Is the Truth in Asteroid Dust?

Is the truth in asteroid dust? Perhaps we’ll soon learn the answer. This month, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) successfully brought asteroid dust back to Earth for the second time in history.

Image of the sun and planets in a row with an illustration of the asteroid belt-is there truth in asteroid dust

A small asteroid doesn’t have a heated interior. Scientists believe that means that since the materials on an asteroid have never experienced that intense heat and altered, they have the “initial characteristics of the solar system.” Studying this material could lead to a new understanding of the history and development of our solar system.

What Is an Asteroid

It’s an irregularly shaped celestial body usually found between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. (See the illustration above.) They can be as small as pebbles or hundreds of miles in diameter. Most asteroids are rocks, but some have clays or metals in them. There are currently 1,038,96 known asteroids.

Scientists believe that during the formation of our solar system some rocks and materials were “left overs.” These left overs are what we call asteroids. 

How Do Scientists Study Asteroids?

Astronomers have spent years observing celestial bodies like asteroids with powerful telescopes. Some scientists have been fortunate enough to work with meteorites, tiny bits of asteroids that survived the fiery plunge through earth’s atmosphere and landed on the surface. 

First Asteroid Dust Collected

In 2005, the Japanese probe Hayabusa (Japanese for falcon), touched down on the asteroid Itokawa. On June 13, 2010, Hayabusa returned to Earth. Before the main body of the probe disintegrated in Earth’s atmosphere, it released a heat-resistant capsule that landed in the Australian outback.

The capsule contained about 1,500 particles from the surface of Itokawa. The pieces included low-iron, low-metal chondrite, a material found in Earth’s super-heated interior but not on its surface.

Lincoln Laboratory Near-Earth Asteroid Research Team at Socorro, New Mexico discovered 25143 Itokawa on Sept. 26, 1998. It is about 1,755 feet long and orbits 186 million miles from Earth. 

A Second Successful Collection

a view of the asteroid Ryugu --the asteroid appears to be a rounded cube with lots of rocks and pebbles on it--is the truth in asteroid dust?
A colored view of the C-type asteroid 162173 Ryugu, taken from
Hayabusa2
By ISAS/JAXA, CC BY 4.0

On December 14, 2020 JAXA confirmed that a capsule from Hayabusa2 landed in an Australian desert during the previous week. It contained black grains from asteroid Ryugu. They believe they got at least 0.1 grams of material. They reported a plan to open the capsule this week, but news sources have reported no further information.

The Future of Asteroid Dust

By the end of 2021, JAXA promised some dust to NASA, some to international researchers, and plans to save about 40 percent of the sample for future researchers.

NASA’s spacecraft OSIRIS-REx launched in 2016 and traveled  334 million kilometers from Earth to asteroid Bennu. It scooped up samples from Bennu on October 2o, 2020. The sample will return to Earth in 2023. NASA promised some of the samples to JAXA in exchange for the sample from Ryugu. They also promised samples to other researchers.

Is the Truth in Asteroid Dust?

Asteroid dust is kind of like housekeeping dust, right? There are some truths in the asteroid dust samples. Is it the truth about the origins of the solar system? Maybe. The problem with discovering the truth is that we can only see and understand with the knowledge and history we have now. That clouds our judgment and understanding to where we may be blind to the truth, even if it’s really out there. Does that mean these very expensive trips aren’t worth it? Is our search for the truth worth any cost? What future discoveries do you hope will result from studying asteroid dust? I wonder if the asteroids have dust bunnies?

Why we Believe in the Impossible

Since the beginning of time, people have believed in the supernatural to explain things they did not understand. As scientific knowledge and understanding grew, one would think belief in the supernatural would lessen or disappear. Turns out that’s not true. Why do we hold on to false beliefs? Why do we believe in the impossible? The bottom line? Why? We want to believe. (Every one of us.)

signpost states beware of: then points different directions to spiders, monsters, witches, skeletons, ghosts, and zombies--some of us believe in the impossible

What Are False Beliefs?

