Thursday, February 28, 2013

Nasa Mars Rover Curiosity: Rock Dust sample

Two compact laboratories inside NASA's Mars rover Curiosity have ingested portions of the first sample of rock powder ever collected from the interior of a rock on Mars. 

The powder comes from Curiosity drilling into rock target "John Klein" on Feb. 8. 

One or more additional portions from the same initial sample may be delivered to the instruments as analysis proceeds.


This image from NASA's Curiosity rover shows the first sample of powdered rock extracted by the rover's drill. 

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
This image from the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) on NASA's Mars rover Curiosity shows details of rock texture and colour in an area where the rover's Dust Removal Tool (DRT) brushed away dust that was on the rock. 

This rock target, "Wernecke," was brushed on the 169th Martian day, or sol, of Curiosity's mission on Mars (Jan. 26, 2013). 

This image was recorded on Sol 173 (Jan. 30, 2013).

The image shows nine small pits created by the rover's Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) laser during its analysis of the target, one of four potential drill targets considered. Ultimately, this site was not chosen for the rover's first drilling. 

The rest of the features are natural to the rock, and include fractures, white veins, gray and white nodules, pits and tiny dark grains. Remaining clumps and specks of dust can also be seen. The scale bar at lower left is 0.12 inches (3 millimeters).

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Honeybee Robotics/LANL/CNES

SpaceX Dragon to Launch on Friday

The weather forecast is 90 percent favorable for the launch of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft at 10:10 a.m. EST Friday from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

The mission -- carrying more than 1,200 pounds of scientific experiments and cargo -- is the second of 12 SpaceX flights contracted by NASA to resupply the International Space Station.

SpaceX managers held a Launch Readiness Review Wednesday afternoon and gave a “go” to proceed toward launch of the second SpaceX Commercial Resupply Services mission.

Liftoff of the Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft is scheduled for 10:10 a.m. EST on Friday. Launch coverage will begin at 8:30 a.m. on NASA Television and www.nasa.gov/ntv and the NASA launch blog at www.nasa.gov/spacex.

On Thursday, NASA TV will air an International Space Station Mission Science Briefing at 1 p.m. and a Mission Prelaunch News Conference at 3 p.m.

Image above: The Dragon spacecraft stands inside a processing hangar at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station where teams had just installed the spacecraft's solar array fairings on Jan. 12, 2013. Image credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett


NASA's Aquarius Sees Salty Shifts

NASA¹s Aquarius instrument has been orbiting the Earth for a year, measuring changes in salinity, or salt concentration, in the surface of the oceans. 

The Aquarius team released last September this first global map of ocean saltiness, a composite of the first two and a half weeks of data since the instrument became operational on August 25. 

Credit: NASA/GSFC/JPL-Caltech

Colourful new images chronicle the seasonal stirrings of our salty world: Pulses of freshwater gush from the Amazon River's mouth; an invisible seam divides the salty Arabian Sea from the fresher waters of the Bay of Bengal; a large patch of freshwater appears in the eastern tropical Pacific in the winter.

These and other changes in ocean salinity patterns are revealed by the first full year of surface salinity data captured by NASA's Aquarius instrument. 

"With a bit more than a year of data, we are seeing some surprising patterns, especially in the tropics," said Aquarius Principal Investigator Gary Lagerloef, of Earth & Space Research in Seattle. "We see features evolve rapidly over time." 


Launched June 10, 2011, aboard the Argentine spacecraft Aquarius/Satélite de Aplicaciones Científicas (SAC)-D, Aquarius is NASA's first satellite instrument specifically built to study the salt content of ocean surface waters. 


Salinity variations, one of the main drivers of ocean circulation, are closely connected with the cycling of freshwater around the planet and provide scientists with valuable information on how the changing global climate is altering global rainfall patterns. 

The salinity sensor detects the microwave emissivity of the top 1 to 2 centimeters (about an inch) of ocean water -- a physical property that varies depending on temperature and saltiness. 


The instrument collects data in 386 kilometer-wide (240-mile) swaths in an orbit designed to obtain a complete survey of global salinity of ice-free oceans every seven days. 

The Changing Ocean
The animated version of Aquarius' first year of data unveils a world of varying salinity patterns. The Arabian Sea, nestled up against the dry Middle East, appears much saltier than the neighboring Bay of Bengal, which gets showered by intense monsoon rains and receives freshwater discharges from the Ganges and other large rivers. 


Another mighty river, the Amazon, releases a large freshwater plume that heads east toward Africa or bends up north to the Caribbean, depending on the prevailing seasonal currents. 

Pools of freshwater carried by ocean currents from the central Pacific Ocean's regions of heavy rainfall pile up next to Panama's coast, while the Mediterranean Sea sticks out in the Aquarius maps as a very salty sea. 

One of the features that stand out most clearly is a large patch of highly saline water across the North Atlantic. This area, the saltiest anywhere in the open ocean, is analogous to deserts on land, where little rainfall and a lot of evaporation occur. 


A NASA-funded expedition, the Salinity Processes in the Upper Ocean Regional Study (SPURS), traveled to the North Atlantic's saltiest spot last fall to analyze the causes behind this high salt concentration and to validate Aquarius measurements.


"My conclusion after five weeks out at sea and analyzing five weekly maps of salinity from Aquarius while we were there was that indeed, the patterns of salinity variation seen from Aquarius and by the ship were similar," said Eric Lindstrom, NASA's physical oceanography program scientist, of NASA Headquarters, Washington, and a participant of the SPURS research cruise.


NASA Goddard Space Centre

India to launch mission to Mars this year, says their president

This image of the Earth was taken by ISRO's Chandrayaan-1 mission while on its way to the Moon on 29 October 2008, at 03:30 CET. 

Credit: REUTERS /ESA/Cluster/Handout.

India will launch its first mission to Mars this year, President Pranab Mukherjee said on Thursday, as the emerging Asian nation looks to play catch up in the global space race alongside the United States, Russia and its giant neighbor China.

"Several space missions are planned for 2013, including India's first mission to Mars and the launch of our first navigational satellite," Mukherjee told parliament.

India will send a satellite in October via an unmanned spacecraft to orbit the red planet, blasting off from the southeastern coast in a mission expected to cost about $83 million, scientists who are part of the mission say.

The spacecraft, which will be made in India, will take nine months to reach Mars and then launch itself in an elliptical orbit about 500 km (310 miles) from the planet.

