Category Archives: space exploration

Mini T-shirt demonstrates photosynthetic living materials

Caption: A mini T-shirt demonstrates the photosynthetic living materials created in the lab of University Rochester biologist Anne S. Meyer and Delft University of Technology bionanoscientist Marie-Eve Aubin-Tam using 3D printers and a new bioink technique. Credit: University of Rochester photo

I’m not sure how I feel about a t-shirt, regardless of size, made of living biological material but these researchers seem uniformly enthusiastic. From a May 3, 2021 news item on phys.org (Note: A link has been removed),

Living materials, which are made by housing biological cells within a non-living matrix, have gained popularity in recent years as scientists recognize that often the most robust materials are those that mimic nature.

For the first time, an international team of researchers from the University of Rochester [located in New York state, US] and Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands used 3D printers and a novel bioprinting technique to print algae into living, photosynthetic materials that are tough and resilient. The material has a variety of applications in the energy, medical, and fashion sectors. The research is published in the journal Advanced Functional Materials.

An April 30, 2021 University of Rochester new release (also on EurekAlert but published May 3, 2021) by Lindsey Valich, which originated the news item, delves further into the topic of living materials,

“Three-dimensional printing is a powerful technology for fabrication of living functional materials that have a huge potential in a wide range of environmental and human-based applications.” says Srikkanth Balasubramanian, a postdoctoral research associate at Delft and the first author of the paper. “We provide the first example of an engineered photosynthetic material that is physically robust enough to be deployed in real-life applications.”

HOW TO BUILD NEW MATERIALS: LIVING AND NONLIVING COMPONENTS

To create the photosynthetic materials, the researchers began with a non-living bacterial cellulose–an organic compound that is produced and excreted by bacteria. Bacterial cellulose has many unique mechanical properties, including its flexibility, toughness, strength, and ability to retain its shape, even when twisted, crushed, or otherwise physically distorted.

The bacterial cellulose is like the paper in a printer, while living microalgae acts as the ink. The researchers used a 3D printer to deposit living algae onto the bacterial cellulose.

The combination of living (microalgae) and nonliving (bacterial cellulose) components resulted in a unique material that has the photosynthetic quality of the algae and the robustness of the bacterial cellulose; the material is tough and resilient while also eco-friendly, biodegradable, and simple and scalable to produce. The plant-like nature of the material means it can use photosynthesis to “feed” itself over periods of many weeks, and it is also able to be regenerated–a small sample of the material can be grown on-site to make more materials.

ARTIFICIAL LEAVES, PHOTOSYNTHETIC SKINS, AND BIO-GARMENTS

The unique characteristics of the material make it an ideal candidate for a variety of applications, including new products such as artificial leaves, photosynthetic skins, or photosynthetic bio-garments.

Artificial leaves are materials that mimic actual leaves in that they use sunlight to convert water and carbon dioxide–a major driver of climate change–into oxygen and energy, much like leaves during photosynthesis. The leaves store energy in chemical form as sugars, which can then be converted into fuels. Artificial leaves therefore offer a way to produce sustainable energy in places where plants don’t grow well, including outer space colonies. The artificial leaves produced by the researchers at Delft and Rochester are additionally made from eco-friendly materials, in contrast to most artificial leaf technologies currently in production, which are produced using toxic chemical methods.

“For artificial leaves, our materials are like taking the ‘best parts’ of plants–the leaves–which can create sustainable energy, without needing to use resources to produce parts of plants–the stems and the roots–that need resources but don’t produce energy,” says Anne S. Meyer, an associate professor of biology at Rochester. “We are making a material that is only focused on the sustainable production of energy.”

Another application of the material would be photosynthetic skins, which could be used for skin grafts, Meyer says. “The oxygen generated would help to kick-start healing of the damaged area, or it might be able to carry out light-activated wound healing.”

Besides offering sustainable energy and medical treatments, the materials could also change the fashion sector. Bio-garments made from algae would address some of the negative environmental effects of the current textile industry in that they would be high-quality fabrics that would be sustainability produced and completely biodegradable. They would also work to purify the air by removing carbon dioxide through photosynthesis and would not need to be washed as often as conventional garments, reducing water usage.

“Our living materials are promising because they can survive for several days with no water or nutrients access, and the material itself can be used as a seed to grow new living materials,” says Marie-Eve Aubin-Tam, an associate professor of bionanoscience at Delft. “This opens the door to applications in remote areas, even in space, where the material can be seeded on site.”

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Bioprinting of Regenerative Photosynthetic Living Materials by Srikkanth Balasubramanian, Kui Yu, Anne S. Meyer, Elvin Karana, Marie-Eve Aubin-Tam DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/adfm.202011162 First published: 29 April 2021

This paper is open access.

The researchers have provided this artistic impression of 3D printing of living (microalgae) and nonliving materials (bacterial cellulose),

An artist’s illustration demonstrates how 3D printed materials could be applied as durable, living clothing. (Lizah van der Aart illustration)

Space and sound (music from the Milky Way)

A May 17, 2021 posting on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) Radio Ideas programme blog describes and hosts embedded videos and audio clips of space data sonfications and visualizations,

After years of attempts and failures to get a microphone to Mars, NASA’s [US National Aeronautics and Space Administration] latest rover, Perseverance, succeeded. It landed in February carrying two microphones.

For Jason Achilles Mezilis, a musician and record producer who has also worked for NASA, listening to the haunting Martian wind was an emotional experience.

“I’m in this bar half drunk, and I go over to the corner and I listen to it on my cellphone and … I broke down.”

The atmosphere of Mars is a little thinner than Earth’s, but it still has enough air to transmit sound.

Ben Burtt, an Oscar-winning sound designer, editor and director, made the sounds of cinematic space fantasy — from Star Wars to WALL-E to Star Trek. But he’s also deeply interested in the sound of actual space reality.

“All sound is a form of wind, really. It’s a puff of air molecules moving. And when I heard the sound, I thought: ‘Well, you know, I’ve heard this many times in my headphones on recording trips,'” Burtt said

SYSTEM Sounds, founded by University of Toronto astrophysicist and musician Matt Russo, translates data from space into music. 

Planets or moons sometimes fall into what’s called “orbital resonance,” where two or more bodies pull each other into a regular rhythm. One example is the three inner moons of Jupiter: Ganymede, Europa, and Io. 

“The rhythm is very similar to what a drummer might play. There’s a very simple regularity,” Russo said.

“And there’s something about our ears and our auditory system that finds that pleasing, finds repeating rhythms with simple ratios between them pleasing or natural sounding. It’s predictable. So it gives you something to kind of latch on to emotionally.”

Russo created this tool to illustrate the musical rhythm of the Galilean moons. 

During the pandemic, scientists at NASA, with the help of SYSTEM Sounds, tried to find new ways of connecting people with the beauty of space. The result was “sonic visualizations,” translating data captured by telescopes into sound instead of pictures.

Most images of space come from data translated into colours, such as Cassiopeia A, the remains of an exploded star. 