According to the American Psychological Association, the definition of false beliefs is “a mental proposition that is asserted with high confidence but lacks a basis in reality.” 

What is Reality? 

1: the quality or state of being real

2 a (1): a real event, entity, or state of affairs

his dream became a reality

(2): the totality of real things and events

trying to escape from reality

  b: something that is neither derivative nor dependent but exists necessarily

in reality: in actual fact

Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Myths We Believe

Spooky image that could be fog on a camera lens or a ghostly face in the night sky--we believe in the impossible

A common myth many of us believe is that multi-tasking works. The facts show multi-tasking doesn’t work. “Research reveals that there are capacity limits when engaging in cognitively demanding tasks.”

We also like to believe that a loving and healthy environment can and will change any genetically determined attribute like intelligence. Nurturing is absolutely necessary, but “regardless of ability type, 50 to 70 percent of your talent potential is based solely on genetics.” 

There are people who believe Bigfoot exists, or the curse of a broken mirror, or that this group or action caused a natural disaster. 

From gods to ghosts to all kinds of monsters, despite no evidence supporting their existence, we believe.

Who Has False Beliefs?

We all do. Whether it was something we were “taught” as children, to beliefs we developed through experience, we each hold on to false beliefs.

Studies have shown that people who have and practice a religious belief are less likely to believe in the supernatural. But they may believe in multi-tasking or curses (sin) causing natural disasters.

And people who don’t have a strong religious belief are more likely to believe in the supernatural, like ghosts and Bigfoot and yeti.

There are people who believe that vaccines cause terrible diseases and disabilities. Yet, the science disproves that connection.

Every culture has its set of false beliefs. But not all cultures believe the same set.

Why We Believe in the Impossible

a ufo in the night sky shines a light down on two children--is it a false belief or is it why we believe in the impossible

Short answer? We’re wired that way. Our brains constantly seek cause and effect. 

The long answer? We don’t really know why people persist in their false beliefs despite evidence to the contrary. Some research shows that it’s not education levels or lack thereof. Many college students profess belief in ghosts and Bigfoot.

Do you know why you check your horoscope every morning? Or why you throw a pinch of salt over your shoulder?

I tell myself I do things “for fun.” And sometimes I can laugh and have fun with things like checking my horoscope. Sometimes I’m stunned at how relevant the horoscope seems. Intellectually I know I’m trying to find cause and effect because I want to repeat the good ones and stop the bad ones. Intellectually, I don’t expect those things to work—but I hope they will. Don’t you?

Why We Resist Changing False Beliefs

According to cognitive studies at Stanford, once we’ve formed an impression, we are remarkably resistant to change.

Scientists have identified many forms of “faulty thinking.” Confirmation bias is the tendency people have to embrace information that supports their beliefs and reject information that contradicts them. It’s the most studied of these forms of “faulty thinking.” 

Presented with someone else’s argument, we’re quite adept at spotting the weaknesses. Almost invariably, the positions we’re blind about are our own.

Elizabeth Kolbert, New Yorker, February 20, 2017

Can We Change Our False Beliefs? 

Psychologists think so. The site Psychology Today offers three steps to changing your false beliefs. Usually, psychologists are talking about false beliefs about ourselves. False beliefs like “I don’t deserve anyone’s love.” Or “I’m too clumsy to try to dance ” or “I’m too tone-deaf to sing.” Though with work we can change any false belief.

The problem with changing false beliefs is that the believer must want to change those beliefs. Observing all the hate mongering and tensions in America and other nations right now, I’m not sure anyone is up for the self-reflection needed.

Are All False Beliefs Bad?

snowy night in a pine forest with the flying reindeer against a full moon--believe in the impossible

Many false beliefs are bad for us. False beliefs can hold us back from our best lives. They create stereotypes that cause us to ignore differences between people. Some beliefs lead to a misinterpretation of evidence. These stereotypes and misinterpretations often lead to social disruptions, to hate and crimes against others.

Are some false beliefs good for us? Believing in Santa Claus and flying reindeer isn’t just fun. It might help develop counterfactual reasoning skills.

