NASA eyes airships for long-haul stratospheric research missions

The humble airship could rise again as a valuable scientific tool, if NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory goes ahead with a planned challenge to develop record-breaking stratospheric airships.

It has issued a request for information about the achievability of a potential challenge, which if it were to go ahead would see $2-3m available in prize money.

The agency believes that airships have serious potential for scientific research, due to their potential ability to remain in the air in a stable position for long periods.

“We are seeking to take astronomy and Earth science to new heights by enabling a long-duration, suborbital platform for these kinds of research,” explained Jason Rhodes, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

By attaching a telescope to an airship located in the stratosphere – the second layer of Earth’s atmosphere above its weather systems – scientists would be able to get high-resolution images, and thus detailed data, about celestial bodies such as stars.

They would also be able to use an airship as a floating weather station to capture data about weather and climate change.

“You would be able to follow weather patterns, even get above a hurricane. A satellite can’t do that because its orbit can’t be changed,” said Rhodes.

lockheed-airship

The challenge would be split into two tiers, both of which are designed to achieve milestones in airship development that have never before been reached.

The first tier would be to develop an airship capable of carrying 44 pounds (20kg) and successfully getting it to remain at an altitude of 65,000ft (20km) for 20 hours.

The advanced, second tier would be to do the same but with a far greater carrying capacity – 440 pounds (200kg) – for a far longer period – 200 hours.

In both cases the airship could take the form of a blimp, with a soft body, or a zeppelin, with a rigid body, but would need to be lighter than air, powered and navigable.

The target altitude is an important feature of the challenge, as the agency believes it would be the perfect height to achieve the desired projects.

“The 65,000-foot mark is the sweet spot where the airship would get as high as possible while still having enough air to propel against, because it needs propulsion to stay in the same spot. It’s also a good altitude in terms of average wind speed,” said Rhodes.

While airships have previously reached this altitude, they have never been able to remain at such a height for more than 8 hours, making the targets of 20 and 200 a big ask.

Weather balloons can achieve this height for longer periods, but cannot maintain a static location in the way that would be required.

aeros-airship

In addition to research, the agency also believes that airships flying at such altitudes could provide commercial benefits.

One of the biggest is telecommunications. Airships’ ability to remain static makes them an ideal way to bring wireless internet to remote areas, something that Google is already looking into with its Loon project.

Other companies are also looking at airships as a means of transporting heavy cargo to difficult-to-access regions.

Ultimately, if the challenge were to go ahead all sorts of unexpected uses for airships could emerge.

“We’re only limited by our imagination,” added Rhodes.


Featured image courtesy of Mike Hughes (Eagre Interactive)/Keck Institute for Space Studies via NASA JPL. Inline image two courtesy of Aeros.


Scientists, software developers and artists have begun using VR to visualise genes and predict disease

A group of scientists, software developers and artists have taken to using virtual reality (VR) technology to visualise complex interactions between genes and their regulatory elements.

The team, which comprises of members from Oxford University, Universita’ di Napoli and Goldsmiths, University of London, have been using VR to visualise simulations of a composite of data from genome sequencing, data on the interactions of DNA and microscopy data.

When all this data is combined the team are provided with an interactive, 3D image that shows where different regions of the genome sit relative to others, and how they interact with each other.

“Being able to visualise such data is important because the human brain is very good at pattern recognition – we tend to think visually,” said Stephen Taylor, head of the Computational Biology Research Group at Oxford’s MRC Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine (WIMM).

“It began at a conference back in 2014 when we saw a demonstration by researchers from Goldsmiths who had used software called CSynth to model proteins in three dimensions. We began working with them, feeding in seemingly incomprehensible information derived from our studies of the human alpha globin gene cluster and we were amazed that what we saw on the screen was an instantly recognisable model.”

The team believe that being able to visualise the interactions between genes and their regulatory elements will allow them to understand the basis of human genetic diseases, and are currently applying their techniques to study genetic diseases such as diabetes, cancer and multiple sclerosis.

“Our ultimate aim in this area is to correct the faulty gene or its regulatory elements and be able to re-introduce the corrected cells into a patient’s bone marrow: to perfect this we have to fully understand how genes and their regulatory elements interact with one another” said Professor Doug Higgs, a principal researcher at the WIMM.

“Having virtual reality tools like this will enable researchers to efficiently combine their data to gain a much broader understanding of how the organisation of the genome affects gene expression, and how mutations and variants affect such interactions.”

There are around 37 trillion cells in the average adult human body, and each cell contains two meters of DNA tightly packed into its nucleus.

While the technology to sequence genomes is well established, it has been shown that the manner in which DNA is folded within each cell affects how genes are expressed.

“There are more than three billion base pairs in the human genome, and a change in just one of these can cause a problem. As a model we’ve been looking at the human alpha globin gene cluster to understand how variants in genes and their regulatory elements may cause human genetic disease,” said Prof Jim Hughes, associate professor of Genome Biology at Oxford University.

Using CRISPR, UK scientists edit DNA of human embryos

For the first time in the UK, scientists have altered human embryos. Using the gene-editing tool CRISPR, the scientists turned off the protein OCT4, which is thought to be important in early embryo development. In doing so, cells that normally go on to form the placenta, yolk sac and foetus failed to develop.

Source: BBC

Tesla and AMD developing AI chip for self-driving cars

Tesla has partnered with AMD to develop a dedicated chip that will handle autonomous driving tasks in its cars. Tesla's Autopilot programme is currently headed by former AMD chip architect Jim Keller, and it is said that more than 50 people are working on the initiative under his leadership.

Source: CNBC

Synthetic muscle developed that can lift 1,000 times its own weight

Scientists have used a 3D printing technique to create an artificial muscle that can lift 1,000 times its own weight. "It can push, pull, bend, twist, and lift weight. It's the closest artificial material equivalent we have to a natural muscle," said Dr Aslan Miriyev, from the Creative Machines lab.

Source: Telegraph

Head of AI at Google criticises "AI apocalypse" scaremongering

John Giannandrea, the senior vice president of engineering at Google, has condemned AI scaremongering, promoted by people like Elon Musk ."I just object to the hype and the sort of sound bites that some people have been making," said Giannandrea."I am definitely not worried about the AI apocalypse."

Source: CNBC

Scientists engineer antibody that attacks 99% of HIV strains

Scientists have engineered an antibody that attacks 99% of HIV strains and is built to attack three critical parts of the virus, which makes it harder for the HIV virus to resist its effects. The International Aids Society said it was an "exciting breakthrough". Human trials will begin in 2018.

Source: BBC

Facebook has a plan to stop fake news from influencing elections

Mark Zuckerberg has outlined nine steps that Facebook will take to "protect election integrity". “I care deeply about the democratic process and protecting its integrity," he said during a live broadcast on his Facebook page. "I don’t want anyone to use our tools to undermine our democracy.”