A Novel Propulsion System Would Hurl Hypervelocity Pellets at a Spacecraft to Speed it up

Graphic depiction of Pellet-Beam Propulsion for Breakthrough Space Exploration.


Today, multiple space agencies are investigating cutting-edge propulsion ideas that will allow for rapid transits to other bodies in the Solar System. These include NASA’s Nuclear-Thermal or Nuclear-Electric Propulsion (NTP/NEP) concepts that could enable transit times to Mars in 100 days (or even 45) and a nuclear-powered Chinese spacecraft that could explore Neptune and its largest moon, Triton. While these and other ideas could allow for interplanetary exploration, getting beyond the Solar System presents some major challenges. 

As we explored in a previous article, it would take spacecraft using conventional propulsion anywhere from 19,000 to 81,000 years to reach even the nearest star, Proxima Centauri (4.25 light-years from Earth). To this end, engineers have been researching proposals for uncrewed spacecraft that rely on beams of directed energy (lasers) to accelerate light sails to a fraction of the speed of light. A new idea proposed by researchers from UCLA envisions a twist on the beam-sail idea: a pellet-beam concept that could accelerate a 1-ton spacecraft to the edge of the Solar System in less than 20 years. 

The concept, titled “Pellet-Beam Propulsion for Breakthrough Space Exploration,” was proposed by Artur Davoyan, an Assistant Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). The proposal was one of fourteen proposals chosen by the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program as part of their 2023 selections, which awarded a total of $175,000 in grants to develop the technologies further. Davoyan’s proposal builds on recent work with directed-energy propulsion (DEP) and light sail technology to realize a Solar Gravitational Lens.

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SCIENTISTS SAY NEW BRAIN-COMPUTER INTERFACE LETS USERS TRANSMIT 62 WORDS PER MINUTE

A HUGE BANDWIDTH INCREASE.

BY VICTOR TANGERMANN

A team of Stanford scientists claims to have tested a new brain-computer interface (BCI) that can decode speech at up to 62 words per minute, improving the previous record by 3.4 times.

That’d be a massive step towards real-time speech conversion at the pace of natural human conversation.

Max Hodak, who founded BCI company Neuralink alongside Elon Musk, but wasn’t involved in the study, called the research “a meaningful step change in the utility of implanted BCIs” in an email to Futurism.

As detailed in a yet-to-be-peer-reviewed paper, the team of Stanford scientists found that they only needed to analyze brain activity in a relatively small region of the cortex to convert them into coherent speech using a machine learning algorithm.

The goal was to give those who can no longer speak due to ALS or stroke their voice back. While keyboard-based solutions have allowed those with paralysis to communicate again to a certain degree, a brain-based speech interface could speed up the decoding significantly.

“Here, we demonstrated a speech BCI that can decode unconstrained sentences from a large vocabulary at a speed of 62 words per minute, the first time that a BCI has far exceeded the communication rates that alternative technologies can provide for people with paralysis, e.g. eye tracking,” the researchers write.

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Rocket Lab’s Electron Booster Makes Its First US Liftoff And You Can Watch Live Here

Rocket Lab is scheduled to launch its Virginia Is For Launches mission later this evening. It will be the company’s first launch from Launch Complex 2 at Virginia Space’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport within NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility.

by Tim Sweezy 

While this will not be the first launch of Rocket Lab’s Electron booster, it will be the first time it will launch in the United States. Previously, the company launched 32 Electron missions from Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand. The company touts the fact that Electron is “the most frequently launched small orbital rocket globally, and now with two launch complexes combined, Rocket Lab can support more than 130 launch opportunities every year.”

Launch Complex 2 was designed to support up to 12 missions per year. Rocket Lab operates an Integration and Control Facility within NASA’s Wallops Research Park, which includes state-of-the-art payload integration cleanrooms, vehicle processing facilities, and a mission control center. The upcoming launch pad and production complex for the company’s large reusable Neutron launch vehicle will also be located at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport.

The rocket will reach supersonic speed within a minute of launch, with its main engine cutting off on the first stage around the two-and-a-half-minute mark. A few seconds later Stage 1 will separate from Stage 2, with Electron’s Stage 2 Rutherford engines igniting shortly after. The fairing will separate approximately three minutes post-launch, with the payload being deployed near the one-hour mark.

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New Nanoparticle To Act at the Heart of Cells for Extremely Powerful and Targeted Anti-Inflammatory Treatment

This electron micrograph documents the porous nature of the silica nanoparticles. These pores are large enough to allow entrance of a large number of NSA molecules. Here, they are protected until being taken up by the immune cells. At this point NSA is released and can stop the inflammatory processes.

