IT SOUNDS ALMOST like a late ’90s sci-fi flick: NASA sends a spacecraft to an asteroid, plucks a boulder off its surface with a robotic claw, and brings it back in orbit around the moon. Then, brave astronaut heroes go and study the space rock up close—and bring samples back to Earth.

Except it’s not a movie: That’s the real-life idea for the Asteroid Redirect Mission, which NASA announced today. Other than simply being an awesome space version of the claw arcade game (you know you really wanted that stuffed Pikachu), the mission will let NASA test technology and practice techniques needed for going to Mars.

The mission, which will cost up to $1.25 billion, is slated to launch in December 2020. It will take about two years to reach the asteroid (the most likely candidate is a quarter-mile-wide rock called 2008 EV5). The spacecraft will spend up to 400 days there, looking for a good boulder. After picking one—maybe around 13 feet in diameter—it will bring the rock over to the moon. In 2025, astronauts will fly NASA’s still-to-be-built Orion to dock with the asteroid-carrying spacecraft and study the rock up close.

Although the mission would certainly give scientists an up-close opportunity to look at an asteroid, its main purpose is as a testing ground for a Mars mission. The spacecraft will test a solar electronic propulsion system, which uses the power from solar panels to pump out charged particles to provide thrust. It’s slower than conventional rockets, but a lot more efficient. You can’t lug a lot of rocket fuel to Mars.

Overall, the mission gives NASA a chance at practicing precise navigation and maneuvering techniques that they’ll need to master for a Mars mission. Such a trip will also require a lot more cargo, so grabbing and maneuvering a big space rock is good practice. Entering lunar orbit and docking with another spacecraft would also be helpful, as the orbit might be a place for a deep-space habitat, a rendezvous point for astronauts to pick up cargo or stop on their way to Mars.

And—you knew this part was coming, Armageddon fans—the mission might teach NASA something about preventing an asteroid from striking Earth. After grabbing the boulder, the spacecraft will orbit the asteroid. With the added heft from the rock, the spacecraft’s extra gravity would nudge the asteroid, creating a slight change in trajectory that NASA could measure from Earth. “We’re not talking about a large deflection here,” says Robert Lightfoot, an associate administrator at NASA. But the idea is that a similar technique could push a threatening asteroid off a collision course with Earth.

NASA chose this mission concept over one that would’ve bagged an entire asteroid. In that plan, the spacecraft would’ve captured the space rock by enclosing it in a giant, flexible container. The claw concept won out because its rendezvous and soft-landing on the asteroid will allow NASA to test and practice more capabilities in preparation for a Mars mission, Lightfoot says. The claw would’ve also given more chances at grabbing a space rock, whereas it was all or nothing with the bag idea. “It’s a one-shot deal,” he says. “It is what it is when we get there.” But the claw concept offers some choices. “I’ve got three to five opportunities to pull one of the boulders off,” he says. Not bad odds. Better than winning that Pikachu.

http://www.wired.com/2015/03/nasas-plan-give-moon-moon/

Instead of flushing millions down the toilet, humans could be mining their poop for gold.

That’s at least what some researchers with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) think. They’re looking for ways to squeeze metals like gold and silver out of solid waste.

When poop arrives at a wastewater treatment plant, it is separated into biosolids and treated water. Inevitably about half of the biosolids (3.5 million tons in the United States alone) is sent to landfills or incinerated, while the other half is used as fertilizer.

Kathleen Smith, a USGS geologist, thinks people could make more of these biosolids; they’re full of tiny particles of metals that find their way into waste through beauty products, detergents and even odor-resistant clothing.

There are two good reasons to try to pull these metals out of poop, according to Smith, who’s presenting her research on the subject at an American Chemical Society meeting this week.

“If you can get rid of some of the nuisance metals that currently limit how much of these biosolids we can use on fields and forests, and at the same time recover valuable metals and other elements, that’s a win-win,” Smith explained in a statement.

The same chemicals (called leachates) that miners use to pull metals out of rock could be safely used to pull metals from waste, Smith and her colleagues found. The researchers have examined waste samples from small towns in the Rocky Mountains, as well as in rural areas and cities. They detected some sizable concentrations of platinum, silver and gold when they looked at their samples under a scanning electron microscope, they reported.

