to start his space colonization from, for reasons already mentioned, his long-term vision encompasses solar-powered colonies in the solar-system with millions of people living and working in them. He even sees hollow asteroids as potential space outposts.

Bezos said that although he is committed to building the rockets and landers, he would be happy if other companies took over the responsibility of building rovers, habitable accommodation and all the other stuff necessary to colonize the moon on such a large scale.

“One of two things will happen,” he said. “Either other people will take over the vision, or I’ll run out of money.”

Considering he’s the richest man on Earth, it’s unlikely he’ll ever run out of money; on the contrary, he could end up becoming the richest man in space, as well.

From The Editors Science

Should Pluto’s Planet Status Be Reinstated? The Debate Still Rages in the Astronomical Community

Pluto, the icy body in the outer reaches of the solar system, was considered the ninth planet in the system from the time it was discovered in 1930 up until 2006, when it was controversially reclassified as a dwarf planet by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) – the global authority for naming and designating celestial objects.

The IAU has since been at the receiving end by many scientists and astronomers who disagree with the union’s decision and have fiercely advocated for Pluto’s planetary status to be reinstated.

The contentious decision was based on the definition of a planet, which many scientists argue has been inconsistently applied in the case of Pluto.

In a scientific paper published in the journal Icarus in September last year, a group of scientists, led by the study’s main author Philip Metzger – a planetary scientist at the University of Central Florida – maintain that the IAU’s definition of a planet is not in the interest of science and, hence, should be revisited.

“What we’re doing is fact-checking,” Metzger, was quoted by NBC News as having said.

“There are 120 examples I found of scientists in the recently published literature violating the IAU definition, calling something a planet even though the IAU definition says it’s not a planet,” he said.

“The reason planetary scientists do this is because the IAU definition is not useful for science,” Metzger added.

Pluto’s planetary status came into question in 2005 when astronomers at the California Institute of Astronomy (Caltech) –  a private doctorate-granting research university in Pasadena, California – discovered a Pluto-like celestial object in the distant solar system.

The object, which came to be known as Eres, was touted as a new addition to the planetary line-up at the time, but when more such objects were discovered in the Kuiper-belt neighborhood, the astronomical community was in a quandary over the definition of a planet.

Several definitions were considered and reconsidered before IAU called a press conference in Prague, in 2006, to give a new meaning to the term “planet,” thereby stripping Pluto of its planetary status and downgrading it to a “dwarf planet.”

The new resolution stated that in order for a solar system object in to qualify as a planet, it needed to meet three conditions:

  • It has to orbit the sun
  • It has to be rounded by its own gravity, for which it has to be large enough to allow its gravitation pull to shape it into a sphere
  • It has to be pretty much the only object in its orbit, meaning it has to be gravitationally dominant-enough to have evicted most objects in its orbital vicinity.

While Pluto meets the first two criteria hands down, it falls short of qualifying as a planet when it comes to the third condition, because its orbit is littered with other icy bodies exerting their own gravitational forces.

Although thirteen years have passed since that eventful September day when Pluto ceased to be a planet and became a “dwarf planet,” the debate over the controversial definition and Pluto’s standing in the planetary hierarchy still rages on in the astronomical community.

NASA’s principal investigator for New Horizons mission to Pluto, Alan Stern, and other like-minded scientists have rubbished the revised definition, saying that it is flawed and needs to be reversed.

Writing in The Washington Post in May 2018, Stern and co-author of the article, David Grinspoon – an American astrobiologist and senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona – stated that the IAU’s definition of a planet was “deeply flawed.”

“The process for redefining planet was deeply flawed and widely criticized even by those who accepted the outcome,” wrote Stern and Grinspoon.

“For one thing, it defines a planet as an object orbiting around our sun — thereby disqualifying the planets around other stars, ignoring the exoplanet revolution, and decreeing that essentially all the planets in the universe are not, in fact, planets,” they said.

“To add insult to injury, they amended their convoluted definition with the vindictive and linguistically paradoxical statement that “a dwarf planet is not a planet.” This seemingly served no purpose but to satisfy those motivated by a desire — for whatever reason — to ensure that Pluto was “demoted” by the new definition,” they wrote.

In fact, Stern was scheduled to debate Ron Ekers – former IAU president (2003 to 2006) – at the Powell Auditorium at the Cosmos Club on the definition of a planet and Pluto’s classification in our solar system in Washington, DC, on Monday.

Kuiper Belt

Kuiper Belt is the ring-shaped accumulation of matter made up gas, dust, planetesimals, asteroids, or collision debris – also known as the circumstellar disk – in the far reaches of the solar system.

It is home to three known dwarf planets, including Pluto, Haumea, and Makemake, in addition to other icy objects.

