Privately Funded Lunar Mission Set a Launch Date For 2017 28

merbs writes: If all goes according to plan, the world's first private lunar mission will be launched just two years from now. SpaceIL, an Israeli nonprofit, has secured a launch contract with California-based Spaceflight Industries, and will aim to land a rover on the moon in the second half of 2017. It's the first such launch contract to be verified by the $30 million Google Lunar XPrize competition. Another group called Moon Express has signed a deal with New Zealand-based company, Rocket Lab, to launch and put a lander on the lunar surface 2017.

The Mutant Genes Behind the Black Death 99

An anonymous reader writes: Each year, 4 million people visit Yosemite National Park in California. Most bring back photos, postcards and an occasional sunburn. But two unlucky visitors this summer got a very different souvenir. They got the plague. This quintessential medieval disease, caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis and transmitted most often by fleabites, still surfaces in a handful of cases each year in the western United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Its historical record is far more macabre. The plague of Justinian from 541 to 543 decimated nearly half the population in the Mediterranean, while the Black Death of the Middle Ages killed one in every three Europeans.

Now researchers are beginning to reveal a surprising genetic history of the plague. A rash of discoveries show how just a small handful of genetic changes — an altered protein here, a mutated gene there — can transform a relatively innocuous stomach bug into a pandemic capable of killing off a large fraction of a continent.

The most recent of these studies, published in June, found that the acquisition of a single gene named pla gave Y. pestis the ability to cause pneumonia, causing a form of plague so lethal that it kills essentially all of those infected who don't receive antibiotics. In addition, it is also among the most infectious bacteria known. "Yersinia pestis is a pretty kick-ass pathogen," said Paul Keim, a microbiologist at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. "A single bacterium can cause disease in mice. It's hard to get much more virulent than that."

2015 Nobel Prize In Chemistry Awarded To 3 For DNA Repair 16

An anonymous reader writes: Tomas Lindahl, Paul Modrich and Aziz Sancar have earned the 2015 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their discoveries about how DNA is repaired at the cellular level (PDF), and how genetic information is protected. "Each day our DNA is damaged by UV radiation, free radicals and other carcinogenic substances, but even without such external attacks, a DNA molecule is inherently unstable. Thousands of spontaneous changes to a cell's genome occur on a daily basis. Furthermore, defects can also arise when DNA is copied during cell division, a process that occurs several million times every day in the human body."

Tomas Lindahl first published work in this field back in 1974, when he found a bacterial enzyme that culled damaged remains of cytosines from DNA. He methodically worked out how base excision repair works, and even managed to recreate the process in vitro in 1996. Aziz Sancar's contribution has to do with how DNA repairs damage from ultraviolet light. After struggling to find a lab interested in his work, he went on to show how a group of enzymes identify and excise UV damage. Paul Modrich's focus was on how natural processes corrected base pair mismatches in DNA. He spent a decade laboriously mapping out how each enzyme interacted with this process — an important thing to know, since defects in the repair system can cause cells to turn cancerous.

Endocannabinoids Contribute To Runner's High 79

MTorrice writes: After a nice long bout of aerobic exercise, some people experience what's known as a "runner's high" — a feeling of euphoria coupled with reduced anxiety and a lessened ability to feel pain. For decades, scientists have associated this phenomenon with an increased level in the blood of beta-endorphins, which are opioid peptides thought to elevate mood. Now, German researchers have shown the brain's endocannabinoid system—the same one affected by marijuana's 9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)—may also play a role in producing runner's high, at least in mice.

Researchers Create 'Habitability Index' For Exoplanets 51

hypnosec writes: The Kepler Space Telescope has allowed astronomers to detect and catalog thousands of exoplanets and exoplanet candidates. With more powerful telescopes like the James Webb Space Telescope scheduled for launch, scientists will be able to check if any of these exoplanets are habitable. But these space telescopes are expensive to create, and access time is coveted. This means simply pointing telescopes to random exoplanets isn't a practical proposition. That's why researchers have created what they call a "habitability index for transiting planets," with which astronomers will be able to prioritize the use of space telescopes for finding habitable planets. Their paper is available at the arXiv.

DARPA Jolts the Nervous System With Electricity, Lasers, Sound Waves, and Magnets 30

the_newsbeagle writes: DARPA is sinking some cash into the buzzy new research field of "electroceuticals," which involves stimulating nerves to control the activity of organs or bodily systems. The newest techniques have little in common with electroshock therapy, which sends a strong current broadly through the brain tissue; today's cutting-edge methods can target individual neurons, and turn them "on" and "off" with great precision. Under DARPA's new ElectRx program, seven research teams will explore different ways to modulate activity of the peripheral nervous system. Some will stimulate neurons directly with electricity, while others will take more roundabout routes involving light, acoustics, and magnetic fields.

Team Constructs Silicon 2-qubit Gate, Enabling Construction of Quantum Computers ( 90

monkeyzoo writes: A team at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Sydney has made a crucial advance in quantum computing. Their advance, appearing in the journal Nature (abstract), demonstrated a two-qubit logic gate — the central building block of a quantum computer — and, significantly, did it in silicon. This makes the building of a quantum computer much more feasible, since it is based on the same manufacturing technology as today's computer industry. Until now, it had not been possible to make two quantum bits 'talk' to each other — and thereby create a logic gate — using silicon. But the UNSW team — working with Professor Kohei M. Itoh of Japan's Keio University — has done just that for the first time. The result means that all of the physical building blocks for a silicon-based quantum computer have now been successfully constructed, allowing engineers to finally begin the task of designing and building a functioning quantum computer.