“The gold we found was at the level of a minimal mineral deposit,” Smith said. In other words, if that level of gold were observed in rock, it would be considered a potential mining prospect.

It’s not just gold that could be mined and sold. Waste contains elements like vanadium and copper that could be used in devices such as cellphones and computers, the researchers said.

The economic value of poop mining is still unclear, but some recent projections have been promising. Earlier this year, another group of researchers published a paper in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, estimating that metals extracted from poop in a population of 1 million people could yield $13 million per year.

http://www.livescience.com/50235-solid-gold-poop-could-yield-precious-metals.html


The ocean there is thought to extend to 10 times the depth of Earth’s oceans.

A salty ocean is lurking beneath the surface of Jupiter’s largest moon, Ganymede, scientists using the Hubble Space Telescope have found.

The ocean on Ganymede—which is buried under a thick crust of ice—could actually harbor more water than all of Earth’s surface water combined, according to NASA officials. Scientists think the ocean is about 60 miles (100 kilometers) thick, 10 times the depth of Earth’s oceans, NASA added. The new Hubble Space Telescope finding could also help scientists learn more about the plethora of potentially watery worlds that exist in the solar system and beyond.

“The solar system is now looking like a pretty soggy place,” said Jim Green, NASA’s director of planetary science. Scientists are particularly interested in learning more about watery worlds because life as we know it depends on water to thrive.

Scientists have also found that Ganymede’s surface shows signs of flooding. Young parts of Ganymede seen in a video map may have been formed by water bubbling up from the interior of the moon through faults or cryo-volcanos at some point in the moon’s history, Green said.

Scientists have long suspected that there was an ocean of liquid water on Ganymede—the largest moon in the solar system, at about 3,273 miles (5,268 kilometers) across—has an ocean of liquid water beneath its surface. The Galileo probe measured Ganymede’s magnetic field in 2002, providing some data supporting the theory that the moon has an ocean. The newly announced evidence from the Hubble telescope is the most convincing data supporting the subsurface ocean theory yet, according to NASA.

Scientists used Hubble to monitor Ganymede’s auroras, ribbons of light at the poles created by the moon’s magnetic field. The moon’s auroras are also affected by Jupiter’s magnetic field because of the moon’s proximity to the huge planet.

When Jupiter’s magnetic field changes, so does Ganymede’s. Researchers were able to watch the two auroras “rock” back and forth with Hubble. Ganymede’s aurora didn’t rock as much as expected, so by monitoring that motion, the researchers concluded that a subsurface ocean was likely responsible for dampening the change in Ganymede’s aurora created by Jupiter.

“I was always brainstorming how we could use a telescope in other ways,” Joachim Saur, geophysicist and team leader of the new finding, said in a statement. “Is there a way you could use a telescope to look inside a planetary body? Then I thought, the aurorae! Because aurorae are controlled by the magnetic field, if you observe the aurorae in an appropriate way, you learn something about the magnetic field. If you know the magnetic field, then you know something about the moon’s interior.”

Hunting for auroras on other worlds could potentially help identify water-rich alien planets in the future, Heidi Hammel, executive vice president of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, said during the teleconference. Scientists might be able to search for rocking auroras on exoplanets that could potentially harbor water using the lessons learned from the Hubble observations of Ganymede.

Astronomers might be able to detect oceans on planets near magnetically active stars using similar methods to those used by Saur and his research team, Hammel added.

“By monitoring auroral activity on exoplanets, we may be able to infer the presence of water on or within an exoplanet,” Hammel said. “Now, it’s not going to be easy—it’s not as easy as Ganymede and Jupiter, and that wasn’t easy. It may require a much larger telescope than Hubble, it may require some future space telescope, but nevertheless, it’s a tool now that we didn’t have prior to this work that Joachim and his team have done.”

Jupiter’s moons are popular targets for future space missions. The European Space Agency is planning to send a probe called JUICE—short for JUpiter ICy moons Explorer—to Jupiter and its moons in 2022. JUICE is expected to check out Europa, Callisto and Ganymede during its mission. NASA also has its eye on the Jupiter system. Officials are hoping to send a probe to Europa by the mid-2020s.

