The Interstellar Object Passing By Is Not Like Anything We’ve Seen

For the first time, an object from outside our solar system is observed traveling through our neighborhood.

The Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System (Pan-STARRS) telescope is located near the summit of the Haleakala volcano on Maui, and on October 19, 2017, post-doctoral researcher Rob Weryk noticed something odd moving west at an unusual 6.2° angle. Not sure what it was, he checked the observatory’s backlog and discovered an image of it from the night before. A team led by Karen Meech of University of Hawaii's Institute of Astronomy next examined October 22 imagery of the object captured by the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope (CFHT) on the big island at Maunakea. The object’s unique angle of trajectory signified that it had to come from outside our solar system.


NASA’s Thomas Zurbuchen says, “For decades we've theorized that such interstellar objects are out there, and now — for the first time — we have direct evidence they exist. This history-making discovery is opening a new window to study formation of solar systems beyond our own.” The International Astronomical Union had to invent a new category for it, and designated it as A/2017 UI.


PAN-STARRS1 at sunset (ROB RATKOWSKI)

Though it was first thought to be a comet, the October 22 CFHT images had been time-resolved to the A/2017 UI’s rate of motion and revealed a lack of cometary traits, leading to the conclusion that it’s an asteroid.

That unique trajectory is just one of the odd things about the asteroid: Its physical appearance is also surprising. Astronomers observed that it varied in brightness by a factor of ten due to spinning on its axis every 7.3 hours. “This unusually big variation in brightness means that the object is highly elongated: about ten times as long as it is wide, with a complex, convoluted shape,” according to Meech. NASA estimates that it’s “up to one-quarter mile (400 meters) long and highly elongated — perhaps 10 times as long as it is wide.”

And it’s very old. The team saw that A/2017 UI “had a reddish color, similar to objects in the outer solar system, and confirmed that it is completely inert, without the faintest hint of dust around it.” It’s thus believed to be composed exclusively of rock and metals without any water or ice, its color being produced by exposure over hundred of millions of years to cosmic-ray radiation as it wandered across the galaxy and into our view. The U of H team named the asteroid 'Oumuamua, (pronounced “oh MOO-uh MOO-uh”) which roughly, and hauntingly means, "a messenger that reaches out from the distant past."

(NASA/JPL-CALTECH)

Coming from somewhere in the vicinity of the star Vega — though it was there before Vega was — Oumuamua continues its lonely journey unattached to any system. NASA estimates that as of November 20 it’s moving about 85,700 miles per hour or 38.3 kilometers per second. By mid-December 2017 it will pass from our view on its way out of our solar system, in the direction of the constellation Pegasus.

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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.

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