Category Archives: Mac’s Notebook

What do Horseshoe Crabs have to do with the Doctor’s Office?

Horseshoe crabs. The living fossils who have barely evolved since before the age of the dinosaurs likely aren’t a constant presence in your mind, but they play an important role in the medicine that keeps you healthy.

Horseshoe Crab, Limulus polyphemus
A Horseshoe Crab

These crabs have lived on Earth in their present form for over 450 million years,  living long before the dinosaurs were born, and long after the last of them died. They’ve played a fairly substantial role in human life, as they make excellent bait, and have edible eggs.

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Fred Bang

However, an alternate use for them was recently (by the crabs’ standards) discovered by Fred Bang in 1956, who found that a cell in the blood of horseshoe crabs would cause it to harden when exposed to bacteria. This cell is called an amebocyte, and serves a similar role as white blood cells do in humans. This reaction naturally serves to insulate the crabs from bacteria, but Bang realized that it could be used as an easy way to detect the presence of bacteria in medicine. This allows scientists to easily determine which batches of a product pose health risks to humans, replacing a much slower practice of experimenting on rabbits to achieve the same results.

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Tom Bentz, preparing to extract blood.

This blood is extracted by scientists who trap crabs on the shore and extract some of their blood, before releasing them back into the waters they were taken from. Currently, there is some debate on whether this method is humane enough, as the species is considered at risk and this method unavoidably leads to death in a small number of the crabs.

What to Look Forwards to in Space Travel in the Near Future

Today NASA announced its plans to contract with SpaceX, a private company headed by Elon Musk, to transport astronauts to the International Space Station for the second time. This signals the beginning of a new age of space travel, as private companies begin to take on a role previously held exclusively by government agencies such as NASA, with SpaceX leading the pack.

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Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX

SpaceX made headlines in 2012 when it became the first private company to make a manned trip into space, two years after it became the first private company to successfully return a rocket from low-Earth orbit. Its CEO, Elon Musk, is famous for his goal of getting humans living on Mars sometime in the next two decades, a timetable far ahead of most other feasible projects.

Getting a human colony on Mars has been a tenet of science fiction ever since the genre began, but it’s finally starting to seem like it could become a reality in the future, as SpaceX recently announced plans to begin its program by landing its Dragon module on Mars by 2018. Its collaboration with NASA is also seen as a good sign, with scientists such as Philip Metzger saying that “I believe it is completely feasible. No miracle inventions are required. No new physics. Just straightforward engineering and a modest budget for the development cost.”

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Philip Metzger, a physicist at NASA

As SpaceX continues to expand its manned missions, we should look forwards to beginning to see how feasible this quintessential human dream might become in the near future.

There May Be a New Ninth Planet (Sorry Pluto)

It was long a well known truth that our solar system had nine planets, until scientists realized that Pluto was, in fact, a dwarf planet. Dwarf planets are planetoids which meet two of the criteria for a planet — being an object large enough to crush itself into a sphere, but not large enough to cause thermonuclear fission — but has failed to clear its domain of space debris. For a few years after our conception of the solar system was shocked, all was well and stable, but then astronomers started noticing a strange attribute of five objects in the far reaches of our universe: they all had strangely eccentric — meaning elliptical instead of circular — orbits which aligned into a plane, and they all orbited in the same direction.

The Pair of Scientists Searching for the Planet
The Pair of Scientists Searching for the Planet

Mike Brown, an astronomer at the California Institute of Technology and the leader of the team who discovered these objects, came to the conclusion that there was less than a one percent chance that all five orbits would align without some outside force influencing them. To solve the mystery, he enlisted the help of Theoretical Astrophysicist Konstantin Batygin.

The answer they came up with was that there must be some massive object in the solar system that affects their orbits. The thing is, when they started to look at possible orbital paths that would allow them to interact and cause that pattern, they realized that this hypothetical Planet Nine would only be close enough to these five objects every 50,000 years or so. If this is the case, then Planet Nine would have to be truly huge — at least ten times the size of Earth.

