China to attempt a space first: Landing on the far side of the Moon


The Chang’e-3 probe carried the Yutu rover to the lunar surface in 2013.
CNS

China plans to become the first nation to land a probe on the far side of the Moon, according toXinhua News Agency, the country’s official press organization.

Launching possibly as early as 2018, the mission represents the next step in China’s plans to explore the Moon with robotic probes and, within the next decade, to return a couple of kilograms of lunar material to Earth. The proposed Chang’e-4 probe follows the successful soft landing of the Chang’e-3 probe on the near side of the Moon in December 2013.

Although the new probe was built as the engineering backup to the Chang’e-3 lander, Chinese officials said the structure could handle a larger payload. China plans to use the probe to study “geological conditions” on the far side of the moon. The Chang’e probes are named after the Chinese goddess of the Moon.China has also offered foreign countries the opportunity to participate in its lunar exploration programs. In contrast to NASA, Europe and Russia have both signaled their interest in further studying the Moon and likely landing humans there, before moving on to Mars. Many countries and businesses see potential value in ice at the lunar poles and rare minerals in the lunar soil. The US Congress recently passed a law to legalize the mining of these resources.

Humans have studied the far side of the Moon from above since 1959, when the Soviet Union’s Luna 3 spacecraft returned the first grainy images of its pockmarked surface. But no humans or robotic spacecraft have yet landed there.

Can You Pass a Drug Test While Using Marijuana?

drug testing on The Office

Dwight Schrute hands Michael Scott a clean urinalysis sample on The Office | NBC

In Season 2 of The Office, employee and Volunteer Sheriff’s Deputy Dwight Schrute finds half of a marijuana jointin the parking lot of the office building, and calls for immediate drug testing of the entire staff. Michael Scott, the manager, had been to an Alicia Keys concert two nights before and smoked what he was told were “clove cigarettes” with other concert-goers. When the drug tester shows up to the office, Michael tells Dwight he might have “gotten high accidentally by a girl with a lip ring,” and convinces Dwight to supply him with a sample of clean urine for the test.
What made for a humorous bit on a TV show is a valid concern for many employees across the United States, who can be subjected to random drug testing during the course of their work — especially during a pre-employment ritual for job applicants. Drug testing isn’t as common as it used to be, since research has shown the threat of peeing in a cup doesn’t really improve workplace safety or productivity. However, roughly half of employers still use the practice, with more considering renewed testing in light of relaxed marijuana laws.
As medical marijuana has become legal in many states, and recreational cannabis has been approved in four states and Washington, D.C., employers have started to consider new testing efforts to ensure their employees are showing up sober. The problem is that even if someone isn’t high, remnants of marijuana can still show up for a significant time period after smoking their last joint. While other drugs like alcohol, cocaine, and heroin disappear in your body’s system after a day or so, marijuana can linger for much longer. How long, exactly? Unfortunately, it depends on numerous personal factors.

Marijuana and drug testing: Will you pass?

Female hands rolling a joint

Unfortunately, urinalysis — the most common form of drug testing in most workplaces — does not detect THC, the psychoactive component in marijuana that actually creates the “high.” Instead, it detects nonactive metabolites from the drug, which tend to stay in the body for much longer. Those metabolites are filtered out by your body but are fat-soluble, which take longer to process than water-soluble components. That also means that factors like your weight, diet, and exercise habits can impact how long the remnants of the drug stay in your body, long after the high is gone. Like most drugs, how often you use cannabis products is also a variable.
Even among expert sources, those estimations vary. However, in Michael Scott’s case, it’s very likely that his own urine sample would have given away his crazy night with Alicia Keys and Lip-Ring Girl. Sources like NORML and the National Drug Court Institute report the following estimations:
  • Occasional users (Once per week or less): Stays in system for 1-5 days after the last use
  • Regular users (More than once per week): Stays in system for 1-3 weeks after last use
  • Heavy users (Multiple times per day, or regular use for a prolonged period of time): Can stay in system up to 4-6 weeks after last use
One study found that for some heavy users, marijuana use is detectable for up to 110 days — which is more than three months..  

