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Setting Our Priorities Straight: Military vs. Science Funding

Setting Our Priorities Straight: Military vs. Science Funding

This chart compares yearly science funding with the 2011 military budget and how much NASA has received in its entire history. Note that NASA’s total budget since its inception in 1958 is less than the total spent on the military in just one year. Also take into account how tiny the combined budgets of various scientific endeavors are.

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A Star is Born

A Star is Born

An artist’s impression shows the disk of gas and cosmic dust around the young star HD 142527, as observed by astronomers using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) telescope in Chile. They have witnessed vast streams of gas flowing across the gap in the disc, the first time we’ve seen the stages of a star being born. Click the photo to learn more.

Biocapsules: NASA’s Major Medical Breakthrough

For obvious reasons, most people don’t think of NASA when it comes to medical innovation. But the remarkable obstacles that the agency faces regularly – such as keeping human beings alive and well against the punishing conditions of space – make it uniquely equipped for developing game-changing new technologies.

The most recent and promising of these achievements is the NASA Biocapsule, a very humble looking device (see image below) that may revolutionize the way we do medicine back on Earth. Gizmodo, a popular tech site, reports:

Picture this: An astronaut is going to Mars. The round-trip journey will take between two and three years. During that time, the astronaut will not have access to a doctor, and there’s a lot that can go wrong with the human body in space. So, prior to launch, the astronaut is implanted with a number of NASA Biocapsules. A very small incision is made in the astronaut’s skin for each Biocapsule (probably in the thigh), which is implanted subcutaneously. It’s outpatient surgery that requires only local anesthetic and a stitch or two to close the wound. But after it’s complete, the astronaut’s body is equipped to deal with a whole host of problems on its own.
 
One of the primary threats in space is exposure to high levels of radiation. When astronauts travel beyond Low Earth Orbit (i.e., to the Moon or Mars), they are at risk of acute radiation exposure from “solar particle events,” sudden releases of intense radiation from the sun, which can damage bone marrow and wipe out someone’s immune system. That’s where the NASA Biocapsule kicks in: It could be filled with cells that sense the increased levels of radiation and automatically disperse medicine to help the body compensate.
 
This isn’t science fiction. We already use a hormone called G-CSF (Granulocyte colony-stimulating factor) to treat cancer patients who are receiving radiation treatment. So it was a very small jump to put these cells in a capsule. Without G-CSF, an astronaut’s immune system might not recover; he or she could die of a massive infection.
So before jumping the gun on its Earthly applications, we should recognize that this incredible Biocapsule will make long-term space travel more feasible than ever before.
 
One of the biggest and most persistent challenges to manned space exploration has been to ensure the safety and well-being of the astronauts. Not only are their deaths or injuries obviously tragic in their own right, but they tend to fatally erode enthusiasm for space flight and funding. Now we’ll have a better chance of protecting our astronauts, voyaging to further destinations, and keeping the public at ease.
The Biocapsules aren’t one-shot deals. Each capsule could be capable of delivering many metred doses over a period of years. There is no “shelf-life” to the Biocapsules. They are extremely resilient, and there is currently no known enzyme that can break down their nanostructures. And because the nanostructures are inert, they are extremely well-tolerated by the body. The capsules’ porous natures allow medication to pass through their walls, but the nanostructures are strong enough to keep the cells in one place. Once all of the cells are expended, the Biocapsule stays in the body, stable and unnoticed, until it is eventually removed by a doctor back on Earth.
 
While the treatment of radiation-effects in space is NASA’s no. 1 application for the Biocapsule, different capsules will be created to combat different threats. Heat, exhaustion, and sleep-deprivation are serious risks on an EVA (a “spacewalk”), and astronauts are usually on a very tight schedule. Different capsules can be created that contain unique triggers and treatments for different stress-factors. Naturally, DARPA has expressed a huge interest in the Biocapsules for potential military applications. But there are far loftier things planned for us Earthlings.
I know it’s a cliché response, but this really is something out of science fiction. Imagine a tiny, barely noticeable device within your body that protects you from almost any conceivable threat, that does not expire, and that can work for several years before being easily replaced by minor outpatient surgery. It’s incredible that something like this hasn’t gotten more attention yet.
 
Now on to the medical applications I was getting excited about:
The capsule would contain pancreatic islet cells (from animals) or would contain engineered cells designed to behave like pancreatic islet cells, with both glucose-sensing and insulin secretion function. Patients with low-insulin requirement might benefit from implantation of a single capsule (containing perhaps a million to 10 million cells); patients with higher insulin requirement might require implantation of more than one capsule.
 
