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christina koch nick hague

Female NASA astronaut to make new record by spending extended time in spaceflight

NASA announced that astronaut Christina Koch will break a space record of the longest continuous spaceflight by a woman which is currently held by astronaut Peggy Whitson. As of now, she holds the record with 288 days but Koch who went to the space with Nick Hague and Alexey Ovchinin will be staying in the orbit for 328 days. She will return back to Earth in the month of February 2020. Though she will not be breaking the record set by astronaut Scot Kelly of the longest continuous spaceflight at 340 days.

Doctors are quite excited by this announcement as they will be able to learn a lot from it. During her time in space, Koch will monitor the changes taking place in body. It will provide researchers with the much needed valuable data of dangers of spaceflight and how well can human bodies cope with it. This data has been quite difficult to obtain as space flights usually last for six and a half months, but only few astronauts have been able to stay more than 200 days in one spaceflight. This situation presents a problem to NASA, as they aspire to send human beings to Mars within a decade, which is spaceflight lasting for six to eight months in each direction. Koch’s journey in the orbit of Earth will be able to inform us of the hardships of such long spaceflights and how differently male and female bodies react to the changes.

It is significant to note that till date, only three NASA astronauts have been able to remain in space for a continuous 200 days. They are Scott Kelly who holds the record at 340 days, Peggy Whitson, 289 days and Michael Lopez-Alegria at 215 days. It is interesting to note that Soviet Union and Russia combined have sent a dozen men on spaceflights for more than 200 days.

About 12% of the astronauts on spaceflights have been women, hence this mission will provide a more profound understanding of how gender differences affect the response of the body. A coincidence is that this updated flight schedule was announced just a week after the Twin Study was published. This revealed how cells of genetically identical individuals differed in responses, when one brother was in spaceflight and the other on Earth.

Koch will be taking part in several projects such as VECTION for studying how the vestibular system processes the movements of individuals in gravity. Besides this, there will also be experiments checking the stiffness of muscles, elasticity, ability of the brain in controlling blood flow.

Scientists want large sample size of astronauts for spaceflight studies, but since it is not possible they want to utilize the data from every individual who makes long stays.

TESS technology high resolution

NASA’s TESS detects Earth-sized planet for the first time

Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), NASA’s space telescope for its Explorer Program has discovered a nearby system which has an Earth-sized planet. Along with it, there is also a warm planet nearly the size of Neptune. The work carried out by a group of astronomers from Carnegie Institution for Science was published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

For confirming the planetary nature of the signals from TESS and to calculate the mass of the discovered sub-Neptune planet, the Planet Finder Spectrograph of Magellan II telescope was used which is located at the Las Campanas Observatory, Chile.

The Planet Finder Spectrograph has been built by Shectman and Crane and it functions on the technique known as radial velocity method. Right now, this is the only way of calculating the masses of the planets. Without finding the mass, it is very tough to find out the density of the planet or even the general composition.

This method is advantageous for both influence of gravity of a star orbiting it as well as the planet’s gravity also affects the star in turn. This instrument enables astronomers to find out the tiny wobbles that are reduced because of the planet’s gravity in the star’s orbit.

The newly searched planet, the sub-neptune, HD 21749b, has the orbital period of 36 days to complete an orbit around the sun. It is the longest period among any of the TESS findings. It is predicted that most of the planets which will be discovered by TESS will have an orbital period lesser than 10 days because of the method used.

Its central star has about 80 percent of the mass of the sun and is about 53 light-years away from the earth as per lead author Diana Dragomir of MIT’s Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research. And the planet has about 23 times mass of Earth as well as its radius is about 2.7 times of earth’s radius. As per its density, one can easily image about its environment to be rocky but there are no such type of things here.

And the long period of the planet is not the only one in this system. The sibling planet, HD 21749c takes almost eight days for completing an orbit around the host star. It is much smaller in size, quite comparable to Earth, hence finding the exact mass and composition is quite a challenge but it is important for comparison to Earth.

Because of TESS, astronomers will be able to calculate the masses, measure atmospheric conditions of many exoplanets and scientists hope this will eventually set the path for finding planets which are potentially habitable.

