Sunday, November 18, 2018

NASA Goes Forward with Mission to Jupiter's Trojans

    NASA has recently authorized the implementation and 2021 launch of the Lucy spacecraft. This will be the first mission that will visit the Trojans, a population of primitive asteroids orbiting in tandem with Jupiter near the asteroid belt.
    The confirmation review authorized continuation of the project into the development phase. The review panel approved the detailed plans, instrument suite, budget and risk factor analysis for the spacecraft. From here on in, the Critical Design Review will examine Lucy's system design before assembly occurs.
    “Up until now this mission has entirely been on paper,” said Lucy Principal Investigator Hal Levison of the Southwest Research Institute at Boulder, Colorado. “Now we have the go ahead to actually cut metal and start putting this spacecraft together.”
     During its 12-year journey, the spacecraft is expected to visit seven different asteroids - a Main Belt asteroid and six Trojans. Using a remote-sensing instrument suite, the spacecraft will study the geology, surface composition and bulk physical properties of these bodies at a short range.
    “Today’s confirmation of Lucy is a key step towards better understanding the role that small bodies played in the formation of the Solar System and life on Earth,” said Adriana Ocampo, Lucy’s program executive at NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC. “We congratulate the entire team for their hard work.”

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Your Appendix Could Cause You Parkinson’s Disease

The appendix, a miniature sac attached to the large intestine, is reputable for having no known function and occasionally needing to be cut out. Now, a study suggests that it could even be supplying a brain-damaging protein involved in Parkinson’s disease and that removing it early in life can decrease a person’s risk of the disease or delay it.

Parkinson’s disease is a progressive disease of the nervous system that primarily affects one’s movement, and the brain of a person with it usually contains clumps of a misfolded form of a protein known as α-synuclein (αS) which can damage and kill neurons. If the parts of the brain responsible for movement are harmed, the results could lead to some symptoms of Parkinson’s. Combined with information from past studies, this observation leads to a theory suggesting that dysfunctional αS spreads up the fibres of the vagal nerve, a nerve connecting the brain to the appendix, by converting healthy forms of the protein to misfolded, clumpy ones.

In this recent study, neuroscientist Viviane Labrie and her team at the Van Andel Institute in Michigan decided to focus on the appendix of a large population over a long time.

When analyzing samples for different forms of αS, they discovered that 46 out of 48 appendixes contained a clumped form of αS similar to that seen in the Parkinson’s brain. “It’s present in all of us,” Labrie says, “but appears to cause trouble only if it spreads to the brain”. The appendix may also be a breeding ground for this protein. When normal αS exposed to the contents of healthy appendix tissue cells, the proteins were cleaved into a shorter form. This makes them more prone to aggregation, and perhaps more likely to spread to the brain.

Moreover, they found that there is around a 1% chance that a person will develop Parkinson’s after age 65, but for those who had an appendectomy (a surgical removal of the appendix), the risk of developing the disease was about 20% lower. The onset of Parkinson’s was delayed by roughly 3.6 years in patients who had an appendectomy 20+ years prior to their diagnosis.

In addition, when the researchers classified the population into rural and urban residents, the benefit of an appendectomy was only observed for the rural group. According to Labrie, that’s a clue that an appendectomy might be most useful in cases that Parkinson’s disease has some environmental trigger.

However, if an appendectomy occurred closer to the diagnosis, the onset of the disease was not delayed by much. “When we get rid of [the appendix], you are safe for a few years, but then it just starts somewhere else in the gut,” says Borghammer, a neuroscientist at Aarhus University in Denmark, who was not involved in the study.  Also, the study found that an appendectomy didn’t protect people with one of the inherited genetic mutations strongly linked to Parkinson’s.

Due to all this uncertainty, Labrie is saying that “preventive surgery is too far,” but she and her team hope future Parkinson’s treatments may take their research into account. As for now, they’re searching for other differences between the appendix of a healthy person and a person with Parkinson’s to explain how and when αS protein may cause problems.

