Jedi Sharks?

Velvet Belly LanternsharkA phrase to send shivers along the spine: Sharks with light sabers.

These are not Jedi sharks, of course, but, rather, E. spinax, the “velvet belly lanternshark”. As Rebecca Morelle explains for the BBC:

This species of lanternshark (Etmopterus spinax) lives in the mesopelagic zone of the ocean, which has a range between 200m and 1,000m in depth.

It is a diminutive shark; the largest can measure up to about 60cm in length, but most are about 45cm long.

Until recently, little had been known about this species, apart from the fact that like many deep sea creatures it has the ability to glow – a trait called bioluminescence.

Previous research found that the shark has light-producing cells called photophores in its belly, and it uses this light to camouflage itself.

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Pasadena? We Have an Uh-Oh.

High drama on on the Martian planes:
Rover sez ....

The ground team for NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity has switched the rover to a redundant onboard computer in response to a memory issue on the computer that had been active.

The intentional swap at about 2:30 a.m. PST today (Thursday, Feb. 28) put the rover, as anticipated, into a minimal-activity precautionary status called “safe mode.” The team is shifting the rover from safe mode to operational status over the next few days and is troubleshooting the condition that affected operations yesterday. The condition is related to a glitch in flash memory linked to the other, now-inactive, computer.

“We switched computers to get to a standard state from which to begin restoring routine operations,” said Richard Cook of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, project manager for the Mars Science Laboratory Project, which built and operates Curiosity.

The news from JPL might seem somehow alarming—What? You go all the way to Mars and your bloody thumb drive breaks?—but this is all par for the course. Not only do the mission alphas know what to do, they already planned for this possibility.

Or, more specifically, redundant computer systems are pretty much standard on NASA probes these days. Curiosity ran on this alternate system during part of its journey to the Red Planet, but has run on its primary—A-side, to be all technical and stuff—computer since landing.

“While we are resuming operations on the B-side, we are also working to determine the best way to restore the A-side as a viable backup,” said JPL engineer Magdy Bareh, leader of the mission’s anomaly resolution team.

The spacecraft remained in communications at all scheduled communication windows on Wednesday, but it did not send recorded data, only current status information. The status information revealed that the computer had not switched to the usual daily “sleep” mode when planned. Diagnostic work in a testing simulation at JPL indicates the situation involved corrupted memory at an A-side memory location used for addressing memory files.

The exploratory science is on hold for the moment, as the anomaly resolution team hopes to work this one out quickly, and one can rest safely believing they will.

Turtle Frogs

Turtle frog!Ladies and gentlemen: turtle frogs.

Yep, you heard me right. Turtle frogs. Nature’s middle finger to those of us who thought we understood evolution well enough to get by. Arenophrynde rotunda, the Northern Sandhill Frog and Myobatrachus gouldii, the Western Australian frog. I’m told there exists a Southern Sandhill Frog, a.k.a. A. xiphorhyncha, but so little is known about it that I would feel silly pointing you to a reference.

Okay, that’s not entirely true, but neither is it a matter of simply being lazy.

Meanwhile, if you want to read up on M. gouldii, the Western Australian Museum has an excellent paper from Marion Antsis, Dale Roberts, and Ronald Altig on neobatrachial reproduction.

Meanwhile, see also:

Western Australia Museum: Frogwatch

Real Monstrosities, “Turtle Frog”

Wikipedia: Sandhill frog

Wikipedia: Myobatrachus goldii

Wikipedia: Neobatrachia

Meteor Madness: Canadian Reassurance Edition

NEOSSsat Thermal Vacuum TestingThe idea of a Cosmic Rock Space Race might sound like a pretty good concert festival, but in reality it is perhaps a bit telling.

Last week, after a large meteor burned through the atmosphere at some ridiculous speed, exploding in midair, injuring over a thousand, Russian President Vladimir Putin thanked God that no large pieces landed in populous centers, Prime Minister Michael Medvedev joined the call for global defense against Near-Earth Objects, and the opposition leader blamed the explosion on Americans testing a new, secret weapon.

Meanwhile, this week in the United States, some federal agencies are turning their attentions skyward, wondering what can and needs to be done:

One positive action item was actually in place prior to the dual asteroid events of Feb. 15: a new Memorandum of Agreement between the Air, Space, and Cyberspace Operations Directorate of the Air Force Space Command and NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.

That document, which was signed on Jan. 18 of this year, spells out specifics for the public release of meteor data from sources such as high-flying, hush-hush U.S. government space sensors.

The recent Russian meteor event occurred after completion of the newly signed agreement and data on the recent Chelyabinsk event had been released for scientific analysis, SPACE.com has been informed by NASA and the U.S. Air Force.

As a result of that agreement, NASA’s Near Earth Object (NEO) Observation Program is receiving information on bolide/fireball events “based on analysis of data collected by U.S. government sensors.”

