Scientists Are Using a Balloon to Launch a Telescope
An image of the Rotten Egg Nebula captured by the Hubble Space Telescope and released by NASA in August 2001.

By Jake Dean, Slate

Exploring space requires scientists to get a little creative. One of my professors at Arizona State University once proposed a mission to smash a copper ball into Mars to examine the ejecta and subsurface of the planet. (ASU is a partner with Slate and New America in Future Tense.) Sometimes, the simplest and cheapest solutions are best in a field where high-tech offerings can pose a significant chance of failure.

Cheap solutions like, say, launching a telescope via a stadium-sized high-tech helium balloon instead of a rocket. That’s the idea behind the Super-Pressure Balloon-borne Imaging Telescope—or SuperBIT, which is expected to make its operational debut in April 2022. On June 21, at the Royal Astronomical Society’s annual National Astronomy Meeting, the team (consisting of scientists from NASA, the Canadian Space Agency, and universities in Canada, the U.S., and England) shared results from testing. This balloon will soon provide telescope imagery to rival (and possibly surpass) that of the Hubble Space Telescope—along with reducing the backlog of imagery requests. As useful as Hubble is, it simply can’t meet the demand of every scientist who wants to task it for a scientific query. It is just one telescope, after all.

So, this telescope isn’t exactly going to space; it will work at an altitude of roughly 25 miles above the surface, according to a Royal Astronomical Society press release. That’s above 99.5 percent of Earth’s atmosphere—so, as you may have recently learned from Bezos and Branson’s childish spat, it’s technically not in space. But unlike Bezos and Branson, it’s actually going to produce useful science. This balloon setup will get the telescope above the atmospheric interference that is critical to ensure good imagery. The atmosphere protects Earth from the harmful effects of various electromagnetic radiation, but it can also blur the images telescopes capture.

Now you may be wondering: How long will this helium balloon stay aloft? We’ve all seen birthday balloons slowly drop to the floor after a few days of clinging to our ceiling. Well, that’s where NASA’s ingenuity comes in. The super-pressure balloon maintains enough internal pressure to stay aloft day or night and should stay airborne for weeks, possibly even months if it needs to. This is quite an improvement when compared with NASA’s past attempt at this design: In late 2014 it planned to keep an Antarctic telescope aloft for 100 days. But the balloon quickly sprung a leak and was forced to land just two days into the mission.

So, given the technical issues NASA has faced in the past, why use a balloon? Three key reasons. First, the cost. The construction and operation budget for the SuperBIT’s first telescope was roughly $5 million, which is insanely cheap by space standards. For context, the Royal Astronomical Society estimated that this is .1 percent of the cost of a similar satellite mission. Second, the ability to bring the balloon back to the surface for repairs and upgrades makes this telescope system uniquely flexible. Given this, the SuperBIT setup isn’t married to one set of hardware forever once launched. As Mohamed Shaaban, a Ph.D. student at the University of Toronto and a central member of the project, explained for, “SuperBIT can be continually reconfigured and upgraded.” When Hubble becomes obsolete, well, Hubble is no longer useful. And as we recently learned, it’s quite a bother to repair its 1980s technology when it breaks. If a telescope aboard SuperBIT becomes obsolete or runs into technical issues, you just bring the balloon back to the surface and put a new telescope on it. Finally, the use of balloon removes the necessity of burning rocket fuel to launch a telescope. (Rocket fuel is predictably terrible for the environment.)

Click here to read the full article on Slate.

These Engineers Have Invented an Entirely New Approach to Recycling Plastic
photo of recycling products

By DAVID NIELD, Science Alert.

Our planet and everything that lives on it is buckling under the weight of all the plastic waste we’re producing. The volume of these non-biodegradable materials discarded after use is only increasing, so we need new ways to tackle them, and fast.

A new study demonstrates the proof-of-concept of an entirely new approach to plastic recycling, inspired by the way nature naturally ‘recycles’ the components of organic polymers present in our environment.

