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15th August 2016

Computer program learns to replicate human handwriting

Researchers at University College London have devised a software algorithm able to scan and replicate almost anyone's handwriting.


computer handwriting


In a world increasingly dominated by the QWERTY keyboard, computer scientists at University College London (UCL) have developed software which may spark the comeback of the handwritten word, by analysing the handwriting of any individual and accurately replicating it.

The scientists have created "My Text in Your Handwriting" – a programme which semi-automatically examines a sample of a person's handwriting that can be as little as one paragraph, and generates new text saying whatever the user wishes, as if the author had handwritten it themselves.

"Our software has lots of valuable applications," says lead author, Dr Tom Haines. "Stroke victims, for example, may be able to formulate letters without the concern of illegibility, or someone sending flowers as a gift could include a handwritten note without even going into the florist. It could also be used in comic books where a piece of handwritten text can be translated into different languages without losing the author's original style."

Published in ACM Transactions on Graphics, the machine learning algorithm is built around glyphs – a specific instance of a character. Authors produce different glyphs to represent the same element of writing – the way one individual writes an "a" will usually be different to the way others write an "a". Although an individual's writing has slight variations, every author has a recognisable style that manifests in their glyphs and spacing. The software learns what is consistent across an individual's style and reproduces this.


computer handwriting


To generate an individual's handwriting, the software analyses and replicates the author's specific character choices, pen-line texture, colour and the inter-character ligatures (the joining-up between letters), as well as vertical and horizontal spacing.

Co-author, Dr Oisin Mac Aodha (UCL Computer Science), said: "Up until now, the only way to produce computer-generated text that resembles a specific person's handwriting would be to use a relevant font. The problem with such fonts is that it is often clear that the text has not been penned by hand, which loses the character and personal touch of a handwritten piece of text. What we've developed removes this problem and so could be used in a wide variety of commercial and personal circumstances."

The system is flexible enough that samples from historical documents can be used with little extra effort. Thus far, the scientists have analysed and replicated the handwriting of such figures as Abraham Lincoln, Frida Kahlo and Arthur Conan Doyle. Infamously, Conan Doyle never actually wrote Sherlock Holmes as saying, "Elementary my dear Watson" but the team have produced evidence to make you think otherwise.

To test the effectiveness of their software, the research team asked people to distinguish between handwritten envelopes and ones created by their automatic software. People were tricked by the computer-generated writing up to 40% of the time. Given how convincing it can be, some may believe this method could help in forging documents – but the team explained it works both ways and could actually help in detecting forgeries.

"Forgery and forensic handwriting analysis are still almost entirely manual processes – but by taking the novel approach of viewing handwriting as texture-synthesis, we can use our software to characterise handwriting to quantify the odds that something was forged," explained Dr Gabriel Brostow, senior author. "For example, we could calculate what ratio of people start their 'o's' at the bottom versus the top and this kind of detailed analysis could reduce the forensics service's reliance on heuristics."





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12th August 2016

New record for longest-lived vertebrate

New research has found that the Greenland shark (Somniosus microcephalus) is the longest-lived vertebrate ever known, able to reach a lifespan of nearly 400 years.


greenland shark
Credit: Julius Nielsen


Greenland sharks can live as long as 400 years, and reach sexual maturity at the age of about 150, according to a new study published today in the peer-reviewed journal Science. This makes these animals the longest-lived vertebrates on Earth.

The Greenland shark (Somniosus microcephalus) is widely distributed across the North Atlantic, with adults reaching lengths of four to five metres (13 to 16 feet). The biology of the Greenland shark is poorly understood, yet their extremely slow growth rates, at about 1 cm per year, hint that these fish benefit from exceptional longevity.

Traditional methods for determining the age of a species involve analysing calcified tissue, a feature that is sparse in Greenland sharks. To determine the average age of this species, Julius Nielsen et al. therefore applied radiocarbon dating techniques to the eye lenses of 28 females, caught as by-catch. Their analysis suggests an average lifespan of at least 272 years. The two largest sharks in this study, at 493 cm and 502 cm in length, were estimated to be 335 and 392 years old, respectively.

Furthermore, since previous reports suggest that females of this species reach sexual maturity at lengths greater than 400 cm, the corresponding age would be at least 156 years old, the authors say. Based on these results, the Greenland shark is now the oldest-known vertebrate to roam the Earth. The previous record holders were tortoises, which often live for 150+ years, with one specimen in March 2006 dying at the age of 250.

The biology of Greenland sharks may provide clues that help to extend human longevity. In 2015, scientists mapped the genome of the bowhead whale in the hope of understanding the cause of its 200-year lifespan.


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10th August 2016

First commercial asteroid mining mission set to begin before 2020

Asteroid mining company Deep Space Industries (DSI) has announced the first commercial mission to a near-Earth asteroid, with launch planned by the end of the decade.


deep space industries


Deep Space Industries has announced its plans to fly the world's first commercial interplanetary mining mission. A spacecraft known as "Prospector-1" will fly to and rendezvous with a near-Earth asteroid, investigate the object and determine its value as a source of space resources. This mission will be an important step in the company's longer term plans to harvest and supply in-space resources to support the growing space economy.

"Deep Space Industries has worked diligently to get to this point, and now we can say with confidence that we have the right technology, the right team and the right plan to execute this historic mission," said Rick Tumlinson, chairman of the board and co-founder of Deep Space Industries. "Building on our Prospector-X mission, Prospector-1 will be the next step on our way to harvesting asteroid resources."

DSI and its partner, the government of Luxembourg, recently announced plans to build and fly Prospector-X, an experimental mission to low-Earth orbit that will test key technologies needed for low-cost exploration spacecraft. This precursor mission is scheduled to launch in 2017. Then, before the end of this decade, Prospector-1 will travel beyond Earth's orbit to begin the first space mining exploration mission.

"DSI's Prospector missions will usher in a new era of low cost space exploration" said Grant Bonin, chief engineer. "DSI is developing Prospector-1 both for its own asteroid mining ambitions, as well as to bring an extremely low-cost, yet high-performance exploration capability to the market. We hope to enable both existing and new public and private organisations to explore the inner Solar System using this affordable platform."

Prospector-1 is a small spacecraft (50 kg when fuelled) that strikes the ideal balance between cost and performance. In addition to radiation-tolerant payloads and avionics, all DSI spacecraft use the "Comet water propulsion system", which expels superheated water vapour to generate thrust. Water will be the first asteroid mining product, so the ability to use water as propellant will provide future DSI spacecraft with the ability to refuel in space.


prospector 1 dsi


"During the next decade, we will begin the harvest of space resources from asteroids," said Daniel Faber, CEO at Deep Space Industries. "We are changing the paradigm of business operations in space – from one where our customers carry everything with them, to one in which the supplies they need are waiting for them when they get there."

The destination asteroid will be chosen from a group of top candidates chosen by a world renowned team of asteroid experts at Deep Space Industries. When it arrives at the target, the Prospector-1 spacecraft will map the surface and subsurface of the asteroid, taking visual and infrared imagery and mapping the overall water content, down to approximately metre-level depth. When this initial science campaign is complete, Prospector-1 will use its water thrusters to attempt a touchdown on the asteroid, measuring the target's geophysical and geotechnical characteristics.

"The ability to locate, travel to, and analyse potentially rich supplies of space resources is critical to our plans," continued Faber. "This means not just looking at the target, but actually making contact."

Along with customer missions already in progress – such as the cluster of small satellites being built by DSI for HawkEye 360 – the Prospector missions will demonstrate the company's simple, low-cost, but high-performance approach to space exploration. The Prospector platform will soon be available to government and commercial explorers interested in developing sophisticated, yet low-cost missions of their own.

"Prospector-1 is not only the first commercial interplanetary mission, it is also an important milestone in our quest to open the frontier," said Tumlinson. "By learning to 'live off the land' in space, Deep Space Industries is ushering in a new era of unlimited economic expansion."





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8th August 2016

Limb regeneration in humans may be possible

Scientists have identified genetic regulators governing regeneration that are common across multiple species. The process could one day be replicated in humans.


limb regeneration humans future timeline


Many lower organisms retain the miraculous ability to regenerate form and function of almost any tissue after injury. Humans share many of our genes with these organisms, but our capacity for regeneration is limited. Scientists at the MDI Biological Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine, are studying the genetics of these organisms to find out how regenerative mechanisms might be activated in humans.

The ability of animals to regenerate body parts has fascinated scientists since the time of Aristotle. But until the advent of sophisticated tools for genetic and computational analysis, there was no way of studying the molecular machinery that enables this process. Using such tools, researchers at MDI have identified genetic regulators governing regeneration that are common across species.

In a study published by the journal PLOS ONE, scientists Benjamin King, PhD, and Voot Yin, PhD, identified these common genetic regulators in three regenerative species: the zebrafish, a common aquarium fish originally from India; the axolotl, a salamander native to the lakes of Mexico; and the bichir, a ray-finned fish from Africa.

