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Upcoming Space Hotel to Be “Like a Small Cruise Ship”

Orion Span's proposed space hotel, the Aurora Space Station, might be ready within two years. But its cost jumped $3 million since April.

Remember to Write

Frank Bunger really wants to launch a hotel in space that’s affordable to the masses. But a future stay at his proposed Aurora Space Station keeps getting more expensive.

Bunger, founder and CEO of Orion Span, said in a new interview with the University of California that his orbital hotel will be “like a small cruise ship” where guests will take the role of citizen scientists.

“People want to feel what it’s like to be a professional astronaut. So they will spend a good part of it being citizen scientists,” said Bunger. “We want to grow food. And we’re also going to have just some fun activities. Even something as mundane as ping pong gets a lot more exciting in zero gravity because the ball goes everywhere, as does the paddle.”

Have Fun!

Bunger told the UC Berkeley newsroom that 26 people have already paid the $80,000 deposit to reserve their stay.

Now all they have to do is make it through the company’s customized and personalized training regiment, which Bunger said could take anywhere from two weeks to three months.

Oh, and they’ll also have to wait for the Aurora Space Station to actually get built and launched into space.

According to Bunger’s new interview, the company still needs to model, build, insure, test, launch, test a second time but in space, and finally book its orbital space hotel.

Call me When You Get There

All that will take years to accomplish, but Orion Span is currently in the process of raising millions of dollars to make it a reality. Bunger says he thinks they can get the orbital space station ready by 2021.

Previously, Futurism reported that a trip to the space hotel would cost only $9.5 million. Now the price has climbed up to $12.5 million for a 12-day trip, according to the new interview.

It’s no surprise that private space tourism is going to be hella expensive. But despite Bunger’s repeated statements that he wants Orion Span to drive down the cost of off-world vacations, they’ll likely remain a plaything of the rich for the foreseeable future.

READ MORE: Space dreams: Alum Frank Bunger’s quest to make space tourism a reality [Haas Newsroom]

More on space tourism: The First Luxury Hotel In Space Shows Affordable Space Tourism Is Still A Long Way Off

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Upcoming Space Hotel to Be “Like a Small Cruise Ship”

Just 41 Percent of Americans Support Advancing AI

A survey on AI development reveals that less than half of Americans are in support of the technology's advancement, worrying experts.

Split Decision

The United States is a nation divided.

In June, public opinion and data company YouGov surveyed 2,000 Americans to gauge their feelings about artificial intelligence (AI).

According to the newly released results of that survey, just 41 percent of Americans “somewhat support” or “strongly support” the advancement of AI. And experts fear that lack of consensus — combined with a lack of faith in AI developers — could prevent the tech from reaching its potential.

No Faith

YouGov conducted the survey on AI development on behalf of the University of Oxford’s Center for the Governance of AI, a research institute focused on guiding AI development in a way that maximizes the benefits for humanity while minimizing the risks.

In addition to asking whether respondents supported AI development, the survey also included questions designed to gauge their trust in various AI developers. The U.S. military and university researchers emerged as the most trusted and Facebook as the least. But according to a press release statement by Center director Allan Dafoe, there “is no organisation that is highly trusted to develop AI in the public interest.”

Win Them Over

With less than half of Americans in favor of AI development and no single organization emerging as a trusted leader in the field, the AI community could have a tough time drumming up the support it needs to realize AI’s potential

“It’s in the public interest to build AI well, but everyone has to be convinced,” Dafoe told Axios. “Consensus isn’t there, and there’s a real risk that there could be a political backlash against the development and deployment of AI.”

As he noted in the news release, “The public’s support for the development of AI cannot be taken for granted.”

READ MORE: America Is Split Over Advancing Artificial Intelligence [Axios]

More on AI: To Build Trust in Artificial Intelligence, IBM Wants Developers to Prove Their Algorithms Are Fair

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Former Senator Wants Congress to Listen to UFO Reports

In a public radio interview, former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid called on Congress to spend more time listening to reports of unidentified aircraft.

Black Money

It’s been just over a year since the U.S. Defense Department officially declassified two videos that showed an encounter between two Navy F/A-18F fighter jets and an unidentified flying object (UFO).

Now, former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) — a longtime proponent of UFO research — is calling on Congress to review reports like the Navy encounter, which the Defense Department has collected for years as part of a program dubbed “Black Money.”

“I personally don’t know if there exist little green men,” Reid told KNPR. “I kind of doubt that, but I do believe the information we have indicates we should do a lot more study.”

