SciTech Briefs

Artificial womb lets scientists observe embryonic growth

A team of researchers at the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom have created a new device made from soft polymers that mimics the mammalian uterus. With this technology, researchers are now able to continuously observe the growth of embryonic cells outside of the womb through to the eighth day of development, a huge improvement from the previous four-day limit that forced scientists to return these cells back to the mother’s womb.

Because of this technology, scientists are able to directly observe the continuing changes in embryos after four days, including the crucial formation of the head. This breakthrough is part of a larger effort at the university to learn how the development of the human embryo can teach researchers methods for repairing the human body.

Source: Science Daily

Memory chip uses light, not electricity, to store data

Researchers at a Japanese telecom company have built an optical random access memory (o-RAM) chip that uses light, rather than electricity, to store data. Each memory cell in the o-RAM is a nanoscale light-capturing crystal capable of channeling light in very small spaces. Varying the intensity of light through the chip allows each crystal to switch between transparent and opaque states, modeling zeroes and ones.

While the technology is still a ways off from use in conventional desktop machines, researchers are hoping that it can help speed up the sluggish performance of internet switches that manage traffic between high-volume servers, since light travels much faster than electric signals.

Source: Wired magazine

NASA falls victim to numerous cyber-attacks

NASA was the victim of 47 sophisticated cyber-attacks in 2011, according to a report the agency released last week. These attacks have allowed hackers to gain unauthorized access to employee credentials, the control systems of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and the security codes used to operate the International Space Station, among other things. In total, the agency reported 5,408 incidents that “resulted in the installation of malicious software on or unauthorized access to its systems” in both 2010 and 2011.

These developments come at an unfortunate time for NASA, as Americans continue to assess the roles the expensive agency should or should not play in future explorations of the final frontier.

Source: CNN

Despite mid-age slump, elderly people sleep best

A telephone survey of more than 150,000 adults suggested that, aside from a slight decline during a person’s 40s, sleep quality on the whole actually gets better with age. The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Sleep and Circadian Neurobiology, focused on asking a large sample of randomly selected people questions about the quality of their sleep. Since these responses were mostly the opinions of the participants involved, researcher Michael Grandner offered a possible explanation for the data.

“Even if sleep among older Americans is actually worse than in younger adults, feelings about [sleep quality] still improve with age,” he said.

Source: BBC

Jurassic fleas eight times larger than modern fleas

A fossil of a prehistoric flea from the Jurassic era was recently uncovered in China. At 20.6 millimeters (nearly one inch), the 165-million-year-old flea was eight times bigger than the modern flea, and still manages to dwarf even the largest living flea, which comes in at only 12.6 millimeters. These prehistoric fleas also had vicious, straw-like mouths with serrated edges — perfect for biting into the hides of the dinosaurs they lived on.

“It really appears as though they were specialized for working their way into some heavy hides, such as those on dinasaurs,” Michael Engel, a co-author of the study, said in an interview with New Scientist. Unlike modern fleas, however, the prehistoric flea had poorly developed legs, and thus was incapable of jumping.

Source: New Scientist, International Business Times

Space tourism company tests new spaceship

Virgin Galactic, a space tourism company under the Virgin Group corporation, is aiming to test fly its new SpaceShipTwo spacecraft this year. Commercial suborbital passenger service will give riders a few minutes, at an altitude of about 68 miles, to experience zero gravity and view the Earth set against the backdrop of outer space. The service could commence as soon as next year, company officials said last week. Nearly 500 customers have signed up for these $200,000 rides in the six-passenger, two-pilot ship.

“We would like to be the first to do this, but we’re not in a race with anyone,” chief test pilot David Mackay said. “This is not a Cold War-era space race.”

Source: Reuters