The discovery of genetic mechanisms common to all three of these species, which diverged on the evolutionary tree about 420 million years ago, suggests that these mechanisms aren't specific to individual species, but have been conserved by nature through evolution.


three species


"I remember that day very well – it was a fantastic feeling," said King of the discovery. "We didn't expect the patterns of genetic expression to be vastly different in the three species, but it was amazing to see that they were consistently the same."

The discovery of the common genetic regulators is expected to serve as a platform to inform new hypotheses about the precise genetic mechanisms underlying limb regeneration. It also represents a major advance in understanding why many tissues in humans, including limb tissue, regenerate poorly – and in being able to possibly manipulate those mechanisms with drug therapies.

"Limb regeneration in humans may sound like science fiction, but it's within the realm of possibility," said Yin. "The fact that we've identified a genetic signature for limb regeneration in three different species with three different types of appendages suggests that nature has created a common genetic instruction manual governing regeneration that may be shared by all forms of animal life, including humans."

In particular, the scientists studied the formation of a mass of cells called a blastema that serves as a reservoir for regenerating tissues. The formation of a blastema is the critical first step in the regeneration process. Using sophisticated genetic sequencing technology, King and Yin identified a common set of genes that are controlled by a shared network of genetic regulators known as microRNAs.

"Scientists here are studying an evolutionarily diverse range of animals to gain insight into the genetic mechanisms underlying the repair and regeneration of complex tissues and why these processes are poorly active in humans," said Kevin Strange, PhD, the laboratory's president. "The value of our approach is confirmed by this remarkable study, which for the first time reveals a genetic network governing limb regeneration that is common across three evolutionarily distinct animal species."

The study also has implications for wound healing, which, because it also requires the replacement of lost or damaged tissues, involves similar genetic mechanisms. With a greater understanding of these mechanisms, treatments could potentially be developed to speed wound healing, thus reducing pain, decreasing risk of infection and getting patients back on their feet more quickly.

Another potential application is development of more sophisticated prosthetic devices. When a limb is amputated, the nerves at the site of amputation can be damaged. The repair and regeneration of these nerves could potentially enable the development of more sophisticated prostheses that could interface with these nerves, allowing for greater control.

While speedier wound-healing and improved prostheses may be on the nearer-term horizon, the ability to regrow limbs is a long way off. But how long? "It depends on the pace of discovery, which is heavily dependent on funding," Yin said. He predicted the timeline could be hastened if enough research funding were available. "Unfortunately," he added, "we are in a period of greatly diminished funding for scientific research."


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6th August 2016

Megadam in the heart of Amazon is cancelled

The Brazilian government has announced that São Luiz do Tapajós (SLT), a giant dam planned in the Amazon, has been cancelled. This follows major environmental issues and a campaign supported by over 1.2 million people.


amazon river megadam cancelled


On Thursday this week, Brazil's environment agency, the IBAMA, announced that the licensing process to build the São Luiz do Tapajós (SLT), a giant dam planned for one of the last major free-flowing rivers in the Amazon rainforest, has been cancelled. Without this license, the approval process for the megadam cannot move forward.

Indigenous tribes and conservation groups have applauded the decision – claiming that if allowed to continue, the dam would have caused irreversible damage to the environment and the Munduruku people's way of life.

"We Munduruku people are very happy with the news. This is very important for us. Now we will continue to fight against other dams in our river," said Arnaldo Kabá Munduruku, General Chief Munduruku.

"Now that the license has been cancelled, the Brazilian Ministry of Justice must recognise its obligation and move swiftly to officially demarcate the Sawré Muybu territory," said Danicley Aguiar, Greenpeace Brazil campaigner.


São Luiz do Tapajós dam map
Amazon River drainage basin map, with Tapajós River highlighted. By Kmusser [CC BY-SA 3.0]


During the last few months, more than 1.2 million people around the world have joined the Munduruku in saying no to the SLT dam and pressuring multinational companies like Siemens to distance themselves from the project.

"This is a great victory for the Munduruku indigenous people who live in the Tapajós region and whose traditions and rights were deeply threatened by the dam and for everyone who cares about the Amazon forest and support the Munduruku globally," said Aguiar.

Other Brazilian agencies – the National Indigenous Foundation (FUNAI) and federal public prosecutors in the state of Pará – had recommended that the IBAMA cancel the license because the project would displace the Munduruku, making it unconstitutional. Under Brazil's constitution, indigenous people cannot be forced off their lands except in case of war or epidemics. The IBAMA also noted that state-run Eletrobrás – Latin America's largest power utility and the company behind the 30 billion reais ($9.40 billion) project – had failed to consider the impact on aquifers, deforestation and biodiversity.




With 8,000 megawatts (MW) of power-generating capacity when fully operational, the SLT would be the second largest dam project in the country and the sixth largest globally. About 376 sq km (145 sq mi) of Munduruku homeland occupied by nearly 12,000 people would be flooded. Sawré Muybu in the Tapajós region, where the Munduruku have lived for centuries, is now in the process of being officially recognised as Indigenous land.

In addition to the SLT, there are 42 other hydropower projects planned in the Tapajós basin and hundreds more earmarked in the Amazon, part of an aggressive economic model that fails to consider the importance of protecting the rainforest and its inhabitants. Previous dams built in the Amazon had significant negative impacts on communities, the environment and have been mired in corruption scandals.

It is possible for a license to be requested for the SLT again. However, the cost of redoing the environmental impact studies, combined with the current recession in Brazil make this unlikely. Greenpeace is calling on the Brazilian government to complete the Munduruku territorial demarcation immediately, urging the nation to focus on truly sustainable ways of producing energy, such as wind and solar. Brazil currently gets about three-quarters of its power from hydroelectric sources.

"Today's decision is a major victory for the Munduruku, their allies and the rule of law in Brazil – sending a shot across the bow of the dam industry juggernaut in the Amazon," said Brent Millikan, Amazon program director at the U.S. non-profit, International Rivers.





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5th August 2016

Google and GSK invest £540M to create bioelectronic medicines

Google's Verily (formerly Google Life Sciences) has announced a partnership with British pharmaceutical giant, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), to form Galvani Bioelectronics – a new company focused on the research, development and commercialisation of bioelectronic medicines.


google lens
An early prototype concept for a smart contact lens. This wearable tech would measure glucose levels in tears, using a tiny wireless chip and miniaturised sensor embedded between layers of soft contact lens material. When glucose levels fall below a certain threshold, tiny LED lights will activate themselves to function as a warning system for the wearer. Credit: Google


Verily (owned by Google's parent company, Alphabet) has announced an agreement with GSK to form Galvani Bioelectronics to accelerate the research, development and commercialisation of bioelectronic medicines. GSK will hold a 55% interest in the new jointly owned company and Verily will hold 45%.

Galvani Bioelectronics will be headquartered in the UK, with the parent companies contributing existing intellectual property rights and up to £540 million of investment over seven years, subject to successful completion of various discovery and development milestones.

Bioelectronic medicine is a relatively new scientific field that aims to tackle a wide range of chronic diseases using miniaturised, implantable devices that can modify electrical signals that pass along nerves in the body, including irregular or altered impulses that occur in many illnesses. GSK has been active in this field since 2012 and believes certain chronic conditions such as arthritis, diabetes and asthma could potentially be treated using these devices.

The agreement to establish Galvani Bioelectronics represents an important next step in GSK's bioelectronics research. It will combine GSK's world class drug discovery and development expertise, and deep understanding of disease biology, with Verily's world-leading technical expertise in the miniaturisation of low power electronics, device development, data analytics and software for clinical applications. The initial work will centre on establishing clinical proofs of principle in metabolic, inflammatory and endocrine disorders, including type 2 diabetes, where substantial evidence already exists in animal models; and developing the associated miniaturised, precision devices.


A chemical chip to control the delivery of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. Credit: LiU/Ingemar Franzén


Moncef Slaoui, GSK's Chairman of Global Vaccines, who was instrumental in establishing GSK's investments in the field of bioelectronics, will chair the board of the new company: "Many of the processes of the human body are controlled by electrical signals firing between the nervous system and the body's organs, which become distorted in many chronic diseases," he said. "Bioelectronic medicine's vision is to employ the latest advances in biology and technology to interpret this electrical conversation and to correct the irregular patterns found in disease states, using miniaturised devices attached to individual nerves. If successful, this approach offers the potential for a new therapeutic modality alongside traditional medicines and vaccines.

"This agreement with Verily to establish Galvani Bioelectronics signals a crucial step forward in GSK's bioelectronics journey, bringing together health and tech to realise a shared vision of miniaturised, precision electrical therapies. Together, we can rapidly accelerate the pace of progress in this exciting field, to develop innovative medicines that truly speak the electrical language of the body."