Doctor holding a bottle of urine sample

If you’re taking a urine test, the lab technician is looking for a certain concentration of those metabolites. Typically, the threshold for a positive test — and likely a rough conversation with your boss — is 50 nanograms per milliliter (ng/ml) or more.
A few things to note: At that level, using the excuse of passive smoking (e.g. “My roommate smoked last night, but I didn’t,”) won’t cut it. Only extreme circumstances — like getting locked in a closet with several heavy pot users for hours at a time — would potentially cause enough exposure to register a positive urine sample. NORML notes that passive smoking could cause positive readings at 25 ng/ml or lower, but it still might not be a valid cause.
Even if you legally smoke marijuana, you could still be fired for a positive test result — no matter which state you live in. With that in mind, it’s your best bet to turn in a clean sample, if you’re given advance notice. Most sites caution you to steer clear of self-advertised “cleansing” products, as most of them aren’t proven to be effective and can be harmful to your health. If you have a few weeks to get clean, the best option is to drink plenty of water, eat lean and healthy foods, and perhaps drink natural diuretics like cranberry juice or coffee.marijuana overdose
NORML advises against using marijuana on the job, but if you need to take a test and used marijuana recently, the site recommends drinking as much water before the test as possible, to dilute the concentration of any marijuana-related metabolites. However, some lab techs will reject a sample if it’s too watery. Taking 50-100 milligrams of vitamin B-2 can help to color the sample so it doesn’t appear too diluted — though it’s not a foolproof solution.

Of course, the safest option is to abstain from marijuana use completely in the weeks leading up to a drug test, so you don’t need to have an uncomfortable conversation with your boss or potential HR manager. Even if you’re using marijuana within the confines of your state and local laws, a positive test result could spell trouble for your career.


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Habitable planet found in solar system next door

An artist's impression of the planet Proxima b, orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri

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An artist’s impression of the planet Proxima b, orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri (AFP Photo/M. Kornmesser)

Paris (AFP) – Scientists Wednesday announced the discovery of an Earth-sized planet orbiting the star nearest our Sun, opening up the glittering prospect of a habitable world that may one day be explored by robots.

Named Proxima b, the planet is in a “temperate” zone compatible with the presence of liquid water — a key ingredient for life.

The findings, based on data collected over 16 years, were reported in the peer-reviewed journal Nature.

“We have finally succeeded in showing that a small-mass planet, most likely rocky, is orbiting the star closest to our solar system,” said co-author Julien Morin, an astrophysicist at the University of Montpellier in southern France.

“Proxima b would probably be the first exoplanet visited by a probe made by humans,” he told AFP.

An exoplanet is any planet outside our Solar System.

Lead author Guillem Anglada-Escude, an astronomer at Queen Mary University London, described the find as the “experience of a lifetime”.

Working with European Southern Observatory telescopes in the north Chilean desert, his team used the so-called Doppler method to detect Proxima b and describe its properties.

The professional star-gazers spent 60 consecutive days earlier this year looking for signs of gravitational pull on its host star, Proxima Centauri.

Regular shifts in the star’s light spectrum — repeating every 11.2 days — gave a tantalising clue.

They revealed that the star alternately moved towards and away from our Solar System at the pace of a leisurely stroll, about five kilometres (three miles) per hour.

– Goldilocks zone –

After cross-checking an inconclusive 2000-2014 dataset and eliminating other possible causes, the researchers determined that the tug of an orbiting planet was responsible for this tiny to-and-fro.

“Statistically, there is no doubt,” Anglada-Escude told journalists in a briefing.

“We have found a planet around Proxima Centauri.”

Proxima b is a mere four light years from the Solar System, meaning that it is essentially in our back yard on the scale of our galaxy, the Milky Way.

It has a mass around 1.3 times that of Earth, and orbits about seven million kilometres (4.35 million miles) from its star.

