Eclipse 2017

My first total eclipse.  The moon relentlessly sweeping across the  dazzling surface and eating sunspots, heading towards a destiny that you know will come but can’t quite believe.  A hot August day cooling as the sun turns into a thin bright crescent. Baily’s beads and the diamond ring just before totality.  Suddenly the world turns strange as if you are in a Gothic movie.  The comforting brightness in the sky you’ve lived with all your life has become a photographic negative. The sky at midday is dark enough to see stars and planets.  Prominences  (9 o’clock and 11 o’clock upper left) and the spectacular corona burst into view.  There is sunset color on the horizon for 360 degrees around you.  Cheers and tears, everyone seems to have an emotional response.  Words cannot do it justice.  Pictures cannot do it justice.  There is no way to convey what the experience is like, standing out under the open sky, with that incredible event happening overhead.  Don’t miss the next one.

Microgravity Volume Gauge

Traditional methods of gauging fluid levels in a tank include inserting a measuring stick as is done at gasoline stations around the world, using a float mechanism, measuring the distance from the tank top to the fluid surface via ultrasonics or something similar, or sensing the pressure at the bottom of the tank due to the weight of the fluid.  These methods all have two problems.  The exact shape of the tank must be known for accurate readings.  And, since they only work in a stationary tank in a gravity field, they are completely unsuited for microgravity.  Here is an alternative in the irrelevant tech spirit.

Microgravity Induced Bone Loss

The two critical problems faced by manned deep space exploration are radiation (discussed in a later post) and microgravity induced bone loss.  NASA has been studying bone loss in astronauts for 50 years and has learned enough about the biological mechanism to develop the successful ARED exercise device and nutrition protocols for the ISS.  These work well for motivated, fit astronauts, but compliance might be problematic for the larger and varied crew of a very long duration deep space mission.  The traditional hard science fiction solution is to use spin to generate centrifugal gravity.  One question is how much spin?  When (hopefully) we have Lunar, 1/6 G, and Martian, 3/8 G, permanent bases we will be able to do comparative bone loss studies.  A rat centrifuge on the ISS could produce additional data.  It is inconvenient to spin an entire spacecraft because of issues with navigation, antenna orientation, maneuvering, and frame stress.  Spinning part of a craft creates problems with seal integrity between the sections.  The internal wheel of the 2001: A Space Odyssey spacecraft was a rather elegant solution to these problems but still represents an unlikely level of technology for the foreseeable future.  It is likely any long duration manned space mission in the next 50 years will need to deal with the problem of microgravity.

The research that resulted in the ARED and also related rat research have shown that it is the lack of resistance to movement or lack of force supporting body weight stressing the long skeletal bones, rather than lack of the internal force of gravity on the bone matrix, that causes bone density loss.

Fully aquatic mammals such as whales, dolphins, and manatees spend their entire lives in a neutral buoyancy environment, effectively weightless.  While the deep dives of whales and the hunting acrobatics of dolphins may or may not give their skeletons astronaut levels of stress, manatees are the original couch potatoes.  In any case, all are fully adapted to their environment.  While none of these animals are remotely suitable for research, it is almost certain that we have DNA samples for all of them which could be sequenced.  We also have DNA for their land based relatives – hippopotami, elephants, and hyraxes – for comparison.

As NASA’s and others’ research into microgravity induced bone loss proceeds, the signaling and metabolic pathways involved along with their associated proteins will be identified.  It would be useful to compare these proteins to the aquatic equivalents to try to identify any adaptive changes.  This might suggest new paths for the pharmaceutical research already underway in rat studies.

Looking homeward

For 13 years the Cassini spacecraft has been orbiting Saturn and its moons, sending back thousands of spectacular pictures.  Now nearing the end of its mission, it will be exploring the ring system and ultimately entering Saturn’s atmosphere on September 15th, 2017.  Once in a while when the geometry is suitable, Cassini pauses to take a picture of the Earth while moving between science targets.  These homeward looks from 900 million miles away evoke a haunting loneliness.