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The United States space shuttle program no longer exists, which leaves NASA's astronauts with few options for hitching a ride to the International Space Station. One option, Russia's space program, is currently roadblocked by politics. Another other option is thankfully here in the US, with Elon Musk's SpaceX offering rides to and from the ISS; Musk says that his company will transport human beings between Earth and the ISS "in about two to three years" with the second version of his company's Dragon spacecraft. But the long game isn't the ISS: it's Mars.

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Google's got a big new project and it's you. Well, not just you, but a genetic and molecular study of humanity that aims to grasp at what a healthy human should be. It's in its early days, collecting anonymous data from 175 people, but it plans to expand to thousands later. The project is headed up by molecular biologist Andrew Conrad, who pioneered cheap HIV tests for blood-plasma donations. According to the WSJ, the team at Google X current numbers between 70 and 100, encompassing experts in physiology, biochemistry, optics, imaging and molecular biology.

The Baseline project will apparently take in hundreds of different samples, with Google using its information processing talents to expose biomarkers and other patterns - the optimistic result hopefully being faster ways of diagnosing diseases. Biomarkers has typically been used with late-stage diseases, as these studies have typically used already-sick patients. "He gets that this is not a software project that will be done in one or two years," said Dr. Sam Gambhir, who is working with Dr. Conrad on the project. "We used to talk about curing cancer and doing this in a few years. We've learned to not say those things anymore."

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When it came to life on Mars, NASA might have struck out, but it's got a good feeling about Europa. The agency is working on a probe designed to scan its vast oceans for signs of alien life, but there's a problem, namely the thick layer of ice that covers the moon's surface. That's where VALKYRIE comes in, a torpedo-shaped robot that'll suck up water, warm it and fire it back into the ice to quickly and easily drill through the layer. Once the hardware reaches its destination, it'll release a swarm of smaller 'bots that'll map the geography and hunt for alien microbes. There's still a few issues to work out with the gear, like the fact that it can't properly change course while tunneling, which would be pretty essential if it were to come across a rock or other blockage. Then again, given that we won't be ready to launch a mission to Jupiter's moon until the early 2020's, NASA's got some time to fix the problems.

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This is "Exobiotanica Botanical Space Flight," the latest project from Japanese artist Makoto Azuma. In tandem with JP Aerospace, self-described as " America's Other Space Program," Azuma set out to create beautiful imagery by sending a bonsai tree and a variety of other plants to space, using giant helium balloons and custom frames as the method of transportation. The results of Azuma's Exobiotanica project, which had its starting point in Block Rock Desert, Nevada, were spectacular to say the least, showing us what it's like for organic life to go where most humans haven't. Simply beautiful.

[Image credit: AMKK]

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To celebrate the start of Comic-Con tomorrow in San Diego, Marvel is kicking off a promotion that provides an all-you-can-have pass to its entire digital library for less than a dollar. There are a few caveats, as expected, but not enough to make the offer seem any less attractive. According to Wired, Marvel Unlimited, which is home to more than 13,000 comics, can be accessed over the next week with a simple payment of 99 cents. The deal will only give you an in to the service for one month, but the renowned publisher is hoping that's plenty of time to keep you locked in beyond said period.

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AIDS Prevention Drug

So far, HIV has eluded a cure because it installs its genome into human DNA so insidiously that it's impossible for our immune system to clear it out. While current treatments are effective, a lifetime of toxic drugs is required to prevent its recurrence. But researchers from Temple University may have figured out a way to permanently excise it using a highly-engineered HIV "editor." Here's how it works: the team analyzed a part of our immune system that fights infection and built a "guide RNA" strand consisting of 20 nucleotides (RNA building blocks). Those strands were then injected into cells typically infected with HIV, like T-cells. There, they targeted the end parts of the virus's gene and snipped out all 9,709 nucleotides that made up its genome. Since the guide RNA strand contained no human DNA sequences, it left the host cell intact -- but free from HIV.

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Supermarket chain Sainsbury's has found a new way to put its food waste to good use: by using it to power one of its stores. A branch in Cannock, West Midlands will be exclusively powered by energy generated from bio-methane gas expelled by broken down food. You see, Sainsbury's gives any food from its stores that can't be used by charities or fed to animals to waste specialists Biffa, which uses microbes to turn it into gas. Biffa's plant is very close to the supermarket chain's Cannock store, and a new 1.5km cable connecting the two feeds the latter electricity created from the gas. Sainsbury's food recycling program generates enough energy to power 2,500 homes each year, but only now is it diverting some of that back to the source. The company says the store will come completely off the National Grid for its day-to-day energy consumption, allowing it to "close the loop on food recycling" in the process.

