Now you see it, now you don’t: invisibility cloak nears reality

WASHINGTON A cloak of invisibility may be common in science fiction but it is not so easy in the real world. New research suggests such a device may be moving closer to reality.Scientists said on Thursday they have successfully tested an ultra-thin ...

In Chile, world’s astronomy hub, scientists fear loss of dark skies

CERRO LAS CAMPANAS, Chile When some of the world's leading astronomers scaled a frosty, Chilean peak in mid-November to break ground on a state-of-the-art, $1 billion telescope, they were stunned by an unexpectedly hazy glow.On the floor of the Atac...

NASA could have cut costs after botched Orbital launch: watchdog

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. NASA missed opportunities to save millions of dollars following Orbital ATK’s failed cargo run to the International Space Station last year, the agency’s top watchdog said on Thursday.

The NASA Office of Inspector General also questioned Orbital’s plan to resume deliveries to the space station, a permanently staffed, $100 billion research laboratory that flies about 250 miles (400 km) above Earth. 

Orbital is buying rides for its next two Cygnus cargo capsules from United Launch Alliance (ULA), a partnership of Lockheed Martin and Boeing. Orbital’s first mission using ULA’s Atlas rocket is slated for December, with the second to follow in early 2016.

Orbital also is outfitting its troubled Antares rocket, which exploded seconds after liftoff from Virginia on Oct. 28, 2014 with new engines. The revamped booster will then be used for two more station resupply missions in 2016, a schedule that the does not include a test flight and has limited opportunities for ground testing and certification, the Inspector General report said.

Orbital’s plan to return to flight “contains technical and operational risks and may be difficult to execute as designed and on the timetable proposed,” the report said.

Orbital declined to comment.

Auditors also pointed out that the U.S. space agency could have saved up to $84 million by taking advantage of provisions in its $1.9 billion contract with Orbital.

For example, NASA could have saved $21 million after Orbital launch delays resulted in multiple missions flying in 2014. Instead, NASA accepted concessions worth about $2 million, investigators said.

Orbital successfully flew two of its planned eight missions before the accident.

The company now plans to fulfill its contract requirements in seven flights by using the heftier Atlas and revamped Antares launchers. However, on a price-per-pound basis, as stated in the original contract, NASA is paying an extra $65 million for those missions, the report showed.

In a written response to the Inspector General, NASA said it had made use of available contract provisions in its negotiations with Orbital.

The oversight agency is conducting a similar review of NASA's relationship with privately owned SpaceX, which operates a second cargo line to the space station. SpaceX, owned and operated by technology entrepreneur Elon Musk, is recovering from a June 28 accident of its Falcon 9 rocket, which destroyed another station resupply ship.

(The story was refiled to correct the time element in the lead paragraph to "last year" instead of "two years ago")

(Reporting by Irene Klotz; Editing by Tom Brown)

Sugar beet waste product could be billion dollar ‘wonder material’

A Scottish company which has developed a material made from sugar beet waste believes the sky is the limit - literally. Cellucomp says its Curran product is twice as strong as carbon fibre and could one day be used to make airplane wings.

Curran was invented by Cellucomp co-founders Dr David Hepworth and Dr Eric Whale, a pair of Edinburgh-based scientists looking to create a composite to rival carbon fibre. But having proved the principle of Curran's strength by making a commercially available fly fishing rod, they have since concentrated their efforts on developing a product for the paints and coatings industry.

According to Cellucomp chief executive Christian Kemp-Griffin, Curran's physical strength, combined with its viscosity when added to liquids and composites, make it unique.

"Curran is a material that is derived from nanocellulose particles - root vegetables," said Kemp-Griffin. "Now when you get down to that very, very small size you actually get incredible strength properties. So when we put the resulting product that we have into other products, as an additive that goes into other products, it actually adds strength to those products, as well as adding viscosity, and there is no other product that will do both things at the same time."

Curran is the Gaelic word for carrot, which was the first root vegetable that Hepworth and Whale experimented with, due to its easy availability in shops. They moved onto sugar beet, due to the sheer volume of extracted waste in factories from sugar production.

Approximately 20 percent of sugar is derived from sugar beet root globally.

Wood is used by other nano cellulose manufacturers, but Hepworth says beet is preferable because it grows quickly and breaks down easily, and as the vast majority of the plant is wasted there is a positive environmental impact.

"It takes less energy to produce this material than it would to make nanocellulose from something else, like trees, so we're trying to do this in a very energy-minimising way, which is good for the environment and it's good for us because it saves costs of production, so we can potentially produce a cost-effective material and that opens a number of markets," said Hepworth.

The firm has a new factory just outside Edinburgh, which is able to produce 400 tonnes of Curran powder per year, a substantial amount considering how little is actually needed in any product. For instance, it makes up less than one percent of the ingredients of the paint developed by Curran and paint company Whitson’s. Cellucomp wants to expand production to 2,000 tonnes annually within three years, having received much interest internationally from large manufacturers.

"The feed stock that we use is from a sidestream from the sugar producing industry," said Hepworth. "It's the waste pulp that comes after they're removed the sugar, which is then pressed and dried into pellets for ease of shipment. So you can see the bottom of this stack here I've got the dried pellets. So that can be used as a low-grade cattle feed, but obviously we want to take this material and turn it into something that has a lot more value."

