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Gizmorama - January 3, 2018

Good Morning,

NASA is gearing up to go on their first interstellar mission! To infinity and beyond? We'll just have to see.

Learn about this and more interesting stories from the scientific community in today's issue.

Until Next Time,

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*-- NASA is planning the first interstellar mission, a trip to the Alpha Centauri system --*

Scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory are making preliminary plans for an interstellar mission, the agency's first. The team wants to send a probe to look for sings of life on the exoplanets surrounding Alpha Centauri, the closest star system to Earth.

According to New Scientist, which first revealed the news, the proposed launch is set for 2069 -- a celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

With a 44-year-long flight, the probe wouldn't reach its target until the next century.

"It's very nebulous," Anthony Freeman, a researcher at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, told the audience last week at the 2017 American Geophysical Union conference.

Freeman said the mission's planning is in the earliest stages, but scientists aren't without ideas -- and a few specifics.

Scientists are working on the kinds of technology that would allow a probe to travel at 10 percent of the speed of light. Researchers are considering laser-powered probes, as well as nuclear propulsion, sail power and thrust derived from collisions between antimatter and matter.

Even at 10 percent of the speed of light, it would still take nearly a half-century to reach the star system, which lies 4.37 light years from our solar system. That leaves plenty of time for problems to arise.

Should the mission come to fruition, adaptability will be key.

"We don't know whether the mission objectives will be stable," Freeman told the website Futurism. "We would find out a lot while the spacecraft is en route, which will change the questions that we need to answer before it arrives at its destination. All this makes it hard to pin down exactly what the mission concept should look like -- hence my comment that it is nebulous."

Alpha Centauri is a three-star system. Astronomers have discovered three exoplanets in the system, including a rocky planet in the habitable zone. Researchers believe there are likely several more undiscovered exoplanets in the habitable zone.

*-- Scientists engineer 3D shapes from living tissue --*

Scientists at the University of California, San Francisco have developed a technique for creating 3D shapes out of living tissue.

Mammalian cells move and behave in predictable ways. By arranging mechanically active cells into matrix-like layers of fibers, scientists were able to create self-folding shapes. The tissue mimics developmental processes, assuming a variety of shapes, including bowls, coils and ripples.

"Development is starting to become a canvas for engineering, and by breaking the complexity of development down into simpler engineering principles, scientists are beginning to better understand, and ultimately control, the fundamental biology," UCSF researcher Zev Gartner said in a news release. "In this case, the intrinsic ability of mechanically active cells to promote changes in tissue shape is a fantastic chassis for building complex and functional synthetic tissues."

Many labs and material scientists have designed 3D structures out of living tissue, but micro-molding and 3D printing techniques yield products without important structural qualities. By allowing the tissue layers to self-shape, scientists can ensure the finished product features all of the expected qualities.

The method mimics the hierarchical choreography of animal cells during developmental processes. Scientists dubbed the method "DNA-programmed assembly of cells," or DPAC.

"We're beginning to see that it's possible to break down natural developmental processes into engineering principles that we can then repurpose to build and understand tissues," said Alex Hughes, a postdoctoral fellow at UCSF. "It's a totally new angle in tissue engineering."

Hughes and his colleagues detailed the new process in a paper published this week in the journal Developmental Cell.

Scientists were surprised to find the complex arrangement of cells to respond so simply and predictably.

"This idea showed us that when we reveal robust developmental design principles, what we can do with them from an engineering perspective is only limited by our imagination," Gartner said. "Alex was able to make living constructs that shape-shifted in ways that were very close to what our simple models predicted."

Researchers plan to look for and tap into new development patterns found during various stages of embryo development -- mechanical processes that could inspire new shapes and patterns.


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