A planet so near to our Sun — 21 times closer than Earth — would be an unlivable white-hot ball of fire.

But Proxima Centauri is a so-called red dwarf, meaning a star that burns at a lower temperature.

As a result, the newly discovered planet is in a “Goldilocks” sweet spot: neither so hot that water evaporates, nor so cold that it freezes solid.

But liquid water is not the only essential ingredient for the emergence of life.

An atmosphere is also required, and on that score the researchers are still in the dark.

It all depends, they say, on how Proxima b evolved as a planet.

“You can come up with formation scenarios that end up with and Earth-like atmosphere, a Venus-like atmosphere” — 96 percent carbon dioxide — “or no atmosphere at all,” said co-author Ansgar Reiners, an expert on “cold” stars at the University of Goettingen’s Institute of Astrophysics in Germany.

Computer models suggest the planet’s temperature, with an atmosphere, could be “in the range of minus 30 Celsius (-22 Fahrenheit) on the dark side, and 30C (80F) on the light side,” Reiners told journalists.

Like the Moon in relation to Earth, Proxima b is “tidally locked,” with one face always exposed to its star and the other perpetually in shadow.

Emerging life forms would also have to cope with ultraviolet and X-rays bombarding Proxima b 100 times more intensely than on Earth.

– Search for life –

An atmosphere would help deflect these rays, as would a strong magnetic field.

But even high doses of radiation do not preclude life, especially if we think outside the box, scientists say.

“We have to be very open-minded as to what we call ‘life’,” Jean Schneider, an expert on exoplanets at the Observatoire de Paris, told AFP.

Some 3,500 exoplanets have been discovered since the first confirmed sighting in 1995.

Most of these distant worlds — like our own Jupiter and Neptune — are composed of gas, an inhospitable environment for life.

Even the 10 percent that do have rocky surfaces are mostly too cold or too hot to host water in liquid form.

And — until today — the handful that are in a temperate zone are effectively beyond reach.

Last year, for example, NASA unveiled Kepler 452b, a planet about 60 percent larger than Earth that could have active volcanoes, oceans, sunshine like ours, and a year lasting 385 days.

But at a distance of 1,400 light-years, humankind would have little hope of reaching this Earth-twin any time soon.

By comparison, Proxima b is a stone’s throw away, though still too far away for humans to visit with present-generation chemical rockets.

“This is a dream for astronomers if we think about follow up observations,” said Reiners.

Marlowe Hood

This is your brain on pot

Leah Samuel

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Staci Gruber vividly remembers her first hit of marijuana, back when she was in college. It made her so paranoid, she locked herself in a bathroom. She couldn’t decide whether to remain in hiding or to run. But she knew she’d never try pot again.

She didn’t lose interest in the drug, however. Today, she runs the 2-year-old Marijuana Investigations for Neuroscientific Discovery, or MIND, project at McLean Hospital in this suburb of Boston. With cognitive testing and neuroimaging, MIND is conducting a longitudinal study of medical marijuana.

“There’s a lot we don’t know about long-term effects, and that’s what I’m here to find out,” Gruber said.

Gruber, 49, has already made her mark on the field.

She ran a small study, published in 2013, that found teenagers and young adults who smoked marijuana were more likely to exhibit impulsive behavior than their peers and were more likely to have certain changes in the brain’s white matter. A follow-up study found that those changes couldreorganize brain regions associated with inhibitions. This year, Gruber’s research team also found that chronic recreational users of pot had poorer cognitive and executive functioning, particularly if they began using marijuana as teens.

MIND’s current work involves adults who are legally permitted to use marijuana-based products for medical conditions. The researchers are particularly interested in the non-psychoactive components of the marijuana plant, such as cannabidiol, an ingredient in many preparations of medical marijuana.

“We have this one word, marijuana, which we think means every part of the plant, and it doesn’t. The cannabinoids I study aren’t even the ones that get you high,” Gruber said. “But whether you’re for medical marijuana or against it, what we really need is information.”

