2007 was without a doubt a year of major developments in space research and technology. Andrews Space & Technology (AS&T) introduced an innovative propulsion system called Miniature Magnetic Orion. The system may significantly shorten round trips from Earth to Mars (from two years to only six months) and enable spaceships to reach Jupiter in one year, dramatically affecting interplanetary space travel. Space also promises to be the solution to our energy needs, as scientists from the Institute of Laser Engineering at Osaka University in Japan and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) are developing technology for converting sunlight into laser beams. The technology is intended to stand in the center of JAXA’s Space Solar Power Systems (SSPS) Project – aimed at creating the world’s first space-based power generation system, which will continuously absorb solar energy and send it to Earth in the form of a powerful laser beam.
In the U.S., NASA is planning the return to the Moon around year 2020. NASA scientists are developing a habitat that will allow continuous human presence on the Moon’s surface. NASA announced that while the Moon base camp will have to be able to accommodate several visitors at a time, it will be designed in such a way that it will not suffer from any long-term harm when left uninhabited for extended periods of time. Such a “Moon base” could be used to make preparations for a journey to Mars, and as a facility for conducting a wide range of scientific investigations, planned by the agency.
This year featured many interesting astronomical discoveries, such as the discovery of Gliese 581c, potentially the most Earth-like planet outside our solar system. The newly discovered planet is only 50% larger than Earth and astronomers have speculated it may be capable of containing liquid water. Another observation was recorded by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, which recently discovered what might be the first planetary system with four suns. The quadruple-star system, known as HD 988000, is approximately 10-million years old, and is located 150 light-years away from Earth (fairly close in astronomical terms) in the constellation TW Hydrae. Another fascinating discovery was made by U.S. and Czech scientists who published an article regarding ‘The Impactor’ asteroid. The scientists claim that this asteroid, which is believed to have wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, was part of a large family of asteroids that were produced as a result of a huge collision between two ultra massive bodies. According to this theory, the two colliding asteroids resided in the innermost region of the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.
In June 2007, NASA launched the space shuttle Atlantis in a successful repair and supply mission to the International Space Station. In October, the agency launched the Discovery space shuttle, which successfully delivered and installed the new Harmony Space Module onto the International Space Station (ISS), completing the station’s U.S. Core in preparation for the construction of new laboratories on board. The next Atlantis launch, which was scheduled to take-off in December 2007, was delayed several times. NASA claimed that problems in the shuttle’s fuel gauges on its liquid hydrogen tank were found shortly before the intended launch. The Atlantis manned spacecraft is to carry the European Columbus space laboratory to the International Space Station sometime in 2008.
Space travel is a hot topic these days, and as everyone is looking forward to their first interplanetary trip, several companies are already preparing equipment and means of transportation for the lucky space tourists. “Orbital Outfitters”, a California and Washington D.C. based start-up company, has demonstrated the first space suit designed for private space travelers. Earlier this year, a team of U.S. and British architects and designers unveiled the design of the first commercial spaceport in the world, scheduled to be built in New Mexico.
We shouldn’t forget, however, that sometimes space can be the source of unfriendly phenomena; evidence to its disastrous power was found this year by a team of Italian scientists from the University of Bologna, who identified a lake in the Tunguska region in Siberia as the possible impact crater from the 1908 Tunguska event. This impact caused an explosion 1,000 times more powerful than the nuclear explosion over Hiroshima, Japan. TFOT also reported on a rather bizarre space-related incident in Lake Titicaca, Peru. Locals rushed in the direction of a loud explosion and found that a large crater had formed in the ground close to Lake Titicaca. The crater, 41 feet in diameter and 16 feet deep, was filled with water. Soon after the explosion, many of the villagers reported symptoms such as headaches and nausea. It was not clear whether this was the first recorded incident of space based disease or a case of toxic fumes.
Nanotechnology is not (just) a buzzword – it forms the basis to numerous innovations covered by TFOT this year in various fields of study. Facing the ever growing problem of demand for smaller and smaller components for the semi-conductor industry, a team at the National Institute for Nanotechnology successfully produced miniscule conductive nanowires. The team uses a new method, which enables the production of extremely small nanowires in a process that utilizes the unique nature of self-assembled molecules. Another interesting development was made by a group of Ohio State University scientists, who found that nanofibers of different heights and diameters can be used to engineer materials with different properties. The scientists also discovered how exposing the fibers to different chemicals can change the fiber’s behavior. The findings from this research project may have a variety of potential applications, including the production of self-cleaning surfaces, transparent electronic devices, and biomedical tools that manipulate strands of DNA.