"The mission is ready to roll," Deviprasad Karnik, a scientist from the India Space Research Organization (ISRO), said by phone from the city of Bangalore.

India's mission to Mars has drawn criticism in a country suffering from high levels of malnutrition and power shortages, and currently experiencing its worst slowdown in growth in ten years. But India has long argued that technology developed in its space program has practical applications to everyday life.

India's space exploration program began in 1962. Five years ago, its Chandrayaan satellite found evidence of water on the moon. India is now looking at landing a wheeled rover on the moon in 2014.

Sleep Reinforces Learning: Children’s Brains Transform Subconsciously

During sleep, our brains store what we have learned during the day a process even more effective in children than in adults. 

Credit: Monkey Business / Fotolia

During sleep, our brains store what we have learned during the day ‒ a process even more effective in children than in adults, new research shows.

It is important for children to get enough sleep. Children's brains transform subconsciously learned material into active knowledge while they sleep -- even more effectively than adult brains do, according to a study by Dr. Ines Wilhelm of the University of Tübingen's Institute for Medical Psychology and Behavioral Neurobiology. Dr Wilhelm and her Swiss and German colleagues have published their results in Nature Neuroscience.

Studies of adults have shown that sleeping after learning supports the long-term storage of the material learned, says Dr Wilhelm. During sleep, memory is turned into a form that makes future learning easier; implicit knowledge becomes explicit and therefore becomes more easily transferred to other areas.

Children sleep longer and deeper, and they must take on enormous amounts of information every day. In the current study, the researchers examined the ability to form explicit knowledge via an implicitly-learned motor task.

Children between 8 and 11, and young adults, learned to guess the predetermined series of actions -- without being aware of the existence of the series itself. Following a night of sleep or a day awake, the subjects' memories were tested.

The result: after a night's sleep, both age groups could remember a larger number of elements from the row of numbers than those who had remained awake in the interim. And the children were much better at it than the adults.

"In children, much more efficient explicit knowledge is generated during sleep from a previously learned implicit task, says Wilhelm. And the children's extraordinary ability is linked with the large amount of deep sleep they get at night.

"The formation of explicit knowledge appears to be a very specific ability of childhood sleep, since children typically benefit as much or less than adults from sleep when it comes to other types of memory tasks."

TED 2013: SpaceTop 3D see-through computer revealed



A transparent computer that allows users to reach inside and touch digital content has been unveiled at the TED conference in Los Angeles.

TED fellow Jinha Lee has been working on the SpaceTop 3D desktop in collaboration with Microsoft.

Allowing people to interact with machines in the same way they do with solid objects could make computing much more intuitive, he reported.

He can see the system coming into general use within a decade.

The system consists of a transparent LED display with built-in cameras, which track the user's gestures and eye movements.

Human touch 
The design was inspired by what he sees as a human need to interact with things.

"Spatial memory, where the body intuitively remembers where things are, is a very human skill," he said.

Translating this to the digital world will enable people to use computers more easily as well as complete more complex tasks.

"If you are working on a document you can pick it up and flip through it like a book," he reported.

For more precise tasks, where hand gestures are not accurate, there is a touchpad. It will allow, for example architects to manipulate 3D models.

"The gap between what the designer thinks and what the computer can do is huge. If you can put your hands inside the computer and handle digital content you can express ideas more completely," he said.

Not everyone is convinced by the Minority Report-style future that will see us interact with machine via touch.

In an interview with The Awl website designer Christian Brown said: "Human hands and fingers are good at feeling texture and detail, and good at gripping things - neither of which touch interfaces take advantage of.

"The real future of interfaces will take advantage of our natural abilities to tell the difference between textures, to use our hands to do things without looking at them."

Magic ball 
Mr Lee, a graduate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is currently serving his military obligation in South Korea at Samsung Electronics, where he is working on TV interfaces.

At TED, which stands for Technology, Education and Design, he also demonstrated other projects he is working on, including ZeroN, a floating ball, which can literally be placed in midair.

It utilises electromagnetism to stay afloat and when coupled with software can be used for a variety of applications.

Black hole Discovered to be spinning Close to the relativistic limit

A composite X-ray image of the galaxy NGC1365 taken by NuSTAR and XMM-Newton.

Courtesy: Guido Risaliti

The best evidence yet that some supermassive black holes (SMBH) rotate at extremely high rates has been found by an international team of astronomers.

Made using the recently launched NuStar space telescope, the study suggests that a huge black hole at the centre of a distant galaxy acquired a huge amount of rotational energy as it formed.

The discovery could provide important information about how SMBHs and their associated galaxies form and evolve.

Astronomers know that black holes that are as large as a billion solar masses can be found at the heart of most galaxies.

Because these gravitational behemoths are created at the same time as their host galaxies, understanding how they formed could provide important information about galaxy formation and evolution.

Knowing the spin of an SMBH can provide important clues about how it formed. If the black hole grew slowly, by sucking in small amounts of matter from all directions, then it isn't expected to have much spin.

However, if the formation process involves the black hole gorging rapidly on matter from a specific direction, conservation of angular momentum would leave it with an extremely large spin.

Redshifted X-rays
The spin of a supermassive black hole can be measured by looking at the effect that the spin has on material that is being sucked in to the black hole.

This material forms an accretion disc that swirls around the black hole before disappearing from sight. The faster the black hole is spinning, the closer the inner edge of the disc is to the centre of the black hole.

As a result, the X-rays emanating from the inner edge are affected by the black hole's gravity more when the black hole is spinning.

Astronomers see this as a "stretching" of the wavelength (redshift) of characteristic X-rays emanating from iron and other elements in the accretion disc. By measuring the redshift, the spin of the black hole can be deduced.

The problem, however, is that these X-rays must first travel through fast-moving clouds of gas that surround the accretion disc.

The absorption of X-rays by the gas could mimic the effect of a spinning black hole. As a result, astronomers have not been that confident about their estimates of black-hole spin.

Russian Zenit Launch Failure: 'Faulty Ukrainian Parts' Blamed

The Sea Launch consortium, led by Energia, launched the Zenit rocket from its floating platform Odyssey at an equatorial launch site in international waters in the Pacific Ocean. 

The rocket fell into the sea not far from the Odyssey, which was not damaged in the failed launch, a Russian space industry source reported.

