Month: May, 2018

Mars InSight: NASA’s Journey Into The Red Planet’s Deepest Mysteries

As early as 4:05 a.m. PDT on May 5th, those on the West Coast of the United States will have the chance to witness an interplanetary launch for the first time.

The United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket will carry NASA’s InSight spacecraft into orbit from Vandenberg Air Force Base, near Lompoc, California.

InSight, which stands for Interior Exploration Using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport, is a lander bound for the Elysium Planitia region in Mars’s Northern hemisphere.

There, it will gather data on the crust, mantle and core of Mars. It will also listen for tectonic activity and meteorite impacts.

Though the launch represents the beginning of InSight’s expedition, in another way, it is the end of a long journey. NASA delayed the lander’s original launch in 2016 after discovering a problem with a key instrument.

This second chance at the mission gives planetary scientists another opportunity to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.




A Look Inside Mars

As the date of the launch approaches, planetary scientists are gearing up for a wealth of new information that will provide clues into how rocky planets form, show how Mars evolved over time, and provide one of the most complete records of regional weather on Mars that we’ve ever had.

These experiments could shed light on the history of the Earth and other rocky planets in the cosmos, as well as lay groundwork for future human exploration of the Red Planet.

Scientists are looking to gather information on the basic structure of Mars—for example, the thickness of its crust and the composition of its mantle and core.

These discoveries will give insight into the formation of rocky planets in general because, unlike Earth, the underlying crust of Mars appears to have been stable for the life of the planet, says Bruce Banerdt, InSight principal investigator and a research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

While none of the material in the Earth’s core is more than 100 million years old, Banerdt explains that there is evidence that Mars hasn’t undergone a major reworking since 4.2 to 4.3 billion years ago.

The deep interior is relatively pristine,” he says.

Three Key Experiments

To look inside Mars, InSight will conduct three major experiments.

  • The Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS) is a seismometer that will monitor quakes and internal activity, allowing scientists to draw conclusions about the history and structure of the Red Planet.
  • The Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3) will measure how much heat is coming from the interior of the planet, how heat flows underground, and paint a picture of how heat has been driving geologic and internal processes under the surface. Banerdt says this gives scientists an idea of how the interior of Mars has evolved over time.
  • Finally, the Rotation and Interior Structure Experiment (RISE) will use radio signals between the lander and Earth to detect “rotational wobbles,” which reveal properties of the core and the way the core interacts with the mantle.

Assuming clear weather, InSight’s launch will be visible in person from Santa Maria, California, to San Diego, California. NASA provides information on both official viewing sites and informal viewing sites on a launch page.

For those not on the West Coast, NASA will stream the launch online at NASA.gov/live, which will be mirrored directly below the day of the launch.

Video of the launch will be available on demand later at YouTube.com/NASAJPL/live and Ustream.tv/NASAJPL.

The launch window for InSight begins at 4:05 a.m. PDT on May 5th and runs through June 8th. Those who witness the rocket’s progress through the sky in the early morning hours can decide whether to wave goodbye or hello.

In either case, it will be a moment to watch.

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Pass it on: Popular Science

Inside The High-Tech Plot To Save The Northern White Rhino From Extinction

Immediately after the world’s last male northern white rhino died on March 19th, a team of vets got to work. Within 30 minutes, they had collected tissue from the ears, gums, spleen, windpipes, and testicles of the 45-year-old rhino, named Sudan.

The precious genetic material was put in a solution and then frozen at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya, where Sudan spent the last nine years of his life.

Those cells could one day bring the northern white rhino back from the brink of extinction.

Dozens of scientists across the globe — from the US to Europe to Africa — are working together tirelessly to figure out ways to breed rhino embryos in the lab.

The effort resembles in some ways the popular de-extinction projects that are attempting to resurrect the woolly mammoth or the passenger pigeon; all want to reverse extinction and in some cases, fix the damage humans have done.




The odds of success for the rhino are much higher: Unlike species that have been extinct for decades (or thousands of years!), northern white rhino DNA and sperm are preserved safely in different labs around the world.

If it works, the project could bring back herds of northern whites that used to roam the grasslands of east and central Africa, where they were poached for their horns.

They are at the brink of extinction only due to human activity,” says Jan Stejskal, director of communication and international projects at the Dvůr Králové Zoo in the Czech Republic, where Sudan lived until 2009.

If we have the techniques or methods to assist them to survive, I think it is our responsibility to utilize them.”

De-extinction has been a sci-fi trope for decades — but now the science may have finally caught up to our imagination.

Today, projects like the Woolly Mammoth Revival led by Harvard’s George Church are trying to use biotechnology to resurrect the extinct species and repopulate the tundras and forests of Siberia and North America.

