Virgin Galactic unveils designs for new spacecraft
Plans for a new commercial suborbital spacecraft were presented this week by Virgin Galactic, the space tourism arm of Virgin Atlantic, and Scaled Composites, maker of the first privately funded manned spacecraft. Sir Richard Branson and Burt Rutan, the heads of the respective organizations, revealed models, artists' conceptions and construction photos of the eight-seat SpaceShipTwo, designed to carry six paying passengers to the edge of space for four and a half minutes of weightless awe. The Associated Press reports that 200 customers have already paid $200,000 apiece to reserve a ride, and Branson has set aside two seats for his elderly parents. The companies said they hope to begin test flights this summer, just a year after one of the craft's experimental engines exploded during a routine ground test, killing three employees. (Virgin Galactic)
Ares 1 theme song: I fall to pieces?
In other news of future spaceships, NASA says that the Ares 1 launcher, set to replace the aging shuttle program and carry astronauts to the moon by 2020, could shake itself to the point of failure if built according to current design specs. In response to a Freedom of Information Act request by the Associated Press (AP) and questioning by NASA Watch, the agency disclosed that gas vortices from the rocket's primary solid-fuel engine could rattle the craft violently during the first few minutes of launch—to the detriment of the astronauts at the top of the stack. The AP noted that the problem is par for the course when designing new solid-fuel rockets. (Associated Press; NASA Watch)
Bone marrow switcheroo protects transplanted kidneys, liver
Three reports this week suggest that the key to transplanting organs without fear of rejection may be to throw in a bit of bone marrow. In two cases, researchers deliberately damaged the bone marrow of kidney transplant recipients to get rid of immune cells, which normally attack new organs that they view as foreign bodies. Ordinarily, transplant patients must take immunosuppressant drugs—which themselves can cause kidney damage—to keep the cellular soldiers at bay. In an effort to spare patients a lifetime on antirejection medications, researchers replaced the damaged bone marrow cells with those of the organ donor—in effect also transplanting the donors' immune systems. In one study, four of five kidney transplant patients successfully quit taking their drugs for two to five years; one of the transplant patients in a second study has thrived for more than two years without immune suppressants. The third experiment was accidental: A 15-year-old Australian girl has survived six years without antirejection drugs since receiving a slice of the liver of a boy who died of a brain injury. Apparently, his blood-forming stem cells stowed away in the liver and took over her bone marrow, changing her blood type in the process. (The New England Journal of Medicine; Massachusetts General Hospital; Reuters)
For diabetes, weight-loss surgery heavy favorite over dieting
Newly diagnosed diabetes patients, who are advised to shed 10 percent of their body weight for good, might want to consider gastric bypass surgery. A new study of 60 obese diabetics found that after two years, those who received bypass surgery (to reduce stomach size) lost an average of 21 percent of their body weight, and 73 percent of them (22 individuals) became symptom-free. Those given standard diet and exercise counseling lost a mere 2 percent of body weight and achieved remission in 13 percent of cases (four people). (JAMA The Journal of the American Medical Association)
If you miss the bus, just wait
If you have ever waited for a late bus, you've surely known that sinking feeling of deciding to walk, thinking it would be faster than standing there, only to watch the bus zoom by. Turns out you should have listened to your inner mathematician. A crack team of number crunchers from Harvard University and the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena has confirmed that the faster option* on average is indeed to wait, not walk—so long as the interval between buses isn't too long or the distance between stops too short. (preprint)
It's not easy being green in the U.S.
That's according to a new report that scored 149 nations for environmental quality based on greenhouse emissions, air pollution, sanitation and more than a dozen other factors. The U.S. landed at the bottom of the Group of Eight industrialized countries and 39th overall, a dip from its 28th place in the 2006 rankings (which put less weight on greenhouse emissions). Nations topping the list: Switzerland, Sweden, Norway and Finland, followed by Austria, France, Latvia, Costa Rica, Colombia and New Zealand. Yale and Columbia University researchers have issued the rankings, released this week at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, four times since 2002. (Yale Environmental Performance Index; The New York Times)
Quick, Houston—build a better a roach trap!
First we learned that bacteria born in outer space are tougher than their earthly counterparts. Now it seems the same is true of cockroaches. The Russian news agency RIA Novosti reported that roaches conceived during a flight on Russia's Foton M satellite last September grew faster and were hardier than the normal bugs, which can already survive decapitation. Thankfully, invasive space roaches could presumably be corralled by robots as in a November experiment (that is, assuming they don't have personal jetpacks). We can only hope that scientists won't try this with sharks or grizzlies. (RIA Novosti)
Couples who argue live longer
A new study finds that members of couples who verbally slug it out when angry are more likely to live longer than those who silently stew. Researchers followed 192 couples from Tecumseh, Mich., for 17 years and assessed whether they suppressed or expressed their anger. Couples in which both kept mum when they felt unfairly attacked died at twice the rate of those in which both got their anger off their chests. Sounds reasonable—as long as nobody gets beaten up. That could really complicate the making up process. (University of Michigan at Ann Arbor)
Creationist museum profits from sale of mastodon fossil
Fossil hunter Joe Taylor, head of the Mt. Blanco Fossil Museum in Crosbyton, Tex., has just auctioned off a rare mastodon skull to keep his museum afloat. But if you think the $191,200 sale was a bittersweet victory for those eager to enlighten the world about evolution, check out the museum's motto: "Digging up the facts of God's Creation: One fossil at a time." Taylor, who calls himself the only creationist field paleontologist, needed $136,000 to cover legal fees incurred in a dispute over the ownership of another fossil. (Mt. Blanco Fossil Museum; Associated Press)
* Note: This article originally stated that mathematicians solved the problem of waiting on a bus in the case of equally spaced stops. In fact, the stops need not be equally spaced.