Ultima Thule is the latest Kuiper Belt object (KBO), which NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft flew by as recently as New Year’s Day this year.

When it was thirty-three minutes past midnight in New York; when the ball had already dropped in Times Square to usher in 2019; when parties were in full swing across the city; history was made four billion miles out in space.

Technically, history happened in the blink of an eye, as NASA spacecraft New Horizons zipped past the tiny KBO at a lusty speed of 32,280 miles per hour – that’s 9 miles in a second, to put things in perspective.

However, confirmation of the historic flyby came only after an agonizing wait of six hours and eight minutes – that’s how long it took the radio signal from the robotic craft to travel through the void of space before it was plucked from the air by a NASA deep space radio dish in Madrid.

Coming back to the Pluto debate, Stern and Grinspoon summed it up extremely well when they wrote:

“The word “planet” predates and transcends science. Language is malleable and responsive to culture. Words are not defined by voting. Neither is scientific paradigm.”

From The Editors Science

Imminent Collision of Milky Way with Nearby Galaxy Could Send our Solar System into Interstellar Space

Astrophysicists at Durham University’s Institute for Computational Cosmology in the UK and the University of Helsinki in Finland have predicted that a dwarf galaxy called the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC), which weighs as much as 250 billion suns, will slam into the Milky Way in about two and a half billion years.

Should it happen for real, the cosmic collision will wreak havoc in our galactic neighborhood that could likely send our Solar System tumbling into the infinite void of interstellar space.

The massive impact is also likely to wake up the Milky Way’s hibernating blackhole, which will then begin devouring the surrounding gases and bloat to ten times its original size.

The awakened giant will spit out high-energy radiation in the galactic neighborhood in a dazzling display of cosmic eruptions.

“Barring any disasters, like a major disturbance to the solar system, our descendants, if any, are in for a treat: a spectacular display of cosmic fireworks as the newly awakened supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy reacts by emitting jets of extremely bright energetic radiation,” said Prof. Carlos Frenk, study co-author and director of the Institute for Computational Cosmology at Durham.

While it may seem like a lot of fuss is being made over something that’s predicted to take place 2.5 billion years from now, “it is a very short time on cosmic timescales,” according to lead author Marius Cautun, a postdoctoral fellow at Durham’s.

The astrophysicists arrived at the scary conclusion after computer simulations of the LMC’s orbital trajectory revealed that the satellite galaxy, one among many orbiting our Milky Way, is headed for an imminent collision with the parent galaxy.

The simulations show that the LMC, which is now 163,000 lightyears away from our own galaxy and careening away from it at 900,000 miles per hour (1.4 million kilometers per hour), will eventually decelerate and reverse its trajectory to come crashing back into the Milky Way.

“The whole of the Milky Way will be shaken and the entire solar system could be ejected into outer space,” said Prof. Frenk.

“If that happens, I don’t see how our descendants, if we have any, will be able to withstand it,” he added.

Before the Durham discovery, astronomers believed that the Milky Way was facing total annihilation in about eight billion years’ time, but from an altogether different galaxy called Andromeda, five times more massive than the Large Magellanic Cloud.

Although the LMC bang is expected to happen much sooner, it may probably push the Milky Way out of harm’s way, thereby saving it from the bigger Andromeda, which is sure to spell our doom should it hit us.

“One of the by-products of the collision with the LMC is it will delay Armageddon,” explained Prof. Frenk.

“It will move the Milky Way a bit and that may buy us a couple of billion years,” he said.

“The LMC is big but it won’t completely destroy our galaxy,” he continued, going on to say that “it’ll produce these amazing fireworks, but it doesn’t have the mass to create a huge disturbance.”

He added: “The collision with Andromeda really will be Armageddon. That really will be the end of the Milky Way as we know it.”

The Milky Way is not a regular spiral galaxy because its inactive black hole is too small in the order of magnitude.

Also, our galaxy’s stellar halo has way too fewer heavy elements compared to regular spiral galaxies and the LMC is unusually large for a satellite galaxy.

However, all that will change when the LMC eventually smashes into the Milky Way.

“Once the LMC gets gobbled up by the Milky Way, our galaxy will become a beautiful, normal spiral,” Frenk said.

“Most of the halo will become stars from the LMC and the black hole will gorge on this sudden unexpected abundance of fuel and it will go berserk,” he added.

Durham University’s Alis Deason, one of the co-authors of the paper says that “many of the apparent ‘unusual’ properties of the Milky Way are temporary,” but “after the collision with the LMC, the Milky Way will look much more typical.”

Owing to the fact that there is way too much space between stars in a galaxy, the collision will most likely spare Earth any major destruction.

