Sep 12

Sweet Result from ALMA — Building blocks of life found around young star

Source: ESO Science Release eso1234

Artist's impression of sugar molecules in the gas surrounding a young Sun-like star.
Image credits: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)/L. Calçada (ESO) & NASA/JPL-Caltech/WISE Team.

A team of astronomers using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) has spotted sugar molecules in the gas surrounding a young Sun-like star. This is the first time sugar been found in space around such a star, and the discovery shows that the building blocks of life are in the right place, at the right time, to be included in planets forming around the star.(read more)

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Jul 12

The worm that feels at home in space

Source: ESA

Caenorhabditis elegans, a transparent nematode worm.
Image credits: Creative Commons ShareAlike license–B. Goldstein.

Astronauts return to Earth weakened and unsteady after weightlessness and radiation in space take their toll on the human body. New research now shows that the humble nematode worm adapts much better to spaceflight.(read  more)

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Apr 12

News from Ireland

As the city gears up for Dublin: City of Science 2012, we take a journey with amateur astronomer and artist Deirdre Kelleghan whose equal passion for science and art is demonstrated in her work. Deirdre is a Discover Science and Engineering Science Ambassador 2012, Vice Chair of the Irish Federation of Astronomical Societies, National Co-ordinator for Astronomers Without Borders, as well as being UNAWE rep in Ireland. Deirdre will also be contributing to the Dublin City Public Libraries programme of events for Dublin: City of Science 2012.

The city on a sun drenched day.  The Spire reflects and swirls the vibrant life of Dubliners mingled with mirrored   clouds and the dominant blue light from our nearest star. Flower sellers petals are jollied by the brightness.  Mica within the Liffey’s walls sparkle; ice cream melts down smiling faces. Celtic skin hovers in winters long lost vitamin, a gift from the sun, 93 million miles from the city. We enjoy our sophisticated fully functioning star, down here on one of the left over bits from its formation.

When we analyse light from our sun or any star we can see the arrangement of elements within its spectra.  Looking into a star’s pattern of elements is like looking at the code of that star, its personal finger print, its DNA.  Humans are bound together by the same elements which were created during   the birth and death of stars. Our essence is ultimately recycled throughout unimaginable eons of time, black space and accreted molecular clouds.

Read More here On Life and Light full version

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Dec 11

Mars Science Laboratroy Launch #NASATweetup Blog #2 Thanksgiving - Endeavour - Saturn V - First Day Tweetup

The Astronaut Memorial at KSC

On Thanksgiving Day we returned to Kennedy Space Centre . Jane @jhjones wanted to share with  me the memorial wall to fallen space explorers.  This magnificent structure of polished granite reflected the blue sky, white cumulus, and the American flag amongst the Astronaut names which were pierced by sun beams of remembrance.


Our morning included a pseudo trip to Mars, the Exploration Space experience, and of course mini Tweetups with pink tagged busy Tweeps including @bphuettner @Conductor222 .

Lunch with  the enigmatic #labcoatbear in the rocket garden was unmissable, another opportunity to enjoy some Florida rays and good conversation.

Afterwards a long walk on Cocoa Beach was fresh, warm and therapeutic.  Somehow I resisted urges to run into the sea which was so inviting. This beach is like a gigantic version of Keel on Achill  in Ireland, it included formation flying pelicans adding a Jurassic feel to the wildness.

Flounder with lots of Florida shrimp at the very Hemmingway 'ish   Sunset Waterfront Bar & Grill completed our day, we were joined by some of Jane’s colleagues just after the sun bowed out spectacularly on the space coast.

NASATweetup at the Twent Friday November 25th

At the badging office  circa very early  I met two of the dynamic Stephanie’s @schierholz and  @stephist with @doug_ellison . Then I introduced myself to  the other foreign nationals  including @FailedProtostar for transport to the NASA base.

Fully processed and complete with @LockheedMartin souvenir sweatshirt I came to stand within a few yards of the VAB. The Tweetup Twent was huge and accommodated tightly the 150 Tweetup worker bees 🙂  many of whom were already tweeting away at a rate of knots.  Within a short while I had access to KSCCOMM- PRESS Wi -Fi  via my encryption key - my Twitterportal  to the world was open for business. Trent Perotto @NASA and @NASAJPL gave a welcoming talk and he was followed by Dr Jim Green, and a host of other NASA/ JPL  science and engineering glitterati.  My Tweeting was too my delight being picked up and RT'ed at home in Ireland , in the UK  and USA.  A fast  lunch before an amazing tour of Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, the VAB, and my  ’ have to see’ moment the Saturn V rocket.

