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Science On The Fly, Week Of Feb. 22

Sheyna Gifford |
February 24, 2015 | 5:14 p.m. PST


SMAP! There it is.

Most people think of NASA as specializing in out-of-this-world experiences. While it’s true that NASA shoots for the stars by the way of Moon and Mars, a lot of what the 57 year old Space Administration does is all about the Earth. On January 31st NASA added just another satellite to its already impressive fleet of 17 Earth missions. SMAP, the Soil Moisture Active Passive satellite, will reportedly help Farmers manage drought by predicting drought severity as well as flooding. It will also improve weather forecasting.

SMAP’s power to predict droughts and improve crop planning has to do with detecting moisture in the soil. The satellite combines excellent radar technology and radiometer readings to find out where it’s look (radar) and how much moisture the soil has there (radiometer). Hence, SMAP’s need for a gigantic 6-meter antenna. That antenna is attached to a boom, which successfully deployed this week. Standby, everyone, for a giant spinning golden antenna that takes soil moisture readings from space!

Nanoparticles: Yet Another Great Use for Scotch Tape

Last week, some researchers who are very smart and have a lot of cool tech at their disposal discovered that the easiest and cheapest way to deposit metal nanoparticles on surfaces is probably tape. Scotch tape, the kind you use to hang that crappy poster to your wall. Go Science.

Putting nanoparticles on surfaces has a lot of interesting advantages. Coating a metal surface with non-metal nanoparticles can help control the heat flux from the metal - keep it from cooling down too fast, for example. That might be useful if you are a wire inside somewhere very cold: like the casing of a Mars rover, a recently deployed weather satellite boom or an engine of a range rover commuting in Michigan right now. If your reverse the equation and coat non-metallic surfaces with metal nanoparticles, those surfaces can now conduct electricity. That’s very useful if you want to use a 3D printer to make an artificial heart out of silica, or coat antibiotics with small amount of metals that kill bacteria. We used to dip or spray or paint the particles on, but that turns out to be incredibly expensive and inefficient compared to the wonders of a small amount of adhesive on a strip of plastic tape, which allows you to roll the particles right onto whatever surface you are aiming for without splashing, dripping or shooting them everywhere.

There’s really not a whole lot more I can think of to say about this, except for maybe, Gee, I REALLY wish I had thought of that”. Oh, and this too: I’m throwing in a bonus tweet this week. Look for it at the end of the column.

The Big Freeze

While megadroughts are predicted to take over the Southwest by the end of the century, baby it’s cold outside right now. This month vast swaths of snow took over the...everything. The whole dang country, practically - except for California, which sits in its corner crying about a dismally small snowpack.

The entire East coast from Detroit to Orlando to shivering its snowboots as record-breaking cold flows down from Siberia. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been tempted to borrow anything from Siberia. The good folks of Atlanta, Georgia would very much like to send the 16 degree F nighttime temperatures back where they came from. Ditto the folks in Jacksonville, FL, for whom 24 degrees is not a thing that’s supposed to happen, ever.

NASA, per usual, was on top of the situation. They snapped a fabulous photo of our ice-capped nation using that fleet of Earth satellites we were talking about a minute ago.

Thanks for flying with us this week through sun, snow and sticky nanoparticles. See you again soon, ScienceFlyers.

Bonus tweets! We need these nanoparticles to defeat cancer and heart disease.

Google has some skin in the game of just about everything. Google wants to use nano-particle to detect cancer on human skin. You would think that this would involve going out and getting some skin via animal testing. Instead, the ever-enterprising company decided that it would be better invent a way to manufacture human skin, expressly for this purpose. So, bonus tweet #1 is about using nanoparticles for detecting cancer, but also about INVENTING HUMAN SKIN, which you have to admit, is pretty cool.

Bonus tweet #2 Using nanoparticles to boot heart disease in the head? DISCLOSURE: I am related to one of the first authors on this paper. That makes this discovery both EVEN COOLER and also not cool to write about without acknowledging a potential conflict of interest. So, without further delay...

...This just in: nanoparticles might someday kick the ass off atherosclerosis, get it out of your blood vessels and alter the whole heart-disease game in our favor. This week we bask in the glow of the announcement that a bunch of scientists made the day of some fat-fed mice by stabilizing their cholesterol plaques. In humans, plaque growth and subsequent rupture is the #1 cause of heart attacks. Coating these plaques with plaque-selective nanoparticles kept them from growing and breaking apart. The sooner we can get this technology deployed, the faster we’ll stop the > 500,000 cardiac arrests that occur every year before they ever happen.

PS: 359,400 of these arrests occur out of the hospital, and only 9.5% of these poor people survive. So, yeah: we need those nanoparticles ASAP.

Reach Contributor Sheyna E. Gifford here. Follow The Science Desk here



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