“This is not a ‘collision’ in the sense of a car crash,” said Scott Tremaine from the Institute for Advanced Study in New Jersey, who was not involved in the study.

“The effect of a merger with the Cloud on the Sun and Earth would be negligible, except perhaps that the night sky would look more interesting,” Tremaine added.

The paper entitled “The aftermath of the Great Collision between our Galaxy and the Large Magellanic Cloud” has been published in the journal “Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.”

From The Editors Health

Electric Bandage Can Speed Up Healing Process in Skin Wounds, New Study Reveals

Medical practitioners have long known that electric stimulations can act as an effective catalyst in the healing process of skin wounds, but practical applications have been elusive and largely limited to “clumsy” electrical systems.

Although skin is largely self-healing, skin wound recovery in many cases is painfully slow, literally – even non-existent in some people.

In the United States only, more than 6.5 million people suffer from non-healing skin wounds, including diabetic foot ulcers, venous-related ulcerations, and some surgical wounds, all of which can lead to long-term suffering, both mental and physical.

Doctors have tried a variety of treatments, including bandaging, dressing, exposure to oxygen and growth-factor therapy to help heal chronic skin wounds, but have had limited success with all of those approaches.

The good news is that a team of Chinese and U.S. scientists may have found just the ideal solution to the longstanding problem in the form of an electric bandage.

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin (Madison, Wisconsin, USA), University of Electronic Science and Technology of China (Chengdu, China) and Huazhong University of Science and Technology (Wuhan, China) were able to develop an electrical bandage (e-bandage) that considerably sped up the healing of wounds in rats.

A nanogenerator built into the bandage converts “mechanical displacement from skin movements into electricity,” thereby generating “an alternating discrete electric field,” which can stimulate the skin wound into healing four times faster than regular treatments, at least in rats.

“Rat studies demonstrated rapid closure of a full-thickness rectangular skin wound within 3 days as compared to 12 days of usual contraction-based healing processes in rodents,” wrote the authors of the study, published in the journal ACS Nano.

“From in vitro studies, the accelerated skin wound healing was attributed to electric field-facilitated fibroblast migration, proliferation, and transdifferentiation,” say the authors.

“This self-powered electric-dressing modality could lead to a facile therapeutic strategy for nonhealing skin wound treatment.”

Known for its therapeutic value for centuries, electricity has been used by healthcare professionals in treating a variety of conditions, ranging from neurological diseases to brain disorders like insanity; from pain management to shoulder and other musculoskeletal disorders, to name a few.

In fact, electrotherapy dates as far back as 1743 when it was first used by German physician and naturalist Johann Gottlob Krüger, who, along with compatriot Christian Gottlieb Kratzenstein, is considered the founder of modern electrotherapy.

18th-century English cleric and theologian John Wesley advocated electrical therapy as a cure-all for all afflictions, which was rejected outright by the mainstream medical community.

Italian physicist, Giovanni Aldini used static electricity for treating insanity in the 1820s.

However, it was British medical doctor Golding Bird at Guy’s Hospital in Southwark in central London who was responsible for bringing electrotherapy into mainstream medicine in the mid-1800s.

Over the years, many electrical contraptions, including some cruel ones, have been used to administer electric treatment to patients.

One such apparatus was the 19th-century “electric bath,” which was used to build up high-voltage electric charge on patients’ bodies.

Here are some more crazy contraptions used in electrotherapy by the quacks of yesteryears.

  • The Oudin coil – also known as the Oudin oscillator or Oudin resonator, was a high-voltage induction coil used by quacks for electrotherapy around the turn of the 20th century.
  • Pulvermacher’s chain – a wearable electrochemical device mostly used by quacks in the second half of the 19th century.
  • Leyden jars – an early form of capacitor, for storing electricity
  • Electrostatic generators of various sorts (Source: Wikipedia)
From The Editors Science

NASA Alert: Asteroid ‘2018 XE4’ to Zip Past Earth at 20,000 MPH on Boxing Day

According to NASA’s ‘Close Approach Data’ for near-Earth objects, or NEOs, an asteroid with an estimated diameter of 13 to 20 meters (43 to 95 feet) is fast approaching Earth at an astounding speed of 20,000 miles per hour.

Researchers tracking the space rock at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, expect the NASA-classified “small body” asteroid, nicknamed 2018 XE4, to fly past our planet at a distance of 1.2 million miles at 8:37 p.m. GMT (3:37 pm Eastern Time) on Boxing Day (December 26).

Although it’s going to miss us by a margin that’s 5.34 times the distance between Earth and Moon, it’s still too close for comfort in space terms.