Bus 2 was my ride for the afternoon, our guide was a wonderful passionate young woman Kimberly Goudace. I have to admire the professionalism of all NASA and JPL staff who together made the Tweetup event an unforgettable experience. If any of them had to be at their work at 4am, 5am, 6am they were on duty with a smile and a positive attitude even if they were in unfamiliar time zones.   Kimberley did not even have a job; she was a former Space Shuttle engineer who still carried out her work to the n’th degree.

As we walked through the VAB her enthusiasm and knowledge filled the enormous void as she led us to the penultimate surprise, a close up view of Endeavour. This shuttle was being prepared for  its museum 'shelf life after space' trip to California.

The Saturn V experience for me was joyous and profound, nothing could have prepared me for the encounter and size of this lets go to the Moon vehicle.  My first reaction was how will I get this into my camera? Then I made a spontaneous unscripted video
( below in my website link) where all my knowledge of the rocket went out the window as years of anticipation poured out forever.

At launch pad 34 we were kindly allowed to walk around and ponder the loss of life at this place.  The past’s devastation visible in deconstructed remains of tormented concrete and twisted metal.

The beautiful sunset light yellowed the bareness and touched our souls as crepuscular rays created nature’s memorial to the Apollo 1 astronauts lost to a fire in the challenge of exploring space. LAUNCH COMPLEX 34Friday, 27 January 1967 18:31 Hours


More images here on my website blog

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Dec 11

Blog #3 Mars Science Laboratory #NASATweetup Silent Rocket Timewarp - Lunch Video

Mars Science Laboratory on top of an Atlas V Rocket

On the evening pre launch NASA tour we were privileged to stand within 150 yards of the Atlas V with MSL perched on top. Silhouetted against the sun this 191 foot assemblly of scientific ambition   stood  a little less than half  the height of the Apollo Saturn V. At 363 feet The Saturn V  was the largest rocket ever built and is more comparable height wise to the familiar  stainless street sculpture the Spire of Dublin which is  398 feet.

After an unlimited photographic bonanza we left the launch pad to head back toward the Vehicle Assembly Building.  On our journey groups of red haired hogs appeared , munching in the evening grass as the sun set on an unforgettable day.
Ahead, an invite to a Marstini party and a visit to an Observatory. The party was in a suburban house were everyone seemed to take it for granted that there was a swimming pool in the patio.

The Gale House (named in honour of the landing place for MSL  Gale Crater ) was occupied by a large group of Tweeps who had somehow managed to put a very cool party together. It was nice  to meet up with other folks who had been in touch with me via Twitter before I left Ireland. @TashaVerse such a good welcome , Jen Scheer @flyingjenny said hi because @commanderbyrne had told her too oh !! what a twangled world the Twitterverse  is. 🙂 @Joi_the_Artist showed me some of her richly coloured drawings while I sipped my Marstini before being introduced to @MarsCuriosity and several others  whose @  names have escaped me.  After some delicious food, I headed to the BCC Planetarium and Observatory with Jane  @jhjones for to join in the public evening. The indoor Moon set up impressed me, I wanted to bring it home to Ireland.

In the observatory we looked at Jupiter through a 24 inch scope, while soft spoken astronomers called out the positions of Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto. On the roof I looked at Orion rising on its side, the words of Robert Frost’s poem never  rang so clear and true.  The constellation looked like it had fallen down the sky, or perhaps it was me who had tumbled down the planet. The sideways view caused by the clockwork artistry of the workings of the night sky.

Next morning I was picked up at 6am on the dot by @Stephist and was twittering away by 06:25.

@TheScienceGuy Bill Nye  looking very dapper spoke about everything . The chief administrator of NASA Charles Bolden gave an impassioned talk about MSL being the precursor of future  human Mars missions.  Lori Garver  the deputy administrator  of NASA spoke with great excitment. Astronauts Leyland Melvin @Astro_Flow and  Doug Wheelock  @Astro_Wheels conducted the astronaut only sport of 'let’s have a midair chest crash just because we can' ,  and  William James Adams @iamwill joined them to speak  about education . The Black Eyed Pea star has invested millions of his own dollars in educational programs for young people. @Camilla_SDO said hello to me at the mornings Eyes on the Solar System demo. During the launch group photo that cheeky chicken came flying through  the air for me to catch so it could preen its feathers bang on centre of the photo front row.

At T minus 30 I hugged the blow up MSL beside the countdown clock and was then asked to give my thoughts to camera by Lou Braga @Photog4NY so I did.  It was very surreal to be there beside this iconic digital clock as I had watched it for years on TV following various launches from Apollo to that pending moment.   5, 4, 3, 2, 1 the moment was real, the Atlas V with MSL ascended in silence. I looked at it rise and in that muted moment my past present and future merged. The sound followed and engulfed me totally. I watched till the smoke trail dissipated into imperceptible particles before returning to continue tweeting. After spacecraft separation and a huge cheer in the twent,  I sat down at my table.  54 years of tears decided to pick that moment to flow. I knew then  I was in the right place in my life.