The approach takes guidance from the fact that proteins within organic polymers are constantly broken down into parts and reassembled into different proteins, without losing the quality of the building blocks. In essence, when it comes to recycling plastic – a synthetic polymer – without degrading it, we have to think smaller.

Proteins are one of the main organic compounds that act as building blocks for everything biological. They’re long chains of molecules (or monomers) known as amino acids, and researchers think that the way these molecules can be broken up and reconfigured suggests a potential strategy for recycling synthetic polymers.

“A protein is like a string of pearls, where each pearl is an amino acid,” says materials scientist Simone Giaveri, from the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland.

“Each pearl has a different color, and the color sequence determines the string structure and consequently its properties. In nature, protein chains break up into the constituent amino acids, and cells put such amino acids back together to form new proteins – that is, they create new strings of pearls with a different color sequence.”

The researchers have called their approach “nature-inspired circular-economy recycling”, or NaCRe for short.

In lab tests, the team was able to divide selected proteins into amino acids, then assemble them into new proteins with different structures and uses. In one case, they turned the proteins from silk into green fluorescent protein, which is a glowing tracer used in biomedical research. Despite this deconstruction and reconstruction, the quality of the proteins remains constant.

Click here to read the full article on Science Alert.

Mars Had Liquid Water On Its Surface. Here’s Why Scientists Think It Vanished
A close-up of Mars taken by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope. New research suggests that the red planet may be too small to have ever had large amounts of surface water.

By , NPR

All evidence points to the fact that Mars once had flowing water, but numerous flybys, orbiters, landers and rovers have confirmed one undeniable fact — any liquid water that was once on its surface is now long gone.

A study out of Washington University in St. Louis might have found the reason: Mars, which is about half the size of Earth, and just over one-tenth the mass of our own watery world, might just be too small.

One idea, the Mars Ocean Hypothesis, suggests that Mars not only had some liquid water, but a lot of it. But the new study’s co-author Kun Wang says his team’s finding, which was published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, pours cold water on that notion.

“Mars’ fate was decided from the beginning,” Wang, an assistant professor of Earth and planetary sciences, said in a statement. “There is likely a threshold on the size requirements of rocky planets to retain enough water to enable habitability and plate tectonics.”

That’s because the lower mass and gravity of Mars makes it easier for volatile elements and compounds such as water to escape from its surface into space.

Led by Zhen Tian, a graduate student in Wang’s laboratory, the researchers looked at 20 Martian meteorites ranging in age from about 200 million years old to 4 billion years, dating to a time when the solar system was still in the chaos of formation.

The researchers analyzed a somewhat volatile element — potassium — to help understand how water would have behaved on the surface of Mars.

Speaking to NPR, Wang said the team measured the ratio of two isotopes of potassium — potassium-39 and potassium-41 — in the meteorites. In lower gravity environments, such as Mars, the potassium-39 is more easily lost to space, leaving behind a higher ratio of the heavier isotope, potassium-41. Water behaves in much the same way, indicating that most of it would have been lost to space during the formation of Mars.

It’s something Wang and his colleagues saw even in the oldest meteorites, suggesting that this was an issue for Martian water right from the beginning.

The team also looked at samples from the moon and from an asteroid, both much smaller and drier than either Earth or Mars, to study the potassium isotopes in them. They found a direct correlation between mass and the volatiles — or lack thereof — in the samples.

The liquid water that did remain on the Martian surface carved out the now-desiccated canyons, riverbeds and other formations that we see there today, Wang says. But that water, too, would likely have disappeared had it not been trapped as ice at the Martian poles as the climate on the planet became colder, he notes.

Click here to read the full article on NPR.

What we’ve been getting wrong about dinosaurs
Dinosaurs survived and thrived for 165 million years -- far longer than the roughly 300,000 years modern humans have so far roamed the planet.

By Katie Hunt, CNN

Defined by their disappearance dinosaurs might appear to be evolutionary failures. Not so.

Dinosaurs survived and thrived for 165 million years — far longer than the roughly 300,000 years modern humans have so far roamed the planet.

