Hub Headlines from the Johns Hopkins news network Hub Tue, 28 Jul 2015 12:59:00 -0400 Student researchers collaborate virtually with help of open-source software <p>A summer research internship for undergraduates is not only helping them learn to build new lifesaving drug molecules and create new biofuels—it's also testing the concept of a virtual research community.</p> <p>The <a href="">Johns Hopkins Institute for NanoBioTechnology</a>—with the help of a $200,000, two-year grant from the National Science Foundation—has launched a first-of-its-kind training program in which students study vaccine design, create biofuels, and build protein circuits in living cells, all with the help of specialized software that lets them collaborate from distant host university labs.</p> <p>A typical summer research program—the institute's Nanobio Research Experience for Undergraduates, for example—brings students together to one host university, where they work in different laboratories on various projects. In the new pilot training program on Computational Biomolecular, students use an open-source software called Rosetta to work together on problems in computational biology and are mentored by faculty who are part of a global collaborative team known as the Rossetta Commons. The software gives users the ability to analyze massive amounts of data to predict the structure of real and imagined proteins, enzymes, and other molecular structures.</p> <p>"Computational biologists study known macromolecules or design new ones and use computers to predict how these molecules will fold in 3D and how they might interact with cells or other molecules," says <a href="">Jeffrey Gray</a>, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at Johns Hopkins and the INBT affiliate who spearheaded the program. "For example, researchers create computational algorithms to design a new drug molecule or use the Rosetta software to predict how molecules might behave in a living organism. And because the work is done using a computer, researchers can easily collaborate at a distance."</p> <p>The students in the pilot program began their research experience with a weeklong boot camp at the University of North Carolina at the end of May. The following week, students traveled to their host universities, which include Johns Hopkins; University of California, Davis; Scripps Research Institute; Stanford University; New York University; Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute; and Vanderbilt.</p> <p>Morgan Nance, a biochemistry and molecular biology major from the University of California, Davis, is spending her summer at <a href="">JHU's Gray Lab</a>.</p> <p>"I hope to become more familiar with Rosetta to the point that I am able to utilize it in my home lab," Nance says. "I want to gain the technical skills of how to use this new software and the knowledge of how to develop it further. I hope to gain valuable research experience so that when I apply to graduate school, I'm ready to jump into action."</p> <p>Unlike experimental biology, which is performed with test tubes and Petri dishes, computational biology uses computer software. Therefore researchers in the discipline are accustomed to collaborating with people from many locations.</p> <p>"Each lab has different expertise," Gray says. "One lab might specialize in protein docking, another in RNA structure and design, another in vaccine design or protein function. When students cross train in these laboratories, they learn to recognize the common themes. Virtual collaboration also opens them up to more options to consider when they go to find a job or apply to graduate school.</p> <p>"We can ask questions with computational biology that you just can't ask with an experiment," Gray adds. "The level of detail that we can examine is completely different."</p> <p>The research internships last 10 weeks. Each week, Nance and her colleagues "meet" online via video chat to discuss current published papers in the field and to present updates from host labs. In August, Nance will reconvene with her cohort at the annual RosettaCON in Leavenworth, Washington.</p> <p>Sally O'Connor, NSF program director, spent time with the Rosetta trainees during their boot camp and described the cohort as "impressive."</p> <p>"It takes a certain type of student to be able to participate in the program, because there is computer programming involved as well as understanding of the basic science underlying the projects," O'Connor says. "If this distributed model works just as well as the traditional one, we would then be able to accept this kind of model and access the best labs in the country for doing research."</p> <p>Though Nance is on her own at Hopkins, INBT staff members have made sure that she is included in activities organized for the 13 students in the on-site REU program.</p> <p>"I have the opportunity to work under a new principal investigator and get his insight on how research is conducted," she says. "I work closely under a mentor who helps guide me on how to think up questions to answer, and [determine] how to go about answering them. And I have access to great equipment, brilliant minds, and awesome new friends."</p> Tue, 28 Jul 2015 11:15:00 -0400 Aspiring engineers learn to use their noodles at Johns Hopkins summer program <p>What's the secret to building a spaghetti bridge that supports the weight of an official Olympic metal barbell?</p> <p>Maybe it's finding the perfect combination of cylindrical noodles, woven tightly together with epoxy or resin.</p> <p>Sometimes, says competitor Sherrie Shen, it's the simplest load-bearing bridges that take home the win.</p> <p>At the 10th annual Spaghetti Bridge Competition, hosted Friday at Johns Hopkins University's Homewood campus, 41 teams of high school students tasked with testing the strength of spaghetti squared off. In the front of a crowded auditorium in Hodson Hall, students carefully piled weights on the noodle bridges as if adding to a wobbly stack of Jenga bricks. Kilogram by kilogram, the audience cheered along until the pasta snapped, flying into the shielded faces of the aspiring engineers.</p> <p>A'hunna Key-Lows, the 13th team to take the stage, added weights, starting in 1-kilogram increments, to their structure as the audience fell silent. A suspenseful game show sound bite played in the background. Fifty two pounds later, the pasta splintered in the air and the crowd cheered for the No. 1 team.</p> <p>The event caps the four-week <a href="">Engineering Innovation</a> program, which is designed to give rising high school juniors and seniors a taste of college-level engineering.</p> <p>This year's program attracted students from across the U.S. and 15 other countries—China, Canada, Brazil, Colombia, Greece, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Hong Kong, India, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Switzerland, Taiwan, and the United Arab Emirates.</p> <p>Students complete lab activities in computer engineering, chemical engineering, electrical engineering, material science, civil engineering, robotics, and mechanical engineering, all while working on the spaghetti bridges during their spare time. Shen and her team, Pasta People, built not one but three bridges in preparation for the competition.</p> <p>The students spend hours building the bridges after learning about trusses and other sturdy structures in the classroom. There are requirements, of course, and the groups are penalized if their bridges are too high or overweight.</p> <p>One of the goals of the Engineering Innovation program is to introduce participants to the possibilities of a career in engineering, math, or science. Shen, after her four weeks at Johns Hopkins, said she still aspires to be an engineer.</p> Mon, 27 Jul 2015 08:05:00 -0400 Stunning parting shot of Pluto reveals layers of atmospheric haze <p>Flowing ice and a surprising extended haze are among the newest discoveries from <a href="">NASA's <em>New Horizons</em> mission</a>, which reveal distant Pluto to be an icy world of wonders.