It works like this: bits of mammoth DNA are edited into the genetic code of its living cousin, the Asian elephant.

A hybrid embryo would then be grown in an Asian elephant surrogate mother — or an artificial womb, Church says — to give birth to a new mammoth-elephant animal.

Despite claims that the hybrid embryo could be created as soon as next year, the project is far from resurrecting herds of mammoths.

It has, however, kicked off a heated debate about whether de-extinction technology should even be used. Many argue that the money spent to bring back long-gone species should be devoted to preserve the ones that are still around.

Others criticize the ethics of resurrecting species whose habitats might be gone and putting surrogate mothers at risk.

Breeding a herd of northern white rhinos is estimated to cost as much as $9 million, according to the Dvůr Králové Zoo, with much of the money coming from donations and zoo revenue.

The San Diego Zoo, which is also involved in the project, says an estimate is impossible since the technology needed is still being developed.

Over the course of three years the total annual budget has exceeded $1 million,” Stacey Johnson, corporate director of conservation and research at San Diego Zoo Global, said.

But the northern white rhino project is fundamentally different from other projects like the Woolly Mammoth Revival, and that makes the money worth it, says Joseph Bennett, an assistant professor at Carleton University, who’s criticized the costs of de-extinction and is not involved in the northern white rhino project.

For starters, unlike the woolly mammoth, the northern white rhino is not extinct — yet.

Only two females remain: Najin and Fatu, who are both related to Sudan and live at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy under armed surveillance.

While the habitat of the woolly mammoth is widely different from what it was thousands of years ago — fragmented by roads and cities, for instance — the habitat of the northern white rhino still exists.

Northern white rhinos have been extinct in the wild since 2008, but only because they were poached for their horns. And that makes humans responsible for their survival.

Rhinos play an important role in the environment, dispersing seeds and keeping vegetation — and as a result, rodents and snakes — under control.

Plus, rhinos are going extinct right now. It’s more like playing Noah than playing God, McCauley says.

There’s one more key difference between northern white rhinos and mammoths: While we only have bits of mammoth DNA, we have plenty of complete genetic material — as well as sperm — from several northern whites.

It’s kept securely frozen in labs all over the world.

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Pass it on: Popular Science

How To Watch Mark Zuckerberg’s Keynote At Facebook’s F8 Developer Conference

Facebook’s annual F8 developer conference kicks off this morning, just roughly a month and a half since the Cambridge Analytica scandal completely redefined the conversation around data privacy and social networking platforms.

That means F8’s keynote address, which in years past has focused on the frontiers of new technology like virtual and augmented reality and artificial intelligence, will also have to reckon with the hard conversations on responsibility and accountability that have made up Facebook’s biggest existential crisis to date.

The whole controversy may have even postponed the company’s plans to reveal its rumored smart speaker, known internally as Portal, at F8 amid fears of Facebook’s overreach and concerns over having the company listening inside consumers’ homes.




Of course, there will be news completely unrelated to Cambridge Analytica. Facebook is expected to talk more about its plans for VR hardware over at Oculus.

We’ll hear more about the company’s push into AR to take on Google and Snapchat since first debuting its intelligent camera platform at last year’s F8.

We’ll also hear more about the company’s secretive Building 8 division, which this time a year ago announced it was working on brain-computer interfaces.

Former DARPA director Regina Dugan has since left her post as head of Building 8, so we’re eager to hear how those more outlandish projects are coming along in her absence.

There’s a keynote on day two that takes place at 1PM ET / 10 AM PT on Wednesday, May 2nd, and that will likely be when we’ll hear more about Building 8 developments.

But the Cambridge Analytica situation has forced Facebook to make radical changes to its developer platform, which makes a developer conference like F8 an especially interesting time to hear how the company plans to move forward with its platform and entice app makers to build products on top of its core service.

Facebook has restricted or shut down numerous high-profile APIs and curtailed developers’ access to user data in a variety of ways, in hopes of preventing future data abuse situations.

So what has typically been a rather quiet, developer-focused affair has been transformed into more of a litmus test for Facebook’s handling of the data privacy scandal.

Naturally, everyone’s eyes will be on CEO Mark Zuckerberg and how he plans to address the elephant in the room when he takes the stage for today’s opening keynote.

If you’re interested in tuning in live and following along with The Verge’s coverage, see below for the best ways to do so.

How to follow along?

Starting time: San Francisco: 10AM / New York: 1PM / London: 6PM / Berlin: 7PM / Moscow: 8PM / New Delhi: 10:30PM / Beijing: 12:30AM (May 2nd) / Tokyo: 2AM (May 2nd) / Sydney: 3AM (May 2nd)

Live stream: Facebook will be live streaming the keynote over on its dedicated F8 website.

