Mars Mining This Mars miner will probably never go home again. NASA

What Will Mars Medicine Be Like?  Long Distance Robotic Surgery?

ScienceDaily.com, PopSci.com, The Huffington Post, October 28, 2010

“The human space program is now really aimed at settling other worlds,” NASA Ames Research Center director Simon Worden said at the Long Conversation talk in San Francisco, according to Kurzweil AI.

With that goal in mind, writes PopSci, NASA and the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) are embarking on a “Hundred-Year Starship” program, which will bring space travelers to other planets and leave them there.

The first planet in sight? It may be Mars.

Worden expects the program to take off within the next two decades. “I think we’ll be on the moons of Mars by 2030 or so,” Worden said, according to Kurzweil AI.

So far, NASA has contributed $100,000 to the project, and DARPA has chipped in $1 million, according to Gear Log. That isn’t nearly enough for blast-off, but Worden hopes to convince additional individuals to invest.

“[Google co-founder] Larry [Page] asked me a couple weeks ago how much it would cost to send people one way to Mars and I told him $10 billion, and his response was, ‘Can you get it down to 1 or 2 billion?’ So now we’re starting to get a little argument over the price,” Worden said.

How feasible is a colony on Mars?

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As PopSci points out, in the October-November edition of the Journal of Cosmology, a paper titled “To Boldly Go: A One-Way Human Mission to Mars” explains that Mars’s similarities to Earth make it an ideal site for human exploration and, possibly, settlement.

Dirk Schulze-Makuch and Paul Davies, who co-authored the paper, argue that a one-way mission is favorable for two reasons. First, writes Science Daily, “because the greatest portion of the expense is tied up in safely returning the crew and spacecraft to earth.” The second reason is that leaving people on Mars could lead to “long-term human colonization of the planet.”

In their paper, Schulze-Makuch and Davis compared potential settlers of a Martian colony to the first Europeans who explored uncharted North America, Science Daily reports. They predict that a Martian settlement could be extremely useful to researchers and may even serve as a “lifeboat” in case a “mega-catastrophe” occurs on Earth.

Buzz Aldrin argued “we can be well on our way to Mars by July 20, 2019” and believes in building a colony on Mars. He told Vanity Fair, “I’m convinced that sending people to Mars is so expensive that if you go once and bring the people back and then go again and bring the people back, we’re eventually going to run out of money. But what if we send people the first time and they don’t come back? What if they stay there?”

The pain gate: When we suffer pain–whether from a stubbed toe or a metastasized tumor–pain signals are transmitted to the brain from around the body through these groups of sensory neurons, called dorsal root ganglia (DRG). A new gene-therapy technique intercepts pain signals at the DRG using a gene for a naturally produced opiate-like chemical. On the right, the cells of a rat’s DRG glow green with a marker for the opiate-like gene one month after it was injected into the rat’s spinal fluid. On the left are DRG cells from a control rat injected with saline solution.      Credit: PNAS

Researchers use gene therapy to stop pain signals before they reach the brain

MIT Technology Review, by Jocelyn Rice  —  A gene therapy developed at Mount Sinai School of Medicine could bring relief to patients suffering from chronic pain while bypassing many of the debilitating side effects associated with traditional painkillers.

Researchers at Mount Sinai School of Medicine injected a virus carrying the gene for an endogenous opioid–a chemical naturally produced by the body that has the same effect as opiate painkillers such as morphine–directly into the spinal fluid of rats. The injections were targeted to regions of the spinal cord called the dorsal root ganglia, which act as a “pain gate” by intercepting pain signals from the body on their way to the brain. “You can stop pain transmission at the spinal level so that pain impulses never reach the brain,” says project leader Andreas Beutler, an assistant professor of hematology and medical oncology at Mount Sinai.

The injection technique is equivalent to a spinal tap, a routine procedure that can be performed quickly at a patient’s bedside without general anesthesia.

Because it targets the spinal cord directly, this technique limits the opiate-like substance, and hence any side effects, to a contained area. Normally, when opiate drugs are administered orally or by injection, their effects are spread throughout the body and brain, where they cause unwanted side effects such as constipation, nausea, sedation, and decreased mental acuity.

Side effects are a major hurdle in treating chronic pain, which costs the United States around $100 billion annually in treatment and lost wages. While opiate drugs can be very effective, the doses required to successfully control pain are often too high for the patient to tolerate.

“The side effects can be as bad as the pain,” says Doris Cope, director of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s Pain Medicine Program. Achieving the benefits of opiate treatment without their accompanying side effects, Cope says, would be a “huge step forward.”

