Category Archives: space exploration

One of world’s most precise microchip sensors thanks to nanotechnology, machine learning, extended cognition, and spiderwebs

I love science stories about the inspirational qualities of spiderwebs. A November 26, 2021 news item on phys.org describes how spiderwebs have inspired advances in sensors and, potentially, quantum computing,,

A team of researchers from TU Delft [Delft University of Technology; Netherlands] managed to design one of the world’s most precise microchip sensors. The device can function at room temperature—a ‘holy grail’ for quantum technologies and sensing. Combining nanotechnology and machine learning inspired by nature’s spiderwebs, they were able to make a nanomechanical sensor vibrate in extreme isolation from everyday noise. This breakthrough, published in the Advanced Materials Rising Stars Issue, has implications for the study of gravity and dark matter as well as the fields of quantum internet, navigation and sensing.

Inspired by nature’s spider webs and guided by machine learning, Richard Norte (left) and Miguel Bessa (right) demonstrate a new type of sensor in the lab. [Photography: Frank Auperlé]

A November 24, 2021 TU Delft press release (also on EurekAlert but published on November 23, 2021), which originated the news item, describes the research in more detail,

One of the biggest challenges for studying vibrating objects at the smallest scale, like those used in sensors or quantum hardware, is how to keep ambient thermal noise from interacting with their fragile states. Quantum hardware for example is usually kept at near absolute zero (−273.15°C) temperatures, with refrigerators costing half a million euros apiece. Researchers from TU Delft created a web-shaped microchip sensor which resonates extremely well in isolation from room temperature noise. Among other applications, their discovery will make building quantum devices much more affordable.

Hitchhiking on evolution
Richard Norte and Miguel Bessa, who led the research, were looking for new ways to combine nanotechnology and machine learning. How did they come up with the idea to use spiderwebs as a model? Richard Norte: “I’ve been doing this work already for a decade when during lockdown, I noticed a lot of spiderwebs on my terrace. I realised spiderwebs are really good vibration detectors, in that they want to measure vibrations inside the web to find their prey, but not outside of it, like wind through a tree. So why not hitchhike on millions of years of evolution and use a spiderweb as an initial model for an ultra-sensitive device?” 

Since the team did not know anything about spiderwebs’ complexities, they let machine learning guide the discovery process. Miguel Bessa: “We knew that the experiments and simulations were costly and time-consuming, so with my group we decided to use an algorithm called Bayesian optimization, to find a good design using few attempts.” Dongil Shin, co-first author in this work, then implemented the computer model and applied the machine learning algorithm to find the new device design. 

Microchip sensor based on spiderwebs
To the researcher’s surprise, the algorithm proposed a relatively simple spiderweb out of 150 different spiderweb designs, which consists of only six strings put together in a deceivingly simple way. Bessa: “Dongil’s computer simulations showed that this device could work at room temperature, in which atoms vibrate a lot, but still have an incredibly low amount of energy leaking in from the environment – a higher Quality factor in other words. With machine learning and optimization we managed to adapt Richard’s spider web concept towards this much better quality factor.”

Based on this new design, co-first author Andrea Cupertino built a microchip sensor with an ultra-thin, nanometre-thick film of ceramic material called Silicon Nitride. They tested the model by forcefully vibrating the microchip ‘web’ and measuring the time it takes for the vibrations to stop. The result was spectacular: a record-breaking isolated vibration at room temperature. Norte: “We found almost no energy loss outside of our microchip web: the vibrations move in a circle on the inside and don’t touch the outside. This is somewhat like giving someone a single push on a swing, and having them swing on for nearly a century without stopping.”

Implications for fundamental and applied sciences
With their spiderweb-based sensor, the researchers’ show how this interdisciplinary strategy opens a path to new breakthroughs in science, by combining bio-inspired designs, machine learning and nanotechnology. This novel paradigm has interesting implications for quantum internet, sensing, microchip technologies and fundamental physics: exploring ultra-small forces for example, like gravity or dark matter which are notoriously difficult to measure. According to the researchers, the discovery would not have been possible without the university’s Cohesion grant, which led to this collaboration between nanotechnology and machine learning.

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

Spiderweb Nanomechanical Resonators via Bayesian Optimization: Inspired by Nature and Guided by Machine Learning by Dongil Shin, Andrea Cupertino, Matthijs H. J. de Jong, Peter G. Steeneken, Miguel A. Bessa, Richard A. Norte. Advanced Materials Volume34, Issue3 January 20, 2022 2106248 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/adma.202106248 First published (online): 25 October 2021

This paper is open access.

If spiderwebs can be sensors, can they also think?

it’s called ‘extended cognition’ or ‘extended mind thesis’ (Wikipedia entry) and the theory holds that the mind is not solely in the brain or even in the body. Predictably, the theory has both its supporters and critics as noted in Joshua Sokol’s article “The Thoughts of a Spiderweb” originally published on May 22, 2017 in Quanta Magazine (Note: Links have been removed),

Millions of years ago, a few spiders abandoned the kind of round webs that the word “spiderweb” calls to mind and started to focus on a new strategy. Before, they would wait for prey to become ensnared in their webs and then walk out to retrieve it. Then they began building horizontal nets to use as a fishing platform. Now their modern descendants, the cobweb spiders, dangle sticky threads below, wait until insects walk by and get snagged, and reel their unlucky victims in.

