Did You Know That Moon Dust Is Incredibly Toxic?

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Originally posted here: https://mcgill.ca/oss/article/did-you-know/did-you-know-moon-dust-incredibly-toxic-humans

There are no aliens on the moon, but that might not stop it from trying to kill us.

Lunar soil is exposed to micrometeorite impacts and because the moon lacks an atmosphere, constant intense solar wind. As a result, the soil is electrostatically charged, so much so that it can levitate above the surface of the moon.

This dust was a problem faced by the Apollo astronauts. It stuck to their suits, following them into their spaceship, coagulating in vents and causing “lunar hay fever” in astronaut Harrison Schmitt.

Lunar dust is problematic because of its intense static charge, but also because of its size. Small particles (5-10 mcg) can accumulate in airways, smaller particles (0.5-5 mcg) can travel right into lung alveoli, and at least in rats, the smallest of particles (<0.1 mcg) can travel through the olfactory bulb right into the brain.

A study has recently shown that human neuron and lung cells exposed to simulated lunar dust experienced DNA damage and cell death, even in very small quantities.

This isn’t totally unexpected. Earth dust can have similar effects, toxic or not. Volcanic ash has been known to cause bronchitis and emphysema when inhaled. But the degree to which lunar dust damaged cells was unexpected. The scientists were at times unable to measure the extent of DNA damage since it was completely destroyed.

Dragonflies Experience as Much G-Force as Fighter Pilots

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Originally posted here: https://mcgill.ca/oss/article/did-you-know/dragonflies-experience-much-g-force-fighter-pilots

Gravity and the human body have a finicky relationship. Too little gravity and humanslose bone density, experience extreme nausea and become anemic. Too much gravity and humans lose consciousness and die. So how do people who experience hypergravity on a regular basis deal?

Astronauts experience microgravity while on the moon, but also hypergravity (up to 3.2 g) during take off. It’s their Earth-based friends though, fighter pilots, that experience the highest gravitational forces, up to 9 g.

Most people would pass out with 5 g (that’s why most roller coasters don’t exceed 3 g), but fighter pilots wear compression suits to counteract the forces and practice contracting their lower abdominal muscles. These serve to force the blood out of their legs and into their brain, preventing the loss of consciousness.

If a pilot descends too quickly they can experience negative g-forces. The human body is even less tolerant of these, with what’s called a redout, too much blood in the head, occurring with only -2 g.

Some animals are really good at dealing with hypergravity though. When flying in a straight line, dragonflies can accelerate with up to g of force. When they turn corners, this increases to 9 g. And they don’t even need to wear a flight suit.

Nasa and Spacex Owe Their Accomplishments to a Dog Named Laika

Originally published here: https://mcgill.ca/oss/article/did-you-know/nasa-and-spacex-owe-their-accomplishments-dog-named-laika

In the late 1940’s both Soviets and Americans began investigating the expanse of space by sending animals up, up and away. It began with fruit flies in 1947, grew to include monkeys in 1949 and mice in 1950, but no animal actually entered orbit until November 3rd, 1957, when Laika, a Soviet trainedstreet dog, made history.

Sputnik 1 was the first satellite to orbit the Earth, but Sputnik 2 (or more appropriately Muttnik) was the first satellite to reach orbit with a creature aboard.

Laika was found on the streets of Moscow, which meant she was already adapted to survive extreme cold and hunger. She was chosen because she was calm, sweet, and, as a female, could pee with her leg down (this made designing her space suit much simpler). She underwent training like any cosmonaut: centrifuges, confined spaces, loud noise exposure, acclimatization to nutrient gel food and fitting for a space suit. However, unlike modern cosmonauts, her return was never planned for.

According to the Sovietsthe plan was to euthanize Laika with medicated food just before reentry. Sadly this humane method didn’t pan out. Laika’s vital signs stopped after 5-7 hours in orbit.