Alien Stigma

The interview took place, Reid said, just before a scheduled call with a Senator to discuss ways for Congress to listen to the Black Money reports.

But also to take them seriously. “What we found in the past is that these pilots, when they see something strange like this, they’re prone not to report it for fear that the bosses will think something’s wrong with them, and they don’t get the promotion,” Reid told KNPR. “So, many, many times they don’t say a word to anybody about these strange things.”

After all, one of the biggest reasons these sightings never actually surfaced or reported by service members is the stigma surrounding the subject of aliens and UFOs.

Reid may have retired back in 2017, but he still has powerful connections inside Congress. Service members deserve, he believes, to have their voices heard.

“Frankly, I think the federal government has done almost nothing to help us with this,” Reid said.

READ MORE: Harry Reid pushing for more UFO research [Roll Call]

More on UFOs: You’re Not Crazy if You Believe in UFOs. Let’s Discuss in Scientific Terms.

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Google Brain Built a Translator so AI Can Explain Itself

Show Your Work

A Google Brain scientist built a tool that can help artificial intelligence systems explain how they arrived at their conclusions — a notoriously tricky task for machine learning algorithms.

The tool, called Testing with Concept Activation Vectors or TCAV for short, can be plugged into machine learning algorithms to suss out how much they weighted different factors or types of data before churning out results, Quanta Magazine reports.

Transparency

Tools like TCAV are in high demand as AI finds itself under greater scrutiny for the racial and gender bias that plagues artificial intelligence and the training data used to develop it.

With TCAV, people using a facial recognition algorithm would be able to determine how much it factored in race when, say, matching up people against a database of known criminals or evaluating their job applications. This way, people will have the choice to question, reject, and maybe even fix a neural network’s conclusions rather than blindly trusting the machine to be objective and fair.

Good Enough!

Google Brain scientist Been Kim told Quanta that she doesn’t need a tool that can totally explain AI’s decision-making process. Rather, it’s good enough for now to have something that can flag potential issues and give humans insight into where something may have gone wrong.

She likened the concept to reading the warning labels on a chainsaw before cutting down a tree.

“Now, I don’t fully understand how the chain saw works,” Kim told Quanta. “But the manual says, ‘These are the things you need to be careful of, so as to not cut your finger. So, given this manual, I’d much rather use the chainsaw than a handsaw, which is easier to understand but would make me spend five hours cutting down the tree.”

READ MORE: A New Approach to Understanding How Machines Think [Quanta Magazine]

More on algorithmic bias: To Build Trust In Artificial Intelligence, IBM Wants Developers To Prove Their Algorithms Are Fair

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Google Brain Built a Translator so AI Can Explain Itself

Universal Internet Access Is at Least 30 Years Away, Say Experts

Experts predict we won't reach universal internet access until 2050, leaving many people in low-income regions without this basic human right.

Right Denied

In 2016, the United Nations declared that access to the internet is a human right — it affords a person the ability to express their opinion, access information, and communicate with the rest of the world.

In December, the planet hit an important milestone when news broke that 50 percent of the global population had internet access. But according to experts, getting the other 50 percent online is going to be more difficult and could take decades — further marginalizing some of the world’s most vulnerable populations.

Out of Reach

The U.N. defines universal internet access as getting 90 percent of the global population online, and according to a newly published piece by The Guardian, some experts think we won’t reach that milestone for at least another 30 years.

“Given the recent declining levels of growth in internet use and high costs of internet access to significant levels of low-income populations around the world, it is possible that we will only reach universal access in 2050 or later,” Sonia Jorge, executive director of the Alliance for Affordable Internet, told The Guardian.

“If there is any kind of faltering in the rate of people coming online, which it appears that there is, then we’ll have a real challenge in getting 70 [percent], 80 [percent] or 90 [percent] connected,” added Adrian Lovett, CEO of the World Wide Web Foundation.

Moonshots

A number of high-profile organizations are now trying to reach 100 percent connectivity in one fell swoop — Elon Musk’s SpaceX thinks its Starlink satellite constellation could do the trick, while Google believes a network of stratospheric balloons could beam the internet to all corners of the globe.

But according to Lovett, we can’t just hope that one of these plans works — we need to be proactive in spreading internet access.

“There should be no complacency that we will somehow magically progress towards everyone being online,” he told The Guardian. “If you are not connected when the majority of your fellow citizens in the world are, you become marginalised in a way that could be more dire and more challenging than perhaps anything we’ve seen before.”

