Saturday, September 25, 2021

NASA Releases Interactive Graphic Novel “First Woman”

 


NASA released its first digital, interactive graphic novel on Saturday in celebration of National Comic Book Day. “First Woman: NASA’s Promise for Humanity” imagines the story of Callie Rodriguez, the first woman to explore the Moon.

While Callie’s story is fictional, the first woman and the first person of color will walk on the Moon, achieving these historic milestones as part of NASA’s Artemis missions. Through this graphic novel, NASA aims to inspire the next generation of explorers – the Artemis Generation.

Download, read, and interact with “First Woman” or listen to the audio version exclusively on NASA’s SoundCloud.

“The story of Callie captures how passion, dedication, and perseverance allow us to turn our dreams into reality,” said NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy. “Callie, much like myself, grew her skills, seized learning opportunities, and overcame challenges to become a NASA astronaut. Her diversity is reflected in our own astronaut corps today – it's important we can see ourselves as the explorers among the stars.”

The 40-page comic book highlights NASA technologies for traveling to, landing on, and exploring the Moon. The digital format comes to life, letting readers engage and interact through augmented reality elements using the First Woman website or their mobile devices.

Readers can download the First Woman application for Android or iOS to explore life-sized environments and 3D objects, including NASA’s Orion spacecraft and the lunar surface. Additional content includes videos, games, challenges to earn collector badges, and ways to virtually participate in NASA missions.

“We crafted this graphic novel and digital ecosystem to share NASA’s work in a different and exciting way,” said Derek Wang, director of communications for the Space Technology Mission Directorate at the agency’s Headquarters in Washington. “We set out to make the content both engaging and accessible. From space fans of all ages to hardworking educators looking for new ways to get students excited about STEM, we hope that there is something for everyone to enjoy.”

NASA plans to release a Spanish version of the first issue of the comic book, “From Dream to Reality,” on the website in the future.

Source/Credit: NASA

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Thursday, September 23, 2021

Vampire bats may coordinate with ‘friends’ over a bite to eat

 

Photo: Sherri and Brock Fenton
Vampire bats that form bonds in captivity and continue those “friendships” in the wild also hunt together, meeting up over a meal after independent departures from the roost, according to a new study.

Researchers attached tiny “backpack” computers to 50 vampire bats – some that had previously been in captivity together and others that had lived only in the wild – to track their movement during their nightly foraging outings. By day, the bats shared a hollow tree in Panama, and at night they obtained their meals by drinking blood from wounds they made on cows in nearby pastures.

Tracking data showed that vampire bats set out to forage separately rather than as a group – and those that had established social relationships would reunite during the hunt for what the researchers speculated was some sort of coordination over food.

The findings suggest “making friends” in the roost could create more interdependence among socially bonded vampire bats – meaning they could benefit from each other’s success at obtaining blood meals and join forces when competing with other groups of bats for food resources.

“Everything we’ve been studying with vampire bats has looked at what they’re doing inside of a roost. What nobody has really known up until now is whether these social relationships serve any function outside the roost,” said study co-author Gerald Carter, assistant professor of evolution, ecology and organismal biology at The Ohio State University.

“Understanding their interactions with a completely different group of bats out on the pasture can help us understand what’s going on inside the colony. If every time they leave the roost they’re getting into battles, that can increase the amount of cooperation within the colony.”

Co-author Simon Ripperger, a former postdoctoral researcher in Carter’s lab, later supplemented the tracking data by capturing video and audio of foraging vampire bats. He observed bats clustered together on one cow and others atop separate cows, some drinking from different wounds and some fighting over food access. He also made what are likely the first audio recordings of a specific type of vampire bat vocalization associated with foraging.

An experimental loop for simulating nuclear reactors in space

 
Will Searight is conducting research in nuclear thermal propulsion,
which could enable faster and more efficient space travel.
Image: ISTOCK/@3DSCULPTOR
Nuclear thermal propulsion, which uses heat from nuclear reactions as fuel, could be used one day in human spaceflight, possibly even for missions to Mars. Its development, however, poses a challenge. The materials used must be able to withstand high heat and bombardment of high-energy particles on a regular basis.

Will Searight, a nuclear engineering doctoral student at Penn State, is contributing to research that could make these advancements more feasible. He published findings from a preliminary design simulation in Fusion Science and Technology, a publication of the American Nuclear Society. 

To better investigate nuclear thermal propulsion, Searight simulated a small-scale laboratory experiment known as a hydrogen test loop. The setup mimics a reactor's operation in space, where flowing hydrogen travels through the core and propels the rocket — at temperatures up to nearly 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit. Searight developed the simulation using dimensions from detailed drawings of tie tubes, the components that make up much of the test loop through which hydrogen flows. Industry partner Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation (USNC) provided the drawings.