NASA will also celebrate the Hubble telescope’s 25th anniversary this year.

“This discovery marks a significant milestone, highlighting what only Hubble can accomplish,” John Grunsfeld, assistant administrator of NASA’s Science Mission, said in the same statement. “In its 25 years in orbit, Hubble has made many scientific discoveries in our own solar system. A deep ocean under the icy crust of Ganymede opens up further exciting possibilities for life beyond Earth.”

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/jupiter-s-moon-ganymede-has-a-salty-ocean-with-more-water-than-earth/


The reverse-wiring of the eyeball has long been a mystery, but new research shows a remarkable structural purpose: increasing and sharpening our color vision.

by Erez Ribak, at the Israel Institute of Technology

The human eye is optimised to have good colour vision at day and high sensitivity at night. But until recently it seemed as if the cells in the retina were wired the wrong way round, with light travelling through a mass of neurons before it reaches the light-detecting rod and cone cells. New research presented at a meeting of the American Physical Society has uncovered a remarkable vision-enhancing function for this puzzling structure.

About a century ago, the fine structure of the retina was discovered. The retina is the light-sensitive part of the eye, lining the inside of the eyeball. The back of the retina contains cones to sense the colours red, green and blue. Spread among the cones are rods, which are much more light-sensitive than cones, but which are colour-blind.

Before arriving at the cones and rods, light must traverse the full thickness of the retina, with its layers of neurons and cell nuclei. These neurons process the image information and transmit it to the brain, but until recently it has not been clear why these cells lie in front of the cones and rods, not behind them. This is a long-standing puzzle, even more so since the same structure, of neurons before light detectors, exists in all vertebrates, showing evolutionary stability.

Researchers in Leipzig found that glial cells, which also span the retinal depth and connect to the cones, have an interesting attribute. These cells are essential for metabolism, but they are also denser than other cells in the retina. In the transparent retina, this higher density (and corresponding refractive index) means that glial cells can guide light, just like fibre-optic cables.

n view of this, my colleague Amichai Labin and I built a model of the retina, and showed that the directional of glial cells helps increase the clarity of human vision. But we also noticed something rather curious: the colours that best passed through the glial cells were green to red, which the eye needs most for daytime vision. The eye usually receives too much blue—and thus has fewer blue-sensitive cones.

Further computer simulations showed that green and red are concentrated five to ten times more by the glial cells, and into their respective cones, than blue light. Instead, excess blue light gets scattered to the surrounding rods.

This surprising result of the simulation now needed an experimental proof. With colleagues at the Technion Medical School, we tested how light crosses guinea pig retinas. Like humans, these animals are active during the day and their retinal structure has been well-characterised, which allowed us to simulate their eyes just as we had done for humans. Then we passed light through their retinas and, at the same time, scanned them with a microscope in three dimensions. This we did for 27 colours in the visible spectrum.

The result was easy to notice: in each layer of the retina we saw that the light was not scattered evenly, but concentrated in a few spots. These spots were continued from layer to layer, thus creating elongated columns of light leading from the entrance of the retina down to the cones at the detection layer. Light was concentrated in these columns up to ten times, compared to the average intensity.

Even more interesting was the fact that the colours that were best guided by the glial cells matched nicely with the colours of the cones. The cones are not as sensitive as the rods, so this additional light allowed them to function better—even under lower light levels. Meanwhile, the bluer light, that was not well-captured in the glial cells, was scattered onto the rods in its vicinity.

These results mean that the retina of the eye has been optimised so that the sizes and densities of glial cells match the colours to which the eye is sensitive (which is in itself an optimisation process suited to our needs). This optimisation is such that colour vision during the day is enhanced, while night-time vision suffers very little. The effect also works best when the pupils are contracted at high illumination, further adding to the clarity of our colour vision.

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-purpose-of-our-eyes-strange-wiring-is-unveiled/

In 1946, a new advertising campaign appeared in magazines with a picture of a doctor in a lab coat holding a cigarette and the slogan, “More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette.” No, this wasn’t a spoof. Back then, doctors were not aware that smoking could cause cancer, heart disease and lung disease.

In a similar vein, some researchers and consumers are now asking whether wearable computers will be considered harmful in several decades’ time.

