There's Plenty of Drinking Water on Mars
The trick to producing water for astronauts is to figure out how best to extract it from the soil and atmosphere.
Stephen Petranek’s career of over 40 years in the publishing world is marked by numerous prizes and awards for excellent writing on science, nature, technology, politics, economics and more. He has been editor-in-chief of The Miami Herald’s prestigious Sunday magazine, Tropic, as well covering a wide range of topics for Time Inc.’s Life magazine. His presentation, 10 Ways the World Could End, is one of the most original and most watched TED talks of all time. He is now the editor of Breakthrough Technology Alert, for which he finds the investment opportunities that create true value and move the human race forward. His new book is titled How We'll Live on Mars.
Stephen Petranek: There is a lot of water on Mars and there once was a lot of surface, flowing water. You don’t see it because most of it is mixed with the soil, which we call regolith on Mars. So the Martian soil can be anywhere from as little as 1 percent in some very dry, deserty like areas to as much as 60 percent water. So one strategy for getting water when you’re on Mars is to break up the regolith, which would take something like a jackhammer because it’s very cold; it’s very frozen. If you can imagine making a frozen brick or a chunk of ice that’s mostly soil and maybe half water and half soil that’s what you would be dealing with. So you need to break this up, put it in an oven. As it heats up, it turns to steam. You run it through a distillation tube and you have pure drinking water that comes out the other end. There is a much easier way to get water on Mars. In this country, we have developed industrial dehumidifiers. And they’re very simple machines that simply blow the air in a room or a building across a mineral called zeolite. Zeolite is very common on Earth; it’s very common on Mars. And zeolite is kind of like a sponge. It absorbs water like crazy. Takes the humidity right out of the air. Then you squeeze it and out comes the water. And scientists working for NASA at the University of Washington as long ago as in the late 1990s developed a machine called WAVAR that very efficiently sucks water out of the Martian atmosphere. So water is not nearly as significant a problem than it appears to be. We also know from orbiters around Mars and right now there are five satellites orbiting Mars. We know from photographs that these orbiters have taken and geological studies that they’ve done that there is frozen ice on the surface of Mars. Now there’s tons of it at the poles. Some of it is overladen with frozen — or mixed with frozen carbon dioxide. But in many craters on Mars, there apparently are sheets of frozen water. So if early astronauts or early voyagers to Mars were to land near one of those sheets of ice in a crater they would have all the water they need.
Stephen Petranek, author of How We'll Live on Mars, details several of the methods a future team of colonists could employ in order to amass a drinking water supply on Mars. There's plenty of water on the planet; the trick is extracting it from the soil and atmosphere. It's a relief that producing water won't be a major nuisance for the eventual Mars astronauts -- that whole "unlivable barren wasteland" is a whole other story.
A plan to forgive almost a trillion dollars in debt would solve the student loan debt crisis, but can it work?
- Sen. Elizabeth Warren has just proposed a bold education reform plan that would forgive billions in student debt.
- The plan would forgive the debt held by more than 30 million Americans.
- The debt forgiveness program is one part of a larger program to make higher education more accessible.
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.
In most states, LGBTQ Americans have no legal protections against discrimination in the workplace.
- The Supreme Court will decide whether the Civil Rights Act of 1964 also applies to gay and transgender people.
- The court, which currently has a probable conservative majority, will likely decide on the cases in 2020.
- Only 21 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws effectively extending the Civil Rights of 1964 to gay and transgender people.
SMARTER FASTER trademarks owned by The Big Think, Inc. All rights reserved.