Brian Otis, Verily's Chief Technology Officer, said: "This is an ambitious collaboration, allowing GSK and Verily to combine forces and have a huge impact on an emerging field. Bioelectronic medicine is a new area of therapeutic exploration, and we know that success will require the confluence of deep disease biology expertise and new highly miniaturised technologies.

"This partnership provides an opportunity to further Verily's mission by deploying our focused expertise in low power, miniaturised therapeutics and our data analytics engine to potentially address many disease areas with greater precision with the goal of improving outcomes."

Since 2012, a dedicated team of scientists at GSK has been researching the potential of bioelectronic medicines. In that time, the company has established a leadership position in the field, creating a global network of around 50 research collaborations and investing $50 million in a dedicated bioelectronics venture capital fund. Through these collaborations and investments, GSK has seen encouraging proof of principles in animal models in a range of diseases. GSK believes the first bioelectronic medicines could be ready for approval within the next decade.





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1st August 2016

Abundant and diverse ecosystem found in area targeted for deep-sea mining

The seafloor in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone – an area in the Pacific Ocean being targeted for deep-sea mining – has been found to contain an abundance and diversity of life, with more than half of the species collected being new to science.


A species of cnidarian in the genus Relicanthus with 8-foot long tentacles. Credit: Diva Amon and Craig Smith, University of Hawai'i at Mānoa


In a study published by Scientific Reports, researchers discovered impressive abundance and diversity among the creatures living on the seafloor in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ) – an area in the equatorial Pacific Ocean being targeted for deep-sea mining. The study, lead authored by Diva Amon, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Hawai'i at Mānoa (UHM) School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology (SOEST), found that more than half of the species they collected were new to science, reiterating how little is known about life on the seafloor in this region.

"We found that this exploration claim area harbours one of the most diverse communities of megafauna [animals over 2 cm in size] to be recorded at abyssal depths in the deep sea," said Amon.

As metals and minerals become increasingly scarce on land, the deep sea is where the next frontier of mining will take place. It is predicted to be a widespread activity by 2040. A combination of biological, chemical and geological processes has led to the formation of highly concentrated polymetallic "manganese" nodules on the deep seafloor in the CCZ – an area nearly the size of the contiguous United States. These nodules are potentially valuable sources of copper, nickel, cobalt and manganese, among other metals, which has led to great interest in mining this region. All of the potential polymetallic-nodule exploration contracts that have been granted in the Pacific are in this region, according to the International Seabed Authority (ISA). Just last month, the 16th of these contracts was signed by the ISA and the Cook Islands Investment Corporation (CIIC).




This study, part of the ABYSSLINE Project, was the first to characterise the abundance and diversity of seafloor-dwelling animals, a key component of deep-sea ecosystems, in an exploration claim area leased to UK Seabed Resources Ltd (UK-1) in the eastern portion of the CCZ. Using a remotely operated vehicle, the research team surveyed the seafloor at four sites within the UK-1 exploration contract area and at a site east of the UK-1 area to estimate the abundance and diversity of ecosystems.

Preliminary data from these surveys showed that more animals live on the seafloor in areas with higher nodule abundance. Further, the majority of the megafaunal diversity also appears to be dependent on the polymetallic nodules themselves, and thus will be negatively affected by mining impacts.

"The biggest surprises of this study were the high diversity, the large numbers of new species and the fact that more than half of the species seen rely on the nodules – the very part of the habitat that will be removed during the mining process," said Amon.


The fish Bathysaurus mollis and a brittle star in a field of polymetallic nodules in the eastern CCZ. Credit: Diva Amon and Craig Smith, University of Hawai'i at Mānoa


Exploitation plans are pushing ahead, even though knowledge of the seafloor ecosystem in this region is still limited.

"In order to more effectively manage the area and mitigate the environmental impacts of deep-sea mining in the CCZ and within the UK-1 contract area, baseline knowledge of the abundance, diversity, and species ranges of megafauna, a key component of this ecosystem, is essential," said Craig Smith, professor of oceanography and ABYSSLINE lead investigator.

The ABYSSLINE team will be publishing many more papers about the seafloor biology of the CCZ, with forthcoming papers from UHM scientists including an atlas of megafauna from the UK-1 exploration contract area, a study documenting extremely high diversity in the community of macrofaunal community (crustaceans, worms, molluscs and other invertebrates) in the exploration claim area.


An Amperima holothurian or sea cucumber. Several corals, a sponge and a brittle star can also be seen. Credit: Diva Amon and Craig Smith, University of Hawai'i at Mānoa



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31st July 2016

New TV series will follow Mars mission set in 2033

National Geographic has announced "MARS" – a six-part TV series debuting around the world this November that will follow the first human exploration of the Red Planet.


mars national geographic 2033
The first human astronauts on Mars. Credit: National Geographic


Of all the planets in our Solar System, none has captured our collective imagination like Mars: a mysterious, indelible part of the zeitgeist. Visible in the night sky for as long as humans have been around, its striking red colour has symbolised blood, passion, anger and love. The existence of Mars as a wandering object was noted by ancient Egyptian astronomers and by 1534 BCE they were familiar with its retrograde motion. In 1610, the Italian astronomer Galileo became the first person to see it via telescope. By the 19th century, the resolution of telescopes had reached a level sufficient for surface features to be identified and the first detailed map was produced in 1877. Seasonal changes, combined with observations of "canals", led to speculation about life on Mars, and it was a long-held belief that vast seas and vegetation were present.

When the first spacecraft began visiting the planet during the 1960s and 70s, Mars was revealed to be a dead and barren planet. However, the search for life would continue. Since then, various rovers have explored the surface, with ever larger science payloads and exponentially more detailed imagery. We now know that huge volumes of liquid water existed on Mars in the ancient past and that small amounts are still present under certain conditions.

Today, we stand on the cusp of the first human missions to Mars. In the near future, it will be technically and financially viable to send people there, beginning a whole new chapter in the history of our species. The Red Planet would offer a second home for humanity, safeguarding us from the various threats on Earth and greatly boosting our chances of survival into the far future. An independent, self-sustaining Mars could be used as a blank slate to forge a more rational, egalitarian and scientifically-minded world – much like the future depicted in Kim Stanley Robinson's epic trilogy.


earth mars size comparison future timeline
Size comparison of Earth and Mars. Credit: NASA


As the prospect of exploring and settling this far-away planet moves ever closer to becoming a reality, it has engaged the top minds in science in a modern-day space race, and infiltrated pop culture through blockbusters like Andy Weir's "The Martian" and through out-of-this-world tweets from astronaut Scott Kelly. Now, the National Geographic Channel (NGC), working with a team of award-winning producers, has announced the launch of a global event series later this year.

Premiering on the NGC in 171 countries and 45 languages, the TV show – "MARS" – will redefine storytelling by combining feature-film-quality scripted drama and visual effects with best-in-class documentary sequences, to drive forward a cohesive, edge-of-your seat story of mankind's thrilling quest to colonise Mars. This epic, six-part series, debuting in November, is filmed from the vantage point of a fictitious crewed mission in 2033.

"Brian [Grazer] and I, along with our friends at Radical, had this ambitious idea, which was to create a documentary about the quest to go to Mars but also bring it to life in a really dramatic and cinematic way," says the Executive Producer, Ron Howard. "The offer to the audience will be information meets vivid and experiential filmmaking. Nat Geo's ambition was high – and we are really honoured and thrilled to try and meet that challenge."

The starting point for this unique storytelling method is the year 2033. As dramatic scripted elements and feature film-calibre visual effects bring this future world to life, the modern-day quest to reach the Red Planet is told in a documentary style, and through interviews with present-day scientists and innovators who are researching and developing the space technology to make such a mission possible. Executive producers Howard and Grazer hand-selected visionary Mexican filmmaker Everardo Gout ("Days of Grace") to direct the scripted portions of the series, filmed in Budapest and Morocco.


earth and the moon viewed from mars
Earth and the Moon, viewed from Mars. Features visible include the Pacific Ocean, clouds, much of South America, and part of North America. Credit: NASA/JPL/Malin Space Science Systems


MARS envisions the future of space travel funded through a corporate-public partnership of two fictional organisations: the Mars Mission Corporation (MMC), a consortium of aerospace corporations formed in 2022 that builds and manages the technological hardware, and the International Mars Science Foundation (IMSF), created by a coalition of space-faring nations.

The scripted portion will focus on Earth's first crewed mission to Mars aboard the spacecraft Daedalus. Its maiden voyage is crewed by a carefully selected international crew of six uniquely qualified astronauts, including American mission commander Ben Sawyer (Ben Cotton), Korean American mission pilot Hana Seung (Jihae), Spanish hydrologist and geochemist Javier Delgado (Alberto Ammann), French mission physician and biochemist Amelie Durand (Clementine Poidatz), Nigerian mechanical engineer and roboticist Robert Foucault (Sammi Rotibi) and Russian exobiologist and geologist Marta Kamen (Anamaria Marinca). Back on Earth, the MMC control team, based in London, includes Hana Seung's twin sister, capsule communicator (CAPCOM) Joon Seung (also played by Jihae) and French CEO of the MMC Ed Grann (Olivier Martinez).