Hepworth says that although sugar beet factories, mainly in Europe, create large amounts of waste pellets, they are looking into other natural materials from which fibre could be extracted, such as potatoes and palm fruit.

Kemp-Griffin says Curran can be used for hundreds of applications. "There are all kinds of potential applications that Curran can be used for," he said. "It can go into things like paint and coatings, it can go into concrete, cosmetics. It can even be used for drilling fluids, as an additive to go into your food, and go into composites. So you can imagine one day airplane wings made from Curran."

Arguably the largest current market for Curran is the £2 billion paint and coating additives industry. Cellucomp have already linked up with paint manufacturers Whitson to create a new range of paints, set to go on the market shortly.

Whitson's founder - and famous decorating guru - Cait Whitson says adding Curran to her paint's ingredients has had multiple benefits, in addition to being environmentally friendly. Curran makes up 0.6 percent of her paint's ingredients.

According to Whitson, "one of the things that excited me about the Curran product was that a very small amount of Curran adds a significant amount of durability to the paint product. Secondly was the rheology, about how the paint flowed from the brush, how it flowed from the roller, what it was like to use, really I wanted a paint that over any substrate, however sucky or dry or very absorbent emulsions that you can work over that it didn't drag, and that has really come out with the Curran," she said.

Whitson says Curran helps make paint scrub-resistant, avoids unsightly brush marks, and prevents cracking, particularly in so-called 'putty' paints used widely in the Middle East.

Cellucomp has received major financial backing from the Scottish government and its economic development offshoot Scottish Enterprise, and now believes it is on the way to potentially becoming a billion-dollar company.

The company is also looking to use Curran to reinforce recycled paper.

Bomb-proof bag could suppress explosion on aircraft

A controlled explosion in the luggage hold of an aircraft was successfully contained by a bomb-proof lining developed by an international team of scientists. The technology shows how a plane's luggage hold may be able to contain the force of an expl...

Spacecraft carrying Russian, American, Briton docks with space station

BAIKONUR, Kazakhstan A Soyuz spacecraft successfully delivered a Russian, an American and a Briton to the International Space Station on Tuesday after blasting off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.The otherwise smooth journey ended with a ...

Eye-tracking sensor maker makes play for big time

STOCKHOLMAn accidental breakthrough in a Stockholm laboratory 15 years ago could reap a fortune for the engineers who made it as long as they can win over some of the most demanding consumers: video gamers. Since John Elvesjo noticed a sensor tracki...

UK scientists seek permission to edit the genes of human embryos

LONDON, Sept 18 British scientists have applied for permission to edit the genes of human embryos in a series of experiments aimed at finding out more about the earliest stages of human development.Just months after Chinese scientists caused an inte...

Arctic advantage: genetic traits help Inuit in harsh conditions

WASHINGTON The Inuit, a group of people who make the Arctic their home, have benefited from a handy set of genetic adaptations that help them survive in some of Earth's harshest conditions.

Scientists on Thursday said a study of the genomes of Inuit from Greenland revealed unique genetic variants related to fat metabolism that ward off cardiovascular disease that otherwise could be caused by a diet traditionally high in fat from blubbery seals and whales.

These genetic mutations, which the researchers said arose perhaps 20,000 years ago, help lower "bad" LDL cholesterol and fasting insulin levels, limit the height of the Inuit, keep down their weight and help them adapt to a cold environment.

"Our study is perhaps the most extreme example to date of a genetic adaptation to a specific diet," said computational biology professor Rasmus Nielsen of the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Copenhagen.

"The mutations we find seem to compensate physiologically for a large intake of animal fat and are largely an adaptation to a lifestyle in which you have a high-caloric intake of fat from marine mammals, and possibly also from other mammals."

The Inuit, formerly called Eskimos, are indigenous people in Greenland and Arctic regions of Canada and Alaska.

The researchers examined genomes of 191 Inuit, 60 Europeans and 44 Han Chinese. The genetic variants found almost universally in the Inuit were much rarer in the Europeans (2 percent) and Chinese (15 percent).

The research, published in the journal Science, is the latest to illustrate human genetic adaptation to environmental conditions.

"One of the best examples is the Tibetans' adaptation to high altitude," said University of Copenhagen computational biology professor Anders Albrechtsen, referring to a study showing that many Tibetans possess a rare variant of a gene involved in carrying oxygen in the blood, helping them in high-altitude, low-oxygen conditions.

The Inuit findings may shed light on the value of diet supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids and fish oils. Nielsen noted such supplementation was originally motivated by observations that Inuit people had a high intake of fat but low cardiovascular disease incidence, so the particular form of fat they got in their diet might be healthier than other kinds.

"Our study shows that lessons from the Inuit cannot be extrapolated to other populations. The Inuit have special genetic variants that might allow them to function better on a diet rich in omega-3s than other populations," Nielsen said.

(Reporting by Will Dunham; Editing by Eric Walsh)

Studies on kissing, the word ‘huh?’ among Ig Nobel award winners

BOSTON Researchers who studied the consequences of intense kissing, the global use of the word "huh?" and how badly bee stings hurt on different parts of the body were among the winners of this year's Ig Nobel prizes for comical scientific achieveme...

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