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Shoot The Moon

It turns out that the Moon could be habitable. Sort of. NASA writes that some of the holes in our moon's surface might actually be caves where future astronauts could hole up and guard themselves from radiation, micrometeorites and massive temperature changes when day turns to night, aiding future exploration. The aeronautics outfit says that these caves could be the result of a few different actions, including sub-surface lava draining away from an area and vibrations causing the roofs of resultant voids to collapse. The only way to know for sure, though, is to physically check them out -- there's only so much that photos from NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter can tell us. Who knows, maybe once astronauts start delving below the lunar surface they'll find a wizard or two.

[Image credit: Associated Press]

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There are more vending machines per capita in Japan than in any other country in the world. And as of 2013, there are over 5 million of them. Soft drinks might make up half of those, but you can also pick up beer, sake, dried octopus, toys, pet food, hair accessories, glasses and even burgers. (Well, that last one comes with a proviso, but we'll get to that...) We've got 5,000 yen (about $50) in pocket money and a day to cover Tokyo, so join us for a morning coffee and maybe something a little stronger in the evening.

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All life is ultimately powered by electricity, albeit indirectly, since most organisms consume sugars that produce electrochemical reactions. Several types of bacteria are known to skip the sweets and go straight for the electrons, however -- and researchers have discovered that they may be everywhere. The New Scientist reported that biologists have grown bacteria (Mariprofundus ferrooxydans PV-1) that harvest electrons directly from iron electrodes. Several species were literally teased out of soil from a seabed floor and deep well in Death Valley, California, just by applying a charge to the ground. In a lab environment, a separate team found that they can be kept alive exclusively with electricity and no other sugars or other nutrients (see the video, below).

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droplets

Water is pretty wild when you think about it: all of its three states of matter are consumable by humans, and one in particular can even give off electrical power. A team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has discovered that when water condenses on and spontaneously jumps back and forth between specially-treated copper plates, it picks up an electrical charge. To fully take advantage of this ability, said scientists built a machine that harnesses said charge and uses it to create electricity. The researchers admit that yield is low for now, predicting that a cellphone would take around 12 hours to fully charge, but, as MIT News points out, if you're off the grid, there isn't much else of a choice for electricity anyway. One possible drawback of this method, though, is that it inherently requires a humid environment, like a rainforest, for it to work. We'd imagine that a New York summer would suffice, too.

[Image credit: paul goyette/Flickr]

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Stem cells are seen as one of modern medicine's most promising magic bullets, but that doesn't mean that we understand them. A paralyzed woman from the US has learned this the hard way, after an experimental treatment caused her to grow a nose-like tumor on her back. The unnamed person took part in a trial whereby stem cells from her nose were applied to her spine in the hope that it could repair the nerve damage that led to her paralysis. Unfortunately, the treatment was unsuccessful and, eight years later, the subject found worsening pain in that same area. When surgeons operated, they found a tumor comprised of nasal tissue that was producing a thick substance that was remarkably close to mucus.

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Thermoelectrics -- which use wasted heat to generate electricity -- could get a lot more interesting thanks to a company called Alphabet Energy. It's set to commercialize tetrahedrite, a metal that more than doubles the efficiency of current tech for as little as a fiftieth the cost. Thermoelectric materials work because they can do a rare trick: transfer heat poorly while conducting electricity well. However, current materials are pricy and polluting, and only convert about 2.5 percent of heat energy to electricity. Tetrahedrite, meanwhile, could reach 5 to 10 percent efficiency while running a mere $4 per kilogram. Alphabet Energy says it could tap waste heat from industrial plants or even a vehicle's exhaust system to produce electricity, making it virtually free. That'd mean you could power your car's cooling AC using wasted heat, ironically -- without a solar panel in sight.

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NASA's found an Earth-sized planet that could support life

Convinced that there's got to be life on other planets? You're not alone in the universe -- in fact, many NASA scientists agree with you. And a panel convened recently by the space agency (see the video below) believes that finding it could happen soon, too -- perhaps "in twenty years" -- thanks to incoming telescope technology. Recent projects, like the Kepler Telescope, Dark Energy Survey and the Very Large Telescope have detected the presence of planets and even their atmospheres. But astronomers are even more excited about future projects like the Transiting Exoplanet Surveying Satellite (TESS) and James Webb Space Telescope, set to launch in 2017 and 2018, respectively.

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Real vegan cheese. An oxymoron, but maybe not for long. A group of biohackers, which is a thing now, reckon they can make cheese without milk. Better still, it apparently tastes like proper, legitimate cheese, and not some vegan-friendly substitute mess. The SF-based iGEM group say it's made from baker's yeast. The team is able to make cheese proteins using genetic sequences found in mammals, inserting the DNA blueprints into the aforementioned yeast, and it's all vegan-compatible because it doesn't need animal products to make the proteins.

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