The crash of a Russian Zenit-3SL rocket earlier this month was caused by defective components manufactured in Ukraine, Ivan Kharchenko, first deputy head of the Russian government's military-industrial commission, said on Tuesday.

The Zenit-3SL, carrying an Intelsat-27 (IS-27) telecoms satellite, crashed into the Pacific Ocean shortly after launch on February 1, following an emergency shutdown of its first-stage engine.

A report presented by Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin to Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev concluded that "the accident was caused by defective blocks manufactured in Ukraine," Kharchenko said, adding that "there was nothing wrong with the Russian-made equipment."

Rogozin presented his report to Medvedev on February 15, according to Kharchenko.

Russian space corporation RKK Energia head Vitaly Lopota said at the time of the crash that the malfunction had occurred around 50 seconds into the flight.

The Sea Launch consortium, led by Energia, launched the Zenit rocket from its floating platform Odyssey at an equatorial launch site in international waters in the Pacific Ocean. The rocket fell into the sea not far from the Odyssey, which was not damaged in the failed launch, a Russian space industry source told RIA Novosti.

The Zenit-3SL integrated launch vehicle is a liquid-propellant rocket consisting of three stages and a payload unit. The first stage is powered by the RD-171M engine designed by Russia's NPO Energomash rocket engine design bureau. The RD-171M is one of the most powerful rocket engines in the world, producing 740,000 kilograms of thrust at liftoff.

EADS Arianespace Vega: Lite Launcher is readied for its second mission

The four-stage Vega was conceived as a capable lightweight launcher, joining Arianespace's medium-lift Soyuz and heavyweight Ariane 5 to provide a complete family of vehicles that meet the company's motto of delivering "any payload, to any orbit.anytime."

The Spaceport's ZLV launch site in French Guiana is busy with activity as the second Vega undergoes its assembly for a mission scheduled in April.

Build-up of the smallest member in Arianespace's launcher family marked a new milestone this week when its solid propellant second-stage was integrated atop the first stage, which also uses solid propellant.

The vertical assembly process for Vega no. 2 is being performed on the ZLV launch pad, protected by a mobile gantry that will be withdrawn prior to the vehicle's liftoff.

This complex uses the same site previously employed for missions from French Guiana with the cornerstone Ariane 1 and 3 vehicles - having been updated and adapted where needed to meet operational requirements of the new lightweight launcher.

Proba-V Satellite
Vega's upcoming second flight will orbit the Proba-V and VNREDSat-1A satellites, and follows the light-lift vehicle's on-target maiden launch in February 2012 with a payload of nine spacecraft - which served as its qualification mission.

The Proba-V passenger for Vega's no. 2 launch was produced by prime contractor Qinetiq Space Belgium for the European Space Agency, and will monitor global vegetation growth.

With an estimated mass of 160 kg., it is to operate in a Sun-synchronous polar orbit, carrying a newly-designed version of the Vegetation instrument already flown on the CNES Spot series of Earth observation satellites - which also were orbited by Arianespace.

Vega's VNREDSat-1A co-passenger is an optical observation spacecraft built by Astrium on behalf of the Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology.

Vegetation Instrument
With a mass of approximately 120 kg., it will support the Vietnamese government's initiative to create an infrastructure that enables better monitoring and studies of climate change effects, improves predictions and actions to prevent natural disasters, while also optimizing the management of its natural resources.

The four-stage Vega was conceived as a capable lightweight launcher, joining Arianespace's medium-lift Soyuz and heavyweight Ariane 5 to provide a complete family of vehicles that meet the company's motto of delivering "any payload, to any orbit.anytime."

Developed in a European program led by Italy's ASI space agency and industrial prime contractor ELV SpA., Vega is tailored to orbit small- to medium-sized satellites, including institutional and scientific spacecraft.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

NASA Cassini Image: Moonlet Blierot embedded in Saturn's A-ring

A tiny moonlet nicknamed Blierot embedded itself in Saturn’s A Ring, creating the propeller-shaped white dashes near the bottom of this image. 

The Cassini spacecraft took the image on Nov. 11, 2012.

Credit NASA

The propeller-shaped white dashes near the bottom of this Cassini spacecraft image reveal the location of a small moonlet embedded in Saturn's A ring.

The gravity of this tiny moonlet affects the orbits of nearby ring particles and creates the propeller feature, nicknamed Bleriot by imaging scientists, that Cassini sees.

Researchers hope to understand more about the migration of planets during their formation by studying how the orbits of Bleriot and other propeller features observed by Cassini change over time. For more views of Bleriot, see Tracking a Propeller and Propeller Churns the A Ring.

This view looks toward the sunlit side of the rings from about 38 degrees above the ringplane. The image was taken in visible light with the Cassini spacecraft narrow-angle camera on Nov. 11, 2012.

The view was obtained at a distance of approximately 349,000 miles (561,000 kilometers) from Saturn and at a Sun-Saturn-spacecraft, or phase, angle of 41 degrees. Image scale is 2 miles (3 kilometers) per pixel.

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency.

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

The Cassini orbiter and its two onboard cameras were designed, developed and assembled at JPL. The imaging team is based at the Space Science Institute, Boulder, Colo.

For more information about the Cassini-Huygens mission visit http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov or http://www.nasa.gov/cassini.

The Cassini imaging team homepage is at http://ciclops.org .

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Russian Meteorite Impact: Meteor's Origin and Size Determined





A meteor that exploded over Russia earlier this month likely hit Earth after a long trip from beyond the orbit of Mars, scientists say.

Astronomers and the public were caught off guard by the Russian fireball, which damaged thousands of buildings and wounded more than 1,000 people when it detonated over the city of Chelyabinsk on Feb. 15.

But some YouTube-aided detective work suggests that the meteor's parent body belonged to the Apollo family of Earth-crossing asteroids, whose elliptical orbits take them farther than one Earth-sun distance (about 93 million miles, or 150 million kilometers) from our star at some point, researchers said.



Jorge Zuluaga and Ignacio Ferrin of the University of Antioquia in Medellin, Colombia, reached this conclusion after analysing several videos of the Russian meteor, especially one taken in Chelyabinsk's Revolutionary Square and another recorded in the nearby city of Korkino.

They also took into account the location of a hole in the ice of Lake Chebarkul, about 43 miles (70 km) from Chelyabinsk. Scientists think the hole was caused by a piece of the space rock that hit Earth on Feb. 15.

