—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

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.