Also this week, Canada achieved real progress in the discussion of NEOs with the successful launch of NEOSSat:

The Near-Earth Object Surveillance Satellite (NEOSSat), launched February 25, 2013, is the latest in a proud family of world-leading Canadian satellites. The world’s first space telescope dedicated to detecting and tracking asteroids and satellites. It circles the globe every 100 minutes, scanning space near the Sun to pinpoint asteroids that may someday pass close to Earth. NEOSSat is also sweeping the skies in search of satellites and space debris as part of Canada’s commitment to keeping orbital space safe for everyone. NEOSSat applies the kind of industry-leading technology for which Canada has become known and has already demonstrated in our very successful Microvariability and Oscillations of Stars (MOST) satellite.

The suitcase-sized NEOSSat orbits approximately 800 kilometers high above the Earth, searching for near-Earth asteroids that are difficult to spot using ground-based telescopes. Due to its lofty location, it is not limited by the day-night cycle, and can operate 24/7. The hundreds of images that NEOSSat will generate per day will be downloaded and analyzed by the University of Calgary’s NEOSSat science operations centre. Through NEOSSat, Canada will contribute to the international effort to catalogue the near-Earth population of asteroids producing information that will be crucial to targeting new destinations for future space exploration missions.

Meanwhile, there are developments worth noting in the post-event detective work, Continue reading

Linkadelica

Mt. Etna erupting, Feb 20, 2013I mentioned to a friend earlier this week that moment when you realize you’re in too deep. That is to say, on a given day, I had only managed three blog posts, and as a result was disappointed in myself.

Oh, good heavens, you know?

Sometimes the world just works that way. Sometimes we, as human creatures, simply work that way.

Naturally, then, one might expect that I’m fretting over a lack of productivity in the later days of the week, though in truth I decided to not let it get to me. My ISP suffered a complete service collapse in my area on Thursday, which lasted into Friday, and then on Friday there was a mix of impromptu celebration in personal matters and then a hockey game to watch with friends.

Antares hot fire test, Feb. 22, 2013Still, though, there was that nagging thought that I needed to be doing something else. Thus, as the evening grows late—and I’m not about to get anything useful done—some links to to enlighten, enrich, and hopefully entertain, and with a NASA theme:

• Check out the award-winning Student Mars Imaging Project, which allows aspiring young scientists to participate in JPL’s Martian research.

• Or take a peek at “Veggie”, which might herald the advent of farming in space.

Cassini is helping scientists take Saturn’s pulse, in order to solve a mystery about the solar system’s most famous ringed planet.

• NASA has announced its newest Mission Directorate, intended as ” a catalyst for the creation of technologies and innovation needed to maintain NASA leadership in space while also benefiting America’s economy.”

• A partnership with Orbital Sciences brings us a “hot fire” test of the Antares rocket AJ26 engines at Wallops Island.

• And get a glimpse of the Etna volcano’s outbursts this week.

NEOSSat: Canada Looks to Protect the Planet

NEOSSat (Photo by Janice Lang)And you thought the Canadian Space Agency was only good for sending up Twitter-friendly astronauts? Well, ha! In the wake of this week’s NEO fever, with asteroids racing by, and rocks raining down from the sky, NEOSSat, the Near-Earth Object Surveillance Satellite currently under construction:

Slated for launch in 2013, it will circle the globe every 100 minutes, scanning space near the Sun to pinpoint asteroids that may someday pass near our planet. NEOSSat will also sweep the skies in search of satellites and space debris as part of Canada’s commitment to keeping orbital space safe for everyone. NEOSSat applies key technology already demonstrated in Canada’s very successful MOST satellite.

The suitcase-sized NEOSSat will orbit approximately 800 kilometres high above the Earth, searching for near-Earth asteroids that are difficult to spot using ground-based telescopes. Because of its lofty location, it is not limited by the day-night cycle, and can operate 24/7. The hundreds of images that NEOSSat will generate per day will be downloaded and analyzed by the University of Calgary’s NEOSSat science operations centre.

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Ears In the Age of 3-D

Imagine, if you would, please, saying the following to your five year-old twin daughters: “I want to implant your ears on the backs of rats.”

Okay, that’s not nearly so creepy as it sounds. Nancy Shute of NPR explains:

3-D Printed EarTo make the ear, Bonassar and his colleagues scanned the ears of his twin daughters, who were 5 at the time. They used a 3-D printer to build a plastic mold based on the scan. Those printers, similar to a home inkjet, lately have also been adapted to experiment with making chocolate, guns, and even kidneys.

They then injected a soup of collagen, living cartilage cells, and culture medium. The soup congeals “like Jell-O,” Bonassar tells Shots. “All this happens quickly. You inject the mold, and in 15 minutes you have an ear ready to go.”

Well, not exactly. What they have is an ear-shaped chunk of cells that would have to be tucked under the skin on the side of the head by a plastic surgeon before it could become an ear.

To test whether their ear-mold would become living, useful ear cartilage, the researchers implanted samples under the skin on the back of laboratory rats. In three months, cartilage cells took over the collagen, making for a solid-yet-flexible chunk of cartilage that retained its precise shape and size. The results were published online in the journal PLoS One.

