Say goodbye to your mouse and keyboard

May 24, 2012

Leap Motion is a California-based startup developing advanced motion sensing technology for human-computer interaction.

This week, they publicly announced their first product – the Leap.

Leap is a small iPod-sized USB peripheral that creates a 3D interaction space of 8 cubic feet to precisely interact with and control software on your laptop or desktop computer.

Russian Space Chief: “We’re Talking About Establishing Permanent Bases” On the Moon

May 23, 2012

The Global Space Exploration Conference is taking place this week in Washington DC. The heads of space agencies for Europe, Canada and Russia – along with senior representatives from the Indian and Japanese space agencies – are meeting to discuss the benefits of international collaboration.

Vladimir Popovkin, head of Roscosmos, yesterday stated Russia’s commitment to pursuing extensive, long-term operations on the Moon’s surface: “We’re not talking about repeating what mankind achieved 40 years ago,” he said. “We’re talking about establishing permanent bases.”

Similarly, JAXA, the Japanese Space Agency, issued a clear statement about targeting the Moon. “We are looking at the Moon as our next target for human exploration,” said Yuichi Yamaura, an associate executive director.

Interestingly, NASA administrator Charles Bolden was absent from the conference. This is because he was in Florida, watching the launch of Falcon 9 to the International Space Station.

Recent evidence of water at the Lunar poles has increased interest in the Moon. Polar colonies could also avoid the problem of long Lunar nights (about 354 hours, a little more than two weeks) and take advantage of the Sun continuously.

Hearts damaged by cardiac arrest could be repaired with stem cells

May 23, 2012

Israeli scientists have turned skin cells from heart failure patients into new, healthy heart muscle cells.

The study, which was published in the European Heart Journal, took skin cells from patients and re-programmed them to become stem cells capable of becoming heart muscle. They were then shown to integrate with existing heart tissue in rats.

This opens up the possibility of literally mending broken hearts. Since the reprogrammed cells would be obtained directly from the patients themselves, it could also avoid the problem of their immune systems rejecting the cells as “foreign.”

Professor Lior Gepstein, who led the research, said: “What is new and exciting about our research is that we have shown that it’s possible to take skin cells from an elderly patient with advanced heart failure and end up with his own beating cells in a laboratory dish that are healthy and young – the equivalent to the stage of his heart cells when he was just born.”

However, the team warns that there are a number of obstacles to overcome before it would be possible to use stem cells in humans in this way, and it could take 5-10 years before clinical trials begin.

This is nevertheless an important breakthrough, and the procedure may eventually help countless people who survive heart attacks but are severely debilitated by damage to the organ.

SpaceX launches Falcon 9 on historic mission

May 22, 2012

2011 witnessed the final Space Shuttle mission to the International Space Station (ISS) and the subsequent retirement of the fleet. Two private companies – SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corporation – were selected to provide cargo delivery services to the station until 2015, under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program.

SpaceX developed the Falcon 9 – a medium-lift rocket with payload capacity of 10,450 kilograms (23,000 lb). Today, it became the first 100% commercially developed launcher to deliver a payload to the International Space Station.

NASA’s administrator Charles Bolden said: “Today marks the beginning of a new era in exploration… The significance of this day cannot be overstated; a private company has launched a spacecraft to the International Space Station that will attempt to dock there for the first time. And while there is a lot of work ahead to successfully complete this mission, we are certainly off to a good start.”

In 2013, SpaceX is planning to test a much larger rocket, with over twice the capacity of the Space Shuttle – the Falcon Heavy.

Video from NewsyScience:

Biodiversity declines as global consumption reaches all-time high

May 16, 2012

• We are consuming 50 per cent more natural resources than our planet can sustainably produce

Ever-growing demand for resources is putting huge pressure on the Earth’s biodiversity, threatening our future security and well-being, according to the Living Planet Report 2012, released yesterday by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).

The biennial survey of the Earth’s health, produced in collaboration with the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and Global Footprint Network, was launched from the International Space Station by WWF Ambassador and Dutch Astronaut, André Kuipers.

“We only have one Earth. From up here I can see humanity’s footprint, including forest fires, air pollution and erosion – challenges which are reflected in this edition of the Living Planet Report,” said Kuipers from his European Space Agency mission. “While there are unsustainable pressures on the planet, we have the ability to save our home, not only for our benefit, but for generations to come.”