Engaging the border between what is possible and what is impossible is at the root of all scientific discoveries and inventions, from airplanes to the internet.

Jacqueline Woolley UT News

Legends of heroes and impossible tasks inspire us to be better people, to take leaps of faith. 

Things to Think About

In these days of contention and fear over politics, racial injustices, pandemic issues, natural disasters, and other important issues– both sides might consider reining in all the shouting and name calling. Confirmation bias means the position you’re opposing only sees the weaknesses in your argument no matter who’s “side” you are on.

Our arguing and fears have put us in a bad spot. Many of us feel a pressing need for change. Or is it for control? 

So many of the issues facing us today would be so much easier to deal with if we cooperated with one another. But too many of us are stuck in a “fight or flight” mode. Controlled by our monkey brains. Each “side” thinks the other side should do the “cooperating.” 

We believe in the impossible every day. Consider taking a moment to ask yourself what impossible thing you believe. Ask yourself how you are using confirmation bias. Honestly assess how you are cooperating with the “other” side.

And while you thinking—if we believe in the impossible—let’s believe we’ll have peace and a cooperative resolution to the problems we face today.

A Team of Awesome Women & the Nobel Prize

Strong women come in all sizes, colors, religions, and abilities. Today we celebrate two women who discovered one of the greatest breakthroughs in the biological sciences. Dr. Emmanuelle Charpentier and Dr. Jennifer A. Doudna were awarded the 2020 Nobel Prize for Chemistry this week for their development of a groundbreaking method for editing DNA. They discovered the genetic scissors called CRISPR/Cas9. It’s a tool that allows scientists to “snip” the DNA of organisms, “allowing for easy and precise genetic modifications.” They are the sixth and seventh women in history to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry and the first pair of women to win the chemistry prize. This team of awesome women teamed up for a common goal, and the results are world changing.

Image of the Nobel Prize Museum in Stockholm, where photos of this Team of Awesome Women will appear
The Nobel Prize Museum, Stockholm, by Liridon, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Excellence is never an accident. It is always the result of high intention, sincere effort, and intelligent execution; it represents the wise choice of many alternatives—choice, not chance, and determines your destiny.

Aristotle (384-322 BC)

Dr. Emmanuelle Charpentier

Emmanuelle Charpentier was born on December 11, 1968 in Juvisy-sur-Orge, a commune in northern France, 18km south-east of Paris. 

Charpentier studied biochemistry, microbiology and genetics at the Pierre and Marie Curie University. She received a research doctorate from the Institut Pasteur in 1995. She moved to the United States in 1997.

As a postdoctoral fellow at New York’s Rockefeller University, she helped show how Streptococcus pneumoniae develop vancomycin resistance. (Read more about S pneumonia a leading cause of bacterial pneumonia and meningitis and other infections in the United States.)

Charpentier also worked at the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and at the Skirball Institute of Biomolecular Medicine during her five-year stay in the U.S.

In 2002 her work took her to Vienna, then to Sweden, and to the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology in Berlin.

Charpentier approached Jennifer Doudna at a research conference in 2011. And a team of awesome women formed.

Dr. Jennifer Doudna

Jennifer Doudna was born in Washington, D.C. in 1964. She moved to Hawaii when she was seven years old. There, her educator parents encouraged her love of the biological sciences. 

She received her Bachelor of Arts degree in Biochemistry and earned a Ph.D. in Biological Chemistry and Molecular Pharmacology from Harvard Medical School in 1989.

From early in her career, Doudna studied RNA. At Yale in her group crystallized and solved the three-dimensional structure of the catalytic RNA. Her experiments with high powered x-ray diffraction at Berkley gained her further recognition. 

The list of awards and honors she has received is long.

In 2011, she met Charpentier at a research conference. After that, she cancelled all her other obligations to focus on researching CRISPR. 

CRISPR

Both Doudna and Charpentier studied Streptococcus pyogenes bacteria. Also known as Strep A, the DNA of this bacteria has segments that repeat. 