The Sputnik 2 mission was planned hastily, as then Soviet leader Khrushchev wanted its launch to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the October Revolution. The vessel was built in only about 4 weeks. After news of Laika’s launch spread, the Soviet government alternatively claimed that she had died from a lack of oxygen or been euthanized early. Years later, one of the mission’s scientists admitted Laika had died by overheating due to a mechanical problem in the spacecraft, a much less desirable way to go.

Laika’s flight spawned outrage from animal rights activists the world over. But it also piqued the curiosity of an American army physician, Duane Graveline. His desire to understand how the Soviets had received the biophysical data from Laika led him to research space’s effects on the human body and help develop the technologies that allowed NASA to send astronauts (which he later became!) to space.

Laika may not have survived, but her legacy did. She’s been memorialized in two Soviet statues,and even had a band named after her.

So next time NASA launches a shuttle, remember that they owe that technology, in part, to a small Russian mutt named Laika.

Spaceships recycle everything… except astronaut’s poop

Originally posted here: https://mcgill.ca/oss/article/did-you-know-technology/spaceships-recycle-everything-except-astronauts-poop

Astronauts inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide, just like you and me. On Earth, where exhaled air warmed by our bodies naturally rises away from us, the possibility of inhaling too much carbon dioxide isn’t usually a worry. But for astronauts, it’s a major one. Without the ventilator fans installed in shuttles and stations, carbon dioxide would accumulate around an astronaut. This is especially a concern at night,since we tend to stay still while sleeping. This would allow CO2 to collect and starve astronauts of oxygen.

So what happens to the carbon dioxide once it’s suckedaway by the fans? Like almost everything on a spacecraft, it’s recycled.

Carbon dioxide removed from the air by the aptly named ‘carbon dioxide removal system’ is combined with hydrogen (a byproduct of the oxygen generator system) to produce methane (which is vented into space) and water, which re-enters the oxygen generating system. This cycle allows astronauts to keep breathing, drinking and flying for long periods of time without having to lug to space all the oxygen they will need for the trip.

So what isn’t recycled onthe International Space Station? Human feces. But Mark Watney seems to have inspired a potential use for that

You Can Still See the Division of East and West Berlin from Space

Originally published here: https://mcgill.ca/oss/article/did-you-know-technology/you-can-see-division-east-and-west-berlin-space

Berlin might be united now, but evidence of its 40-year history of division still remains. 

This photo, taken by Commander Chris Hadfield, shows a divided Berlin, with the East appearing orange and the West white. But why?

What used to be East Berlin still utilizes nearly 40,000sodium-vapour lamps, which appear orange, while what used to be West Berlin has upgraded to mercury vapour, fluorescent or LED lamps that appear white.

Sodium-vapour lamps have fallen out of favour since they give off primarily yellow light that inhibitcolour vision in the dark. They also contain mercury, which makes them potentially toxic if broken and difficult to dispose of,and have lifetimesroughly half that of LED bulbs.

Potatoes and Space Have a Long History

Originally posted here: https://mcgill.ca/oss/article/potatoesin-space

Intergalactic potatoes may seem like a side dish from the Mos Eisley Cantina, but potatoes and space have a common history.
In 1978, George Lucas began work on The Empire Strikes Back, but wanting to remain independent from Hollywood, he financed it all himself. This led to some interesting low-budget work-arounds. Most notably, the asteroid field of Hoth, whose asteroids were actually partially made of shoes and potatoes. Really!

Then again, in 2015’s The Martian, potatoes make an appearance on the space-themed silver screen with Matt Damon’s portrayal of Mark Watney, an astronaut/botanist, who grows potatoes while stranded on Mars. Although Watney might be a fictional character, thanks to scientists, he now has a spot in history. A newly-discovered flower, which belongs to the same botanical family as the potato, has been named after him – the “solanum watney”. 