</p> <p>"We knew that a mission to Pluto would bring some surprises, and now—10 days after <a href="">closest approach</a>—we can say that our expectation has been more than surpassed," said John Grunsfeld, NASA's associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate. "With flowing ices, exotic surface chemistry, mountain ranges, and vast haze, Pluto is showing a diversity of planetary geology that is truly thrilling."</p> <p>Just seven hours after closest approach, <em>New Horizons</em> aimed its Long Range Reconnaissance Imager back at Pluto, capturing sunlight streaming through the atmosphere and revealing hazes as high as 80 miles above Pluto's surface. A preliminary analysis of the image shows two distinct layers of haze—one about 50 miles above the surface and the other at an altitude of about 30 miles. The <a href="">full photo can be viewed at</a>.</p> <p>"My jaw was on the ground when I saw this first image of an alien atmosphere in the Kuiper Belt," said Alan Stern, principal investigator for New Horizons at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. "It reminds us that exploration brings us more than just incredible discoveries—it brings incredible beauty."</p> <p>Studying Pluto's atmosphere provides clues as to what's happening below.</p> <p>"The hazes detected in this image are a key element in creating the complex hydrocarbon compounds that give Pluto's surface its reddish hue," said Michael Summers, New Horizons co-investigator at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.</p> <p>Models suggest the hazes form when ultraviolet sunlight breaks up methane gas particles—a simple hydrocarbon in Pluto's atmosphere. The breakdown of methane triggers the buildup of more complex hydrocarbon gases, such as ethylene and acetylene, which also were discovered in Pluto's atmosphere by <em>New Horizons</em>. As these hydrocarbons fall to the lower, colder parts of the atmosphere, they condense into ice particles that create the hazes. Ultraviolent sunlight chemically converts hazes into tholins, the dark hydrocarbons that color Pluto's surface.</p> <p>Scientists previously had calculated temperatures would be too warm for hazes to form at altitudes higher than 20 miles above Pluto's surface.</p> <p>"We're going to need some new ideas to figure out what's going on," said Summers.</p> <p>The <em>New Horizons</em> mission also found in images evidence of exotic ices flowing across Pluto's surface and revealing signs of recent geologic activity, something scientists hoped to find but didn't expect.</p> <p>The new images show fascinating details within the Texas-sized plain, informally named Sputnik Planum, which lies within the western half of Pluto's heart-shaped feature, known as Tombaugh Regio. There, a sheet of ice clearly appears to have flowed—and may still be flowing—in a manner similar to glaciers on Earth.</p> <p>"We've only seen surfaces like this on active worlds like Earth and Mars," said mission co-investigator John Spencer of Southwest Research Institute. "I'm really smiling."</p> <p>Additionally, new compositional data from <em>New Horizons</em> indicate the center of Sputnik Planum is rich in nitrogen, carbon monoxide, and methane ices.</p> <p>"At Pluto's temperatures of minus-390 degrees Fahrenheit, these ices can flow like a glacier," said Bill McKinnon, deputy leader of the New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging team at Washington University in St. Louis. "In the southernmost region of the heart, adjacent to the dark equatorial region, it appears that ancient, heavily-cratered terrain has been invaded by much newer icy deposits."</p> <p>The unmanned <em>New Horizons</em> spacecraft will continue to send data stored in its onboard recorders back to Earth through late 2016. The spacecraft currently is 7.6 million miles beyond Pluto, healthy, and flying deeper into the Kuiper Belt.</p> <p>The <a href="">Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory</a> designed, built, and operates the <em>New Horizons</em> spacecraft, and manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. Southwest Research Insititute, based in San Antonio, leads the science team, payload operations, and encounter science planning. <em>New Horizons</em> is part of the New Frontiers Program managed by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.</p> Thu, 23 Jul 2015 07:57:00 -0400 New Horizons discovers second, smaller mountain range in Pluto's 'heart' <p>Pluto's icy mountains have company. <a href="">NASA's <em>New Horizons</em> mission</a> has discovered a new, apparently less lofty mountain range on the lower-left edge of Pluto's best known feature, the bright, heart-shaped region named Tombaugh Region.</p> <p>These newly discovered frozen peaks are estimated to be one-half mile to one mile high, about the same height as the Appalachian Mountains in the United States. The <a href="">Norgay Mountains discovered by <em>New Horizons</em> on July 15</a> more closely approximate the height of the taller Rocky Mountains in the western U.S.</p> <p>The new range is just west of <a href="">the region within Pluto's heart called Sputnik Plain</a> and some 68 miles northwest of the Norgay Mountains. This newest image further illustrates the remarkably well-defined topography along the western edge of Tombaugh Region.</p> <p>"There is a pronounced difference in texture between the younger, frozen plains to the east and the dark, heavily-cratered terrain to the west," said Jeff Moore, leader of the <em>New Horizons</em> Geology, Geophysics, and Imaging Team at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California. "There's a complex interaction going on between the bright and the dark materials that we're still trying to understand."</p> <p>While Sputnik Plain is believed to be relatively young in geological terms—perhaps less than 100 million years old—the darker region probably dates back billions of years. Moore notes that the bright, sediment-like material appears to be filling in old craters.</p> <p>This image was acquired by <em>New Horizons</em>' Long Range Reconnaissance Imager on July 14 from a distance of 48,000 miles and sent back to Earth on July 20. Features as small as a half-mile across are visible. The names of features on Pluto have all been given on an informal basis by the <em>New Horizons</em> team.</p> <p><em>New Horizons</em> is part of NASA's New Frontiers Program, managed by the agency's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory designed, built, and operates the <em>New Horizons</em> spacecraft and manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. Southwest Research Institute leads the mission, science team, payload operations, and encounter science planning.</p> Mon, 20 Jul 2015 15:49:00 -0400 Johns Hopkins to train new cybersecurity experts with help of $2.2M grant <p>At a time when cybersecurity attacks are more frequent and damaging, the National Science Foundation has awarded $2.2 million to the Johns Hopkins University <a href="">Information Security Institute</a> to support a graduate-level degree program that teaches students how to recognize and protect against digital threats.</p> <p>The grant will be allocated over five years as part of the Federal CyberCorps: Scholarship for Service Program. The program provides students with scholarships covering tuition, fees, and required books, as well as a stipend. In return, the program requires that after graduation, the students work for a federal, state, local, or tribal government in a job related to computer security for a period equal to the duration of their education scholarship, which includes a summer internship.</p> <p>At Johns Hopkins, the five-year NSF grant is expected to support three or four students annually as they complete the Information Security Institute's three-semester <a href="">Master of Science in Security Informatics</a> (MSSI) degree program. This program offers students an option to simultaneously earn a dual degree in computer science, applied math and statistics, health sciences or national security studies.</p> <p>The first scholarships will be available for students beginning their MSSI degree studies in the spring 2016 semester.</p> <p>The curriculum of the of the security informatics degree program is based on practical and up-to-date knowledge in the field. The classes expose students to practical experience exercises and teach them other valuable skills, such as project management. The goal is to make sure that when the students graduate, they are well prepared to take on a variety of cybersecurity-related responsibilities and challenges.