The New Space Race is On, and the Odds are Good
Two powerful organizations have dedicated themselves to getting to Mars. One is SpaceX, the other is the US government. Will they both get there?
In late September Elon Musk announced an ambitious plan to not only colonize mars, but to the make the trip cost less than a new house. Over 100,000 people watched him make the announcement live and the idea continues to receive a great deal of media coverage.
Less noticed, however, was the introduction of a bill to the U.S. Senate that would require NASA to put a man on Mars within 25 years. The bill would allocate nearly twenty billion dollars for the 2017 fiscal year to jump start programs required to reach the red planet. Including funding for the Orion crew vehicle with a goal of using it for manned missions by 2021.
Elon Musk is trying to get humans to mars permanently, citing Mars as the only viable option in our solar system for colonization. While the Senate’s bill is concerned only with getting to Mars and back; while not ruling out further activity. Merely sending people to Mars and returning them would constitute one of the greatest feats of engineering in human history, let alone moving a million people there.
Are the plans viable? How do they compare?
At the time of writing, the Senate’s bill is still in committee. While it enjoys bipartisan support there is no assurance of its passage during the next six or so weeks of the current congress. Even supporters of the the bill have criticized it for its cuts to scientific studies and education. The overall cost of the of the bill could be an issue for it as well. The desire to save money has reduced the scope of the space program before, most recently with the fate of the Constellation program.
Rather importantly for this mission the technology to merely get to Mars and back again is quite possible, they are just remarkably expensive. Portions of the Orion craft and the Space Launch System have already been constructed and tested successfully. While there is doubt on the ability to achieve the 2021 launch date, there is little doubt that it will be launched.
Elon Musk, while not directly hampered by the legislative process, has issues with his plan as well. Currently the estimated cost of getting a person to Mars is $10,000,000,000, cutting that down to $200,000 per person is a rather large reduction in price, one that may prove difficult to achieve.
A key question for Musk is funding. The project would be unlikely to generate much profit for at least a decade, a subject of great concern for a for profit enterprise. Much of the funding for SpaceX comes from NASA contracts. While they continue to diversify, their past ability to finance R&D has been dependent on economic conditions and the needs of the space agency.
SpaceX does have experience in reducing costs and developing reusable spacecraft; as a company trying to turn a profit is liable to do. Musk has also expressed the idea that the program could be a public private partnership. Reducing the need for a focus on profitability.
One thing is certain, a great deal of wealth and influence is getting behind the idea of making mankind an interplanetary species. The Boeing Corporation has also expressed a desire to get to Mars in the last week, adding another horse to the race. It seems that we are going to Mars. How we get there, and when, is another question entirely. One that public and private interests both wish to answer.
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Here are 7 often-overlooked World Heritage Sites, each with its own history.
- UNESCO World Heritage Sites are locations of high value to humanity, either for their cultural, historical, or natural significance.
- Some are even designated as World Heritage Sites because humans don't go there at all, while others have felt the effects of too much human influence.
- These 7 UNESCO World Heritage Sites each represent an overlooked or at-risk facet of humanity's collective cultural heritage.
Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.
- 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.
A new method promises to capture an elusive dark world particle.
- Scientists working on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) devised a method for trapping dark matter particles.
- Dark matter is estimated to take up 26.8% of all matter in the Universe.
- The researchers will be able to try their approach in 2021, when the LHC goes back online.
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