“Understanding how USNC’s components behave in a hot hydrogen environment is crucial to bringing our rockets to space,” Searight said. “We’re thrilled to be working with one of the main reactor contractors for NASA’s space nuclear propulsion project, which is seeking to produce a demonstration nuclear thermal propulsion engine within a decade.”

Advised by Leigh Winfrey, associate professor and undergraduate program chair of nuclear engineering, Searight used Ansys Fluent, a modeling software, to design a simulation loop from a stainless-steel pipe with an outer diameter of about two inches. In the model, the loop connects to a hydrogen pump and circulates hot hydrogen through a test section adjacent to a heating element. 

Peering into the Moon's shadows

The 17 newly studied craters and depressions are located near the South Pole. While the smallest of these regions (region 11) has a size of only 0.18 square kilometers, the largest (region 9) measures 54 square kilometers. Region 9 is not located in the section of the south polar region shown here, but a bit further to the North, in Schrödinger Basin. The representations of the lunar surface shown here are based on altimeter data from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. 
Credit: MPS/University of Oxford/NASA Ames Research Center/FDL/SETI Institute

The Moon’s polar regions are home to craters and other depressions that never receive sunlight. Today, a group of researchers led by the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research (MPS) in Germany present the highest-resolution images to date covering 17 such craters in the journal Nature Communications. Craters of this type could contain frozen water, making them attractive targets for future lunar missions, and the researchers focused further on relatively small and accessible craters surrounded by gentle slopes. In fact, three of the craters have turned out to lie within the just-announced mission area of NASA's Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER), which is scheduled to touch down on the Moon in 2023. Imaging the interior of permanently shadowed craters is difficult, and efforts so far have relied on long exposure times resulting in smearing and lower resolution. By taking advantage of reflected sunlight from nearby hills and a novel image processing method, the researchers have now produced images at 1-2 meters per pixel, which is at or very close to the best capability of the cameras.

The Moon is a cold, dry desert. Unlike the Earth, it is not surrounded by a protective atmosphere and water which existed during the Moon’s formation has long since evaporated under the influence of solar radiation and escaped into space. Nevertheless, craters and depressions in the polar regions give some reason to hope for limited water resources. Scientists from MPS, the University of Oxford and the NASA Ames Research Center have now taken a closer look at some of these regions.

Winged microchip is smallest-ever human-made flying structure

 

Northwestern University engineers have added a new capability to electronic microchips: flight.

About the size of a grain of sand, the new flying microchip (or “microflier”) does not have a motor or engine. Instead, it catches flight on the wind — much like a maple tree’s propeller seed — and spins like a helicopter through the air toward the ground.

By studying maple trees and other types of wind-dispersed seeds, the engineers optimized the microflier’s aerodynamics to ensure that it — when dropped at a high elevation — falls at a slow velocity in a controlled manner. This behavior stabilizes its flight, ensures dispersal over a broad area and increases the amount of time it interacts with the air, making it ideal for monitoring air pollution and airborne disease.

As the smallest-ever human-made flying structures, these microfliers also can be packed with ultra-miniaturized technology, including sensors, power sources, antennas for wireless communication and embedded memory to store data.

The research is featured on the cover of the Sept. 23 issue of Nature.

“Our goal was to add winged flight to small-scale electronic systems, with the idea that these capabilities would allow us to distribute highly functional, miniaturized electronic devices to sense the environment for contamination monitoring, population surveillance or disease tracking,” said Northwestern’s John A. Rogers, who led the device’s development. “We were able to do that using ideas inspired by the biological world. Over the course of billions of years, nature has designed seeds with very sophisticated aerodynamics. We borrowed those design concepts, adapted them and applied them to electronic circuit platforms.”

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Rates of infectious disease linked to authoritarian attitudes and governance

 

According to psychologists, in addition to our physiological immune system we also have a behavioral one: an unconscious code of conduct that helps us stay disease-free, including a fear and avoidance of unfamiliar – and so possibly infected – people.

When infection risk is high, this “parasite stress” behavior increases, potentially manifesting as attitudes and even voting patterns that champion conformity and reject “foreign outgroups” – core traits of authoritarian politics.

A new study, the largest yet to investigate links between pathogen prevalence and ideology, reveals a strong connection between infection rates and strains of authoritarianism in public attitudes, political leadership and lawmaking.