For more about this breakthrough research, read the original article:


Monday, November 5, 2018

NASA's Kepler Space Telescope Runs Out of Fuel

  NASA officials announced on October 30 that the Kepler space telescope has run out of fuel and will be decommissioned in the coming weeks. This marks a lasting legacy that is responsible for 70 percent of the roughly 3,800 confirmed exoplanets discoveries to date.
  Unlike NASA's Cassini spacecraft which was deorbited into Saturn's thick atmosphere in September 2017, Kepler will receive a much simpler end. Team members will beam a single, simple command to the spacecraft, triggering a decommissioning sequence. This will shut down its radio transmitter and onboard fault-protection systems, converting the telescope into an inert chunk of floating metal.
   "Kepler is currently trailing the Earth by about 94 million miles, and will remain the same distance from the Earth for the foreseeable future," Charlie Sobeck, project system engineer at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, said during a teleconference with reporters.
  Kepler was launched back in March 2009, with its mission to determine the frequency of Earth-like plants around the Milky Way galaxy. Its first mission was initially composed of observing close to 150,000 stars simultaneously. Eventually this mission ended in May 2013 when the spacecraft lost the second its four orientation-maintainng reaction wheels. However after some remote modifications, a new mission was launched in 2014 as K2. that hauled in an additional 34 exoplanet finds.

New Hope for Cystic Fibrosis Could Save Over 90%, Doctors Say

[TO BREATHE EASIER Patient with approved treatment for Cystic Fibrosis]

For several years now, scientists have continuously struggled to find a therapeutic treatment suitable to aiding most victims of cystic fibrosis. Now, with a newfounded triple-drug approach, although still being tested, scientists are one step closer to a revolutionary uncovery.

Cystic fibrosis, a mutation in a gene also known as CFTR, forces the body to either produce defective versions of a protein, or none at all. With the hereditary disorder affecting the exocrine glands, an abnormally thick mucus is generated, and thus the pancreatic ducts as well as intestines are blocked.

So how can this be treated?

Well, as of recent laboratory studies conducted, two triple-drug approaches, both of which underwent processes of four week periods, showed a breakthrough with the improvement in lung function of people with the most common cystic fibrosis-causing mutation. About 90% of people with the disease have this mutation, and so with continued testing, this particular non-invasive triple-drug combination could potentially provide an effective treatment for the vast majority of cystic fibrosis patients.

This new triple-drug treatment builds upon the success of an earlier drug, that of which had been approved in 2012 for patients who had a much less common mutation. This particular treatment achieved high rates of success, as proven with detailed data analysis. Steven Rowe, a pulmonologist at the University of Alabama states, “They are in the hospital much less,” he says, and “the way they feel on a day-to-day basis is substantially improved.”

Thus, with the oncoming development of the triple-drug treatment, scientists are predicting a breakthrough in cystic fibrosis treatments, with some believing that, once approved, it will be life-changing for over 90% of patients living with cystic fibrosis.

Cunningham, Aimee. “New Therapies Pack a Triple-Drug Punch to Treat Cystic Fibrosis.” Science News, Science News Organization, 19 Oct. 2018,
Image Credit:
News, CKOM. “Mom Reacts as Coverage Denied for $240K Cystic Fibrosis Drug.” 650 CKOM,

Monday, October 29, 2018

NASA Spots Rectangular Iceberg in Antarctica

During Operation IceBridge, NASA's longest-running aerial survey of polar ice, photos of a very sharp-angled, tabular iceberg were captured over the northern Antarctic Peninsula on October 16, 2018. This iceberg was found by senior support scientist Jeremy Harbeck just off of the Larsen C Ice Shelf.
NASA scientists explained later that the process that formed this iceberg is actually fairly common. Tabular icebergs are wide and flat, like sheet cake. They split from the edges of ice shelves through a process that is relatable like a fingernail growing too long and cracking off at the end. This often makes them rectangular and geometric as a result.