Once Daedalus successfully lands on Mars and establishes a preliminary base of operations, British nuclear physicist Leslie Richardson (Cosima Shaw) will lead a Phase 2 settlement team along with her husband, world-renowned experimental botanist Dr. Paul Richardson (John Light).

The production team took painstaking efforts to base the scripted narrative on real-world science. The writing team worked extensively with experts – both in the public and private sectors – to understand how the science could serve the story. Dr. Robert Braun, an aerospace engineer and professor of space technology at the Georgia Institute of Technology, provided expert consultation on all scientific aspects of the fictional storyline. Dr. Mae Jemison, former NASA astronaut and the first woman of colour in space, acted as a space advisor on the series, working closely with the cast to help them hone their portrayals.

In terms of the visual look of the series, production designer Sophie Becher turned to NASA and SpaceX to craft her designs for the Daedalus spaceship and Olympus Town, the first human colony on Mars as portrayed by the series. Costume designer Daniela Ciancio extensively researched the types of fabrics being developed today to make spacesuits lighter, stronger, more flexible and radiation-resistant to protect the astronauts of the future. Framestore, the Academy Award-winning visual effects team behind "Gravity," will layer in the final external visuals to complete the look of the series.

MARS also showcases an unprecedented collection of interviews with top scientific minds currently working to overcome the many obstacles that stand in the way of an eventual maiden launch. National Geographic received exclusive access to record Elon Musk (the founder of Tesla and SpaceX) and his team at SpaceX mission control, as they successfully landed their Falcon 9 reusable rocket on a drone ship this past April.

"The future of humanity is fundamentally going to bifurcate along one of two directions," says Musk in the series. "Either we're going to become a multi-planet species and a spacefaring civilisation, or we're going to be stuck on one planet, until some eventual extinction event. In order for me to be excited and inspired about the future, it's got to be the first option."


Mars city colony future timeline
Future water industry on Mars, with a giant pipeline and domed city. Credit: PLRANG ART


MARS truly brings together all of the world's leading minds in a way never before accomplished – think of the world's largest TED talk with the most fascinating people on Earth. Those interviewed for the series include:

Charles Bolden, NASA administrator; former NASA astronaut
Peter Diamandis, founder and executive chairman, X-Prize; co-founder and co-chairman, Planetary Resources
Neil DeGrasse Tyson, director, Hayden Planetarium at The Rose Center for Earth and Space
David Dinges, professor, department of psychiatry, University of Pennsylvania
Casey Dreier, director, space policy, Planetary Society
Ann Druyan, executive producer and writer, Cosmos
Charles Elachi, retired director, NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL); professor emeritus, Caltech
Jim Green, NASA planetary science division director
John Grunsfeld, NASA associate administrator, Science Mission Directorate; former NASA astronaut
Jennifer Heldmann, NASA planetary scientist
Jedidah Isler, award-winning astrophysicist; emerging Explorer, National Geographic
Thomas Kalil, deputy director, policy, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy; senior advisor, science, technology and innovation, National Economic Council
Roger Launius, associate director, collections and curatorial affairs, Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum
John Logsdon, professor emeritus, political science and international affairs, George Washington University
James Lovell, former NASA astronaut; commander, Apollo 13 mission
Elon Musk, CEO and chief technology officer, SpaceX; CEO, Tesla Motors; chairman, SolarCity
Stephen Petranek, author, "How We'll Live on Mars"
Mary Roach, author, "Packing for Mars"
Jennifer Trosper, Mars 2020 mission manager, JPL
Andy Weir, author, "The Martian"
Robert Zubrin, president, The Mars Society; president, Pioneer Astronautics

The desire not only to reach Mars but also to colonise it has stirred vigorous debate among the space community. The question is not only "could we?" but also "should we?" Neil DeGrasse Tyson is not convinced that we have to send humans to Mars; he bets it would take less effort and less money to figure out how to survive threats to Earth than to colonise another planet in order to maintain the species: "I think we should visit planets, as you'd visit any place you've never been before," he says. "But we evolved on Earth to live on Earth."

The consensus seems to be forming that humans will eventually make the trip to Mars, but the timetable for doing so also remains a point of debate. Robert Zubrin, president of The Mars Society and of Pioneer Astronautics, makes a bold assertion: "If the next President were to get up in the spring of 2017 and announce his or her commitment to send humans to Mars, we could be there by the end of that administration's second term."

National Geographic will extend the storytelling in an unprecedented, cross-platform effort that includes a six-part companion prequel. Virtual reality experiences will be available at MakeMarsHome.com. There will also be a MARS Experience installation in New York City this October. Further, MARS will be the November cover story of National Geographic magazine and will be featured in a standalone book, "MARS: Our Future on the Red Planet," on sale from 25th October. An NG Kids Book, "MARS: The Red Planet," will go on sale from 27th September and further educational materials will be released. NG Live speakers will also be touring. You can watch the official trailer below. Please subscribe to us at YouTube.com/futuretimelinedotnet.





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30th July 2016

Vortex laser offers hope for Moore's Law

A new laser that travels in a corkscrew pattern is shown to carry ten times or more the information of conventional lasers, potentially offering a way to extend Moore's Law.


moores law vortex laser


Like a whirlpool, a new light-based communication tool carries data in swift, circular motions. This optics advancement could become a central component of the next generation of computers designed to handle society's growing demand for information sharing. It may also help to ease concerns for those worried about the predicted end of Moore's Law – the idea that researchers will find new ways to make computers ever smaller, faster and cheaper.

"To transfer more data while using less energy, we need to rethink what's inside these machines," says Liang Feng, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering at the University at Buffalo's (UB) School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

For decades, researchers have been able to cram exponentially increasing numbers of components onto silicon-based chips. Their success explains why a typical handheld smartphone has more computing power than the world's most powerful computers of the 1980s, which cost millions in today's dollars and were the size of a large filing cabinet.

But researchers are approaching a bottleneck, in which existing technology may no longer meet society's demand for data. Predictions vary, but many suggest this could happen within the next five years. This problem is being addressed in numerous ways, including optical communications, which use light to carry information. Examples of optical communications vary from old lighthouses to modern fibre optic cables used to watch television and browse the web. Lasers are a key part of today's optical communication systems and researchers have been manipulating them in various ways, most commonly by funnelling different signals into one path, to pack more information together. But these techniques are also reaching their limits.


moores law vortex laser


The UB-led research team is pushing laser technology forward using another light control method, known as orbital angular momentum. This distributes the laser in a corkscrew pattern with a vortex at the centre, as pictured above. Usually too large to work on today's computers, they were able to shrink the vortex laser to the point where it is compatible with modern chips. Because the laser beam travels in a corkscrew pattern, encoding information into different vortex twists, it can deliver at least 10 times the information of conventional lasers, which move linearly.

However, the vortex laser is just one component of many – such as advanced transmitters and receivers – which will ultimately be needed to continue building more powerful computers and data centres in the future.

The study was published yesterday in the peer-reviewed journal Science. The research was supported with grants from the U.S. Army Research Office, the U.S. Department of Energy and National Science Foundation.


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30th July 2016

Breakthrough solar cell captures CO2 and sunlight, produces burnable fuel

Researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago have engineered a potentially game-changing solar cell. Their invention can cheaply and efficiently convert atmospheric carbon dioxide directly into usable hydrocarbon fuel, using only sunlight for energy.


solar cell invention 2016
Simulated sunlight powers a solar cell that converts atmospheric carbon dioxide directly into syngas. Credit: University of Illinois at Chicago/Jenny Fontaine


With traditional solar cells, light from the Sun is converted into electricity, which must then be stored in heavy batteries. By contrast, a new device created at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), essentially does the work of plants: it converts atmospheric carbon dioxide into fuel, solving two crucial problems at once. Large solar farms of these "artificial leaves" could remove significant amounts of carbon from the atmosphere, while producing energy-dense fuel efficiently.

"The new solar cell is not photovoltaic – it's photosynthetic," says Amin Salehi-Khojin, assistant professor of mechanical and industrial engineering at UIC and senior author on the study. "Instead of producing energy in an unsustainable one-way route from fossil fuels to greenhouse gas, we can now reverse the process and recycle atmospheric carbon into fuel using sunlight."