Beutler hopes to do just that. “Our strategy was to harness the strength of opioids but target it to the pain gate, and thereby create pain relief without the side effects that you always get when you have systemic distribution of opioids,” he says.

Several groups have previously attempted to administer gene therapy for pain through spinal injections, but they failed to achieve powerful, long-lasting pain relief. The new technique produced results that lasted as long as three months from a single injection, and unpublished follow-up studies suggest that the effect could persist for a year or more.

Beutler credits his team’s success to the development of an improved virus for delivering the gene. The team uses a specially adapted version of adeno-associated virus, or AAV–a tiny virus whose genome is an unpaired strand of DNA. All the virus’s own genes are removed, and the human endogenous opioid gene is inserted in their place. Beutler’s team also mixed and matched components from various naturally occurring AAV strains and modified the genome into a double-stranded form. These tweaks likely allow the virus to infect nerve cells more easily and stick around longer.

Once the virus is injected into the spinal fluid and makes its way into the nerve cells of the pain gate, it uses the host cells’ machinery to churn out the opioid protein–which then goes to work blocking pain signals on their way to the brain. Normally, the gene is rarely activated. But the version used for therapy has no such limitations because the gene carried by the AAV has been modified to continuously produce the opioid chemical.

Cope says that using endogenous opioids is inherently superior to injecting synthetic opiate drugs directly into the spinal fluid, an approach that requires the installation of a pump in order to deliver the drugs over a long time period. “It’s kind of a holy grail,” she says. “If the body’s own system for pain control were activated by genetic expression, that would be superior to an artificial medication.”

In Beutler’s study, which was published in PNAS, rats were surgically modified to have a stronger than usual response to pressure on their paws, mimicking the effects of so-called neuropathic pain. The gene-therapy treatment effectively restored the rats to a normal level of pain sensitivity. The team also tested a nonopioid gene, which produced comparable pain relief through an entirely different mechanism. But while the opioid gene’s effects will likely extend to humans, who respond to opiates the same way rats do, the nonopioid’s effects may be rat specific.

The Stockholm-based company Diamyd Medical has been developing a different approach to gene therapy for chronic pain that also bypasses the side effects of standard pain treatment. The approach uses a deactivated version of herpes simplex virus (HSV). HSV can be administered straight through the skin as it naturally finds and infects peripheral nerves and travels to the spinal cord on its own. Darren Wolfe of Diamyd says that this method is superior to spinal injection because it’s safer and easier, and it can be administered repeatedly.

Because of these considerations, the HSV method may be preferable for treating localized pain. However, when chronic pain involves multiple areas of the body–as it often does with, for example, metastasized cancers–going straight to the pain gate could work more efficiently.

While both of these methods have proved effective in animal models of pain, their efficacy in human patients remains to be shown. Diamyd  applied to the FDA to begin phase I clinical trials, and Beutler estimates that his approach could be tested on humans in as few as three years.

A Conceptual Drawing of the ‘Holometer’ via Symmetry

PopSci.com, October 28, 2010, by Clay Dillow  —  Researchers at Fermilab are building a “holometer” so they can disprove everything you thought you knew about the universe. More specifically, they are trying to either prove or disprove the somewhat mind-bending notion that the third dimension doesn’t exist at all, and that the 3-D universe we think we live in is nothing more than a hologram. To do so, they are building the most precise clock ever created.

The universe-as-hologram theory is predicated on the idea that spacetime is not perfectly smooth, but becomes discrete and pixelated as you zoom in further and further, like a low-res digital image. This idea isn’t novel; recent experiments in black-hole physics have offered evidence that this may be the case, and prominent physicists have proposed similar ideas. Under this theory, the universe actually exists in two dimensions and the third is an illusion produced by the intertwining of time and depth. But the false third dimension can’t be perceived as such, because nothing travels faster than light, so instruments can’t find its limits.

This is theoretical physics at its finest, drowning in complex mathematics but short on hard data. So Fermilab particle astrophysicist Craig Hogan and his team are building a “holometer” to magnify spacetime and see if it is indeed as noisy as the math suggests it might be at higher resolution. In Fermilab’s largest laser lab, Hogan and company are putting together what they call a “holographic interferometer,” which – like a classic interferometer – will split laser beams and measure the difference in frequencies between the two identical beams.

But unlike conventional interferometers, the holometer will measure for noise or interference in spacetime itself. It’s actually composed of two interferometers – built one atop the other – that produce data on the amount of interference or “holographic noise.” Since they are measuring the same volume of spacetime, they should show the same amount of correlated jitter in the fabric of the universe. It will produce the first direct experimental insight into the fundamental nature of space and time, and there’s no telling what researchers delving into that data might find out about the holographic nature of the universe.