Other scientists had discovered fragments of genetic material from viruses attacking Strep A between the bacteria’s repeating DNA segments. They named these fragments ‘clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats’ or CRISPR. CRISPR prevented those viruses from attacking the Strep A for a second time. But nobody was sure how the bacteria’s immune response worked.

Charpentier and her team discovered that the bacteria made a previously unknown form of RNA that recognized the genes of viruses if they attempted to attack the bacteria again.

Charpentier needed to collaborate with an expert on RNA. Doudna was her choice.

Two Awesome Women Team Up

They discovered that Strep A used an enzyme called Cas9 to slice up viral genetic material and incorporate it into its own DNA. They wondered if they could create a piece of RNA to target a specific point on any gene, not just a viral one.

In one year’s time, they successfully created a modified RNA segment. They called this segment CRISPR RNA. This segment “known as CRISPR RNA or crRNA, that guides the segment to the right place and then uses Cas9 to snip out a piece of DNA with extreme precision, in some cases as small as a single genetic letter.”

The Impact

Scientists around the world already use their discovery. Scientists are using CRISPR/Cas9 to develop cancer-fighting drugs, to create crops that can better withstand drought, to treat genetic diseases, and in many other applications. You may remember the article, Hope of a Cure for Sickle Cell, posted on this blog in July.

Typically, acceptance and common usage of breakthrough scientific discoveries takes a decade or more. And it’s at least a decade, often longer, before the discovering scientists get considered for a Nobel Prize.  

This technology has utterly transformed the way we do research in basic science,” asserts Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health. “I am thrilled to see Crispr-Cas getting the recognition we have all been waiting for and seeing two women being recognized as Nobel Laureates.”

Ethical Questions

Both Doudna and Charpentier are aware of the potential for ethical issues related to their discovery.

In 2019, Chinese scientist He Jiankui said he had used CRISPR on two human embryos. His announcement caused a raging scientific scandal.

Doudna’s recent book A Crack in Creation: Gene Editing and the Unthinkable Power to Control Evolution, explores the ethic issues related to CRISPR. She cautions, “we as a community need to make sure we recognize we are taking charge of a very powerful technology.”

Congratulations and Cautions

In eight short years, Doudna’s and Charpentier’s discovery has changed scientific research. The world is teetering on the edge of breakthrough treatments and cures for many diseases. Their shared Nobel Prize is extraordinary and well deserved.

But their discovery also has the world balanced on the edge of a slippery slope. Genetically altered embryos to cure disease could end up with genetically designer babies. How far will we go? Many science fiction books explore what might happen when we can alter the genes of animals and humans. In my Fellowship Dystopia series, primitive genetic manipulation creates an army of assassins and a war.

So far, scientists are self-regulating. Will we someday need a global board for ethical review? And how some misuse that power? 

These two awesome women teamed up for a common goal, and the results are world changing. Who knows what the next team of women will achieve. Anything is possible.

Would You Fly Like Iron Man?

Humans have dreamed of flying since they first saw birds. Determined men and women have made the dreams come true with heavier than air aircraft. Now men and women are bringing the dream of human flight using jetpacks. Would you like to fly like Iron Man?

Flying Ironman Toy, would you fly like Ironman if you could?

The Dream

Seven years before the Wright brothers completed their first manned, powered, controlled flight, a novel called The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896) mentioned a man hovering low with “the look of a pack on his back.”

The cover of Amazing Stories featured a man flying with a jet pack in 1928. A year after Lindbergh completed the first solo, nonstop transatlantic flight from New York to Paris. 

Over the years, countless other stories and films and cartoons have used a jetpack. I’ll bet you can name one or two you’ve seen portrayed in film or fiction.

Early History

Public Domain

The Russian inventor Alexander F. Andreev created the first pack design in 1919. Andreev received a patent for the  oxygen-and-methane-powered pack with wings. But there is no record that anyone built or tested it. 

In 1956, Justin Capră informed the American Embassy that he invented a “flying rucksack” in Romania. No one was interested. 