The Telescope Being Used to Find Planet Nine
The Telescope Being Used to Find Planet Nine

While the scientific community has generally been skeptical about claims to have found a new planet in the solar system, for obvious reasons, it seems like this time is different. This time, the math actually checks out, and it points astronomers to the supposed location of this new planet. As of now, the two scientists are using a telescope named Subaru to scan swathes of the sky, but it could still take over five years for them to scan all of the potential ninth planet’s expected location. Keep an eye on your favorite source of science news, and wait to see if this pans out!

Juno enters the orbit of Jupiter after over four years in space.

A digital representation of Juno’s view as it approached Jupiter

Late in the evening of July 4th, 2016, NASA’s probe Juno finished its journey to Jupiter, the fifth planet in our solar system, and entered orbit around it.

The probe was launched back on August 5th, 2011, as part of the New Frontiers program, which previously sent the New Horizons space probe to Pluto in 2006. The objective of the unmanned mission is to investigate Jupiter and report back with previously unknown information about Jupiter’s physical make up. This information will help scientists understand how Jupiter, and by extension the rest of the planets in the solar system formed. It is planned to spend the next twenty months orbiting Jupiter, completing 37 full orbits, before allowing its orbit to decay and falling into the gas giant. It will be transmitting information to NASA for this entire duration.

The last photo sent from Juno before powering down nonessential instruments to enter orbit.
The last photo sent from Juno before powering down nonessential instruments to enter orbit.

When news of the successful orbit reached NASA the mood was one of jubilation, with administrator Charles Borden saying Independence Day always is something to celebrate, but today we can add to America’s birthday another reason to cheer — Juno is at Jupiter. 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.”

The name of the probe comes from Greco-Roman mythology, specifically a story where Juno, wife of Jupiter, penetrates swirling clouds surrounding him to find his true nature. The Juno probe has the same objective, although in a slightly different context.

One (More) Small Step: Orion Spacecraft Set to Launch

NASA’s-Orion-Spacecraft-2-798x350When NASA launches its brand-new Orion spacecraft later this year, it is also launching what it hopes will be a new era of human spaceflight. It will be a test flight, but the ultimate goal of the Orion project is to send humans further into space than the moon for the first time ever.

The test flight is scheduled for December. NASA will launch Orion from Florida. From there, it will orbit the Earth twice before landing in the Pacific Ocean. Although the point of Orion is to carry astronauts into space, this test will be unmanned. Scientists and engineers want to see how the spacecraft performs, especially Orion’s life support systems and the systems that connect Orion to the rocket.

Image converted using ImgCvtThink of future space launches as having two main parts. Orion is the module that will carry astronauts. Once the astronauts have completed their mission, Orion also has the capacity to safely reenter the atmosphere. The Space Launch System, or SLS, is the system of rockets that will lift it into space. The SLS is still being developed. For the December test, Orion will be launched using a type of rocket that already exists.

The goal of the Orion program is to first capture an asteroid that has been towed into lunar orbit, and eventually take humans to Mars, which NASA projects may happen by 2025.

Orion is a revival of the United States’ largely dormant space program that should see humanity go further than it ever has. So you can bet that when Orion takes off in December, all eyes will be on it.

OrionWhat’s in a Name?
Orion is one of the most famous constellations in the night sky. In the epic Greek adventure by Homer, The Odyssey, Orion was a hunter who, upon his death, was made into a constellation.

Fun Facts:

  • Orion’s first test flight will take it 3600 miles above the Earth, 15 times the distance of the International Space Station.
  • Orion’s test flight will use the Delta IV Heavy, but when Orion is actually used to transport humans, it will change to the more powerful Space Launch System.
  • When Orion reenters the atmosphere, it will be moving at over 20,000 miles per hour, which will cause the exterior of the spacecraft to heat up to 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit.