Astronotes: September 19 - October 2, 2004

October 1

Stressed Out: Long Spaceflights Reduce Immunity

With all the talk of personalized extraterrestrial travel this week, space enthusiasts are surely chomping at the bit to leave this planet. The reality of the notion could be sickening, however.

Long stretches of time in space could reduce the body's ability to fight off disease, a new study found. The effect, due likely to stress before and during a flight, may linger once a person is back on the ground.

"Astronauts live and work in a relatively crowded and stressful environment," said Duane Pierson, the study's principal investigator and a microbiologist at NASA's Johnson Space Center. "Stresses integral to spaceflight can adversely affect astronaut health by impairing the human immune response. Our study suggests these effects may increase as mission duration and mission activity demands increase," he added.

The results are no great surprise. Previous studies have shown that long-term space travel causes bone loss, weakens drug potency and causes psychological stress, too. Adding to the problem, sleeping in a weightless environment is harder than on Earth. And among the biggest risks of any mission is radiation exposure.

Pierson and colleagues looked at white blood cells called neutrophils in the blood of 25 astronauts over a three-year period, comparing those who had spent five days in space to those who flew for 11 days.

Neutrophils eat and destroy microorganisms and are key to fighting disease. Upon landing, astronauts had 85 percent more neutrophils than prior to takeoff, but the cells were less capable of ingesting infectious agents. No astronauts in the study became ill, but "longer exploration missions may result in clinical manifestations of decreased immune response," Pierson said this week.

The results were published in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity.

-- Robert Roy Britt

Satellite Shark: Tracking Device Could Save Great White

FALMOUTH, Mass. (AP) - Researchers put a satellite tracking device on a 15-foot shark that appeared to be lost in shallow water off Cape Cod, the first time a great white has been tagged that way in the Atlantic.

The device, attached Thursday using a 6-foot spear, will let scientists monitor the animal, which has apparently spent days in a somewhat enclosed area in the Elizabeth Islands.

The shark was first spotted Tuesday, and officials hope it can return to open water on its own. Otherwise, researchers may try to drive it there, said Gregory Skomal, a shark specialist with the state's marine fisheries division.

"Hopefully it won't come to that," Skomal told The Cape Cod Times for Friday's editions.

Great whites are common in deep waters south of Martha's Vineyard, but rarely venture so close to the mainland, though sightings have increased as the seal population has rebounded in recent years.

-- Associated Press

September 28

Sound Waves Might Power Spacecraft

Future deep space probes may be energized by powerful sound waves, akin to claps of thunder we hear on Earth when lightning thermally expands the atmosphere.

Researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory and Northrop Grumman Space Technology have teamed to design the traveling-wave thermoacoustic electric generator. The engine has the potential to power space probes to the furthest reaches of the universe.

The traveling-wave engine works by sending helium gas through a stack of 322 stainless-steel wire-mesh discs called a regenerator. The regenerator is connected to a heat source and a heat sink that causes the helium to expand and contract.

This novel engine is a modern-day adaptation of the 19th century thermodynamic invention of Robert Stirling -- the Stirling engine -- which is similar to a steam engine. In this space-rated replay, heated air instead of steam drives a piston.

Oscillating sound waves in the traveling-wave engine drive the piston of a linear alternator that generates electricity. And since the only moving component in the device besides the helium gas itself is an ambient temperature piston, the device possesses the kind of high-reliability required of deep space probes.

NASA funded the traveling-wave thermoacoustic electric generator research.

-- Leonard David

September 27

Clarke Recognized at Hotel Chelsea

Sir Arthur Clarke, cornerstone of science fact and fiction, will become part of New York's Hotel Chelsea.

A plaque will be dedicated at the Manhattan-located building on Sept. 29, next to other plates that honor individuals whose creative works were composed at the location.

In 1964, Clarke resided at the Hotel Chelsea to begin writing a novel about space travel, a work that later became the basis for the epic film: 2001: A Space Odyssey, for which he wrote the script with the late movie director, Stanley Kubrick. In unveiling the plaque, a brief greeting from Sir Arthur will be read.

Hotel Chelsea has long been a rest spot for numbers of artists, musicians and writers.

Such notables as Mark Twain, Tennessee Williams, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs are among those that have signed in at the hotel's front desk. It's also the place where Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols punk music group allegedly knifed to death his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen.

-- Leonard David

September 24

Cool Cosmetics

It's a space spinoff that you can meet face-to-face.

An advanced simulation tool for super-fast cooling, utilized in Europe's Ariane launcher program, has been tapped to create a new skincare product: "Ice Source®".

The advanced simulation code used to simulate the operation of the Ariane rocket engines was adopted by Thermagen, the company behind the innovation.

"The combination of the ultra-fast cooling with a special set of skincare ingredients, including a rare extract of Arctic raspberry, provides an immediate lifting effect when applied on the skin," explains Fadi Khairallah, founder of Thermagen.

Thermagen and its partners Cosnessens and Eurosphere presented the skin care product in a special launching event earlier this week in Paris.

"Improving the efficiency of cosmetics is definitely not the most obvious use of our technology from spacecraft launchers, but after more than 200 transfers of space technologies, I have learned that space can provide the most astonishing solutions to everyday life on Earth," says Pierre Brisson, Head of the European Space Agency's Technology Transfer and Promotion Office.

-- Leonard David

September 23

Warming May Be Less Severe in Central U.S.

ST. LOUIS (AP) -- Anticipated global warming by mid-century may be less severe in the central U.S. than elsewhere in the country, researchers said Tuesday.

Scientists at Saint Louis University and Iowa State used a detailed regional climate model to determine that estimated summer daily high temperatures will not climb as much in the area centered around the Missouri-Kansas border as in other parts of the country.

