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January 13, 2021

Good Morning,

Enjoy these interesting stories from the scientific community.

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*-- NASA prepares Orion simulator for lunar mission training --*

NASA is setting up a high-tech simulator, made by Lockheed Martin, to teach astronauts how to operate the Orion capsule during planned moon missions.

Weak funding from Congress has cast doubt over the schedule for such lunar missions, but NASA is moving forward with preparations, officials have said.

Lockheed delivered the Orion simulator to Johnson Space Center in mid-December, ahead of the first potential crewed flight to the moon in 2023.

Astronauts will practice every step of their planned flights to the moon, from launch to lunar landing, NASA astronaut Randy Bresnik told UPI.

"The training teams will be able to have the highest-fidelity, most realistic flight simulations that are possible," said Bresnik, who trained in simulators for his space shuttle mission in 2009 and aboard a Russian Soyuz capsule to the International Space Station in 2017.

"Shuttle simulators had two TVs mounted where the windows were, and that was as good as we could get with the technology then," he said. "But the windows themselves in the Orion simulator will be screens showing views of Earth, space and the moon that will be pretty darn impressive."

NASA is installing Orion's display and control system and crew seats to mimic what astronauts will experience in flight. Crews will be trained once they are named for specific missions, the first of which will be the Artemis II mission to fly around the moon.

Although scheduled for 2023, the mission may not occur at that time, according to numerous space experts who have previously told UPI that congressional funding has fallen well short of required levels.

The Trump administration had moved a lunar landing goal up from 2028 to 2024, but President-elect Joe Biden's administration hasn't stated such a goal.

The Orion simulator doesn't move on a mechanical axis as the shuttle did, Bresnik said, because the virtual reality and computer simulations have improved so much as to make that unnecessary.

"The new simulator has a unique capability of pulling out the seat bottoms allowing us to stand, so we're not just stuck in the seat. That's more like how we would float in weightlessness and operate the controls," Bresnik said.

Like shuttle and Apollo simulators, the Orion simulator will prepare astronauts for various emergencies and unplanned events, he said.

Sights and sounds will help the astronauts understand what the spacecraft is doing, in addition to instruments and data, said Bryan Doyle, software architect on the capsule for Lockheed Martin.

"We will generate audio cues, to simulate when mortars fire to release a heat shield, for example, or when a fan turns on," Doyle said. "They need to know what to expect and be able to sense when things are right or not."

Lockheed uses the same software in the simulator that has been used in simulations for the flight controllers and in the capsule itself, Doyle said.

The simulator even would provide views of the Earth in case the mission goes into abort mode upon liftoff, he said.

"We can start the mission at different points throughout the flight," he said. "They don't have to run through an entire 10-day journey to experience events at the moon."

*-- New protein patch to help scientists manipulate cell signaling --*

Click MeScientists have developed a new kind of protein patch that can influence cell signaling, attaching to the outside of cells without becoming absorbed.

The breakthrough material, described Wednesday in the journal Nature, could be used to design technologies that can manipulate the behavior of biological systems.

The new patch works by commandeering many of the receptors found on the outside of cells, which allow cells to sense and communicate with the surrounding environment.

Receptors can receive and bind with all kinds of molecules, including hormones, neurotransmitters, drugs, toxins and more. Once docked, molecules provide receptors a chemical signature, triggering reactions inside the cell -- a process called signaling.

Because a cell's receptors are a finite resource, cells must ensure their eyes and ears to the outside world remain unclogged and unshielded -- always ready to receive new signals.

To remain undistracted, cells often absorb a recently triggered receptor and its bound molecule. Once inside the cell, the pair is destroyed.

"This tendency of cells to internalize receptors likely lowers the efficiency of immunotherapies," study co-author Emmanuel Derivery said in a news release.

"Indeed, when antibody drugs bind their target receptors and then become internalized and degraded, more antibody must always be injected," said Derivery, assistant professor at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Britain.

As a workaround, researchers developed proteins that organize themselves into large, flat patches.

Next, Derivery and his colleagues embedded signaling molecules into the protein patches. When the patches attached to cells, they commandeered multiple receptors and avoided absorption for long periods of time.

"This work paves the way towards a synthetic cell biology, where a new generation of multi-protein materials can be designed to control the complex behavior of cells," said David Baker, professor of biochemistry at the University of Washington's School of Medicine.

Researchers were able to tweak their protein patches to target different types of cell receptors.

"We now have a tool that can interact with any type of cells in a very specific way," said Ariel Ben-Sasson, the postdoctoral scholar responsible for the design of the new protein patch. "This is what is exciting about protein engineering: it opens fields that people may not expect."

Scientists plan to use the new protein patch material to mediate problematic physiological responses. For example, the patch could be used to quiet the inflammatory response to infection, preventing sepsis.

The protein patch could also eventually be used to develop new therapies for COVID-19, heart disease, diabetes and even neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's, researchers said.