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Search for alien life got exciting new leads this year

In yet another first for the year, scientists spotted an "interstellar object" entering our solar system.

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Telescope can view stars at ultraviolet wavelengths unhindered. Wikimedia Commons
Telescope can view stars at ultraviolet wavelengths unhindered. Wikimedia Commons
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  • First observations of a merger between two faraway neutron stars
  • Discovery of the first known system of seven Earth-size planets around a single star outside our solar system
  • A Chinese satellite detected mysterious signals in its measurement of high-energy cosmic rays, bringing scientists closer to proving the existence of dark matter.

NEW DELHI: One year passes in the blink of an eye in terms of the age of our universe, but 2017 has made significant contributions towards unravelling the deep mysteries hidden in its vast expanse, giving the search for alien life a big boost.

From the first observations of a merger between two faraway neutron stars to stunning discoveries of a number of exoplanets in the habitable zone of a nearby star and the continued march of China as a serious space player, this year has had plenty of memorable developments to excite scientists and the public at large.

Marked as the “breakthrough of the year” by the journal Science, the merger of the two neutron stars 130 million light years away generated tiny ripples in the fabric of space-time called gravitational waves.

The first detection of gravitational waves two years ago has already brought scientists the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics, but sensing the space-time ripples after the merger of the neutron stars marked the first-ever detection of gravitational waves as well as light produced and emitted during the same cosmic event, a phenomenon that scientists like to describe as hearing and seeing the violent universe.

While the observation of this collision provides scientists clues on how heavy elements like gold and platinum are produced in our cosmos, and advances understanding of the universe in myriad other ways, the discovery of several Earth-sized planets orbiting stars outside our solar system has whetted the thirst for finding signs of life in worlds other than our home planet.

This year NASA discovered few earth like planets. Wikimedia Commons
This year NASA discovered few earth like planets. Wikimedia Commons

In February, NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope revealed the first known system of seven Earth-sized planets around a single star — the TRAPPIST-1 star — an ultra-cool dwarf located at about 40 light-years from Earth.

The researchers determined that three of these planets are firmly located in the habitable zone, the area around the parent star where a rocky planet is most likely to have liquid water.

The discovery set a new record for maximum number of habitable-zone planets found around a single star outside our solar system.

In yet another first for the year, scientists spotted an “interstellar object” entering our solar system.

The discovery was made on October 19 by the University of Hawaii’s Pan-STARRS 1 telescope during the course of its nightly search for near-Earth objects for NASA.

The discovery, termed “historic” by the US space agency, revealed the interstellar interloper to be a rocky, cigar-shaped object with a ratio of length to width unlike any asteroid or comet observed in our solar system.

The team from the Pan-STARRS observatory has chosen the name “Oumuamua” for their discovery. Of Hawaiian origin, the name means a messenger from afar arriving first.

By exploring deep into space, scientists are looking for any signs of alien life. Wikimedia Commons
By exploring deep into space, scientists are looking for any signs of alien life. Wikimedia Commons

In 2017, NASA made progress in the preparations to send astronauts to Mars and it became clear that the agency would have to make plans for returning astronauts to the Moon in preparation for human missions to the Red Planet and other destinations of our solar system.

The year also marks the end of Cassini’s 13-year tour of Saturn as the spacecraft made a fateful plunge into the atmosphere of the ringed planet on September 15. The mission is often credited for transforming our understanding of ocean worlds, where life may potentially exist beyond Earth.

In April, NASA said that its Cassini spacecraft discovered hydrogen in the plume of gas and icy particles spraying from Saturn’s moon Enceladus. The discovery means the small, icy moon — which has a global ocean under its surface — has a source of chemical energy that life can feed on.

And even as the spacecraft is gone, scientists hope that its enormous collection of data about Saturn — the giant planet, its magnetosphere, rings and moons — will continue to yield new discoveries for decades to come.

The year also marks some giant strides taken by China to emerge as a formidable space power. One of its satellites, which was sent to the skies to look for evidence of the annihilation or decay of dark matter particles in space, detected for the first time unexpected and mysterious signals in its measurement of high-energy cosmic rays, bringing scientists closer to proving the existence of the invisible matter.

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NASA to Send Organ-on-Chips To Test Human Tissue Health in Space

Called a micro-physiological system, a tissue chip needs three main properties

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NASA, tissue
NASA to send tissue chips to space to test human health, genetic changes. Flcikr

NASA is planning to send small devices containing human cells in a 3D matrix — known as tissue chips or organs-on-chips — to the International Space Station (ISS) to test how they respond to stress, drugs and genetic changes.

Made of flexible plastic, tissue chips have ports and channels to provide nutrients and oxygen to the cells inside them.

The “Tissue Chips in Space” initiative seeks to better understand the role of microgravity on human health and disease and to translate that understanding to improved human health on Earth, NASA said.

“Spaceflight causes many significant changes in the human body,” said Liz Warren, Associate Program Scientist at the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) in the US.

Kepler, NASA, tissue
This illustration made available by NASA shows the Kepler Space Telescope. As of October 2018, the planet-hunting spacecraft has been in space for nearly a decade. VOA

“We expect tissue chips in space to behave much like an astronaut’s body, experiencing the same kind of rapid change,” Warren said.

The US space agency is planning the investigations in collaboration with CASIS and the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS) at the National Institutes for Health (NIH).

Many of the changes in the human body caused by microgravity resemble the onset and progression of diseases associated with ageing on Earth, such as bone and muscle loss. But the space-related changes occur much faster.

That means scientists may be able to use tissue chips in space to model changes that might take months or years to happen on Earth.

Parkinson's Disease, Kepler, NASA, tissue
A researcher takes a tissue sample from a human brain at the Multiple Sclerosis and Parkinson’s UK Tissue Bank, VOA

This first phase of Tissue Chips in Space includes five investigations. An investigation of immune system ageing is planned for launch on the SpaceX CRS-16 flight, scheduled for this year.

The other four, scheduled to launch on SpaceX CRS-17 or subsequent flights, include lung host defense, the blood-brain barrier, musculoskeletal disease and kidney function.

In addition, four more projects are scheduled for launch in summer 2020, including two on engineered heart tissue to understand cardiovascular health, one on muscle wasting and another on gut inflammation.

Kepler, NASA, tissue
“Detecting life in an agnostic fashion means not using characteristics particular to Earth life,” said Heather Graham at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Pixabay

Also called a micro-physiological system, a tissue chip needs three main properties, according to Lucie Low, scientific programme manager at National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences in the US.

Also Read: NASA’s Ralph Will Explore Jupiter’s Trojan Asteroids in 2021

“It has to be 3D, because humans are 3D,” she explained.

“It must have multiple, different types of cells, because an organ is made up of all kinds of tissue types. And it must have microfluidic channels, because every single tissue in your body has vasculature to bring in blood and nutrients and to take away detritus,” she added. (IANS)