We have long suspected that cellphones, which give off low levels of radiation, could lead to brain tumors, cancer, disturbed blood rhythms and other health problems if held too close to the body for extended periods.

Yet here we are in 2015, with companies like Apple and Samsung encouraging us to buy gadgets that we should attach to our bodies all day long.

While there is no definitive research on the health effects of wearable computers (the Apple Watch isn’t even on store shelves yet), we can hypothesize a bit from existing research on cellphone radiation.

The most definitive and arguably unbiased results in this area come from the International Agency for Research on Cancer, a panel within the World Health Organization that consisted of 31 scientists from 14 countries.

After dissecting dozens of peer-reviewed studies on cellphone safety, the panel concluded in 2011 that cellphones were “possibly carcinogenic” and that the devices could be as harmful as certain dry-cleaning chemicals and pesticides. (Note that the group hedged its findings with the word “possibly.”)

The W.H.O. panel concluded that the farther away a device is from one’s head, the less harmful — so texting or surfing the Web will not be as dangerous as making calls, with a cellphone inches from the brain. (This is why there were serious concerns about Google Glass when it was first announced and why we’ve been told to use hands-free devices when talking on cellphones.)

A longitudinal study conducted by a group of European researchers and led by Dr. Lennart Hardell, a professor of oncology and cancer epidemiology at Orebro University Hospital in Sweden, concluded that talking on a mobile or cordless phone for extended periods could triple the risk of a certain kind of brain cancer.

There is, of course, antithetical research. But some of this was partly funded by cellphone companies or trade groups.

One example is the international Interphone study, which was published in 2010 and did not find strong links between mobile phones and an increased risk of brain tumors. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded in 2014 that “more research is needed before we know if using cell phones causes health effects.”

Continue reading the main story
Another study, in The BMJ, which measured cellphone subscription data rather than actual use, said there was no proof of increased cancer. Yet even here, the Danish team behind the report acknowledged that a “small to moderate increase” in cancer risk among heavy cellphone users could not be ruled out.

But what does all this research tell the Apple faithful who want to rush out and buy an Apple Watch, or the Google and Windows fanatics who are eager to own an alternative smartwatch?

Dr. Joseph Mercola, a physician who focuses on alternative medicine and has written extensively about the potential harmful effects of cellphones on the human body, said that as long as a wearable does not have a 3G connection built into it, the harmful effects are minimal, if any.

“The radiation really comes from the 3G connection on a cellphone, so devices like the Jawbone Up and Apple Watch should be O.K.,” Dr. Mercola said in a phone interview. “But if you’re buying a watch with a cellular chip built in, then you’ve got a cellphone attached to your wrist.” And that, he said, is a bad idea.

(The Apple Watch uses Bluetooth and Wi-Fi to receive data, and researchers say there is no proven harm from those frequencies on the human body. Wearables with 3G or 4G connections built in, including the Samsung Gear S, could be more harmful, though that has not been proved. Apple declined to comment for this article, and Samsung could not be reached for comment.)

Researchers have also raised concerns about having powerful batteries so close to the body for extended periods of time. Some reports over the last several decades have questioned whether being too close to power lines could cause leukemia (though other research has also negated this).

So what should consumers do? Perhaps we can look at how researchers themselves handle their smartphones.

While Dr. Mercola is a vocal proponent of cellphone safety, he told me to call him on his cell when I emailed about an interview. When I asked him whether he was being hypocritical, he replied that technology is a fact of life, and that he uses it with caution. As an example, he said he was using a Bluetooth headset during our call.

In the same respect, people who are concerned about the possible side effects of a smartwatch should avoid placing it close to their brain (besides, it looks a little strange). But there are some people who may be more vulnerable to the dangers of these devices: children.

While researchers debate about how harmful cellphones and wearable computers actually are, most agree that children should exercise caution.

Continue reading the main story
In an email, Dr. Hardell sent me research illustrating that a child’s skull is thinner and smaller than an adult’s, which means that children’s brain tissues are more exposed to certain types of radiation, specifically the kind that emanates from a cellphone.