Marijuana has been studied before. But previous research has focused on the cognitive effects of smoking pot recreationally. Earlier studies of medical marijuana have looked mostly at efficacy — how well it treats symptoms of conditions like multiple sclerosis, cancer, and HIV/AIDS.

Gruber and her colleagues, by contrast, are trying to determine the long- and short-term impact of medical marijuana on cognition, brain structure and function, quality of life, sleep, and other clinical measures.

“[This] is a primary concern for patients considering cannabinoid treatment, and it may have implications for public policy,” Gruber said.

Peering into the brain

The first phase of the MIND study is observational. Before patients begin their treatment, Gruber and her colleagues establish a baseline — using imaging, interviews, and task performance tests — to see what patients’ brains look like before they use medical marijuana.

The patients then record how much marijuana they’re using, and how often. At intervals of three, nine, 12, 18, and 24 months, MIND researchers conduct more tests, brain scans, and interviews to measure the effects of the cannabis on their brain structures, cognition, and daily life.

This is the part of Gruber’s research that will be most valuable, said Madeline Meier, a marijuana researcher at the University of Arizona.

“The most important goal right now is to obtain high-quality data on the potential harms and benefits of cannabis,” Meier said.

There are currently 30 study participants; Gruber plans to enroll up to 200. A separate MIND study will examine military veterans who use cannabinoids.

“People drive two to three hours sometimes to get [here for] the study,” Gruber said. “They’re really committed. They really want to know what effect this will have on them.”

As they wait for long-term results, MIND researchers have made a few interim discoveries. They have found, for example, that marijuana could possibly ease symptoms for people with bipolar disorder and that a medication for strokes and Alzheimer’s disease may reverse the cognitive effects of chronic recreational marijuana use.

Gruber’s earlier findings, raising red flags about the dangers of recreational pot smoking, have caught the eye of some activists, like the Seattle-based drug prevention program SAMA, short for Science and Management of Addictions.

“We brought her out here because she had done this great research on adolescents and THC,” said SAMA president Kim Brackett. “We call her ‘the rock star scientist.’ She has a very nice way of translating scientific information in a way that non-scientists can understand, from grandparents to 8-year-olds.”

New interest in funding research

The patients in MIND’s studies bring their own marijuana products, which Gruber’s team analyzes for potency. Studying marijuana can be challenging because the federal Drug Enforcement Administration classifies it as a Schedule 1 drug, a category reserved for substances with a high potential for addiction and no medicinal value. The DEA recently considered changing that classification — but decided not to.

As a result, the federal government is currently the only approved source of cannabis for clinical trials of medicinal marijuana. “But that’s not what people are using,” said Francesca Filbey, who researches marijuana at the University of Texas at Dallas. “The only way science can study what people do is to let them do it.”

Gruber, Filbey, and several other researchers have formed a consortium, dubbed IDEAA, to pool their research data. Their goal is to make their data widely available, and to get more funding for marijuana research.

“We also hope to do some joint projects — pun intended — that can get funding,” Gruber said. “People are warming up to the idea of marijuana as medicine and funding is opening up.”

For now, Gruber’s project is funded with private donations. The first one came in 2014 when MIND launched with a $500,000 gift to McLean Hospital from Gruber’s wife, crime novelist Patricia Cornwell. The two married in 2006, having met when Cornwell visited McLean to research a book.

“She was asking a lot of really good questions,” said Gruber. “Then I found out she wanted to meet and talk more. We went out for dinner and ended up talking about neuroscience until 2 o’clock in the morning.”

Gruber first came to McLean Hospital in the 1990s to work as a lab assistant while completing two undergraduate degrees at schools 10 miles apart. She majored in psychology at Tufts University in suburban Boston. She was also studying vocal performance and jazz at the New England Conservatory of Music.

“I spent most of those years just running,” Gruber said, shaking her head with the memory. “You look back and wonder, ‘How did I ever do that? I could never do that now.’ I guess that’s what’s great about being young.”