Using trigonometry, Zuluaga and Ferrin calculated basic elements of the fireball's path through Earth's atmosphere.

"According to our estimations, the Chelyabinski meteor started to brighten up when it was between 32 and 47 km up in the atmosphere," they write in their paper, which has been posted to the online astronomy preprint site ArXiv.org.

"The velocity of the body predicted by our analysis was between 13 and 19 km/s (relative to the Earth) which encloses the preferred figure of 18 km/s assumed by other researchers."

Ural Federal University scientist
The pair then entered these figures into a software program developed by the United States Naval Observatory called NOVAS (short for Naval Observatory Vector Astrometry), which calculated the likely orbit of the meteor's parent body.

Some other scientists agree that this orbit took the space rock relatively far from the sun at times — farther than Mars, in fact.

"It came from the asteroid belt, about 2.5 times farther from the sun than Earth," Bill Cooke, of NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., said in a statement. Cooke was not involved in Zuluaga and Ferrin's study.

Meanwhile, the size of the meteor's parent object has come into clearer focus, thanks to measurements made by a global network of infrasound sensors operated by the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO).

These sensors monitor extremely low-frequency sound waves, which are a common product of nuclear explosions.

As the Russian meteor burned through Earth's atmosphere, it generated the most powerful infrasound signal ever detected by the CTBTO network, researchers said, and this signal revealed a great deal about the asteroid's size, speed and explosive power.

"The asteroid was about 17 meters in diameter and weighed approximately 10,000 metric tons," Peter Brown, a physics professor at the University of Western Ontario in Canada, said in a statement.

"It struck Earth's atmosphere at 40,000 mph and broke apart about 12 to 15 miles above Earth's surface. The energy of the resulting explosion exceeded 470 kilotons of TNT."

That's 30 to 40 times more powerful than the atomic bomb the United States dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima during World War II.

The Russian fireball likely produced the most powerful such space rock blast since a 130-foot (40 m) object exploded over Siberia in 1908, flattening 825 square miles (2,137 square km) of forest.

Preliminary reports suggest that the Chelyabinsk fireball's parent asteroid was composed primarily of stone, with a smidge of iron thrown in.

"In other words, [it's] a typical asteroid from beyond the orbit of Mars," Cooke said. "There are millions more just like it."

The Russian meteor struck just hours before the 130-foot asteroid 2012 DA14 gave Earth a close shave, missing our planet by just 17,200 miles (27,000 km), but the two space rocks are unrelated, researchers say, making Feb. 15 a day of remarkable cosmic coincidences.

You can see the Arxiv paper on the Russian meteor here.

Helicoprion: Mystery of ancient Spiral-Toothed Shark clarified

An ancient spiral-toothed fish has been reconstructed from fossil evidence by scientists.

US researchers used CT scans to build a computer model of what Helicoprion looked like and how it ate.

They were also able to resolve an ongoing puzzle over whether the unique saw-like spirals were located inside or outside the mouth.

The findings show the animals were more closely related to modern chimaeras, or ratfish, than sharks.

The study is published by researchers from Idaho State University in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters.

The university's Museum of Natural History has the largest public collection of fossilised Helicoprion in the world.

The fish lived 270 million years ago but because they were largely formed from cartilage, which does not preserve well, their fossil record comprises unusual spiral structures.

Referred to as "whorls", these features have been compared to spiralling saw blades and have puzzled the scientific community for over a century.

Early theories suggested that they were actually used for defence and were located on the fish's upper or lower jaws, or even the dorsal fin.

Dental records
To solve the mystery, Dr Leif Tapanila and colleagues investigated the most complete fossil in the collection.

The fossil, discovered in Idaho, has a whorl measuring 23cm with 117 individual teeth. Unlike other specimens, the fossil also includes impressions of the cartilage structures.

The team used a high-powered CT scan, which uses X-rays to create a detailed computer image, in order to fully analyse what was inside the rock.

"When we got the images back, we could easily see that we had the upper and lower jaw of the animals, as well as the spiral of teeth," said Dr Tapanila.

"For the first time we were able to very clearly image how that spiral of teeth relates to the jaw."

The scientists found that the spiral was connected to the fish's lower jaw, in the back of the mouth.

"Imagine that... instead of having a tongue, you have this large spiral of teeth," Dr Tapanila explained.

"Only maybe a dozen teeth are poking up out of your lower jaw so you can bite."

"The rest of those teeth are stored inside and are not being used, those are your baby teeth - the teeth you had when you were younger."

Dr Tapanila said this discovery supports the argument that unlike sharks, which constantly replace their teeth, Helicoprion retained its teeth permanently.

Using the computer images, the team could build a 3D model of the jaw, to reveal how the tooth spiral worked.

"As the mouth closes, the teeth spin backwards... so they slash through the meat that they are biting into," Dr Tapanila reported.

"The teeth themselves are very narrow: nice long, pointy, triangular teeth with serrations like a steak knife.

"As the jaw is closing and the teeth are spinning past whatever it's eating, it's making a very nice clean cut."

Of the 100 fossils of Helicoprion that have been discovered, very few show broken or worn teeth.



Ancient diet
Dr Tapanila said that this evidence, combined with the "rolling and slicing" mechanism, provided clues to what the ancient fish ate.

"If this animal were eating other animals that were very hard or [had] hard armour plating or dense shells, you would expect more damage to their teeth.

"This leads us to believe that our animal was probably eating soft, squishy things like calamari. It was probably eating squid or its relatives that were swimming in the ocean at the time."

The study also highlighted the family connections of the ancient fish, categorising it with chimaeras and ratfish rather than sharks.

"One of the main ways that fish are identified is based on how the upper jaw connects to the rest of the skull," said Dr Tapanila.

"Because we have the upper jaw we can look at the bumps and grooves on it and see how it would have connected.

"It was fixed in two positions and was fused essentially to the brain tip... a feature that's distinctive for chimaeras and ratfish."

Following the reconstruction the jaw of the fish, the team is using inferred characteristics to create a scale model of the 4m animal for an exhibition at the Idaho State University Museum of Natural History this summer.

Based on fossil evidence, scientists believe the fish could have measured up to 7.6m long.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

BRITE: World's smallest space telescope launched

BRITE, the smallest astronomical satellite was launched Monday as part of a mission to prove that even a very small telescope can push the boundaries of astronomy.

The satellite was designed and assembled at the Space Flight Laboratory (SFL) of the University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies (UTIAS).