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boston dynamics spotmini

Latest video released by Boston Dynamics shows its robot dogs pulling a truck

Do you know the quantity of sports robots required to construct a big truck?  Well, just 10! Apparently, ten canine-inspired machines linked and well connected to sled dogs like box truck, pulling it across the parking lot of Boston Dynamics with nearly one-degree uphill slope as shown by them in their video clip titled “Mush, Spot Mush!” posted on YouTube . Although during demonstration there was a driver behind the wheels in order to prevent accidents from happening, the vehicle itself was all neutral.

Boston Dynamics is an American robotics and engineering company which was started in 1992 by Marc Raibert, originally as a M.I.T spinoff. It is currently owned by the Japanese conglomerate group, SoftBank. It is quite popular for the humanoid robot, Atlas and BigDog, a quadruped robot which was meant for the United States military funded by DARPA.

It built the all-electric SpotMini , which is basically a quadruped robot that weighs approximately 66 pounds. It has only 17 joints and is equipped with a robotic arm which has a 5 degree-of-freedom and extends like a crane from its head. The machine has the capacity to run for up to 90 minutes, which definitely depends on the kind of work it does in that period, however it needs to be noted that the battery life is indeed shorter than an hour-and-a-half when it is hauling trucks SpotMinis are equipped with amazing three- dimensional vision cameras, as well as a suite of sensors in order to make it capable of navigation and mobile manipulation. The robotics company- Boston Dynamics said that it is the least noise producing machine it has ever produced, which now is almost out for sale as it comes out on the production line, being available for a variety of appliances.

Since these SpotMinis can carry insanely heavy payloads up to thirty one pounds, they have an arm that is potentially made to handle objects and carry them up and down the stairs. This makes these SpotMinis useful for warehouses and search and rescue missions in near future. Therefore, we can definitely conclude that Boston Dynamics is true to its slogan of changing our ideas regarding what robots can do!

We are not yet aware of what these robots would look exactly like or how much spot power will they be able to carry but the strength and rigidity definitely sets a benchmark in the robotics industry and challenges the newer generation of robots yet to come!

wormhole travel envisioned by artist

Wormhole travel could be possible, but would also be really slow

A new study conducted by Daniel Jafferis and Ping Gao of Harvard University and Aron Wall of Stanford University shows that wormholes can actually exist in reality. The term wormhole was coined in 1957. Wormholes are speculative structures which link disparate points in spacetime and are based on a special solution of Einstein field equations that are solved with the help of a Jacobian matrix and determinant. It can be visualised as a double ended tunnel joining separate points in spacetime. Although they agree with the General Theory of Relativity, it is not yet certain that they are present.

The authors of the study say that although they are theoretically true, it is not useful for human beings to travel through them. The time to travel through these wormholes is supposedly more than travelling directly, hence it is not much useful for space travel. These findings will be presented by Daniel Jafferis at the 2019 American Physical Society April Meeting.

Although the inter-galactic travel may not take place soon, the finding that a wormhole can be constructed through which light could travel certainly boosts the development of the theory of quantum gravity. The significance of this finding lies in connection to the black hole information problem and the relation between gravity and quantum mechanics.

The motivation for the new theory came when Jafferis thought about two black holes which were entangled at a quantum level as stated in the ER=EPR correspondence. This signifies that the direct path between black holes is smaller than the wormhole connection, thus the wormhole travel is not the shortest path. Travelling through the wormhole can be considered as equivalent to quantum teleportation with the help of entangled black holes.

The theory was based by Jafferis on a setup which was first devised by Albert Einstein and Rosen back in 1935, that consisted of a connection between black holes. Since the wormhole can be traversed through, it was a special case where information could have been derived from a black hole.

The theory gives an insight into regions which would have been behind a horizon otherwise. The major hurdle till now in formulating wormholes which can be traversed through has been the necessity for negative energy, which was inconsistent with the idea of quantum gravity. However, this problem has been overcome by Jafferis with the help of quantum field theory tools.

Jafferis feels that this revelation will help in learning deep concepts about gravity correspondence and also ways to formulate quantum mechanics.

soft total artifical heart

For the first time scientists successfully create a complete heart by 3D printing

A team of researchers at the Tel Aviv University has managed to successfully 3D print a small heart by using human tissues which includes blood vessels, biological molecules and collagens. This is considered to be a remarkable achievement as the scientists hope that with the help of this, they can make organ donation to be a thing of the past.

