It is 50 years since humans first encountered space – not Sputnik’s first orbit, nor Yuri Gagarin’s first spaceflight, but the first time a crew member stepped out from their spacecraft’s relative protection and immersed themselves in the cold, hostile emptiness of the vacuum.
On March 18, 1965, 30-year-old Russian cosmonaut Alexey Leonov completed a 12-minute spacewalk. This feat, and that of Gagarin and Sputnik before, was just one of the many achievements of the Soviet space program in the early years of the space race.
Leonov and others who followed him wore specially designed space suits, were tethered and later had helpful gadgets to move them around. Without the tether astronauts would have floated into empty space, with nothing to slow or change direction in frictionless space, with no rescue possible and only an inevitable death as their oxygen supply ran out. If this sounds daunting, imagine being the first ever to have faced this.
Only recently have we started to develop robotic equipment versatile and sensitive enough to carry out the complex tasks requiring fine motor skills taken for granted in any lab on Earth. Before then, astronauts had to walk in space and use these tools to repair satellites – such as the Hubble space telescope, which has given us the incredible science and images for the past 25 years. Spacewalks helped ensure we could walk on the moon, take samples and set up experiments.
Building the knowledge required to walk in space, and the robotic equipment to later help astronauts, also led toward the establishing of the US Skylab and Russian Mir orbital space labs, and their successor in the International Space Station (ISS).
Try to picture a time machine.
You probably envisioned a tricked-out DeLorean or, perhaps, a blue, spinning phone booth, right? But today, time travel isn’t so much about fast cars or alien technology as it is about tweaking our perception of reality. In fact, if you’re reading this on a tablet, you’re holding a time machine of sorts in your hands right now.
Of course, your iPad won’t actually transport you back in time, but it can serve as a window into another world. Imagine visiting the Parthenon, for example, and when you point your iPad toward the crumbled structure, you see the majestic building, but as it was thousands of years ago. You can even walk toward and around the structure, and so long as you’re peering through the tablet, it’s as if you were walking through the past.
This immersive experience, called augmented reality, has captivated archaeologist Stuart Eve, who is trying to change the way we learn history through the five senses. He’s working on augmented-reality technology that not only visually recreates ancient ruins, but also gives you a sense of what they smelled and sounded like.
The Cassini mission that has investigated Saturn since 2004 has revealed much about the giant planet and its many moons. Perhaps most tantalizing is the discovery that the moon Enceladus is the source of strong geysers ejecting plumes of water and ice.
A new study of Cassini data published in Nature by Hsiang-Wen Hsu and colleagues reveals these plumes are laced with grains of sand. This indicates that hydrothermal activity may be at work in Enceladus’ sub-surface ocean, and propels this tiny moon into the extremely exclusive club of locations that could harbor life.
The club’s only current member is Earth, of course – although it’s very possible that Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons, is, like Enceladus, also a candidate. What they have in common is that they host liquid oceans of salty water that exists in contact with a rocky, silicate seabed from which the oceans can absorb complex minerals and elements.
The NASA spacecraft Dawn has spent more than seven years traveling across the solar system to intercept the asteroid Vesta and the dwarf planet Ceres. Now in orbit around Ceres, the probe has returned the first images and data from these distant objects.
But inside Dawn itself is another first – the spacecraft is the first exploratory space mission to use an electrically-powered ion engine rather than conventional rockets.
Such ion engines will propel the next generation of spacecraft.
Human genetic engineering is not new; it has been going on for a long, long time — naturally. Ancient viruses are really good at inserting themselves and modifying human gene code. Over millennia, constant infections would come to mean that 8 percent of the entire human genome is made up of inserted virus code. All this gene recoding of our bodies occurred under Darwin’s rules, natural selection and random mutation. But nonrandom, deliberate human genetic engineering is new, and it is a big deal.
As of 1990, increasingly genetically modified humans walk among us. More and more gene therapies carry new instructions into our bodies and place them in the right spots; in so doing, they modify our most fundamental selves, our core, heretofore slow-evolving DNA. We are still in the very early stages of effectively hijacking viruses for human-driven purposes; just a few years ago it took a long time to identify and isolate a single faulty gene and figure out what was wrong, never mind finding a way to replace it with a properly functioning alternative. Early gene therapy focused on obscure, deadly orphan diseases like ADA-SCID (the immune disease that “Bubble Boy” had), adrenoleukodystrophy (say that five times fast), Wiskott-Aldrich syndrome, various leukemias, and hemophilia.