It will be launched from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota, India, along with its twin, also designed in Canada, but assembled in Austria.

Each nano-satellite in the BRIght Target Explorer (BRITE) mission is a cube 20 cms per side, and weighing less than 7 kilograms.

The BRITE satellites are part of the new wave of nano-satellites that can be designed, assembled and deployed fast and relatively cheaply.

"SFL has demonstrated that nano-satellites can be developed quickly, by a small team and at a cost that is within reach of many universities, small companies and other organizations," says Cordell Grant, Manager of Satellite Systems for the Space Flight Laboratory at UTIAS.

"A nano-satellite can take anywhere from six months to a few years to develop and test, but we typically aim for two years or less."

Up to now, such nano-satellites had been used only to monitor the earth and experiment with new technologies.

"Researchers, scientists and companies worldwide, who have great ideas for space-borne experiments, but do not have the means to fund a large spacecraft, can now see their ideas realized," said Grant.

"BRITE has the potential to open an entirely new market for low-cost high-performance satellites."

BRITE is the first nano-satellite mission intended for astronomy, and the first-ever astronomy constellation -more than one satellite working toward a common objective- of any size.

The previous world-record holder for small astronomy satellites was the MOST satellite, designed and assembled in part by SFL at UTIAS.

Launched in 2003 and still operating, MOST was the first entirely Canadian satellite for astronomy, weighing in at 53 kilograms. Compared to the 11 metric tons of the Hubble Space Telescope, MOST was aptly called a micro-satellite.

"BRITE is expected to demonstrate that nano-satellites are now capable of performance that was once thought impossible for such small spacecraft," says Grant. But only small telescopes can fit within a 20 centimetre cube.

Therefore, BRITE is not intended to take pretty pictures, but will simply observe stars and record changes in their brightness over time.

Such changes could be caused by spots on the star, a planet or other star orbiting the star, or by oscillations and reverberations within the star itself -the analogue of earthquakes on stars.

The study of these so-called "starquakes" is called astero-seismology.

Russian Meteorite Impact: One-Kilo Meteorite Fragment Found

One-Kilo Meteorite Fragment Found. 

Image courtesy Russian Academy of Sciences.

Scientists from Russia's Urals Federal University have discovered a meteorite fragment weighing more than one kilogram (2.2 lbs), the largest found so far from the meteorite strike that hit the Urals region on February 15, University expedition chief Viktor Grokhovsky said on Monday.



A total of more than 100 fragments have been found by the expedition along a 50 kilometer (30 mile) trail under the meteorite's flight path, he said.

Over 1,500 people were injured and thousands of buildings damaged when the massive meteorite streaked across the sky over the Russian city of Chelyabinsk.

US space agency NASA estimates the meteorite was roughly 15 meters (50 feet) in diameter when it struck Earth's atmosphere, travelling several times the speed of sound, and exploded into a fireball brighter than the morning sun.

Fragments of the meteorite have been found in an eight-meter (25 feet) wide crater in the region's Lake Chebarkul, scientists said earlier this week.

William Shatner names Pluto Moon: Vulcan

In a voting campaign to pick names for two of Pluto's smallest moons one clear winner is "Vulcan," proposed by U.S. actor William Shatner of "Star Trek" fame.

Online ballot casting allowing the public to vote for the name of two recently discovered moons of the dwarf planet -- for now known as just P4 and P5 -- ended Friday, with Vulcan in first place followed by Cerberus.

Although a late addition to the candidate names the public could vote on, Vulcan piled up a big lead after Shatner, who played Capt. James T. Kirk in the popular television series and movies, campaigned for the name on Twitter.

Vulcan was the home planet of Kirk's first officer, Spock, played by Leonard Nimoy.

Officials at SETI, which conducted the public poll, said they considered it an appropriate candidate since Vulcan is also the name of the god of fire in Roman mythology.

"Vulcan is the Roman god of lava and smoke, and the nephew of Pluto." SETI scientist Mark Showalter wrote in a blog when the name was added to the list on Feb. 12. "Thanks to William Shatner for the suggestion!"

Although Vulcan and Cerberus won the name poll, the final decision on names for the moons will rest with the International Astronomical Union.

Astronomers have found five moons around Pluto so far, with three of them named: Charon, Nix and Hydra.

P4 was discovered in 2011, and P5 in 2012; both are only about 20 miles in diameter.

The Whirlpool Galaxy: NGC 5194

The Whirlpool Galaxy is a classic spiral galaxy. At only 30 million light years distant and fully 60 thousand light years across, M51, also known as NGC 5194, is one of the brightest and most picturesque galaxies on the sky. 

This image is a digital combination of a ground-based image from the 0.9-meter telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory and a space-based image from the Hubble Space Telescope highlighting sharp features normally too red to be seen.

Image Credit: NASA/Hubble

UK University of Surrey STRaND: Launch Smartphone satellite


A smartphone has been blasted into orbit from India by a team of researchers from the University of Surrey.

They hope to use a purpose-built app to test the theory, immortalised in the film Alien, that "in space no-one can hear you scream".

The phone will play out several of the screams submitted by people online.

The test will monitor the durability of standard commercial components in space.

It will also test two new innovative propulsion systems.

STRaND-1 being assembledThe first - named Warp Drive (Water Alcohol Resisto-jet Propulsion De-orbit Re-entry Velocity Experiment) - uses the ejection of a water-alcohol mixture to provide thrust.

The second technology is pulsed plasma thrusters. These use an electric current to heat and evaporate a material, producing a charged gas that can then be accelerated in one direction in a magnetic field to push the satellite in the other direction.

'Fantastic achievement'
The mission will see the so-called "smartphone-sat" - a world first - orbit the Earth for six months.

Weighing 4.3 kg (9.5lbs) and measuring 10cm by 30cm (4in by 12in), the satellite has been developed by the University of Surrey's Space Centre (SSC) and Surrey Satellite Technology (SSTL).

Strand-1 being worked on by engineers"This mission is a fantastic achievement and a great tribute to the hard work of the engineers involved," said Sir Martin Sweeting, director of SSC, and also executive chairman of SSTL.

At first, the Strand-1 satellite will be controlled by a standard onboard computer, but in phase two of the mission, a Google Nexus phone will take the reins - equipped with a number of special apps.

One of them, iTesa, is to record the magnitude of the magnetic field around the phone during orbit.

