Scientific News (November 2018)

Airbus shoots for the Moon

Last week saw the arrival of Airbus Europe’s European Service Module (ESM), which has been designed for NASA’s Orion spacecraft, which is hoped will take future astronauts on missions to the Moon and beyond. The new spacecraft is believed to be the first of many that will boost Airbus’s future orders.

The new spaceship was placed into a special container that will then be placed upon a cargo plane, the first leg of its journey towards space, arriving at NASA’s Kennedy Space Centre, Florida. It will then be joined to the Orion crew module, which has been built by Lockheed Martin. The spaceship will the endure a year of rigorous testing prior to its three-week initially unmanned mission in 2020.

It is believed that future production of Orion and its European element could see orders for the system amounting to billions of dollars. Bill Gerstainmaier, the Associate Administration for Human Exploration and Operations for NASA said of the new spacecraft, “This is the system that will enable humans to move sustainably into deep space…and leave the Earth-Moon system for the first time ever.”

The first crewed mission is planned for 2022 – assuming things go according to plan, both NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) plan yearly manned missions with Orion. The European module will be the first time that NASA will use an important element of European design and mechanics to operate within an American spacecraft configuration.

The new spacecraft has been designed to travel 60,000 miles past the moon, further than any human has ever travelled in space before. Orion’s scope for its future missions is to offer scientists further opportunities to find out more about our Moon using the rapidly growing technology available and providing more chances of putting humans back there.

Airbus successfully won the €390 million contract in 2014 to construct the first ESM module,and are now working hard on a further order that is valued at over €200 million. Mike Hawes, responsible for the $11 billion Orion programme for Lockheed, has emphasised how important the mission will be for future exploration into deep space, and confirmed that Lockheed were currently in negotiations with NASA for up to another 12 missions resulting in billions of dollars of orders, while also working on reducing the cost of future spacecraft.

Scientist to feature on new £50 note

The new £50 note is to feature a British scientist, according to the recent announcement made by the Bank of England’s Governor, Mark Carney at the Science Museum in London. “There is a wealth of individuals whose work has shaped how we think about the world and who continue to inspire people today,” he continued “Our banknotes are an opportunity to celebrate the diversity of UK society and highlight the contributions of its greatest citizens.”

Details released by the Bank of England website has revealed that the British public will be given the opportunity to nominate the scientists who they feel should appear on the new bank note. Nominations and suggestions can be made over the next 6 weeks.

The bank also wants to include the portrait of a distinguished, well-known British scientist that has been involved in fields surrounding biology, astronomy or medical research. Currently, there are 330 million £50 notes in circulation, with a value of £16.5 billion according the Bank of England.

The Bank of England have announced that nominations can include scientists who have worked in any fields of science. A committee will be formed who will then shortlist the nominations. The committee will include four experts within the field of science, and the final decision will almost certainly be made by Carney, followed by an official date for circulation.

There are some strong contenders for the new face of the £50 note. Tipped as the favourite is the late Stephen Hawking, the University of Cambridge cosmologist and one of the most identifiable scientists across the globe in recent years. Other contenders include wartime codebreaker and computing genius Alan Turning, Ada Lovelace, the English mathematician for her work on an early general-purpose computer known as the Analytical Engine, and last but by no means least, Rosalind Franklin, whose work led the world in the discovery of DNA which later earned Franklin and her team the Nobel Prize.

The new note will also display a new signature from its recently appointed Chief Cashier at the Bank of England, Sarah John.

Hubble back on track

Worried astronomers are breathing a sigh a relief, following the news that the Hubble telescope has been repaired. Hubble returned to service on 26th October and has since been busy observing and monitoring collisions in distant galaxies and flares around “faraway red dwarfs” (dim low-mass stars).

It was back in 1990 when Hubble was launched and has since provided scientists with fascinating pictures and insights of the Earth and the surrounding universe. Last month we reported that Hubble had a malfunctioning gyroscope, but after three weeks of around the clock engineering work by NASA engineers, Hubble is now “running smoothly and nominally”, according to Helmut Jenkner, Deputy Head of Mission at the Space Telescope Institute in Baltimore.

NASA have since released Hubble’s most recent images, which include an area of a ‘space blanket’ showing three galaxies within a cluster forming a smiley face, a phenomenon caused by light from one galaxy which causes a shadow, whilst passing a large object that then forms an arc shape resembling a smile.

Other images include the star-making “Serpens Nebula”, which is 1,300 light-years away alongside a younger star which is throwing a bat like pattern on adjacent gas clouds. The images received had been taken prior to Hubble developing the fault.