A team from UNIGE and LMU developed a transport nanoparticle to make an anti-inflammatory drug much more effective and less toxic.

How can a drug be delivered exactly where it is needed, while limiting the risk of side effects? The use of nanoparticles to encapsulate a drug to protect it and the body until it reaches its point of action is being increasingly studied. However, this requires identifying the right nanoparticle for each drug according to a series of precise parameters. A team from the University of Geneva (UNIGE) and the Ludwig Maximilians Universität München (LMU) has succeeded in developing a fully biodegradable nanoparticle capable of delivering a new anti-inflammatory drug directly into macrophages – the cells where uncontrolled inflammatory reactions are triggered – ensuring its effectiveness. In addition, the scientists used an in vitro screening methodology, thus limiting the need for animal testing. These results, recently published in the Journal of Controlled Release, open the way to an extremely powerful and targeted anti-inflammatory treatment.

Inflammation is an essential physiological response of the body to defend itself against pathogens such as bacteria. It can however become problematic when it turns into a chronic condition, such as in cancers, autoimmune diseases or certain viral infections. Many treatments already exist, but their action is often not very targeted, high doses are required and deleterious side effects are frequent. Macrophages, large immune cells whose natural function is to absorbs pathogens and trigger inflammation to destroy them, are often involved in inflammatory diseases. When overactivated, they trigger an excessive inflammatory response that turns against the body instead of protecting it.

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Fighting Bacteria with Bacteria: “Living Medicine” Treats Lung Infections

This shows a cross-section of a mouse lung infected with Pseudonomas aeruginosa. The mouse was treated with a version of Mycoplasma pneumoniae that is able to produce therapeutic molecules such as pyocins specifically-designed to combat P. aeruginosa. This therapeutic version of M. pneumoniae acts like a ‘living medicine’ reducing the effects of the infection and preserving air in the alveoli. [Rocco Mazzolini/CR

Some researchers are thinking outside the box to try to combat the growing antibiotic resistance crisis. One of the innovations has been the development of “living medicines” which use one living bacterium to kill another. In a new study, researchers developed a modified (non-pathogenic) version of Mycoplasma pneumoniae that attacks Pseudomonas aeruginosa—which is resistant to many types of antibiotics and is a common source of infections in hospitals. The modified M. pneumoniae was used in combination with low doses of antibiotics that would otherwise not work on their own.

The M. pneumoniae treatment significantly reduced lung infections in mice and doubled mouse survival rate compared to no treatment. Administering a single, high dose of the treatment showed no signs of toxicity in the lungs. And, once the treatment had finished its course, the immune system cleared the modified bacteria in a period of four days.

This research is published in Nature Biotechnology in the paper, “Engineered live bacteria suppress Pseudomonas aeruginosa infection in mouse lung and dissolve endotracheal-tube biofilms.”

P. aeruginosa infections are difficult to treat, in part, because the bacteria forms biofilms which have an increased resistance to antibiotics.

One particularly challenging infection occurs when biofilms grow on the surface of endotracheal tubes used by critically-ill patients who require mechanical ventilators to breathe. This causes ventilator-associated pneumonia (VAP), a condition that affects one in four (9–27%) patients who require intubation. The incidence exceeds 50% for patients intubated because of severe COVID-19. VAP can extend the duration in the intensive care unit for up to thirteen days and kills up to one in eight patients (9–13%).

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This Startup Is Using AI to Unearth New Smells

Google Research spinout Osmo wants to find substitutes for hard-to-source aromas. The tech could inspire new perfumes—and help combat mosquito-borne diseases.

By EMILY MULLIN

ALEX WILTSCHKO OPENS a black plastic suitcase and pulls out about 60 glass vials. Each contains a different scent. One smells starchy with soft floral notes, like jasmine rice cooking. Another brings to mind ocean air and the white rind of a watermelon. One is like saffron with hints of leather and black tea. The next is the pungent aroma of fig leaves, boxwood, and basil. The most surprising one has the tang of a Thai chili pepper without the nostril-burning heat. 

The molecules wafting into my nose are nothing like I’ve ever smelled before. In fact, I’m one of only a handful of people who have ever smelled them. And yet, before any person had sniffed them, a computer model predicted how they’d smell to us. 