A second iceberg spotted by Jeremy Harbeck. Image Credit: NASA/Harbeck
“I thought it was pretty interesting; I often see icebergs with relatively straight edges, but I've not really seen one before with two corners at such right angles like this one had,” Harbeck said. “I was actually more interested in capturing the A68 iceberg that we were about to fly over, but I thought this rectangular iceberg was visually interesting and fairly photogenic, so on a lark, I just took a couple photos."
Read more about this fascinating story at:

Image Credit: NASA/Jeremy Harbeck

Sunday, October 28, 2018

“Mini-Eyes” Show Scientists How Colour Vision Develops

Our world appears in vivid colours, thanks to the cone photoreceptors in our eyes, yet little was known about how they developed until researchers observed it by growing tiny blobs of eye tissue in a lab.

   Scientists at the Johns Hopkins University (JHU) have successfully grown organoids (miniature organs) that contained photoreceptors who responded to light and behaved like human cone cells. Intriguingly, these three colour-sensing cells appeared in the same order as they do naturally in a fetus: first the blue-light-sensing cone cells and then the ones who sense green light or red light.
   Though it’s already known that the blue cone cells develop first, it was unclear as to why. “We weren't sure what in a development context cued those cells to be different from each other,” said lead study author Kiara Eldred, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Biology at JHU. 

A retinal organoid — at days 43 of growth — doesn’t really look (get it?) like an eye but is allowing scientists to see (so sorry) how eye cells grow and interact.

Credit: Johns Hopkins University

   However, using prior research, the scientists hypothesized that the thyroid hormone helped trigger the development of cells linked to colour vision. To test this, they manipulated the cone cells' receptors for the hormone, and the results didn’t disappoint. The researchers reported that when the receptors for the hormone were disabled, the mini-eyes grew only blue-light-sensing cells. They also found that when the organoids were saturated with the hormone early in the growth process, all the colour cells developed into red or green light-sensing cells.
    “That told us that we understood the mechanism enough that we could grow human retinal cells in a dish, and we could tell them what kind of cells we wanted to make,” said study co-author Robert Johnston Jr., an assistant professor in the JHU Department of Biology, 
   Experimenting with these “mini-eye” cells provided our first glimpse at what produces our colour vision, and the benefits won’t stop there. Studying lab-grown eye tissue will be valuable for uncovering other aspects of our unique sight, as well as provide treatment insights for blindness and vision-related illnesses.

Towering 'Penitente' Spikes May Exist on the Surface of Europa

   According to new research from scientists at the NASA Ames Research Centre, spikes of ice known as penitentes may tower above the surface of Jupiter's moon Europa. Famous in the media in recent years for its suspected subsurface saltwater ocean, this is a prime location in the solar system for the search for extraterrestrial life.
   In the paper, scientists looked at the sublimation rates of water ice across Europa's surface. By factoring other events that might erode the icy moon's surface, such as asteroid impacts or electrically charged particles hitting the moon from Jupiter, it was found that this model would create a rough surface on Europa. In the equatorial area of the moon, they found that sublimation would be dominant enough to sculpt penitentes up to about 15 metres high and 7 metres across over a span of 50 million years (about the age of Europea's surface)
   These hypothesized areas of jagged ice towers might pose a hazard for any future missions to Europa including NASA's Europa lander concept. This will make reconnaissance key prior to deployal of any probes from orbit.
   However it is just as possible that the penitente model may not apply to Europa. As it was based on penitente formation on Earth, some factors including a lack of atmosphere and Earth ices containing salts and sulfurous compounds could play a role in affecting this model.
   "It is always pleasant to see how rigorous science can help us imagine how the surface of an unknown planet could be at a scale never observed yet," said planetary scientist Cyril Grima at the University of Texas at Austin, who did not take part in this research.
Read more about this fascinating story at:

Image: Penitentes in the Atacama desert via ESO/B. Tafreshi