They lived on every continent, munched on plants, snapped their jaws at insects, itched from fleas, suffered from disease, got into fights, snoozed, performed elaborate courtship rituals and looked after their young. The creatures were much more diverse — and downright bizarre — than what we might recall from childhood books.
Were it not for an asteroid strike 66 million years ago, the ancient creatures still might have dominated our world. And they still are here, in the form of birds we see around us today.

Scientists have discovered more in the past two decades than they had in the prior 200 years about how dinosaurs behaved and evolved. Here’s what’s new and different about what is known of dinosaurs.

How many dinosaurs were there?
The short answer: Lots.

Take T. Rex, the predator with banana-sized teeth that is perhaps the best studied dinosaur. Scientists believe that each T. rex generation was 20,000 individuals, and this adds up to a total of 2.5 billion during the 2.4 million years they are thought to have lived.

While it’s only an estimate and relies on lots of assumptions, it’s a good reminder that the fossil record only captures a tiny fraction of ancient life. The same team of researchers purports that for every 80 million adult T. rexs, there is only one clearly identifiable specimen in a museum.

Scientists have definitively identified around 900 dinosaur species — although there are plenty more potential species for which paleontologists don’t quite have enough bones or the fossils aren’t well preserved enough to truly designate them as such. And there are about 50 new dinosaurs discovered each year, inspiring many scientists to think we’re experiencing a golden age of paleontology.

Many, many more species existed — one estimate suggests that there were between 50,000 and 500,000, but we might never find their fossil remains.

So many species could exist because they were highly specialized, meaning different types of dinosaurs had different sources of food and could live in the same habitats without competing. For example, with unusually large eyes and hair-trigger hearing, Shuuvia deserti, a tiny desert-dwelling dinosaur evolved to hunt at night, while Mononykus had perplexingly stunted forelimbs, each of which had only one functional finger and claw — perhaps to eat ants or termites.

It’s worth pointing out, of course, that many of the dinosaurs you might be familiar with did not live together as one community. Stegosaurus and T. rex never co-existed, separated by 80 million years of evolution. In fact, the time separating Stegosaurus and Tyrannosaurus is greater than the time separating T. rex and you.
What did they look like?

The first dinosaur discoveries, the earliest more than 150 years ago, focused on the sensational: The big bones and skulls we know from museum atriums.

But dinosaurs came in all shapes and sizes. In fact, some of the most exciting finds in recent years have been tiny. In 2016, a tail belonging to a sparrow-sized creature could have danced in the palm of your hand was found preserved in three dimensions in a chunk of amber.

Click here to read the full article on CNN.

Sian Proctor becomes first Black woman to pilot spacecraft with SpaceX launch
Dr. Sian Proctor has made history as the first Black woman to serve as a pilot of a spacecraft when SpaceX’s Inspiration4 Mission launched on Wednesday.

By , The Grio

Dr. Sian Proctor has made history as the first Black woman to serve as a pilot of a spacecraft when SpaceX’s Inspiration4 Mission launched on Wednesday.

Proctor, who is a geoscientist and professor, will be one of four people in the first-ever all-civilian spaceflight, serving as a Mission Pilot on SpaceX’s Inspiration4. She will be the fourth Black woman to travel into space, but will make history as the first Black woman to pilot a spacecraft with the three-day trip circling the earth, the New York Times reports.

Proctor, a Guam native, had her interest in space sparked at an early age due to her father himself being an engineer for NASA. As a child, she was labeled as a “tomboy” because of her love for building planes. It was then when she aspired to be a fighter pilot once she grew up.

After receiving her master’s degree in Geology, and her Ph.D. in Science Education, Proctor embarked on her career as a geoscience professor for South Mountain Community College in Phoenix, Arizona where she taught for over 20 years. Proctor also serves as Vice President of Education at Star Harbor Space Academy.

Proctor spoke to The Space Channel — a Local Now partner of theGrio — about how vital astronauts are.