A given colour is usually assigned to the electromagnetic signature of each chemical in the dust cloud. But instead of assigning a colour, a musical note can be assigned, allowing us to hear Cassiopeia A instead of just seeing it.

There are several embedded videos and the Ideas radio interview embedded in the May 17, 2021 posting. Should you be interested, you can find System Sounds here.

You will find a number of previous postings (use the search term ‘data sonification’); the earliest concerning ‘space music’ is from February 7, 2014. You’ll also find Matt Russo, the TRAPPIST-1 planetary system, and music in a May 11, 2017 posting.

Moon dust at the nanoscale

Before getting to the moon dust, it seems the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has undergone a communications strategy transformation. For example, there’s this whimsical video about the NIST’s latest on moon dust,

An April 28, 2021 news item on phys.org offers a little more whimsy and moon dust from the NIST,

Like a chameleon of the night sky, the moon often changes its appearance. It might look larger, brighter or redder, for example, due to its phases, its position in the solar system or smoke in Earth’s atmosphere. (It is not made of green cheese, however.)

Another factor in its appearance is the size and shape of moon dust particles, the small rock grains that cover the moon’s surface. Researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) are now measuring tinier moon dust particles than ever before, a step toward more precisely explaining the moon’s apparent color and brightness. This in turn might help improve tracking of weather patterns and other phenomena by satellite cameras that use the moon as a calibration source.

An April 28, 2021US NIST news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more technical detail,

NIST researchers and collaborators have developed a complex method of measuring the exact three-dimensional shape of 25 particles of moon dust collected during the Apollo 11 mission in 1969. The team includes researchers from the Air Force Research Laboratory, the Space Science Institute and the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

These researchers have been studying moon dust for several years. But as described in a new journal paper, they now have X-ray nano computed tomography (XCT), which allowed them to examine the shape of particles as small as 400 nanometers (billionths of a meter) in length.

The research team developed a method for both measuring and computationally analyzing how the dust particle shapes scatter light. Follow-up studies will include many more particles, and more clearly link their shape to light scattering. Researchers are especially interested in a feature called “albedo,” moonspeak for how much light or radiation it reflects.

The recipe for measuring the Moon’s nano dust is complicated. First you need to mix it with something, as if making an omelet, and then turn it on a stick for hours like a rotisserie chicken. Straws and dressmakers’ pins are involved too.

“The procedure is elaborate because it is hard to get a small particle by itself, but one needs to measure many particles for good statistics, since they are randomly distributed in size and shape,” NIST Fellow Ed Garboczi said.

“Since they are so tiny and because they only come in powders, a single particle needs to be separated from all the others,” Garboczi continued. “They are too small to do that by hand, at least not in any quantity, so they must be carefully dispersed in a medium. The medium must also freeze their mechanical motion, in order to be able to get good XCT images. If there is any movement of the particles during the several hours of the XCT scan, then the images will be badly blurred and generally not usable. The final form of the sample must also be compatible with getting the X-ray source and camera close to the sample while it rotates, so a narrow, straight cylinder is best.”

The procedure involved stirring the Apollo 11 material into epoxy, which was then dripped over the outside of a tiny straw to get a thin layer. Small pieces of this layer were then removed from the straw and mounted on dressmakers’ pins, which were inserted into the XCT instrument.

The XCT machine generated X-ray images of the samples that were reconstructed by software into slices. NIST software stacked the slices into a 3D image and then converted it into a format that classified units of volume, or voxels, as either inside or outside the particles. The 3D particle shapes were identified computationally from these segmented images. The voxels making up each particle were saved in separate files that were forwarded to software for solving electromagnetic scattering problems in the visible to the infrared frequency range.

The results indicated that the color of light absorbed by a moon dust particle is highly sensitive to its shape and can be significantly different from that of spherical or ellipsoidal particles of the same size. That doesn’t mean too much to the researchers — yet.

“This is our first look at the influence of actual shapes of lunar particles on light scattering and focuses on some fundamental particle properties,” co-author Jay Goguen of the Space Science Institute said. “The models developed here form the basis of future calculations that could model observations of the spectrum, brightness and polarization of the moon’s surface and how those observed quantities change during the moon’s phases.”

The authors are now studying a wider range of moon dust shapes and sizes, including particles collected during the Apollo 14 mission in 1971. The moon dust samples were loaned to NIST by NASA’s Curation and Analysis Planning Team for Extraterrestrial Materials program.

Here’s a (2nd) link to and a citation for the paper,

Optical Scattering Characteristics of 3-D Lunar Regolith Particles Measured Using X-Ray Nano Computed Tomography by Somen Baidya; Mikolas Melius; Ahmed M. Hassan; Andrew Sharits; Ann N. Chiaramonti; Thomas Lafarge; Jay D. Goguen; Edward J. Garboczi. IEEE Geoscience and Remote Sensing Letters DOI: 10.1109/LGRS.2021.3073344 Published online April 27, 2021

This paper is behind a paywall.

A smart shirt at the Canadian Space Agency

Caption: Canadian Space Agency astronaut David Saint-Jacques tries the Bio-Monitor, a new Canadian technology, for the first time in space (January 16, 2019). The innovative smart shirt system is designed to measure and record astronauts’ vital signs. Credit: Canadian Space Agency/NASA

Here’s a biosensor announcement from an April 27, 2021 Experimental Biology (annual meeting) news release on EurekAlert,

A technology-packed tank top offers a simple, effective way to track astronauts’ vital signs and physiological changes during spaceflight, according to research being presented at the American Physiological Society annual meeting during the Experimental Biology (EB) 2021 meeting, held virtually April 27-30.

By monitoring key health markers over long periods of time with one non-intrusive device, researchers say the garment can help improve understanding of how spaceflight affects the body.

“Until now, the heart rate and activity levels of astronauts were monitored by separate devices,” said Carmelo Mastrandrea, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow at the Schlegel-University of Waterloo Research Institute for Aging in Canada, and the study’s first author. “The Bio-Monitor shirt allows simultaneous and continuous direct measurements of heart rate, breathing rate, oxygen saturation in the blood, physical activity and skin temperature, and provides a continuous estimate of arterial systolic blood pressure.”

The Bio-Monitor shirt was developed for the Canadian Space Agency by Carré Technologies based on its commercially available Hexoskin garment. In a study funded by the Canadian Space Agency, a team of researchers from the Schlegel-University of Waterloo Research Institute for Aging oversaw the first test of the shirt in space for a scientific purpose. Astronauts wore the shirt continually for 72 hours before their spaceflight and 72 hours during spaceflight, except for periods of water immersion or when the device conflicted with another activity.

The shirt’s sensors and accelerometer performed well, providing consistent results and a large amount of usable data. Based on these initial results, researchers say the shirt represents an improvement over conventional methods for monitoring astronauts’ health, which require more hands-on attention.