Smaller asteroids that have struck Earth in the past have caused extensive destruction and mayhem; so, one can imagine the kind of damage an asteroid the size of 2018 XE4 traveling at more than 26 times the speed of sound would cause if it were to hit us.

The 2013 meteor that injured at least 1,500 people in Russia is a case in point.

The 66-foot-wide supersonic meteor smashed into the atmosphere above the city of Chelyabinsk in the Ural Mountains, sending shockwaves so powerful that 1,200 people were injured and more than 7,000 buildings in six cities were damaged.

The flash from the streaking meteor was brighter than the Sun and was seen as far away as Kazakhstan, 80 miles south, and Nizhny Tagil, nearly 300 miles to the north.

Nasa says: “As they orbit the Sun, Near-Earth Objects can occasionally approach close to Earth.

“As the primitive, leftover building blocks of the solar system formation process, comets and asteroids offer clues to the chemical mixture from which the planets formed some 4.6 billion years ago.

‘If we wish to know the composition of the primordial mixture from which the planets formed, then we must determine the chemical constituents of the leftover debris from this formation process – the comets and asteroids.”

For any Solar System body to qualify as a near-Earth object, its closest approach to the Sun has to be less than 1.3 astronomical units (AU), the equivalent of nearly 121 million miles.

With some 20,000 near-Earth asteroids and comets orbiting the Sun, NASA and other space agencies have been constantly tracking NEOs since the 1990s in a collective initiative called ‘Spaceguard.’

The biggest threat to Earth, however, is from a 500-meter-wide asteroid called Bennu, which has a 1-in-2,700 chance of smashing into Earth sometime between 2175 and 2196, say scientists.

The potentially hazardous object (PHO), “listed on the Sentry Risk Table with the second-highest cumulative rating on the Palermo Technical Impact Hazard Scale,” is currently 54 million miles from Earth.

The Sun-orbiting asteroid has been in NASA’s crosshairs ever since its discovery by the Lincoln Near-Earth Asteroid Research (LINEAR) project in 1999.

So focussed has the space agency been on Bennu that in 2016 it sent its ORISIS-REx (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer) spacecraft to the asteroid on a sample-return mission.

After traveling through space for more than two years, the spacecraft finally reached the proximity of Bennu earlier this month.

Spectroscopic surveys of its surface revealed the presence of hydrated minerals, signifying that the space rock had interacted with liquid water at some point in its past.

Although NORISIS-REx’s onboard spectrometers didn’t detect water per se, they did find hydrogen and oxygen bonds called hydroxyls trapped in clay-bearing material all over Bennu’s rock-strewn topography.

Speaking at a press conference at the American Geophysical Union (AGU) meeting in Washington DC, on Dec 10, Amy Simon, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, said the discovery was “evidence of liquid water in Bennu’s past.”

“The presence of hydrated minerals across the asteroid confirms that Bennu, a remnant from early in the formation of the solar system, is an excellent specimen for the OSIRIS-REx mission to study the composition of primitive volatiles and organics,” Amy Simon, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center said in an agency press release.

Over the coming months, the NASA spaceship, which is on an asteroid probe and sample-return mission to Bennu, will make increasingly closer passes of the asteroid, entering orbit on New Year’s Eve.

It will then begin mapping the asteroid to identify the best possible sample site before making a slow descent to the surface to collect samples using its robotic arm.

OSIRIS-REx is capable of making as many as three attempts at collecting the samples, after which it will have to begin its return journey, with its precious cargo of Bennu samples safely tucked away inside a Sample-Return Capsule (SRC).

The SRC is expected to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere and land at the US Air Force’s Utah Test and Training Range on Sep 24, 2023.

“When samples of this material are returned by the mission to Earth in 2023, scientists will receive a treasure trove of new information about the history and evolution of our solar system,” Simon said in the press release.

“We targeted Bennu precisely because we thought it had water-bearing minerals and — by analogy with the carbonaceous chondrite meteorites that we’ve been studying — organic material,” quoted Lauretta as saying.

“That still remains to be seen — we have not detected the organics — but it definitely looks like we’ve gone to the right place,” she added.

If NASA can land a spacecraft on an asteroid 54 million miles away and bring back samples from there, it can pretty much nuke Bennu to smithereens should the need arise.

So, rest easy in the knowledge that the likes of NASA and other space agencies of the world are keeping a watchful eye on the Bennus of space.

From The Editors Science

NASA’s ORISIS-REx Finds Evidence of Water on Asteroid BENNU

It took NASA’s NORISIS-REx (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer) more than two years to reach asteroid Bennu, but just about a week to make a stunning discovery that has got mission scientists excited earlier than expected.