In theory the technique is relatively simple: Take a neutered virus, one that is engineered to not harm you but that readily infects human cells to ferry in new DNA instructions, write a new set of genetic instructions into the virus, and let it loose to infect a patient’s cells. And ta‑da! You have a genetically modified human. (Think of this as deliberately sneezing on someone but instead of giving them a cold, you give them a benign infection that enters their body, recodes their cells, and fixes a faulty gene.)
You might have heard that men are wimps when it comes to pain. It can make for lighthearted argument, but in fact it’s not true. Women have a lower pain threshold. Take a man and a woman, put a piece of ice on the backs of their hands, and wait. The woman will almost certainly complain about the pain first.
Not all pain is equal, but women are definitely worse off. In some quite macabre experiments, researchers have shown that women are much more sensitive to electric shocks, muscle pain, hot and cold, and chemical pain, such as the discomfort of eating a vindaloo curry.
If this comes as a surprise to you, you’re not alone. According to surveys, two-thirds of women still think that men feel more pain than they do. (Men are far less convinced of that; only one third think they are worse off when it comes to pain.)
And this isn’t some half-witted attempt to make out that men are the stronger sex. It’s a serious call to the medical system to improve the way they treat women’s pain.
Name a smart animal. Perhaps dogs, or dolphins, or chimpanzees came to mind. But why not goldfish, salmon, or moray eels?
Most people don’t associate intelligence with fishes. Blame it on the misconception that evolution is linear, with fishes sunk at the primitive end and primates raised near the top. Increasingly, though, scientists are appreciating the full spectrum of fish behaviors in their natural environments, thanks to advances in technology such as underwater ROVs and better recording equipment.
“In the past ten years, there has been a sea change in how scientists view fish intelligence,” says Culum Brown, who studies fish behavior at Macquarie University. Brown notes that some scientists would still deny that fishes possess basic cognitive skills.
Scientists have found that not only can fishes perceive their environments using complex senses, but that they can also coordinate hunts, use tools, and remember and learn – sometimes better than rats and toddlers.
We all know and love the moon. We’re so assured that we only have one that we don’t even give it a specific name. It is the brightest object in the night sky, and amateur astronomers take great delight in mapping its craters and seas. To date, it is the only other heavenly body with human footprints.
What you might not know is that the moon is not the Earth’s only natural satellite. As recently as 1997, we discovered that another body, 3753 Cruithne, is what’s called a quasi-orbital satellite of Earth. This simply means that Cruithne doesn’t loop around the Earth in a nice ellipse in the same way as the moon, or indeed the artificial satellites we loft into orbit. Instead, Cruithne scuttles around the inner solar system in what’s called a “horseshoe” orbit.
Think you’re good at classic arcade games such as Space Invaders, Breakout and Pong? Think again.
In a groundbreaking paper published yesterday in Nature, a team of researchers led by DeepMind co-founder Demis Hassabis reported developing a deep neural network that was able to learn to play such games at an expert level.
What makes this achievement all the more impressive is that the program was not given any background knowledge about the games. It just had access to the score and the pixels on the screen.
It didn’t know about bats, balls, lasers or any of the other things we humans need to know about in order to play the games.
But by playing lots and lots of games many times over, the computer learned first how to play, and then how to play well.
Pluto is the largest object in the Kuiper belt, and NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft will arrive there on July 15.
These two events will make 2015 an exciting year for solar system exploration and discovery. But there is much more to this story than mere science. I expect 2015 will be the year when general consensus, built upon our new knowledge of these two objects, will return Pluto and add Ceres to our family of solar system planets.
The efforts of a very small clique of Pluto-haters within the International Astronomical Union (IAU) plutoed Pluto in 2006. Of the approximately 10,000 internationally registered members of the IAU in 2006, only 237 voted in favor of the resolution redefining Pluto as a “dwarf planet” while 157 voted against; the other 9,500 members were not present at the closing session of the IAU General Assembly in Prague at which the vote to demote Pluto was taken. Yet Pluto’s official planetary status was snatched away.
Ceres and Pluto are both spheroidal objects, like Mercury, Earth, Jupiter and Saturn. That’s part of the agreed upon definition of a planet. They both orbit a star, the Sun, like Venus, Mars, Uranus and Neptune. That’s also part of the widely accepted definition of a planet.