While plants produce fuel in the form of sugar, the artificial leaf delivers "syngas" – or synthesis gas – a mixture of hydrogen gas and carbon monoxide. This can be burned directly, or converted into diesel or other hydrocarbon fuel. The ability to convert CO2 into fuel at a cost similar to a gallon of gasoline would render fossil fuels obsolete.


solar cell fuel 2016


Chemical reactions that convert CO2 into burnable forms of carbon are known as "reduction" reactions – the opposite of oxidation or combustion. Engineers have been exploring different catalysts to drive CO2 reduction; but so far, these have been inefficient and rely on expensive precious metals, such as silver.

"What we needed was a new family of chemicals with extraordinary properties," said Salehi-Khojin.

His team focussed on a family of nano-structured compounds, called transition metal dichalcogenides – or TMDCs – as catalysts, pairing them with an unconventional ionic liquid as the electrolyte inside a two-compartment, three-electrode electrochemical cell. The best of several catalysts they studied turned out to be nanoflake tungsten diselenide.

"The new catalyst is more active; more able to break carbon dioxide's chemical bonds," said Mohammad Asadi, a UIC postdoctoral researcher.


solar cell fuel


In fact, the new catalyst is 1,000 times faster than noble-metal catalysts, and about 20 times cheaper. The key breakthrough was using an ionic fluid called ethyl-methyl-imidazolium tetrafluoroborate, mixed 50-50 with water. The artificial leaf consists of two silicon triple-junction photovoltaic cells to harvest light – nanoflake tungsten diselenide and ionic liquid co-catalyst system on the cathode side; with cobalt oxide in potassium phosphate electrolyte on the anode side. When light of 100 watts per square metre (simulating the average intensity reaching the Earth) energises the cell, hydrogen and carbon monoxide gas bubble up from the cathode, while free oxygen and hydrogen ions are produced at the anode.

"The hydrogen ions diffuse through a membrane to the cathode side, to participate in the CO2 reduction reaction," explains Asadi.

This technology should be adaptable not only to large-scale use, like solar farms, but also to smaller-scale applications. In the future, it may prove useful on Mars, whose atmosphere is mostly carbon dioxide, if the planet is also found to have water. The study appeared yesterday in the journal Science and was funded by the National Science Foundation and U.S. Department of Energy. A provisional patent application has been filed.


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28th July 2016

New antibiotic discovered in the human nose

German researchers have found bacteria in the human nose that produce a novel antibiotic which is effective against multiresistant pathogens.


new antibiotic from human nose


A potential lifesaver lies unrecognised in the human body. Scientists at the University of Tübingen and the German Centre for Infection Research (DZIF) have discovered that Staphylococcus lugdunensis (which colonises inside the human nose) produces a previously unknown antibiotic. As tests on mice have shown, the substance which has been named Lugdunin is able to combat multi-resistant pathogens, where many classic antibiotics have become ineffective. The study results were published on 27th July in the peer-reviewed journal Nature.

Infections caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria – like the pathogen Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) which colonises on human skin – are among the leading causes of death worldwide. The natural habitat of harmful Staphylococcus bacteria is the human nasal cavity. In their experiments, Dr. Bernhard Krismer, Alexander Zipperer and Professor Andreas Peschel from the Interfaculty Institute for Microbiology and Infection Medicine Tübingen (IMIT) observed that Staphylococcus aureus is rarely found when Staphylococcus lugdunensis is present in the nose.

"Normally, antibiotics are formed only by soil bacteria and fungi," explains Professor Andreas Peschel. "The notion that human microflora may also be a source of antimicrobial agents is a new discovery." In future studies, researchers will examine whether Lugdunin could actually be used in therapy. One potential use is introducing harmless Lugdunin-forming bacteria to patients at risk from MRSA as a preventative measure.



new antibiotic found in human noseStaphylococcus lugdunensis (white) colonise on human nasal epithelial cells (pink) and combat the Staphylococcus aureus pathogen (yellow) by producing Lugdunin. Graphic: Professor Andreas Peschel.


Researchers from the Institute of Organic Chemistry at the University of Tübingen closely examined the structure of Lugdunin, noting that it consists of a previously unknown ring structure of protein blocks and thus establishes a new class of materials.

Antibiotic resistance is a growing problem worldwide. "There are estimates which suggest that more people will die from resistant bacteria in the coming decades than cancer," says Dr. Bernhard Krismer. "The improper use of antibiotics strengthens this alarming development" he continues.

As many of the pathogens are part of human microflora on skin and mucous membranes, they cannot be avoided. Particularly for patients with serious underlying illnesses and weakened immune systems they are a high risk – these patients are easy prey for the pathogens. Now the findings made by scientists at the University of Tübingen open up new ways to develop sustainable strategies for infection prevention and to find new antibiotics – also in the human body.

"If we can understand why they are living there [the nose] we may find new ways to combat bad bacteria, eradicate the spread of infection and maybe even find new therapeutic concepts, because we are in desperate need for new antibiotics," he concludes.


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27th July 2016

The first solar-powered aircraft to circumnavigate the Earth

Solar Impulse 2 has become the first solar-powered aircraft to circumnavigate the Earth – a journey of 43,000 kilometres (26,700 miles) – proving that clean technologies can achieve the impossible.




Taking turns at the controls of Solar Impulse 2 (Si2) – their zero-emission electric and solar airplane, capable of flying through day and night without fuel – Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg have succeeded in their crazy dream of achieving the first ever round-the-world solar flight. By landing back in Abu Dhabi after 23 days of flight and 43,041 km travelled in a 17 leg journey, Si2 has proven that clean technologies can achieve the impossible.

Coming from Egypt, the aircraft landed back in Abu Dhabi yesterday morning at 4:05am local time (UTC+4) completing the final leg of an endeavour that began on 9th March 2015 when Si2 set off from Abu Dhabi with André Borschberg at the controls. Taking turns in the single-seater cockpit, Piccard and Borschberg flew across Asia, the Pacific Ocean, the USA, the Atlantic Ocean, the Mediterranean and the Middle East. A total of 19 world records were set or are still pending by the World Air Sports Federation (FAI). Of particular note were Borschberg's flying five consecutive days and nights over the Pacific from Japan to Hawaii in the longest duration a solo airplane of any kind has ever flown, and when Piccard achieved the historic first crossing of the Atlantic Ocean in a solar airplane.

For the two Swiss pioneers, it's the accomplishment of a dream that was considered impossible by many experts and demonstrates that clean energies and efficient technologies offer tangible solutions for sustainable air travel.


solar impulse
André Borschberg (left) and Bertrand Piccard (right) in Abu Dhabi. © Solar Impulse | Ackermann | Rezo.ch


Bertrand Piccard had the vision of an airplane of perpetual endurance after his non-stop round the world balloon flight in 1999, when he made the promise to circumnavigate the Earth again, but this time without any fuel. In 2004, he began bringing together partners who provided funds and technology for this adventure and partnered with André Borschberg. An entrepreneur and skilled aviator, Borschberg took on the technical challenge of developing the solar airplane and making it fly. More than taking turns at the controls of Si2 in the air, the first ever round-the-world solar flight is also a tandem achievement on the ground: while Piccard developed the project outreach to promote clean technologies, Borschberg pulled together the team that designed and constructed Si2 as well as organised the flight missions.

"This is not only a first in the history of aviation – it's before all, a first in the history of energy. I'm sure that within 10 years, we'll see electric airplanes transporting 50 passengers on short to medium haul flights." said Piccard, addressing the crowds after exiting the cockpit of Si2. "But it's not enough. The same clean technologies used on Solar Impulse could be implemented on the ground, in our daily life."

"Flying one leg with a completely new type of airplane is difficult enough, but flying around the world is a real challenge," said his partner Borschberg. "More than a demonstration, it's the confirmation that these technologies are truly dependable and reliable. There is so much potential for the aeronautical world: while one hundred percent solar powered airplanes might take longer to materialise, electric planes will develop in the near future because of their tremendous advantages, such as energy efficiency."

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon spoke to Bertrand Piccard, live from the Si2 cockpit, a few hours before the landing in Abu Dhabi: "Solar Impulse has flown more than 40,000 kilometres without fuel, but with an inexhaustible supply of energy and inspiration. This is a historic day for Captain Piccard and the Solar Impulse team, but it is also a historic day for humanity," said the UN leader. "You may be ending your around the world flight today – but the journey to a more sustainable world is just beginning. The Solar Impulse team is helping to pilot us to that future."

Looking forward, Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg will continue to actively promote the use of modern clean technologies as a way to improve the quality of life on Earth. Firstly, through the already announced creation of the International Committee for Clean Technologies that will build on the #futureisclean initiative to bring independent and credible guidance on energy policy to governments and businesses. Secondly, by carrying on the work initiated by the engineering team on unmanned and high endurance electric aircrafts, which could fly at high altitude for months – offering services with exponential added value and complementing the work done by satellites today, in a flexible and sustainable way.