“By monitoring continuously and non-intrusively, we remove the psychological impacts of defined testing periods from astronaut measurements,” said Mastrandrea. “Additionally, we are able to gather information during normal activities over several days, including during daily activities and sleep, something that traditional testing cannot achieve.”

In flight, the astronauts recorded far less physical activity than the two and a half hours per day recorded in the monitoring period before takeoff, a finding that aligns with previous studies showing large reductions in physical activity during spaceflight. In addition to monitoring astronauts’ health and physical activity in space, Mastrandrea noted that the shirt could provide early warning of any health problems that occur as their bodies re-adapt to gravity back on Earth.

The commercial version of the Bio-Monitor shirt is available to the public, where it can be used for various applications including assessing athletic performance and monitoring the health of people with limited mobility. In addition to spaceflight, researchers are examining its potential use in other occupational settings that involve extreme environments, such as firefighting.

Mastrandrea will present this research in poster R2888 (abstract). Contact the media team for more information or to obtain a free press pass to access the virtual meeting.

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About Experimental Biology 2021

Experimental Biology is an annual meeting comprised of thousands of scientists from five host societies and multiple guest societies. With a mission to share the newest scientific concepts and research findings shaping clinical advances, the meeting offers an unparalleled opportunity for exchange among scientists from across the U.S. and the world who represent dozens of scientific areas, from laboratory to translational to clinical research. http://www.experimentalbiology.org #expbio

About the American Physiological Society (APS)

Physiology is a broad area of scientific inquiry that focuses on how molecules, cells, tissues and organs function in health and disease. The American Physiological Society connects a global, multidisciplinary community of more than 10,000 biomedical scientists and educators as part of its mission to advance scientific discovery, understand life and improve health. The Society drives collaboration and spotlights scientific discoveries through its 16 scholarly journals and programming that support researchers and educators in their work. http://www.physiology.org

Mastrandrea’s abstract offers details explaining what makes this particular biosensor a new technology (from the ‘(R2888) Tracking astronaut physical activity and cardiorespiratory responses with the Bio-Monitor sensor shirt‘ abstract at the Experimental Biology (EB) 2021 meeting,

Carmelo Mastrandrea (Schlegel-UW Research Institute for Aging)| Danielle Greaves (Schlegel-UW Research Institute for Aging)| Richard Hughson (Schlegel-UW Research Institute for Aging)

Astronauts develop insulin resistance, and are at risk for cardiovascular deconditioning, during long-duration missions to the International Space Station (ISS) despite their daily exercise sessions (Hughson et al. Am J Physiol Heart Circ Physiol 310: H628–H638, 2016). Chronic unloading of the musculoskeletal and cardiovascular systems in microgravity dramatically reduces the challenge of daily activities, and the astronauts’ schedules limit them to approximately 30-min/day aerobic exercise. To understand the physical demands of spaceflight and how these change from daily life on Earth, the Vascular Aging experiment is equipping astronauts for 48-72h continuous recordings with the Canadian Space Agency’s Bio-Monitor wearable sensor shirt. The Bio-Monitor (Bio-M), developed from the commercial Hexoskin® device, consists of 3-lead ECG, thoracic and abdominal respiratory bands, 3-axis accelerometer, skin temperature and SpO2 sensor placed on the forehead. Our utilisation of this equipment necessitated the development of novel processing and visualisation techniques, to better interpret and guide subsequent data analyses [emphasis mine]. Here we present initial data from astronauts wearing the BioM prior to launch and aboard the ISS, demonstrating the ability to extract useful data from BioM, using software developed ‘in-house’.

Astronauts wore the Bio-M continually for 72-h except for periods of water immersion or when the device conflicted with another activity. After physical exercise, astronauts changed to a dry shirt. First, we assessed the key data-quality metrics to provide initial appraisals of acceptable recordings. Mean total recording length pre-flight (60.5 hours) was similar to that in-flight (66.5 hours), with a consistent distribution of recorded day (44% vs 45%, 6am-6pm) and night (56% vs 55%, 6pm-6am) hours (pre-flight vs in-flight respectively).

For each recording, quality assessment of ECG signals was performed for individual leads, before combining signals and cross-correlating R-waves to produce reliable heart-rate timings. Mean ECG quality for individual leads, represented here as the percentage of usable signal to total recording duration, was somewhat lower in-flight (92%) when compared to pre-flight (96%), likely caused by poor skin contact or dry shirt electrodes; combining lead signals as mentioned above improved the proportion of usable data to 97% and 98% respectively. Accelerometer recordings identified a significant reduction in high-force movements over the 72-hour recordings, with just over 2.5 hours/day of high-force activity in astronauts pre-flight vs 50 minutes/day in-flight. It should be noted however that accelerometer measurements in zero-gravity are likely to be reduced, and future refinement of activity data continues. Average heart rates in-flight showed little difference when compared to pre-flight, although future analyses will compare periods of sleep, rest, and activity to further refine this comparison.

We conclude that utilisation of the BioM hardware with our own analysis techniques produces high-quality data allowing for future interpretation and investigation of spaceflight-induced physiological adaptations.

As for Hexoskin (Carré Technologies inc.), I found out more on the About Us webpage of the Hexoskin website (Note: Links have been removed),

Hexoskin (Carré Technologies inc.)

Founded in 2006 in Montreal [Canada], Hexoskin is a growing private company, leader in non-invasive sensors, software, data science & AI services. The company headquartered in the bustling Rosemont neighborhood, provides solutions and services directly to customers & researchers; and through B2B contracts in pharmaceutical, academics, healthcare, security, defense, first responders, aerospace public & private organizations.

Hexoskin’s mission has always been to make the precise health data collected by its body-worn sensors accessible and useful for everyone. When the cofounders Pierre-Alexandre Fournier and Jean-François Roy started the company back in 2006, the existing technologies to report rich health data continuously didn’t exist. Hexoskin took a different approach to non-portable and invasive monitoring solutions by releasing in 2013 the first washable Smart Shirts that captures cardiac, respiratory, and activity body metrics. Today Hexoskin’s main R&D focus is the development of innovative body-worn sensors for health, mobile, and distributed software for health data management and analysis.

Since then, Hexoskin has designed the Hexoskin Connected Health Platform, a system to minimize user setup time and to maximize vital signs monitoring over long periods in a non-obstructive way with sensors embedded in a Smart Shirt. Data are synced to local and remote servers for health data management and analysis.
The Hexoskin Smart Garments are clinically validated and are developed involving patients & clients to be comfortable and easy to use.

The system is the next evolution to improve the standard of care in the following therapeutic areas: respiratory, cardiology, mental health, behavioral and physiological psychology, somnology, aging and physical performance, physical conditioning & wellbeing etc.

Next Generation Biometric Smart Shirts

Hexoskin supported the evolution of its 100% washable industry-leading Hexoskin Smart Garments to offer an easy and comfortable solution for continuously monitoring precise data during daily activities and sleep. Hexoskin is a machine washable Smart garment, designed and made in Canada that allows precise long-term monitoring of respiratory, cardiac and activity functions simultaneously, as well as sleep quality. 