Neutrino 'Flip' Discovery Earns Nobel For Japanese, Canadian Researchers 58

Dave Knott writes with news that the 2015 Nobel Prize in physics has been awarded to Takaaki Kajita (of the University of Tokyo in Japan) and Arthur McDonald (of Queens University in Canada), for discovering how neutrinos switch between different "flavours." As the linked BBC article explains: In 1998, Prof Kajita's team reported that neutrinos they had caught, bouncing out of collisions in the Earth's atmosphere, had switched identity: they were a different "flavour" from what those collisions must have released. Then in 2001, the group led by Prof McDonald announced that the neutrinos they were detecting in Ontario, which started out in the Sun, had also "flipped" from their expected identity. This discovery of the particle's wobbly identity had crucial implications. It explained why neutrino detections had not matched the predicted quantities — and it meant that the baffling particles must have a mass. This contradicted the Standard Model of particle physics and changed calculations about the nature of the Universe, including its eternal expansion.

Space Travel For the 1%: Virgin Galactic's $250,000 Tickets Haunt New Mexico Town 230

The Real Dr John writes: The Guardian has an article about Virgin Galactic's proposed launch site, Spaceport America, which broke ground in southern New Mexico's high desert in 2009 with almost a quarter of a billion dollars from taxpayers, $76m of which came from the two local counties. Truth or Consequences, population 6,000 and home to the Spaceport America Visitor Center, is one of the poorest places in the state. The increased taxes, adopted across impoverished Sierra County, contributed to about $5m as of 2014. Since 2009, state school budgets have been cut and an estimated $26m in necessary repairs to the town's water system has been put on hold. There's no more money to pay for it. The average annual income of residents is just $15,000 per year, one third of residents live below the poverty line, and just 20% over the age of 25 have obtained a bachelor's degree.

Study Finds Humans Are Worse Than Radiation For Chernobyl Animals 137

derekmead writes: A study published today in Current Biology shows that wildlife in the Chernobyl exclusion zone is actually more abundant than it was before the disaster. According to the authors, led by Portsmouth University professor of environmental science Jim Smith, the recovery is due to the removal of the single biggest pressure on wildlife—humans. "The wildlife at Chernobyl is very likely better than it was before the accident, not because radiation is good for animals, but because human occupation is much worse,” Portsmouth University professor of environmental science Jim Smith says. “We were trying to emphasize that this study is a remarkable illustration of an obvious, but important message,” he said. “It is ordinary human habitation and use (farming, forestry, hunting) of land which does most ecological damage.”

DNA Vaccine Sterilizes Mice, Could Lead To One-Shot Birth Control For Cats, Dogs 148

sciencehabit writes: Animal birth control could soon be just a shot away. A new injection makes male and female mice infertile by tricking their muscles into producing hormone-blocking antibodies. If the approach works in dogs and cats, researchers say, it could be used to neuter and spay pets and to control reproduction in feral animal populations. A similar approach could one day spur the development of long-term birth control options for humans.

Review: The Martian 239

I was both pleased and disappointed, as always, when I heard that a book I enjoyed was being made into a movie. Andy Weir's The Martian was the best new book I'd read in years. It was written for nerds, by a nerd — by somebody with an obvious love for NASA, science, and spaceflight. How could it possibly be condensed into the format of a Hollywood blockbuster? Well, director Ridley Scott and screenwriter Drew Goddard figured out how. The Martian is an excellent film, well worth watching. Read on for my review (very minor spoilers only), and feel free to share your own in the comments.

B612 Foundation Loses Partnership With NASA; Asteroids Not a Significant Risk 178

StartsWithABang writes: Yes, asteroids might be humanity's undoing in the worst-case scenario. It's how the dinosaurs went down, and it could happen to us, too. The B612 foundation has been working to protect us by mapping and then learning to deflect potential threats to our planet, but their proposed mission needed $450 million, a goal they've fallen well short of. As a result, NASA has severed their partnership, which is a good thing for humanity: the risk assessment figures show that worrying about killer asteroids is largely a waste.

Majority of EU Nations Seek Opt-Out From Growing GM Crops 324

schwit1 writes: Nineteen EU member states have requested opt-outs for all or part of their territory from cultivation of a Monsanto genetically-modified crop, which is authorized to be grown in the European Union, the European Commission said on Sunday. Under a law signed in March, individual countries can seek exclusion from any approval request for genetically modified cultivation across the 28-nation EU. The law was introduced to end years of stalemate as genetically modified crops divide opinion in Europe. The requests are for opt-outs from the approval of Monsanto's GM maize MON 810, the only crop commercially cultivated in the European Union, or for pending applications, of which there are eight so far, the Commission said.

3 Scientists Share Nobel For Parastic Disease Breakthroughs 36

The Australian reports that a trio of scientists (hailing from from Japan, China, and Ireland) has been awarded this year's Nobel Prize in Medicine for their work in treating parasitic diseases. Irish scientist William Campbell (currently research fellow emeritus at New Jersey's Drew University), and Japanese biochemist Satoshi Omura, were awarded half of the monetary award for their work in defeating roundworm infections; the drug they developed as a result, Avermectin, has helped drastically lower two devastating diseases -- river blindness and lymphatic filariasis -- and has shown promise in treating other ailments as well. The other half of the prize has been awarded to Chinese researcher Youyou Tu, who discovered a novel antimalarial drug based on her research into traditional herbal medicines. (Also at The Washington Post, CNN, The New York Times, and elsewhere. The awards were live-blogged by The Guardian.)