New Parkinsons Disease research goes after the appendix

One of the largest studies of neurodegenerative illnesses has revealed that Parkinson’s disease could originate in the appendix of all things. Scientists in Sweden analysed the health records of over 1 million patients who had their appendix removed during their formative years, which indicated that there was a 19% reduction in the risk of developing and suffering from Parkinson’s disease. The recent findings are set to continue to connect Parkinson’s disease with the gut and immune systems within the human body, a disease that accelerates the loss of neurons within the brain, causing sufferers to lose motor skills, specifically the control of their movements causing tremors and slurring of speech.

Assistant Professor Viviane Labrie, based at Van Andel Research Institute in Michigan said of her findings, “Despite having a reputation as largely unnecessary, the appendix actually plays a major part in our immune systems, in regulating the makeup of our gut bacteria and now, as shown by our work, in Parkinson’s disease.”
The discovery could provide scientists and medical professionals with new ways of treating the disease by targeting the gastrointestinal tract, where it is believed that the disease actually starts.

The study showed that the appendix works as a reservoir, which stores oddly folded proteins chains known as Alpha Synuclein, which has been linked to the onset and progressive stages of Parkinsons. This latest study has provided scientists with a probable biological link.

The proteins have also been identified in healthy people as well, highlighting that just their existence within the human body is not likely to be the cause of the disease alone. It is therefore possible that Parkinson’s could be triggered by other events in the body, such as when protein escapes from the appendix and travels into the vagus nerve, which links the gut to the brain stem.

Labrie said of the study findings, “There has to be some other mechanism or confluence of events that allows the appendix to affect Parkinson’s risk…that’s what we plan to look at next – which factor or factors tip the scale in favour of Parkinson’s.”

Further evidence that corroborates the link was found using a US database which stores the details of 849 Parkinson’s patients, where outcomes revealed that patients who had undergone the removal of their appendix developed the disease nearly 4 years later.

Labrie admits that although the removal of the appendix is linked to a decreased risk of developing the disease, it does not offer protection and proposes that there may be several areas within the body that the disease could originate from.

It is predicted that by 2020, 162,000 people across the UK will be suffering with Parkinson’s. Although medical help is available to control the symptoms of the disease, unfortunately no known medicine has been developed to slow or stop its progression.

Head of Research at Parkinson’s UK, Claire Bale understands that a lot is still to be learnt about the surgical procedures that could be available avoid the delay in the development and preventing toxic proteins which are believed to cause Parkinson’s. Bale also understands that science is a long way from “eliminating” the condition due to the possibility of Parkinson’s looming in other parts of the body or brain. “In most cases, the causes of Parkinson’s are a mystery. But understanding how the condition starts and progresses is the first step to stopping it.”

Professor Tom Foltynie from the Institute of Neurology at the University College of London values the outcomes of the research, and believes that it has provided firm evidence that Parkinson’s has links with gut pathology. Even so, he remains skeptical as to why Parkinson’s only appears in some people who have abnormal Alpha Synuclein within the gut, yet others seem resistant. Foltynie believes that an answer to this will assist scientists and medical professionals in a future understanding of the processes that link the gut to diseases within the brain.

A chip off the old block

An iceberg in the shape of a near perfect rectangle has been spotted in Antarctic Peninsula by NASA scientists. The iceberg, which has been described as an “oddly satisfying phenomenon” was discovered close to the Larden C ice shelf. It is believed that due to the nature of the iceberg, with it displaying sharp angles in its appearance and flat surface, there is a high probability of being recently calved from the nearby ice shelf.

The iceberg has been measured of up to approximately a mile long. The shape and size of the iceberg has been questioned by many on the internet as being ‘Photoshopped’ or even the work of alien lifeforms. Kelly Brunt, an Ice Scientist from NASA has been somewhat more grounded when describing the phenomenon, which she described as a common processed iceberg.

Icebergs are known by two separate formations, the most familiar being the prism shaped iceberg, much like the one that famously sank the Titanic over 100 years ago. Tabular icebergs are more unusual; these appear to be in the shape of a square. Brunt described the tabular icebergs as “A fingernail growing too long, then snapping at the end.”

An iceberg with the appearance of a triangle was also seen in the close vicinity. Only 10% of icebergs are visible, with the main body of the iceberg based below the surface of the water. Across the globe, sea ice can be found in many types and forms. The development of ice can depend on varying meteorological, atmospheric and physical conditions.

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Scientific News (October 2018)

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