On the plane home as I eased back time to my reality the winder came off in my hand, a timeless moment but for me time had truly stood still when the silent rocket left this planet for Mars.

MSL launch video

More images here on my web site blog

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Nov 11

Stellar Extremophiles

Source: NASA Science Casts

A NASA space telescope named "GALEX" has found stars forming in extreme galactic environments, places where researchers thought stars should not be. The finding could affect astronomy much as the discovery of microbial extremophiles affected biology in the 1970s.

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Sep 11

Plant experiments take root on Space Station to inspire students

Source: NSBRI

A unique science project designed to sow the excitement of scientific discovery in students is sprouting this week aboard the International Space Station. The Plants in Space project will allow students and teachers to examine root growth in microgravity and compare the results with those from plants used in their own ground-based experiments.

The National Space Biomedical Research Institute (NSBRI) is funding the project. It began Tuesday, Sept. 20, when space station astronauts planted Brassica rapa seeds during the first of four scheduled five-day trials. The project's primary scientific goal is to investigate the influence of light on root orientation. (learn more)

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Jul 11

How Astronomers May Hunt for Life on Alien Planets


This chart explains how astronomers measure the signatures of chemicals in the atmospheres of exoplanets.
Image credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Any sulfurous molecules that astronomers spot on alien worlds might be a way to reveal whether or not those distant planets host life, researchers suggest.

On Earth, microbes can live off the energy available in sulfurous molecules that volcanoes release, essentially "breathing" these compounds the way humans breathe oxygen. If a similar kind of metabolism evolved on an extrasolar planet, the sulfurous molecules detected in the atmosphere of that world might help reveal the presence of alien life, according to researcher Renyu Hu, a doctoral student in planetary science at MIT.

To see what telltale signs any sulfur-dependent life might generate, Hu and his colleagues modeled Earth-sized planets in the habitable zones of sun-like stars — that is, areas where worlds could  have liquid water on their surfaces. These simulated planets possessed nitrogen-based atmospheres like Earth but 1,000 times more sulfur. (read more)

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Apr 11

Effect of solar eclipse on microbes

Source: Shriyan A, Bhat AM, Nayak N. Effect of solar eclipse on microbes. J Pharm Bioall Sci [serial online] 2011 [cited 2011 Apr 19];3:154-7. Available from: http://www.jpbsonline.org/text.asp?2011/3/1/154/76498

A study about the effect of solar eclipses took place in India on 15 th January, 2010. It was a total eclipse in some parts of the country, while it was a partial eclipse in other parts. Since microorganisms play an important role in various phenomena on Earth, the study was undertaken to know the influence of solar eclipse on nature indirectly, by analyzing certain genotypic and phenotypic variations in prokaryotes and eukaryotes. Since yeast have similar gene expression as that of human beings, investigations were pursued on Candida albicans as well as the study of the effect of solar eclipse on cultures of Staphylococcus aureus, Klebsiella species, Escherichia coli, and C. albicans that were performed in laboratory.

There was significant change observed during exposure to normal sunlight and eclipse phase. Bacterial colonies showed difference in morphology on smear examination and sensitivity pattern during this study. One fungal species and three bacterial isolates were studied and changes were recorded. Fungal species showed a definite change in their morphology on exposure to sunlight during eclipse observed by stained smear examination from broth, plate, and slant. This study concludes that blocking of the sun rays during eclipse does not harm prokaryotes and eukaryotes, instead promoted the progeny of predators in the race of better acclimatization and survival in the natural and changing environmental conditions.(read more)

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Mar 11

Recent research aboard the space shuttle is giving scientists a better understanding of how infectious disease occurs in space and could someday improve astronaut health and provide novel treatments for people on Earth.

Source: NCBI

Recent research aboard the space shuttle is giving scientists a better understanding of how infectious disease occurs in space and could someday improve astronaut health and provide novel treatments for people on Earth. (read more)

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Feb 11

NASA Finds Earth-Size Planet Candidates In Habitable Zone, Six Planet System

Source: NASA Kepler

Kepler's planet candidates by size.
Image credit: NASA/Wendy Stenzel

NASA's Kepler mission has discovered its first Earth-size planet candidates and its first candidates in the habitable zone, a region where liquid water could exist on a planet's surface. Five of the potential planets are near Earth-size and orbit in the habitable zone of smaller, cooler stars than our sun.(read more)

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Dec 10

Building Blocks of Life Created in "Impossible" Place

Source: NASA

Hubble Space Telescope picture of what was first thought to be a comet but is probably an asteroid collision.

