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NASA Prepares OSIRIS-REx to Safely Store Leaking Asteroid Samples

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By Agence France-Presse | Updated: 27 October 2020

NASA’s robotic spacecraft Osiris-Rex is set to begin on Tuesday a delicate operation to store the precious particles it scooped up from the asteroid Bennu, but which were leaking into space when a flap got wedged open.

The probe is on a mission to collect fragments that scientists hope will help unravel the origins of our solar system, but that hit a snag after it picked up too big of a sample.

Fragments from the asteroid’s surface are in a collector at the end of the probe’s three-metre (10-foot) arm, slowly escaping into space because some rocks have prevented the compartment closing completely.

That arm is what came into contact with Bennu for a few seconds last Tuesday in the culmination of a mission launched from Earth some four years ago.

The probe is thought to have collected some 400 grams (14 ounces) of fragments, far more than the minimum of 60 grams needed, NASA said previously.

Scientists need to stow the sample in a capsule that is at the probe’s centre, and the operation was moved up to Tuesday from the planned November 2 date due to the leak.

“The abundance of material we collected from Bennu made it possible to expedite our decision to stow,” said Dante Lauretta, project chief.

OSIRIS-REx is set to come home in September 2023, hopefully with the largest sample returned from space since the Apollo era.

The stowing operation will take several days, NASA said, because it requires the team’s oversight and input unlike some of OSIRIS-REx’s other operations that run autonomously.

After each step in the process the spacecraft will send information and images back to Earth so scientists can make sure everything is proceeding correctly.

The probe is so far away that it takes 18.5 minutes for its transmissions to reach Earth, and any signal from the control room requires the same amount of time to reach OSIRIS-REx.

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Puerto Rico’s Arecibo Observatory Telescope Collapses Ahead of Planned Demolition

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By Reuters | Updated: 2 December 2020

A massive radio telescope at Puerto Rico’s Arecibo Observatory, one of the world’s largest, collapsed on Tuesday after sustaining severe damage since August, officials said, following 57 years of astronomical discoveries.

The deteriorating telescope’s 900-ton instrument platform, suspended by cables 450 feet (137 metres) above a 1,000-foot-wide (305 metres) bowl-shaped reflector dish, fell on Tuesday morning, the US National Science Foundation said. No injuries were reported, it added.

The telescope, which received radio waves from space, had been used by scientists around the world to hunt for possible signatures of extraterrestrial life, study distant planets and find potentially hazardous asteroids. It also gained fame after pivotal scenes in the 1995 James Bond film “GoldenEye” starring Pierce Brosnan were shot there.

Two cables supporting the reflector dish had broken since August, causing damage and forcing officials to close the observatory as engineering firms retained by the University of Central Florida, which manages the observatory, studied ways to repair the damage.

In November, the engineering reviews led the NSF and the university to conclude that efforts to repair the structure would be too dangerous and that it would have to be demolished.

The NSF said that initial findings indicated that the top section of all three of the telescope’s support towers broke off and that as the instrument platform fell, the telescope’s support cables also plummeted.

The observatory also includes other scientific assets such as a 40-foot (12-metre) telescope used for radio astronomy research and a facility used to study the Earth’s upper atmosphere and ionosphere. The observatory’s learning center, located next to the telescope, sustained significant damage from falling cables, the NSF said.

“We are saddened by this situation but thankful that no one was hurt,” NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan said in a statement. “Our focus is now on assessing the damage, finding ways to restore operations at other parts of the observatory, and working to continue supporting the scientific community, and the people of Puerto Rico.”

The NSF said it will authorise the university to continue paying Arecibo staff and to come up with a plan to continue research at the observatory. The agency said it has not determined the cause of the initial cable failure in August.

© Thomson Reuters 2020

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Google Sister Firm DeepMind’s AI Cracks Protein-Folding Problem, Heralds New Age of Bioengineering, Medicine

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By Agence France-Presse | Updated: 2 December 2020

For decades scientists have been trying to figure out how to swiftly predict the twisting, tangled shape of proteins, and from there unravel a greater understanding of the machinery of life itself.

This week an Artificial Intelligence programme created by Google sister firm DeepMind was shown to have virtually cracked the challenge, forecasting the way in which proteins contort into three dimensional structures in the results of a biannual competition that judges hailed as a game changer.

“In some sense the problem is solved,” said John Moult, a computational biologist at the University of Maryland who co-founded the Critical Assessment of Techniques for Protein Structure Prediction (CASP) competition in 1994, quoted by the journal Nature.