Potatoes have even reached NASA’s radar. Growing food crops in space has been one of the space agency’s interests for years. Potatoes and sweet potatoes are serious contenders for space agriculture due to their high carbohydrate content and their tuberous nature that gives them low light requirements. As well, the eyes of potatoes produce sprouts that can be used to grow more plants, thereby making them a simple, reliable food source. For now astronauts have to rely on the freeze dried versions as, so far, only lettuce has actually been grown in space, but if NASA’s potato experiments here on Earth are successful, we could soon see spuds that are out of this world.

Space Based Solar Power

Originally published here: https://mcgill.ca/oss/article/did-you-know-technology/space-based-solar-power

There are certain problems with solar power technologies that still need some work. We are addressing quite a few bumps on the road to completely sustainable energy though. High costs of solar cells are being brought down by green energy rebates and tax exemptions. Inflexible and delicate solar panels are being subbed out for durable ones that can be used to make roadsor roofs, and the ever-present climate change deniers that resist solar power’s implementation are a slowly dying breed. But 1 big issue still arises- how do we get more power from the sun?

Space-based solar power is a developing technology that may just help us get more bang for our solar bucks. Due to the atmosphere of Earth, 55-60% of solar power is lostbefore it ever reaches the stratosphere, and due to the Earth’s rotation, another 10-25%of solar energy is lost if panels aren’t set up with a tracking system, to stay pointed at the sun. Not to mention the fact that solar panels are virtually useless at night. By putting solar panels into space, they would be exposed to light for almost 100% of a day, versus the 29% the average panel gets on Earth, and the panels wouldn’t need to be protected from storms, animals or even humans. It’s even possible that placing solar panels into space could help limit the solar radiation reaching Earth, thereby reducing the effects of global warming.

But there are a few major hold ups for this technology, namely, putting things into space. Satellites are incredibly expensive (50 million on the cheaper end), and though they may take less damage when in space, they could not simply be services when damage does occur. There’s also a notable problem of how to transmit the energy back to Earth. Solar panels on the ground convert photons into moving electrons and send them down wires to where they’re needed, but we can’t very well wire from space to the power plants. Ideas on multi-step processes involving photons becoming electrons becoming photons becoming electrons have been examined, but at each stage, energy would be lost.

Alas, don’t expect to be powering your microwave from space energy soon, though do join me in holding out hope for this decidedly futuristic technology!

Did you know that some bacteria can eat cleaning products?

Originally posted here: https://mcgill.ca/oss/article/did-you-know-technology/did-you-know-some-bacteria-can-eat-cleaning-products

Have you ever noticed the message on the front of a Lysol bottle: “Kills 99.9% of viruses and bacteria”?

Well, that 0.1% is causing NASA some real issues. In order to prevent our organic matter from infiltrating other planets, and vice versa, NASA aims to provide what they call “planetary protection.” If a bacterium from Earth made it to Mars it may severely hinder any chance we have of finding native Martian life, so NASA takes every precaution to prevent cross-planetary contamination.

Hence the need for cleanrooms, inside which visitors must wear a face mask, hood, booties and coveralls, and still can’t come closer than several feet away from the probes and rovers contained within.

But despite everyone’s best efforts, some bacteria will always be present. Specifically, the bacteria that are the most hardy, having survived many rounds of chemical and UV cleansings.

In an environment that clean, however, these bacteria can’t dine on their usual fare of decaying plant and animal matter. So, in order to survive, they’ve actually developed the ability to eat the cleaning materials!

One study showed that Acinetobacter bacteria, a particularly persistent and troublesome bacterium for hospitals, is able to survive on only ethanol and can degrade cleaning products. These troublesome microbes are resistant to radiation, hydrogen peroxide, high pressures and high temperatures.

In 2014 Koichi Wakata, a Japanese astronaut, proved that microbes are making it to space. He swabbed fifteen surfaces around the International Space Station and brought them back to Earth. From these swabs more than 12 000 microbes were identified!

It is important to remember though that the vast majority of these, just like the majority of microbes on your skin, phone and counter, are totally harmless. If even NASA’s cleanrooms can’t be microbe free, your home will never be either, and that’s ok.