Researchers from the Center for Applied Nanoionics (CANi) at the Arizona State University (ASU) used nanoscale materials to create a new type of computer memory called PMC, PMC uses nanowires from copper atoms to record binary data- in order to write ‘1’ it builds an on-demand copper bridge between two electrodes, and interprets the absence of a wire as the binary ‘0’. Using nanotechnology, researchers from the University of Michigan (UM) developed a composite plastic, which they say is strong as steel, but much lighter and transparent. The material, which consists of layers of clay nanosheets and a water-soluble polymer, is gradually formed one nanoscale layer after the other. TFOT also covered a new 50-nm-thick porous membrane, developed by researchers from the University of Rochester in NY. Due to its ability to withstand very high pressures, the membrane can be used to create a new environment for growing neurological stem cells, and for purifying air and water in hospitals and clean-rooms. As the race towards creating the world’s smallest, thinnest, shortest material continues researchers from the University of Alberta and the National Institute for Nanotechnology in Canada created the sharpest object ever made. The new nano-object is a tungsten needle, tapered down to the thickness of a single atom. This breakthrough may help improve future scanning tunneling microscopes.
Several groundbreaking medical discoveries were made in 2007, leaving us more optimistic, even when it comes to the most serious health challenges facing humanity today. A research conducted at the Israeli Weizmann Institute showed that there’s a mechanism, involving the enzyme PKMzeta, which keeps memories fresh. By blocking this mechanism memories can actually be erased.This study opens new paths for further research involving learning and memory and improves our chances of understanding and finding a cure to dementia and other memory related diseases.
In a different research project, scientists from the Technion Israel Institute of Technology developed a device designed to help Multiple Sclerosis patients. According to the scientists, their device helps MS patients, who often have weakened muscles and sensory disorders, to walk faster and more easily. The device incorporates a small screen attached to the patients’ eyeglasses, through which they see a virtual floor moving beneath them as they walk, helping them remain stable and improve their walking abilities. TFOT also covered a study that revealed somewhat troubling facts – UK scientists reported that sleep deprivation can double the chances of dying from a cardiovascular event, while too much sleep appears to be even more dangerous for us, more than doubling the likelihood of dying from other causes. Don’t forget to add “healthy sleep” to your list of New Year’s resolutions.
Several of this year’s innovations have bordered on the unimaginable – such as a robot capable of moving inside blood vessels, which was developed by scientists from the Chonnam National University in Korea. This micro robot, which is less than 1
millimeter in size, can stay in the body for up to ten days. It has many possible applications, such as performing tests and releasing drugs when hitting a blood clot. Another innovative medical development was recently revealed by HP and Crospon, who collaborated in the development of a skin patch as an alternative to painful injections. The skin patch is equipped with many micro-needles that barely penetrate the skin. The patch can replace conventional injections and deliver drugs through the skin without causing any pain. The skin patch technology also enables delivery of several drugs using only one patch and enables users to control the dosage and administration time for each drug. Additionally, it has the potential to be safer and more efficient than injections. However, if you’re not particularly fond of multiple needles, small as they may be, you might consider trying needle-free injections that use jet power to insert proteins such as insulin or hormones into the body. Although the technology was known for quite a while, this method was not commonly used mainly because of the pain and bruises it caused. However, a new implementation of jet injection, which was developed by Samir Mitragotri from the University of California, Santa Barbara and his colleagues, offers a new painless strategy that uses pulse micro-jets to inject liquid beneath the skin, while preventing it from penetrating too deep.
Over the past year, TFOT covered several innovations as part of our in-depth articles. Among other things, we wrote about stem cells research in medicine – an issue that incites some of the world’s most controversial ethical and religious debates. TFOT also covered the Phoenix Mission to Mars, and a new kind of nano-batteries, which promise to prevent future fires and explosions related to conventional Li-Ion batteries.