NASA lands nuclear-powered, laser-armed, one-tonne rover on Mars

The Curiosity rover has been travelling for 10 months and made a safe touchdown this morning.

At 6:30am BST, NASA's Curiosity rover touched down on Mars, making it the seventh successful attempt to land a man-made object on the planet, and the largest such object yet.

Following its launch from Cape Canaveral in November last year, the mission has covered the 563 million kilometer distance without concern, but the most dangerous aspect of the trip was always going to be the last seven minutes of the descent to Mars. The Martian atmosphere is thin enough that it isn't capable of slowing objects travelling at interplanetary velocity down enough for them to make a safe landing, while being thick enough that the friction is capable of doing serious damage to an unprotected craft.

Once the rover hit the atmosphere, it had to execute a complicated series of manouvers, first deploying a massive parachute, then rocket thrusters, and then, at the very end, hovering just above the surface and lowering the car-sized rover down on nylon strings. And it had to do all of this without any aid from the control room on Earth, due to the 14 minutes it takes for radio signals from Mars to reach earth. So by the time we heard that the rover had hit the atmosphere, it had actually been sitting on the planet – dead or alive – for seven minutes.

NASA's video explaining the "seven minutes of terror" – unfortunately officially called "EDL", for "entry, descending, landing" – conveys the sheer scale of the challenge:

Now that it has arrived, the rover's first task is to explore Gale crater, its landing site. The crater contains a number of interesting geological features, including what appears to be a 5km high mountain formed out of sedimentary rock, which would make it one of the largest artifacts of running water on Mars.

But that preliminary mission is unlikely to be the rover's only one. NASA's increasingly successful missions to send rovers to Mars have been typified by the flexibility which the mobile design offers. The Pathfinder mission, which deposited a lander (a stationary craft) and a rover (named Sojourner) on Mars in 1997, was intended to last a week to a month, but ended up returning usable data for three. The follow-up rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, landed in 2004 with 90 days of planned experiments. Spirit eventually got stuck in late 2009 and stopped sending signals back to Earth in 2010, while its twin Opportunity is still active, 3,026 days after its mission was supposed to end.

But Curiosity is a different scale of mission – literally. While Sojourner was 65cm long and weighed 10.5kg, and Spirit and Opportunity 1.6m and 180kg, Curiosity is over 3m long and weighs almost a tonne. Rather than being powered by solar panels, which runs the risk of outages during dust storms and the Martian night, it contains a plutonium battery, which generates heat to be turned into electricity. It also has a laser which can burn holes in rocks from up to 7 meters away, in case of attack to analyse the chemical composition of the planet, and sensors which detect visible light, x-rays, neutrons and ultraviolet radiation, all for science. In essence, NASA has landed a nuclear power, laser-armed SUV on Mars for one fifth the cost of the Olympics. Oh, and it tweets.

 

The Mars rover family. Pictured, clockwise from bottom left: models of Sojourner, Spirit/Opportunity, two human males, and Curiosity. Photograph: NASA

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Apple-cervix ears and spinach-vein hearts: Will humans soon be “biohacked”?

Leafy greens could save your life – and not just if you eat them.

You are what you eat, and now bioengineers are repurposing culinary staples as “ghost bodies” – scaffolding on which human tissues can be grown. Nicknamed “biohacking”, this manipulation of vegetation has potentially meaty consequences for both regenerative medicine and cosmetic body modification.

A recent study, published in Biomaterials journal, details the innovative use of spinach leaves as vascular scaffolds. The branching network of plant vasculature is similar to our human system for transporting blood, and now this resemblance has been put to likely life-saving use. Prior to this, there have been no ways of reproducing the smallest veins in the human body, which are less than 10 micrometres in diameter.

The team of researchers responsible for desecrating Popeye’s favourite food is led by bioengineering professor Glenn Gaudette and PhD student Joshua Gershlak at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI). They were discussing the dearth of organ donors over lunch when they were inspired to use their lunch to help solve the problem.