"Solar Impulse is very well positioned to contribute to the next generations of manned or unmanned electric aircrafts. By capitalising on the engineering skills and expertise gained over the past decade, we will continue to work to encourage concrete innovations and disruptive solutions," said Borschberg.


solar impulse hangar
© Solar Impulse | Revillard | Rezo.ch


"We are pleased to welcome back Bertrand Piccard and Andre Borschberg after their outstanding success in circumnavigating the world using only the power of the Sun," said Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, minister of state in the United Arab Emirates and chairman of Masdar, a company located in Abu Dhabi and specialising in clean technology, renewable energy, and sustainable development.

"As a leader in developing innovative renewable energy projects and technologies, Masdar is committed to supporting groundbreaking initiatives like Solar Impulse which will inspire and deliver a more sustainable future. Solar Impulse has proven just how practical the application of solar energy can be. It will also provide valuable data that will lead to critical improvements in two key areas, energy storage and efficiency. Masdar is truly excited about the endless possibilities of solar energy and we will be part of taking such technologies to the next level," Dr. Al Jaber concluded.

As stated in Bertrand Piccard's manifesto for clean technologies written in 2004, Solar Impulse's ambition is "for the worlds of exploration and innovation to make a contribution to the cause of renewable energies; to demonstrate the importance of clean technologies for sustainable development; and to place dreams and emotions back at the heart of scientific adventure." There is still much to be done to make the world we live in more energy efficient, but through innovation and pioneering spirit, the first ever round-the-world solar flight is credible proof that change is possible and that there is reason to hope for a more sustainable world.


solar impulse 2
© Solar Impulse | Revillard | Rezo.ch



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22nd July 2016

First atmospheric study of Earth-sized exoplanets

Using the Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers have performed the first spectroscopy of the atmospheres of Earth-sized exoplanets.




Using NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers have conducted the first search for atmospheres around temperate, Earth-sized planets beyond our Solar System and found indications that increase the chances of habitability on two exoplanets.

Specifically, they discovered that the exoplanets TRAPPIST-1b and TRAPPIST-1c, approximately 40 light-years away, are unlikely to have puffy, hydrogen-dominated atmospheres usually found on gaseous worlds.

"The lack of a smothering hydrogen-helium envelope increases the chances for habitability on these planets," said team member Nikole Lewis of the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore. "If they had a significant hydrogen-helium envelope, there is no chance that either one of them could potentially support life, because the dense atmosphere would act like a greenhouse."

Julien de Wit of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts, led a team of scientists to observe the planets in near-infrared light using Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3. They used spectroscopy to decode the light and reveal clues to the chemical makeup of an atmosphere. While the content of the atmospheres is unknown and will have to await further observations, the low concentration of hydrogen and helium has scientists excited about the implications.

"These initial Hubble observations are a promising first step in learning more about these nearby worlds, whether they could be rocky like Earth, and whether they could sustain life," says Geoff Yoder, acting associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. "This is an exciting time for NASA and exoplanet research."

The planets orbit a red dwarf star at least 500 million years old, in the constellation of Aquarius. They were discovered in late 2015 through a series of observations by the TRAnsiting Planets and PlanetesImals Small Telescope (TRAPPIST), a Belgian robotic telescope located at ESA's (European Space Agency's) La Silla Observatory in Chile.

TRAPPIST-1b completes a circuit around its red dwarf star in 1.5 days and TRAPPIST-1c in 2.4 days. The planets are between 20 and 100 times closer to their star than the Earth is to the Sun. However, because their star is so much fainter than our Sun, researchers believe at least one of the planets, TRAPPIST-1c, may be within the star's habitable zone, where moderate temperatures could allow for liquid water to pool.


trappist orbits


Astronomers took advantage of a rare simultaneous transit, when both planets crossed the face of their star within minutes of each other, to measure starlight as it filtered through any existing atmosphere. This double-transit, which occurs only every two years, provided a combined signal that offered simultaneous indicators of the atmospheric characters of the planets.

The researchers hope to use Hubble to conduct follow-up observations to search for thinner atmospheres, composed of elements heavier than hydrogen, like those of Earth and Venus.

"With more data, we could perhaps detect methane, or see water features in the atmospheres, which would give us estimates of the depth of the atmospheres," said Hannah Wakeford, the paper's second author, at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Centre in Greenbelt, Maryland.

Observations from future telescopes, including NASA's James Webb Space Telescope, will help determine the full composition of these atmospheres and hunt for potential biosignatures, such as carbon dioxide and ozone, in addition to water vapour and methane. Webb also will analyse a planet's temperature and surface pressure – key factors in assessing habitability.

"These Earth-sized planets are the first worlds that astronomers can study in detail with current and planned telescopes to determine whether they are suitable for life," said de Wit. "Hubble has the facility to play the central atmospheric pre-screening role to tell astronomers which of these Earth-sized planets are prime candidates for more detailed study with the Webb telescope."

The results of the study appear in the 20th July issue of the journal Nature.


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20th July 2016

2016 climate trends continue to break records

Two key climate change indicators – global surface temperatures and Arctic sea ice extent – have broken numerous records through the first half of 2016, according to NASA analyses of ground-based observations and satellite data.


global warming future timeline 2016


Each of the first six months of 2016 set a record as the warmest respective month globally in the modern temperature record, which dates to 1880, according to scientists at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) in New York. The six-month period from January to June was also the planet's warmest half-year on record, with an average temperature 1.3°C (2.4°F) warmer than the late nineteenth century.

Five of the first six months of 2016 also set records for the smallest monthly Arctic sea ice extent since consistent satellite records began in 1979, according to scientists at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Centre in Greenbelt, Maryland. The one exception, March, recorded the second smallest extent for that month.

While these two key climate indicators have broken records in 2016, NASA scientists said it is more significant that global temperature and Arctic sea ice are continuing their long-term trends of change. Both trends are ultimately driven by the rising concentration of heat-trapping carbon dioxide, which has increased by 40% since pre-industrial times, along with various other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.




The extent of Arctic sea ice at the peak of the summer melt season now typically covers 40% less area than it did in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Arctic sea ice extent in September, the seasonal low point in the annual cycle, has been declining at a rate of 13.4% per decade.

"While the El Niño event in the tropical Pacific this winter gave a boost to global temperatures from October onwards, it is the underlying trend which is producing these record numbers," said GISS Director, Gavin Schmidt.

Previous El Niño events have driven temperatures to what were then record levels – such as during 1998. But in 2016, even as the effects of the recent El Niño taper off, global temperatures have risen well beyond those of 18 years ago because of the overall warming that has occurred since then.

The global trend in rising temperatures is outpaced by the regional warming in the Arctic, according to Walt Meier, a sea ice scientist from NASA Goddard: "It has been a record year so far for global temperatures, but the record high temperatures in the Arctic over the past six months have been even more extreme," says Meier. "This warmth, as well as unusual weather patterns, has led to the record low sea ice extents so far this year."


arctic sea ice extent

global warming future timeline 2016


NASA tracks temperature and sea ice as part of its effort to understand the Earth as a system and to understand how Earth is changing. In addition to maintaining 19 Earth-observing space missions, the agency also sends researchers around the globe to investigate different facets of the planet at closer range. Right now, NASA researchers are working across the Arctic to better understand both the processes driving increased sea ice melt and the impacts of rising temperatures on Arctic ecosystems.

NASA's Operation IceBridge campaign last week commenced a series of airborne measurements of melt ponds on the surface of the Arctic sea ice cap. Melt ponds are shallow pools of water, seen in the photo below, that form as ice melts. Their darker surfaces absorb more sunlight and accelerate the melting process. IceBridge is flying out of Barrow, Alaska, during the melt season to observe these at a scale never before achieved. Recent studies have shown that the formation of melt ponds early in the summer is a good predictor of the yearly minimum sea ice extent in September.

"No one has ever, from a remote sensing standpoint, mapped the large-scale depth of melt ponds on sea ice," said Nathan Kurtz, IceBridge's project scientist and a sea ice researcher at NASA Goddard. "The information we'll collect is going to show how much water is retained in melt ponds and what kind of topography is needed on the sea ice to constrain them, which will help improve melt pond models."


melt pond arctic 2016



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19th July 2016

Smallest ever hard disk writes information atom by atom

Scientists in the Netherlands, working at the limits of miniaturisation, have used one bit per atom to create 1 kilobyte of data storage.




Every day, modern society creates more than a billion gigabytes of new data. To store all this information, it is increasingly important that each single bit occupies as little space as possible. A team of scientists at the Kavli Institute of Nanoscience at Delft University, Netherlands, managed to bring this reduction to the ultimate limit: they built a memory of 1 kilobyte (8,000 bits), where each bit is represented by the position of one single chlorine atom.

"In theory, this storage density would allow all books ever created by humans to be written on a single post stamp", says lead scientist Sander Otte. They reached a storage density of 500 Terabits per square inch (Tbpsi), 500 times better than the best commercial hard disk currently available. His team reports on this breakthrough in Nature Nanotechnology.