NASA-funded scientists have discovered amino acids, a fundamental building block of life, in a meteorite where none were expected.

"This meteorite formed when two asteroids collided," said Dr. Daniel Glavin of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. "The shock of the collision heated it to more than 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, hot enough that all complex organic molecules like amino acids should have been destroyed, but we found them anyway." Glavin is lead author of a paper on this discovery appearing December 15 in Meteoritics and Planetary Science. "Finding them in this type of meteorite suggests that there is more than one way to make amino acids in space, which increases the chance for finding life elsewhere in the Universe."

Amino acids are used to make proteins, the workhorse molecules of life, used in everything from structures like hair to enzymes, the catalysts that speed up or regulate chemical reactions. Just as the 26 letters of the alphabet are arranged in limitless combinations to make words, life uses 20 different amino acids in a huge variety of arrangements to build millions of different proteins. Previously, scientists at the Goddard Astrobiology Analytical Laboratory have found amino acids in samples of comet Wild 2 from NASA’s Stardust mission, and in various carbon-rich meteorites. Finding amino acids in these objects supports the theory that the origin of life got a boost from space - some of life’s ingredients formed in space and were delivered to Earth long ago by meteorite impacts.

When Dr. Peter Jenniskens of the SETI Institute, Mountain View, Calif., and NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., approached NASA with the suggestion to search for amino acids in the carbon-rich remnants of asteroid 2008 TC3, expectations were that nothing was to be found. Because of an unusually violent collision in the past, this asteroid's ingredients for life were a "culinary disaster" and now mostly in the form of graphite. The small asteroid, estimated at six to fifteen feet across, was the first to be detected in space prior to impact on Earth on October 7, 2008. When Jenniskens and Dr. Muawia Shaddad of the University of Khartoum recovered remnants in the Nubian Desert of northern Sudan, the remnants turned out to be the first Ureilite meteorites found in pristine condition.

A meteorite sample was divided between the Goddard lab and a lab at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego. "Our analyses confirm those obtained at Goddard," said Professor Jeffrey Bada of Scripps, who led the analysis there. The extremely sensitive equipment in both labs detected small amounts of 19 different amino acids in the sample, ranging from 0.5 to 149 parts per billion. The team had to be sure that the amino acids in the meteorite didn’t come from contamination by life on Earth, and they were able to do so because of the way amino acids are made. Amino acid molecules can be built in two ways that are mirror images of each other, like your hands. Life on Earth uses left-handed amino acids, and they are never mixed with right-handed ones, but the amino acids found in the meteorite had equal amounts of the left and right-handed varieties. (read more)

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Dec 10

Discovery of "Arsenic-bug" Expands Definition of Life

Source: NASA Science

NASA-supported researchers have discovered the first known microorganism on Earth able to thrive and reproduce using the toxic chemical arsenic. The microorganism, which lives in California's Mono Lake, substitutes arsenic for phosphorus in the backbone of its DNA and other cellular components.

The newly discovered microbe, strain GFAJ-1, is a member of a common group of bacteria, the Gammaproteobacteria. In the laboratory, the researchers successfully grew microbes from the lake on a diet that was very lean on phosphorus, but included generous helpings of arsenic. When researchers removed the phosphorus and replaced it with arsenic the microbes continued to grow. Subsequent analyses indicated that the arsenic was being used to produce the building blocks of new GFAJ-1 cells.

A microscopic image of GFAJ-1 grown on arsenic. Credit: NASA

"The definition of life has just expanded," said Ed Weiler, NASA's associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at the agency's Headquarters in Washington. "As we pursue our efforts to seek signs of life in the solar system, we have to think more broadly, more diversely and consider life as we do not know it."

This finding of an alternative biochemistry makeup will alter biology textbooks and expand the scope of the search for life beyond Earth. The research is published in this week's edition of Science Express.

Carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulfur are the six basic building blocks of all known forms of life on Earth. Phosphorus is part of the chemical backbone of DNA and RNA, the structures that carry genetic instructions for life, and is considered an essential element for all living cells.

Phosphorus is a central component of the energy-carrying molecule in all cells (adenosine triphosphate) and also the phospholipids that form all cell membranes. Arsenic, which is chemically similar to phosphorus, is poisonous for most life on Earth. Arsenic disrupts metabolic pathways because chemically it behaves similarly to phosphate.

"We know that some microbes can breathe arsenic, but what we've found is a microbe doing something new -- building parts of itself out of arsenic," said Felisa Wolfe-Simon, a NASA Astrobiology Research Fellow in residence at the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park, Calif., and the research team's lead scientist. "If something here on Earth can do something so unexpected, what else can life do that we haven't seen yet?" (read more)

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