In other words, diabetes patients might never need to give themselves another shot. They wouldn’t have to worry about remembering to bring medicine everywhere, and they might even be free of having to constantly monitor their blood-sugar levels. Plus, many diabetes patients lapse into comas or die during sleep because that’s eight hours every day when they can’t monitor their levels. The NASA Biocapsules would work automatically, regardless of whether you’re awake or not. As of 2010 there were an estimated 285 million people living with diabetes, so saying that this invention could potentially save millions of lives is not an exaggeration.
But wait, there’s more:
Secondary “terrestrial” applications include cancer treatment (especially brain cancer). A Biocapsule implanted directly into a tumor bed could deliver very high doses of chemotherapy right to the area where it is needed—and it would greatly reduce side effects by minimizing the amount of medication that gets to other sites in the body. There are also important applications in gene therapy.
 
Some children are born missing a gene, or are born with a defective gene. As a result, they can’t make a needed protein. Hemophilia is a classic example. These patients are missing an important blood coagulation protein. The biocapsule could be used to implant cells that are engineered to release the missing protein. Successful therapy would mean that the patients are spared the need to receive periodic injections. Patients would be safely protected by the protein released from the capsule, and they would be able to lead more normal lives.
 
During our visit, we asked Dr. Loftus if there could be applications for severe allergy sufferers. Many people have potentially deadly allergies (to bees, to nuts, etc.) that could send them into anaphylactic shock, and they have to carry a shot of epinephrine (an “EpiPen”) in case of exposure. He said that was very much a possibility, and implementing that technology into the biocapsule would be relatively very simple. He even credited us with coming up with the idea, so in the future when you get stung by a bee and don’t die, you’re welcome, from Gizmodo.
So even if the gene therapy that I’ve been touting doesn’t come to fruition, there is still the amazingly versatile Biocapsule, which can easily be customized to address a wide-range of health problems. Science is never satisfied with tackling just one problem, let alone coming up with just one solution. It’s amazing to think that a technology that was developed to meet a very specific need could spillover to benefit the lives of hundreds of millions of people, if not more. In fact, it already seems commercially viable.
Given all of these applications (and there are many more), it’s not a stretch to say that the NASA Biocapsule could change the face of medicine forever. They are inexpensive and (as you can see in the video) extremely easy to create. The vacuum sucks carbon nanotubes into the mold, you slide the capsule off the mold, you fill it with cells, and then you cap it off either using more nanotubes or a protein glue. Easy as pie. They are scheduled to begin animal trials this year and next, and human trials would begin shortly after that. If all goes well we would likely see these implanted in International Space Station astronauts sometime this decade, and while it’s always a wild guess, Dr. Loftus thinks we could realistically see widespread usage on Earth within 10 to 15 years.
You can see the video in the original article or below:
 
 
Keep in mind that this amazing machine came out of the same agency that’s facing austerity and public indifference (albeit mostly directed at the shuttle program and flights into outer space). Imagine what more we could accomplish if most of society was willing to make the investment.
 
I can easily see this apparatus becoming a standard for everyone. Think of what it can do to people ravaged by otherwise treatable diseases in third world countries, or for the impoverished and elderly in our society. Of course, inventing such solutions tend to be the easy part – developing the ethical, economic, and political means to ensure they actually go to the people that need them is a different story.
 
Still, as far as most innovations go, this one seems to have few noticeable caveats so far. Obviously, we’ll have to wait and see how the coming trials work out. But as always, I’m very excited to see a world where millions of people will live longer and happier lives thanks to the persistence and potency of the human mind.
 
To learn more about the Biocapsule’s incredible inventor, Dr. David Loftus, click here for his contact info. Needless to say, this man and his collaborators must be extremely proud of what they’ve done. I can imagine no greater feeling than learning that you may have just saved the lives of hundreds of millions of people. It’s an achievement few people could ever reach.

Saturn in Ultraviolet Light

For a much larger and more stunning display, click here (I highly recommend it). I originally discovered this image by accident on Wikimedia.org, which is apparently a great resource for all sorts of photos – it’s amazing where a minor typo will take you!

This gorgeous image – which is the first planet that I’ve ever seen in UV – was taken by the Hubble Telescope, which has it’s own very own NASA-sponsored website. It’s a pretty great site, and it includes an amazing gallery of photos that are available for download as wallpaper.

