Extended Trips to Space Alter the Brains of Astronauts

Astronaut Peggy Whitson in the International Space Station's Cupola during a 2017 tour of duty. Doctors are interested in how long periods in low gravity change an astronaut's brain. (NASA Photo)
Astronaut Peggy Whitson in the International Space Station’s Cupola during a 2017 tour of duty. Doctors are interested in how long periods in low gravity change an astronaut’s brain. (NASA Photo)

Going to space changes a person. We’ve known that ever since NASA and the former Soviet Union started sending people to space back in the mid-20th Century. Not only does that trip affect an astronaut’s outlook (just look what it did to William Shatner) but it changes their body. Space physicians continually study astronauts to understand just what happens to them in space. Their latest target? Astronaut brains.

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A Giant Galaxy has been Unwinding its Neighbor for 400 Million Years

The interacting galaxy pair NGC 1512 and NGC 1510 take center stage in this image from the Dark Energy Camera, a state-of-the art wide-field imager on the Víctor M. Blanco 4-meter Telescope at Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory
The interacting galaxy pair NGC 1512 and NGC 1510 take center stage in this image from the Dark Energy Camera, a state-of-the art wide-field imager on the Víctor M. Blanco 4-meter Telescope at Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory. Courtesy NOIRLab.

Sometimes you have to just sit back and marvel at a particularly gorgeous view of a galaxy interaction. When these giant space cities merge with each other, wild and crazy things happen—a sort of “Galaxies Gone Wild” scenario. Take this pair, for example. We see them locked together in a cosmic dance that has lasted for not quite a half-billion years. With each turn on the intergalactic dance floor, they change each other permanently. Eventually, they’ll combine to make one giant galaxy.

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Lunar Samples Have Been in the Deep Freeze for 50 Years. NASA Finally has the Right Technology to Study Them Properly

Curators handling lunar rocks take extreme care to keep these materials from contamination as they work with them in cold boxes using gloves and protective gear. This frozen Apollo 17 sample is being studied in a nitrogen-purged glove box at NASA Johnson Space Flight Center. Courtesy NASA/Robert Markowitz.
Curators handling lunar rocks take extreme care to keep these materials from contamination as they work with them in cold boxes using gloves and protective gear. This frozen Apollo 17 sample is being studied in a nitrogen-purged glove box at NASA Johnson Space Flight Center. Courtesy NASA/Robert Markowitz.

Ever wonder what happened to all those collections of rocks and dust the Apollo astronauts brought back from the Moon? Some of those lunar samples were studied right away. Others made their way into a few museums and science centers and the desks of world leaders. Still others landed in storage at NASA Johnson’s Space Center in Houston. Some got stored at room temperature while others were put into a deep freeze. The idea was to preserve any traces of gases or water or possibly organic materials on them. Now, some of these lunar samples are at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, where they’re under examination for the first time in 50 years using new techniques not available during the Apollo years.

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A Pulsar and Star are Orbiting Each Other Every 62 Minutes. The Fastest “Black Widow” Binary Ever Seen

Caption:An illustrated view of a black widow pulsar and its stellar companion. The pulsar’s gamma-ray emissions (magenta) strongly heat the facing side of the star (orange). The pulsar is gradually evaporating its partner.
Credits:Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/Cruz deWilde
Caption: An illustrated view of a black widow pulsar and its stellar companion. The pulsar’s gamma-ray emissions (magenta) strongly heat the facing side of the star (orange). The pulsar is gradually evaporating its partner. Courtesy NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Cruz deWilde

The Milky Way Galaxy has its share of oddities, from black holes and magnetars to luminous blue variable stars and strange new worlds. But, have you ever heard of a “black widow binary?” Not exactly an easy name to wrap your head around, especially if you’re afraid of spiders. But, these things actually exist in our galaxy and they’re fascinating.

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Pulsars Could Explain the Excess of Gamma Radiation Coming from the Center of the Milky Way

A gamma-ray view of the sky centered on the core of the Milky Way Galaxy. Could strange spinning neutron stars explain an excess of gamma-radiation emanating from the Milky Way's core region? That's one possibility astronomers are discussing. Courtesy NASA/DOE/Fermi LAT Collaboration
A gamma-ray view of the sky centered on the core of the Milky Way Galaxy. Could strange spinning neutron stars explain a mysterious excess of gamma radiation emanating from the core region? That’s one possibility astronomers are discussing. Courtesy NASA/DOE/Fermi LAT Collaboration

Ever hear of the Galactic Center GeV Excess? No, it’s not a cosmic rock band, although that’s a great name for one. Actually, it’s what astronomers call a super-high rate of gamma-ray radiation coming from the heart of our Milky Way Galaxy. Since this Galactic Center Excess was first detected in 2009, people thought it might be a signature of dark matter annihilating itself in mass quantities. But, as with any unexplained phenomenon in space, others disagreed. It could also have something to do with Sagittarius A*, the galaxy core’s own supermassive black hole. Or, it might be some other kind of strange burst event. Now, an astronomer at the Australian National University suggests that rapidly spinning neutron stars may be the culprits behind this high-energy galactic mystery.

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Astronomers Discover Eight Echoes from Black Holes

A black hole in an x-ray binary system pulls material away from its neigbor star and into its accretion disk. Credit: Aurore Simonnet and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center
A black hole in an x-ray binary system pulls material away from its neighbor star and into its accretion disk. Credit: Aurore Simonnet and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

Black holes are the ultimate space-time sinks in the universe. Anything that wanders too close to one of these monsters gets sucked in, never to be seen again. That includes clouds of gas and dust from nearby stars. It all just disappears down the black hole’s insatiable maw. However, not all is lost. As the black hole feeds on the feast supplied by its neighbors, it gives off bright flashes of X-ray light. In a few places, the light bounces off the train of material spiraling into the black hole. That creates what astronomers call a black hole echo. Now, researchers have found eight of these systems relatively close to us in the Milky Way Galaxy.

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Solar Power in a Future Martian Lifestyle

Artist's concept of a crewed Martian manufacturing site powered by photovoltaic cells and capable of creating food, medicines, supplies, and recycling waste. Credit: Davian Ho.
An artist’s concept of a future biomanufacturing lab on Mars, powered by photovoltaic (solar power) technology. It will also synthesize food and medicines, and manufacture other needed materials, while recycling waste. (Credit: Davian Ho.)

Sometime in the next couple of decades, humans will head to Mars for long-term missions of more than 400 days. Such lengthy stays mean building Martian cities, complete with safe habitats, labs, and other infrastructure. Future Martians will have to do a lot to survive. They’ll build their cities, make their own food, distill water, create fuel, manufacture medicines, and create other supplies. To do that, they’ll use manufacturing facilities that they bring along. That all requires power. Lots of it. As we all know, Mars is noticeably lacking in obvious ways to make electricity. So, what will our intrepid explorers do to generate power for their new lives on the Red Planet?

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