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News Bytes of the Week--Tres Haute Fashion: Astronauts Get New Duds

Pluto becomes just another plutoid; Predicting if coma patients will awaken; Brain protein stops alcoholism; and more...
NASA new space suits



© NASA

Astronauts get new duds
It's fashion week for future astronauts. NASA this week chose a contractor to make spiffy new spacesuits for astronauts on the post-shuttle Constellation program, which the agency hopes will take U.S. space travelers back to the moon by 2020. The current space shuttle fleet faces mandatory retirement in 2010, and Constellation missions are set to begin in 2015. NASA has already awarded contracts for the program's Orion crew capsule and the Ares 1 rocket to launch it. This week NASA put the latest piece of hardware into place, awarding a preliminary six-year, $183.8-million contract to Oceaneering International, Inc., of Houston to design and build a basic spacesuit (for launches, landings and emergencies) as well as a suit for astronauts to wear during their stays on the moon. Oceaneering International beat out a joint venture by leading spacesuit contractors United Technologies Corporation's Hamilton Sundstrand of Windsor Locks, Conn., and ILC Dover, LP, of Frederica, Del., for the new contract, which could be worth up to $745 million when all is said and done, according to Reuters.

What's in a name? Pluto becomes just another "plutoid"
Opponents of Pluto's 2006 demotion from planet to "dwarf planet" status have a new reason to be peeved at astronomy's official name-issuing organization. In a sign that Pluto's second-class citizenship is here to stay, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) at a meeting this week in Oslo, Norway, declared that dwarf planets will now be called "plutoids." The official definition of a plutoid is a round celestial body in an orbit around the sun beyond Neptune's that has not cleared its orbital path of other bodies. So far there are only two known plutoids—Pluto and Eris, the latter of which enjoyed a fleeting moment of fame as the tenth planet. But astronomers expect to discover more. Former NASA science chief Alan Stern, the principal investigator on the New Horizons mission to Pluto, minced no words about the IAU's new designation. "It's just some people in a smoke-filled room who dreamed it up," he told the Associated Press. "Plutoids or hemorrhoids, whatever they call it—this is irrelevant." (Yes, but what do you really think?)

Chips ahoy? Food company beams Doritos ad into outer space
Snack food–maker Frito-Lay apparently believes there may be a market in outer space for its Doritos corn chips. The company announced this week that it plans to beam a 30-second video spot to a solar system 42 light-years away in the constellation Ursa Major, within which are the seven stars that make up the Big Dipper. The target system consists of two known gas-giant planets orbiting a star quite close in size to our own, meaning that in principle there might be habitable worlds there. The ad, called "Tribe," which shows a gaggle of Doritos dancing around a jar of salsa, was the winning entry in the Doritos Broadcast Project, a U.K. contest to make a video conveying everyday life for inquisitive extraterrestrials. Only thing: How will ETs know Earthlings aren't a bunch of dancing little edible triangles?

Here Comes the Sun: NASA to Fly Probe into Solar Atmosphere
NASA this week announced that it plans to launch a probe in 2015 on a seven-year mission to study the sun. The space agency says the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory is designing the craft, dubbed Solar Probe+ (Solar Probe Plus), which will wield a carbon-composite heat shield to survive the intense 2,550-degree Fahrenheit (1,400-degree Celsius) temperatures and radiation that will blast it as it passes within 4.5 million miles (7.2 million kilometers) of the sun. Scientists believe the probe will help solve several mysteries about our closest star, most notably: why the corona surrounding it at 1.8 million degrees F (one million degrees C) is hotter than the solar surface, which is still a toasty 10,800 degrees F (6,000 degrees C). It also is hoped the probe will help astrophysicists find out why there's no organized solar wind (made up mostly ions and electrons) found in the vicinity of the sun's surface, even though it whips through the solar system at speeds ranging from about 670,000 to 1.8 million miles (1.1 million to 2.9 million kilometers) per hour. Learn more in a Scientific American Online 60-Second Science podcast describing the upcoming mission.

Daydream believer: A way to predict whether coma patients will awaken?
A new study says that doctors may be able to predict the fate of comatose patients in minutes if they tap into the activity in a brain network linked to daydreaming. Researchers at the University of Liège in Belgium reported at a conference in France this week that a study of 13 patients in comas of varying degrees indicated that those with the most activity in these pathways (in the cortex, or brain processing center) had suffered the least brain damage and thereby were most likely to recover if given the correct treatment. Researchers told the New Scientist  the findings show that physicians may one day be able to scan these areas to predict whether comatose patients will regain consciousness.