Users are provided access the Hexoskin Connected Health Platform, an end-to-end system that supplies the tools to report and analyze precise data from the Hexoskin & third-party body-worn sensors. The platform offers apps for iOS, Android, and Watch OS devices. Users can access from anywhere an online dashboard with advanced reporting and analytics functionalities. Today, the Hexoskin Connected Platform is used worldwide and supported thousands of users and organizations to achieve their goals.

In 2019, Hexoskin launched the new Hexoskin ProShirt line for Men and Women with an all-new design to withstand the most active lifestyle and diverse daily living activities. The Hexoskin ProShirtcomes with built-in textile ECG & Respiratory sensors and a precise Activity sensor. The ProShirt works with the latest Hexoskin Smart recording device to offer uninterrupted continuous 24-hour monitoring. 

Today, the Hexoskin ProShirt are used by professional athletes for performance training, police & first responders for longitudinal stress monitoring, and patients in clinical trials living with chronic cardiac & respiratory conditions. 

Connected Health & Software Solutions

Hexoskin provides interoperable software solutions, secure and private infrastructure and data science services to support research and professional organizations. The system is designed to reduce the frequency of travel and allow remote communication between patients, study volunteers, caregivers, and researchers. Hexoskin is an efficient and precise solution that collects daily quantitative data from users, in their everyday lives, and over long periods of time. 

Conscious of the need for its users to understand how the data is collected and interpreted, Hexoskin early took a transparent approach by opening and documenting its Application Programing Interface (API). Today, part of Hexoskin’s success can be attributed to its community of developers and scientists that are leveraging its Connected Health Platform to create new applications and interventions not possible just a few years ago. 

Future Applications—remote health to space exploration

Since 2011, Hexoskin collaborated with the Canadian Space Agency on the Astroskin, a cutting edge Space Grade Smart Garment, now used in the International Space Station to monitor the astronauts’ health in Space. The Astroskin Vital Signs Monitoring Platform is also available to conduct research on earth.

Hexoskin hopes to bring the innovations developed for Space and its Hexoskin Connected Health Platform to support the growing need to provide patients’ access to affordable and adapted healthcare services remotely. Future applications include healthcare, chronic disease management, sleep medicine, aging at home, security & defense, and space exploration missions.

Hexoskin shirts, as noted earlier, are available commercially while inquiries about Astroskin shirts are welcomed (Note: Links have been removed),

Thinking that Astroskin will be perfect for your next study or project? Contact us  to discuss how Astroskin can support your next project. You can also request a demo of the Astroskin Vital Signs Monitoring Platform here.

Finally, I noticed that the researchers on this project were from the Schlegel-UW [University of Waterloo] Research Institute for Aging. I gather this was all about aging.

New podcast—Mission: Interplanetary and Event Rap: a one-stop custom rap shop Kickstarter

I received two email notices recently, one from Dr. Andrew Maynard (Arizona State University; ASU) and one from Baba Brinkman (Canadian rapper of science and other topics now based in New York).

Mission: Interplanetary

I found a “Mission: Interplanetary— a podcast on the future of humans as a spacefaring species!” webpage (Link: https://collegeofglobalfutures.asu.edu/blog/2021/03/23/mission-interplanetary-redefining-how-we-talk-about-humans-in-space/) on the Arizona State University College of Global Futures website,

Back in January 2019 I got an email from my good friend and colleague Lance Gharavi with the title “Podcast brainstorming.” Two years on, we’ve just launched the Mission: Interplanetary podcast–and it’s amazing!

It’s been a long journey — especially with a global pandemic thrown in along the way — but on March 23 [2021], the Mission: Interplanetary podcast with Slate and ASU finally launched.

After two years of planning, many discussions, a bunch dry runs, and lots (and by that I mean lots) of Zoom meetings, we are live!

As the team behind the podcast talked about and developed the ideas underpinning the Mission: Interplanetary,we were interested in exploring new ways of thinking and talking about the future of humanity as a space-faring species as part of Arizona State University’s Interplanetary Initiative. We also wanted to go big with these conversations — really big!

And that is exactly what we’ve done in this partnership with Slate.

The guests we’re hosting, the conversations we have lined up, the issues we grapple with, are all literally out of this world. But don’t just take my word for it — listen to the first episode above with the incredible Lindy Elkins-Tanton talking about NASA’s mission to the asteroid 16 Psyche.

And this is just a taste of what’s to come over the next few weeks as we talk to an amazing lineup of guests.

So if you’re looking for a space podcast with a difference, and one that grapples with big questions around our space-based future, please do subscribe on your favorite podcast platform. And join me and the fabulous former NASA astronaut Cady Coleman as we explore the future of humanity in space.

See you there!

Slate’s webpage (Mission: Interplanetary; Link: https://slate.com/podcasts/mission-interplanetary) offers more details about the co-hosts and the programmes along with embedded podcasts,

Cady Coleman is a former NASA astronaut and Air Force colonel. She flew aboard the International Space Station on a six-month expedition as the lead science and robotics officer. A frequent speaker on space and STEM topics, Coleman is also a musician who’s played from space with the Chieftains and Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull.

Andrew Maynard is a scientist, author, and expert in risk innovation. His books include Films From the Future: The Technology and Morality of Sci-Fi Movies and Future Rising

Latest Episodes

April 27, 2021

Murder in Space

What laws govern us when we leave Earth?

Happy listening. And, I apologize for the awkward links.

Event Rap Kickstarter

Baba Brinkman’s April 27, 2021 email notice has this to say about his latest venture,

Join the Movement, Get Rewards

My new Kickstarter campaign for Event Rap is live as of right now! Anyone who backs the project is helping to launch an exciting new company, actually a new kind of company, the first creator marketplace for rappers. Please take a few minutes to read the campaign description, I put a lot of love into it.

The campaign goal is to raise $26K in 30 days, an average of $2K per artist participating. If we succeed, this platform becomes a new income stream for independent artists during the pandemic and beyond. That’s the vision, and I’m asking for your help to share it and support it.

But instead of why it matters, let’s talk about what you get if you support the campaign!

$10-$50 gets you an advance copy of my new science rap album, Bright Future. I’m extremely proud of this record, which you can preview here, and Bright Future is also a prototype for Event Rap, since all ten of the songs were commissioned by people like you.

$250 – $500 gets you a Custom Rap Video written and produced by one of our artists, and you have twelve artists and infinite topics to choose from. This is an insanely low starting price for an original rap video from a seasoned professional, and it applies only during the Kickstarter. What can the video be about? Anything at all. You choose!

In case it’s helpful, here’s a guide I wrote entitled “How to Brief a Rapper

$750 – $1,500 gets you a live rap performance at your virtual event. This is also an amazingly low price, especially since you can choose to have the artist freestyle interactively with your audience, write and perform a custom rap live, or best of all compose a “Rap Up” summary of the event, written during the event, that the artist will perform as the grand finale.

That’s about as fresh and fun as rap gets.