</p> <p>Anton Dahbura, executive director of the university's Information Security Institute and principal investigator for the NSF grant, said that cybersecurity is arguably one of the most important challenges confronting society in the information age.</p> <p>"No one is exempt from malicious cyber acts that prey upon imperfect technologies," he said. "This NSF grant is significant because the funds will support U.S. students as they complete our master's program here and prepare them to pursue their careers in cybersecurity, starting with service to a government entity."</p> <p>Dahbura added that the grant will help Johns Hopkins participate in an innovative and efficient nationwide education system aimed at creating an unrivaled cybersecurity workforce. Developing well-trained U.S. guardians of the digital world, Dahbura said, is critical to national security, continued economic growth, and future technological innovation in secure cyberspace.</p> Fri, 17 Jul 2015 14:57:00 -0400 NASA's New Horizons finds vast, frozen plain in the heart of Pluto's 'heart' <p>In the latest data from <a href="">NASA's <em>New Horizons</em> spacecraft</a>, a new close-up image of Pluto reveals a vast, craterless plain that appears to be no more than 100 million years old, and is possibly still being shaped by geologic processes. This frozen region is north of Pluto's icy mountains, in the center-left of the heart feature, informally named "Tombaugh Regio" (Tombaugh Region) after Clyde Tombaugh, who discovered Pluto in 1930.</p> <p>"This terrain is not easy to explain," said Jeff Moore, leader of the New Horizons Geology, Geophysics, and Imaging Team at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California. "The discovery of vast, craterless, very young plains on Pluto exceeds all pre-flyby expectations."</p> <p>This fascinating icy plains region—resembling frozen mud cracks on Earth—has been informally named "Sputnik Planum" (Sputnik Plain) after the Earth's first artificial satellite. It has a broken surface of irregularly-shaped segments, roughly 12 miles across, bordered by what appear to be shallow troughs. Some of these troughs have darker material within them, while others are traced by clumps of hills that appear to rise above the surrounding terrain. Elsewhere, the surface appears to be etched by fields of small pits that may have formed by a process called sublimation, in which ice turns directly from solid to gas, just as dry ice does on Earth.</p> <p>Scientists have two working theories as to how these segments were formed. The irregular shapes may be the result of the contraction of surface materials, similar to what happens when mud dries. Alternatively, they may be a product of convection, similar to wax rising in a lava lamp. On Pluto, convection would occur within a surface layer of frozen carbon monoxide, methane, and nitrogen, driven by the scant warmth of Pluto's interior.</p> <p>Pluto's icy plain also displays dark streaks that are a few miles long. These streaks appear to be aligned in the same direction and may have been produced by winds blowing across the frozen surface.</p> <p>The "heart of the heart" image was taken Tuesday when <em>New Horizons</em> was 48,000 miles from Pluto and shows features as small as one-half mile across. Mission scientists will learn more about these mysterious terrains from higher-resolution and stereo images that <em>New Horizons</em> will pull from its digital recorders and send back to Earth during the next year.</p> <p>The <em>New Horizons</em> Atmospheres team observed Pluto's atmosphere as far as 1,000 miles above the surface, demonstrating that Pluto's nitrogen-rich atmosphere is quite extended. This is the first observation of Pluto's atmosphere at altitudes higher than 170 miles above the surface.</p> <p>The <em>New Horizons</em> Particles and Plasma team has discovered a region of cold, dense ionized gas tens of thousands of miles beyond Pluto—the planet's atmosphere being stripped away by the solar wind and lost to space.</p> <p>"With the flyby in the rearview mirror, a decade-long journey to Pluto is over, but the science payoff is only beginning," said Jim Green, director of Planetary Science at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "Data from <em>New Horizons</em> will continue to fuel discovery for years to come."</p> <p>Alan Stern, <em>New Horizons</em> principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, added: "We've only scratched the surface of our Pluto exploration, but it already seems clear to me that in the initial reconnaissance of the solar system, the best was saved for last."</p> <p><em>New Horizons</em> is part of NASA's New Frontiers Program, managed by the agency's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory designed, built, and operates the <em>New Horizons</em> spacecraft and manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. Southwest Research Institute leads the mission, science team, payload operations, and encounter science planning.</p> Fri, 17 Jul 2015 11:02:00 -0400 How exactly does New Horizons send all that data back from Pluto? <p>NASA's <em>New Horizons</em> spacecraft has zipped by Pluto and continues on its voyage beyond our solar system and deeper into the Kuiper Belt. By now, we've all seen the stunning high-resolution images of the dwarf planet's icy surface captured by the craft's Long Range Reconnaissance Imager, or LORRI.</p> <p>LORRI, however, is just one of seven instruments that make up <em>New Horizons</em>' science payload, which collected a treasure trove of data during the flyby that brought the craft within 7,800 miles of Pluto. In some sense, the surface images are just an appetizer for a full course of scientific data headed our way.</p> <p><em>New Horizons</em>' instruments will tell us more about the composition and structure of Pluto's dynamic atmosphere, the geology of the planet's surface, interactions between Pluto and the solar winds, the materials that escape the planet's atmosphere, and dust grains produced by collisions of asteroids and other Kuiper Belt objects.</p> <p>New Horizons collected so much data—stored on a pair of 32-Gbit hard drives—that it will take 16 months to send it all back to Earth. And you thought the streaming speed on that <em>True Detective</em> episode was slow.</p> <p>But just how does all the information get back to us, and why will it take so long?</p> <p>For one, consider that the information has to travel more than three billion miles. Even moving at the speed of light, that's a 4.5-hour trip for a single image.</p> <p>Then there's the data rate challenge, says the Applied Physics Laboratory's Chris DeBoy, the lead RF (wireless and high-frequency signals) communications engineer for the <em>New Horizons</em> mission to Pluto. As an instrument makes an observation, data is transferred to a solid-state recorder—similar to a flash memory card for a digital camera—where it's compressed, reformatted, and transmitted to Earth through the spacecraft's radio telecommunications system, a 2.1-meter high-gain antenna. The antenna, however, has an output power of 12 watts and receives a signal from Earth that is approximately a millionth of a billionth of a watt. Taking into account the distance and low-powered signal, the <em>New Horizons</em> "downlink" rate is considerably low, especially when compared to rates now common for high-speed Internet, which can move information faster than 100 Mbps. <em>New Horizons</em> currently can only move data at a rate of 1 to 2 Kbps.</p> <p>"To cover that vast distance severely limits the data rate," DeBoy says.</p> <p>The <em>New Horizons</em> spacecraft, just like Earth-bound computers, speaks in a stream of cryptic-looking 1s and 0s that traverse space via these low-frequency radio waves. The signal is so weak that large antenna dishes on Earth, part of NASA's Deep Space Network, are required to receive the faint radio waves.