The technique could be a breakthrough for microtia and anotia, related birth defects in which the pinna (the part of the ear on the outside of one’s head) is underdeveloped or absent, or even the occasional missing ear resulting from an accident. Microtia occurs in the range of once every eight- to ten-thousand births, and, in truth, I have no idea what the numbers are for accidental or necessary surgical removal of pinnae.

Still, though, as with so many breakthroughs we hear about, application is most likely ten years away at a minimum.

Linkadelica

“D’oh!”

—Homer Simpson

The Pluto formerly known as a planetI really need to work on my repertoire. I shouldn’t have to stop and think of a brilliant quote from someone, somewhere, sometime, every time I do this. Meanwhile, we can file under “live and learn” the idea that I’ve been doing it wrong. Instead of using unordered lists, I should be using “p style” tags. Or something like that. So if things look a little strange over the next few days, that’s probably why.

• Just when I thought it was safe to beam up to the Enterprise, it turns out spacetime might not be so cooperative

• As long as we’re in a Trekkie mode, can you guess the most popular suggested name for the fourth moon of the former planet Pluto?

• And considering the final frontier, David S. F. Portree offers his reflections on the current and future American space program.

• In more Earthbound news, yes, your dog is plotting subversion.

• The National Institutes of Health have achieved new insight into Fetal Alcohol Syndrome; now they just need to figure out what to do with it.

• And let us head back into orbit, because Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield is really cool.

NIH: Shigella Vaccines Start Human Trials

“It seems that Shigella bacteria know our immune system better than we do.”

William Alexander

Shigella sonneiShigellosis is one of those nasty bacterial diseases that follows the cringeworthy fecal-oral routeto infect humans and other primates. Mild cases bring stomachaches; the severe end includes cramping, vomiting, fever, diarrhea, and it generally only gets more disgusting from there. While the disease can occur all over the world—estimates suggest ninety million cases of Shigellosis dysentery each year—the greatest mortality occurs in the third world. Hoping to stem transmission, or, at least, minimize the damage it causes, the World Health Organization has long called for a vaccine to stop Shigella infection.

And, today, scientists are one step closer. The National Institutes of Health announced that two Shigella vaccine have entered early-stage human clinical trials:

Researchers have launched an early-stage human clinical trial of two related candidate vaccines to prevent infection with Shigella, bacteria that are a significant cause of diarrheal illness, particularly among children. The Phase I clinical trial, funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the National Institutes of Health, will evaluate the vaccines for safety and their ability to induce immune responses among 90 healthy adults ages 18 to 45 years. The trial is being conducted at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, one of the eight NIAID-funded Vaccine and Treatment Evaluation Units in the United States ….

…. Led by principal investigator Robert W. Frenck, Jr., M.D., director of clinical medicine at Cincinnati Children’s, the new clinical trial will evaluate two related candidate vaccines, known as WRSs2 and WRSs3, which have been found to be safe and effective when tested in guinea pigs and nonhuman primates. Both target Shigella sonnei, one of the bacteria’s four subtypes and the cause of most shigellosis outbreaks in developed and newly industrialized countries. Though neither candidate vaccine has been tested in humans, a precursor to both, known as WRSs1, was found to be safe and generated an immune response in small human trials in the United States and Israel. This early work was supported by NIAID, the U.S. Department of Defense and the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research. All three versions of the vaccine were developed by researchers at the Walter Reed institute.

A study record detail is available via ClinicalTrials.gov.

Kepler-37b: Smallest known exoplanet confirmed

Researchers have confirmed the existence of the smallest known exoplanet. Kepler-37b is smaller than Mercury, and marginally larger than Earth’s moon. The Kepler team at Ames Research Center explains:

Kepler-37b size comparisonThe planets are located in a system called Kepler-37, about 210 light-years from Earth in the constellation Lyra. The smallest planet, Kepler-37b, is slightly larger than our moon, measuring about one-third the size of Earth. It is smaller than Mercury, which made its detection a challenge.

The moon-size planet and its two companion planets were found by scientists with NASA’s Kepler mission to find Earth-sized planets in or near the “habitable zone,” the region in a planetary system where liquid water might exist on the surface of an orbiting planet. However, while the star in Kepler-37 may be similar to our sun, the system appears quite unlike the solar system in which we live.

Astronomers think Kepler-37b does not have an atmosphere and cannot support life as we know it. The tiny planet almost certainly is rocky in composition ….

…. Kepler-37’s host star belongs to the same class as our sun, although it is slightly cooler and smaller. All three planets orbit the star at less than the distance Mercury is to the sun, suggesting they are very hot, inhospitable worlds. Kepler-37b orbits every 13 days at less than one-third Mercury’s distance from the sun. The estimated surface temperature of this smoldering planet, at more than 800 degrees Fahrenheit (700 degrees Kelvin), would be hot enough to melt the zinc in a penny. Kepler-37c and Kepler-37d, orbit every 21 days and 40 days, respectively.

Kepler Flight SegmentThe Kepler mission is pretty cool. Since its launch in 2009, the spacecraft has identified 2,740 planet candidates, 114 of which have been confirmed. Additionally, Kepler has identified 2,165 eclipsing binary stars. There is a tremendous amount of data, and the mission team keeps a running list of Kepler discoveries.