“When we think about astronauts, we don’t really think of them as guinea pigs. They are research subjects and so we submit them to all kinds of medical tests and all those things,” Proctor said.

“You can think of the twin studies like how we’re also investigating technologies and so I brought in this drone study and the whole idea is with that suit I was wearing when you go into these moon and Mars simulation you’re acting like you’re on that planet or that body.”

Years of training and various educational space programs have been key in the preparation of the pilot’s journey set for Wednesday. Her training includes the Mars Desert Research Station, Mars mission at HI-SEAS, and a Moon mission in the LunAres Habitat. Proctor was selected as one of NASA’s astronaut finalists in 2009, KJZZ reports.

Mission Inspiration4 was created by high school dropout turned-billionaire, Jared Isaacman, according to the New York Times. He’s the founder of the highly successful payment processing company called Shift4 Payment, and will also be funding this trip.

Click here to read the full article on The Grio.

Squirrels have personality traits similar to humans, new study shows
Squirrels have personality traits similar to humans, new study shows

By Jordan Mendoza, USA TODAY

You may think your cat or dog shares a lot of your personality, but there may be another fluffy animal near your home that acts more like you — squirrels, according to new research.

A team of researchers at the University of California, Davis announced squirrels have personality traits similar to humans, and those traits are key to their survival and life expectancy. The researchers published their findings in the journal Animal Behaviour on Friday.

The study, which the group says is the first to ever document personality in golden-mantled ground squirrels commonly found in western U.S. and Canada, showed the animals had four different traits: boldness, aggressiveness, sociability and activity level.

Researchers say the findings show how personality influences an animal’s use of space in the wild.

“This adds to the small but growing number of studies showing that individuals matter,” lead author and wildlife ecologist at UC Davis Jaclyn Aliperti said in a statement. “Accounting for personality in wildlife management may be especially important when predicting wildlife responses to new conditions, such as changes or destruction of habitat due to human activity.”

To find out about squirrel’s personalities, researchers observed them for over three years in situations like being placed in an enclosed box with lines and holes, how they reacted to mirror images of themselves and how quickly they would run away when approached.

Each of the traits showed how drastic the life of a squirrel is. Squirrels that were bold and aggressive were able to move faster, find food and protect their territory, yet it made them more likely to become prey, as they are commonly hunted by coyotes, foxes and hawks, among other animals.

Click here to read the full article on USA Today.

CRISPR startup wants to resurrect the woolly mammoth by 2027
Colossal hopes to help bring the woolly mammoth back from extinction.

By Stephen Shankland, C Net

You’ve heard of startups building computer chips, delivery drones and social networks. One called Colossal has a very different goal: bringing the woolly mammoth back from extinction by 2027 using CRISPR, a revolutionary gene editing technology.

The plan isn’t to re-create true woolly mammoths exactly but rather to bring their cold-adapted genetic traits like small ears and more body fat to their elephant cousins, creating a hybrid that can wander the tundra where mammoths haven’t been seen for 10,000 years. Colossal’s co-founders are Chief Executive Ben Lamm, who started five companies before this, and George Church, a Harvard Medical School professor with deep CRISPR expertise.

“Our true North Star is a successful restoration of the woolly mammoth, but also its successful rewilding into interbreeding herds in the Arctic,” Lamm said. “We’re now focusing on having our first calves in the next four to six years.”

It’s an interesting illustration of an imperative sweeping the tech world: Don’t just make money, help the planet too. Tesla’s mission is to electrify transport to get rid of fossil fuels that hurt Earth. Bolt Threads wants to replace leather with a fungal fiber-based equivalent that’s easier on the environment than animal agriculture. Colossal hopes its work will draw attention to biodiversity problems and ultimately help fix them.

Colossal has raised $15 million so far, led by investment firm Tulco. The startup’s 19 employees work at its Dallas headquarters and in offices in Boston and Austin, Texas, and it’s using its funds to hire more.

Click here to read the full article on C Net.