Wiltschko has been obsessed with scents since he was a teenager, and for the past several years he has been developing software at Google Research to predict the scent of molecules based on their structure alone. The vials he’s invited me to smell are the basis of his new startup, Osmo, a spinout of Google Research based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. With $60 million in an initial funding round led by New York-based Lux Capital and GV (Google Ventures), Osmo aims to create the next generation of aroma molecules for perfumes, shampoos, lotions, candles, and other everyday products. 

The $30 billion global fragrance industry relies on raw ingredients that are becoming increasingly difficult or controversial to source. Supplies of flowers popular in perfumery are dwindling because of extreme weather driven by climate change. Species like sandalwood trees are endangered from overharvesting. Other ingredients, like saffron or vetiver, are vulnerable to supply chain disruptions due to geopolitical turmoil. Some brands still use musk and other odors sourced from animals, which presents ethical issues, since it means they must be captured or killed. Meanwhile, some synthetic alternatives, such as lilial, which smells like lily of the valley, are facing regulatory bans for safety reasons. 

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Scythe Robotics raises $42M to scale autonomous lawnmowers

By Steve Crowe 

Scythe Robotics, a Colorado-based developer of autonomous lawnmowers for the professional landscape industry, raised $42 million in Series B financing. The round was led by Energy Impact Partners and included additional new investors ArcTern Ventures, Alumni Ventures and Amazon’s Alexa Fund, alongside participation from existing investors True Ventures, Inspired Capital and more.

Scythe Robotics said the funding will help it meet demand for the more than 7,500 reservations for its all-electric, fully autonomous M.52 mower. Founded in 2018, this financing round brings the company’s total capital raised to date to $60.6 million.

According to Scythe Robotics, the latest generation of Scythe M.52 can mow all day on a single charge. It features a suite of sensors that enable it to operate safely in dynamic environments by identifying and responding to the presence of humans, animals and other potential obstacles. Simultaneously, it captures property and mower performance data that helps landscapers improve workflow, identify upsell opportunities, schedule more efficiently and manage labor costs.

“Since launching from stealth in June 2021, we’ve seen overwhelming interest from commercial landscape contractors in Scythe M.52 as a solution addressing both their crippling labor pains and their electrification needs,” said Jack Morrison, co-founder and CEO of Scythe. “We’re thrilled to expand our outstanding investor list, particularly with the addition of influential climate-tech investors Energy Impact Partners and ArcTern Ventures, and secure more capital to scale and meet the phenomenal demand for M.52 as we work to decarbonize the landscape industry.”

Morrison was a guest on The Robot Report Podcast in June 2022. He discussed the commercial market for autonomous mowers and how Scythe is going to market to support the needs of commercial landscapers with its Robots-as-a-service (RaaS) business model.

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The food systems that will feed Mars could transform food on Earth

Growing food in space will rely on innovative agricultural technologies. Credit: NASA

By Lenore Newman and Evan Fraser

Could we feed a city on Mars? This question is central to the future of space exploration and has serious repercussions on Earth too. To date, a lot of thought has gone into how astronauts eat; however, we are only beginning to produce food in space.

Space launches are quite expensive. And with the growing desire to establish a human presence in space, we are going to have to consider food production in space. But the challenges are vast, requiring research into how plants respond to a variety of changes including to gravity and radiation.

As food and agriculture researchers, we explored this question in our latest book, Dinner on Mars. We believe that a sustainable Martian food system is possible—and that in building it, we’ll change food systems on Earth. However, this will take some out-of-the-box thinking.

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New NASA Nuclear Rocket Plan Aims to Get to Mars in Just 45 Days

Concept art of the Bimodal Nuclear Thermal Rocket.

By MATT WILLIAMS

We live in an era of renewed space exploration, where multiple agencies are planning to send astronauts to the Moon in the coming years. This will be followed in the next decade with crewed missions to Mars by NASA and China, who may be joined by other nations before long.

These and other missions that will take astronauts beyond Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and the Earth-Moon system require new technologies, ranging from life support and radiation shielding to power and propulsion.

And when it comes to the latter, Nuclear Thermal and Nuclear Electric Propulsion (NTP/NEP) is a top contender!

NASA and the Soviet space program spent decades researching nuclear propulsion during the Space Race.

A few years ago, NASA reignited its nuclear program for the purpose of developing bimodal nuclear propulsion – a two-part system consisting of an NTP and NEP element – that could enable transits to Mars in 100 days.

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MIT researchers develop an AI model that can detect future lung cancer risk

Researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital and MIT stand in front of a CT scanner at MGH, where some of the validation data was generated. Left to right: Regina Barzilay, Lecia Sequist, Florian Fintelmann, Ignacio Fuentes, Peter Mikhael, Stefan Ringer, and Jeremy Wohlwend 

By Alex Ouyang

Deep-learning model takes a personalized approach to assessing each patient’s risk of lung cancer based on CT scans.

