Cygnus & Saffire, Syn3.0, and New Views of Occator | Vol. 3 / No. 22

News from Ceres, a Cygnus launch and docking, and fresh new synthetic life. Read on!

Cygnus and Saffire

An earlier Cygnus prepares to dock with the ISS | Photo: <a href="">NASA</a>, CC0 (Public Domain)
An earlier Cygnus prepares to dock with the ISS | Photo: NASA, CC0 (Public Domain)

On Tuesday another unmanned Orbital ATK “Cygnus” ISS resupply mission launched successfully aboard an Atlas V rocket. After some peculiarities with the launch that led to a slightly longer than usual burn of the second stage Centaur engine, all went well, and the seven tons of supplies arrived at the station on Saturday. But that’s not the end of life for the second Cygnus to reach the station in three months — when it leaves again, it’ll spend another week in orbit before it burns up (along with a lot of the ISS’s trash) in reentry. During that time, scientists at NASA are going to set it on fire. Technically, they’re going to run an experiment called Saffire inside the Cygnus that will involve setting something on fire, and seeing how it goes in microgravity. Scientists don’t often get to test setting things on fire in orbit, because it’s, well, kind of dangerous. But on board a ship that’s already doomed? Sounds like an acceptable risk. Spaceflight Now has some great photo sets of the launch and a video of the docking, and  TechCrunch has more on the firey doom it can expect.

Also, in related news, SpaceX reports they’ve started loading the BEAM, Bigelow’s inflatable ISS module, ahead of its launch scheduled no earlier than (NET) April 8.


JCVI-Syn3.0 | Photo: JCVI, AAAS Science
JCVI-Syn3.0 | Photo: JCVI, AAAS Science

The big news in synthetic biology this week is a new organism being deemed “Syn3.0” — a backwards-engineered life form with the fewest genes yet. Part of a twenty-year (and continuing) mission to strip down life to its most basic model, Syn3.0 has only 473 genes. For comparison, e. coli has roughly 4000-5500 depending on the strain. The team at the J. Craig Venter Institute stripped out whatever they could from the genome of a previous iteration (at one time based on mycoplasma mycoides) and only kept genes if the bacterium stopped being able to live and reproduce. What they thought they’d get was a better understanding of what each part did, but what they’ve found instead is how little they understand. The function of 149 of the 473 genes in Syn3.0’s blueprint are unknown — all we know is that without them, it doesn’t work. By creating a stripped-down cell, the team hopes to create a kind of platform for the engineering of new and useful lifeforms that could digest plastics, create hydrocarbons, and more. Check out the press release from the JCVI for more.

In related news, Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen is giving a lot of money out to biological engineering, starting up the Paul G. Allen Frontiers Group which this week announced its first four researchers to receive $1.5 million each in funding, including my favourite synbio engineer James Collins, now of MIT. Check that story out at AAAS Science magazine.


Occator crater's "bright spots" | Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/PSI/LPI, CC0 (Public Domain)
Occator crater’s “bright spots” | Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/PSI/LPI, CC0 (Public Domain)

The highest resolution images yet have been released of the so-called “bright spots” in Occator crater on Ceres. The current thinking is that they’re possibly caused by some kind of hydrated salts, exposed by some impact from where they normally sit below the surface. The new image (seen above) is actually two images — a high resolution black and white at about 35m per pixel and a lower-resolution colour image. All the latest news was revealed in a series of special sessions at the 47th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, so I assume Emily Lakdawalla will have it all in easy-to-digest blog posts in the coming weeks. In the meantime, here’s the link so you can go to JPL to see it at its highest resolution.


In case you missed any of the stories here this week, here they are once again in handy point form!

Oh, and I’ve been changing the design of the site. Maybe it’s a little 1980s aesthetic, but I felt like it was time for a change. It’s still evolving, but I hope you like it!

Best of the Rest

So many things happened this week, some of which I’ll be commenting on more in the coming week.

That’s all for this week. Remember, I only get paid in my own (and your) enthusiasm, so please like This Week In Tomorrow on Facebook, follow me on Twitter @TWITomorrow, and tell your friends about the site! Have a great week.