A New Robotic Instrument Will Map Millions of Galaxies and Reveal Dark Energy’s History

By Erika K. Carlson | November 5, 2019 5:02 pm
Kitt Peak National Observatory, home to the new Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument. (Credit: NOAOAURA/NSF)

A powerful new astronomical instrument got its first view of the sky from an Arizona mountaintop two weeks ago. Once the device officially gets to work in early 2020, it will capture the light from thousands of galaxies each night — up to 5,000 galaxies every 20 minutes, in ideal conditions. With this instrument, researchers will make a deep-space map of where galaxies lie to study dark energy throughout the history of the universe.

Scientists installed the device, called the Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument (DESI), on a telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory over a period of 18 months. And on October 22, DESI turned its gaze to the night sky to make its first test observations. Over the next few months, the DESI team will finish testing and begin its survey in earnest.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, top posts
MORE ABOUT: dark energy, galaxies

Hubble Catches One Galaxy Floating in a Cosmic City

By Alison Klesman | November 5, 2019 3:55 pm
(Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA, A. Bellini et al.)

The universe is vast, with galaxies containing gas, dust, stars, and planets sprinkled throughout. But this sprinkling isn’t random; although some galaxies are indeed truly alone, most are not congregating through gravity.

NGC 1706, captured in this stunning Hubble Space Telescope image, is one of about 50 galaxies bound together in a group that lies in the direction of the southern constellation Dorado the Swordfish. The brilliant, face-on spiral and its neighbors sit about 230 million light-years away.

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SpaceX, Boeing Complete Crucial Tests for Crew Capsules

By Hailey Rose McLaughlin | November 5, 2019 3:42 pm
Boeing’s Starliner performing the abort pad test on November 4. (Credit: NASA)

Boeing and SpaceX, both leaders in the aerospace industry, have completed crucial tests of their crew capsules, which the companies hope will bring American astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) in the near future.

Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner completed a pad abort test on November 4. The test is intended to verify astronauts can get away from the launch site if there’s an emergency prior to takeoff. Starliner showed it could speed away at up to 650 mph in five seconds, suggesting the astronauts would have a shot at avoiding a dangerous launch pad situation.

However, as the capsule started to come back down to Earth, only two of the three parachutes on Starliner deployed. Even with the undeployed parachute, Starliner passed according to NASA’s testing standards.

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To Help Fidgety Kids, Researchers Made a Brain Scanner That Fits in a Bike Helmet

By Jennifer Walter | November 5, 2019 3:34 pm
A young child wearing the MEG scanner, created using a modified bike helmet and several sensors. Credit: Rebeccah Slater, University of Oxford

A simple bike helmet may be the answer for researchers looking to study the brains of fidgety kids. With a few extra holes drilled in the top and a pile of chunky cables ballooning outward, the common piece of headgear could offer an alternative to stationary brain scans.

With a few tweaks, researchers from the U.K. equipped a commercial bike helmet with a magnetoencephalography (MEG) scanner, which uses magnetic fields surrounding the brain to detect activity. The highly sensitive sensors can pick up more nuanced data than can EEGs, which is why doctors commonly use MEG scans to find the origin of a seizure in a patient’s brain.

In a report published today in Nature Communications, the U.K. team argues that the wired-up helmet could be a useful device for future clinical studies on brain activity, especially in children. The helmet could allow researchers to observe subjects in more natural environments, allowing for movement without the risk of hindering results.

MEGa Machines

In-hospital MEG machines are stationary beasts that rest over a patient’s head to take scans. And the huge devices come with limitations, especially for younger patients. Because the scanners are highly sensitive, analyzing the brains of children can be difficult if they move even a few millimeters. And adults with movement disorders or claustrophobia may also experience difficulty during the scanning process.

Portable MEG scanners have been in the works for at least a decade. The MEG lab at the University of Nottingham has been researching the technology since 2007, and published a report on a similar wearable MEG device last year.