$3,000 – $5,000 the highest tiers bring the highest quality, a brand new custom-written, recorded, mixed and mastered studio track, or studio track plus full rap music video, with an exclusive beat and lyrics that amplify your message in the impactful, entertaining way that rap does best.

I know this higher price range isn’t for everyone, but check out some of the music videos our artists have made, and maybe you can think of a friend to send this to who has a budget and a worthy cause.

Okay, that’s it!

Those prices are in US dollars.

I gather at least one person has backed given enough money to request a custom rap on cycling culture in the Netherlands.

The campaign runs for another 26 days. It has amassed over $8,400 CAD towards a goal of $32,008 CAD. (The site doesn’t show me the goal in USD although the pledges/reward are listed in that currency.)

“Eat up your ceramic nanoparticles” says the European Space Agency

A Sept. 4, 2020 news item on phys.org showcases some intriguing research from the European Space Agency (ESA),

“Eat your vitamins” might be replaced with “ingest your ceramic nano-particles” in the future as space research is giving more weight to the idea that nanoscopic particles could help protect cells from common causes of damage.

A Sept, 4, 2020 ESA press release, which originated the news item, fills in some of the details and raises a question,

Oxidative stress occurs in our bodies when cells lose the natural balance of electrons in the molecules that we are made of. This is a common and constant occurrence that is part of our metabolism but also plays a role in the aging process and several pathological conditions, such as heart failure, muscle atrophy and Parkinson’s disease.

The best advice for keeping your body in balance and avoiding oxidative stress is still to have a healthy diet and eat enough vitamins, but nanoparticles are showing promising results in keeping cells in shape.

When in space, astronauts have been shown to suffer from more oxidative stress due to the extra radiation they receive and as a by-product of floating in weightlessness, so researchers in Italy were keen to see if nanoparticles would have the same protective effect on cells on the International Space Station as on Earth.

They prepared muscle cells that flew to the International Space Station and were cultured in ESA’s Kubik incubator before being frozen for storage.

A year ago [emphasis mine] our frozen samples splashed down in the Pacific Ocean on the Dragon spacecraft, and after comparing the samples we saw a marked effect in the cells treated with ceramic nanoparticles,” says Gianni Ciofani from the Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia in Italy. “The effect we observed seems to imply that nanoparticles work better and longer than traditional antioxidants such as vitamins.”

“The experiment setup resulted in excellent samples to analyze using state-of-the art RNA sequencing,” continues Gianni. “Conducting space research is nothing like traditional lab work, as we have less samples, we cannot do the work ourselves and we have to work around deadlines such as launch days, landing and storing the samples, it is challenging but thrilling research!” The team even found ways to improve and simplify the process for future studies.

Baby astronauts hypothesis

The research adds weight to the baby-astronaut hypothesis of weightlessness. The changes in muscle tissue observed are similar to how babies’ tissues develop in the womb.

“Some researchers see similarities to how human bodies adapt to living in space with pre-natal conditions: there are similarities with floating in a warm environment with different oxygen intake and we consider it a possibility of return to the state,” says Giada Genchi, also of the Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia’s Smart Bio-Interfaces department.

The team’s high-quality muscle tissue samples are being further analyzed and compared to samples from similar experiments that flew earlier. There is still much more to learn, such as what is the best way to administer nano-ceramics and how long do their protective effects last as well as possible unwanted side effects.

I highlighted a “A year ago” because that should mean 2019 but the research the ESA press release linked to was published in 2018. I cannot find anything more recent. So, for the curious, here’s a link to and a citation for the 2018 research paper,

Modulation of gene expression in rat muscle cells following treatment with nanoceria in different gravity regimes by Giada Graziana Genchi, Andrea Degl’Innocenti, Alice Rita Salgarella, Ilaria Pezzini, Attilio Marino, Arianna Menciassi, Sara Piccirillo, Michele Balsamo & Gianni Ciofani. Nanomedicine Vol. 13, No. 22 Preliminary Communication DOI: https://doi.org/10.2217/nnm-2018-0316 Published Online: 18 Oct 2018 Print Version: 2018 Nov;13 (22): 2821-2833. DOI: 10.2217/nnm-2018-0316.

The paper is behind a paywall.

This image was used to illustrate the work,

Courtesy Nanomedicine (journal)

Regardless of when the research was published, it’s still pretty interesting work and I hope to hear more about it in the future.

News from the Canadian Light Source (CLS), Canadian Science Policy Conference (CSPC) 2020, the International Symposium on Electronic Arts (ISEA) 2020, and HotPopRobot

I have some news about conserving art; early bird registration deadlines for two events, and, finally, an announcement about contest winners.

Canadian Light Source (CLS) and modern art

Rita Letendre. Victoire [Victory], 1961. Oil on canvas, Overall: 202.6 × 268 cm. Art Gallery of Ontario. Gift of Jessie and Percy Waxer, 1974, donated by the Ontario Heritage Foundation, 1988. © Rita Letendre L74.8. Photography by Ian Lefebvre

This is one of three pieces by Rita Letendre that underwent chemical mapping according to an August 5, 2020 CLS news release by Victoria Martinez (also received via email),

Research undertaken at the Canadian Light Source (CLS) at the University of Saskatchewan was key to understanding how to conserve experimental oil paintings by Rita Letendre, one of Canada’s most respected living abstract artists.

The work done at the CLS was part of a collaborative research project between the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) and the Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI) that came out of a recent retrospective Rita Letendre: Fire & Light at the AGO. During close examination, Meaghan Monaghan, paintings conservator from the Michael and Sonja Koerner Centre for Conservation, observed that several of Letendre’s oil paintings from the fifties and sixties had suffered significant degradation, most prominently, uneven gloss and patchiness, snowy crystalline structures coating the surface known as efflorescence, and cracking and lifting of the paint in several areas.

Kate Helwig, Senior Conservation Scientist at the Canadian Conservation Institute, says these problems are typical of mid-20th century oil paintings. “We focused on three of Rita Letendre’s paintings in the AGO collection, which made for a really nice case study of her work and also fits into the larger question of why oil paintings from that period tend to have degradation issues.”

Growing evidence indicates that paintings from this period have experienced these problems due to the combination of the experimental techniques many artists employed and the additives paint manufacturers had begun to use.

In order to determine more precisely how these factors affected Letendre’s paintings, the research team members applied a variety of analytical techniques, using microscopic samples taken from key points in the works.

“The work done at the CLS was particularly important because it allowed us to map the distribution of materials throughout a paint layer such as an impasto stroke,” Helwig said. The team used Mid-IR chemical mapping at the facility, which provides a map of different molecules in a small sample.

For example, chemical mapping at the CLS allowed the team to understand the distribution of the paint additive aluminum stearate throughout the paint layers of the painting Méduse. This painting showed areas of soft, incompletely dried paint, likely due to the high concentration and incomplete mixing of this additive. 

