On February 3, one of the strangest things to make its way into orbit will be released by astronauts aboard the International Space Station. It’s an old Russian spacesuit, nicknamed SuitSat, packed with batteries, a radio transmitter, and internal sensors to measure temperature and battery power. The life support systems will be powered down for the duration of the suit’s orbit.
It’s an experiment to see how well using old spacesuits works as a means of protecting sensitive equipment from the hazards of space: excessive temperatures on both ends of the spectrum, and fragments that a satellite is exposed to as they orbit the Earth. If it’s successful, the space agencies will consider using old suits as vehicles for short-lived satellites.
If you’ve got a ham radio or police scanner capable of tuning into 145.990 MHz FM, you can listen to SuitSat transmit information about its current condition to the ground when it passes over your neck of the woods (under Options -> all passes).
“Point your antenna to the sky during the 5-to-10 minute flyby,” advises Bauer, and this is what you’ll hear:
SuitSat transmits for 30 seconds, pauses for 30 seconds, and then repeats. “This is SuitSat-1, RS0RS,” the transmission begins, followed by a prerecorded greeting in five languages. The greeting contains “special words” in English, French, Japanese, Russian, German and Spanish for students to record and decipher.
Next comes telemetry: temperature, battery power, mission elapsed time. “The telemetry is stated in plain language—in English,” says Bauer. Everyone will be privy to SuitSat’s condition. Bauer adds, “Suitsat ‘talks’ using a voice synthesizer. It’s pretty amazing.”
The transmission ends with a Slow Scan TV picture. Of what? “We’re not telling,” laughs Bauer. “It’s a mystery picture.”
The batteries inside SuitSat are expected to last 2-4 days, and shortly thereafter it will fall into the upper atmosphere where it will burn up like things that fall into the atmosphere at high speed tend to do.
Stardust, the probe launched in 1999 to intersect with Comet Wild 2, landed a little less than a week ago, and the preliminary results since then have been quite promising. There have been both large and small impact craters — some large enough to be seen ten feet away. Eventually images of the aerogel will make their way across the Internet to a computer screen near you in the form of Stardust@home (official site) — though I still think it’s a pretty silly “distributed computing” project.
There may be more than a million particles embedded in the aerogel, and the mission is being deemed a success. It certainly is a success, though the life science geek in me would like to see the evidence for extraterrestrial life embedded in the gel, but I suspect that’s asking a little much.
For those of you who like movies and animations, you can check out the Stardust re-entry video. It’s pretty cool; very surreal looking.
I’d file this particular bit of news under the “I’ll believe it when I see it” section if I had one: the Russian Energia Space Corporation has unveiled plans to open a mine on the moon. Helium-3, a non-radioactive helium isotope, is found in relative abundance on the moon whereas here on Earth, it’s extremely rare. The isotope is the ideal fuel for a fusion reaction because of its clean decay and relatively harmless byproducts.
Because it is rare on Earth, having a mine on the moon might be economically viable if it weren’t for one problem: a viable energy-producing fusion reaction has yet to be developed. Nonetheless, Energia will press on with their mining plans: they plan to establish a permanent lunar base by 2015 or 2020. The idea is that when a reactor capable of using Helium-3 is developed, Energia will have the infrastructure already in place to supply the Earth with it. Due to the nature of E=mc^2, Nikolai Sevastyanov, head of Energia, predicts that one ton of the isotope will produce as much energy as 14 millions tons of oil. While I think that’s being a little overly optimistic, Helium-3 certainly offers more promise than current fossil fuels.
“Ten tons of helium 3 would be enough to meet the yearly energy needs of Russia,” he added. However, Russia is not the only country interested in the technology. American scientists have expressed interest in helium 3, arguing that one shuttle-load of the isotope would be sufficient to meet US electrical energy needs for a year.
Even viewing the figures bandied about with a great deal of skepticism, Helium-3 is certainly a promising theory, if nothing else. Mining in space is an interesting (and old) idea. I can remember discussing how to make space profitable from a private business’s point of view as far back as elementary school. Naturally, we thought in terms of precious metals: gold, platinum, etc. instead of consumable materials, but I think it’s a safe bet that as raw materials become increasingly scarce, it won’t be the relatively useless “precious” metals that humanity comes to value, but rather the consumable raw materials that a nation controls that determines their stability. Gold in Fort Knox? How about Helium-3 buried in a mountain somewhere instead.