While in college, Gruber landed an internship at McLean in a lab studying the effects of marijuana on college students. “From there,” she said, with a wait-for-it grin, “I was hooked.”

She continued working at McLean while earning graduate degrees in psychology and experimental cognitive neuroscience at Tufts and at Harvard, where she is now an associate professor.

‘It takes emotion and soul’

While Gruber has always loved music, she’s only recently fully embraced that side of herself.

“When I was little, I used to sing in the closet because I was terrified that I wasn’t any good,” she said. “But then I had this music teacher who said, ‘Hey you, you should have a solo.'”

At the conservatory, she fell in love with jazz singing, which she said resonated with her much more than classical arias.

“If you’re not feeling what you’re doing, what’s the point?” she said. “And that’s true in science, too. You can scientifically break down all these parts of music, like tone and pitch, but it takes emotion and a soul to make it real. In science, you can have all the findings in the world, but if you can’t communicate them, what good are they?”

Today, Gruber has a home studio and a Youtube channel for her music, which includes covers of popular songs along with her own compositions. And she has recorded two CDs.

“It’s okay to not be comfortable 100 percent of the time,” Gruber added. “You have to put yourself out there, to sing and be true and be you.”

That is no more than what she asks of study subjects, she explained.

“The whole point of this is getting people to tell the truth, sometimes about illegal activity, so they have to trust you,” she said. “I don’t know that I would be able to do studies like this if I couldn’t connect with people.”

 


How to Smoke Weed: A Beginner’s Guide

In case you’re interested..JK Simmons Smoking Weed

When first smoking, feel free to giggle your ass off and gorge on Oreos. But please, if you continue, learn some dignity.

The decidedly uphill battle to legalize marijuana, medical or otherwise, is likely to be with us for decades to come. Legislating morality in our country (and in human societies down through the ages) has always been fraught. As we have seen, even if marijuana is legal in some localities, that doesn’t mean the feds won’t shut down licensed operations, as I discovered woefully when the owners of my own dear collective in Malibu, California, were forced to pack up and flee after receiving a threatening letter from Obama’s U.S. Attorney General’s office. (Has anyone looked into the reason for our seemingly liberal president’s hard line on pot? Do you think it has something to do with being a father of teenage daughters who attend a pricey prep school in Washington, D.C.? Everybody knows how hardy those rich preppies like to party.)

Meanwhile, glassy eyes around the nation are turned toward Colorado’s legalization experiment. Given the choice between a drunk (and impaired) asshole and a pleasant stoner… Well, put it this way: If my college-bound kid was to ask my advice on the subject, I’d tell him I prefer he smoked weed in lieu of drinking. Watch one episode of Real World. That’s what our kids are emulating, people. (Of course I’d also tell him to watch his butt — people still get busted for simple marijuana possession every day in America.)

There’s not a lot to know to get you started, and I am not here advocating the use of illegal substances. But if you happen to be interested…

1. Indica vs. Sativa

Learn the difference. Indica makes you sleepy; it’s more of a body high, good for pain, anxiety, and difficulty sleeping — you’ll likely nod out a couple hours after smoking. Sativa is a more upbeat, artistic, and cerebral high. It sparks the imagination and energizes you directly after smoking and will keep you awake if you smoke too close to bedtime. Most stoners remember the difference in a somewhat anti-intuitive way. Sativa starts with an S = NOT sleepy.

2. Just Say No to Blunts

The hip-hop generation has popularized the use of tobacco leaf rolling papers or hollowed-out/re-rolled Swisher Sweets as the delivery device of choice for weed. Not only can this lead to an addiction to nicotine (every heroin user I’ve ever known agrees that nicotine is the hardest drug to kick). It also kills the taste of the myriad delicious strains now on the market. Nobody would ever mix a shot of red wine in a glass with ice and Coke, would they? [Eds. note: Okay, we sometimes do that.]