Take the time to explore it and marvel at the wonders of space – and our amazing ability to get a glimpse of it like never before.

The Blue Marble

Over at Why Evolution Is True, blogger Jerry Coyne shared a gorgeous image of our planet from NASA’s Suomi satellite, an Earth-observer that is providing the most high-definition images of Earth thus far. You can find a massive version here, which makes for a great desktop, if you give it some time to load.

Be sure to check out more of Suomi’s gorgeous offerings here. We truly live in a beautiful universe. It’s hard to believe that this is my planet, that somewhere within this image is humanity and all its various activities, dealings, and problems. I know it’s a cliche observation, but it’s truly jarring how insignificant we look from here. To think that an astronaut looking out from space could lift his thumb up and block the whole of Earth with it.

I love my universe.

Water on Mars?

It’s an exciting prospect, and not an entirely new one: as amateur astronomers like myself are aware, there’s been talk of a once abundant water supply on mars for some time, starting with NASA’s Mariner 9 space orbiter, which was the first to discover indirect evidence of the presence of water  (circa 1971). There is clear evidence of water being present in frozen – and to a lesser degree, vaporous – states as well. There may have even once been rivers, oceans, and other bodies of water on mars, as this artistic rendering – based on geological data – depicts:

It looks like it'd be a nice place to live, albeit with a lot of adjustments.

However, it’s long been known that whatever the presence or abundance of water in the past, Mars currently cannot support liquid water in any sustainable way. It’s pressure and temperature are far too low, leading to almost immediate freezing. There is still a question as to where all the presumed water from the planet’s past went to, as what remains detectable in the ice caps is far too low to account for it all (many researchers have suggested that there is water, in some form or another, beneath the surface of the planet).

So with all this established, what’s the big deal about this latest finding? Well, it suggests that water does in fact exist in liquid form, at least for some amount of time. Apparently, the Martian summer, previously considered to mild to have any sort of melting effect, has at least in some areas been able to cause seasonal melting. As the article linked before notes:

At a few spots, the meager warmth of martian summer seems able to coax enough liquid water out of the ground to darken the soil in streaks. The marks, which sometimes number in the hundreds, grow downhill hundreds of meters only to fade with the winter cold. And where there is liquid water, as they say, there could be life.

The bold was added on my part, and it emphasizes what I am most excited about. Now, I’m well aware that this is still a very new discovery, and that the possibility of life on Mars, which has long held promise only to disappoint, is still a distant prospect. But I’m still anxiously awaiting any more new information we can find about this fascinating and enigmatic planet. As for most humans throughout history, Mars has always captivated me. Aside from it’s geological and astronomical beauty, I find it’s teases about harboring of life – or at least the potential for ife – irresistible. I’m also a big fan of the idea of terraforming the planet some time in the future, albeit the very distant future – it’s far too costly both financial and technologically, to say nothing of political coordination that would need to be involved.

All of this makes me very excited about the rise of new space powers like China, India, and even Brazil. I really hope the US and other developed nations, grappling with issues about public spending and austerity, somehow manage to rekindle their space exploring ambitions (indeed, this recent discovery was courtesy of the beleaguered NASA). I’m saddened by the the growing perception that outer space exploration is going to fall out of favor, though I hold out hope for the apparent trend of privately-led and funded space exploration efforts (which by the way should consist of more than just the popularly received spacecraft, but telescopes and orbiters as well).

Sure enough, just as I write this, another new discovery being embarked on in advance: NASA just launched the Juno probe in the hopes of gleaning more information on the gas giant Jupiter (the name is rather creative as well, since Juno was Jupiter’s wife in Roman mythology, and was able to see through his veil and uncover his goings-on behind it). It pleases me to see space exploration continue on despite tough times for funding and government spending. I can’t wait for the outcome of this one (which I’ll no doubt be blogging about).

I personally believe that as humankind begins to understand the mechanics and details of this planet, it’ll be coaxed into the vast unknown that beckons. Many may grimly add, as some scientists have, the are current abuse of the planet, if unabated, will anyway require us to look to space for a new home (a popular trope in science fiction for a reason). In any case, the great and big universe that surrounds us, be it near or far, will await us. In the mean time, I will keep dreaming, and can only hope that I’ll live long enough to see space travel become the norm, or Mars become the site of a future human civilization.