Tag Archives: engineering

Genetically Modified Mice May Be Landmine-Sniffing Heroes


Scientists are engineering a real-life Mighty Mouse that will scurry through fields sniffing out hidden landmines thanks to olfactory superpowers.

The researchers, at Hunter College of the City University of New York, have genetically engineered the animals to be 500 times better equipped than their normal counterparts to sniff out landmine explosives. They hope that these “hero mice” could warn of buried bombs.

Hidden landmines are a deadly reality in nearly 70 countries globally, and detection and removal are expensive and dangerous. Currently, metal detectors, radar, magnetometers and sniffer dogs are used to search for them.

A Belgian organization called APOPO already uses giant African pouched rats as a cheaper way to sniff out landmines. The rats are not genetically modified, but their sense of smell is sharp enough to detect TNT. The bomb-sniffing rats are taught to scratch the ground when they detect a hidden mine (fortunately, they are small enough not to set off the explosives). While the furry minesweepers are effective (with two handlers, they can cover a field in one hour that would take two full days for metal detectors), they need nine months of training to become reliable, a process that costs around 6,000 euros per rat.

The genetically engineered mice, however, are so sensitive to TNT that encountering the molecule is likely to change their behavior involuntarily, so they would need little to no training. Charlotte D’Hulst, a molecular neurobiologist at Hunter College who presented her work at a meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, used genetic modification to ensure that the mice have 10,000 to 1,000,000 odor-sensing neurons with a TNT-detecting receptor compared with only 4,000 in a normal animal, “possibly amplifying the detection limit for this odor 500-fold,” she says.

Each odor-sensing neuron in a mouse’s nose is spotted with one kind of odor receptor. Usually, each specific receptor is found in one out of every thousand odor-sensing neurons, but about half the scent-detecting neurons in D’Hulst’s mice have the TNT-detecting receptor.

This particular odorant receptor was originally identified by Danny Dhanasekaran, a molecular biologist at the University of Oklahoma College of Medicine. Dhanasekaran says that a given odor is usually detected by a handful of different kinds of odorant receptors, which helps natural noses more easily and accurately discern smells. However, by engineering a great abundance of one receptor that detects TNT, D’Hulst and colleagues “could enhance the sensitivity of the system so it can be easily used in operations to detect landmines,” says Dhanasekaran, who is continuing to look for other TNT-type receptors.

D’Hulst hopes this overwhelming dedication to just one odor will provide an easy way to know whether or not the engineered mice have encountered TNT. Recent research suggests that sudden and intense stimulation of the olfactory system will trigger seizures, she says. “We can only hope that our mice will show a seizure behavior … upon detecting landmines. We won’t have to work with food rewards; we will probably use some radio signaling system. A chip implant may track, report, and record their behaviors.” The researchers still need to test the mice in behavioral studies.

Roger Hess, director of field operations for Golden West Humanitarian Foundation, a charity that develops technologies to aid landmine removal, says that while this mine-sniffing method could show promise, it would still depend on detection of trace vapors from the mine. The release of the odor from the ground can depend on soil and water conditions, and the trace of an explosive could be several meters away from where the mine is actually buried, he says. The technique will also not work for mines that have no gaps for the scent of explosives to escape.

“Due to the risk of missing an item, a secondary method would need to be employed,” he says.

Image courtesy of Flickr, jessdamen

This article originally published at MIT Technology Review

Read more: http://mashable.com/2012/10/19/mice-landmine-sniffing/

How Rosetta Made An Epic Journey Through Space And Overcame Incredible Challenges

Imagine launching a robotic spacecraft on a ten-year mission to land on a comet, 600 million kilometres from Earth, knowing that you will not be able to make any physical repairs to the craft during the journey. This daunting engineering challenge has been the ultimate goal of the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Rosetta mission.

We know now that the landing has at least been in part successful, with the Philae lander touching down on the comet.

Breaking ground

This ground-breaking mission hopes to improve our understanding of the origin of the solar system, by performing direct measurements on the rocky, icy surface of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, which orbits the sun between Earth and Jupiter.

In order to reach the comet, the Rosetta satellite has travelled a total distance of 6.4 billion km, gaining speed by swinging through the gravitational pull of Earth (three times) and Mars (once) along the way. Rosetta caught up with the comet in August 2014, and slowly entered a complex orbit.

A model of Rosetta is lowered into the Large Space Simulator (LSS) at ESA’s ESTEC Test Centre in the Netherlands, in April 2000. The Large Space Simulator is Europe’s single largest vacuum chamber. ESA-Anneke Le Floc’h

Rosetta deployed the Philae lander on the morning of November 12. After a seven-hour descent and a tense wait in the control room, Philae touched down and radioed Earth via Rosetta to confirm success. Radio signals take 30 minutes to travel from Rosetta to Earth, and so the separation, descent and landing all happened semi-autonomously.