In 2008, the researcher Hilton Japyassú prompted 12 species of orb spiders collected from all over Brazil to go through this transition again. He waited until the spiders wove an ordinary web. Then he snipped its threads so that the silk drooped to where crickets wandered below. When a cricket got hooked, not all the orb spiders could fully pull it up, as a cobweb spider does. But some could, and all at least began to reel it in with their two front legs.

Their ability to recapitulate the ancient spiders’ innovation got Japyassú, a biologist at the Federal University of Bahia in Brazil, thinking. When the spider was confronted with a problem to solve that it might not have seen before, how did it figure out what to do? “Where is this information?” he said. “Where is it? Is it in her head, or does this information emerge during the interaction with the altered web?”

In February [2017], Japyassú and Kevin Laland, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Saint Andrews, proposed a bold answer to the question. They argued in a review paper, published in the journal Animal Cognition, that a spider’s web is at least an adjustable part of its sensory apparatus, and at most an extension of the spider’s cognitive system.

This would make the web a model example of extended cognition, an idea first proposed by the philosophers Andy Clark and David Chalmers in 1998 to apply to human thought. In accounts of extended cognition, processes like checking a grocery list or rearranging Scrabble tiles in a tray are close enough to memory-retrieval or problem-solving tasks that happen entirely inside the brain that proponents argue they are actually part of a single, larger, “extended” mind.

Among philosophers of mind, that idea has racked up citations, including supporters and critics. And by its very design, Japyassú’s paper, which aims to export extended cognition as a testable idea to the field of animal behavior, is already stirring up antibodies among scientists. …

It seems there is no definitive answer to the question of whether there is an ‘extended mind’ but it’s an intriguing question made (in my opinion) even more so with the spiderweb-inspired sensors from TU Delft.

Singapore contributes to art/science gallery on the International Space Station (ISS)

A March 15, 2022 Nanyang Technological University press release (also on EurekAlert) announces Singapore’s contribution to an art gallery in space,

Two Singapore-designed artefacts are now orbiting around the Earth on the International Space Station (ISS), as part of Moon Gallery.

These artworks were successfully launched into space recently as part of a test flight by the Moon Gallery and will come back to Earth after 10 months.

Currently consisting of 64 artworks made by artists all around the world, the Moon gallery will eventually consist of 100 artworks, which will then be placed on the moon by 2025. Out of these 64 art pieces on the ISS, only two are Singaporean artworks.

Here’s Singapore’s contribution,

Caption: NTU [Nanyang Technological University] Singapore Assistant Professor Matteo Seita (left), who is holding the Cube of Interaction, and Ms Lakshmi Mohanbabu (right), who designed both cubes. The Structure & Reflectance cube in the foreground was 3D printed at NTU Singapore.. Credit: NTU Singapore

A December 8, 2021 news item on phys.org describes the project,

The Moon Gallery Foundation is developing an art gallery to be sent to the Moon, contributing to the establishment of the first lunar outpost and permanent museum on Earth’s only natural satellite. The international initiative will see one hundred artworks from artists around the world integrated into a 10 cm x 10 cm x 1 cm grid tray, which will fly to the Moon by 2025. The Moon Gallery aims to expand humanity’s cultural dialog beyond Earth. The gallery will meet the cosmos for the first time in low Earth orbit in 2022 in a test flight.

The test flight is in collaboration with Nanoracks, a private in-space service provider. The gallery is set to fly to the International Space Station (ISS) aboard the NG-17 rocket as part of a Northrop Grumman Cygnus resupply mission in February of 2022. The art projects featured in the gallery will reach the final frontier of human habitat in space, and mark the historical meeting point of the Moon Gallery and the cosmos. Reaching low Earth orbit on the way to the Moon is a pivotal first step in extending our cultural dialog to space.

On its return flight, the Moon Gallery will become a part of the NanoLab technical payload, a module for space research experiments. The character of the gallery will offer a diverse range of materials and behaviors for camera observations and performance tests with NanoLab.

In return, Moon Gallery artists will get a chance to learn about the performance of their artworks in space. The result of these observations will serve as a solid basis for the subsequent Moon Gallery missions and a source of a valuable learning experience for future space artists. The test flight to the ISS is a precursor mission, contributing to the understanding of future possibilities for art in space and strengthening collaboration between the art and space sectors.

A December 8, 2021 NYU press release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, provides more detail about the art from Singapore,

STRUCTURE & REFLECTANCE CUBE

Our every perception, analysis, and thought reflect the influences from our surroundings and the Universe in a world of collaboration, communication and interaction, making it possible to explore the real, the imagined and the unknown. The ‘Structure and Reflectance’ cube, a marriage of Art and Technology, is one of the hundred artworks selected by the Moon Gallery, with a unifying message of an integrated world, making it a quintessential signature of humankind on the Moon.