In 1959, physicist Richard Feynman challenged his colleagues to engineer the world at the smallest possible scale. In his famous lecture, There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom, he speculated that a platform allowing us to arrange individual atoms, in an exact orderly pattern, would make it possible to store one piece of information per atom. To honour the visionary Feynman, Otte and his team have now coded a section of Feynman's lecture on an area 100 nanometres wide.


smallest ever hard disk atom nanotechnology
STM scan (96 nm wide, 126 nm tall) of the 1 kB memory, written to a section of Feynman's lecture, There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom.


The team used a scanning tunnelling microscope (STM), in which a sharp needle probes the atoms of a surface, one by one. Using these probes, scientists not only see the atoms, but can also push them around: "You could compare it to a sliding puzzle", Otte explains. "Every bit consists of two positions on a surface of copper atoms, and one chlorine atom that we can slide back and forth between these two positions. If the chlorine atom is in the top position, there is a hole beneath it – we call this a 1. If the hole is in the top position and the chlorine atom is therefore on the bottom, then the bit is a 0." Because the chlorine atoms are surrounded by other chlorine atoms, except near the holes, they keep each other in place. That is why this method with holes is much more stable than methods with loose atoms and more suitable for data storage.

The researchers from Delft organised their memory in blocks of 8 bytes (64 bits). Each block has a marker, made of the same type of 'holes' as the raster of chlorine atoms. Inspired by the pixelated square barcodes (QR codes) often used to scan tickets for airplanes and concerts, these markers work like miniature QR codes that carry information about the precise location of the block on the copper layer. The code will also indicate if a block has been damaged, for instance due to some local contaminant or an error in the surface. This allows memory to be scaled up easily to very big sizes, even if the copper surface is not entirely perfect.

The new method offers excellent prospects in terms of stability and scalability. Still, this type of memory should not be expected in commercial use anytime soon: "In its current form, the memory can operate only in very clean vacuum conditions and at liquid nitrogen temperature (77 K), so the actual storage of data on an atomic scale is still some way off," explains Otte. "But through this achievement, we have certainly come a big step closer".


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18th July 2016

New dwarf planet found beyond Neptune

Astronomers have announced the discovery of 2015 RR245, a dwarf planet candidate in the Kuiper Belt with a highly elliptical orbit.


2015 rr245 orbit path


An international team of astronomers including researchers from the University of British Columbia (UBC) has discovered a new dwarf planet orbiting in the disk of small icy worlds beyond Neptune.

The new object is about 700 km (435 miles) in diameter – slightly larger than Pluto's moon Charon – and has one of the largest orbits for a dwarf planet. Designated 2015 RR245 by the International Astronomical Union's Minor Planet Centre, it was found using the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope on Maunakea, Hawaii, as part of the ongoing Outer Solar System Origins Survey (OSSOS).

"Finding a new dwarf planet beyond Neptune sheds light on the early phases of planet formation," said Brett Gladman, the Canada Research Chair in planetary astronomy at UBC. "Since most of these icy worlds are incredibly small and faint, it's exciting to find a bright one that is easier to study, and which is on an interesting orbit."

RR245 was first spotted in February 2016 by astronomer JJ Kavelaars of the National Research Council of Canada. The OSSOS project uses powerful computers to hunt the images, and Kavelaars was presented with a bright object moving at such a slow rate that it was clearly at least twice as far from Earth as Neptune and 120 times further from the Sun than Earth.


2015 rr245 gif animation


The vast majority of dwarf planets like RR245 were destroyed or thrown from the Solar System as the giant planets moved out to their present positions. RR245 is one of the few dwarf planets that survived to the present day, along with Pluto and Eris, the largest known dwarf planets. RR245 now circles the Sun among the remnant population of tens of thousands of much smaller trans-Neptunian worlds, most of which orbit unseen.

Worlds that journey far from the Sun have exotic geology with landscapes of many different frozen materials, as the flyby of Pluto by the New Horizons spacecraft has shown. RR245 has been on a highly elliptical orbit for at least the last 100 million years, the researchers have calculated. After spending the last few centuries further than 12 billion km (80 astronomical units, or AU) from the Sun, it is now travelling towards its perihelion (closest approach) at five billion km (34 AU), which it will reach in the year 2096.

Since 2015 RR245 has only been observed for one of the 733 years it takes to orbit the Sun, its origin is still unknown, as is the gradual evolution of its orbit in the far future. Its precise characteristics will be refined over the coming years, after which RR245 will be given a proper name. As its discoverers, the OSSOS team can submit their preferred name to the International Astronomical Union for consideration.

RR245 is their largest discovery so far, and the only dwarf planet found by OSSOS, which has identified over 500 trans-Neptunian objects. This new find was only possible due to the exceptional observing capabilities of the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope.


canada france hawaii telescope 2015 rr245
Credit: CFHT



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18th July 2016

Graphene-infused packaging is a million times better at blocking moisture

Plastic packaging might seem impenetrable – and sometimes nearly impossible to remove – but water molecules can still pass through. And this permeability to moisture can limit the lifespan of a product. To better protect goods such as electronics and medicines, U.S. and Indian scientists have developed a new kind of packaging that incorporates a single layer of graphene. They report their material, which reduces by a million-fold how much water can get through, in the journal ACS Nano.

These days, packaging is everywhere, sometimes even on individual fruits or vegetables. Wrapping products from food to electronics in plastic films can protect against dust, bacteria and to some extent water. But to maximise the lifetime of moisture-sensitive devices such as organic light-emitting diodes (OLED) for more than a year, for example, the packaging must restrict water vapour from entering at a rate of less than 0.000001 (10-6) grams per square metre every day, according to study author Praveen C. Ramamurthy. Today's typical packaging is far from achieving that goal. Ramamurthy and colleagues wanted to see whether adding graphene to flexible polymer films would help.

The researchers synthesised a layer of graphene by chemical vapour deposition and using a simple and scalable process, transferred the graphene to a polymer film. Water vapour permeated the material at the target rate of less than 10-6 grams per square metre per day. An accelerated aging test showed that an organic photovoltaic device wrapped in the graphene-infused film would have a lifetime of more than a year compared to less than half an hour if packaged in the polymer without the graphene.





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14th July 2016

Robots could build giant telescopes in space

Researchers have published a new concept for space telescope design that uses a modular structure and robot to build an extremely large telescope in space, faster and more efficiently than human astronauts.


robot space telescope construction


Enhancing astronomers' ability to peer ever more deeply into the cosmos may hinge on developing larger space-based telescopes. A new concept in space telescope design makes use of a modular structure and an assembly robot to build an extremely large telescope in space, performing tasks that would be too difficult, expensive, or time-consuming for human astronauts.

The Robotically Assembled Modular Space Telescope (RAMST) is described by Nicolas Lee and his colleagues at the California Institute of Technology and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in an article published this week by the Journal of Astronomical Telescopes, Instruments, and Systems (JATIS).

Ground-based telescopes, while very large and powerful, are limited by atmospheric effects and their fixed location on Earth. Space-based telescopes do not have those problems – but have other limits, such as launch vehicle volume and mass capacity. A new modular space telescope that overcomes restrictions on volume and mass could allow telescope components to be launched incrementally, enabling the design and deployment of truly enormous space telescopes.

The Hubble Space Telescope features a mirror diameter of 2.4 m (7.8 ft). Its successor, the James Webb Telescope – due for launch in 2018 – will be nearly triple this size at 6.5 m (23 ft). A longer-term proposal known as the Advanced Technology Large-Aperture Space Telescope (ATLAST) would be even larger, with a mirror up to 16 m (52 ft) in width. The future concept by Lee and his colleagues, however, would dwarf all of these, spanning 100 m (328 ft). This would be powerful enough to obtain detailed views of exoplanets in other star systems, as well as images from the deep universe with phenomenal clarity.


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The team's paper, "Architecture for in-space robotic assembly of a modular space telescope," focuses primarily on a robotic system to perform tasks in which astronaut fatigue would be a problem. The observatory would be constructed in Earth orbit and operated at the Sun–Earth Lagrange Point 2.

"Our goal is to address the principal technical challenges associated with such an architecture, so that future concept studies addressing a particular science driver can consider robotically assembled telescopes in their trade space," the authors write.

The main features of their proposed architecture include a mirror built with a modular structure, a general-purpose robot to put the telescope together and provide ongoing servicing, and advanced metrology technologies to support the assembly and operation of the telescope. An optional feature is the potential ability to fly the unassembled components of the telescope in formation. The system architecture is scalable to a variety of telescope sizes and would not be limited to particular optical designs.

"The capability to assemble a modular space telescope has other potential applications," says Harley Thronson, a senior scientist for Advanced Astrophysics Concepts at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Centre. "For example, astronomers using major ground-based telescopes are accustomed to many decades of operation, and the Hubble Space Telescope has demonstrated that this is possible in space if astronauts are available. A robotic system of assembly, upgrade, repair, and resupply offers the possibility of very long useful lifetimes of space telescopes of all kinds."