3. Know Your Equipment

Some people swear by vaporizers, which eliminate the intense skunky smell (good for dorm rooms and public spots) and the inhalation of smoke (possibly but not medically proven to adversely affect the lungs). However, the vape high is considerably less intense and shorter lasting. While a bong can be unruly and downright disgusting, a small water pipe can fulfill the same purpose, filtering the more noxious elements of combustion. For cleaning, isopropyl alcohol cuts resin nicely. Remember the container full of combs soaking in blue liquid on the barber’s counter? I do the same with my glass pipes.

4. Giggling Man is an Oxymoron

The first time you smoke, feel free to giggle your ass off, munch down on Double Stuf Oreos and barbecue potato chips, and marvel at the new found intensity of movies, music, sex, et al. The primary effect of weed is to enhance the sensory enjoyment of everything around you. But please, if you continue to smoke, learn some dignity. Conquer the munchies and the giggles. Concentrate instead on these newly opened doors of perception.

5. Expectations

If pot makes you feel paranoid, it’s because it affords the user a slightly different view of him or herself. When you’re high, your words echo discreetly in your own coconut, your point of view is slightly off center from normal, affording you a kind of fleeting glimpse of yourself and your actions that you might not ordinarily have. Weed invites self-observation, which is not for everyone. Even though it should be.

Father And Son Find Mysterious Sphere Floating Off Australian Coast

When Mark Watkins headed out for a fishing trip off the coast of Western Australia, he’d hoped to come home with dinner. Instead, he came home with one heck of a story.

That’s because, as he and his father drove their boat through the choppy morning waves, they happened upon an amazingly bizarre sight. At first they thought it was a boat, then, a hot air balloon. The truth, however, was even crazier.

When they first spotted it floating above the waves, Mark Watkins and his father thought it was an overturned boat. As they got closer they thought perhaps it was a hot air balloon. Then they realized the truth.

Facebook / Mark Watkins

Vector Space Systems aims to launch satellites by the hundreds

Devin Coldewey

8M0I6865 - P-9 in flight

Why wait for the bus when you can hail a cab? That’s the idea behind a new commercial spaceflight startup founded by SpaceX founding team members Jim Cantrell and John Garvey. Vector Space Systems wants to shake up to the commercial space market by providing not tens, but hundreds of launches per year.

Vector Space-logo-black“We’re going to bring real economics to the launch platform,” Cantrell told TechCrunch in an interview. “And we can do that because we bring supply. We’re talking about building hundreds of these things.”

Vector isn’t looking to compete with SpaceX, or even smaller commercial launch platforms like Rocket Lab and Firefly. A launch with these companies might be booked years in advance, with dozens of sub-launches, deliveries, experiments, and what have you packed into a single rocket. It’s like a space bus. Vector wants to be the space taxi.

“I had this experience pounded into my brain with LightSail,” said Cantrell, referring to the Planetary Society’s experimental solar propulsion craft. “We built that thing — I think we finished in 2011 — and it’s still waiting around for launch, because you need a particular orbit and so on. And really nobody has addressed this problem.”

With small rockets carrying single 20-40 kg payloads launching weekly or even every few days, the company can be flexible with both prices and timetables. Such small satellites are a growing business: 175 were launched in 2015 alone, and there’s plenty of room to grow. It’ll still be expensive, of course, and you won’t be able to just buy a Thursday afternoon express ticket to low earth orbit — yet.

Customers will, however, reap other benefits. There are less restrictions on space: no more having to package your satellite or craft into a launch container so it fits into a slot inside a crowded space bus. Less of a wait between build and launch means hardware can be finalized weeks, not years, in advance — and expensive satellites aren’t sitting in warehouses waiting for their turn to go live and get that sweet return on investment.

The last few years have been spent on designing and testing the as-yet-unnamed launch vehicles Vector will be using. The first stage is designed to be reusable — nothing as fancy as SpaceX’s autonomous landings, but rather using a unique aerial recovery system Cantrell seemed excited (though guarded) about.

rockettest

rockettest

Dozens of sub-orbital flights have been made, and orbital deployment is the next test. If all goes well, Vector hopes to be making its first real flights in 2017.