The so-called "hole" in global warming will stretch for hundreds of miles and include Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, Nebraska and Oklahoma, Saint Louis University officials said. The findings are published in the current issue of Geophysical Research Letters.

"The modeling showed that warming in the United States will be stronger in winter than summer and stronger at night than during the day,'' said Zaitao Pan, an assistant professor of earth and atmospheric sciences at Saint Louis University. "But we found what looked to us like a 'hole' in the daytime warming in summer, which was a surprise."

Researchers say the findings underscore the need to consider the impact of global warming on a region-by-region basis.

After discovering the hole in climate projections for the 2040s, Pan examined the observed maximum daily temperatures from 1975 through 2000 in a region that centers in eastern Kansas and touches parts of Missouri, Oklahoma, Nebraska and Iowa.

-- Associated Press

September 22

A Space Club for Grown-ups

The space tourism firm Space Adventures has launched a lay-a-way program for people who are already planning to pay for suborbital space flights.

The firm's new Spaceflight Club is a membership organization that will provide members with the tools and training for suborbital space hops, while at the same time allowing them to pay for those eventual flights in annual installments.

Each member's yearly dues, as well as a percentage of their Space Adventures program purchases, will be set aside as credit towards an eventual suborbital flight. Based in Arlington, Virginia, Space Adventures has helped International Space Station (ISS) tourists Dennis Tito and Mark Shuttleworth fly reach orbit and has partnered with suborbital spacecraft developers to build a reusable launch vehicle.

"The dawn of private reusable launch vehicles is upon us," said Eric Anderson, president and CEO of Space Adventures, adding that the new club allows private citizens to work toward a suborbital flight. "The [Spaceflight] Club is the answer to many who question, now that SpaceShipOne has flown successfully, how can I be a part of suborbital flight history?"

SpaceShipOne, the first privately built manned spacecraft to reach suborbital space, made its first space shot on June 21. An entry in the international Ansari X Prize competition, SpaceShipOne is poised for a second suborbital flight on Sept. 29, with the third planned with 14 days of that launch.

For more information on Space Adventures' Spaceflight Club, click here.

-- Staff

September 21

Open Skies: The Russians Are Coming!

For those readers in the United States, if you spot a Russian plane skirting your airspace this week, don't break out in a Cold War sweat.

While the Russian TU-154 may be loaded with video, optical panoramic and framing cameras for daylight photography, infra-red line scanners for a day/night capability, and synthetic aperture radar for all-day/all-night and all-weather capability -- it's all for the common good.

Under the Open Skies Treaty, the flyover is the second Russian Observation Mission in the United States. The U.S. State Department notes that the plane is unarmed. It first arrives at Dulles International Airport near Washington, D.C., with the U.S. flyover mission commencing from McConnell Air Force Base, Kansas.

The Russian team will negotiate a mission route of up to 2,980 miles (4,800 kilometers). The Treaty allows Russia, as the observing party, to image any point on the territory of the U.S. along the agreed flight plan.

To date, the U.S. has conducted thirteen observation missions over the territories of the Russian Federation and Republic of Belarus. Last June, Russia and Belarus conducted the first of their two observation missions over the United States.

First put forward to the Soviet Union by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1955, the Open Skies concept was again proposed by President George W. Bush senior in 1989 as the Cold War ended. The Open Skies Treaty entered into force on January 1, 2002.

Why not rely solely on satellites? Aircraft are able to fly lower, below clouds, while satellites could be hindered by overcast weather. Strategically, the fixed orbits of satellites pose problems as their positions are predictable.

A U.S. escort team from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) will accompany the Russian team throughout the mission, including on-board the aircraft during the observation flight.

Open Skies is designed to promote openness and transparency in military activities through reciprocal, unarmed observation flights that are meant to enhance confidence and security.

-- Leonard David

September 20

Big Robotic Telescopes Join Forces

Hunting down transient blips in the sky requires coordination and rapid response. British astronomers have recently assembled a network of the world's largest robotic telescopes, which will automatically point at rapidly evolving events like gamma ray bursts and possible crossings of distant stars by orbiting planets.

Robotic telescopes are already employed in various capacities as "intelligent agents" that can scan the sky without human intervention.

"The agents act as 'virtual astronomers' collecting, analyzing and interpreting data 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, alerting their flesh-and-blood counterparts only when they make a discovery," said Iain Steele of the eSTAR project responsible for coordinating the new network.

RoboNet-1.0, as the system is called, consists of the Liverpool Telescope in the Canary Islands and the Faulkes Telescope North on the island of Maui. Later this year by Faulkes Telescope South, which is located in New South Wales, Australia, will be linked. All three telescopes are more than 6 feet (two meters) in diameter.

Having telescopes spread out around the world saves astronomers from being at the mercy of weather and daylight. This is important for phenomena that only last hours or days.

RoboNet-1.0 could prove valuable in understanding gamma-ray bursts, extremely bright gamma-ray sources that last from a few milliseconds to a few minutes. Many of them also glow in optical light for hours, up to weeks, after the initial burst.

Scientists speculate the bursts arise from the collapse of very massive stars, or perhaps the merging of exotic objects like black holes or neutron stars. To confirm or refute these theories, astronomers hope that RoboNet-1.0 and other automated systems can catch the early stages of optical afterglows.

Another aim for the British network is finding planets by gravitational microlensing, which is the temporary change in brightness of a star as an object passes in front of it, bending light rays like a giant, natural magnifying glass. There are many telescopes currently searching for sudden changes in light from random stars. When these typically smaller instruments spot a spike, RoboNet-1.0 can quickly follow-up the observations to help determine whether a planet was involved.

-- Michael Schirber

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