The spacecraft reached the proximity of Bennu on Dec 3, and by Dec 10, spectroscopic surveys of its surface revealed the presence of hydrated minerals, signifying that the space rock had interacted with the ‘elixir of life’ at some point in its past.

Although NORISIS-REx’s onboard spectrometers didn’t detect water per se, they did find hydrogen and oxygen bonds called hydroxyls trapped in clay-bearing material all over Bennu’s rock-strewn topography.

Speaking at a press conference at the American Geophysical Union (AGU) meeting in Washington DC, on Dec 10, Amy Simon, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, said the discovery was “evidence of liquid water in Bennu’s past.”

“It’s one of the things we were hoping to find,” she said. “This is really big news.”

“The presence of hydrated minerals across the asteroid confirms that Bennu, a remnant from early in the formation of the solar system, is an excellent specimen for the OSIRIS-REx mission to study the composition of primitive volatiles and organics,” Simon said in a NASA press release.

Dante Lauretta, the OSIRIS-REx principal investigator at the University of Arizona in Tucson, said in the press release:

“Our initial data show that the team picked the right asteroid as the target of the OSIRIS-REx mission.

“We have not discovered any insurmountable issues at Bennu so far.

“The spacecraft is healthy and the science instruments are working better than required. It is time now for our adventure to begin.”

Over the coming months, the NASA spaceship, which is on an asteroid probe and sample-return mission to Bennu, will make increasingly closer passes of the asteroid, entering orbit on New Year’s Eve.

It will then begin mapping the asteroid to identify the best possible sample site before making a slow descent to the surface to collect samples using its robotic arm.

OSIRIS-REx is capable of making as many as three attempts at collecting the samples, after which it will have to begin its return journey, with its precious cargo of Bennu samples safely tucked away inside a Sample-Return Capsule (SRC).

The SRC is expected to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere and land at the US Air Force’s Utah Test and Training Range on Sep 24, 2023.

“When samples of this material are returned by the mission to Earth in 2023, scientists will receive a treasure trove of new information about the history and evolution of our solar system,” Simon said in the press release.

Analysis of samples from Bennu may offer some clues to the origins
Analysis of samples from Bennu may offer some clues to the origins

Mission scientists believe that Bennu, which is just 500 meters across, is too small to have held liquid water on its own and is, likely, a broken-away part of a larger parent asteroid that actually hosted the water at some point.

“We targeted Bennu precisely because we thought it had water-bearing minerals and — by analogy with the carbonaceous chondrite meteorites that we’ve been studying — organic material,” quoted Lauretta as saying.

“That still remains to be seen — we have not detected the organics — but it definitely looks like we’ve gone to the right place,” she added.

“We have an awesome asteroid to explore,” Lauretta also said, adding that “it’s a dream come true, and an honor and a privilege to be able to lead a program like this for NASA and for the United States and, really, for the world.”

The OSIRIS-REx sample-return undertaking is the third planetary science mission in NASA’s New Frontiers program, after the New Horizons and Juno missions, launched in 2006 and 2011, respectively.

The $800-million mission does not include the $183.5-million Atlas V rocket, which lifted off with OSIRIS REx from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Sep 8, 2016, releasing the spacecraft 55 minutes later for its onward journey to where it is making exciting news now.

The five main objectives of the mission, as listed by Wikipedia, include:

  • Return and analyze a sample of pristine carbonaceous asteroid regolith in an amount sufficient to study the nature, history, and distribution of its constituent minerals and organic material.
  • Map the global properties, chemistry, and mineralogy of a primitive carbonaceous asteroid to characterize its geologic and dynamic history and provide context for the returned samples.
  • Document the texture, morphology, geochemistry, and spectral properties of the regolith at the sampling site in situ at scales down to millimeters.
  • Measure the Yarkovsky effect (a thermal force on the object) on a potentially hazardous asteroid and constrain the asteroid properties that contribute to this effect.
  • Characterize the integrated global properties of a primitive carbonaceous asteroid to allow for direct comparison with ground-based telescopic data of the entire asteroid population.
From The Editors Health

Chinese Scientist Lays Claim to Creating World’s First Gene-Edited Human Babies

A researcher at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, China, has claimed to have successfully created the planet’s first genetically-modified babies.

He Jiankui, who also goes by the moniker JK, told the Associated Press that he was able to genetically alter seven different embryos during fertility treatments, with only one pregnancy to show for his efforts, so far.

Jiankui also revealed the breakthrough on Monday in Hong Kong to one of the organizers of an international conference on gene editing, due to commence on Tuesday.

“I feel a strong responsibility that it’s not just to make a first, but also make it an example,” JK said.

“Society will decide what to do next,” he added, probably alluding to the ethicality and acceptability of the controversial procedure.