The painting Victoire had a crumbling base paint layer in some areas and cracking and efflorescence at the surface in others.  Infrared mapping at the CLS allowed the team to determine that excess free fatty acids in the paint were linked to both problems; where the fatty acids were found at the base they formed zing “soaps” which led to crumbling and cracking, and where they had moved to the surface they had crystallized, causing the snowflake-like efflorescence.

AGO curators and conservators interviewed Letendre to determine what was important to her in preserving and conserving her works, and she highlighted how important an even gloss across the surface was to her artworks, and the philosophical importance of the colour black in her paintings. These priorities guided conservation efforts, while the insights gained through scientific research will help maintain the works in the long term.

In order to restore the black paint to its intended even finish for display, conservator Meaghan Monaghan removed the white crystallization from the surface of Victoire, but it is possible that it could begin to recur. Understanding the processes that lead to this degradation will be an important tool to keep Letendre’s works in good condition.

“The world of modern paint research is complicated; each painting is unique, which is why it’s important to combine theoretical work on model paint systems with this kind of case study on actual works of art” said Helwig. The team hopes to collaborate on studying a larger cross section of Letendre’s paintings in oil and acrylic in the future to add to the body of knowledge.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Rita Letendre’s Oil Paintings from the 1960s: The Effect of Artist’s Materials on Degradation Phenomena by Kate Helwig, Meaghan Monaghan, Jennifer Poulin, Eric J. Henderson & Maeve Moriarty. Studies in Conservation (2020): 1-15 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/00393630.2020.1773055 Published online: 06 Jun 2020

This paper is behind a paywall.

Canadian Science Policy Conference (CSPC) 2020

The latest news from the CSPC 2020 (November 16 – 20 with preconference events from Nov. 1 -14) organizers is that registration is open and early birds have a deadline of September 27, 2020 (from an August 6, 2020 CSPC 2020 announcement received via email),

It’s time! Registration for the 12th Canadian Science Policy Conference (CSPC 2020) is open now. Early Bird registration is valid until Sept. 27th [2020].

CSPC 2020 is coming to your offices and homes:

Register for full access to 3 weeks of programming of the biggest science and innovation policy forum of 2020 under the overarching theme: New Decade, New Realities: Hindsight, Insight, Foresight.

2500+ Participants

300+ Speakers from five continents

65+ Panel sessions, 15 pre conference sessions and symposiums

50+ On demand videos and interviews with the most prominent figures of science and innovation policy 

20+ Partner-hosted functions

15+ Networking sessions

15 Open mic sessions to discuss specific topics

The virtual conference features an exclusive array of offerings:

3D Lounge and Exhibit area

Advance access to the Science Policy Magazine, featuring insightful reflections from the frontier of science and policy innovation

Many more

Don’t miss this unique opportunity to engage in the most important discussions of science and innovation policy with insights from around the globe, just from your office, home desk, or your mobile phone.

Benefit from significantly reduced registration fees for an online conference with an option for discount for multiple ticket purchases

Register now to benefit from the Early Bird rate!

The preliminary programme can be found here. This year there will be some discussion of a Canadian synthetic biology roadmap, presentations on various Indigenous concerns (mostly health), a climate challenge presentation focusing on Mexico and social vulnerability and another on parallels between climate challenges and COVID-19. There are many presentations focused on COVID-19 and.or health.

There doesn’t seem to be much focus on cyber security and, given that we just lost two ice caps (see Brandon Spektor’s August 1, 2020 article [Two Canadian ice caps have completely vanished from the Arctic, NASA imagery shows] on the Live Science website), it’s surprising that there are no presentations concerning the Arctic.

International Symposium on Electronic Arts (ISEA) 2020

According to my latest information, the early bird rate for ISEA 2020 (Oct. 13 -18) ends on August 13, 2020. (My June 22, 2020 posting describes their plans for the online event.)

You can find registration information here.

Margaux Davoine has written up a teaser for the 2020 edition of ISEA in the form of an August 6, 2020 interview with Yan Breuleux. I’ve excerpted one bit,

Finally, thinking about this year’s theme [Why Sentience?], there might be something a bit ironic about exploring the notion of sentience (historically reserved for biological life, and quite a small subsection of it) through digital media and electronic arts. There’s been much work done in the past 25 years to loosen the boundaries between such distinctions: how do you imagine ISEA2020 helping in that?

The similarities shared between humans, animals, and machines are fundamental in cybernetic sciences. According to the founder of cybernetics Norbert Wiener, the main tenets of the information paradigm – the notion of feedback – can be applied to humans, animals as well as the material world. Famously, the AA predictor (as analysed by Peter Galison in 1994) can be read as a first attempt at human-machine fusion (otherwise known as a cyborg).

The infamous Turing test also tends to blur the lines between humans and machines, between language and informational systems. Second-order cybernetics are often associated with biologists Francisco Varela and Humberto Maturana. The very notion of autopoiesis (a system capable of maintaining a certain level of stability in an unstable environment) relates back to the concept of homeostasis formulated by Willam Ross [William Ross Ashby] in 1952. Moreover, the concept of “ecosystems” emanates directly from the field of second-order cybernetics, providing researchers with a clearer picture of the interdependencies between living and non-living organisms. In light of these theories, the absence of boundaries between animals, humans, and machines constitutes the foundation of the technosciences paradigm. New media, technological arts, virtual arts, etc., partake in the dialogue between humans and machines, and thus contribute to the prolongation of this paradigm. Frank Popper nearly called his book “Techno Art” instead of “Virtual Art”, in reference to technosciences (his editor suggested the name change). For artists in the technological arts community, Jakob von Uexkull’s notion of “human-animal milieu” is an essential reference. Also present in Simondon’s reflections on human environments (both natural and artificial), the notion of “milieu” is quite important in the discourses about art and the environment. Concordia University’s artistic community chose the concept of “milieu” as the rallying point of its research laboratories.

ISEA2020’s theme resonates particularly well with the recent eruption of processing and artificial intelligence technologies. For me, Sentience is a purely human and animal idea: machines can only simulate our ways of thinking and feeling. Partly in an effort to explore the illusion of sentience in computers, Louis-Philippe Rondeau, Benoît Melançon and I have established the Mimesis laboratory at NAD University. Processing and AI technologies are especially useful in the creation of “digital doubles”, “Vactors”, real-time avatar generation, Deep Fakes and new forms of personalised interactions.