The 360 app will take pictures using the phone's built-in five megapixel camera, and will act as a method of establishing the satellite's position.

Images captured by the app will be posted on Facebook.

NASA /ESA AIDA Mission: Smashing Asteroids

An artist's concept for the Asteroid Impact & Deflection Assessment (AIDA) mission led by the European Space Agency to intentionally strike an asteroid and test deflection capabilities that could protect Earth.

CREDIT: ESA

A mission that aims to slam a spacecraft into a near-Earth asteroid now officially has a target — a space rock called Didymos.

The joint European/U.S. Asteroid Impact and Deflection Assessment mission, or AIDA, will work to intercept Didymos in 2022, when the space rock is about 6.8 million miles (11 million kilometers) from Earth, European Space Agency officials announced Friday (Feb. 22).

Didymos is actually a binary system, in which a 2,625-foot-wide (800 meters) asteroid and a 490-foot (150 m) space rock orbit each other. Didymos poses no threat to Earth in the foreseeable future.

The proposed asteroid-smashing AIDA mission will send one small probe crashing into the smaller asteroid at about 14,000 mph (22,530 kph) while another spacecraft records the dramatic encounter. Meanwhile, Earth-based instruments will record so-called "ground-truthing" observations.

The goal is to learn more about how humanity could ward off a potentially dangerous space rock. The necessity of developing a viable deflection strategy was underlined in many people's minds by the events of last Friday (Feb. 15), when the 130-foot (40 m) asteroid 2012 DA14 gave Earth a historically close shave just hours after a 55-foot (17 m) object exploded above the Russian city of Chelyabinsk, injuring 1,200 people and damaging thousands of buildings.



The AIDA impact will unleash about as much energy as that released when a big piece of space junk hits a satellite, researchers said, so the mission could also help improve models of space-debris collisions.

"The project has value in many areas, from applied science and exploration to asteroid resource utilization," Andy Cheng, AIDA lead at Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory, said in a statement.

The European Space Agency (ESA) has asked scientists around the world to propose experiments that AIDA could carry in space or that could increase its scientific return from the ground. Researchers have until March 15 to pitch their ideas.

Johns Hopkins’ Applied Physics Laboratory is providing AIDA's impactor, which is called DART (short for Double Asteroid Redirection Test). The observing spacecraft is known as AIM (Asteroid Impact Monitor) and will come from ESA.

ESA JUICE Mission to Jupiter's Icy Moons

An artist's illustration of the JUpiter ICy moons Explorer spacecraft in the Jovian system. The mission will launch in 2022 and arrive at Jupiter in 2030 to study the planet and its largest moons.

CREDIT: ESA/AOES

An ambitious European mission that will launch a robotic probe to explore Jupiter's icy moons in 2022 has got its science gear.

The European Space Agency has picked 11 instruments for the planned JUpiter ICy moons Explorer, or JUICE, spacecraft.

The mission is expected to reach Jupiter, the largest planet in the solar system, in 2030 and spend at least three years studying the gas giant's major moons Callisto, Europa, and Ganymede.

The Jovian satellites are intriguing to scientists because they are thought to have vast oceans beneath their icy outer crust.

"Jupiter and its icy moons constitute a kind of mini-Solar System in their own right, offering European scientists and our international partners the chance to learn more about the formation of potentially habitable worlds around other stars," said Dmitrij Titov, JUICE study scientist for ESA, in a Feb. 21 statement.

The JUICE mission will observe Jupiter's atmosphere and magnetosphere, as well all four Galilean moons: Europa, Callisto, Ganymede and the volcanic Io.

The spacecraft is expected to make 12 flybys of crater-covered Callisto, as well as two close passes of Europa in an attempt to gather the first-ever measurements of the thickness of that moon's frozen crust, ESA officials said.



The spacecraft will eventually end up orbiting Ganymede, the largest moon in our solar system, to study its surface and internal structure. Ganymede is also the only known moon in the solar system with its own magnetic field, and JUICE will closely observe the moon's interactions with Jupiter's magnetosphere, ESA officials said.

The collection of approved instruments to help scientists complete these tasks includes cameras, spectrometers, a laser altimeter and an ice-penetrating radar, as well as a magnetometer, plasma and particle monitors, and radio science hardware, ESA officials said. Teams from 15 European countries and the United States and Japan will develop the tools.

"The suite of instruments addresses all of the mission's science goals, from in-situ measurements of Jupiter's vast magnetic field and plasma environment, to remote observations of the surfaces and interiors of the three icy moons," Luigi Colangeli, coordinator of ESA's solar system missions, said in a statement.

Monday, February 25, 2013

NASA Cassini Image: Saturn's north polar hexagon

Saturn's north polar hexagon basks in the Sun's light now that spring has come to the northern hemisphere. 

Many smaller storms dot the north polar region and Saturn's signature rings, which appear to disappear into Saturn's shadow, put in an appearance in the background.

The image was taken with the Cassini spacecraft's wide-angle camera on Nov. 27, 2012 using a spectral filter sensitive to wavelengths of near-infrared light centered at 750 nanometers.

The view was acquired at a distance of approximately 403,000 miles (649,000 kilometers) from Saturn and at a Sun-Saturn-spacecraft, or phase, angle of 21 degrees. 

Image scale is 22 miles (35 kilometers) per pixel.

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Mars Surface: Fit for human habitation?

NASA's Hubble Space Telescope snapped this shot of Mars on Aug. 26, 2003, when the Red Planet was 34.7 million miles from Earth.

The picture was taken just 11 hours before Mars made its closest approach to us in 60,000 years.

CREDIT: NASA/ESA

While Mars was likely a more hospitable place in its wetter, warmer past, the Red Planet may still be capable of supporting microbial life today, some scientists say.

Ongoing research in Mars-like places such as Antarctica and Chile's Atacama Desert shows that microbes can eke out a living in extremely cold and dry environments, several researchers stressed at "The Present-Day Habitability of Mars" conference held here at the University of California Los Angeles this month.

And not all parts of the Red Planet's surface may be arid currently — at least not all the time. Evidence is building that liquid water might flow seasonally at some Martian sites, potentially providing a haven for life as we know it.

"We certainly can't rule out the possibility that it's habitable today," said Alfred McEwen of the University of Arizona, principal investigator for the HiRise camera aboard NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft.

Surface water on Mars
McEwen discussed some intriguing observations by HiRise, which suggest that briny water may flow down steep Martian slopes during the local spring and summer.