Project Grasshopper was a jump belt created by Thiokol Corporation engineers, Garry Burdett and Alexander Bohr in 1958. It used high pressure compressed nitrogen for thrust. It lifted a serviceman twenty-three feet in the air and could run up to thirty-one miles per hour. But lacking funding, they did no further testing.

The U.S. Army Is Interested

In 1959, Aerojet General Corporation won a U.S. Army contract to devise a jet pack or rocket pack. The Army called the project a “Small Rocket Lift Device” or SRLD.

In early 1960, Richard Peoples made his first tethered flight with his Aeropack.

In August of that year, the military learned of Bell Aerosystems engineer, Wendell F. Moore, already several years into developing a personal jet device. The Amy commissioned Bell Aerosystems to develop their SRLD with Wendell Moore as chief project engineer. He developed the rocket belt based on Justin Capră’s 1956 design.

The Space Age

April 12, 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space. Alas, we still can’t fly like Ironman.

On April 20, 1961, Harold “Hal” Graham completed the first successful untethered rocket belt flight rising eighteen inches off the ground. The flight lasted thirteen seconds and covered 112 feet. The Army terminated its contract with Bell after Moore reported that the belt used up its fuel in twenty-one seconds. It was difficult to pilot, and the loud engine noise was unacceptable.

In 1965, Bell Aerosystems concluded a new contract with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to develop a jet pack with a turbojet engine. Complex to maintain, the pack had a short flight duration. It was bulky and loud. Any GI wearing the pack would be a target. The Army ended the project.

On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong took man’s first steps on the moon.

Small Successes

Powerhouse Productions manufactured the Rocketbelt (June 1994). It provided thirty seconds of flight. The Rocketbelt flew during Michael Jackson’s Dangerous World Tour.

Powerhouse Productions organizes Rocketbelt performances at parades, Super Bowls, races, and on television shows.

In 2008, Martin Jetpack, a New Zealand-based manufacturer, demonstrated a personal flying device. But it didn’t use jets.


martinjetpack / CC

Winged Jet Packs

Various inventors turned to developing turbojets and wings and wing suits in the 2000s. Visa Parviainen jumped from a hot air balloon with the jet engines attached to his feet.

An airplane lifted Swiss ex-military and commercial pilot Yves Rossy to altitude. He wore a winged pack with rigid airplane-type carbon-fiber wings. The wings unfold while in free-fall, and he then can fly horizontally for several minutes, landing with the help of a parachute.

Many others hope to develop a successful winged jetpack, including Fritz Unger in Germany.

True Jet Packs

Jetpack Aviation demonstrated a true jet pack in front of the Statue of Liberty in November 2015

In 2017, Richard Browning of Gravity Industries revealed his jet pack at a TED talk in Vancouver.

Browning and his company continue to refine the jet pack.

Would You Fly Like Iron Man?

In 2019 former Mythbuster, Adam Savage, built a titanium Iron Man suit modeled directly from Marvel Studios, hoping to fly like Iron Man. Savage reached out to Browning. And together, they did it. .

Today, Browning’s jet pack has new possibilities. Watch this demonstration of a paramedic with a jet pack.

This video from Dubai shows another real-world use for jet packs. (Note the jet packs in use may not be from Browning and Gravity). 

Would You Fly?

Right now regular folk can learn to fly Browning’s jetpacks for fun. Browning has an electric version (battery run) jetpack. He says that battery technology must advance before that version will be practical and affordable.

I’ve dreamed of the Jetson’s car, a flying car. But what if we all could be Rocketman or Rocketwoman? Instead of a bike, a motorcycle or a scooter, can you see yourself jetting to work? The occasional accident might be spectacular in a horrific way. But, like riding bikes, wouldn’t it give you a rush of freedom? I sure would like to try. Would you fly like Iron Man?

Will Your Child Fall in Love with a Cyborg?

