Space is a hostile place, even inside a spacecraft. Radiation, weightlessness and isolation are only a few of the unique stressors faced by astronauts during space travel.
As NASA prepares for a manned journey to Mars, researchers are studying what happens to the human body in space to determine the health risks of a several-year mission. This research includes a unique study of identical twin astronauts to investigate the effects of spaceflight at a molecular level — comparing data from Scott Kelly, who recently completed a one-year space mission, with data from his brother who led a normal life on Earth.
NASA recently produced a series of web videos, “Omics: Exploring Space Through You, ” that discusses its twins study and features Michael Snyder, MD, professor and chair of genetics at Stanford and principal investigator on one of the projects. Omics is a field of study that integrates different types of molecular information and, as Snyder explains in the introductory video:
“In many respects, it’s like a jigsaw puzzle. A jigsaw puzzle can be made of 1000 pieces but you don’t really see the picture until you put all those pieces together. That’s the same for omics; you basically try and understand all of the individual pieces so you can see the whole picture.”
NASA is making billions of measurements of both twins to see what space really does to the human body. And researchers hope that one day omics profiles will be conducted on a large scale in clinics, not just on astronauts, so we can switch from a “one size fits all” approach to personalized medicine.
“OMICS is really an amazing field where we can look at people and their health at a level that’s never been possible before,” Snyder comments. “And with that we’ll be able to better manage people’s health and try and keep them healthy long before they get sick.”
This is a reposting of my Scope blog story, courtesy of Stanford School of Medicine.
Whenever I think of meteor showers, I think years back to a perfect moment. I was crashed out with friends on a sandy beach alongside the Tuolumne River during a 2-day white water rafting trip. We were enjoying a balmy summer night as we lay on top of our sleeping bags, looking up at the amazing display of stars in a sky free of city light pollution. As we chatted and sipped wine, I noticed an incredibly bright “shooting star” flaming across the sky. Then another. And another. I’d never seen so many “shooting stars” (meteors). I stayed up most of the night to watch the nearly continuous celestial display. When I got home, I learned that it was actually an annual event – the prolific Perseid meteor shower.
Meteor showers can appear anywhere in the sky. But if you trace their path, the meteors appear to come from the same region in the sky. In the case of the Perseids, the meteors appear to originate from the constellation Perseus.
Meteor showers are caused by comets. As a comet orbits the Sun, it sheds a debris stream of ice and dust along its orbit. When Earth travels through this cloud of debris, the bits of interplanetary rock strike the Earth’s upper atmosphere where they are heated by friction and ignited.
The Perseid meteor shower comes from the Swift-Tuttle, a huge comet with a nucleus of 26 km and meteoroids hitting our atmosphere at 132,000 mph. According to new research by NASA, the Perseids are the most prolific meteor shower. The number of resulting meteors can top 100 per hour.
Although the meteor shower is active for several days, the peak will happen tonight through the early hours of tomorrow morning. A crescent moon will set shortly after midnight, leaving the skies dark for optimal viewing until pre-dawn. You just need to search out a secluded spot away from the glow of city lights, like a state or city park, then lie back and enjoy the show.
When I tried to make lunch plans with a friend for next week, he didn’t know yet whether he could meet me. That’s because his plans depend on how smoothly the Curiosity rover lands on Mars tonight. His research team put together the Radiation Assessment Detector that is mounted on the top deck of the Curiosity rover.
NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft with the Curiosity rover are approaching Mars at this moment. It’s expected to land tonight at 10:31 p.m. PDT (Pacific Daylight Time). The technical challenges involved in the Curiosity’s landing are daunting. The final minutes to landing are described beautifully in the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s popular video dubbed “The Seven Minutes of Terror.”
We still aren’t sure if life ever existed on Mars. From past missions, researchers know that there used to be water there. Now they want to determine if Mars once had the kind of environment that could be habitable or conducive for the formation of microbial life.
The Curiosity rover is a car-like rover that will search Mars for past or present conditions favorable for life on the planet. It is basically a science lab on wheels, including 10 complex scientific instruments. These instruments are designed to study the chemistry of rocks, soil and atmosphere — searching for signs of past life on Mars.
One of those scientific instruments is the Radiation Assessment Detector, which is designed to characterize the energetic particle spectrum at the surface of Mars. This will allow researchers to determine the radiation dose for humans at the planet surface, as well as provide input on the effects of particles on the surface and atmosphere. The surface is thought to have much higher radiation than Earth, since Mars has a thinner atmosphere and no global magnetic shield to divert charged particles.
Although all research requires patience, hurling your research instrument at a far away planet requires both patience and guts. The landing may cause 7 minutes of terror, but the days of waiting must include its own nail-biting nervousness. When I get together with my friend for lunch, I’ll check his nails. Hopefully the landing will be a success, so he’ll be at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory for the next couple weeks though. I can wait.
When viewed from the Earth, a solar eclipse happens when the Moon passes between the Sun and Earth so the Moon blocks the Sun. If the Moon only blocks part of the Sun, then it is a partial solar eclipse. If the Sun is fully obscured by the Moon, then it is a total solar eclipse. Total eclipses are rare at any one location, because the Moon fully blocks the Sun along only a narrow path on the Earth’s surface traced by the Moon’s shadow.
According to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), a partial solar eclipse will occur on May 20, 2012. This is the first solar eclipse to happen in the United States since 1994. In San Francisco, this eclipse will begin at 5:15 pm and end at 7:40 pm. The maximum eclipse will occur at 6:32 pm when 85% of the sun will be obscured. This partial eclipse will look the like the Moon has a ring of fire surrounding it.
Although it is tempting, you shouldn’t view a solar eclipse with the naked eye. Your eye-lens will concentrate the sun’s light onto your retina, and this can cause permanent eye damage. You can safely view a solar eclipse wearing inexpensive solar glasses (with a “CE” label), which have filters that block out 99.99% of the sun’s light and 100% of the harmful ultraviolet rays. Don’t have solar glasses? You can also safely view a solar eclipse by indirect projection – projecting the image of the sun onto a white piece of paper using a pinhole camera. The San Francisco Exploratorium has directions on how to make a pinhole camera.