This achievement was reported by head researchers from TAU’s Faculty of Life Sciences, Professor Tal Dvir, Dr. Assaf Shapira and his doctoral student Nadav Noor in the Advanced Science journal.

The 3D printed heart is the size of a rabbit’s and it is not fully functional yet. However, the team has pointed out that the technology involved in 3D printing the heart for a human body is essentially the same. There are several steps of improvement left in the heart as the cells need to possess the pumping ability, a crucial working of the heart. Currently, the group of cells can contract but they need to work together. The scientists believe that they can succeed in increasing the efficiency of the method.

So the next step in the line is to make the printed heart grow and mature in the laboratory and make it learn how to function like an actual heart. Only after then can scientists take the decision to use it for transplant in animals for testing their functionality. This is a very time-consuming process and it may take years before this technology can create actual functioning organs that are ready to transplant. Nevertheless, this is a significant progress, as three-dimensional printing has managed to print tissues but not the blood vessels, which is very important for its working.

Dr. Dvir said that this is the first time, a team has successfully managed to engineer and print an entire heart with all the components inside it, the cells, blood vessels, chambers.

Scientists have previously printed cartilage and aortal tissues, but the main challenge was not accomplished, which is to create tissues with complete vascularization, blood vessels, capillaries. In the absence of these, the organs would not survive.

The scientists began the process with fatty tissues extracted from the human body and then they separated the cellular components from the non-cellular components. After that, they programmed these cells to undifferentiated stem cells which can be nudged to form cardiac cells or endothelial cells. The non-cellular materials such as the proteins galore were processed to form a personalized hydrogel which served as printing ink.

Organ printing basically involves three stages. The first stage is called the pre-print stage, which involves scanning the organ. The second stage is printing the organ and the third stage is maturing the organ in a proper environment.

Callao Cave Philippines

Researchers discover fossils in Calleo Cave indicating a new hominid species

Scientists have reported the discovery of an unknown species of human beings who resided in the Philippines almost 50,000 years before. The recently found evidence shows that new species, Homo luzonensis was very small in size and maybe even smaller than the Hobbit species which was discovered in the Flores island back in 2004.

This discovery has made the timeline of human evolution very messy but nonetheless fascinating due to the discovery of the species which was previously not known. Small pieces of bones and teeth were found from the Callao Cave in the Philippines island of Luzon. The fossils found in the Callao Cave give clues of many features which have been totally unknown to the researchers. Hence it makes the statement for the declaration of a new human species, Homo luzonensis. This discovery was reported in the Nature journal.

This is a breakthrough discovery as it is not regular to find about new human species. The discovery of Homo luzonensis can reveal facts about human evolution and what happened to the ones who left Africa thousands of years before.

In 2010, a single human foot bone was discovered in Calleo Cave which was dated at 67000 years old. This was the first evidence that humans have been present in Philippines for quite some time. We have known that hominins, the group of primates who are more closely related to us than chimpanzees lived in Philippines as early as 700,000 years ago.

The hominins are not exactly our direct ancestors but they can be considered as close relatives. Each species had their own evolutionary journey as they adapted to changing environments and circumstances. Around 50,000 years ago in Africa, there were many human species in Africa and Eurasia.

The team of scientists led by Florent Détroit, National Museum of Natural History located in France and Armand Mijares, University of the Philippines who found the foot bone in Philippines have tried to gather more evidence around Calleo Cave. The excavations have led to the discovery of 12 hominin elements in all which includes a thigh bone, and several bones of hands and feet. Scientists have identified them belonging to two adults and one child. Unfortunately, there was no genetic evidence present in these specimens.

Analysis of the specimens gives rise to the conclusion that the species, Homo Luzonensis have been very small compared to the present size of human beings. Scientists suspect that they may have been subjected to insular dwarfism, a condition where the size of a species gets significantly reduced due to very less to the resources needed for development.

Although some of the scientists feel it is too soon to declare the luzonensis a new species and that only another set of fossils complemented by DNA and mark them as a new Homo member.

slac compact antenna radios

Researchers develop compact antenna for communication in difficult locations

Department of Energy at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory has developed a pocket-sized antenna of a new kind which is capable of enabling mobile communication in circumstances where normal radios are unable to function such as underground locations, underwater bodies or long distances through the air.

