Private Space Plane Has Soviet Roots

The next-generation spaceship chosen to fly American astronauts into orbit and back may look a lot like N.A.S.A.'s soon-to-be-retired space shuttle—and it even has N.A.S.A. roots, too.

What's the Latest Development?


A small space shuttle originally reverse engineered by N.A.S.A., using some spy plane photos taken of a Soviet prototype, has been passed into the hands of the private space company Sierra Nevada Corporation. Called the HL-20 Dream Chaser, the small shuttle may one day provide orbital taxi services to N.A.S.A. for trips to the International Space Station. "N.A.S.A. didn't dream up the HL-20 all by itself. Rather, the agency was inspired by photos taken in 1982 by an Australian spy plane, which showed a Soviet ship recovering a spacecraft from the Indian Ocean."

What's the Big Idea?

As N.A.S.A. prepares to terminate its shuttle program in the coming weeks, the space exploration torch is being passed to private industry. "The commercial space company SpaceDev, which was later acquired by Sierra Nevada, publicly announced plans for the Dream Chaser vehicle in 2004. Multiple concepts were initially considered, but ultimately company officials opted to go with the HL-20. ... On April 18, NASA awarded the company $80 million to continue developing the spacecraft after it was judged among four winners of the second round of the Commercial Crew Development program."

​There are two kinds of failure – but only one is honorable

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Why are so many objects in space shaped like discs?

It's one of the most consistent patterns in the unviverse. What causes it?

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  • Spinning discs are everywhere – just look at our solar system, the rings of Saturn, and all the spiral galaxies in the universe.
  • Spinning discs are the result of two things: The force of gravity and a phenomenon in physics called the conservation of angular momentum.
  • Gravity brings matter together; the closer the matter gets, the more it accelerates – much like an ice skater who spins faster and faster the closer their arms get to their body. Then, this spinning cloud collapses due to up and down and diagonal collisions that cancel each other out until the only motion they have in common is the spin – and voila: A flat disc.

Scientists study tattooed corpses, find pigment in lymph nodes

It turns out, that tattoo ink can travel throughout your body and settle in lymph nodes.

17th August 1973: An American tattoo artist working on a client's shoulder. (Photo by F. Roy Kemp/BIPs/Getty Images)
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In the slightly macabre experiment to find out where tattoo ink travels to in the body, French and German researchers recently used synchrotron X-ray fluorescence in four "inked" human cadavers — as well as one without. The results of their 2017 study? Some of the tattoo ink apparently settled in lymph nodes.


Image from the study.

As the authors explain in the study — they hail from Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility, and the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment — it would have been unethical to test this on live animals since those creatures would not be able to give permission to be tattooed.

Because of the prevalence of tattoos these days, the researchers wanted to find out if the ink could be harmful in some way.

"The increasing prevalence of tattoos provoked safety concerns with respect to particle distribution and effects inside the human body," they write.

It works like this: Since lymph nodes filter lymph, which is the fluid that carries white blood cells throughout the body in an effort to fight infections that are encountered, that is where some of the ink particles collect.

Image by authors of the study.

Titanium dioxide appears to be the thing that travels. It's a white tattoo ink pigment that's mixed with other colors all the time to control shades.

The study's authors will keep working on this in the meantime.

“In future experiments we will also look into the pigment and heavy metal burden of other, more distant internal organs and tissues in order to track any possible bio-distribution of tattoo ink ingredients throughout the body. The outcome of these investigations not only will be helpful in the assessment of the health risks associated with tattooing but also in the judgment of other exposures such as, e.g., the entrance of TiO2 nanoparticles present in cosmetics at the site of damaged skin."

Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash
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