The 100kg lander has ten main scientific instruments on board, including gas, acoustic and magnetic sensors, two cameras, and three spectrometers, covering a wide range of wavelengths and compositions.

The Rosetta and Philae craft have now survived ten years in space, travelling at speeds up to 50,000 km/h, without maintenance or repairs. It is rare that any piece of comparably sophisticated earthbound technology continues to work for ten years without maintenance – to do it in space is an enormous technical accomplishment.

Astronomical reliability

In order to guarantee astronomical reliability, the craft were subjected to extensive lifetime and robustness testing on Earth. The aptly named Multishaker facility in the Netherlands, as well as the ESA’s Large Space Simulator, Europe’s largest vacuum chamber, put Rosetta through a series of gruelling vibration, thermal and vacuum tests prior to launch. The spacecraft was subjected to temperatures as low as -180°C and as high as 150°C.

Despite these efforts, a number of unexpected difficulties emerged during the journey. In 2006, problems were identified in the system of thrusters and flywheels used to steer and orient Rosetta, including a fuel leak and anomalous friction. In order to monitor thruster problems, Rosetta even used an on-board mass spectrometer to “sniff” its own exhaust.

These issues have since been a considerable cause for concern, but are not catastrophic. Shortly before Philae’s descent, it emerged that the cold gas thruster used to push the lander towards the surface of the comet had failed, requiring a passive fall to the ground. Upon landing, Philae was supposed to use a system of harpoons to anchor itself, ensuring stability in the comet’s low gravity, but these may not have worked or failed. The last option was for the three screws on its feet to drill down, but they haven’t managed to tether Philae to the ground either. According to preliminary reports, Philae may have bounced back a couple of times before finally coming to a halt.

Philae will now rely on battery power to complete the first few days of experiments. After that, secondary batteries that are recharged by solar panels will provide power for a period of up to three months.

This will be a fascinating time for the project, as Philae rides the warming, melting comet towards the sun. How long will the lander survive on the surface? To a large extent this will be determined by how much dust settles on the solar panels. Our research shows that dust can have a dramatic effect on the amount of power generated by solar panels in dry regions on Earth, even when the panel is perpendicular to the surface, such that dust has the least chance of sticking to the panels.

Dust in the sun

Part of the uncertainty comes from the fact that it is difficult to predict how much dust exists in the region of the comet, and how the local conditions affect its transport. In the case of NASA’s Spirit rover, the mission lifetime was significantly extended by so-called “cleaning events” where the build-up of dust on the Rover’s solar array was removed by wind. These allowed the Rover to operate for much longer than the planned three-month mission.

Not only do the solar panels provide power for the mission, but they also allow the Earth ground team to determine Philae’s orientation on the comet immediately after landing on the comet. By examining the generated power distribution from the solar panels, it is possible to determine their position relative to the sun from which Philae’s orientation can be deduced. The ground team can then move the lander such that the orientation of the solar panels is optimised, powering the mobile laboratory as efficiently as possible.


Rosetta mission’s lifetime will stretch to March 2015 at the latest, when the comet is closer to the sun and the temperature will rise above practical operating conditions. But Philae will probably have been lost by that time. As Comet 67P gets closer to the sun, its interior will heat up, releasing dust and gas in the form of geysers and there is a good chance Philae might be hit by one of these and thrown into space.

The ambitious nature of the Rosetta mission has captured the imaginations of millions of people around the world. As we cast our eyes to the sky in awe, it is important we stop to remember the vital multi-disciplinary contribution of the scientists and engineers who have designed and created the essential instrumentation that could be vital to the ultimate success and lifetime of this thrilling endeavour.

The article was updated on November 13.

Neil Beattie does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

The Conversation

Read more: http://www.iflscience.com/space/how-rosetta-made-epic-journey-through-space-and-overcame-incredible-challenges

Scientists Call for Careful Regulation of Genome Editing


Image: LM Otero, File/Associated Press

A species-altering technology is said to need careful regulation before being released into the wild.

Scientists working at the cutting-edge of genetics say one possible application of a powerful new technology called genome editing has the potential to cause ecological mayhem and needs attention from regulators.

The technique, referred to as a “gene drive,” would cause chosen genes, including man-made ones, to quickly spread through a species as its members reproduce. While gene drives may have commercial and public health uses, 10 scientists published an editorial today in the journal Science calling for more public discussion, and also more scrutiny by regulators.

A news report in Science gives the background:

Gene drive[s] involves stimulating biased inheritance of particular genes to alter entire populations of organisms. It was first proposed more than a decade ago, and researchers have been developing gene drive[s] approaches to alter mosquitoes to slow the spread of malaria and dengue fever. Although progress has been quite slow, recent advances in gene editing could lead to a rapid application of gene drive[s] approaches to other species.