While data used for the study predates COVID-19, University of Cambridge psychologists say that greater public desire for “conformity and obedience” as a result of the pandemic could ultimately see liberal politics suffer at the ballot box. The findings are published in the Journal of Social and Political Psychology.

Researchers used infectious disease data from the United States in the 1990s and 2000s and responses to a psychological survey taken by over 206,000 people in the US during 2017 and 2018. They found that the more infectious US cities and states went on to have more authoritarian-leaning citizens.

Electric Bees

 
Image: Pexels
New research has found that the electrical charge created by visiting bumblebees stimulates some flowers to release more of their sweet-smelling scent. This is the first time a plant has been shown to use the presence of pollinators as a cue to emit more of its attractive perfume - increasing its chances of being visited.

The tiny electrical charge carried by bees is thought to help pollen stick to them during flight but the team of researchers from the University of Bristol, Rothamsted Research, and Cardiff University found that it can also announce their presence to the flowers they visit. 

According to lead author, Dr Clara Montgomery, who was funded by the BBSRC, the trait possibly evolved in plants to maximize the effectiveness of the attractive chemicals they release. 

“Flowers have a limited supply of these scents, so it makes sense they only release them when their pollinators are around.  Essentially, it is only worth advertising when you know you have an audience. Other cues they might use, such as daylight or temperature can be unreliable, as it might also be windy or raining, which would reduce pollinator presence. 

“These scents are also used by insects that want to eat or lay eggs on the plant, so increasing their chances of only attracting pollinators is vital.”  

Monday, September 20, 2021

Physicists probe light smashups to guide future research

 
The Compact Muon Solenoid experiment at the
European Organization for Nuclear Research’s
Large Hadron Collider.
Photo courtesy of CERN
Hot on the heels of proving an 87-year-old prediction that matter can be generated directly from light, Rice University physicists and their colleagues have detailed how that process may impact future studies of primordial plasma and physics beyond the Standard Model.

“We are essentially looking at collisions of light,” said Wei Li, an associate professor of physics and astronomy at Rice and co-author of the study published in Physical Review Letters.

Rice physicists teamed with colleagues at Europe’s Large Hadron Collider to study matter-generating collisions of light. Researchers showed the departure angle of debris from the smashups is subtly distorted by quantum interference patterns in the light prior to impact. Illustration by 123rf.com

“We know from Einstein that energy can be converted into mass,” said Li, a particle physicist who collaborates with hundreds of colleagues on experiments at high-energy particle accelerators like the European Organization for Nuclear Research’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) and Brookhaven National Laboratory’s Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC).

Accelerators like RHIC and LHC routinely turn energy into matter by accelerating pieces of atoms near the speed of light and smashing them into one another. The 2012 discovery of the Higgs particle at the LHC is a notable example. At the time, the Higgs was the final unobserved particle in the Standard Model, a theory that describes the fundamental forces and building blocks of atoms.

Impressive as it is, physicists know the Standard Model explains only about 4% of the matter and energy in the universe. Li said this week’s study, which was lead-authored by Rice postdoctoral researcher Shuai Yang, has implications for the search for physics beyond the Standard Model.

Coral reef biodiversity predicted to shift as climate changes

 

Experimental set up at HIMB with mesocosms. (Photo credit: Chris Jury)
Coral reefs are among the most biologically diverse, complex and productive ecosystems on the planet. Most of coral reef biodiversity consists of tiny organisms living deep within the three-dimensional reef matrix. Although largely unseen, this diversity is essential to the survival and function of coral reef ecosystems, and many have worried that climate change will lead to dramatic loss of this diversity.

New research led by scientists at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa reveals that the species which dominate experimental coral reef communities shift due to climate change, but the total biodiversity does not decline under future ocean conditions of warming and acidification predicted by the end of the century.

The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

“Rather than the predicted collapse of biodiversity under ocean warming and acidification, we found significant changes in the relative abundance, but not the occurrence of species, resulting in a shuffling of coral reef community structure,” said Molly Timmers, lead author who conducted this study during her doctoral research at the Hawaiʻi Institute of Marine Biology (HIMB) at UH Mānoa’s School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology (SOEST).

Important but overlooked organisms

“The tiny organisms living in the reef structure are known as the cryptobiota, which are analogous to the insects in a rainforest,” said Timmers. “They play essential roles in reef processes such as nutrient cycling, cementation and food web dynamics—they are an important diet of many of the fishes and invertebrates that make coral reef ecosystems so dynamic.”

Despite their critical importance to coral reef ecosystems, these cryptobiota are often overlooked in climate change research due to the challenges associated with surveying them using visual census and in identifying this highly diverse and understudied community.