[tags]Helium-3, Kliper, Energia, lunar base[/tags]
It’s pretty brain-dead obvious that I’ve got a new theme now. I’ve been wanting a nice 3 column theme ever since I began, but there weren’t any worth using until just recently. As you can see, the one I’m using now is not fixed width — which is something I’ve been wanting for a long while. I hacked up the CSS a bit to get it looking the way I want it to, and it’s now on its way to where I want it to be. I can’t decide how to use the right-hand side. I think I’m going to poke around at some websites that I like and see how they use their three columns. I’m thinking that it’ll be used for articles and such. Not sure yet.
There will be more tweaks in the near future.
You know there’s been a lot of talk about climate change lately. There’s a reason for that. It turns out that 2005 was the warmest year in a century.
In order to figure out whether the Earth is cooling or warming, the scientists use temperature data from weather stations on land, satellite measurements of sea surface temperature since 1982, and data from ships for earlier years.
The previous record holder was 1998, when El Niño was in effect. (Remember that?) 2005 takes the cake without any warmer waters from the eastern Pacific. Thus far the warmest years in order are:
There is some controversy over whether or not 2005 was actually the warmest year. Data from groups besides NASA did not take into account the Arctic regions, which were warmer this year than in previous years, bumping 2005 into the lead. Climate change has also been to blame for the ridiculous amount of activity this hurricane season, with a total of 27 tropical storms.
[tags]climate change, global warming, hurricane season[/tags]
Malaria caused by Plasmodium falciparum is one of the leading causes of death in the third world, especially among children. Becoming immune to all of the variations of Plasmodium malaria can take upwards of five years. The reason for this is because of the cloaking capabilities the parasite has evolved over the years. A process called epigenetic silencing allows the Plasmodium to express only one antigenic protein at a time. As there are about 60 genes that can be turned on and off, this means the body must learn to recognize 60 different forms of the same organism.
A distributed computing project out of France aims to tackle drug-discovery for Plasmodium-mediated malaria. Using software developed by the Fraunhofer Institute — the same people that developed the MP3 codec — the project narrows down the list of possible drug candidates to a select few which will be further analyzed by supercomputer.
The project, called Wide In Silico Docking on Malaria (WISDOM) to model 3D structures of proteins from Plasmodium to ligands: the chemical compounds that bind to protein receptors. The massive parallelism was achieved by assigning one ligand to one protein to each node on the grid. Computing the probability of a match can take a few seconds to a few minutes.
The project joins myriad other distributed computing projects in the life sciences, many of which are specifically drug-discovery efforts for diseases ranging from cancer to AIDS to anthrax and even Ebola.
[tags]WISDOM, distributed computing, grid computing, malaria, plasmodium falciparum[/tags]
After a lot of thought and consideration, I have decided to start writing here again. Previously, as I mentioned in my last — and what I thought would be my final post back in October — I’ve been writing for Ars Technica’s Nobel Intent science journal.
I have decided that I want to write for myself again. Not because Ars is a bad place to write and hang out — it’s not, by any means — but because I miss creating something that’s truly mine. As you probably know, I use WordPress to do my publishing here and on my personal blog, and one of the plugins I use is wp-cron in conjunction with another plugin to send me a backup of my database every night. I’ve missed seeing it grow little-by-little. I mentioned on my personal blog back in September that I was reluctant to give up writing for myself. Well, the pull back towards doing my own thing has proved stronger than my desire to be paid for my writing and have a huge number of readers. That’s the entrepreneur coming out in me, I guess.
I don’t regret my time writing for Ars at all. I learned a lot while I was there about doing a thorough job writing and researching. Having a much larger readership forces you to alter the way you write and think about things. Jonathan and Jay are great guys — I don’t regret sharing space with them at all. Truthfully, I wish I had a partner here at polyscience to write alongside me regularly as an equal “owner” if you will.
Anyway, starting today I’ll be back writing for myself, here on polyscience.org. Which I’m very excited about. I don’t intend to give it up again anytime soon.