JK told AP that his aim was not to prevent or find a cure for an inherited disease but rather to create the ability to resist possible future HIV and AIDS infection, a trait few people are naturally blessed with.

“Two beautiful little Chinese girls, named Lulu and Nana, came crying into the world as healthy as any other babies a few weeks ago. The girls are home now with their mom Grace and dad Mark,” he said in a He Lab-recorded statement.

The He Lab has made it clear that in the interest of the concerned family’s privacy, both Lulu and Nana are pseudonyms; it’s likely that the names JK gave for the parents are pseudonyms too.

He said that Grace started her pregnancy by regular IVF (In vitro fertilization) but with a difference, in that immediately after depositing Mark’s sperm into her eggs, he also sent proteins and instructions for a genetic surgery intended to purge the genes that would make them vulnerable to HIV.

“When Lulu and Nana were just a single cell, this surgery removed the doorway through which HIV enters to infect people,” JK said.

Before returning the twins to Grace’s womb a few weeks later, JK and his team did a full genome sequencing to check how the surgery had gone and found that the results were as satisfactory as expected.

The twins’ genomes were deep sequenced again after birth and again everything was found to be exactly as intended.

“No gene was changed except the one to prevent HIV infection,” said a proud JK.

He went on to say that the birth of the twins has given Mark – an HIV patient – “a reason to live, a reason to work, a purpose.”

Discrimination in many developing countries makes matters worse for HIV positive and AIDS sufferers, JK explained.

“Employers fire people like Mark, doctors deny medical care, and even forcibly sterilize women,” he said.

He reasons that protecting a child from “a lethal genetic disease like cystic fibrosis or from a life threatening infection like HIV” through gene surgery not only gives the child an “equal chance at a healthy life” but also heals the whole family.

To make the surgery possible, JK used a powerful gene-altering tool called CRISPR-cas9 – a technology that can effectively remove an undesired disease-causing gene, or add one that is needed, by removing or replacing sections of the DNA as the case may be.

What’s important to note is the fact that there is no independent substantiation of JK’s claim, at least not yet, and neither has the findings been published in any scientific journal where it can be scrutinized by experts in the field.

The announcement has come as a shock to many in the scientific community; in fact, several scientists have been pretty vocal in their condemnation of JK’s genetic experiment on humans.

One of them is Dr. Sarah Chan, a bioethicist at the University of Edinburgh, who says that the experiment is of “of grave ethical concern,” if there was any truth in the claims.

“Whether or not the veracity of these reports is eventually borne out, making such claims in a way that seems deliberately designed to provoke maximum controversy and shock value is irresponsible and unethical,” The Guardian quoted Dr. Chan as saying.

“The claim made by those responsible for the research is that the babies have been genome-edited in an attempt to make them immune to HIV,” she added.

“The lifetime risk of contracting HIV is extremely low in the first place; there are other means of prevention and it is no longer an incurable, inevitably terminal disease,” said Dr. Chan, adding that “putting these children at such drastic risk for such a marginal gain is unjustifiable.”

Calling the experiment “unconscionable,” Dr. Kiran Musunuru – a gene-editing expert at the University of Pennsylvania – said that the human experiment was “not morally or ethically defensible.”

“If true, this experiment is monstrous. The embryos were healthy – no known diseases,” Prof. Julian Savulescu, an expert in ethics at the University of Oxford, was quoted by BBC as saying.

“Gene editing itself is experimental and is still associated with off-target mutations, capable of causing genetic problems early and later in life, including the development of cancer,” Savulescu said.

“There are many effective ways to prevent HIV in healthy individuals – for example, protected sex. And there are effective treatments if one does contract it,” the Oxford professor added.

He also said that “this experiment exposes healthy normal children to risks of gene editing for no real necessary benefit.”

Dr. Eric Topol, head of the Scripps Research Translational Institute in California, said that the experiment was “far too premature,” according to The Associated Press.

“We’re dealing with the operating instructions of a human being. It’s a big deal,” Dr. Topol said.

Meanwhile, known geneticist and molecular engineer, George Church, from Harvard University  in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has justified Jiankui’s initiative toward preventing HIV – “a major and growing public health threat.”

From The Editors Health

Neuroscientist Prof. George Paxinos Discovers Hidden Region in the Human Brain

Prof. George Paxinos – a neuroscientist of international repute – and his team at NeuRA (Neuroscience Research Australia) have discovered an “intriguing” region of the human brain that had remained undetected for as long as it did.

Prof. Paxinos has Christened his discovery Endorestiform Nucleus, and not without reason, as it pertains to a location close to where the brain meets the spinal cord.