</p> <p>"The encoded 1s and 0s that travel billions of miles are so small that the signal spreads, and it's a whisper by the time it gets back to Earth," DeBoy says. "But the DSN system can tease out that whisper, so we can receive the information on the ground."</p> <p>Data received on Earth through the Deep Space Network is sent to the <em>New Horizons</em> Mission Operations Center at APL, where data are "unpacked" and stored. The data is cleaned up—bad data is removed—and put into large daily archive files. At this point, the data is intact, but it is in a very raw form. The Science Operations Center at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, sorts this out and produces usable science data. The packets of bits need to be decoded and pieced together to make each data set or image.</p> <p>DeBoy says that the images already received from <em>New Horizons</em> were prioritized and encoded in special transmission turbo code. Likewise, the remaining data sets will be prioritized and sent piecemeal, not in one huge data dump. New data will arrive continuously, DeBoy says, and slowly be unveiled over the next 16 months.</p> <p>It's an exciting time for the mission, DeBoy says, even though <em>New Horizons</em> has already passed Pluto and made history.</p> <p>"It was a great moment when we saw the signal come back and knew that the spacecraft had survived," he says. "Now it's our job to get the data that will be trickling back to us. There are lots of new discoveries to come."</p> <p><em>An earlier version of this article misstated the size of the hard drives on which</em> New Horizons <em>stores data.</em></p> Wed, 15 Jul 2015 20:07:00 -0400 Daniels praises New Horizons team for 'unimaginable' achievement of reaching Pluto <p>A day after <em>New Horizons</em> completed its Pluto flyby on Tuesday, Johns Hopkins University President <a href="">Ronald J. Daniels</a> sent the following message to the university community lauding the achievement and the work of those at the <a href="">Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory</a> who designed, built, and operated the spacecraft on its remarkable journey:</p> <blockquote> <p>Dear Members of the Johns Hopkins Community,</p> <p>Yesterday, our university made history. I had the great privilege of being at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory with students, alumni, trustees, APL staff and their families, and our NASA colleagues as we celebrated the unimaginable. Thanks to the ingenuity and leadership of our colleagues at APL, humankind has now observed Pluto up close. After nearly 15 years of exhaustive planning and preparation, the <em>New Horizons</em> spacecraft became the first-ever space mission to explore a world so far from Earth. The excitement in the NASA control room at APL when we heard that <a href=""><em>New Horizons</em> had safely passed Pluto</a> was palpable.</p> <p>From our founding over 139 years ago, Johns Hopkins' students and faculty have pursued knowledge—in the classroom, in the laboratory, and in the farthest reaches of space—with a restless curiosity, intellectual courage, and undaunted determination. Yesterday's achievement embodies those values to the fullest, opening up a vast new arena for scientific discovery beyond the farthest reaches of our own solar system. The <a href="">image captured this evening</a> attests to the wealth of data and information now available to our scientists.</p> <p>At the end of <em>New Horizons</em>' 3-billion-mile voyage, the spacecraft hit the equivalent of a circle about 120 miles in diameter. Every instrument aboard <em>New Horizons</em> worked to near perfection. Even at the last minute a pellet the size of a grain of sand could have ended the nine-year journey. The sheer achievement of such pinpoint accuracy is simply stunning.</p> <p>I am incredibly proud of Ralph Semmel's leadership and of Glen Fountain's entire team at APL. Nine years after sending <em>New Horizons</em> into orbit, APL's engineers, scientists, and administrators were able to bask in the deserved admiration of the world. It was a moment that I will long remember and a remarkable exemplar of Johns Hopkins' ability to deliver on its grandest aspirations.</p> <p>Please join me in congratulating our colleagues at APL for this great success and for inspiring our community and the world.</p> <p>Sincerely,</p> <p>Ronald J. Daniels</p> </blockquote> Wed, 15 Jul 2015 15:49:00 -0400 Latest Pluto photos from New Horizons give close-up view of icy mountains <p>New close-up images of a region near Pluto's equator reveal a giant surprise: a range of youthful mountains rising as high as 11,000 feet (3,500 meters) above the surface of the icy body (Mount Everest, by comparison, measures about 29,000 feet).</p> <p>The mountains likely formed no more than 100 million years ago—mere youngsters relative to the 4.56-billion-year age of the solar system—and may still be in the process of building, says Jeff Moore of the <em>New Horizons</em> Geology, Geophysics, and Imaging team. That suggests the close-up region, which covers less than one percent of Pluto's surface, may still be geologically active today.</p> <p>Moore and his colleagues base the youthful age estimate on the lack of craters in this scene. Like the rest of Pluto, this region would presumably have been pummeled by space debris for billions of years and would have once been heavily cratered—unless recent activity had given the region a facelift, erasing those pockmarks.</p> <p>"This is one of the youngest surfaces we've ever seen in the solar system," says Moore.</p> <p>Unlike the icy moons of giant planets, Pluto cannot be heated by gravitational interactions with a much larger planetary body. Some other process must be generating the mountainous landscape.</p> <p>"This may cause us to rethink what powers geological activity on many other icy worlds," says Geology, Geophysics, and Imaging deputy team leader John Spencer of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado.</p> <p>The mountains are probably composed of Pluto's water-ice "bedrock."</p> <p>Although methane and nitrogen ice covers much of the surface of Pluto, these materials are not strong enough to build the mountains. Instead, a stiffer material, most likely water-ice, created the peaks.</p> <p>"At Pluto's temperatures, water-ice behaves more like rock," said deputy team lead Bill McKinnon of Washington University in St. Louis.</p> <p>The close-up image was taken about 90 minutes before <em>New Horizons</em> closest approach to Pluto, when the craft was 478,000 miles from the surface of the planet. The image easily resolves structures smaller than a mile across.</p> Wed, 15 Jul 2015 08:39:00 -0400 Still going: New Horizons phones home following historic Pluto flyby <p>The call everyone was waiting for is in. <a href="">NASA's <em>New Horizons</em> spacecraft</a> phoned home just before 9 p.m. EDT Tuesday to tell the mission team and the world it had accomplished its historic flyby of Pluto.</p> <p>"I know today we've inspired a whole new generation of explorers with this great success, and we look forward to the discoveries yet to come," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said. "This is a historic win for science and for exploration. We've truly once again raised the bar of human potential."</p> <p>The preprogrammed "phone call"—a 15-minute series of status messages beamed back to mission operations at the <a href="">Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory</a> through NASA's Deep Space Network—ended a very suspenseful 21-hour waiting period. <em>New Horizons</em> had been instructed to spend the day gathering the maximum amount of data, and not communicating with Earth until it was beyond the Pluto system.</p> <p>"With the successful flyby of Pluto we are celebrating the capstone event in a golden age of planetary exploration," said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. "While this historic event is still unfolding—with the most exciting Pluto science still ahead of us—a new era of solar system exploration is just beginning. NASA missions will unravel the mysteries of Mars, Jupiter, Europa and worlds around other suns in the coming years."</p> <p>Pluto is the first Kuiper Belt object visited by a mission from Earth. <em>New Horizons</em> will continue on its adventure deeper into the Kuiper Belt, where thousands of objects hold frozen clues as to how the solar system formed.