But that device fit a bit differently than the bike helmet. In their 2018 report, the research team designed a mask that was 3D-printed to fit a patient’s head perfectly, and took scans while the patient made gentle physical movements, like playing ping pong or sipping tea. Though the results were promising, researchers wrote in their current report that the personalized masks were costly and might not work for children.

To find a scanner that was portable — but that would also work for people of all sizes — they turned to a modified bike helmet, one that adapts the same scanners as the mask.

The scanners themselves work a bit differently than the large, stationary devices in hospitals. Big MEG machines rely on arrays of SQUIDs — superconducting quantum interference devices — which are extremely sensitive chips that have to be cryogenically cooled in a large tube to work properly. But the new sensors, known as optically pumped magnetometers (OPMs), can operate at room temperature and have comparable sensitivity to SQUIDs.

And OPM sensors can be placed closer to the patient’s head, allowing more nuanced movements to be picked up by the scanners. The bike helmet was able to detect brain activity from even the youngest test subject, who was just 2 years old.

Helpful Helmets

To test the new helmet, researchers had a 2- and a 4-year-old watch TV with their mothers to see how their brains reacted to the input. The researchers also tested the device on a 14-year-old who played an interactive game to see how the device would react to movement.

In a press release, the researchers said they hope the new device will open the door to new studies on children, especially those with epilepsy, autism and mental health conditions.

“This study is a hugely important step towards getting MEG closer to being used in a clinical setting, showing it has real potential for use in children,” study author and leader of MEG research at the University of Nottingham Matthew Brookes said in a press release. The next challenge will be to commercialize the helmet for use in clinical settings — and possibly places outside the lab.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology, top posts
MORE ABOUT: medical technology

How This Bacterial Toxin Kills Antibiotic-Resistant Pathogens Like MRSA

By Leslie Nemo | November 4, 2019 2:05 pm
Crystals of a lysozyme. Similar compounds could be used to kill antibiotic-resistant bacteria like MRSA. (Credit: Zanecrc/Wikimedia Commons)

A new way to destroy MRSA, an antibiotic-resistant pathogen, might offer clues to alleviating the antibiotic crisis. In a new study, researchers have found how a bacterial toxin capable of destroying the pathogen does its job.

The compound can punch holes in the cell walls of pathogens like MRSA, killing the cells without the need for traditional antibiotics.

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MORE ABOUT: Vaccines & drugs

Voyager 2’s First Reports from Interstellar Space Surprise Scientists

By Erika K. Carlson | November 4, 2019 10:00 am
Voyager 2 passes into interstellar space in this artist’s illustration. (Credit: NASA)

NASA’s Voyager 2 spacecraft crossed into interstellar space last November. Now, one year later, scientists have published the first results from the data Voyager 2 gathered as it passed from the sun’s sphere of influence and into interstellar space.

In some ways, what Voyager 2 experienced was surprisingly different from what Voyager 1 found when it passed into interstellar space in 2012. These latest results also carry a number of other surprises for astronomers. The findings were published Monday in a series of five papers in Nature Astronomy

As the sun blows charged particles into space, it carves a bubble out of the surrounding gas and dust. Earth and the other solar system planets are nestled inside this bubble, called the heliosphere. The boundary between the heliosphere and outside space is called the heliopause. And that’s what the Voyager spacecraft blew past.

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MORE ABOUT: spacecraft, stars

An Upside to Narcissism? Trait Linked to Lower Levels of Stress and Depression

By Cody Cottier | November 1, 2019 11:32 am
Narcissists display lower levels of stress and depression, an indication that the trait might sometimes be helpful. (Credit: G-Stock Studio/Shutterstock)

Kostas Papageorgiou wants you to embrace your inner narcissist. Fittingly, it’s for your own benefit: The Queen’s University Belfast psychology researcher’s latest study shows narcissism might be linked to lower stress levels and reduced risk of depression.

Still, he can do without the manipulation, lack of empathy, and disregard for the needs and wishes of others. Society censures these traits, and for good reason, Papageorgiou agrees. But based on his work, he’s convinced that, in certain contexts, people can harness other narcissistic qualities — like a grandiose estimation of their worth and competence — to live a better, happier life.