SpaceX Will Launch Major Next-Gen Weather Satellite With $153 Million From NASA
A SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket carrying 24 satellites as part of the Department of Defense’s Space Test Program-2 (STP-2) mission launches from Launch Complex 39A on June 25, 2019 at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.Photo: Joel Kowsky/NASA (Getty Images)

By Dharna Noor, Gizmodo

Elon Musk’s SpaceX has won a $152.5 million federal contract to launch an important new weather satellite into space.

On Friday, NASA announced that it had chosen the firm’s Falcon Heavy heavy-lift launch rocket to transport the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-U (GOES-U) into geostationary orbit tens of thousands of miles into space. Once it’s up there, the satellite will collect images and atmospheric measurements of weather, oceans, and environmental systems, map out lightning in real time, and improve monitoring for solar activity and space weather.

GOES-U’s launch will mark the fourth and final satellite of the GOES-R series, the first of which was launched in 2016. A collaboration between NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, it’s the most advanced fleet of weather satellites the U.S. runs, providing an unparalleled look at Earth. While they’re on the ground, the satellites are known by letters. Once in orbit, though, they’ll take on a numbered name. (GOES-U will be the nineteenth GOES satellite and presumably be GOES-19.)

The launch, which is scheduled to take place in April 2024 from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center, is a big win for SpaceX. It comes after competing spacecraft launch service provider United Launch Alliance withdrew its bid. In 2019, ULA was awarded a smaller contract to launch the third satellite in GOES-R series known as GOES-T (yes, it’s a lot of GOES), and will do so in January 2022. But the company said it did not have any appropriate vehicles available for the fourth mission, opening the door for SpaceX to step in.

Missions like these are important opportunities to learn more about both Earth and space. The new GOES satellite, for instance, is expected to improve weather forecasting at a time when extreme weather is becoming all the more common and erratic, meaning it could actually save lives. Less important but still cool is that it will also provide gorgeous images of our planet.

Click here to read the full article on Gizmodo.

World’s largest triceratops skeleton going up for auction could fetch more than $1.4M
The world’s largest known triceratops skeleton

By , Fox Business

The world’s largest known triceratops skeleton is going up for auction.

Known as “Big John,” the triceratops will be sold by the Drouot auction house in Paris on Oct. 21, according to a press release.

The giant dinosaur fossil is estimated to sell for between $1.4 million (1.2 million euros) and $1.7 million (1.5 million euros), according to the Associated Press.

The outlet reported that the dinosaur will be the centerpiece of the Naturalia auction organized by Alexandre Giquello.

Reuters reported that the dinosaur’s skull alone is over 8-and-a-half feet (2.62 meters) long and over 6-and-a-half feet (2 meters) wide. The dinosaur’s head is almost a third of its whole body, the outlet reported.

According to Reuters, the first piece of Big John was found in South Dakota by paleontologists in 2014. They were able to unearth 60% of his skeleton – more than 200 bones – including his skull, Reuters reported.

The dinosaur, which walked the earth more than 66 million years ago, received its name from the owner of the land where the bones were found.

Click here to read the full article on Fox Business.

NASA’s Perseverance Rover Collects First Mars Rock Sample – “Truly a Historic Moment”
Perseverance’s First Cored Mars Rock in Sample Tube: Perseverance’s first cored-rock sample is visible inside this titanium sample collection tube in this image taken on Sept. 6, 2021

By NASA, Sci-Tech Daily

NASA’s Perseverance rover today completed the collection of the first sample of Martian rock, a core from Jezero Crater slightly thicker than a pencil. Mission controllers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California received data that confirmed the historic milestone.

The core is now enclosed in an airtight titanium sample tube, making it available for retrieval in the future. Through the Mars Sample Return campaign, NASA and ESA (European Space Agency) are planning a series of future missions to return the rover’s sample tubes to Earth for closer study. These samples would be the first set of scientifically identified and selected materials returned to our planet from another.