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Pass it on: Popular Science

Self-Healing Robot Can Adapt To Injury Within Minutes

From putting out forest fires to grabbing you a cup of coffee, robots have the potential to be hugely beneficial to humans.

The problem, however, is that they seem to fall apart when they’re injured. A new study published in Nature may have just overcome this hitch by creating a robot that learns to adapt to its injuries. What could possibly go wrong?

Researchers from Pierre and Marie Curie University and the University of Wyoming have created a robot that is able to get back on its feet—literally—after two of its legs were broken.




They also developed a robotic arm that is able to place a ball into a can, despite having several broken motors.

When injured, animals do not start learning from scratch,” senior author Jean-Baptiste Mouret said in a statement.

Instead, they have intuitions about different ways to behave. These intuitions allow them to intelligently select a few, different behaviors to try out and, after these tests, they choose one that works in spite of the injury.

For example, if you hurt your ankle, you quickly try to find a way to overcome the injury by testing out new ways to walk.

Using this principle, researchers created an algorithm called ‘Intelligent Trial and Error’ that makes a detailed map of the different behaviors the robot can perform and allows them to adapt to unexpected situations.

Once damaged, the robot becomes like a scientist. It has prior expectations about different behaviors that might work, and begins testing them.”

“However, these predictions come from the simulated, undamaged robot. It has to find out which of them work, not only in reality, but given the damage,” says lead author Antoine Cully in a statement.

For example, if walking, mostly on its hind legs, does not work well, it will next try walking mostly on its front legs. What’s surprising is how quickly it can learn a new way to walk.”

“It’s amazing to watch a robot go from crippled and flailing around to efficiently limping away in about two minutes,” he adds.

Intelligent Trial and Error undergoes two crucial steps; the first involves a new type of evolutionary algorithm called MAP-Elites to create a behavior-performance map.

MAP-Elites depends on Darwin’s concept of ‘survival of the fittest’ to create competitions in computer simulations, which evolve artificially intelligent robots. In the second step, the robots

MAP-Elites depends on Darwin’s concept of ‘survival of the fittest’ to create competitions in computer simulations, which evolve artificially intelligent robots. In the second step, the robots uses its prior knowledge provided by the first step to adapt to specific damages.

Researchers hope this new technique can lead to the development of more ‘autonomous’ robots. To see the robots in action, watch the video below.

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Pass it on: New Scientist

How Your Brain Tells Time

In the middle of your brain, there’s a personal assistant the size of a grain of rice. It’s a group of about 20,000 brain cells that keeps your body’s daily schedule.

Partly in response to light signals from the retina, this group of neurons sends signals to other parts of the brain and the rest of the body to help control things like sleep, metabolism, immune system activity, body temperature and hormone production on a schedule slightly longer than 24 hours.

Daniel Forger, a mathematics professor at the University of Michigan who uses math to study biological processes, wants to understand this brain region, called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) in excruciating detail.




He is building a mathematical model of the entire structure that he thinks will shed important light on our circadian rhythm, and perhaps lead to treatments for disorders like depression and insomnia, and even diseases influenced by the internal clock like heart disease, Alzheimer’s and cancer.

I think we’re going to be able to have a very accurate model of the circadian rhythm, all the key proteins, all the electric activity of all 20,000 neurons,” he says.

We’ll be able to track all of them for days on a timescale of milliseconds.

Forger has already taken a few steps down this path and found some surprises.

In a paper published in a recent issue of the journal Science, Forger, along with colleagues Mino Belle and Hugh Piggins of the University of Manchester in England and others, showed that the firing pattern of the time-keeping neurons in the SCN was not at all what researchers had long thought.

Researchers who studied the electrical activity of the SCN had believed that the neurons there helped the body keep time by sending lots of electrical signals during the day, and then falling silent at night. Makes sense. Lots of non-teenage creatures are active during the day and quiet at night.

But when Forger used experimental data to build a mathematical model of the electrical activity, he calculated that there should be lots of activity at dawn and dusk, and a state of “quiet alertness” during the day. That didn’t make much intuititve sense.

Worse, the cellular chemistry during this quiet period that Forger’s model predicted would, in normal cells, lead quickly to cell death.

Skepticism doesn’t begin to describe what I was met with,” says Forger. “Experimentalists told me, ‘That’s crazy.’”

Researchers in the field simply assumed Forger’s model was wrong. Forger refined it and reworked it, and got similar results.

Meanwhile, his British colleagues began to probe the fact that there are two types of cells in the SCN, ones that have very strong molecular clocks and do the timekeeping, and others that behave more like normal brain cells.