Although Prof. Paxinos had long suspected the existence of the Endorestiform Nucleus, he didn’t have the straining and imaging techniques to actually validate his theory, until now.

“The region is intriguing because it seems to be absent in the rhesus monkey and other animals that we have studied,” the NeuRA website has quoted the professor as saying.

“This region could be what makes humans unique besides our larger brain size,” the professor said.

What the professor is, basically, implying is that the dexterity and precise motor movements that humans are blessed with is probably due the existence of this region in the brain, which, as mentioned, has not been detected in animals that he has researched.

“I cannot imagine a chimpanzee playing the guitar as dexterously as us, even if they liked to make music,” Paxinos told ScienceAlert.

The Endorestiform Nucleus is located within the inferior cerebellar peduncle, an area in the brain that assimilates sensory input and motor vestibular functions to finetune our posture, balance and motor movements.

“I can only guess as to its function, but given the part of the brain where it has been found, it might be involved in fine motor control,” said Prof. Paxinos, according to the NeuRA site.

In his long and distinguished career, Prof. Paxinos has produced several atlases of the brain.

An MRI/DTI Atlas of the Rat Brain, The Rat Brain in Stereotaxic Coordinates, Atlas of the Spinal Cord, The Spinal Cord, and The Mouse Nervous System are but a few examples from his vast repository of books and atlases.

He launched his book The Brain Atlas as recently as March 2018 in Canberra, while he was on a three-day visit to the Australian capital to take part in the “Brains on the Hill” event.

Australian Brain Alliance (ABA) researchers from across the continent-country had assembled there to interact with politicians and parliamentarians and showcase Australia’s latest and most advanced neurotechnologies.

“We met with over 75 Senators and MPs, and we showed our representatives that the Australian Brain Initiative is integral in preparing Australia for the next century,” ABA Chairperson Professor Linda Richards said about the event.

So accurate and popular are Prof. Paxinos’ brain atlases that neuroscientists across the world use them in their research work.

“Professor Paxinos’ atlases showing detailed morphology and connections of the human brain and spinal cord, provide a critical framework for researchers to test hypotheses from synaptic function to treatments for diseases of the brain,” the NeuRA website quotes Prof. Peter Schofield, CEO at NeuRA, as saying.

Natalie Farra, Senior Editor at Elsevier – an international multimedia publishing house behind most, if not all, of Prof. Paxinos’ books – said:

“It is truly an honour for Elsevier to be continuing Professor Paxinos’ legacy of publishing with us.

“His books are world-renowned for their expertise and utility for brain mapping, and for their contributions to our understanding of the structure, function and development of the brain.”

The discovery of the Endorestiform Nucleus could, potentially, play a significant part in helping researchers find a cure for debilitating brain disorders such as Parkinson’s Disease and motor neuron diseases (MND).

Speaking to ScienceAlert, Prof. Paxinos said that “the inferior cerebellar peduncle is like a river carrying information from the spinal cord and brainstem to the cerebellum,” adding that “the endorestiform nucleus is a group of neurons, and it is like an island in this river.”

He also told ScienceAlert:

“The endorestiform nucleus is all too evident by its dense staining for [the enzyme] acetylcholinesterase, all the more evident because the surrounding areas are negative,”

“It was nearly the case the nucleus discovered me, than the other way around.”

Meanwhile, neuroscientist Lyndsey Collins-Praino from Adelaide University, who was not part of the research, told ScienceAlert that it was too early to determine the true significance of the “intriguing” discovery.

“While one can speculate that the endorestiform nucleus may play a key role in [the functions of the inferior cerebellar peduncle], it is too early to know its true significance,” she said.

It’s also a bit early in the day to say with conviction that the endorestiform nucleus is unique to humans; a lot more work is required before definite conclusions can be arrived at.

Prof. Paxinos has detailed his findings in his latest book entitled ‘Human Brainstem: Cytoarchitecture, Chemoarchitecture, Myeloarchitecture.’

From The Editors Science

Rocket Lab Launches Six Small Satellites into Orbit Aboard Electron Rocket

An Electron launch vehicle, belonging to California-based startup Rocket Lab, lifted off Sunday from the company’s Launch Complex 1 on New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula at 4.50 pm local time, carrying a payload of six small satellites and an experimental drag sail.

Nicknamed “It’s Business Time,” the mission was executed to perfection as each of the smallsats, as well as the experimental payload, were successfully put in their intended orbits.

It was a third-time-lucky scenario, as the mission had been postponed twice in the last seven months due to issues with the motor controller of the two-stage rocket’s first-stage Rutherford engines.

If you’re wondering about the nickname, well, it was inspired by a song of the same name by a New Zealand-based comedy duo of musicians Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement and also because of the fully commercial nature of the mission.