</p> <p>"Following in the footsteps of planetary exploration missions such as Mariner, Pioneer, and Voyager, <em>New Horizons</em> has triumphed at Pluto," said <em>New Horizons</em> principal investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. "The New Horizons flyby completes the first era of planetary reconnaissance, a half-century-long endeavor that will forever be a legacy of our time."</p> <p><em>New Horizons</em> is collecting so much data it will take 16 months to send it all back to Earth.</p> <p>"On behalf of everyone at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, I want to congratulate the <em>New Horizons</em> team for the dedication, skill, creativity, and determination they demonstrated to reach this historic milestone," APL Director Ralph Semmel said. "We are proud to be a part of a truly amazing team of scientists, engineers, and mission operations experts from across our nation who worked tirelessly to ensure the success of this mission."</p> <p>APL designed, built, and operates the <em>New Horizons</em> spacecraft and manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. Southwest Research Institute leads the mission, science team, payload operation,s and encounter science planning. <em>New Horizons</em> is part of NASA's New Frontiers Program, managed by the agency's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.</p> Tue, 14 Jul 2015 11:05:00 -0400 Space odyssey: New Horizons completes historic, three-billion-mile journey to Pluto <p>NASA's <a href=""><em>New Horizons</em> spacecraft</a> has passed Pluto.</p> <p>After a decade-long journey through our solar system, <em>New Horizons</em> made its closest approach to Pluto on Tuesday morning at approximately 7:49 a.m. EDT, about 7,750 miles above the surface—roughly the same distance from New York to Mumbai, India—making it the first-ever space mission to explore a world so far from Earth.</p> <p>"I'm delighted at this latest accomplishment by NASA, another first that demonstrates once again how the United States leads the world in space," said John Holdren, assistant to the President for Science and Technology and director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. "<em>New Horizons</em> is the latest in a long line of scientific accomplishments at NASA, including multiple missions orbiting and exploring the surface of Mars in advance of human visits still to come; the remarkable Kepler mission to identify Earth-like planets around stars other than our own; and the DSCOVR satellite that soon will be beaming back images of the whole Earth in near real-time from a vantage point a million miles away. As <em>New Horizons</em> completes its flyby of Pluto and continues deeper into the Kuiper Belt, NASA's multifaceted journey of discovery continues."</p> <p>Added NASA Administrator Charles Bolden: "The exploration of Pluto and its moons by <em>New Horizons</em> represents the capstone event to 50 years of planetary exploration by NASA and the United States. Once again we have achieved a historic first. The United States is the first nation to reach Pluto, and with this mission has completed the initial survey of our solar system, a remarkable accomplishment that no other nation can match."</p> <p>Per the plan, the spacecraft currently is in data-gathering mode and not in contact with flight controllers at the <a href="">Johns Hopkins University Applied Physical Laboratory</a>. Scientists are waiting to find out whether New Horizons "phones home," transmitting to Earth a series of status updates that indicate the spacecraft survived the flyby and is in good health. The call is expected shortly after 9 p.m. tonight. (<strong>Update:</strong> <em>New Horizons</em> <a href="">phoned home safely</a>, as expected)</p> <p>The Pluto story began only a generation ago when young Clyde Tombaugh was tasked to look for Planet X, theorized to exist beyond the orbit of Neptune. He discovered a faint point of light that we now see as a complex and fascinating world.</p> <p>"Pluto was discovered just 85 years ago by a farmer's son from Kansas, inspired by a visionary from Boston, using a telescope in Flagstaff, Arizona," said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. "Today, science takes a great leap observing the Pluto system up close and flying into a new frontier that will help us better understand the origins of the solar system."</p> <p><em>New Horizons</em>' flyby of the dwarf planet and its five known moons is providing an up-close introduction to the solar system's Kuiper Belt, an outer region populated by icy objects ranging in size from boulders to dwarf planets. Kuiper Belt objects, such as Pluto, preserve evidence about the early formation of the solar system.</p> <p><em>New Horizons</em> principal investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, says the mission now is writing the textbook on Pluto.</p> <p>"The <em>New Horizons</em> team is proud to have accomplished the first exploration of the Pluto system," Stern said. "This mission has inspired people across the world with the excitement of exploration and what humankind can achieve."</p> <blockquote class="twitter-tweet" lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">YES! After over 9 years &amp; 3+ billion miles, <a href="">@NASANewHorizons</a> <a href="">#PlutoFlyby</a> was at 7:49am ET. <a href=""></a> <a href=""></a></p>— NASA (@NASA) <a href="">July 14, 2015</a></blockquote> <script async src="//" charset="utf-8"></script> <p><em>New Horizons</em>' almost 10-year, three-billion-mile journey to closest approach at Pluto took about one minute less than predicted when the craft was launched in January 2006. The spacecraft threaded the needle through a 36-by-57 mile window in space—the equivalent of a commercial airliner arriving no more off target than the width of a tennis ball.</p> <p>Because <em>New Horizons</em> is the fastest spacecraft ever launched, hurtling through the Pluto system at more than 30,000 mph, a collision with a particle as small as a grain of rice could incapacitate the spacecraft. Once it reestablishes contact tonight, it will take 16 months for <em>New Horizons</em> to send its cache of data—10 years' worth—back to Earth.</p> <p><em>New Horizons</em> is the latest in a long line of scientific accomplishments at NASA, including <a href="">multiple rovers exploring the surface of Mars</a>, the <a href="">Cassini spacecraft</a> that has revolutionized our understanding of Saturn, and the <a href="">Hubble Space Telescope</a>, which recently celebrated its 25th anniversary. All of this scientific research and discovery is helping to inform the agency's plan to send American astronauts to Mars in the 2030's.</p> <p>"After nearly 15 years of planning, building, and flying the <em>New Horizons</em> spacecraft across the solar system, we've reached our goal," said project manager Glen Fountain at APL. "The bounty of what we've collected is about to unfold."</p> <p>APL designed, built, and operates the <em>New Horizons</em> spacecraft and manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. Southwest Research Institute leads the mission, science team, payload operations, and encounter science planning. <em>New Horizons</em> is part of NASA's New Frontiers Program, managed by the agency's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.</p> <blockquote class="twitter-tweet" lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">So proud of the brilliant men and women of <a href="">@JHUAPL</a>, <a href="">@NASA</a> and <a href="">@SWRI</a> on this historic day! Breaking records, bringing us science!</p>— Johns Hopkins (@JohnsHopkins) <a href="">July 14, 2015</a></blockquote> <script async src="//" charset="utf-8"></script> Tue, 14 Jul 2015 10:00:00 -0400 For one-time Hopkins researchers, accidental discovery led to Nobel Prize-winning breakthrough <p>Neurophysiologists Torsten Wiesel and David Hubel, whose early research involved cats staring at black dots on a screen, are responsible for major progress in our understanding of the brain, for significant advances in the treatment of childhood cataracts, and for informing current research to enable computers to process images more like the human mind.