“NASA has a history of setting ambitious goals and then accomplishing them, reflecting our nation’s commitment to discovery and innovation,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. “This is a momentous achievement and I can’t wait to see the incredible discoveries produced by Perseverance and our team.”

Along with identifying and collecting samples of rock and regolith (broken rock and dust) while searching for signs of ancient microscopic life, Perseverance’s mission includes studying the Jezero region to understand the geology and ancient habitability of the area, as well as to characterize the past climate.

“For all of NASA science, this is truly a historic moment,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for science at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “Just as the Apollo Moon missions demonstrated the enduring scientific value of returning samples from other worlds for analysis here on our planet, we will be doing the same with the samples Perseverance collects as part of our Mars Sample Return program. Using the most sophisticated science instruments on Earth, we expect jaw-dropping discoveries across a broad set of science areas, including an exploration into the question of whether life once existed on Mars.”

First Sample
The sample-taking process began on Wednesday, September 1, when the rotary-percussive drill at the end of Perseverance’s robotic arm cored into a flat, briefcase-size Mars rock nicknamed “Rochette.”

After completing the coring process, the arm maneuvered the corer, bit, and sample tube so the rover’s Mastcam-Z camera instrument could image the contents of the still-unsealed tube and transmit the results back to Earth. After mission controllers confirmed the cored rock’s presence in the tube, they sent a command to complete processing of the sample.

Today, at 12:34 a.m. EDT, Perseverance transferred sample tube serial number 266 and its Martian cargo into the rover’s interior to measure and image the rock core. It then hermetically sealed the container, took another image, and stored the tube.

“With over 3,000 parts, the Sampling and Caching System is the most complex mechanism ever sent into space,” said Larry D. James, interim director of JPL. “Our Perseverance team is excited and proud to see the system perform so well on Mars and take the first step for returning samples to Earth. We also recognize that a worldwide team of NASA, industry partners, academia, and international space agencies contributed to and share in this historic success.”

Click here to read the full article on Sci Tech Daily

The laughing patterns of human infants match those of another species, a new study finds
Researchers found that infants laugh in a similar pattern to great apes.

By Megan Marples, CNN

Laughter transcends all languages — and now scientists know this spontaneous response is universal across some primate species, too.

The laughing patterns of human infants match those of great apes, according to a study published Tuesday in Biology Letters.
Human adults primarily laugh while exhaling, whereas infants and great apes laugh during both inhalation and exhalation, said study author Mariska Kret, associate professor of cognitive psychology at Leiden University in the Netherlands.

First adults inhale, then produce “ha-ha-ha” sounds in short bursts, starting loud and then fading away, Kret said.

“The ape-type is more difficult to describe but there is an alternation huh-ha-huh-ha,” she added.
Infant laughter isn’t necessarily similar to that of all species of great apes, just those that are evolutionarily closest to human — such as chimpanzees and bonobos, said Marina Davila-Ross, a reader in comparative psychology at the University of Portsmouth in England, who was not involved in the study.

“It seems to reflect that laughter is to some extent biologically deeply grounded,” she said.

Kret originally discovered this phenomenon while attending a talk by renowned primatologist Jan van Hooff with a friend. When van Hooff said apes laugh during inhalation and exhalation, Kret’s friend showed a video of her baby laughing in the same manner.

To test whether infants laugh like apes, Kret collected audio clips of humans ages 3 months to 18 months old laughing and asked listeners to rate what percentage of the laugh was produced by inhaling versus exhaling.
As a control, researchers also included five clips of adults laughing.

Click here to read the full article on CNN.

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Upcoming Events

  1. Wonder Women Tech
    October 26, 2021 - October 29, 2021
  2. HACU’s 35th Annual Conference
    October 30, 2021 - November 1, 2021
  3. American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions 2021
    November 13, 2021 - November 15, 2021
  4. AEC Next Technology Expo & Conference, International Lidar Mapping Forum, and SPAR 3D Expo & Conference
    February 6, 2022 - February 8, 2022
  5. CSUN Conference
    March 13, 2022 - March 18, 2022