Among the report’s key findings:

• The global Living Planet Index (LPI) has declined by up to 30% since 1970.
• It is currently taking 1.5 years for the Earth to absorb the CO2 and regenerate the renewable resources that people use within one year
• 2.7 billion people live in areas which have severe water shortages for at least one month of the year
• The per capita “ecological footprint” of a high income country such as the USA is currently six times greater than a low income country such as Indonesia
• The UK has risen four places from 31st to 27th place in the report’s global consumption ranking
• The top 10 countries with the biggest ecological footprint per person are: Qatar, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Denmark, the USA, Belgium, Australia, Canada, Netherlands and Ireland

According to the global Living Planet Index, declines in biodiversity are highest in low income countries – demonstrating how the poorest and most vulnerable nations are suffering the impacts of wealthier countries’ lifestyles and resource demands.

David Nussbaum, CEO of WWF-UK: “In the UK, rather like the calm at the eye of a storm, we don’t yet see much of the impact of our daily lives on the environment. But we can’t ignore the damage being done elsewhere in the world by the whirlwind consumerism of wealthy countries.

“We’re now in the danger zone, exceeding the planetary boundaries for natural capital. If we continue to use up our planet’s resources faster than it can replace them, soon we’ll have exploited every available corner of the Earth.”

Jonathan Baillie, conservation programme director with the Zoological Society of London said: “This report is like a planetary check-up and the results indicate we have a very sick planet. Ignoring this diagnosis will have major implications for humanity.”

This year’s Living Planet Report has been released to coincide with the Rio+ 20 Summit, taking place in Brazil from 20-22 June.

In 1992, world leaders came together to put in place systems to ensure that we tackled climate change and addressed falling biodiversity levels. Twenty years on from the last Earth Summit, this meeting is a key opportunity for global leaders to renew their commitment to creating a sustainable future.

“With every day of inaction, we limit the choices for future generations,” said David Nussbaum. “If we keep running down the stock of natural capital, we’ll hand them a world less able to sustain life and absorb environmental shocks. Since the original Earth Summit, we’ve taken some steps forward, but the pace is glacial. So Rio+20 needs to elevate the urgency of action on the scale needed: now is our chance to reflect whether the future we’re creating for our planet is the legacy we want to leave for future generations.”

WWF is calling on the public to show that they care about the planet’s future in advance of Rio+20. To join in with the campaign, visit: www.earthbook2012.org

Transit of Venus

May 16, 2012

Next month, people around the globe will have a chance to witness one of the rarest astronomical events – a transit of Venus.

This phenomenon occurs when Venus passes directly between the Sun and Earth, becoming visible against (and hence obscuring a small portion of) the solar disk. During a transit, Venus can be seen from Earth as a small black disk moving across the face of the Sun.

A transit is similar to a solar eclipse by the Moon. While the diameter of Venus is almost four times that of the Moon, it appears smaller and travels more slowly across the face of the Sun, because it is obviously much farther away from Earth.

The most recent transit was on 8th June 2004, and before that, 6th December 1882. After the 5th June 2012 transit, the next one will not occur until 11th December 2117.

For a map of global visibility during the event, click here. More info can be found at the NASA website and also transitofvenus.org.

Past and future transits of Venus

9th December 1874
6th December 1882
8th June 2004
5th June 2012
11th December 2117
8th December 2125

First gene therapy against aging is successful: mouse lifespan extended by 24% with a single treatment

May 15, 2012

Studies have shown it is possible to lengthen the average lifespan of many species, including mammals, by acting on specific genes. To date, however, this has meant altering genes permanently from the embryonic stage – an approach impracticable in humans.

Now, researchers at the Spanish National Cancer Research Centre (CNIO), led by its director María Blasco, have demonstrated that the mouse lifespan can be extended in adult life by a single treatment acting directly on the animal’s genes. And they have done so using gene therapy, a strategy never before employed to combat aging. This therapy has been found to be safe and effective in mice.

The results are published in the journal EMBO Molecular Medicine. The CNIO team, in collaboration with scientists from the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB), treated adult (one year old) and aged (two year old) mice, with gene therapy delivering a “rejuvenating” effect in both cases, according to the authors.

Mice treated at the age of one lived longer by 24% on average, and those treated at the age of two, by 13%. Furthermore, the therapy produced a significant improvement in the animals’ health – delaying the onset of age-­related diseases like osteoporosis and insulin resistance – and improving their neuromuscular coordination.

The gene therapy itself treated mice with a DNA-­modified virus, the viral genes replaced by those of a telomerase enzyme with a key role in aging. Telomerase repairs the tips of chromosomes, known as telomeres, and in doing so slows the cell’s and therefore the body’s biological clock. When the animal is infected, the virus acts as a vehicle depositing the telomerase gene in the cells.