“We have them because we need them,” he says of narcissistic traits, “so we need to learn to use them without necessarily letting them use us.”

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, top posts
MORE ABOUT: psychology

Termites Cannibalize Their Co-Workers for the Good of the Colony

By Joshua Rapp Learn | October 31, 2019 4:20 pm
Formosan subterranean termites, which are in the same genus as Asian subterranean termites. (Credit: Scott Bauer/USDA)

(Inside Science) — The appetites of social termites extend to cannibalizing their co-workers after death. It’s done for the greater good of the community.

“Termites have a lot of strategies to keep the nest and the members of the colony clean,” said Luiza Helena Bueno da Silva, a zoology graduate student at São Paulo State University in Brazil and the lead author of a study published recently in Zoology

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Measles Leaves Us Vulnerable to Infections Both Old and New, Study Finds

By Leslie Nemo | October 31, 2019 3:52 pm
A measles infection can wipe our immune system’s memory and even leave us weaker against new infections. (Credit: infohay/Shutterstock)

As the number of measles cases rises in the U.S, research reveals a new way the disease can leave patients vulnerable to future infections.

Published in Science Immunology, an examination of measles patient immune systems showed that the disease didn’t just leave some children less capable of fighting off infections they had already encountered. It also diminished their ability to fight ones that they had never been exposed to.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, top posts

New Battery Could Charge an Electric Car in 10 Minutes

By Jennifer Walter | October 30, 2019 4:12 pm
Electric Vehicle Charging
A new design for lithium-ion batteries could dramatically reduce charging times. (Credit: buffaloboy/Shutterstock)

Forget the 10 hours it can take to charge your Tesla Model X. A new battery, created by researchers at Penn State, can complete a charge in as little as 10 minutes.

Described in a report published today in Joule, the new lithium-ion battery could top up electric vehicles with 200 miles of charge in a time comparable to filling up a gas-powered vehicle. The technique involves quickly heating the batteries up to 140 degrees Fahrenheit and cooling them back down to room temperature during the charge cycle.

Normally, extreme temperature fluctuations can spell destruction for lithium-ion batteries. Lithium plating can grow inside a battery if it’s exposed to heat for too long, potentially causing it to short out. But by using calculated heating methods and limiting the battery’s exposure to high temperatures, the team believes they’ve found a way to help close the gap between electric and fuel-powered cars.

It’s Getting Hot in Here

Batteries are typically charged and discharged at the same temperature. But by spiking the heat, researchers found they could administer a higher charge to the battery without compromising its life span.  

The trick is a thin foil, made of nickel, that transfers a charge evenly to the battery cell. As researchers cranked up the temperature, they found that the foil helped prevent the battery from overheating on the outside, or having other parts destroyed on the inside.

Creating quick-charge batteries wasn’t a new challenge for author Chao-Yang Wang and his colleagues. Last year, the Penn State engineer coauthored another report describing a system that could charge a battery in 15 minutes at 122 F.

But despite promising results, there was one lingering problem: The batteries degraded from exposure to extreme heat.

“Our challenge in the current work [was] to discover a method to tame battery degradation at high temperatures,” Wang said via email. “As long as we limit [a] battery’s exposure time to high temperatures, we can minimize battery damage.”

And limit they did. The supercharged process, they found, could sustain 1,700 charge cycles. In subsequent battery autopsies, the researchers did not observe any lithium plating — showing that the heat, although extreme, didn’t wreak havoc on the battery when it was only applied briefly.

Portable Powerhouses

For now, charge times for electric cars on the market remain sluggish. And battery longevity still has a ways to go. But companies like Tesla are putting money into research to create more powerful batteries to compete with traditional cars.

In September, researchers from Dalhousie University in Canada received funding from the electric vehicle powerhouse to create a supercharged battery — one they claimed could run for a million miles before needing to be replaced. Coupled with new charging methods, better battery technology and a drive to make electric vehicles last, it might not be long before 10-minute charging stations become the norm.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology, top posts

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