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14th July 2016

Global airline fleet to double by 2035

Boeing has predicted a demand for 39,620 new airplanes over the next 20 years, an increase of 4.1 percent over their previous forecast.


global passenger plane fleet double 2035


In its latest market outlook, aircraft manufacturer Boeing has predicted that the number of commercial planes in service globally will increase by 39,620 during the next 20 years. When accounting for the number of retired planes, this means an increase from 22,510 today to 45,240 by 2035, more than doubling the worldwide fleet. The total value of those new airplanes is estimated at $5.9 trillion.

"Despite recent events that have impacted the financial markets, the aviation sector will continue to see long-term growth with the commercial fleet doubling in size," said Randy Tinseth, vice president of Marketing, Boeing Commercial Airplanes. "We expect to see passenger traffic grow 4.8 percent a year over the next two decades."

The single-aisle market will be especially strong, with low-cost carriers and the emerging markets driving growth. 28,140 new airplanes will be needed in this segment.

"There's no question the heart of the single-aisle market is around the new Boeing MAX 8 and the current 737-800," Tinseth added. "Airplanes that size already account for 76 percent of the global single-aisle backlog, and our products have the clear advantage in that space."

On the widebody side, about 9,100 airplanes are in the forecast, with a large wave of potential replacement demand in the 2021-2028 time frame. Boeing has forecast a continued shift from very large airplanes to small and medium widebodies such as the 787, 777 and 777X. The Asia market, including China, will continue to lead the way in total airplane deliveries.


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12th July 2016

Imagining life in 2036

A new survey reveals the technologies Americans think will disrupt traditional industries over the next 20 years.


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This survey was inspired by a list of predictions made by Imperial College London's Tech Foresight research team, released as part of Technology Week in London. SMG Insight/YouGov interviewed 2,088 American adults to find their views on technology in 20 years' time. The results show that a large majority of people (69%) believe that physical money will disappear, two-thirds (66%) believe that pizza deliveries via drone will be commonplace and virtual reality will be routinely used for doctors' appointments. About half the respondents believe it likely that communication devices will be commonly embedded in our bodies. The prediction seen as the least likely is that robots will outnumber human beings, with only 26% considering this likely.

Professor David Gann, Vice President of Innovation at Imperial College London, commented: "London's technologists, scientists, medics and entrepreneurs are creating the future. No city in the world enjoys London's quotient of talent, technology, culture and capital. It is a potent combination. It's an environment where ideas flourish, design and innovation is embraced and new technologies are transforming our lives for the better."


digital technology


Separate research from Accenture recently revealed the impact of technology on the global economy, with its Digital Multiplier report estimating that the digital economy currently represents 22.5 percent of the world's GDP. This is expected to rise to 25 percent by 2020.

The US is the world's most digital economy, with existing digital investments accounting for 33 percent of its output. Accenture's report highlights how digital skills and digital technologies are having impacts across various sectors – 22 percent of the global retail industry's output is derived from digital, 28 percent in health, and 20 percent in consumer goods.

What are your predictions for 2036? Let us know in the comments below...


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7th July 2016

African Union to launch new "single African passport"

The African Union (AU) is introducing a common passport that will allow visa-free access to all 54 member states.


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While the shock result of Britain's referendum may threaten the already fragile European Union, other regions of the world are seeing closer integration. Russia, for example, recently helped to establish the Eurasian Union – a political and economic union consisting of Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia and Kyrgyzstan. Meanwhile, the East Asian Community (EAC) is a proposed trading bloc for the East Asian and Southeast Asian countries, which may arise out of either ASEAN Plus Three or the East Asia Summit (EAS). On the other side of the planet, the Union of South American Nations was established in 2008 and consists of 12 member countries.

Now, the African Union (AU), formed in 2002 as a continental union of 54 nations in Africa, has taken its latest step towards closer integration by announcing a new electronic passport (e-Passport). This will be launched at the next AU Summit taking place in Kigali, Rwanda from 10th-18th July 2016. This flagship project, first agreed upon in 2014, will be a major part of Agenda 2063 – a strategic framework for transforming the continent over the next 50 years. The AU passport has the specific aim of enabling the free movement of people, ideas, goods, services and capital, fostering intra-Africa trade and socio-economic development.

Aspirations 2 and 7 of Agenda 2063, respectively, envision a future Africa that is "integrated" and "united", with a single African passport seen as an important milestone towards achieving that goal. Common passports have already been adopted across a number of smaller regions, such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). The proposed AU passport would be an electronic document permitting continent-wide travel, without the requirement for a visa – except for Morocco (the only non-AU nation in Africa) and several island territories held by Spain, France, Portugal and the UK. The first AU passports will be issued to AU heads of state, government ministers and representatives of AU member states later this month. They will be rolled out to all AU citizens by 2018.

Some believe this two-year schedule is overly optimistic, however. AU Director for Political Affairs, Dr. Khabele Matlosa, acknowledges the target of providing all citizens with the passports by 2018 is ambitious and that full coverage "may not be achieved until several years later". David Zounmenou, senior research fellow at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, South Africa, shares his view: "Not all countries have the same level of technology needed for the biometric system and to register their citizens," he says. "The timeframe is too short – 2020 would be a fine effort."

Deeper integration – such as the formation of a single, pan-African common market – presents enormous political and logistical challenges, but is expected to follow in the decades ahead. On current trends, the World Bank estimates that most African nations will achieve "middle income" status (defined as at least US$1,000 per person per year) by 2025. The gross domestic product (GDP) of the continent, today standing at $2.4 trillion, will see a 12-fold increase by 2050, mushrooming to $29 trillion, larger than the combined GDP of the US and the Eurozone in 2012.


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5th July 2016

NASA's Juno spacecraft enters orbit around Jupiter

After a five-year journey to the Solar System's largest planet, NASA's Juno probe has successfully entered Jupiter's orbit during a 35-minute engine burn. Confirmation that the burn had completed was received on Earth at 8:53 p.m. PDT (11:53 p.m. EDT) on Monday 4th July.




"Independence Day always is something to celebrate, but today we can add to America's birthday another reason to cheer – Juno is at Jupiter," said NASA administrator Charlie Bolden. "And what is more American than a NASA mission going boldly where no spacecraft has gone before? With Juno, we will investigate the unknowns of Jupiter's massive radiation belts to delve deep into not only the planet's interior, but into how Jupiter was born and how our entire Solar System evolved."

Confirmation of a successful orbit insertion was received from Juno tracking data monitored at the navigation facility at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, as well as at the Lockheed Martin Juno operations centre in Littleton, Colorado. The telemetry and tracking data were received by NASA's Deep Space Network antennas in Goldstone, California, and Canberra, Australia.

"This is the one time I don't mind being stuck in a windowless room on the night of the 4th of July," said Scott Bolton, principal investigator of Juno from Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. "The mission team did great. The spacecraft did great. We are looking great. It's a great day."

Preplanned events leading up to the orbital insertion engine burn included changing the spacecraft's attitude to point the main engine in the desired direction and then increasing the spacecraft's rotation rate from two to five revolutions per minute (RPM) to help stabilise it.

The burn of Juno's 645-Newton Leros-1b main engine began on schedule at 8:18 p.m. PDT (11:18 p.m. EDT), decreasing the spacecraft's velocity by 1,212 mph (542 metres per second) and allowing Juno to be captured in orbit around the gas giant. Soon after the burn was completed, Juno turned so that the Sun's rays could once again reach the 18,698 individual solar cells that give Juno its energy.


jupiter juno


"The spacecraft worked perfectly, which is always nice when you're driving a vehicle with 1.7 billion miles on the odometer," said Rick Nybakken, Juno project manager from JPL. "Jupiter orbit insertion was a big step and the most challenging remaining in our mission plan, but there are others that have to occur before we can give the science team the mission they are looking for."

Over the next few months, Juno's mission and science teams will perform final testing on the spacecraft's subsystems, final calibration of science instruments and some science collection.

"Our official science collection phase begins in October, but we've figured out a way to collect data a lot earlier than that," said Bolton. "Which when you're talking about the single biggest planetary body in the Solar System is a really good thing. There is a lot to see and do here."

Juno's principal goal is to understand the origin and evolution of Jupiter. With its suite of nine science instruments, Juno will investigate the existence of a solid planetary core, map Jupiter's intense magnetic field, measure the amount of water and ammonia in the deep atmosphere, and observe the planet's auroras. At its closest approach, it will come within 3,000 miles (5,000 kilometres) of the cloud tops. The mission will take a major step forward in our understanding of how giant planets form and the role these titans played in putting together the rest of the Solar System. As our primary example of a giant planet, Jupiter can also provide critical knowledge for understanding the planetary systems being discovered around other stars.


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