The mission payload included:

  • Two Lemur-2 satellites, launched on behalf of Spire Global — a U.S. company specializing in design, build, launch, and management of a network of small satellites — for the purpose of monitoring weather and maritime activity.
  • Two Proxima satellites belonging to Fleet Space Technologies – an Adelaide-based Australian company focused on building low-cost satellite-based systems for Industrial Internet of Things (IoT) applications.
  • A CICERO 10 (Community Initiative for Continuing Earth Radio Occultation) satellite for GeoOptics – an environmental data company providing space-based earth remote sensing data and services from a constellation of small satellites in low Earth orbit. The satellites were built by Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems for GeoOptics.
  • An Irvine01 CubeSat built by a team of students from six public high schools in Irvine, California.
    “Irvine CubeSat STEM Program (ICSP) is a project-based learning collaboration between K-12 education institutions, industry partners, non-profit organizations, and parent volunteers whose primary focus is to teach, train, and inspire the next generation of STEM professionals, while also creating opportunities for underrepresented groups in STEM-related fields,” says the Irvine CubeSat website.
  • A NABEO  drag sail built by Germany’s HPS GmbH (High Performance Space Structure Systems GmBH) for the purpose of testing a technique that will help reduce space junk by deorbiting small satellites at the end of their operating lives with the help of atmospheric drag.

The Sunday launch was Rocket Lab’s second orbital mission of the year, having successfully put three small satellites into orbit on behalf of Spire Global and Planet, in January.

“The world is waking up to the new normal. With the Electron launch vehicle, rapid and reliable access to space is now a reality for small satellites,” Rocket Lab founder and chief executive Peter Beck said in a statement.

“We’re thrilled to be leading the small satellite launch industry by reaching orbit a second time and deploying more payloads,” he said, adding that his team executed a “flawless flight with incredibly precise orbital insertion.”

Soon after lift-off, the two-stage Electron launch vehicle soared south of the oceanside launch site, with the powerful Rutherford engines providing as much as 50,000 pounds of thrust during the first-stage burn that lasted for two and a half minutes.

After separation, the first-stage booster dropped back towards Earth for an intended plunge into the Pacific Ocean, while the second-stage continued on with its payload, propelled by a single Rutherford engine, which fired for more than six minutes to give the rocket the required speed to beat the planet’s gravity and enter orbit.

Developed in-house by Rocket Lab, all of the Rutherford’s primary components are 3D-printed and it uses battery-powered pumps, all of which translates to reduced manufacturing time and, more importantly, reduced costs.

About nine minutes after lift-off, the Curie kick stage separated from the second-stage Electron booster, deploying in an elliptical orbit at an inclination of 85 degrees, with a low and high point of around 200 and 500 kilometers, respectively.

After soaring over Antarctica and then north over the Atlantic Ocean for a bit, the Curie kick stage fired its main engine, which uses a “green” monopropellant to produce 120 N, or 27 lbf, of thrust (1 lbf = 4.44822 Newtons).

After the two-minute burn, which stabilized the orbit some 499 kilometers above Earth, the seven pieces of space hardware were released into their target orbits.

First went the Irvine 01 satellite, followed by Spire Global’s Lemur-2 satellites, Fleet Space Technologies’ Proxima satellites, and GeoOptics’ CICERO 10 satellite.

All the while, the experimental drag sail remained attached to the Curie kick stage, unfurling only after the six satellites had separated.

Speaking to Spaceflight Now last month, Beck said that despite the launch delays this year, Rocket Lab had laid the groundwork for a faster launch manifest.

“With the motor controller, we haven’t rushed to get back to the pad,” Beck said.

“What we’ve, in fact, done is taken our time to really set the business up to succeed in a high volume kind of way,” he added.

With a new high-volume factory in Auckland and one in Huntington Beach, California, Rocket Lab is looking at a production capability of one new launch vehicle every week.

Between its New Zealand launch site and an under-construction launch pad at Wallops Island, Virginia – expected to be operational by the third quarter of 2019 – Rocket Lab has up to 16 Electron launches planned for 2019, Beck told Spaceflight Now.

“Our goal by the end of next year is to be launching once every two weeks, and as we move into 2020, launching once a week,” Beck said.

“We’re tracking a pretty big pipeline of customers, and we’ve been very fortunate that people have put their trust in us,” he added.

With its growing backlog, the company is contemplating more launch sites, including one in Scotland and a second in the U.S. – if it could raise the required funds.

“It’s a capital-intensive business, especially when you’re building launch sites all around the world,” Beck told Spaceflight Now.

“So there’s probably some future fundraising which we can talk about,” he said.