Janet Thornton of the European Bioinformatics Institute said in a statement from the competition organisers on Monday that the work to solve the problem was a “triumph of human curiosity, endeavour and intelligence”.

“A better understanding of protein structures and the ability to predict them using a computer means a better understanding of life, evolution and, of course, human health and disease,” said Thornton, who is not affiliated with CASP or DeepMind.

The cells of all living beings contain thousands of proteins, workhorses that catalyse most chemical reactions in the body.

They are essential to life, from muscle function to carrying oxygen in the blood, and are also the key to diseases like cancer and even COVID-19.

A protein begins as a strand of amino acids, which then crumples into a unique three-dimensional tangle.

It is this shape that directly relates to its function.

Scientists have puzzled for half a century over how to accurately and quickly predict which formation, out of an unfathomably large number of possibilities, a protein might take by looking at its amino acid chain, a process that may take years in the laboratory.

The CASP contest involved around 100 teams who were given the amino acid sequences for dozens of proteins and tasked with estimating their final shapes, which were known to the organisers.

DeepMind, whose programme AlphaGo stunned the world in 2016 by beating an elite human player in the complex strategy game “Go,” was already at the top of the field in the last contest in 2018.

This time its AlphaFold programme determined the shape of many of the proteins “to a level of accuracy comparable to that achieved with expensive and time-consuming lab experiments”, according to the CASP organisers.

‘This changes medicine’

Andrei Lupas, an evolutionary biologist at the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology who was part of the assessment team, told Nature that AlphaFold had helped him determine the structure of a protein that his lab had been trying to pin down for a decade.

“This will change medicine. It will change research. It will change bioengineering. It will change everything,” he told Nature.

Derek Lowe, who writes about drug discovery and the pharma industry for Science Translational Medicine, described protein folding as like “watching piles of hinged lumber spontaneously restack themselves into functional boats, wagons and treehouses”.

He said the AlphaFold results did not mean the programme would consistently come up with the right protein structure.

“But getting that level of structural accuracy on that many varied proteins is something that has just never been done before.”

DeepMind said it was looking at how the programme might help increase knowledge of certain diseases, for example to identify whether a protein has malfunctioned.

“These insights could enable more precise work on drug development, complementing existing experimental methods to find promising treatments faster,” it said in a statement.

The firm added that it was working to produce a peer-reviewed paper and was “exploring how best to provide broader access to the system”.

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China’s Chang’e 5 Spacecraft Lands on Moon to Bring Rocks Back to Earth for the First Time Since 1970s

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By Associated Press | Updated: 2 December 2020

A Chinese spacecraft landed on the moon to bring back lunar rocks to Earth for the first time since the 1970s, the government announced.

The China National Space Administration said Chang’e 5 “successfully landed” at its designated site shortly after 11pm (8:30pm Tuesday IST) Tuesday after making a powered descent from its orbiter. It published images of the barren scene at the landing site, including where the lander’s shadow can be seen.

The lander was launched November 24 from the tropical southern island of Hainan. It is the latest venture by a Chinese space programme that sent its first astronaut into orbit in 2003, has a spacecraft en route to Mars and aims eventually to land a human on the moon.

Plans call for the lander to spend about two days drilling into the lunar surface and collecting 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds) of rocks and debris. The sample will be lifted up into orbit and transferred to a return capsule for the trip to Earth, setting down on the grasslands of Inner Mongolia around the middle of the month.

If it succeeds, it will be the first time scientists have obtained fresh samples of lunar rocks since a Soviet probe in the 1970s. Those samples are expected to be made available to scientists from other nations, although its unclear how much access NASA will have, given tight US government restrictions on space cooperation with China.

From the rocks and debris, scientists hope to learn more about the moon, including its precise age, as well as increased knowledge about other bodies in our solar system. Collecting samples, including from asteroids, is an increasing focus of many space programmes and China’s mastery of the technology once again places it among the leading nations operating in space.

US astronauts with NASA’s Apollo space programme brought back 842 pounds (382 kilograms) of lunar samples from 1969 to 1972, some of which is still being analysed and experimented on.

The Chang’e 5 flight is China’s third successful lunar landing. Its predecessor, Chang’e 4, was the first probe to land on the moon’s little-explored far side. Chinese space program officials have said they envision future crewed missions along with robotic ones, including possibly building some sort of permanent space base for conducting research. No timeline or other details have been announced.

The latest flight includes collaboration with the European Space Agency, which is helping to monitor the mission.