Sixteen such sites have been identified to date, mostly on the slopes of the huge Valles Marineris canyon complex, McEwen said.

The tracks seem to repeat seasonally as the syrupy fluids descend along weather-worn pathways.

While the brines may originate underground, Caltech's Edwin Kite noted, there is an increasing suspicion that a process known as deliquescence — in which moisture present in the atmosphere is gathered by compounds on the ground, allowing it to become a liquid — may be responsible.

Astrobiologists are keen to learn more about these brines, for not much is known about them at the moment.

"Briny water on Mars may or may not be habitable to microbes, either from Earth or from Mars," McEwen said.

Valles Marineris on Mars

Russian Asteroid Impact: Chelyabinsk gripped by 'meteor fever'

Russia's Chelyabinsk region is gripped by a kind of meteor fever, with thousands combing through fields trying to find meteorite fragments.

Near the villages of Deputatsky and Pervomaysky, an hour's drive from Chebarkul city, whole families of meteorite hunters are hard at work. 

The meteorite passed over the area before reportedly crashing into the Chebarkul lake, and the snowy fields are covered with human footprints.

The nearby home of the Belizkaya family was filled with soot from their oven after the meteorite explosion, which caused the ceiling to crack. Initially frightened, now the family calls that day their "rebirth", and have so far found three 1cm-wide meteorite fragments.

"We came with all the family, we do it out of interest, really, this is such a memento of that event," says Elena Belizkaya of the hoard. "We'll keep it at home for now, but if there's a chance to sell it, we'll sell some, of course!"

meteorite hunters

Meteorite hunters require no particular expertise as the hunt is relatively simple - a meteorite's impact leaves a small crater similar to a mouse's hole.

If you find such a hole in a bank of snow you can be certain - it's either a mouse or a meteorite. The BBC team found four tiny stones within five minutes.

Most of those fragments found near Deputatsky are pea-sized, but some can be much bigger - more like golf balls. The biggest fragment we saw weighed about 100g.

It was found by a citizen of Chelyabinsk, who said he had received several offers from friends in Moscow. "It's like hunting or fishing," said one meteorite hunter.

"When you see an animal, your heart starts to beat fast, and when you're fishing - it's like pulling the fishing rod and thinking there's something extraordinary. This is the same - you see a tiny hole, try it, and here it is."

Space stones
Space stones Scientists from the meteorite laboratory at the Russian Academy of Science collecting samples in Chelyabinsk say the more meteorite hunters the merrier, because there are only a couple of days of good weather left for the search.

meteorite fragments

The mineral which the meteorite is made of - chondrite - is common and not of great interest. But size matters.

Any wind or snowfall will destroy meteorite traces, and small fragments will simply not be found until the spring, when the fields will be covered by tall grass.

The mineral which the meteorite is made of - chondrite - is common and not of great interest, says junior research associate Dmitry Sadilenko. But its size matters.

The Chebarkul meteorite is one of the largest on record - preliminary estimates suggest it was the size of a skyscraper. And the bigger the fragment found, the more it is worth.

What's more, according to Russia's Subsoil Law, there are no legal grounds for prohibiting people from collecting, selling and exporting meteorite fragments.

However, potentially lucrative finds are already raising eyebrows. The Internet is full of ads selling so-called fragments of the Chebarkul meteorite, with prices ranging from a few thousand to 500,000 roubles (£11,000).

Lucrative hole in the ice
The Chelyabinsk police department has already questioned one "businessman" - a resident of Emanzhelinka village - who has sold several fragments for 15,000 roubles.

He could be charged with fraud if the stones are found to be fake. Lucrative hole in the ice Although scientists from the Ural Federal University have declared Chebarkul Lake to be the location of the main meteorite fall - suggesting a fragment as wide as 50cm may be lying on the lake bed - the Chelyabinsk authorities say they cannot confirm this.

Chelyabinsk deputy governor Igor Murog told the BBC that the large ice-hole thought to have been made by the meteorite could equally have been made by a fisherman.

Meteorite hunters

Locals charge the price of an expensive Moscow taxi ride to take meteorite hunters to the Chebarkul lake ice hole. 

Meteor hunters, though, seem not to care about official statements: Many are drilling holes in the ice and lowering magnets attached to ropes into the water. For now they are finding mostly tiny fragments.

Even Chebarkul Mayor Andrey Orlov joined in the hunt, sending divers into the lake's cold water soon after the meteorite fall, only for their mission to be thwarted by silt on the lake-bed. The hunt will continue on Monday.

 He has announced a competition for business ideas as Chebarkul tries to profit from its status as the only city where meteorite fragments are known to have landed.

And locals are already cashing in, offering to shuttle visitors to the site of the now-famous ice-hole via horse and cart - for the price of an expensive Moscow taxi fare.

BBC map

Mauritia: Fragments of ancient continent buried under Indian Ocean

Land on Earth was once gathered together in a supercontinent known as Rodinia, shown here as it was during its break-up 750 million years ago. 

Now scientists believe they have found a fragment of it buried under the Indian Ocean

Fragments of an ancient continent are buried beneath the floor of the Indian Ocean, a study suggests.

Researchers have found evidence for a landmass that would have existed between 2,000 and 85 million years ago.

The strip of land, which scientists have called Mauritia, eventually fragmented and vanished beneath the waves as the modern world started to take shape.

The study is published in the journal Nature Geoscience.

Supercontinent
Until about 750 million years ago, the Earth's landmass was gathered into a vast single continent called Rodinia.

And although they are now separated by thousands of kilometres of ocean, India was once located next to Madagascar.

Now researchers believe they have found evidence of a sliver of continent - known as a microcontinent - that was once tucked between the two.

The team came to this conclusion after studying grains of sand from the beaches of Mauritius.

While the grains dated back to a volcanic eruption that happened about nine million years ago, they contained minerals that were much older.

Professor Trond Torsvik, from the University of Oslo, Norway, said: "We found zircons that we extracted from the beach sands, and these are something you typically find in a continental crust. They are very old in age."

The zircon dated to between 1,970 and 600 million years ago, and the team concluded that they were remnants of ancient land that had been dragged up to the surface of the island during a volcanic eruption.

Mercury: Enhanced Colours of the Innermost Planet

This colorful view of Mercury was produced by using images from the colour base map imaging campaign during MESSENGER's primary mission. 