READ MORE: Universal Internet Access Unlikely Until at Least 2050, Experts Say [The Guardian]

More on universal access: There’s a Growing Movement to Give Everyone in the World Internet Access

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Universal Internet Access Is at Least 30 Years Away, Say Experts

Astronomers May Have Just Spotted the Birth of a Black Hole

For the first time, astronomers observed the birth of a new, ultra-dense stellar corpse that could be either a black hole or a neutron star.

Rest in Peace

For the first time, astronomers have spotted the ultra-dense core of a star in its explosive death throes — and it might be turning into a new black hole.

On June 17, scientists at the Keck Observatory in Hawaii spotted an incredibly-bright stellar explosion, many times brighter than a supernova, that they nicknamed “the Cow.”

Now, further study has revealed that the Cow resulted in either an ultra-dense neutron star or a brand-new black hole — and in either case, spotting the cosmic event is a world first for Earthling scientists.

Welcome to the World!

According to Keck Observatory astronomers who spoke to The Verge about their work, which will soon be published in Astrophysical Journal, the massive explosion is a sign that a massive, dying star cast away its outer layers to leave behind a massive, dense core.

Regardless of whether it’s a black hole or neutron star, the Keck astronomers hope to measure how the new object grows, rotates, and changes over time.

“We’ve seen isolated neutron stars, neutron stars crashing into each other, and we’ve seen material falling into black holes,” physicist Duncan Brown, who didn’t work on the Keck research, told The Verge. “This observation could very well be these things being born. That’s pretty cool.”

READ MORE: For the first time, astronomers see the signatures of a newly birthed black hole or neutron star [The Verge]

More on stellar births: Ultra-Detailed New Image of Nearby Galaxy Shows Stars Being Born

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Astronomers May Have Just Spotted the Birth of a Black Hole

One of the Closest Exoplanets to Earth Could Support Alien Life

Barnard's Star b, a nearby exoplanet, could have 'life zones' under its frigid surface, according to a team of astrophysicists.

Icy Home

The exoplanet Barnard’s Star b might be frigid, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t support life.

At least, that’s the claim of a team of astrophysicists from Villanova University. They say that while the surface temperature of Barnard’s Star b — the second-closest known exoplanet to Earth — is likely  around -170 degrees Celsius (-274 degrees Fahrenheit), it could still host primitive life — as long at it has the right kind of core.

Life Zones

The scientists presented their research during a press conference on Thursday at a meeting of the American Astronomy Society (AAS). They claim that a large, hot iron core could allow the planet to host life despite its frigid surface temperature.

“Geothermal heating could support ‘life zones’ under its surface, akin to subsurface lakes found in Antarctica,” researcher Edward Guinan said in a press release. “We note that the surface temperature on Jupiter’s icy moon Europa is similar to Barnard b but, because of tidal heating, Europa probably has liquid oceans under its icy surface.”

Looking Up

The researchers are hopeful that future telescopes, such as the James Webb Space Telescope, will provided astrophysicists with a better look at Barnard’s Star b.

“Such observations will shed light on the nature of the planet’s atmosphere, surface, and potential habitability,” Guinan said.

Right now, the launch of the Webb is scheduled for 2021, so we might not have to wait too long to find out whether the exoplanet in our galactic backyard is home to life.

READ MORE: Conditions for Life Might Exist on the New Planet Discovered Around Barnard’s Star [Discover]

More on Barnard’s Star: Scientists Just Discovered the Second-Closest Exoplanet to Earth

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MIT Is Pouring Resources Into Commercializing Fusion Power

A collaboration between MIT and two energy companies is encouraging interdisciplinary research to fast-track the development of practical fusion power.

Fusion Power

A collaboration between the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and two energy companies is encouraging interdisciplinary research to fast-track the development of practical fusion power.

Mechanical engineer Caroline Sorensen told an MIT blogger about her work on a “liquid immersion blanket,” which is a pool of molten salt that converts fusion reactions into heat and protects the rest of the reactor from damage.

“I’m working on the blanket because for me that’s where the rubber meets the road,” Sorenson said. “We need to figure out this kind of technology in order to make fusion plants functional and economical.”

Interdisciplinary Research

MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center is working with a private company called Commonwealth Fusion Systems to “carry out rapid, staged research leading to a new generation of fusion experiments and power plants based on advances in high-temperature superconductors,” according to the institute. The work is funded in part by an Italian energy company called Eni, which contributed $50 million.

Many researchers at the project are nuclear engineers and plasma physicists, according to the MIT blog post, but its leadership is also working to draw in specialists in other disciplines, like Sorenson.