</p> <p>But their extraordinary, federally funded research really took off with a simple, fortuitous accident with the kittens in their lab: somebody pushed a glass slide too far on an overhead projector.</p> <p>For their decades of research and its humble, serendipitous beginnings, Wiesel and the late Hubel have been selected as the second winners of the 2015 Golden Goose Award, the award's founders announced today. The <a href="">Golden Goose Award</a> honors researchers whose federally funded work may have seemed odd or obscure when it was first conducted but has resulted in significant benefits to society.</p> <p>"Thanks to two scientists, federal funding, and a mistake in the lab, we have new discoveries about the human brain and how to improve eyesight in children," said Rep. Jim Cooper (D-TN), whose idea it was to create the Golden Goose Award. "Thank goodness for serendipity."</p> <p>Cooper first had the idea for the Golden Goose Award when the late Sen. William Proxmire (D-WI) was issuing the Golden Fleece Award to target wasteful federal spending and often targeted peer-reviewed science because it sounded odd. Rep. Cooper believed such an award was needed to counter the false impression that odd-sounding research was not useful.</p> <p>In the 1950s and '60s, the National Institutes of Health and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research supported the work of Hubel and Wiesel, who were studying how the visual centers in cats and monkeys process simple stimuli. Across a 20-year collaboration, beginning at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and continuing at Harvard Medical School, the pair would go on to make extraordinary discoveries that eventually earned them a Nobel Prize.</p> <p>The researchers had begun with what was known: light stimulates light-sensing receptor cells in the retina of the eye, and different receptor cells respond to stimuli in different parts of the retina's visual field. But Hubel and Weisel were studying nerve cells, or neurons, in higher-functioning areas of the brain not previously studied, which they found frustratingly unresponsive to their simple stimuli—small spots of light or a black dot on a clear glass slide projected onto a screen. Then, as the cats watched, one of the researchers accidentally moved the glass slide a little too far, bringing its faint edge into view. And suddenly those same neurons began firing like mad!</p> <p>Over the course of the next several months, Hubel and Wiesel made the first crucial steps forward in our understanding of visual processing. They found that particular neurons in the visual cortexes of cats and monkeys—the areas in their brains responsible for processing visual information—didn't respond to simple points of light, but rather to lines, and in particular, lines and contours with specific orientations. Some neurons responded to horizontal lines, others to vertical, and still others to orientations in between. In addition, they found neurons responding to signals from both eyes, but usually one or the other would dominate.</p> <p>Over subsequent years, Hubel and Wiesel refined their understanding, mapping the visual centers of their feline and primate subjects with increasing precision. They found the visual cortex consisted of narrow columns of cells organized by eye preference and response to orientation, which they termed "ocular dominance columns" and "orientation columns." Combined they formed an elegantly organized functional map of neurons that could process the complex input arriving from both of the animal's eyes.</p> <p>As they were adjusting their equipment, a single line moved across the screen at a particular angle—and that caused one cat's neuron to fire. The scientists proceeded to study that single neuron for nine consecutive hours. That work led to a groundbreaking 1959 study that ultimately led to their winning the 1981 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine, which they shared with CalTech's Roger Sperry. The Nobel committee singled out their research for solving "one of the most well-guarded secrets of the brain: the way by which its cells decode the message which the brain receives from the eye."</p> <p>Hubel—who died on Sept. 22, 2013, in Lincoln, Mass., of kidney failure at 87—graduated from the McGill University School of Medicine in 1951 and came to Hopkins in 1954 after his internship and residency. He intended to study neurology but suddenly found himself drafted into the U.S. Army as a physician, assigned to the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, Neuropsychiatry Division. There he did his first scientific research, delving into the spontaneous firing of single cortical cells in sleeping and waking cats.</p> <p>He returned to Hopkins to continue his research with Vernon B. Mountcastle, already recognized as the father of neuroscience. But Mountcastle's laboratory was undergoing a lengthy renovation, so Hubel accepted an invitation from Stephen W. Kuffler to collaborate with newly arrived, Swedish-born Wiesel at the Wilmer Eye Institute. What began as a six-month research partnership lasted for the next quarter century—and was transplanted to Harvard when Kuffler transferred all nine members of his laboratory (and their families) to Massachusetts in 1959. Soon after moving from Johns Hopkins to Harvard, with their newfound understanding of the brain's organizational structure in hand, Hubel and Wiesel sought to address a perennial question in biology: nature or nurture?</p> <p>Hubel and Wiesel began by studying the brains of newborn animals with no visual experience. They found that their feline and primate subjects were born with that elegant functional map already in place in their visual cortices. They found neurons that would respond only to oriented stimuli and that responded to stimulation of both eyes. They concluded that nature provides the neural connections necessary for these two basic response properties.</p> <p>What then is the role of nurture for the normal development of the brain? It was known from medical clinics that children born with cataracts suffer from severe visual deficits even after their opaque lens is removed a few years after birth. With the physical blockage gone, why would this be the case? Hubel and Wiesel had shown that the necessary neural connections should be present at birth.</p> <p>The researchers addressed this question by studying the impact of raising kittens and monkeys from birth with one eye covered and the other left open. They found that the animal behaved as if it was blind in the previously covered eye, just like in a child after cataract surgery. The cause of this loss of vision turned out to be that neurons in the visual cortex no longer responded to stimulation of the deprived eye but only vigorously to the normal eye. The elegant patterns of ocular dominance the researchers had seen in healthy animals disappeared, with the one dominant eye taking over almost the entire visual cortex. Over a series of experiments, they demonstrated that the brain could literally wire or rewire itself in response to external input (or lack thereof)—a phenomenon known as neuroplasticity—and that this ability seemed to fade with age.</p> <p>Almost immediately, this realization of the importance of early stimulation to the wiring of the visual cortex translated from the lab to the clinic, where doctors were working to treat children born with cataracts and other eye impairments. With Hubel and Wiesel's new understanding, doctors began treating children as early as possible, with much better outcomes.</p> <p>Hubel and Wiesel were pioneers of the visual system, exploring the physiology behind visual perception in animals, thereby teaching us much about how our own minds work. This is critical for today's computing technology. For some tasks, like computing and factoring large numbers, silicon has our "wetware" beat handily, but for the complex tasks like visual processing, machines are only beginning to catch up to the human brain. This is no small matter; teaching computers how our minds work is big business. The "machine vision" market is projected to grow to tens of billions of dollars in the next few years. Hubel and Wiesel's work is extremely important to this burgeoning field.