The name Sybil has its origins in the oracles of Ancient Greece, also known as sibyls: feminine figures who were relied upon to relay divine knowledge of the unseen and the omnipotent past, present, and future. Now, the name has been excavated from antiquity and bestowed on an artificial intelligence tool for lung cancer risk assessment being developed by researchers at MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Clinic for Machine Learning in Health, Mass General Cancer Center (MGCC), and Chang Gung Memorial Hospital (CGMH).

Lung cancer is the No. 1 deadliest cancer in the world, resulting in 1.7 million deaths worldwide in 2020, killing more people than the next three deadliest cancers combined. 

“It’s the biggest cancer killer because it’s relatively common and relatively hard to treat, especially once it has reached an advanced stage,” says Florian Fintelmann, MGCC thoracic interventional radiologist and co-author on the new work. “In this case, it’s important to know that if you detect lung cancer early, the long-term outcome is significantly better. Your five-year survival rate is closer to 70 percent, whereas if you detect it when it’s advanced, the five-year survival rate is just short of 10 percent.” 

Although there has been a surge in new therapies introduced to combat lung cancer in recent years, the majority of patients with lung cancer still succumb to the disease. Low-dose computed tomography (LDCT) scans of the lung are currently the most common way patients are screened for lung cancer with the hope of finding it in the earliest stages, when it can still be surgically removed. Sybil takes the screening a step further, analyzing the LDCT image data without the assistance of a radiologist to predict the risk of a patient developing a future lung cancer within six years.

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Microsoft injects billions into ChatGPT to deepen AI research

By Samson Akintaro

OpenAI, the company behind the popular AI tool ChatGPT, announced on Monday that it has secured an additional investment running into billions of dollars from Microsoft. 

Nairametrics understands that the investment will allow OpenAI to continue its independent research towards developing AI that is increasingly safe, useful, and powerful. 

Note that the latest investment extends the partnership between the two tech companies.

Status quo remains: OpenAI also noted that the investment by Microsoft will not change its status as a capped-profit company, saying: 

  • “In pursuit of our mission to ensure advanced AI benefits all of humanity, OpenAI remains a capped-profit company and is governed by the OpenAI non-profit. This structure allows us to raise the capital we need to fulfil our mission without sacrificing our core beliefs about broadly sharing benefits and the need to prioritize safety. 
  • “Microsoft shares this vision and our values, and our partnership is instrumental to our progress.” 
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Wearable Tech and AI Combine to Track Progression of Movement Disorders

Summary: Combining new wearable technology and artificial intelligence, researchers are better able to track motion and monitor the progression of movement disorders.

Source: Imperial College London

A multi-disciplinary team of researchers has developed a way to monitor the progression of movement disorders using motion capture technology and AI.

In two ground-breaking studies, published in Nature Medicine, a cross-disciplinary team of AI and clinical researchers have shown that by combining human movement data gathered from wearable tech with a powerful new medical AI technology they are able to identify clear movement patterns, predict future disease progression and significantly increase the efficiency of clinical trials in two very different rare disorders, Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD) and Friedreich’s ataxia (FA).

DMD and FA are rare, degenerative, genetic diseases that affect movement and eventually lead to paralysis. There are currently no cures for either disease, but researchers hope that these results will significantly speed up the search for new treatments.

Tracking the progression of FA and DMD is normally done through intensive testing in a clinical setting. These papers offer a significantly more precise assessment that also increases the accuracy and objectivity of the data collected.

The researchers estimate that using these disease markers mean that significantly fewer patients are required to develop a new drug when compared to current methods. This is particularly important for rare diseases where it can be hard to identify suitable patients.

Scientists hope that as well as using the technology to monitor patients in clinical trials, it could also one day be used to monitor or diagnose a range of common diseases that affect movement behavior such as dementia, stroke and orthopedic conditions.

Senior and corresponding author of both papers, Professor Aldo Faisal, from Imperial College London’s Departments of Bioengineering and Computing, who is also Director of the UKRI Center for Doctoral Training in AI for Healthcare, and the Chair for Digital Health at the University of Bayreuth (Germany), and a UKRI Turing AI Fellowship holder, said, “Our approach gathers huge amounts of data from a person’s full-body movement—more than any neurologist will have the precision or time to observe in a patient.

“Our AI technology builds a digital twin of the patient and allows us to make unprecedented, precise predictions of how an individual patient’s disease will progress.

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