China’s space programme has proceeded more cautiously than the US-Soviet space race of the 1960s, which was marked by fatalities and launch failures.

In 2003, China became the third country to send an astronaut into orbit on its own after the Soviet Union and the United States. It also launched a crewed space station.

China, along with neighbors Japan and India, also has joined the growing race to explore Mars. The Tianwen 1 probe launched in July is on its way to the red planet carrying a lander and a rover to search for water.

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‘World’s Smallest Atom-Memory Unit’ Created for Smaller, Faster, More Energy-Efficient Computing Chips

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By Press Trust of India | Updated: 30 November 2020

Researchers have created the smallest memory device yet, an advance that may lead to faster, smaller, and more energy-efficient electronic chips for consumer electronics and brain-inspired computing.

The scientists from the University of Texas at Austin in the US also found the physics that unlocks dense memory storage capabilities for these tiny devices.

In the research, published recently in the journal Nature Nanotechnology, the scientists reduced the size of what was then the thinnest memory storage device, shrinking the cross section area down to just a single square nanometre.

According to the researchers, getting a handle on the physics that pack dense memory storage capability into these devices enabled them to make the device much smaller.

They said ultrasmall holes in the material provide the key to unlocking the high-density memory storage capability.

“When a single additional metal atom goes into that nanoscale hole and fills it, it confers some of its conductivity into the material, and this leads to a change or memory effect,” explained Deji Akinwande, a co-author of the study.

Though they used the compound molybdenum disulfide, also known as MoS2, as the primary nanomaterial in their study, the researchers believe the discovery could apply to hundreds of related atomically thin materials.

Smaller processors enable manufacturers to make more compact computers and phones, they said, adding that shrinking down chips also decreases their energy demands and increases capacity.

This means faster and smarter devices that take less power to operate, the scientists explained.

The original device, dubbed “atomristor” by the researchers, was at the time the thinnest memory storage device ever recorded, with a single atomic layer of thickness.

However, shrinking the memory device is not just about making it thinner but also building it with a smaller cross-sectional area, they added.

“The scientific holy grail for scaling is going down to a level where a single atom controls the memory function, and this is what we accomplished in the new study,” Akinwande said.

The new device falls under the category of memristors, an area of memory research, centred around electrical components with the ability to modify resistance between its two terminals without a need for a third terminal in the middle.

According to the researchers, these can be smaller than currently used memory devices and boast more storage capacity.

They said the new memristor promises a capacity of about 25 terabits per square centimetre, which is about 100 times higher memory density per layer compared with commercially available flash memory devices.

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Electronic Skin Has Strong Future Stretching Ahead, Study Suggests

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By ANI | Updated: 28 November 2020

A material that mimics human skin in strength, stretchability, and sensitivity could be used to collect biological data in real-time. Electronic skin, or e-skin, may play an important role in next-generation prosthetics, personalized medicine, soft robotics, and artificial intelligence.

“The ideal e-skin will mimic the many natural functions of human skin, such as sensing temperature and touch, accurately and in real-time,” says KAUST postdoc Yichen Cai. However, making suitably flexible electronics that can perform such delicate tasks while also enduring the bumps and scrapes of everyday life is challenging, and each material involved must be carefully engineered.

Most e-skins are made by layering an active nanomaterial (the sensor) on a stretchy surface that attaches to human skin. However, the connection between these layers is often too weak, which reduces the durability and sensitivity of the material; alternatively, if it is too strong, flexibility becomes limited, making it more likely to crack and break the circuit.

“The landscape of skin electronics keeps shifting at a spectacular pace,” says Cai. “The emergence of 2D sensors has accelerated efforts to integrate these atomically thin, mechanically strong materials into functional, durable artificial skins.”

A team led by Cai and colleague Jie Shen has now created a durable e-skin using a hydrogel reinforced with silica nanoparticles as a strong and stretchy substrate and a 2D titanium carbide MXene as the sensing layer, bound together with highly conductive nanowires.

“Hydrogels are more than 70 percent water, making them very compatible with human skin tissues,” explains Shen. By pre-stretching the hydrogel in all directions, applying a layer of nanowires, and then carefully controlling its release, the researchers created conductive pathways to the sensor layer that remained intact even when the material was stretched to 28 times its original size.

Their prototype e-skin could sense objects from 20 centimeters away, respond to stimuli in less than one-tenth of a second, and when used as a pressure sensor, could distinguish handwriting written upon it. It continued to work well after 5,000 deformations, recovering in about a quarter of a second each time. “It is a striking achievement for an e-skin to maintain toughness after repeated use,” says Shen, “which mimics the elasticity and rapid recovery of human skin.”