This device emits radiation of very low frequency (VLF) which has a wavelength ranging from tens to thousands of miles. These radiations travel very large distances far greater than the horizon and it can also penetrate through the environments which would have normally blocked the radio waves of shorter wavelengths. The most powerful VLF technology which is currently in use needs huge emitters while this mini-sized antenna is just about four inches tall. Because of its small size and compactness, it can be used for several tasks that have the requirements of very high mobility. Two very appropriate examples are in rescue and defense operations.

Mark Kemp from SLAC who is also the principal investigator of this project reported that the antenna is many times more efficient and is also capable of transmitting data faster than other devices of comparable size. The performance of this device helps in broadening the reach of present technological possibilities and it also increases the feasibility of the VLF applications which can send text messages in difficult situations.

These results were published by the team in Nature Communications.

In modern communications, information is transmitted through the air by radio waves for various purposes such as radio broadcasts, navigation systems and several other applications. But there are many limitations to the radio waves with shorter wavelengths. The transmitted signal gets very weak over large distances, they are unable to propagate through water and are also blocked in the presence of several layers of rock.

On the other hand, the longer wavelength signals can travel huge distances ranging through hundreds of feet. It can also propagate through water bodies and several miles beyond the horizon. But there are some challenges to this technology. One of them being the size of the antenna. For maximum efficient propagation, the antenna’s size must be comparable to the wavelength which it emits. To satisfy this condition, antennas have to stretch for large distances which is not feasible. On the other hand, if the VLF transmitters are small in size, it means that they weigh hundreds of pounds and are thus much less efficient.

The design of the new antenna has taken place with all these factors under consideration. The main working is based on piezoelectric effect, which is a process that converts mechanical stress to electric charge. A rod-shaped crystal of material such as lithium niobate is used as the antenna and when voltage is applied to it, it vibrated, and the mechanical stress triggered electric current wherein the electromagnetic energy is transmitted as the radiation.

Smoke over the river Volga

UN releases Sixth Global Environment Outlook with both good and bad news for us

The Sixth Global Environment Outlook, which is the most comprehensive assessment of the environmental system which is produced by the United Nations in five years has both good and bad news in the store for us.

There has been continuous deterioration of the environment since the first report of GEO-6 was published in 1997 with almost irreversible impacts on the environment if the issues are not addressed. But all hopes are not lost as there are routes to create positive changes and thus a sustainable future can be ensured.

It was launched in the month of March, in the fourth session of the United Nations Environment Assembly which took place in Nairobi. The report is the result of the collaborative work of about 200 experts for 18 months. It covers a wide range of topics such as biodiversity, quality of air, oceans, freshwater, energy and human health.

The state of our environment was assessed and possible courses of action for achieving the goals for the 2030 Agenda of Sustainable Development were also discussed.

There is a fair amount of good news in the GEO-6 amidst all the negative things which reflect the state of the environment in the whole world. There are some pathways to cause a wide scale positive impact which have to be carried out with utmost sincerity and a great rate for creating sustainable futures. The policies which are most likely to make a big impact are related to entire systems such as food, waste management and energy.

For example, if we reduce the consumption of fossil fuels, it leads to better health benefits by reducing the outdoor air pollution which is responsible for causing premature deaths. Also, efforts directed towards reducing worldwide hunger rates can help us to fight many issues such as climate change, land degradation and chemical loss. But all of this has to be done in a short amount of time because, with the increasing rate of change of environmental conditions, the scope for positive action is continuously reducing.