While previous researchers had recorded the activity of all of the cells in the SCN, Belle and Piggins were able to set up an experiment using mice that would record only the activity of the clock cells. Their experimental results matched Forger’s predictions.

When we got the results, they were shocking,” Forger says. “They were dead on.”

The cells in the SCN that don’t keep time followed the pattern researchers were familiar with, active during the day, quiet at night.

The time-keeping cells went bananas in the morning and at night, but then during the day they stayed in a bizarre state of excitement during which they emitted very few impulses. Why these cells can stay alive in this state remains a mystery.

Forger has been down this path before. Another study of his, published in 2007, reversed the thinking on how gene mutations affect circadian rhythms within cells.

Scientists studying a hamster that had a malfunctioning internal clock (its daily rhythm lasted 20 hours instead of 24) found that it had a mutation in a gene called tau.

The fuzzy rodent was given the extremely appropriate name “Tau Mutant Hamster.

They thought Tau Mutant Hamster’s mutation caused an enzyme that helped cells keep time to be less active. Forger predicted that it would instead make the enzyme more active. Experiments later proved he was right.

Now Forger is turning his attention to the entire SCN. He thinks that math is the only way we can understand the sheer complexity of what is happening–neurotransmitters coming and going, protein clocks being built up and broken down, electricity bouncing around.

To piece it all together, you need more than intuition,” he says. “You need math to see what’s going on.”

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Pass it on: Popular Science

How Fireworks Work? Here Is The Chemistry Behind A Firework Explosion

fireworks

It’s Independence Day, and that means it’s time for controlled explosions in the sky. No, not Texas post-rock, the great scientific display that is a fireworks show.

“Fireworks are an application of chemistry and engineering: you need good chemistry to get the effects up in the sky and good engineering to make sure they get to the right altitude and burst at the right time,” John Conkling, the former director of the American Pyrotechnics Association.

Firework shows last between 15 to 20 minutes on average, but the amount of planning and preparation that goes into producing these displays can take up to two years.




Designers need ample time to determine the right colors and shapes they want to use, and to time the explosions to the soundtrack.

There are limits on the types of chemicals you can use, however. For one, they can’t be agents that collect moisture, or else they won’t burn properly when lit.

So from its initial lighting to its final spectacular explosion, a firework’s life begins with a lit gunpowder fuse, followed by a gunpowder-boost into the sky, and finishes with an explosion of a chemical medley of fuels, oxidizers, colorants, and binders.

As you enjoy these fiery tributes this weekend, remember how much science is involved behind the rockets’ red glare.

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Pass it on: Popular Science

The Secret To A Longer Life? Stop Eating!

The first 50 people to sign up will get $50 off your first two weeks of Blue Apron! Click here: https://cook.ba/2r7wbCf

Studies on fasting have shown significant evidence that it not only helps with weight loss, but has all kinds of benefits from mental sharpness to anti-aging and life extension and even prevention of diseases like cancer and alzheimers.

This has led many to try intermittent fasting, which combines the benefits of fasting with a more convenient lifestyle. Here I talk about the benefits of intermittent fasting, how it works, and my own personal experience with it.

Device To Protect Brain From Concussion Inspired By A Woodpecker

For the past several years, preventing brain injury for football players has been a top priority for many organizations around the country – from high schools, to colleges, to the NFL.

Now, a new helmet technology invented by a Texas Tech University student may be able to help prevent concussions in players by mimicking the way a Woodpecker’s brain is protected from repeated hits to the head

Alberto Garcia has been working on this technology since he was just 15 years old. While playing high school football he suffered a concussion and was told he wouldn’t be able to play any more. The disappointment of this drove him to further develop his idea.

Alberto Garcia’s football helmet and shoulder-pad system protects the brain the same way a Woodpecker’s brain is protected from repeated hits to the head.

“I was 15, a sophomore in high school, when I started this project — I knew what materials I needed, but didn’t know how to build it or code it just yet,” said Garcia.

Garcia’s initial idea was sparked by observing certain animal behaviors. He noticed that woodpeckers and long-horned rams suffer repeated blows to the head on a daily basis, but never sustain a brain injury. Why is that?

As it turns out, it’s because these animals have natural stabilizers in their necks. The stabilizers prevent their head from quickly whipping back and forth when they’re banging their head against something.

Humans lack these stabilizers, which causes us to suffer whiplash upon a hard hit to the head and contributes to brain damage.

While it’s still in the testing phase, Garcia’s helmet system could be a literal game-changer for football. If the technology is adopted and refined by schools and professional organizations, it could even save lives.

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Pass it on: Popular Science