</p> <p>From a slip of the hand while cats watched images on a screen have come better treatments for childhood vision disorders and teaching computers how to process images—a powerful example of how science can advance society in the most unexpected ways.</p> <p>Earlier this year, the Golden Goose Award founders announced that <a href="">Walter Mischel, Yuichi Shoda, and Philip Peake would receive the award for their creation and development of the Marshmallow Test</a>. A third set of honorees will be announced in September. The awardees will receive their honors on Sept. 17 at the fourth annual Golden Goose Awards ceremony, which will take place in the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress, in Washington, DC.</p> Tue, 14 Jul 2015 07:55:00 -0400 Pluto photos: Our solar system's most distant planet, as seen from NASA's New Horizons <p>After more than nine years and three billion miles, <a href="">NASA's <em>New Horizons</em> spacecraft</a> whizzed past Pluto this morning, making its closest approach to the distant dwarf planet at 7:49 a.m. EDT. The images and data captured along the way have given scientists new insights into the outermost planet in our solar system and its largest moon, Charon.</p> <p><em>New Horizons</em> passed Pluto at 30,800 miles per hour with its suite of seven science instruments busily gathering data. The mission completes the initial reconnaissance of the solar system with the first-ever look at the icy dwarf planet.</p> <p>The video below captures the historic moment as it happened at JHU's Applied Physics Laboratory.</p> <blockquote class="twitter-tweet" lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">The moment of <a href="">#PlutoFlyBy</a> ! <a href=""></a></p>— Scott Dance (@ssdance) <a href="">July 14, 2015</a></blockquote> <script async src="//" charset="utf-8"></script> Mon, 13 Jul 2015 13:43:00 -0400 How big is Pluto? Turns out it's bigger than scientists thought <p>NASA's <a href=""><em>New Horizons</em> mission</a> has answered one of the most basic questions about Pluto—how big is it?</p> <p>Mission scientists have found Pluto to be 1,473 miles in diameter, somewhat larger than many prior estimates. Images acquired with the spacecraft's Long Range Reconnaissance Imager, or LORRI, were used to make this determination, confirming what was already suspected: Pluto is larger than all other known solar system objects beyond the orbit of Neptune.</p> <p>"The size of Pluto has been debated since its discovery in 1930," said mission scientist Bill McKinnon of Washington University in St. Louis. "We are excited to finally lay this question to rest."</p> <p>Pluto's newly estimated size means that its density is slightly lower than previously thought, and the fraction of ice in its interior is slightly higher. Also, the lowest layer of Pluto's atmosphere, called the troposphere, is shallower than previously believed.</p> <p>Measuring Pluto's size has been a decades-long challenge due to complicating factors from its atmosphere. Its largest moon, Charon, lacks a substantial atmosphere, and its diameter was easier to determine using ground-based telescopes. <em>New Horizons</em> observations of Charon confirm previous estimates of 751 miles across, about half the size of Pluto.</p> <p>By comparison, Earth has a diameter of 7,918 miles, making it more than five times the size of Pluto. Jupiter is by far the solar system's largest planet with a diameter of 86,881 miles.</p> <blockquote class="twitter-tweet" lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr"><a href="">#PlutoFacts</a>: Pluto would fit comfortably between New York &amp; Dallas. Between Rome &amp; Moscow. Between Perth &amp; Melbourne.</p>— Neil deGrasse Tyson (@neiltyson) <a href="">July 12, 2015</a></blockquote> <script async src="//" charset="utf-8"></script> <p>LORRI has also zoomed in on two of Pluto's smaller moons, Nix and Hydra.</p> <p>"We knew from the time we designed our flyby that we would only be able to study the small moons in detail for just a few days before closest approach," said principal investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. "Now, deep inside Pluto's sphere of influence, that time has come."</p> <p>Nix and Hydra were discovered using the Hubble Space Telescope in 2005. Even to Hubble, they appeared as points of light, and that's how they looked to New Horizons until the final week of its approach to Pluto. Now, the latest LORRI images show the two diminutive satellites not as pinpoints, but as moons seen well enough to measure their sizes. Nix is estimated to be about 20 miles across, while Hydra is roughly 30 miles across. These sizes lead mission scientists to conclude that their surfaces are quite bright, possibly due to the presence of ice.</p> <p>What about Pluto's two smallest moons, Kerberos and Styx? Smaller and fainter than Nix and Hydra, they are harder to measure. Mission scientists should be able to determine their sizes with observations New Horizons will make during the flyby and will transmit to Earth at a later date.</p> Mon, 13 Jul 2015 08:29:00 -0400 Cliffs, craters, mysterious dark areas: New photos of Pluto from New Horizons reveal planet's geology <p>It began as a point of light. Then, it evolved into a fuzzy orb. Now, in its latest portrait from <a href="">NASA's <em>New Horizons</em> spacecraft</a>, Pluto is being revealed as an intriguing new world with distinct surface features, including an immense dark band known as the "whale."</p> <p>As the unmanned <em>New Horizons</em> spacecraft speeds closer to its historic July 14 Pluto flyby, it's continuing to multi-task, producing images of an icy world that's growing more fascinating and complex every day.</p> <p>On Saturday, <em>New Horizons</em> <a href="">captured this image</a>, which suggests some new features that are of keen interest to the Geology, Geophysics and Imaging team now assembled at the <a href="">Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab</a>. For the first time on Pluto, this view reveals linear features that may be cliffs, as well as a circular feature that could be an impact crater. Just starting to rotate into view on the left side of the image is <a href="">the bright heart-shaped feature</a> that will be seen in more detail during <em>New Horizons</em>' closest approach.</p> <p>In an earlier image of Pluto from <em>New Horizons</em>, taken on Thursday from 3.3 million miles away, the dwarf planet begins to reveal the first signs of discrete geologic features. <a href="">This image</a> views the side of Pluto that always faces its largest moon, Charon, and includes the so-called "tail" of the dark whale-shaped feature along its equator.</p> <p>"We're close enough now that we're just starting to see Pluto's geology," said <em>New Horizons</em> program scientist Curt Niebur, of NASA Headquarters in Washington, who's keenly interested in the gray area just above the whale's "tail" feature. "It's a unique transition region with a lot of dynamic processes interacting, which makes it of particular scientific interest."</p> <p>The spacecraft has passed a milestone—only one million miles to Pluto, which occurred at 11:23 p.m. EDT Sunday night—and is approaching Pluto at more than 30,000 miles per hour after a more than nine-year, three-billion mile journey. At 7:49 a.m. EDT on Tuesday, <em>New Horizons</em> will zip past Pluto with a suite of seven science instruments busily gathering data. The mission will complete the initial reconnaissance of the solar system with the first-ever look at the icy dwarf planet.</p> Fri, 10 Jul 2015 15:01:00 -0400 Daniels applauds passage of House bill that includes funding support for biomedical research <p>The U.S. House of Representatives <a href="">voted overwhelmingly today in favor of a bipartisan bill that would speed the development of lifesaving drugs and medical devices</a> and provide additional funding for biomedical research.</p> <p>The bill, called the <a href="">21st Century Cures Act</a>, includes provisions that attempt to make the drug approval process less unwieldy and also calls for an additional $8.75 billion in funding for the National Institutes of Health. The bill passed by a 344-77 vote on Friday morning; it now moves to the Senate.