But the GEO-6 also informs us of the condition of the environment which has been deteriorated mainly due to factors such as population growth, climate change and urbanisation. Not to mention, the unprecedented rates of change in technology have also hurt the environment. Currently, we are dealing with issues such as

  • Air pollution causing premature deaths of around 6-7 million annually
  • The sixth largest mass extinction in the history of the planet
  • Disposal of around 8 million tonnes of plastic in the oceans
  • 1.4 million annual deaths due to polluted drinking water and lack of sanitation

Under these circumstances, the various goals under Sustainable Development Goals and Paris Agreement are unlikely to be completed. The GEO-6 has called for sustained and urgent efforts by the governments and business leaders for achieving it.

wireless networks vulnerable

Researchers discover major flaws in latest wireless security protocol

The Wi-Fi Protected Access protocol which released about 15 months ago was considered by important architects as the most resistant to the password-theft attacks which were rampant in the earlier protocols. But then this did not remain true for a long time, as researchers revealed that there were many serious design gaps in the WPA3, which destroyed its notion to be most secure till now. It led to serious questions regarding what the future of wireless security holds and also regarding the protection of cheap Internet-of-things devices.

There was a big improvement in the recent release over the previous weak models, but the current WPA2 protocol which has been in use since the 2000s has a very grave design flaw which has been known for a very long time. The four way handshake method – a cryptographic process which is used by the WPA2 to validate many devices such as computers, mobile phones, tablets to an access point and also vice versa stores the network password in a hashed form. Anyone who is in the range of the electronic device can record this handshake. After that, the devices are very vulnerable to digital thefts as the passwords which are short or those which are not random can be very easily cracked in a matter of a few seconds.

It was widely promoted that one of the major changes in the WPA3 was the use of Dragonfly which is a fully revamped handshake technique in which the four way handshake key is augmented with a Pairwise Master Key, as a result of which it possesses more entropy than the network passwords.  In the world of WiFi this is known as the Simultaneous Authentication of Equals handshake or just SAE in short. A very crucial feature provided by SAE is that it protects the past sessions against any future attacks on the passwords. This is also known as forward secrecy.

The research paper titled “Dragonblood: A Security Analysis of WPA3’s SAE Handshake” reveals the many vulnerabilities which are present in WPA3, that make the users open to many of the attacks which threatened the users of WPA2. Researchers have warned that many of the faults can persist in the low-cost devices for years. The process of WPA3 being formalized by the WiFi Alliance industry group has also been criticized by the experts.

Experts have agreed on the conclusion that if the alliance agreed to the recommendation to move from the hash-to-group password format to hash-to-curve password encoding, then most of the exploits against the Dragonblood would not have worked.

Cancer cells death

Researchers find mini organs inside cancer cells resisting treatment

All over the world, scientists are constantly trying to develop more effective ways to fight cancer. But as the search for a fast and painless cure continues, new diseases and their problems come up. Scientists have identified that some of the cancer cells have been developing their own set of mini stomach, small intestine and duodenum. This is an indication of the plasticity of the cells which leads to the possibility of tumors being resistant to the drugs used to treat them. The study has been published in the Developmental Cell journal.

Purushothama Rao Tata, principal author of the study and an assistant professor at the Duke University School of Medicine commented on the nature of the cancer cells. He said that the cancer cells will be doing whatever needed for their survival. Some of the infected lung cells on being treated with chemotherapy stop some of the important cell regulators and take up the characteristics of the other cells so as to develop resistance.

Professor Tata’s team focused on the study of lung cells which are infected with cancer. Researchers used the information from the Cancer Genome Atlas Research Network and found out that a very large number of the non-small tumors of cell lung cancer do not possess the gene which indicates lung lineage named as NKX2-1. But the cells did show many of the genes which are present in the esophagus and gastrointestinal organs. As NKX2-1 was absent, it allowed the cancer cells to take on the characteristics which are associated with the other cells. Even though they were present in the lungs, the cells produced digestive enzymes.

The gene NKX2-1 is like a master control which actually guides the gene network and sets up a course for the network of lung cells. For their own development and growth, they use the genes from the same set of parent cells which are present in the stomach. Hence as the master control was absent, scientists wondered if they could make the cells form tumors by doing some manipulation. So they did tweak the cells genetically, where besides knocking down NKX2-1, they also activated the oncogenes, SOX2, KRAS.

The research work found out that the mice which had mutations of SOX2 superimposed on them developed the kind of tumors which actually resembled those of the foregut. On the other hand, those with KRAS mutations developed tumors which resembled those of the mid and hindgut.

The research work shows that cancer cells can shift the order so as to develop resistance towards the treatment but the mechanism by which it occurred was not known. More studies are to be conducted which cement these findings and develop a treatment to combat it.