“As a result, our perceptions of coral reef biodiversity across marine gradients and how biodiversity will respond to climatic change has been primarily based on a handful of observable surface-dwelling taxa, such as corals and fish,” said Timmers.

Experimental designs

To assess the responses of the understudied cryptobiota to future ocean conditions, Timmers and colleagues at HIMB devised an experiment wherein tiered settlement plates were placed in experimental flow-through tanks. These mesocosms received unfiltered seawater from a nearby reef slope off the shore of HIMB and were treated with end-of-the-century predicted ocean warming and/or ocean acidification conditions. After two years of exposure, the team examined the organismal groups that had developed on the settlement plates using DNA metabarcoding techniques.

“This two-year experimental mesocosm study is unprecedented for climate change research and is the first one to examine the diversity of the entire coral reef community from microbes and algae to the corals and fishes,” said Chris Jury, the author who developed and maintained the mesocosm system.

Source/Credit: University of Hawaiʻi

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Major advance in race for SARS-CoV-2 inhibitor drugs

 
Mpro dimer from SARS-CoV-2 in complex with the inhibitory peptide (13)
 following 100 ns of molecular dynamics simulation.
Credit: University of Bristol
A new advance towards the development of drugs specifically designed to inhibit a key SARS-CoV-2 enzyme is reported in the Royal Society of Chemistry's leading journal, Chemical Science. The international team, led by scientists from the Universities of Oxford and Bristol, has designed new peptide molecules and shown that they block (inhibit) the virus’s main protease [Mpro] - a prominent SARS-CoV-2 drug target.

Once SARS-CoV-2 invades a healthy human cell, the virus's own genetic material commandeers the infected cell's machinery, forcing it to make new copies of the virus. A vital step in this viral life cycle involves cutting a very long 'polyprotein' into its constituent viral proteins. SARS-CoV-2 has two molecular machines called protease enzymes that act as 'molecular scissors'. One of these, called the main protease, or 'Mpro' for short, has the vital role of chopping up the polyprotein, cutting it at 11 different places.

In the early days of the pandemic lockdown, Professor Garrett Morris at the University of Oxford, brought together a group of scientists to try to understand Mpro, with the aim of helping develop drugs against COVID-19. Meeting weekly over many months by Zoom, this group combined their computational and experimental expertise, and grew to include scientists from several different countries. From Bristol, this included Professors Adrian Mulholland and Jim Spencer, Dr Deborah Shoemark, PhD student Becca Walters, and other colleagues. Using a wide array of computational molecular modelling techniques including interactive molecular dynamics in virtual reality, quantum mechanics, peptide design and protein-ligand interaction analysis, the scientists were able to build an atomic level picture of the structure, dynamics and interactions of Mpro.

From these models, the team were able to find how the viral Mpro 'molecular scissors' work. They then designed new peptides, which are short pieces of protein, as inhibitors, to bind tightly to Mpro and prevent it from working, stopping the virus dead in its tracks. But did they work?

All 11 protein cut sites and four of these designed peptides were synthesized and tested in the Chemistry Research Laboratory at the University of Oxford. Experiments, led by Professor Chris Schofield at Oxford, showed that the novel peptides - designed by Dr Deborah Shoemark, with software developed in Bristol - not only bound to the molecular scissors, but they outcompeted the natural protein cut sites and so inhibited Mpro.

Adrian Mulholland, Professor of Chemistry at the University of Bristol and one of the study's lead authors, said: "Despite the development of successful vaccines in record time, new antiviral drugs are desperately needed. To date there are no drugs designed specifically to target COVID-19. Computational molecular modelling can really help with this. As we’ve shown here, computational design can produce molecules that actually stop the Mpro enzyme from working."

Dr Deborah Shoemark, Senior Research Associate (Biomolecular Modelling) in the School of Biochemistry, added: "It has been great to work together on this, combining our ideas and methods to get a really detailed picture of how this viral enzyme works – and to design molecules that actually stop it from working. Understanding Mpro specificity provides the potential to exploit vulnerabilities of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that may provide routes to new antivirals."

Professor Mulholland added: "This collaboration has really shown how sharing of models, data and expertise can help get understanding and make progress much more quickly. Garrett (Morris) built a fantastic team, and it has been exciting to work together on this. It’s how science should be done – particularly in the face of pressing problems like the COVID-19 pandemic."

The study was funded through several grants including support from the EPSRC, BBSRC and the Wellcome Trust.

Source/Credit: University of Bristol

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Coral reef biodiversity predicted to shift as climate changes

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