Imagine it’s 2050, the pandemic is long over. Cyborgs (beings with both organic and biomechatronic body parts) walk the streets of your town. Will your child fall in love with a cyborg? The beau has a brain-computer-interface (BCI). Maybe he or she has an artificial limb or two. Cyborgs common enough your child or grandchild could befriend or fall in love with one? Seriously? That’s what some forward-looking companies think might happen. But before we consider the future, let’s look at the development of BCI.

Discovery of Brain Waves

EEG, brain waves, an essential discovery on the way to creating a cyborg

Brain-computer-interfaces, also known as brain-machine-interfaces (BMI), begins their story in 1875. Richard Canton discovered electrical signals in animal brains. His discovery inspired Hans Berger to discover the human electroencephalogram (EEG) on July 6, 1924. The EEG measures brainwaves. Today it is invaluable. Its used to diagnose and treat neurological diseases (seizures, brain tumors, etc.)

Computers and Imagination

Illustration of a computer screen showing a brain--an idea waiting to become a cyborg

Konrad Zuse, a German, created the first programmable computer between 1936-1938.

It was also in the 1930s when science fiction authors such as John C. Campbell (John Scott Campbell) and Edmond Hamilton wrote and published stories about transferring memories and personalities into computers.

Tommy Flowers developed and demonstrated the first electric programmable computer, Colossus. In 1943.

IBM introduced its first scientific computer, the 701, in 1953.

By the 1950s, there were many science fiction stories about uploading and restoring brains via computers.

Development: Using Brain Waves

In 1963, an Oxford scientist claimed he’d figured out how to use human brain waves to control a simple slide projector.

By the 1980s, neuroscientists had figured out that if you use an implant to record signals from groups of cells in, say, the motor cortex of a monkey, and then you average all their firings together, you can figure out where the monkey means to move its limb—a finding many regarded as the first major step toward developing brain-controlled prostheses for human patients. Wired.com

But the bare wires and the jelly-like substance of the brain made for a notoriously unstable combination. Eventually it wouldn’t work at all.
In 1996, the FDA approved the implantation of Phil Kennedy’s “cone electrodes” in a human patient. Over time, that first patient controlled a computer cursor with his brain.

The Limitations

Connectors to the implants, electronics, and system engineering are some current limitations of these BCIs. An electrode lifespan of a five-year maximum is another limitation. And brain surgery every five years increases one’s risk of complications, means more recovery time, and more costs.

More and More Research

The Utah Array is a patented microelectrode array technology. Surgeons can implant it into human brains, spinal cords, or peripheral nerves. It has up to 256 electrodes and has been FDA-cleared for temporary neural recording since the 1990s. These folks aren’t a cyborg yet, they’re research subjects. Right?

Several research groups have implanted Utah Arrays in people that lasted multiple years.

In 2017 Elon Musk founded Neuralink. Their website states they are developing “the first neural implant that will let you control a computer or mobile device anywhere you go.”

By 2019, Neuralink’s interdisciplinary team announced that they had “created a 3,000-electrode neural interface where electrodes could be implanted at a rate of between 30 and 200 per minute. Each thread of electrodes is implanted by a sophisticated surgical robot that essentially acts like a sewing machine. This all happens while specifically avoiding blood vessels that blanket the surface of the brain.”

We don’t know yet what 3000 electrodes in your brain will help you do. But with that many electrodes, could a quadriplegic walk? Would the person with that implant be a cyborg

In 2019, Johns Hopkins researchers reported that they implanted electrodes in the brain of a “mostly” paralyzed person. The electrodes enabled him to have “mind control” of motorized prosthetic arms.

Is a Cyborg Coming to Your Future?

A cyborg's robotic hand points its index finger toward a human hand  pointing its index finger at the cyborg's hand

From the Six Million Dollar Man to The Matrix, from Man Plus to Cyberpunk, writers have imagined a connection between man and machine. And from EEGs to brain implants, advances in biotechnology are marching forward. Will it change our humanity as I posited in November 2019? Some predict that the technology will be in common use by 2050. What if your child falls in love with a cyborg? Or your grandchild. Do you think most people will accept cyborgs or will cyborg be uncool and social outcasts?