Investors are knocking down the front door looking to get in, he said, though he declined to name any. Perhaps they smell profitability: Vector’s business plan has it cash positive after just a few launches. Government money is also in the mix: Cantrell noted humbly that “We’ve been talking with people high up at the Pentagon who want this for obvious reasons.”

A lot depends on successful demonstration of orbital deployment, which should be happening a little later this year. If things go as planned, it could work towards removing one of the most significant restraints currently holding back commercial spaceflight.


Bound for Mars, a robot arrives in Boston for training

Valkyrie, NASA’s humanoid robot prototype that Northeastern researchers will perform advanced research and development on, arrived at UMass Lowell on April 6.
Valkyrie, NASA’s humanoid robot prototype that Northeastern researchers will perform advanced research and development on, arrived at UMass Lowell on April 6.

ASTRONAUTS SPEND YEARS training before they go into space. The same is true for their robot counterparts, two of which recently arrived in Massachusetts to be put through their paces in preparation for a long-off mission to Mars.

Valkyrie is built like a linebacker — 6’2” tall and 275 pounds. Its job is to go to Mars and maintain equipment in anticipation of the arrival of astronauts, potentially years after Valkyrie first touches down on the Red Planet.

“If you don’t start your car for two years, do you expect it will start when you return?” says Taskin Padir, a professor of engineering at Northeastern University who will be leading the university’s work with Valkyrie. “Humanoid robots will be part of the pre-deployment mission to Mars and will maintain equipment prior to the astronauts’ arrival.”

A manned mission to Mars is a high priority for NASA, which hopes to achieve the feat by the 2030s. As conceived, the expedition would require NASA to send equipment like rovers and a human habitat to Mars years before the astronauts launch. This is due to the relative orbits of Earth and Mars, which make it only practical to launch from here to there every two years.

“You need to pre-position assets like a habitat, a power supply. Whatever you need on the surface, all that’s done years before an astronaut gets there,” says William Verdeyen, NASA project manager for Valkyrie.

Valkyrie’s destination may be exotic, but the robot’s tasks will be mundane. The Johnson Space Center in Houston will beam instructions to Mars (the transmission takes about 20 minutes), and the robot will carry them out autonomously. Likely jobs include repairing electronic boards, cutting cords, and changing batteries — all maneuvers that require dexterity, which is complicated to engineer.

“A [good] analogy is replacing batteries in a flashlight,” says Padir. “If we can do that with Valkyrie at the end of two years, that would be a great accomplishment from our perspective.”

Over the next two years, the Northeastern team will work on improving Valkyrie’s performance, especially at these kinds of fine-motor maintenance tasks. A separate team at MIT will be doing similar work with another copy of the robot.

Most of Valkyrie’s movements will take place inside the human habitat — a known environment for the engineers, which makes it relatively easy to navigate. Sometimes, though, the robot will have to venture outside, like to brush dust off of solar panels. There, things get more treacherous. And if Valkyrie falls on the rough, uneven Martian surface, there’s always the risk it will never be able to get back up. Fortunately, though, in all these tasks, time is going to be on Valkyrie’s side.

“This robot will have a lot of free time on Mars,” says Padir. “If your task is to clean a few solar panels in the next week, you don’t have to run.”

 

NASA invests $67 million into solar electric propulsion for deep space exploration

Emily Calandrelli (@TheSpaceGal)

NASA has selected Aerojet Rocketdyne for a $67 million contract to develop an advanced Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP) system for future deep-space missions.

In a press release, NASA stated that the propulsion system could be used on robotic missions to an asteroid and in other missions related to their Journey to Mars program.

Compared to chemical propulsion (the type of propulsion that rockets use to escape Earth’s gravity well and reach orbit), SEP has lower thrust but is more fuel-efficient and can provide thrust for longer periods of time. For these reasons, SEP works well in the vacuum of space, particularly on spacecraft with long mission lifetimes.