Usually, the chance of a gene being passed on to offspring are 50%, but it’s possible to engineer an organism’s chromosomes to alter those odds. Researchers have already used the idea to design mosquitoes that only make male offspring, with the idea of releasing them in the wild to cause a population crash, thereby reducing malaria. The technology has also been contemplated to spread genes that make weeds more susceptible to herbicides like RoundUp. Ironically, some weeds have become resistant to the chemical because it is sprayed heavily on crops that had themselves been genetically engineered to resist the spray.

According to the authors of the editorial, who include Kenneth Oye, a political scientist at MIT, as well as James Collins, an expert in genetic engineering at Arizona State University, “gene drives present environmental and security challenges.”

Even though the idea of driving particular traits to spread through a species isn’t new, what worries the scientists is that new genome editing methods, known as CRISPR/Cas9, will make it much easier to do (see “Genome Surgery”). In a separate article, published in another journal today, scientists from Harvard University, led by George Church, say they’ve created big advances to the method which people need to start worrying about:

Gene drives may be capable of addressing ecological problems by altering entire populations of wild organisms, but their use has remained largely theoretical due to technical constraints.

With recent improvements in the technology, however:

The possibility of unwanted ecological effects and near-certainty of spread across political borders demand careful assessment of each potential application.

The fear is that the gene drives might run amok and affect wild populations of plants, animals, or insects. The faster an organism reproduces, the quicker a gene could spread. Any gene variants given an artificial boost could eliminate other versions of those genes, whose potential evolutionary importance scientists have no idea of. Also, the technology could be used to create weapons that destroy agricultural crops or create super pests.

Back in the 1970s, when scientists first learned to alter DNA, they imposed a voluntary moratorium on their work, until its safety could be better understood. Today, genetic research is moving even faster, but with few if any constraints on laboratory science.

But before this kind of research moves into practice, the scientists who authored the editorial say society needs to develop “integrated risk management” including genetic antidotes that could reverse the effect, and “long-term studies [to] evaluate the effects of gene drive use on genetic diversity in target populations.”

In short, the scientists guarding the hen house say they need help. Their editorial concludes:

For emerging technologies that affect the global commons, concepts and applications should be published in advance of construction, testing, and release. This lead time enables public discussion of environmental and security concerns, research into areas of uncertainty, and development and testing of safety features. It allows adaptation of regulations and conventions in light of emerging information on benefits, risks, and policy gaps. Most important, in the case of gene drives, lead time will allow for broadly inclusive and well informed public discussion to determine when and how gene driver should be used. 

This article originally published at MIT Technology Review

Read more: http://mashable.com/2014/07/19/dna-altering-need-limits/

Government Shutdown Delays Major Private Space Plane Test


A key test flight of a new private space plane that aims to be a next-generation transportation vehicle for astronauts has become another casualty of the ongoing U.S. government shutdown.

The new commercial space plane, called Dream Chaser, was slated to make a major free-flight test on Oct. 5 at the NASA Dryden Flight Research Center, located inside Edwards Air Force Base in California. But because the government shutdown has shuttered most of NASA, Dream Chaser’s debut unmanned drop test is now on hold.

“Our first vehicle is primed to take its test,” said Mark Sirangelo, corporate vice president and head of Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Space Systems based in Louisville, Colo. “Right now we’re basically on final, waiting for clearance to go ahead.”

SNC is one of three companies — along with Space Exploration Technologies and The Boeing Company — funded under NASA’s Commercial Crew Integrated Capability initiative to develop a next-generation crew transportation vehicle. Of the trio of spacecraft, Dream Chaser is the only reusable, lifting body vehicle with runway landing capability.

A winged spacecraft, Dream Chaser is designed to support space station crew transportation for NASA, international and commercial space applications. The space plane is designed to launch seven astronauts and cargo on missions to and from low-Earth orbit.

Ground, Captive-Carry Tests

SNC engineers have put the Dream Chaser prototype through a series of ground and captive-carry tests to set the stage for the now-stalled unpiloted approach-and-landing drop.

“It has been a lot of work,” Sirangelo told SPACE.com.

The first Dream Chaser test vehicle has been at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center since mid-May. It has already completed ground-based taxi and tow tests, evaluated the performance of its main landing gear and completed a flight test readiness review.

That was followed by a successful two-hour captive-carry test of Dream Chaser at Dryden on Aug. 22. During that test, the craft dangled under an Erickson Air-Crane helicopter.

That assessment cleared several of the Dream Chaser systems and subsystems prior to the upcoming free-flight test, Sirangelo told SPACE.com. Software was also tested that included flight computer, guidance, navigation and control, the vehicle’s control surfaces, and the landing gear and nose skid, which was deployed during the helicopter hoisting flight.

