Printing in Space, Organics on Mars, and the MPAA and Google in “Project Goliath” | Vol. 2 / No. 8

Commander Barry Wilmore holding the first 3D-printed tool produced on the ISS. Photo: NASA
Commander Barry Wilmore holding the first 3D-printed tool produced on the ISS. Photo: NASA

Printing in Space

This week NASA announced that it had “e-mailed” a wrench to the International Space Station. Last month NASA demonstrated that the technology works in microgravity, and so this month when Commander Barry “Butch” Wilmore said he was in need of a ratcheting socket wrench, they decided to put the printer to use. According to Medium, Made In Space, Inc. designed the wrench to specs in CAD, e-mailed the files to the ISS, where they were then printed out. It’s the capstone in a months-long experiment which involves printing out multiple objects in space and then comparing them to identical ground-printed objects to test how microgravity affects 3D printing. Check out the article in Medium for a play-by-play on how it works.

"Cumberland" Hole drilled by Curiosity on Mars  back in May. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
“Cumberland” Hole drilled by Curiosity on Mars back in May. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

“Organics” on Mars

This week the news circulated that NASA’s Curiosity rover, now in its 867th Earth day since landing in 2012, had found “organic” chemistry on Mars. While this is exciting, it’s important to slow down and just explain what his means. First: what do we mean by “organic”? Back in the 1800s, that meant molecules that were made by or found in living things. Now it means molecules that have carbon in them, and there’s no simple and immediate way to tell whether they came from living things or not. Organic molecules range from things like methane and propane to cellulose and glucose. Curiosity found organic molecules in two ways: on the one hand, by “sniffing” the atmosphere about a dozen times over the past twenty months, and on the other, by drilling out a sample of rock and baking it to see what was in it. The sniffing recently found a spike in methane (7.0 parts per billion, unlike it’s usual reading of 0.7 parts per billion). The digging and baking combo found other evidence of organics — but we’re not too sure which ones because the perchlorates (some previous evidence of water on Mars) are making things more challenging. So what do we know? Well, methane can form without biology, but the fact that there’s different levels means there might still be active chemistry going on somewhere. And organics in the rocks means some kind of organic chemistry was going on a long time ago, too. Does that mean there was life on Mars? Maybe not. Does it raise the probability we’ll find evidence that life did exist on Mars? Maybe. Check out the article from JPL for more.

Not really the right metaphor. Photo: Guido Reni's "David with the Head of Goliath" in the Musée d'Orléans, photo by Flickr user Renaud Camus
Not really the right metaphor. Photo: Guido Reni’s “David with the Head of Goliath” in the Musée d’Orléans, photo by Flickr user Renaud Camus

Project Goliath

It’s no secret that the Motion Picture Association of America doesn’t like Google. It also hates the free and open internet. And the logic is simple: more internet = more piracy (at least, that’s what their itty bitty little brains have decided). So it was of little surprise to read in the Verge this week that the MPAA has been working behind the scenes with state Attorneys General to find ways of using legal leverage against Google, something they’ve been calling “Project Goliath.” Well, in the wake of the leak, the Verge is now also reporting that the search and software giant is suing Mississippi state Attorney General (and MPAA stooge) Jim Hood, for issuing a subpoena so broad that it could be considered punishment in and of itself (without due process).  You, me, and everyone not on the MPAA payroll probably want Google to win this one, because if the MPAA had their way they’d break the internet’s DNS system and expand the burdensome and ineffective takedown notices (again, without due process) all in the name of preserving a business model that’s clearly destined to fail. And it’s not as though the MPAA is a small-time operation: CEO Chris Dodd makes a cool $2.4 million to head up the operation. It all leaves one wondering if maybe David vs. Goliath isn’t the wrong metaphor. How about Clash of the Titans?

And in related news, the takedown of the Pirate Bay has had absolutely zero effect on piracy. Congratulations, guys.

Working on the Wrong Cells

News broke this week about a longstanding (but largely unacknowledged) problem in science research. A great deal of research is done on “cell lines” — if you want to test your new drug on a cancer in a petri dish, you just order up some bladder cancer or some breast cancer — whatever you need. But it turns out that in many cases the cells aren’t what they claim to be. And until recently, nobody has wanted to talk about it. In a great piece over at Discover Magazine, Jill Neimark reports on a longstanding problem with biological research that’s only now beginning to be fixed: we’ve been testing treatments on the wrong cells for years and people either didn’t know, or didn’t want to know:

Experimental pathologist John Masters of University College London tells of a normal endothelium line that turned out to be bladder cancer, but researchers still refer to it as “endothelial-like” so they can use it in studies. (Endothelium cells line the interior of blood vessels and lymphatic vessels.) “They clearly know that these are not endothelial cells, but to get around it and not admit they are bladder cancer cells, they call them ‘endothelial-like.’ I don’t know how they reconcile the sleight of hand,” Masters says. “It is beyond my comprehension.”

Check out the article for the full rundown. It’s worth your time.

Project Morpheus

While we didn’t get a SpaceX launch this week as we’d hoped (the CRS-5 ISS resupply mission with the hopeful first-stage return to a floating barge was postponed this week to no earlier than January 6 due to a problem with the Static Fire), we did get an under-reported test flight of NASA’s Morpheus lander, a testbed for a new methane-oxygen autonomous takeoff and landing system that will hopefully find its way onto future missions. Check out the video below — all it needs is a little Ring of Fire, I think.

11 Trillion Gallons

That’s the amount of water NASA has concluded that California needs to replenish all that it’s lost in the ongoing crippling drought that’s been laying waste to the region’s water supplies. That’s how much water has gone from the Sacramento and San Joaquin river basins since just 2011, and it amounts to substantially more water than the amount the US’s largest reservoir, Lake Mead, would have if it were full. This really highlights the problems being caused by climate change, and shows that even the recent rainstorms hitting California will have little effect in the long term. Check out NASA for more.

Goodnight Venus Express (Hello Cloud Cities?)

This week NASA’s Venus Express ended its extended mission to study our hellishly hot neighbour, after eight years of studying the planet’s atmosphere, surface, and climate. Given that the mission was only planned to last around 500 Earth days, I think we can sign this one off as an unqualified success. Still, it’s always sad to lose one of our own, so let’s raise a glass to Venus Express.

In other Venusian news, however, it’s come to light that some NASA scientists are making plans to boldly go where nobody else has thought of going for a long time: Venus. Given that the surface would kill you faster than you can say “gosh it’s hot down here,” their solution would be to hover above the sulphuric-acid-raining clouds in a kind of floating atmospheric station. The HAVOC plan (High Altitude Venus Operational Concept) is covered in more detail over at this week, and is definitely worth the look.

Best of the Rest

As always, there’s more than I can serve up this week. Here’s some of the rest: The Mary Sue covers a nobel-prize winner’s dress; the maker of FFmpeg has a replacement for the humble jpeg called the BPG; Jimmy Wales tells you where you can stick your misogyny; and PopSci test drives Toyota’s new fuel cell car (and it’s pretty good).

That’s all for now. Have a great week.