A Hall thruster tested at NASA Glenn Research Center/ Image courtesy of NASA

SEP engines provide thrust by converting solar energy into electricity and using that electricity to accelerate ionized propellant at extremely high speeds. The iconic blue glow from a SEP thruster is created from photons released by the ions as they lose energy upon leaving the engine.

NASA has been working on SEP technology since the 1950s and they’ve used SEP on prior missions like the Dawn spacecraft, which is currently in orbit around the dwarf planet Ceres and is the first spacecraft to orbit around two extraterrestrial bodies.

Illustration of the Dawn spacecraft with its SEP system / Image courtesy of NASA

Under the new contract, NASA hopes to double the thrust capability compared to current electric propulsion systems and increase the fuel efficiency by 10 times the current chemical propulsion.

One challenge with deep-space missions that use SEP is that as you travel deeper into the solar system (farther away from the sun), it becomes more difficult to effectively capture light from the sun to power the spacecraft. Because of this, NASA stated its current SEP research is funded in parallel with work to advance solar array technology.

During the 36-month contract, Aerojet Rocketdyne is responsible for constructing, testing and delivering an SEP product for testing and evaluation. Eventually, the goal is to have Aerojet Rocketdyne deliver four electric propulsion units that will fly in space.

“Through this contract, NASA will be developing advanced electric propulsion elements for initial spaceflight applications, which will pave the way for an advanced solar electric propulsion demonstration mission by the end of the decade.” Steve Jurczyk, associate administrator of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate

In addition to this particular electric propulsion contract, Aerojet Rocketdyne is responsible for the chemical propulsion — the RS-25 engines — for NASA’s Space Launch System, the rocket designed to be used on missions related to NASA’s Journey to Mars initiative.

Illustration of NASA's Asteroid Redirect Mission using SEP / Image courtesy of NASA

Aerojet Rocketdyne’s current contract is part of NASA’s overall push to advance SEP systems. NASA plans to test the largest and most advanced SEP system ever used in space on their Asteroid Redirect Mission, which is designed to capture an asteroid and place it in orbit around the moon. That mission is currently slated for the mid-2020s.

 

‘Dr Frankenstein’ ready to perform first head transplant by 2017

A controversial surgeon is preparing to carry out the first ever whole head transplant by the end of 2017 after “successful” experiments on monkeys and mice.

Neurosurgeon Sergio Canavero introduced the strategy in 2013 and has been touting his experiments since.

In 2015, the 51-year-old presented at the American Academy of Neurological and Orthopaedic Surgeons’s 39th annual conference, where his speech about the ambitious procedure served as the keynote talk.

Earlier this year, Dr Canavero told New Scientist he had been conducting a series of experiments on animals and human cadavers with the help of scientists in China and South Korea.

“I would say we have plenty of data to go on,” Dr Canavero said.

“It’s important that people stop thinking this is impossible.”

Dr Canavero is working with Xiaoping Ren from Harbin Medical University in China.

According to the publication, Mr Ren has already performed a monkey head transplant and more than 1000 head transplants on mice.


Valery Spiridonov (centre) suffers from Werdnig-Hoffman disease and has volunteered to be the first person to undergo a head transplant under Dr. Canavero’s hands. Photo: Maxim Zmeyev/REUTERS

Dr Canavero’s first patient is Russian program manager, Valery Spiridonov, who is suffering from the rare muscular atrophy disorder Werdnig-Hoffman disease.

The 31-year-old volunteered for the transplant and says that he’s willing to risk death to escape his disease.

His transplant will be done in a vegetative state and is set to take place at Harbin Medical University in China.

 

The two-part procedure is composed of HEAVEN (head anastomosis venture) and Gemini (the subsequent spinal cord fusion).

The whole process involves 36 hours, 150 people (doctors, nurses, technicians, psychologists, and virtual reality engineers), and around $20 million.

According to Dr Canavero, there will be two surgical teams working on the Russian patient at the same time.

One will focus on the Mr Spiridonov, the living patient, while the other will focus on a donor’s body.

The donor will be brain-dead and selected based on height, build, and immunotype.