Dream Chase Team in Limbo

The closing of Dryden due to the government shutdown has meant some 50 to 60 Dream Chaser team members being placed in limbo, Sirangelo said.

“Not having access to the NASA facilities certainly delays the execution of parts of the program,” he added. “But there’s nothing we can do about it. I don’t think anybody can do anything about it right now.”

Even a government back-to-work go-ahead would mean readying the Dream Chaser and the team for the drop test, a situation that would likely take a week of time, Sirangelo said.

“But it’s not about the vehicle anymore. It’s about the logistics of flying,” Sirangelo added. “This was not on my contingency list. I thought I had thought of everything.”

Sirangelo said Dream Chaser went to Dryden and Edwards because it was the right place to be and that’s where America should test its space planes. “But we didn’t think it would come back and haunt us,” he said.

Under the NASA CCiCap, the Dream Chaser work doesn’t mean the private company is billing NASA every month for its time on the project.

“We get paid later when we complete the milestone,” Sirangelo said. “We’re funding more time, if you will, on the money.”

On an upbeat note, Sirangelo said that nobody is thinking the government shutdown will go on forever. “It’s just a delay a few weeks in my mind.”

Furthermore, Sirangelo said that SNC is not standing still and is busy at work on future Dream Chaser plans.

“Things have gone well and we’re ready to fly … and we expect to be flying this year,” he said.

Image: NASA, Ken Ulbrich

This article originally published at Space.com

Read more: http://mashable.com/2013/10/15/shutdown-delays-space-plane-test/

NASA Engineer Builds Halloween Costume That Syncs With Your Smartphone


Two years ago, Mark Rober was an engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., part of a team that worked on the Curiosity rover. For Halloween, he strapped an iPad to his chest and another to his back. Then he turned them on and used the devices’ cameras and screens to make it appear as if he had a gaping hole in the middle of his torso.

Millions of people watched his YouTube video explaining how the costume worked, and a business was born.

In 2012, Rober and a few friends launched Digital Dudz in their spare time, creating a free smartphone app and selling $29 T-shirts to people who liked Rober’s original idea but didn’t want to shell out for two iPads. Customers got instructions on duct-taping their mobile devices to the inside of their Digital Dudz shirts and cutting holes to reveal video of a beating human heart. It might not seem like the kind of product that took a rocket scientist to build.

In a month, Digital Dudz had $250,000 in sales and was getting nibbles from would-be acquirers. It was a happy accident for Rober, 33. “I wouldn’t call myself an entrepreneur,” he says. “I’ve never been the type who feels like he can’t work for the man.” Still, he jumped at the opportunity, selling Digital Dudz this summer to four-year-old British costume-maker Morphsuits, which has built a business around full-body spandex suits, and leaving his job to join the company as chief creative officer. “I talked to my guys at NASA,” says Rober. “They said: ‘You need to go for this’ and that I will always have a job back there.”

The business is growing, he says. Before hitching his star to Morphsuits, Rober sold costumes online, relying on a local T-shirt maker and fulfillment house. This year, his costumes have pockets sewn into the insides and are being carried in hundreds of Party City stores and other specialty shops across the U.S. They’re still low-tech but no longer require duct tape.

They’ve also gone mainstream. Today ran a segment Friday morning on his new designs, which include a costume that uses the iPhone’s accelerometer to create a gruesome effect: When a friend pretends to punch the wearer in the back, the app makes it look like the wearer’s intestines are being ripped out. Two weeks before Halloween, Rober says sales are up 400% from last year.

Now he’s trying to expand beyond fright-night apparel. Earlier this year, Rober says he signed a deal with Walt Disney to create augmented outfits modeled on Marvel Comics superheroes, and he plans to start selling them in 2014. He’s also working on a series of “ugly Christmas sweaters” for later this year — think crackling fires or a chuckling Santa.

Clothing that incorporates tech for purely aesthetic reasons has yet to be widely marketed, says Michael Moriarty, who covers wearable tech for AT Kearney. “If you look at all technology, we start with big clunky things that ultimately get distributed down,” he says. “I might have 100 apps on my phone. The question is, do you want them in your pants?”

Wearable tech, including smart watches and glasses, will become a $19 billion industry by 2018, according to a report published this week by Juniper Research. Of course, those technologies are meant to do more than impress friends and strangers.

Building technology directly into clothing for the sole purpose of creating a visual effect is still prohibitively expensive, says Rober. He reckons, though, that his relatively simple approach has legs. “It’s not something you’d wear three times a week,” he says. “But if you’re going out and want to create an impact, we feel there’s certainly a market.”

Image: YouTubeDigital Dudz

This article originally published at Businessweek

Read more: http://mashable.com/2013/10/19/nasa-engineer-halloween-costume/