Such e-skins could monitor a range of biological information, such as changes in blood pressure, which can be detected from vibrations in the arteries to movements of large limbs and joints. This data can then be shared and stored on the cloud via Wi-Fi.

“One remaining obstacle to the widespread use of e-skins lies in scaling up of high-resolution sensors,” adds group leader Vincent Tung; “however, laser-assisted additive manufacturing offers new promise.”

“We envisage a future for this technology beyond biology,” adds Cai. “Stretchable sensor tape could one day monitor the structural health of inanimate objects, such as furniture and aircraft.”

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Sweden Joins India’s Venus Mission With Instrument to Explore Planet

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By Press Trust of India | Updated: 25 November 2020

Sweden is getting on board India’s Venus orbiter mission ”Shukrayaan” with a scientific instrument to explore the planet. Ambassador of Sweden to India, Klas Molin said Swedish Institute of Space Physics (IRF) is engaged in the venture, its second collaborative project with the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO).

“IRF’s satellite instrument Venusian Neutrals Analyzer (VNA) will study how the charged particles from the Sun interact with the atmosphere and exosphere of the planet”, he told PTI.

“The new Venus mission means that the collaboration between IRF and ISRO continues”.

The VNA would be the ninth generation of IRFs series of miniatured ion and ENA (Energetic Neutral Atoms) instruments, according to Swedish officials.

The first generation was named SARA (Sub-keV Atom Reflecting Analyzer) and was launched on board the Indian spacecraft Chandrayaan-1 that explored the Moon in 2008-2009. SARA consisted of two sensors. One was a detector for energetic neutral atoms and the other was an instrument to measure the flow of ions in the solar wind.

The instrument studied how the plasma around the Moon interacts with the moon where the surface is not protected by an atmosphere or a magnetic field, they said.

“For the first time ever, SARA could investigate energetic atoms that are knocked from the lunar surface when they are hit by the solar wind”, Swedish officials said.

The SARA experiment was the first collaborative project between IRF and the ISRO.

On collaboration in general with India in the field of space, Molin said Sweden has quite a lot to provide, both from its institutions and from space tech companies. He said India has a clear ambition to explore the universe, other planets and to send humans to space. “This segment includes to a large extent R&D effort, both regarding space technologies and services.”

“The unique Space Tech Testbed capability at Esrange can also carry out even more advanced tests of equipment and technologies that should be used in exploration campaigns”, Molin said. On future prospects in the space field between the two countries, the Ambassador noted that India has recently created National Space Promotion and Authorization Centre (IN-SPACe) to provide a level playing field for private companies to use Indian space infrastructure.

This is part of reforms aimed at giving a boost to private sector participation in the entire range of space activities, he said. “The future is exciting as India is opening the space market for commercial player participation and easing import-export restrictions, including 100 per cent FDI allowed in satellite development and deployment. It is important to underline that ISRO will remain as the main Indian customer in the coming years, but the market growth could be exponential”, Molin said.

According to ISRO officials, the Indian space agency has short-listed 20 space-based experiment proposals, including from France, for its proposed Venus mission to study the planet for more than four years. They include “collaborative contributions” from Russia, France, Sweden and Germany. ISRO was eyeing June, 2023 for the country’s first mission to Venus.

“But we are currently reviewing this mission timeline due to delays arising from the pandemic situation”, an ISRO official said.

“Future launch opportunity is either in 2024 or 2026”. It was noted that optimal launch window (when Venus is closest to the Earth) comes about every 19 months. Of the Indian and international payload proposals it received in response to an announcement of opportunity for novel space-based experiments to study Venus, ISRO has short-listed 20 and they are currently under review.

The one already selected, according to French space agency CNES, is France’s VIRAL instrument (Venus Infrared Atmospheric Gas Linker) co-developed with the Russian space agency Roscosmos, and the LATMOS atmospheres, environments and space observations laboratory attached to the French national scientific research centre CNRS.

Scientific objectives of ISRO’s Venus mission are investigation of the surface processes and shallow subsurface stratigraphy; and solar wind interaction with Venusian Ionosphere, and studying the structure, composition and dynamics of the atmosphere, according ISRO.

The payload capability of the proposed 2500-kg satellite, planned to be launched on GSLV Mk II rocket, is likely to be 175 kg with 500W of power.

The proposed orbit is expected to be around 500 x 60,000 km around Venus. This orbit is likely to be reduced gradually, over several months to a lower apoapsis (farthest point).

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