Children should limit how much time they spend talking on a cellphone, doctors say. And if they have a wearable device, they should take it off at night so it does not end up under their pillow, near their brain. Doctors also warn that women who are pregnant should be extra careful with all of these technologies.

But what about adults? After researching this column, talking to experts and poring over dozens of scientific papers, I have realized the dangers of cellphones when used for extended periods, and as a result I have stopped holding my phone next to my head and instead use a headset.

That being said, when it comes to wearable computers, I’ll still buy the Apple Watch, but I won’t let it go anywhere near my head. And I definitely won’t let any children I know play with it for extended periods of time.While researchers debate about how harmful cellphones and wearable computers actually are, most agree that children should exercise caution.

In an email, Dr. Hardell sent me research illustrating that a child’s skull is thinner and smaller than an adult’s, which means that children’s brain tissues are more exposed to certain types of radiation, specifically the kind that emanates from a cellphone.

Children should limit how much time they spend talking on a cellphone, doctors say. And if they have a wearable device, they should take it off at night so it does not end up under their pillow, near their brain. Doctors also warn that women who are pregnant should be extra careful with all of these technologies.

But what about adults? After researching this column, talking to experts and poring over dozens of scientific papers, I have realized the dangers of cellphones when used for extended periods, and as a result I have stopped holding my phone next to my head and instead use a headset.

That being said, when it comes to wearable computers, I’ll still buy the Apple Watch, but I won’t let it go anywhere near my head. And I definitely won’t let any children I know play with it for extended periods of time.

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/19/style/could-wearable-computers-be-as-harmful-as-cigarettes.html?_r=0

An experimental drug for Alzheimer’s disease sharply slowed the decline in mental function in a small clinical trial, researchers reported Friday, reviving hopes for an approach to therapy that until now has experienced repeated failures.

The drug, being developed by Biogen Idec, could achieve sales of billions of dollars a year if the results from the small trial are replicated in larger trials that Biogen said it hoped to begin this year. Experts say that there are no really good drugs now to treat Alzheimer’s.

Biogen’s stock has risen about 50 percent since early December, when the company first announced that the drug had slowed cognitive decline in the trial, without saying by how much. Analysts and investors had been eagerly awaiting the detailed results, some of them flying to France to hear Biogen researchers present them at a neurology meeting on Friday.

The drug, called aducanumab, met and in some cases greatly exceeded Wall Street expectations in terms of how much the highest dose slowed cognitive decline. However, there was a high incidence of a particular side effect that might make it difficult to use the highest dose.

Still, the net impression was positive. “Out-of-the-ballpark efficacy, acceptable safety,” Ravi Mehrotra, an analyst at Credit Suisse, wrote on Friday. Shares of Biogen rose $42.33, or 10 percent, to $475.98.

Alzheimer’s specialists were impressed, but they cautioned that it was difficult to read much from a small early-stage, or Phase 1, trial that was designed to look at safety, not the effect on cognition. Also, other Alzheimer’s drugs that had looked promising in early studies ended up not working in larger trials.

“It’s certainly encouraging,” said Dr. Samuel Gandy, director of the Center for Cognitive Health at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, who was not involved in the study. He said the effect of the highest dose was “pretty impressive.”

Aducanumab, which until now has been called BIIB037, is designed to get rid of amyloid plaque in the brain, which is widely believed to be a cause of the dementia in Alzheimer’s disease. However, other drugs designed to prevent or eliminate plaque have failed in large clinical trials, raising questions about what role the plaque really plays.

Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer abandoned a drug they were jointly developing after it showed virtually no effect in large trials. Eli Lilly and Roche are continuing to test their respective drugs despite initial failures. Experts say there is some suggestion the drugs might work if used early enough, when the disease is still mild.

Biogen tried to increase its chances of success by treating patients with either mild disease or so-called prodromal disease, an even earlier stage. It also enrolled only patients shown to have plaque in their brains using a new imaging technique. In some trials of other drugs, some of the patients turned out not to have plaque, which could have been a reason the trials were not successful.

The results reported Friday were for 166 patients, who were randomly assigned to get one of several doses of the drug or a placebo. The drug not only slowed cognitive decline but also substantially reduced plaque in the brain, and higher doses were better than lower doses. Those are signs that the effects seen were from the drug.