“There are a lot of cool things to be done from a technical perspective,” Sorenson said. “Plus this work holds the possibility of making a huge impact on the world. This is exactly the kind of project that I came to MIT hoping to find.”

READ MORE: Tapping the MIT talent pool for the future of fusion [MIT]

More on fusion power: Experts: United States Should Build a Prototype Fusion Power Plant

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DARPA Wants to Build Conscious Robots Using Insect Brains

The Pentagon's emerging technologies unit put out a call last week for proposals that use insect brains to control robots.

Insect Brains

The Pentagon’s emerging technologies unit put out a call last week for proposals that use insect brains to control robots — because they could be used to create efficient new models for artificial intelligence, but also because they could be used to explore the meaning of consciousness.

“Nature has forced on these small insects drastic miniaturization and energy efficiency, some having only a few hundred neurons in a compact form-factor, while maintaining basic functionality,” reads a document in the proposal. “Furthermore, these organisms are possibly able to display increased subjectivity of experience.” It goes on to say that there’s evidence suggesting that “even small insects have subjective experiences, the first step towards a concept of ‘consciousness.’”

Bug Hunt

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is famed for funding projects that led to the early internet. But it’s also a well-funded research arm for the U.S. military — and one of its key areas of interest, according to a riveting Atlantic feature this past autumn, is to create brain-computer interfaces that can “program soldiers’ brains.”

The feature suggested broad interest at DARPA in technologies that bridge the gap between computers and the brains of humans and animals.

“They could inject memory using the precise neural codes for certain skills,” Justin Sanchez, who directs work at DARPA about research on healing the mind and body, told the magazine about a project that had transplanted memories into the brains of rats. “If I know the neural codes in one individual, could I give that neural code to another person? I think you could.”

Moon Shot

DARPA is offering $1 million to the company it awards the insect brain proposal to. First the winning bidder will need to complete a feasibility study on mapping an insect’s central intelligence system. Then it will need to create a “proof of concept” platform that uses the insect brain architecture to create “more capable AI hardware.”

It sounds like a long shot — at least for now. But it’s another sign that DARPA is deeply interested in the mysteries of cognition and consciousness.

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Surprise Announcement: SpaceX to Lay off 10 Percent of Workforce

SpaceX said Friday that it plans to lay off 10 percent of its workforce — an eyebrow-raising move for a company emerging from a record-shattering year.

Fire Booster

Spacetech venture SpaceX said Friday that it plans to lay off 10 percent of its workforce — an eyebrow-raising move for a company emerging from a record-shattering year.

“To continue delivering for our customers and to succeed in developing interplanetary spacecraft and a global space-based Internet, SpaceX must become a leaner company,” a company spokesperson said in a statement that called the layoffs a “strategic realignment.”

Inflection Point

Space News reports that the layoffs are the first major workforce reduction since the company was founded in 2002, though it did fire a number of workers in 2014. This time, SpaceX is blaming the layoffs on an ambitious slate of projects.

“To continue delivering for our customers and to succeed in developing interplanetary spacecraft and a global space-based Internet, SpaceX must become a leaner company,” the company said, in reference to its Starship, Super Heavy, and Starlink constellation projects. “Either of these developments, even when attempted separately, have bankrupted other organizations.”

Brighter Tomorrow

The move comes just a day after CEO Elon Musk showed off the company’s recently-assembled Starship space vehicle, and a month before the company plans to test its  commercial crew launch vehicle in preparation for launching humans to the International Space Station.

But so far, the enigmatic CEO has yet to tweet about the layoffs.

READ MORE: SpaceX cutting 10 percent of its staff to become a leaner company [Ars Technica]

More on Elon Musk: Elon Musk Wanders Tesla Factory, Firing Workers in Wild Mood Swings

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Surprise Announcement: SpaceX to Lay off 10 Percent of Workforce

A Black Hole Inhaled a Star. Then It Started to Shrink

What happened next was weird, even by the standards of super-dense celestial objects from which not even light can escape: the black hole started to shrink.

Death Star

This past March, a NASA instrument on the International Space Station spotted a black hole, about 10,000 light-years away from Earth, in the process of devouring a star.

What happened next was weird, even by the standards of super-dense celestial objects from which not even light can escape: the black hole started to shrink.

Honey, I Shrunk The Black Holes

According to an MIT blog post about the finding, which was described in a recent paper in the journal Nature, the size of the black hole’s corona — that’s the ring of particles that surrounds its mouth — turned into a ghost of its former self.