Cold turkey: Brain protein slams the brakes on alcoholism
Scientists at the University of California, San Francisco, report that increasing the levels of a protein in the brain may help alcoholics kick drinking in a heartbeat—and keep them from falling off the wagon. The researchers report in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA that rats lost interest in alcoholic beverages within 10 minutes of being injected with the protein known as glial cell line–derived neurotrophic factor (GDNF). The U.C. San Francisco team had previously shown that upping levels of GDNF into a part of the brain associated with drug addiction (the ventral tegmental area) dramatically curtailed the animals' habits. But they had no clue it would work as quickly as this experiment showed. "Our findings open the door to a promising new strategy to combat alcohol abuse, addiction and especially relapse," neurologist and study co-author Dorit Ron told the London newspaper the Telegraph, adding that 70 percent of people who kick alcoholism get hooked again within five years.

Pop Quiz: Q.—The U.S. lags in science and technology A.—False
As nations such as China and India increased their global science and technology presence over the past few decade, researchers have groused that the U.S. was in danger of losing its edge. But a new report says their worries are for naught. Analysts at the RAND National Defense Research Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank say the U.S. not only spends more than any other nation on research and development, but this spending is growing faster than that of the European Union and Japan. Based on 2003 data, RAND says the U.S. also registered several thousand more new patents than the E.U. and Japan, and that China and India weren't even close. RAND also found that the U.S. is the world's leading publisher of scientific journals and magazines and that Americans spend nearly twice as much pursuing graduate degrees in the science and related fields as other industrialized nations. But RAND warns this doesn't mean the U.S. should rest on its laurels. To wit: U.S. elementary and middle schoolers hold their own in math and science, RAND reports, but high school students on average perform worse.

Bionic hand smacks down competition for engineering award
A bionic hand with individual motors in each finger and a lifelike,  opposable thumb this week took home the 2008 Royal Academy of Engineering MacRobert Award. In claiming the top prize, the motorized hand beat out Polar, a robotic system used by the U.K. Biobank to manage millions of biological samples in subzero temperatures; a technology developed by Johnson Matthey for controlling soot emissions from diesel cars; and an, Owlstone Ltd. dime-size chemical sensor on a silicon chip that detects trace amounts of a variety of chemicals. Touch Bionics' i-LIMB Hand is the first commercially available bionic hand; 200 people, including U.S. soldiers who lost limbs during the war in Iraq, have so far been fitted with it. The hand does not have to be surgically attached; instead, it uses two electrodes that sit on the skin to pick up electrical impulses created by the contraction of muscle fibers in the body. The i-LIMB will be on display at the Science Museum in London until September.

Leave it to trees to keep cool (and warm)
The leaves of trees from the Arctic to the subtropics don't let the weather get them down. Instead, healthy leaves conducting photosynthesis—whether it be boreal spruce or Caribbean pine—use various processes (the cooling of water evaporation or the warming of tightly clustered leaves) to keep the temperature inside each leaf around 70 degrees Fahrenheit (21 degrees Celsius), no matter what external temperatures may be, University of Pennsylvania biologists report in Nature. The reason: temperate temperatures are most conducive to photosynthesis, the researchers say, but no one previously suspected leaves could pull of such a thermal regulation trick.

Taking the perma out of permafrost
Arctic sea ice continues to shrink, with experts predicting an ice-free Arctic by as early as 2020. Shippers may be pleased, but this bodes ill for polar bears—and permafrost. An ice-free ocean, whose dark waters would absorb heat normally reflected by the ice, also warms temperatures up to 900 miles (1,450 kilometers) inland by as much as 9 degrees Fahrenheit (5 degrees Celsius), according to a new study published in Geophysical Research Letters today. When the mercury rises that much, it melts permafrost, whose thawing has already triggered such phenomena as "drunken trees" (that lean perilously to one side as the ground beneath them sinks) and collapsed roads. And it could imperil vital infrastructure such as oil pipelines and rigs, as well. In other words: melting sea ice is not just a problem for marine mammals but for the humankind, too.

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