This study proves “it is possible to develop a telomerase-­based anti-­aging gene therapy without increasing the incidence of cancer,” the authors affirm. “Aged organisms accumulate damage in their DNA due to telomere shortening. [This study] finds that a gene therapy based on telomerase production can repair or delay this kind of damage,” they add.

Telomeres are the “caps” that protect the end of chromosomes, but they cannot do so indefinitely: each time the cell divides the telomeres get shorter, until they are so short that they lose all functionality. The cell, as a result, stops dividing and ages or dies. Telomerase gets around this by preventing telomeres from shortening or even rebuilding them. What it does, in essence, is stop or reset the cell’s biological clock.

But in most cells the telomerase gene is only active before birth; the cells of an adult organism, with few exceptions, have no telomerase. The exceptions in question are adult stem cells and cancer cells, which divide limitlessly and are therefore immortal – several studies have, in fact, shown that telomerase expression is the key to the immortality of tumour cells.

It is precisely this risk of tumour development that has set back the investigation of telomerase-based anti-aging therapies.

In 2007, Blasco’s group demonstrated that it was feasible to prolong the lives of transgenic mice, whose genome had been permanently altered at the embryonic stage, by causing their cells to express telomerase and extra copies of cancer-resistant genes. These animals lived 40% longer, without developing cancer.

Mice given the new gene therapy now under test are likewise free of cancer. Researchers believe this is because the therapy begins when the animals are adult, so do not have time to accumulate sufficient numbers of abnormal divisions for tumours to appear.

Bosch also states: “Because the vector we use expresses the target gene (telomerase) over a long period, we were able to apply a single treatment. This might be the only practical solution for an anti-aging therapy, since other strategies would require the drug to be administered over the patient’s lifetime, multiplying the risk of adverse effects.”

Asteroid Mining: Science or Fiction?

May 14, 2012

The goal – trillions in riches from asteroids – has now been verified. But what obstacles and milestones stand along our 20 year path? In this video, astronomer and sci-fi author David Brin lays out some preliminary points to consider.

Teleportation breakthrough

May 13, 2012

Quantum teleportation is the transmission of information from one particle to another, without a physical link, using quantum physics. Einstein famously described this as “spooky action at a distance”.

The process was first demonstrated by Austrian scientists in 1997, when the quantum state of a single photon was teleported across a table top. This was followed in 2004 by successful transmission over 600m (1968ft) from one side of the River Danube to the other.
Another breakthrough was made in 2010, when scientists at China’s University of Science and Technology sent photons over a distance of 10 miles (16 km).

Now, the same team has used quantum teleportation to send photons between two optical free-space links over a distance of 60 miles (97 km). The particles were beamed across Qinghai Lake, the largest lake in China.

In the future, perhaps a global network of satellite-based quantum cryptography will be developed, for ultra-secure communications. Using this method, it would be literally impossible for data to be intercepted en route. We may also witness teleportation of the first complex organic molecules (such as DNA and proteins), according to Michio Kaku.

Human teleportation is still a long, long way off however – if such a transportation method is even possible at all. According to a study by the US Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), the information processing and transfer technology required may become possible in around 250 years, based on current trends.

The full report by the University of Science and Technology of China is available here.

First “microsubmarines” to clean oil spills

May 9, 2012

Scientists are reporting successful development and testing of the first self-propelled “microsubmarines” designed to pick up droplets of oil from contaminated waters and transport them to collection facilities. The report concludes that these tiny machines could play an important role in cleaning up oil spills, like the 2010 Deepwater Horizon incident in the Gulf of Mexico.

Different types of microengines are being developed, including devices that could transport medications through the bloodstream to diseased parts of the body. But no one has ever shown that these devices — 10 times thinner than a human hair — could help clean up oil spills. There is an urgent need for better ways of separating oil from water in the oceans and inside factories to avoid spreading oil-contaminated water into the environment.

The team developed so-called microsubmarines, which require very little fuel and move ultrafast, to see whether these small engines could help clean up oil. Tests showed that the cone-shaped microsubmarines can collect droplets of olive oil and motor oil in water and transport them through the water. The microsubs have a special surface coating, which makes them “superhydrophobic,” or extremely water-repellent and oil-absorbent.

“These results demonstrate the potential of the superhydrophobic-modified microsubmarines for facile, rapid and highly efficient collection of oils in oil-contaminated water samples,” say the researchers. The full report appears in the journal ACS Nano.


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