It started with the length of about the width of Massachusetts, according to MIT, and ended up at about ten kilometers — the length of a moderate footrace. Bear in mind that this space monster weighs ten times as much as the Sun and was in the process of inhaling an entire star.

Corona Light

Jack Steiner, a research scientist in MIT’s Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research, told the MIT blogger that the observation is a major new finding in the nascent study of black holes.

“This is the first time that we’ve seen this kind of evidence that it’s the corona shrinking during this particular phase of outburst evolution,” Steiner said. “The corona is still pretty mysterious, and we still have a loose understanding of what it is. But we now have evidence that the thing that’s evolving in the system is the structure of the corona itself.”

READ MORE: NASA telescope spotted a black hole shrinking after it devoured a nearby star [Business Insider]

More on black holes: Physicist: Black Holes Could Be Portals for Hyperspace Travel

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A Black Hole Inhaled a Star. Then It Started to Shrink

Denmark Is Building Nine Gigantic Artificial Islands

Authorities in Denmark plan to build nine artificial islands off the coast of Copenhagen — a futuristic hub for sustainable business and commerce.

New Islands

Authorities in Denmark plan to build nine artificial islands off the coast of Copenhagen with a total area of more than 32 million square feet (3 million square meters.) The hope is that the new islands, which will be called “Holmene,” will become a futuristic hub for sustainable business and commerce.

“I think this could become a sort of European Silicon Valley,” said Brian Mikkelsen, the head of the Danish chamber of commerce, in an interview with The Guardian.

Plug and Chug

The artificial islands will be built with surplus soil from construction projects in the area — a flabbergasting 900 million cubic feet (26 million cubic meters) of material, according to New Atlas.

The vast undertaking is scheduled to kick off in 2022, with the first island being operational in about six years. On the current schedule, the entire project will be completed around 2040.

Green Space

The project will be built with reefs and islets to support wildlife, along with wind turbines for power generation.

Architectural consultant Arne Cermak Nielsen, who’s working on the project with firm Urban Power, told New Atlas that “the islands can be thematically developed, leaving the best conditions for the innovative industry and research within green tech, bio tech, life science and future yet unknown sectors. The quality of being by the water should not be underestimated, and the shores of the islands and the delta that emerge between them has a unique potential.”

READ MORE: Denmark embarks on ambitious plan to create new islands off Copenhagen coast [New Atlas]

More on artificial islands: China Just Released a Vessel That Creates Artificial Islands

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Scientists Are Building a Quantum Computer That “Acts Like a Brain”

A new research project aims to harness the power of the quantum computer to build a new type of neural network that

Quantum Computer

A new research project aims to harness the power of quantum computers to build a new type of neural network — work the researchers say could usher in the next generation of artificial intelligence.

“My colleagues and I instead hope to build the first dedicated neural network computer, using the latest ‘quantum’ technology rather than AI software,” wrote Michael Hartmann, a professor at Heriot-Watt University who’s leading the research, in a new essay for The Conversation. “By combining these two branches of computing, we hope to produce a breakthrough which leads to AI that operates at unprecedented speed, automatically making very complex decisions in a very short time.”

Brain Game

A neural network is a type of machine learning algorithm loosely modeled on a biological brain, which learns from examples in order to deal with new inputs. Quantum computers take advantage of subatomic particles that can exist in more than one state at a time to circumvent the limitations of old-fashioned binary computers.

By combining the two, Hartmann believes, his team will be able to jump-start a new era in AI research that could manage extraordinarily complex problems like directing traffic flow for an entire city in real-time.

 “Most Important Technology”

To date, quantum computers have struggled to solve problems that are a piece of cake for classical computers. But if they start to pull ahead, Hartmann and his team want to be prepared to leverage them for the next epoch of AI systems.

“To put the technology to its full use will involve creating larger devices, a process that may take ten years or more as many technical details need to be very precisely controlled to avoid computational errors,” Hartmann wrote. “But once we have shown that quantum neural networks can be more powerful than classical AI software in a real world application, it would very quickly become some of the most important technology out there.”

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Scientists Are Building a Quantum Computer That “Acts Like a Brain”

Scientists: Warming Oceans Will Lead to “Catastrophic” Future

A new study in the journal Science has found that climate change is warming oceans far faster than experts had previously predicted.

Climate Report

A new study in the journal Science has found that the Earth’s oceans are warming far faster than experts had previously predicted, leading to a bleak outlook among climate scientists who say the rapid environmental shifts will lead to international disputes, humanitarian crises and deadly freak weather events.

The New York Times, for instance, summarized researchers’ view of the findings as “catastrophic.”