In 2015 the NHS released figures showing that in the last decade over 6000 people, including 270 children, had died while waiting for an organ transplant. Hearts, in particular, are in short supply as it is so far impossible to perfectly recreate a human heart. After a heart attack, often there is a portion of tissue that no longer beats, and so cannot push blood around the body. A major obstacle to resolving this is the inability to engineer dense heart muscle, peppered with enough capillaries. There must be adequate flow of oxygenated blood to every cell in order to avoid tissue death.

However, the scientists had an ingenious thought – each thin, flat spinach leaf already came equipped with its own microscopic system of channels. If these leaves were stacked together, the resulting hunk of human muscle would be dense and veiny. Cautiously, the team lined the cellulose matrix with cardiac muscle cells and monitored their progress. After five days they were amazed to note that the cells had begun to contract – like a beating heart. Microbeads, roughly the same size as blood cells, were pumped through the veins successfully.

Although the leafy engineering was a success, scientists are currently unaware of how to proceed with grafting their artificial channels into a real vasculatory system, not least because of the potential for rejection. Additionally, there is the worry that the detergents used to strip the rigid protein matrix from the rest of the leaf (in order for human endothelial cells to be seeded onto this “cellulose scaffolding”) may ruin the viability of the cells. Luckily, cellulose is known to be “biocompatible”, meaning your body is unlikely to reject it if it is properly buried under your skin.

Elsa Sotiriadis, Programme Director at RebelBio & SOSventures, told me: “cellulose is a promising, widely abundant scaffolding material, as it is renewable, inexpensive and biodegradable”, adding that “once major hurdles - like heat-induced decomposition and undesirable consistency at high concentrations - are overcome, it could rapidly transform 3D-bioprinting”. 

This is only the most recent instance of “bio-hacking”, the attempt to fuse plant and human biology. Last year scientists at the Pelling Laboratory for Biophysical Manipulation at the University of Ottawa used the same “scrubbing” process to separate the cellulose from a slice of Macintosh red apple and repopulate it with “HeLa” cervix cells. The human ear made from a garden variety piece of fruit and some cervix was intended as a powerful artistic statement, playing on the 1997 story of the human ear successfully grafted onto the back of a live mouse. In contrast to the WPI researchers, whose focus is on advancing regenerative medicine – the idea that artificial body parts may replace malfunctioning organic ones – Andrew Pelling, head of the Pelling Laboratory, is more interested in possible cosmetic applications and the idea of biohacking as simply an extension of existing methods of modification such as tattooing.

Speaking to WIRED, Pelling said: “If you need an implant - an ear, a nose - why should that aesthetic be dictated by the company that's created it? Why shouldn't you control the appearance, by doing it yourself or commissioning someone to make an organ?

The public health agency in Canada, which is unusually open to Pelling’s “augmented biology”, has supported his company selling modified body parts. Most significantly, the resources needed for this kind of biohacking – primarily physical, rather than pharmacological or genetic – are abundant and cheap. There are countless different forms of plant life to bend to our body ideals – parsley, wormwood, and peanut hairy roots have already been trialled, and the WPI team are already considering the similarities between broccoli and human lungs. As Pelling demonstrated by obtaining his equipment via dumpster-diving and then open-sourcing the instructions on how to assemble everything correctly, the hardware and recipes are also freely available.

Biohacking is gaining popularity among bioengineers, especially because of the possibility for even wackier uses. In his interview with WIRED, Pelling was excited about the possibility of using plants to make us sexier, wondering whether we could “build an erogenous interaction using materials that have textures you find pleasing [to change how our skin feels]? We're looking at asparagus, fennel, mushroom...” If he has his way, one day soon the saying “you are what you eat” could have an entirely different meaning.

Anjuli R. K. Shere is a 2016/17 Wellcome Scholar and science intern at the New Statesman

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