“It would be kind of hard to get those kind of results by chance,” said Dr. Rachelle S. Doody, director of the Alzheimer’s Disease and Memory Disorders Center at Baylor College of Medicine, who was not involved in the study but has been a consultant to Biogen and many other companies.

On one measure of cognition, a 30-point scale called the mini-mental state exam or M.M.S.E., those receiving the placebo worsened by an average of 3.14 points over the course of a year. The decline at one year was only 0.58 points for those getting the highest dose and 0.75 points for a middle dose. The difference with a placebo was statistically significant for both doses.

On another measure of both cognition and the ability to function in daily tasks, patients in the placebo group worsened by an average of 2.04 points at one year. Those getting the highest dose of the drug had a decline of only 0.59, a statistically significant difference.

Some analysts said they would have been impressed if the drug had slowed the rate of cognitive decline by 20 or 30 percent. But the actual reduction for the high dose was above 70 percent. They said the drug’s effect was stronger than that of Lilly’s drug.

A major side effect was a localized swelling in the brain, known as A.R.I.A.-E. This has been seen with other drugs in this class, though the rate for aducanumab seems higher.

Among patients with a genetic variant that raises the risk of getting Alzheimer’s, 55 percent of those who got the highest dose suffered this side effect, and about 35 percent of the high-dose patients dropped out of the trial because of this. Among those without the genetic variant, 17 percent of those who got the highest dose suffered the side effect and 8 percent discontinued treatment.

Biogen said the swelling often did not cause symptoms and probably could be managed by watching for it and reducing doses. Dr. Doody and Dr. Gandy agreed.

But Dr. Thomas M. Wisniewski, a professor of neurology at NYU Langone Medical Center, disagreed. “Most clinicians would find that unacceptable,” he said in a conference call hosted by the Wall Street firm Evercore ISI. He said the side effect was “something you definitely don’t want happening in your patients.”

Over all, however, Dr. Wisniewski was enthusiastic, saying the drug looked to be “way better” than Lilly’s.

A lesser dose might suffice. There were no discontinuations from this side effect among patients taking a middle dose. And that middle dose also seemed somewhat effective in slowing cognitive decline.

The results were presented in Nice, France, at the International Conference on Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Diseases and Related Neurological Disorders.

http://mobile.nytimes.com/2015/03/21/business/alzheimers-drug-trial-shows-cognitive-decline-sharply-slowed.html?referrer=&_r=0

Mobile phone users have been warned they could face reception problems because it is the peregrine falcon nesting season.

Vodafone said three pairs of the world’s fastest bird have been found beside masts across London, including a church, hospital and office building, and could be slowing down networks.

Phone masts are a popular nesting site for the bird of prey and the company will be unable to remove the nests until the chicks are hatched and leave, which could take two months.

It is a criminal offence under the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981 to disturb the birds while they are nesting.

Vodafone spokesman Simon Gordon said: “We apologise to any customers who experience a dip in service, but we have to respect the environment and the law.

“This is the first time to my knowledge we have had this in London, so for us it is unprecedented. They can sometimes nest on the mast itself – which is like a big metal climbing frame – or use the box underneath, where the computer stuff sits.”

Mr Gordon, who is himself a wildlife enthusiast and bird watcher, added: “At the moment, we are a year into a £200million upgrade works and we are going to individual sites to upgrade the equipment.

“If there is a peregrine falcon nesting there, we have to abide by the law and not approach the nest and call the experts to go onto the site to assess where they are nesting.”

n April 2013, Vodafone customers complained about poor reception in Southampton. Engineers called out to repair a faulty transmitter found a peregrine falcon nesting next to it.

The company had to tell its frustrated customers they were unable to repair the faulty mast until the chicks had left the nest.

Peregrine falcons, which can travel at speeds of up to 240mph, have seen a revival in recent years.

The birds nearly became extinct in the 1960s after their existence was threatened by pesticides, but laws controlling use of pesticides meant their numbers slowly recovered.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has estimated there are 1,402 breeding pairs in the UK and there are currently thought to be 30 nesting pairs in the capital.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/howaboutthat/11482677/Peregrine-falcons-nesting-on-Vodafone-mobile-phone-masts-cause-poor-signal.html