“It’s spilling over far beyond just fish, it’s turned into trade wars,” Rutgers professor Malin Pinsky told the newspaper. “It’s turned into diplomatic disputes. It’s led to a breakdown in international relations in some cases.”

Warming Oceans

As the greenhouse effect has intensified, according to the new research, the oceans have born the brunt of global warming. Readings suggest that 2018 will be the hottest year on record for the planet’s seas, replacing 2017 and 2016 before it.

The effects for weather patterns and marine life are dire, experts warn — and food shortages and displacement will leak into geopolitics long before we scorch life above the waterline as well.

“If the ocean wasn’t absorbing as much heat, the surface of the land would heat up much faster than it is right now,” Pinsky told the Times. “In fact, the ocean is saving us from massive warming right now.”

READ MORE: Ocean Warming Is Accelerating Faster Than Thought, New Research Finds [The New York Times]

More on climate change: Scientists Want to Fight Climate Change by Dimming the Sun

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Scientists: Warming Oceans Will Lead to “Catastrophic” Future

New Technique Makes Electricity-Producing Bacteria More Useful Than Ever

Electricity producing bacteria may one day play a big roll in producing the Earths energy

Germ Power

Deeps in mines, at the bottom of lakes, and even in your own gut, bacteria are hard at work producing electricity in order to survive in environments low in oxygen. These potent little power producers have been used in speculative experiments and one day may power everything from batteries to “biohomes.

There are many types of bacteria capable of producing electricity but some are better at it than others. The trouble with these bacteria is that they are difficult and expensive to grow in a lab setting, slowing down our ability to develop new technologies with them. A new technique developed by MIT engineers makes sorting and identifying electricity-producing bacteria easier than ever before which may make them more readily available for us in technological applications.

Dielectrophoresis who?

Electricity-producing bacteria are able to pull off the trick by producing electrons within their cells and releasing them through tiny channels in their cell membranes in a process called extracellular electron transfer, or EET. Current processes for identifying the electricity producing capabilities of bacteria involved measuring the activity of EET proteins but this is a daunting and time consuming process.

Researchers sometimes use a process called dielectrophoresis to separate two kinds of bacteria based on their electrical properties. They can use this process to differentiate between two different kinds of cells, such as cells from a frog and cells from a bird. But the MIT team’s study separated cells based on a much more minute difference, their ability to produce electricity. By applying small voltages to bacteria strains in an hourglass-shaped microfluidic channel the team was able to separate and measure the different kinds of closely related cells.

Amped Up

By noting the voltage required to manipulate bacteria and recording the cell’s size researchers were able to calculate each bacteria’s polarizability — how easy it is for a cell to produce electricity in an electric field. Their study concluded that bacteria with a higher polarizability were also more active electricity producers.

Next the team will begin testing bacteria already thought to be strong candidates for future power production. If their observations on polarizability hold true for these other bacteria, this new technique could make electricity-producing bacteria more accessible than ever before.

READ MORE: Technique identifies electricity-producing bacteria [MIT News]

More on power-producing bacteria: Living Ink Solar Panels Could Power Small Devices

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New Technique Makes Electricity-Producing Bacteria More Useful Than Ever

Researchers Found the Blueprint for Plant Immune Systems

Washington State University researchers studied plants to determine the blueprints for their immune system

Botany Bug

Even plants need to fend off infectious agents, now we know exactly how they do it.

Researchers from Washington State University have discovered how plants respond to disease-causing organisms and how they protect themselves. The results of their research, published in the journal Plant Physiology, could have major impacts on the way we breed plants to have resistances to certain diseases or pests.

Energy and Alarm

The key to plant immune system responses rests in ATP, adenosine 5-triphospate. Not only is ATP an essential part of cellular biology and metabolism inside of cells, the complex organic chemical may also act as a warning messenger outside of cells in plants. When ATP is outside of plant cells it behaves very differently than usual and becomes a sort of warning alarm, triggering the plants immune system response.

Mapping the ATP pathways in plants is no easy task. To do, the team would trigger an immune response in plants in order to trace the signal’s path all the way to chemical receptors.

“It was like following a single noodle in a huge bowl full of them,”said Jeremy Jewell, lead author of the study, “Extra-cellular ATP turns on defense responses partly through these major defense pathways, and partly independently of them, but all these strands work together.

Sick Schematic

Better understanding how plants defend themselves from disease will be particularly helpful for researchers and farmers trying to grow plants which are resistant to certain types of diseases or pests. Having the blueprint for plant defenses takes some of the guesswork out of this kind of research. WSU David Gang compared the process to fixing your car.