I adhere to the epistemological position that the living world is immeasurable. Through their ability to simulate, machines can merely reduce complex logics to a point of understandability. The utopian notion of empathetic computers is an idea mostly explored by popular science-fiction movies. Nonetheless, research into computer sentience allows us to devise possible applications, explore notions of embodiment and agency, and thereby develop new forms of interaction. Beyond my own point of view, the idea that machines can somehow feel emotions gives artists and researchers the opportunity to experiment with certain findings from the fields of the cognitive sciences, computer sciences and interactive design. For example, in 2002 I was particularly marked by an immersive installation at Universal Exhibition in Neuchatel, Switzerland titled Ada: Intelligence Space. The installation comprised an artificial environment controlled by a computer, which interacted with the audience on the basis of artificial emotion. The system encouraged visitors to participate by intelligently analysing their movements and sounds. Another example, Louis-Philippe Demers’ Blind Robot (2012),  demonstrates how artists can be both critical of, and amazed by, these new forms of knowledge. Additionally, the 2016 BIAN (Biennale internationale d’art numérique), organized by ELEKTRA (Alain Thibault) explored the various ways these concepts were appropriated in installation and interactive art. The way I see it, current works of digital art operate as boundary objects. The varied usages and interpretations of a particular work of art allow it to be analyzed from nearly every angle or field of study. Thus, philosophers can ask themselves: how does a computer come to understand what being human really is?

I have yet to attend conferences or exchange with researchers on that subject. Although the sheer number of presentation propositions sent to ISEA2020, I have no doubt that the symposium will be the ideal context to reflect on the concept of Sentience and many issues raised therein.

For the last bit of news.

HotPopRobot, one of six global winners of 2020 NASA SpaceApps COVID-19 challenge

I last wrote about HotPopRobot’s (Artash and Arushi with a little support from their parents) response to the 2020 NASA (US National Aeronautics and Space Administration) SpaceApps challenge in my July 1, 2020 post, Toronto COVID-19 Lockdown Musical: a data sonification project from HotPopRobot. (You’ll find a video of the project embedded in the post.)

Here’s more news from HotPopRobot’s August 4, 2020 posting (Note: Links have been removed),

Artash (14 years) and Arushi (10 years). Toronto.

We are excited to become the global winners of the 2020 NASA SpaceApps COVID-19 Challenge from among 2,000 teams from 150 countries. The six Global Winners will be invited to visit a NASA Rocket Launch site to view a spacecraft launch along with the SpaceApps Organizing team once travel is deemed safe. They will also receive an invitation to present their projects to NASA, ESA [European Space Agency], JAXA [Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency], CNES [Centre National D’Etudes Spatiales; France], and CSA [Canadian Space Agency] personnel. https://covid19.spaceappschallenge.org/awards

15,000 participants joined together to submit over 1400 projects for the COVID-19 Global Challenge that was held on 30-31 May 2020. 40 teams made to the Global Finalists. Amongst them, 6 teams became the global winners!

The 2020 SpaceApps was an international collaboration between NASA, Canadian Space Agency, ESA, JAXA, CSA,[sic] and CNES focused on solving global challenges. During a period of 48 hours, participants from around the world were required to create virtual teams and solve any of the 12 challenges related to the COVID-19 pandemic posted on the SpaceApps website. More details about the 2020 SpaceApps COVID-19 Challenge:  https://sa-2019.s3.amazonaws.com/media/documents/Space_Apps_FAQ_COVID_.pdf

We have been participating in NASA Space Challenge for the last seven years since 2014. We were only 8 years and 5 years respectively when we participated in our very first SpaceApps 2014.

We have grown up learning more about space, tacking global challenges, making hardware and software projects, participating in meetings, networking with mentors and teams across the globe, and giving presentations through the annual NASA Space Apps Challenges. This is one challenge we look forward to every year.

It has been a fun and exciting journey meeting so many people and astronauts and visiting several fascinating places on the way! We hope more kids, youths, and families are inspired by our space journey. Space is for all and is yours to discover!

If you have the time, I recommend reading HotPopRobot’s August 4, 2020 posting in its entirety.

Space junk clogs up low-Earth orbit

Arianne Cohen’s May 28, 2020 article for Fast Company concisely sums up the space junk problem and solution (Note: A link has been removed),

Throwing money at problems works in space, too! A paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences [PNAS] says that the space debris problem can be fixed once and for all, not by the engineers and scientists who consider space their domain, but with cold, hard cash: about $235,000 per satellite. Such a plan would create financial barriers for smaller organizations.

This looks pretty doesn’t it? hard to believe it’s a representation of the junk yard that floats around the earth.

Caption: A computer-generated image representing space debris as could be seen from high Earth orbit. The two main debris fields are the ring of objects in geosynchronous Earth orbit and the cloud of objects in low Earth orbit. Credit: NASA

For those who like a little more detail, a May 25, 2020 University of Colorado at Boulder news release (also on EurekAlert) presents the idea for orbital user fees as a means of limiting the amount of space junk,

Space is getting crowded. Aging satellites and space debris crowd low-Earth orbit, and launching new satellites adds to the collision risk. The most effective way to solve the space junk problem, according to a new study, is not to capture debris or deorbit old satellites: it’s an international agreement to charge operators “orbital-use fees” for every satellite put into orbit.

Orbital use fees would also increase the long-run value of the space industry, said economist Matthew Burgess, a CIRES [Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences] Fellow and co-author of the new paper. By reducing future satellite and debris collision risk, an annual fee rising to about $235,000 per satellite would quadruple the value of the satellite industry by 2040, he and his colleagues concluded in a paper published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“Space is a common resource, but companies aren’t accounting for the cost their satellites impose on other operators when they decide whether or not to launch,” said Burgess, who is also an assistant professor in Environmental Studies and an affiliated faculty member in Economics at the University of Colorado Boulder. “We need a policy that lets satellite operators directly factor in the costs their launches impose on other operators.”

Currently, an estimated 20,000 objects–including satellites and space debris–are crowding low-Earth orbit. It’s the latest Tragedy of the Commons, the researchers said: Each operator launches more and more satellites until their private collision risk equals the value of the orbiting satellite.

So far, proposed solutions have been primarily technological or managerial, said Akhil Rao, assistant professor of economics at Middlebury College and the paper’s lead author. Technological fixes include removing space debris from orbit with nets, harpoons, or lasers. Deorbiting a satellite at the end of its life is a managerial fix.

Ultimately, engineering or managerial solutions like these won’t solve the debris problem because they don’t change the incentives for operators. For example, removing space debris might motivate operators to launch more satellites–further crowding low-Earth orbit, increasing collision risk, and raising costs. “This is an incentive problem more than an engineering problem. What’s key is getting the incentives right,” Rao said.

A better approach to the space debris problem, Rao and his colleagues found, is to implement an orbital-use fee–a tax on orbiting satellites. “That’s not the same as a launch fee,” Rao said, “Launch fees by themselves can’t induce operators to deorbit their satellites when necessary, and it’s not the launch but the orbiting satellite that causes the damage.”

Orbital-use fees could be straight-up fees or tradeable permits, and they could also be orbit-specific, since satellites in different orbits produce varying collision risks. Most important, the fee for each satellite would be calculated to reflect the cost to the industry of putting another satellite into orbit, including projected current and future costs of additional collision risk and space debris production–costs operators don’t currently factor into their launches. “In our model, what matters is that satellite operators are paying the cost of the collision risk imposed on other operators,” said Daniel Kaffine, professor of economics and RASEI Fellow at the University of Colorado Boulder and co-author on the paper.

