Altweek 62213 The LRO's fourth moonyear, the 3D brain and your alien telegrams

The moon is far from old hat. In fact, after exactly four years on the job, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) is just scratching its jagged surface. The dearth of info on our celestial neighbor isn't stopping us from trying to send personal space messages to a far-flung star system, though. Why? Blame it on our huge brains, which we've now mapped in detailed 3D. Yes, this is alt-week.

After numerous orbiting missions and six personal visits, you'd think we'd know our moon pretty well. But the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) which launched four years ago has brought such a wealth of new information, it's hard to know where to start. For one, we now know the lunar topography better than any other planet, including our own (what with the ocean and all). Other discoveries include deep craters which are the coldest places we've yet seen in our solar system, evidence of ice at the moon's surface and fault lines showing that the moon has recently shrunk. On top of that, the LRO has scanned the moon's crust while other missions deliberately crashed into it, received a laser signal from earth in the form of the Mona Lisa and even plotted the lunar surface in 3D. Evan after all that, NASA says that the moon is still a cypher in many ways -- luckily, the LRO still has a lot of years left in it.

Speaking of nearby mysterious objects, how about the gray matter inside your head? Researchers from the Human Brain Project recently finished mapping the brain of a deceased 65-year old woman by first scanning it via MRI, then slicing it into 7,400 20-micrometer layers. After repairing and digitizing each one on a flatbed scanner, the result was a 3D map accurate to 20 thousandths of a millimeter -- too large to see individual neurons, but small enough to see the overall cell structure of the brain. The terabyte-sized neural atlas is available for anybody to download (registration required) and could prove valuable to future research projects. While it doesn't show brain activity or function, such data could be integrated later to help create a computational model of the brain. That in turn could become a jumping-off place or "mother ship" for future research that leads to a better understanding of neurological diseases, childhood development and even structural differences between individual brains. Meanwhile, you can use your own to see how they did it in the video above.

The lack of a smoking ray-gun hasn't stopped people from wanting to believe in alien life, and a new website called the Lone Signal project aims to, er, help those folks. Rather than just beam a generic message itself into random space, though, the group will now let you send your own, personalized dispatch to those hypothetical green men via the Jamesburg Earth Station radio dish. It chose a very specific red dwarf star system 18 light-years away called Gliese 526 to receive the transmissions, even though scientists aren't even sure if has any planets, let alone life. Still, such uncertainty didn't stop futurist Ray Kurzweil from sending the first message, which says in part: "As you receive this, our computers have made us smarter, the better to understand you and the wisdom of the universe." Though we may not be so profound, the rest of us can also send a single message for free, but naturally, Lone Signal isn't just doing it as a kindness. Subsequent tidings will run $0.99, or about $3 for a photo, and you can even purchase a whopping 4,000 credits for $100 or so. The chatty among us might find that to be a good deal, but just remember: you won't hear a reply of any kind for at least 36 years.

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Alt-week 6.22.13: The LRO's fourth moon-year, a 3D brain and alien telegrams (video)