“If your car isn’t working right, you often have to take it to a mechanic because cars are so complex now,” he said. “They plug the car into a sensor and can see the problem quickly. If I did it, I’d have to guess and hope I get it right. That’s how traditional breeding is, much of their work is challenging because they have to work with so many complex potential solutions. Now they’ll have a schematic to eliminate a lot of that extensive effort.”

READ MORE: Blueprint for plant immune response found [Phys.org]

More on Plant Biology: Scientists Are Gene-Hacking Plants to Make Them Enormous

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Researchers Found the Blueprint for Plant Immune Systems

Russia’s Only Space Telescope Has Stopped Responding to Commands

Russia's Spektr-R space telescope sitting in a bay before its launch

Uh, Korolev?

The Spektr-R space telescope is now a mere ghost of what it once was.

Russia’s only space telescope recently stopped responding to commands issued from the ground, according to BBC. The details of the problem have not been made entirely clear and while the it isn’t possible to issue commands to the telescope it is still transmitting data.

The Spektr-R began facing troubles on January 10 when Roscosmos, Russia’s space agency, noted problems in the telescopes communication system had rendered the device unable to hone in on specific targets. Specialists began work to attempt to restore communication to the system but as of today Roscosmos announced via Twitter that despite repeated attempts to reestablish connection “it was not possible to reconnect with the radio telescope.”

A Toast to Spektr-R

Launched in 2011, the telescope was originally only expected to continue working until 2014 but is has far outlived that expectation. Once slated for launch in 2004 or 2005, Spektr-R encountered “multiple delays” during construction. With it’s 33-foot radio antenna, Spektr-R works together with a network of telescopes on the ground to conduct research into the origins and structure of radio signals from within and beyond our galaxy. The telescope also contains instruments for observing solar wind and the Earth’s outer magnetosphere.

Blackout

Attempts to restore communication with Spektr-R are still underway, though so far they have no been successful. Yuri Kovalev, head of research for the Spektr-R project, told BBC that “there is still hope.”

With Spektr-R currently unable to take on new missions and a data transfer issue impacting Russia’s other science satellite, the Mikhailo Lomonosov, Russia has no active science satellites for the time being. A Russian-German joint telescope project, Spektr-RG, was originally planned to launch in 2011 but is now expected to be put into service in March 2019. Until then, Roscosmos can only hope that its specialists are able to restore Spektr-R to good working order.

READ MORE: Spektr-R, Russia’s Only Space Radio Telescope, Stops Responding to Commands [Gizmodo]

More on Space Telescopes: The James Webb Telescope Is Delayed. Again. Here Are 4 Things to Know About it

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Russia’s Only Space Telescope Has Stopped Responding to Commands

Harvard Astronomer Predicts What First Alien Contact Will Be Like

In a new interview, a Harvard astronomer opens up about the hunt for alien life — and what first alien contact would mean for human civilization.

Alien Life

Avi Loeb, the chair of the Harvard Astronomy Department, has long been preoccupied with the question of whether humans are alone in the universe. He’s speculated that fast radio bursts could be messages from extraterrestrials, theorized about alien megastrucutres, and suggested that an interstellar object that cruised through our solar system could be a probe from another civilization.

Now, in a new interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel, Loeb opened up further about his thoughts about the hunt for alien life — and what First Contact would mean for human civilization.

Biggest Step

If humankind were contacted by aliens, Loeb said, it could be the one of the most extraordinary incidents in human history.

“If you think about the history of humans, the perspective has changed as we have evolved — from a single individual to a family, a tribe, a country, and finally we even found other continents with people living there,” he told Der Spiegel. “If we were now to find other beings beyond planet Earth, this would be the biggest step ever.”

First Contact

What first contact would be like, Loeb said, is almost impossible to predict because of all the different ways that life could evolve outside of Earth.

“I can’t tell you what this moment will look like,” he said. “But it will be shocking. Because we are biased by our own experiences. We imagine other beings to be similar to us. But maybe they are radically different.”

Favorite Alien

But when Der Spiegel asked Loeb what he favorite fictional alien was, he demurred.

“To be honest, I don’t like science fiction personally,” he told the magazine. “I have a problem when the action in a movie violates the laws of physics. In those cases, I cannot enjoy the experience aesthetically.”