So enjoy the third dimension while you still can. Construction on the first instrument is already underway, and Hogan thinks they will begin collecting data on the very nature of spacetime itself by next year.

Build Your Own Spacetime-Measuring ‘Holometer’ at Home: Just kidding. Don’t. Sam Waldman, MIT/Craig Hogan, Fermilab PAC

Buckyball named after Buckminster Fuller

FORBES.com, October 28, 2010, PASADENA, Calif. — A soccer ball-shaped carbon molecule that some scientists think may have helped seed life on Earth is more common in the universe than initially believed.

Using NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, researchers spotted the carbon spheres known as ‘buckyballs’ around three dying sun-like stars in the Milky Way and in the space between stars. The telescope also detected the cosmic balls floating around a dying star in a nearby galaxy.

The telescope previously found buckyballs only in one location in space.

The new findings appear online Thursday in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Scientists hope to better understand the role buckyballs play in the birth and death of stars and planets.

FORBES.com, October 28, 2010, By BRUCE UPBIN

Photo by Andy Morris

FORBES.com, October 28, 2010, By BRUCE UPBIN

The list of rich men obsessed with space exploration is as long as an Apollo rocket. The sums spent are long, too. Musk has put up an estimated $100M, Bezos  is into the millions likely, Paul Allen spent $100M. Robert Bigelow, a budget hotel-chain mogul, built a life-size space station in his well-guarded Bigelow Aerospace factory in Nevada.

But Musk and Bigelow look like pikers next to James Lick. The wealthiest man in California (150 years ago), Lick spent more on a single telescope (in today’s dollars) than all of their investments combined. Lick made his fortune in real estate after the Gold Rush. He built most of downtown San Jose, Calif. and late in his life was moved to spend $700,000 on the Lick Observatory, finished in 1876 in San Jose at a cost of what would now be the equivalent of $1.2 billion (in 2008 dollars). The era of the tycoon-funded giant telescope lasted until the construction of the Palomar Observatory in 1928 with $6.5M from the Rockefellers. That’s $972M in 2008 GDP equivalent dollars (see methodology below). Most of these big scopes were built with private money, and most were built purely for scientific purposes. Musk and Bigelow seem like they’re in it for the money and the science. And why not go for-profit? The space industry is worth $250B, with great potential for entrepreneurs to take share from lazy, shiftless government programs.

These money comparisons were drawn out in a recent paper by NASA research economist Alexander C. MacDonald  (yes, NASA has economists), who is working on an economic history of space exploration for his doctoral dissertation. He says the rich have always been a huge factor in space work.

“These [new] guys,” says MacDonald of Musk, Bigelow and Bezos, “already made their money so profit is not really their goal. They’re also doing it for personal reasons. They want to see space as an option for humanity. I mean, there are a lot of easier ways to make money than in the space industry.”

MacDonald’s paper is here. His thesis also validates the Obama administration’s agenda to encourage private space enterprise, which is smart because government efforts usually bloat up with taxpayer money that space bureaucrats merely had to ask for from Congress. While we don’t want to be dependent on billionaires for all our big-ticket science and engineering projects, we might as well reduce the barriers that hold back private efforts.

Here’s the table from MacDonald’s paper listing costs then and now of space exploration projects from 100 or more years ago. Many were larger in today’s dollars than today’s space investments.

MacDonald ran his numbers using equivalent GDP ratio, which he says is a better method than inflation-adjusting when it comes to assessing relative historical impacts of megaprojects like telescopes or churches. MacDonald divided Lick’s $700,000 telescope budget by the U.S. GDP in 1876 and multiplied that number by 2008 GDP. Voila: $1.2 billion. NASA’s total annual space shuttle budget is $4 billion.

Backgrounder on the money today: Dennis Tito spent $20 million of his own money to become the world’s first space tourist in 2001. Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen spent $25 million on SpaceShipOne. PayPal cofounder Elon Musk put a reported $100 million of his own money into SpaceX, whose Falcon rockets are poised to take over cargo delivery duties from NASA to the International Space Station. Intel cofounder Gordon Moore has spent $24 million and pledged another $200 million through his foundation to build a giant $1.4 billion telescope in Mauna Kea, Hawaii. It will be able to peer to the very edge of the observable universe. Amazon founder Jeffrey Bezos has bankrolled with undisclosed millions a project called Blue Origin that has already received a separate $3.7 million in federal funds to develop an astronaut escape system for its manned New Shepherd rocket. The final frontier ain’t cheap.