These colours are not what Mercury would look like to the human eye, but rather the colours enhance the chemical, mineralogical, and physical differences between the rocks that make up Mercury's surface.

Image Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington

NASA Telescopes Discover Strobe-Like Flashes in a Suspected Binary Protostar

NASA's Spitzer and Hubble space telescopes have teamed up to uncover a mysterious infant star that behaves like a police strobe light.

Left: This is a false-color, infrared-light Spitzer image of LRLL 54361 inside the star-forming region IC 348 located 950 light-years away and has an unusual variable object that has the typical signature of a protostar.

  • Larger image Center: This Hubble Space Telescope monochromatic-colour image resolves the detailed structure around the protostar, consisting of two cavities that are traced by light scattered off their edges above and below a dusty disk.
  • Larger image Right: This is an artist's impression of the hypothesized central object that may be two young binary stars.
  • Larger image Image credit: NASA, ESA, J. Muzerolle (STScI), E. Furlan (NOAO and Caltech), K. Flaherty (Univ. of Ariz./Steward Observatory), Z. Balog (Max Planck Institute for Astronomy), and R. Gutermuth (Univ. Mass. Amherst) 

Image acknowledgment: R. Hurt (Caltech/Spitzer Science Center) Two of NASA's great observatories, the Spitzer and Hubble space telescopes, have teamed up to uncover a mysterious infant star that behaves like a strobe light.

Every 25.34 days, the object, designated LRLL 54361, unleashes a burst of light. Although a similar phenomenon has been observed in two other young stellar objects, this is the most powerful such beacon seen to date.

ESA Hubble Image: Glowing Jet From A Young Sta

This image shows an object known as HH 151, a bright jet of glowing material trailed by an intricate, orange-hued plume of gas and dust. 

It is located some 460 light-years away in the constellation of Taurus (The Bull), near to the young, tumultuous star HL Tau.

In the first few hundred thousand years of life, new stars like HL Tau pull in material that falls towards them from the surrounding space. 

This material forms a hot disc that swirls around the coalescing body, launching narrow streams of material from its poles. 

These jets are shot out at speeds of several hundred kilometers (or miles) per second and collide violently with nearby clumps of dust and gas, creating wispy, billowing structures known as Herbig-Haro objects — like HH 151 seen in this image.

Such objects are very common in star-forming regions. They are short-lived, and their motion and evolution can actually be seen over very short timescales, on the order of years. 

They quickly race away from the newly-forming star that emitted them, colliding with new clumps of material and glowing brightly before fading away.

ESA/Hubble & NASA

Sunday, February 24, 2013

ESA Hubble Image: Cosmic "Flying V" of Merging Galaxies

Image courtesy ESA/Hubble and NASA.

This large "flying V" is actually two distinct objects - a pair of interacting galaxies known as IC 2184.

Both the galaxies are seen almost edge-on in the large, faint northern constellation of Camelopardalis (The Giraffe), and can be seen as bright streaks of light surrounded by the ghostly shapes of their tidal tails.

These tidal tails are thin, elongated streams of gas, dust and stars that extend away from a galaxy into space.

They occur when galaxies gravitationally interact with one another, and material is sheared from the outer edges of each body and flung out into space in opposite directions, forming two tails.

They almost always appear curved, so when they are seen to be relatively straight, as in this image, it is clear that we are viewing the galaxies side-on.

Also visible in this image are bursts of bright blue, pinpointing hot regions where the colliding gas clouds stir up vigorous star formation.

The image consists of visible and infrared observations from Hubble's Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2.

NGC 1973 Image: The Running Man Nebula

The Running Man Nebula. Astro-photographers Bob and Janice Fera took this image of NGC 1973, or the Running Man nebula, on Jan. 2-4, 2013, from Eagle Ridge Observatory in Foresthill, Calif. 

CREDIT: Bob and Janice Fera.

The ethereal strides of the Running Man Nebula come into view in this stunning night sky photo.

Astrophotographers Bob and Janice Fera took this image of NGC 1973, also known as the Running Man Nebula, on Jan. 2 to Jan. 4, from Eagle Ridge Observatory in Foresthill, Calif.

The Feras used an Officina Stellare RC-360AST 14" f/8 Ritchey Chretien Cassegrain telescope with two-element field flattener to observe nebula.

An Apogee Alta U16M CCD camera with Astrodon filters was used to capture the photo.

The Running Man Nebula is located roughly 1,500 light years from Earth in the constellation of Orion.

A light-year is the distance light travels in one year, or about 6 trillion miles (10 trillion kilometers).

It’s a reflection nebula, which mean it doesn't emit any visible light of its own, but rather is illuminated by the light from nearby stars.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Innovative Infectious Disease Research on ISS

Microgravity research may provide an opportunity to identify novel targets for vaccine development and the Nickerson team, in collaboration with Roy Curtiss, director of the Biodesign Institute's Center for Infectious Diseases and Vaccinology has been working toward this goal. 

Based on previous findings, the scientists hypothesized that results from microgravity experiments might be used to facilitate vaccine development on Earth.

Performing sensitive biological experiments is always a delicate affair.

Few researchers, however, contend with the challenges faced by Cheryl Nickerson, whose working laboratory aboard the International Space Station (ISS) is located hundreds of miles above the Earth, traveling at some 17,000 miles per hour.

Nickerson, a microbiologist at Arizona State University's Biodesign Institute, is using the ISS platform to pursue new research into the effects of microgravity on disease-causing organisms.

Nickerson presented her research findings and charted the course for future investigations aboard the ISS on February 18 at the 2013 annual meeting for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, held in Boston, Mass.

Her talk, entitled "Microgravity: A Novel Tool for Advances in Biomedical Research," is part of a special session devoted to ISS science.

"One important focus of my research is to use the microgravity environment of spaceflight as an innovative biomedical research platform. We seek to unveil novel cellular and molecular mechanisms related to infectious disease progression that cannot be observed here on Earth, and to translate our findings to novel strategies for treatment and prevention."

For NASA, Nickerson's findings were revelatory, given their implications for the health of astronauts on extended spaceflight missions.

Already faced with the potential for compromised immunity induced by the rigors of space travel, astronauts may have to further contend with the threat of disease-causing microbes with amped-up infectious abilities.

A more thorough understanding of infectious processes and host responses under these conditions is therefore vital for the design of therapeutics and other methods of limiting vulnerability for those on space missions.