READ MORE: ‘Thinking About Distant Civilizations Isn’t Speculative’ [Der Spiegel]

More on alien life: Astronomers Are Gearing Up to Listen for Evidence of Aliens from a Mysterious Interstellar Object

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Harvard Astronomer Predicts What First Alien Contact Will Be Like

A New Class of Drugs Could Make Safer Sleeping Pills

A sleeping woman on a sofa who may have taken sleeping pills to aid her slumber

ZZZ

If your house caught fire in the middle of the night, you’d want to wake up to deal with that emergency, right?

In a new prescription sleeping pill study published this week in Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, half of the study participants slept through a fire alarm as loud as someone vacuuming next to their bed. Researchers from Kagoshima University, Japan estimated that millions of people taking prescription sleeping pills like Ambien and Halcion would sleep through a fire alarm. They propose that a new class of hypnotic drug might be used as an alternative which would function like a sleeping pill while still allowing the brain to wake up during an emergency.

DORA The Hypnotic Drug

The most widely prescribed type of sleeping pills, benzodiazepines, are really effective at getting the brain into “sleep mode”. Unfortunately, they act as a sort of blanket, suppressing areas of the brain that they don’t need to. That includes the area of the brain that decides which external information, such as noises in the night, to pay attention to.

Over the past decade scientists have been developing a new class of hypnotic drugs called dual orexin receptor antagonists (DORAs). DORAs more selectively target the brain’s sleep/wake pathways making them a safer alternative to benzodiazepines while also leaving the user with a reduced hangover-like affect these drugs can cause.

Wake-up Call

When tested in lab mice, those that had been given the benzodiazepine triazolam were slower to rouse than those given DORA-22 when presented with the sounds of a fox, a serious threat to a mouse. Better still, once the danger had passed the mice given DORA-22 fell back asleep as fast as the mice that had been given a sleeping pill, and significantly faster than mice that hadn’t been given anything at all.

More human testing is needed in order to show DORAs have potential applications as sleep aids. Since 2014, a DORA called surovexant has gained regulatory approval in Japan, the USA and Australia. High costs and limited clinical testing of surovexant have stymied its use but new types of DORAs currently in development could some day offer better results at a lower cost.

READ MORE: Millions on prescription sleeping pills would sleep through a fire alarm [EurekAlert]

More on Sleep: Here’s How Sleeping Too Little Literally Transforms Your Brain

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Researchers Repurposed CRISPR to Help Develop Better Antibiotics

Scientist repurposed CRISPR to develop better antibiotics

Antibiotic Bust

The world faces a potential antibiotic crisis. A lack of new antibiotic drugs combined with increasing amounts of antibiotic resistant bacteria is setting the stage for a potential pandemic. The calamitous potential has researchers trying all kinds of ways to develop new drugs. From super enzymes to synthetic microbes… heck, even AI has been thrown into the ring.

Now, researchers at the University of Washington-Madison and at the University of California, San Francisco are taking a new approach by repurposing the gene-editing tool CRISPR to study which genes are targeted by particular antibiotics. By observing how antibiotics interact with genes, the researchers hope to find clues to improve existing medicines or develop new ones.

Cover Up

CRISPR is a tool used to edit DNA by slicing out one segment of genes and inserting a new one while the cell is repairing. The new system, developed by UW-Madison professor Jason Peters uses a somewhat modified technique. “Most people, when they think about CRISPR, think about gene editing,” said Peters.

But Peters and team employed a modified version of the technique known as Mobile-CRISPRi. A sort of defanged form of CRISPR, CRISPRi is engineered not to be able to slice DNA but instead sits on top of it blocking off proteins that would otherwise activate certain genes. By selectively blocking different genes the researchers are able to reduce the amount of proteins produced from those genes. They found that if they decreased the amount of protein targeted by an antibiotic, bacteria became much more sensitive to lower levels of the drug. Other researchers could replicate this in order to gather data on thousands of genes at a time.

Clip on, Clip off

The Mobile-CRISPRi system is very versatile and easy to use. By exploiting a form of bacterial sex called conjugation, CRISPRi can be easily introduced to different types of bacteria. Peters and team demonstrated this by applying CRISPRi to lab-grown E. Coli bacteria and also a much less commonly encountered kind of bacteria called V. casei which they collected from a rind of French cheese. In both cases the CRISPRi easily adhered to the bacteria’s genetic information.

Peters is offering up Mobile-CRISPRi to other researchers to study their germs of choice. “So now it’s going to be completely available to the community,” said Peters. “Now this gives people a path forward.”

READ MORE: Gene-editing tool CRISPR repurposed to develop better antibiotics [EurekAlert]

More on New Antibiotics: There’s a new antibiotic in town, and we can create it in the lab

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