And those fees would increase over time, to account for the rising value of cleaner orbits. In the researchers’ model, the optimal fee would rise at a rate of 14 percent per year, reaching roughly $235,000 per satellite-year by 2040.

For an orbital-use fee approach to work, the researchers found, all countries launching satellites would need to participate–that’s about a dozen that launch satellites on their own launch vehicles and more than 30 that own satellites. In addition, each country would need to charge the same fee per unit of collision risk for each satellite that goes into orbit, although each country could collect revenue separately. Countries use similar approaches already in carbon taxes and fisheries management.

In this study, Rao and his colleagues compared orbital-use fees to business as usual (that is, open access to space) and to technological fixes such as removing space debris. They found that orbital use fees forced operators to directly weigh the expected lifetime value of their satellites against the cost to industry of putting another satellite into orbit and creating additional risk. In other scenarios, operators still had incentive to race into space, hoping to extract some value before it got too crowded.

With orbital-use fees, the long-run value of the satellite industry would increase from around $600 billion under the business-as-usual scenario to around $3 trillion, researchers found. The increase in value comes from reducing collisions and collision-related costs, such as launching replacement satellites.

Orbital-use fees could also help satellite operators get ahead of the space junk problem. “In other sectors, addressing the Tragedy of the Commons has often been a game of catch-up with substantial social costs. But the relatively young space industry can avoid these costs before they escalate,” Burgess said.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Orbital-use fees could more than quadruple the value of the space industry by Akhil Rao, Matthew G. Burgess, and Daniel Kaffine. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1921260117 PNAS first published May 26, 2020

This paper is behind a paywall.

Interstellar buckyball mystery solved

Caption: An artist’s conception showing spherical carbon molecules known as buckyballs coming out from a planetary nebula — material shed by a dying star. Researchers at the University of Arizona have now created these molecules under laboratory conditions thought to mimic those in their ‘natural’ habitat in space. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

A ‘buckyball’, for anyone who doesn’t know, is a molecule made up of carbon atoms, Said to resemble soccer balls or geodesic domes, they’re also known as C60 or Buckminsterfullerenes as Rachel Abraham notes in her November 13, 2019 University of Arizona news release (also on EurekAlert),

Scientists have long been puzzled by the existence of so-called “buckyballs” – complex carbon molecules with a soccer-ball-like structure – throughout interstellar space. Now, a team of researchers from the University of Arizona has proposed a mechanism for their formation in a study published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Carbon 60, or C60 for short, whose official name is Buckminsterfullerene, comes in spherical molecules consisting of 60 carbon atoms organized in five-membered and six-membered rings. The name “buckyball” derives from their resemblance to the architectural work of Richard Buckminster Fuller [bettr known as Buckminster Fuller], who designed many dome structures that look similar to C60. Their formation was thought to only be possible in lab settings until their detection in space challenged this assumption.

For decades, people thought interstellar space was sprinkled with lightweight molecules only: mostly single atoms, two-atom molecules and the occasional nine or 10-atom molecules. This was until massive C60 and C70 molecules were detected a few years ago.

Researchers were also surprised to find that that they were composed of pure carbon. In the lab, C60 is made by blasting together pure carbon sources, such as graphite. In space, C60 was detected in planetary nebulae, which are the debris of dying stars. This environment has about 10,000 hydrogen molecules for every carbon molecule.

“Any hydrogen should destroy fullerene synthesis,” said astrobiology and chemistry doctoral student Jacob Bernal, lead author of the paper. “If you have a box of balls, and for every 10,000 hydrogen balls you have one carbon, and you keep shaking them, how likely is it that you get 60 carbons to stick together? It’s very unlikely.”

Bernal and his co-authors began investigating the C60 mechanism after realizing that the transmission electron microscope, or TEM, housed at the Kuiper Materials Imaging and Characterization Facility at UArizona, was able to simulate the planetary nebula environment fairly well.

The TEM, which is funded by the National Science Foundation and NASA, has a serial number of “1” because it is the first of its kind in the world with its exact configuration. Its 200,000-volt electron beam can probe matter down to 78 picometers – scales too small for the human brain to comprehend – in order to see individual atoms. It operates under a vacuum with extremely low pressures. This pressure, or lack thereof, in the TEM is very close to the pressure in circumstellar environments.

“It’s not that we necessarily tailored the instrument to have these specific kinds of pressures,” said Tom Zega, associate professor in the UArizona Lunar and Planetary Lab and study co-author. “These instruments operate at those kinds of very low pressures not because we want them to be like stars, but because molecules of the atmosphere get in the way when you’re trying to do high-resolution imaging with electron microscopes.”

The team partnered with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Lab, near Chicago, which has a TEM capable of studying radiation responses of materials. They placed silicon carbide, a common form of dust made in stars, in the low-pressure environment of the TEM, subjected it to temperatures up to 1,830 degrees Fahrenheit and irradiated it with high-energy xenon ions.

Then, it was brought back to Tucson for researchers to utilize the higher resolution and better analytical capabilities of the UArizona TEM. They knew their hypothesis would be validated if they observed the silicon shedding and exposing pure carbon.

“Sure enough, the silicon came off, and you were left with layers of carbon in six-membered ring sets called graphite,” said co-author Lucy Ziurys, Regents Professor of astronomy, chemistry and biochemistry. “And then when the grains had an uneven surface, five-membered and six-membered rings formed and made spherical structures matching the diameter of C60. So, we think we’re seeing C60.”

This work suggests that C60 is derived from the silicon carbide dust made by dying stars, which is then hit by high temperatures, shockwaves and high energy particles , leeching silicon from the surface and leaving carbon behind. These big molecules are dispersed because dying stars eject their material into the interstellar medium – the spaces in between stars – thus accounting for their presence outside of planetary nebulae. Buckyballs are very stable to radiation, allowing them to survive for billions of years if shielded from the harsh environment of space.

“The conditions in the universe where we would expect complex things to be destroyed are actually the conditions that create them,” Bernal said, adding that the implications of the findings are endless.

“If this mechanism is forming C60, it’s probably forming all kinds of carbon nanostructures,” Ziurys said. “And if you read the chemical literature, these are all thought to be synthetic materials only made in the lab, and yet, interstellar space seems to be making them naturally.”

If the findings are any sign, it appears that there is more the universe has to tell us about how chemistry truly works.

I have two links and citations. This first is for the 2019 paper being described here and the second is the original 1985 paper about C60.

Formation of Interstellar C60 from Silicon Carbide Circumstellar Grains by J. J. Bernal, P. Haenecour, J. Howe, T. J. Zega, S. Amari, and L. M. Ziurys. The Astrophysical Journal Letters, Volume 883, Number 2 Published 2019 October 1 © 2019. The American Astronomical Society. All rights reserved.

This paper is behind a paywall.

C60: Buckminsterfullerene by H. W. Kroto, J. R. Heath, S. C. O’Brien, R. F. Curl & R. E. Smalley. Nature volume 318, pages162–163 (1985) doi:10.1038/318162a0

This paper is open access.