Ms Lakshmi Mohanbabu, a Singaporean architect and designer, is the first and only local artist to have her artwork selected for the Moon Gallery. Coined the ‘Structure and Reflectance’ cube, Lakshmi’s art is a marriage of Art and Technology and is one of the hundred artworks selected by the Moon Gallery. The cube signifies a unifying message of an integrated world, making it a quintessential signature of humankind on the Moon.

The early-stage prototyping and design iterations of the ‘Structure and Reflectance’ cube were performed with Additive Manufacturing, otherwise known as 3D printing, at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore’s (NTU Singapore)Singapore Centre for 3D Printing (SC3DP). This was part of a collaborative project supported by the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Cluster (NAMIC), a national programme office which accelerates the adoption and commercialisation of additive manufacturing technologies. Previously, the NTU Singapore team at SC3DP produced a few iterations of Moon-Cube using metal 3D printing in various materials such as Inconel and Stainless Steel to evaluate the best suited material.

The newest iteration of the cube comprises crystals—ingrained in the cube via additive manufacturing technology— revealed to the naked eye by the microscopic differences in their surface roughness, which reflect light along different directions.

“Additive Manufacturing is suitable for enabling this level of control over the crystal structure of solids. More specifically, the work was created using ‘laser powder bed fusion technology’ a metal additive manufacturing process which allows us to control the surface roughness through varying the laser parameter,” said Dr Matteo Seita, Nanyang Assistant Professor, NTU Singapore, is the Principal Investigator overseeing the project for the current cube design.  

Dr Seita shared the meaning behind the materials used, “Like people, materials have a complex ‘structure’ resulting from their history—the sequence of processes that have shaped their constituent parts—which underpins their differences. Masked by an exterior façade, this structure often reveals little of the underlying quality in materials or people. The cube is a material representation of a human’s complex structure embodied in a block of metal consisting of two crystals with distinct reflectivity and complementary shape.”

Ms Lakshmi added, “The optical contrast on the cube surface from the crystals generates an intricate geometry which signifies the duality of man: the complexity of hidden thought and expressed emotion. This duality is reflected by the surface of the Moon where one side remains in plain sight, while the other has remained hidden to humankind for centuries; until space travel finally allowed humanity to gaze upon it. The bright portion of the visible side of the Moon is dependent on the Moon’s position relative to the Earth and the Sun. Thus, what we see is a function of our viewpoint.”

The hidden structure of materials, people, and the Moon are visualized as reflections of light through art and science in this cube. Expressed in the Structure & Reflectance cube is the concept of human’s duality—represented by two crystals with different reflectance—which appears to the observer as a function of their perspective.

Dr Ho Chaw Sing, Co-Founder and Managing Director of NAMIC said, “Space is humanity’s next frontier. Being the only Singaporean – among a selected few from the global community – Lakshmi’s 3D printed cube presents a unique perspective through the fusion of art and technology. We are proud to have played a small role supporting her in this ‘moon-shot’ initiative.”

Lakshmi views each artwork as a portrayal of humanity’s quests to discover the secrets of the Universe and—fused into a single cube—embody the unity of humankind, which transcends our differences in culture, religion, and social status.

The first cube face, the Primary, is divided into two triangles and depicts the two faces of the Moon, one visible to us from the earth and the other hidden from our view.

The second cube face, the Windmill, has two spiralling windmill forms, one clockwise and the other counter-clockwise, representing our existence, energy, and time.

The third cube face, the Dromenon, is a labyrinth form of nested squares, which represents the layers that we—as space explorers—are unravelling to discover the enigma of the Universe. 

The fourth cube face, the Nautilus, reflects the spiralling form of our DNA that makes each of us unique, a shape reflected in the form of our galaxy.

Not having heard of the Moon Gallery or the Moon Gallery Foundation, I did a little research. There’s a LinkedIn profile for the Moon Gallery Foundation (both the foundation and the gallery are located in Holland [Netherlands]),

Moon Gallery is where art and space meet. We aim to set up the first permanent museum on the Moon and develop a culture for future interplanetary society.

Moon Gallery will launch 100 artefacts to the Moon within the compact format of 10 x 10 x 1cm plate on a lunar lander exterior panelling no later than 2025. We suggest bringing this collection of ideas as the seeds of a new culture. We believe that culture makes a distinction between mere survival and life. Moon Gallery is a symbolic gesture that has a real influence – a way to reboot culture, rethink our values for better living on Earth planet.

The Moon Gallery has its own website, where I found more information about events, artists, and partners such as Nanoracks,

Nanoracks is dedicated to using our unique expertise to solve key problems both in space and on the Earth – all while lowering the barriers to entry of space exploration. Nanoracks’s main office is in Houston, Texas. The business development office is in Washington, D.C., and additional offices are located in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Turin, Italy. Nanoracks provides tools, hardware and services that allow other companies, organizations and governments to conduct research and other projects in space. Some of Nanoracks customers include Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP), the European Space Agency (ESA), the German Space Agency (DLR), NASA, Planet Labs, Space Florida, Virgin Galactic, Adidas, Aerospace Corporation, National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), UAE Space Agency, Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC), and the Beijing Institute of Technology.

You can find the Nanoracks website here.

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.