Successful Test of NASA's New Composite Material "Unobtainium"

When I first launched my blog in March, you may remember me writing about a blog post entitled "IMAX Hubble 3D & The James Webb Space Telescope." The new telescope will serve as Hubble's replacement once it's launched in 2014 on top of an Ariane 5 rocket. The main problem with the James Webb Space Telescope is that is going to be over 900,000 miles from Earth, so if it breaks we cannot just send a team of astronauts up to fix it, as we have done with Hubble in the past. Knowing that the JWST will be orbiting in the Lagrange point, we know that the dangers of space lurk at literally every moment of operation.


To combat the extreme temperatures of space, NASA tasked a team of Goddard engineers to create the chassis which could survive both the launch as well as the dangers of outer space. The chassis of the telescope—called the Integrated Science Instrument Module—holds all of the delicate instruments and would generally serve as the structural heart. NASA's Goddard team had to find a material that would be suitable for the job. Well, guess what—there wasn't one. Through a variety of different tests, the team decided that it needed to invent a brand-new composite material by using a combination of fiber/cyanate-ester resin.

They are calling their new composite material "unobtainium." Since the late 1950's, aerospace engineers have used the term "unobtainium" when referring to unusual, very costly or UN-obtainable materials. The name unobtainium may even sound familiar but you can't quite place the reference. Yes, you guessed it; It's the highly valuable ($20 million a kilo) room-temperature superconductive mineral with an atomic number of 120 found on James Cameron's famed moon, Pandora, in the 2009 movie "Avatar." Image of Pandora's Unobtainium below.

The new material that NASA created survived a gruesome 26 days of repeated cycles of testing, and passed with flying colors. The structure shrank as expected, by about the width of a needle when temperatures reached around -411 degrees Fahrenheit. Needless to say, the testing proved that the material far exceeded the design requirement of about 500 microns. This isn't the only thing they the team invented to suit their needs. They also had to determine a feasible way to assemble all of the chassis's 900 components together. For this process, they ended up using several methods including nickel-alloy fittings, clips and specially designed composite plates joined with a form of adhesive that they invented as well.

NASA now has two webcams in the Building 29 cleanroom at Goddard, one showing the left side and one showing the right. The photos are updated every minute but allows you to watch the development of the telescope.

Needless to say, this was a major step in the development of the telescope which we will send on its way in a few years. The telescope is a major subject of conversation in science circles and everyone is excited to start looking at the loads of data and images it will be sending back to Earth. NASA's Web site puts it best by saying "The JWST will be the premier observatory of the next decade, serving thousands of astronomers worldwide. It will study every phase in the history of our Universe, ranging from the first luminous glows after the Big Bang, to the formation of the solar systems capable of supporting life on planets like Earth, to the evolution of our own Solar System."

The MIRI (Mid InfraRed Instrument) camera and spectrograph for the JWST (below)

We will of course have to wait a few years before it starts snapping photos and capturing data but I think that the wait will be worth it!

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In truth, so much of what happens to us in life is random – we are pawns at the mercy of Lady Luck. To take ownership of our experiences and exert a feeling of control over our future, we tell stories about ourselves that weave meaning and continuity into our personal identity.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Ashes of cat named Pikachu to be launched into space

A space memorial company plans to launch the ashes of "Pikachu," a well-loved Tabby, into space.

GoFundMe/Steve Munt
Culture & Religion
  • Steve Munt, Pikachu's owner, created a GoFundMe page to raise money for the mission.
  • If all goes according to plan, Pikachu will be the second cat to enter space, the first being a French feline named Felicette.
  • It might seem frivolous, but the cat-lovers commenting on Munt's GoFundMe page would likely disagree.
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