</p> <p>Johns Hopkins University President <a href="">Ronald J. Daniels</a> welcomed the House's passage of the bill as an important step in addressing dwindling funding for research.</p> <p>"Today's strong bipartisan vote puts us on an exciting path to address critical NIH funding needs and fuel innovation in medical research," Daniels said. "The 21st Century Cures bill reflects a shared belief in the crucial role of NIH-supported research in effecting cures for patients and their families, and specifically taps into the potential of early-stage investigators."</p> <p>Earlier this year, Daniels authored an <a href="">article in the journal <em>Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences</em></a> in which he noted that America's youngest scientists are increasingly missing out on research dollars and leaving the academic biomedical workforce, a brain drain that poses grave risks for the future of science.</p> <p>The number of principal investigators with a leading NIH grant who are 36 years old or younger dropped from 18 percent in 1983 to 3 percent in 2010, Daniels wrote. Meanwhile, the average age at which a scientist with a medical degree gets her first of these grants has risen from just under 38 years old in 1980 to more than 45 in 2013.</p> <p>"The inability to staunch—if not reverse—the above trends stands as an urgent and compelling policy challenge," Daniels wrote in <em>PNAS</em>. "The current stewards of the U.S. research enterprise bear a responsibility to sustain and safeguard that enterprise so that it can provide a platform for the scientists and the science of generations to come."</p> Fri, 10 Jul 2015 13:27:32 -0400 Pluto and Charon: A tale of two very different distant worlds <p>They're a fascinating pair, Pluto and Charon, two icy worlds, spinning around a common center of gravity like a pair of figure skaters clasping hands.</p> <p><a href="">New images from NASA's <em>New Horizons</em> spacecraft</a>—designed, built, and operated by the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory—are yielding new insights into these distant worlds at the edge of our solar system. Scientists believe they were shaped by a cosmic collision billions of years ago, and yet, in many ways, they seem more like strangers than siblings.</p> <p>A high-contrast array of bright and dark features covers Pluto's surface, while on Charon—the dwarf planet's smaller moon—only a dark polar region interrupts a generally more uniform light gray terrain. The reddish materials that color Pluto are absent on Charon. Pluto has a significant atmosphere; Charon does not. On Pluto, exotic ices like frozen nitrogen, methane, and carbon monoxide have been found, while Charon's surface is made of frozen water and ammonia compounds. The interior of Pluto is mostly rock, while Charon contains equal measures of rock and water ice.</p> <p>"These two objects have been together for billions of years, in the same orbit, but they are totally different," said Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, principal investigator of the decade-long <a href=""><em>New Horizons</em> mission</a> to Pluto.</p> <p>Charon is about 750 miles across—roughly half the diameter of Pluto—making it the solar system's largest moon relative to its planet. Its smaller size and lower surface contrast have made it harder for <em>New Horizons</em> to capture its surface features from afar, but the most recent,closer images of Charon's surface, sent from the spacecraft on Wednesday, show intriguing fine details.</p> <p>Newly revealed are brighter areas on Charon that members of the mission's Geology, Geophysics and Imaging team (GGI) suspect might be impact craters. If they are, the craters could help scientists learn even more about the mysterious moon.</p> <p>"If we see impact craters on Charon, it will help us see what's hidden beneath the surface," said GGI leader Jeff Moore of NASA's Ames Research Center. "Large craters can excavate material from several miles down and reveal the composition of the interior."</p> <p>In short, said GGI deputy team leader John Spencer of Southwest Research Institute, "Charon is now emerging as its own world. Its personality is beginning to really reveal itself."</p> Thu, 09 Jul 2015 13:55:00 -0400 Pluto shows its heart ahead of New Horizons close-up <p>A heart, a whale, and a doughnut—that's what scientists are calling <a href="">the features they're spotting on Pluto as the <em>New Horizons</em> spacecraft gets closer</a>.</p> <p>Next week we'll be able to see detailed close-ups of the icy dwarf planet for the first time ever, as the spacecraft makes its historic flyby after a <a href="">long journey</a> nearly 10 years and billions of miles in the making.</p> <p>Engineers at the <a href="">Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory</a> designed <em>New Horizons</em> to get a better sense of what it's like at the very edge of our solar system, by flying past Pluto and its five moons, then continuing on to the Kuiper Belt. The closest approach to Pluto will take place the morning of July 14, giving us images of the dwarf planet on par with shots of Earth taken from space.</p> <p>But the spacecraft's telescopic camera is already showing Pluto's features sharpening into focus. The latest image, captured Tuesday, shows a 1,200-mile heart-shaped bright area that scientists believe may be a patch of fresh frost. Stretching around Pluto's equator is a dark band, nicknamed "the whale," the tail of which seems to be cradling a bright doughnut-shaped spot.</p> <p>The image is the first captured since the July 4 anomaly that temporarily sent <em>New Horizons</em> into safe mode. <a href="">The next image is expected Saturday</a>, according to APL.</p> Thu, 09 Jul 2015 08:15:00 -0400 Researchers manipulating atom clusters in effort to develop new materials <p>A Johns Hopkins University chemist is leading research groups from five schools that won a $7.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Defense for materials science work that could lead to advancements in electronics, computers, optics, and weapons technology.</p> <p><a href="">Kit H. Bowen</a>, professor in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences' <a href="">Department of Chemistry</a>, is principal investigator in the project involving seven teams from Johns Hopkins, the University of Maryland, the University of Utah, the Naval Postgraduate School, and the University of California, Berkeley. The grant to be paid over five years is one of 22 awards made this year totaling $149 million to research teams from different academic disciplines for basic research, the federal agency said.</p> <p>The Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative has been going for 29 years and has resulted in "significant capabilities for our military forces and opened up entirely new lines of research," the agency said in a news release. Projects in the research initiative have led to improved laser technology for precision in navigation and aiming weapons and to advancements in nanotechnology.</p> <p>Bowen's group of seven teams will be working on ways to manipulate the properties of microscopic clusters of atoms that include metals. The goal is to find ways to turn the atom clusters into materials that would be useful in practical ways without losing desirable properties—including catalytic, magnetic, and optical characteristics—that the clusters show at a microscopic scale.</p> <p>Clusters are bundles of atoms and/or molecules held together by the same forces that bind solids and liquids.</p> <p>Bowen said that at their smallest structures of only a few atoms, the metalloid clusters involved in this project show unusual properties that could potentially be used to create materials that perform better in, for instance, computers and weapons systems. If those properties can be selected and sustained on the larger scale, Bowen said, "you'd really have a breakthrough in materials. ... It's still only a dream. We don't want to oversell it."</p> <p>He said the effort has the potential to develop unprecedented control over the properties of materials, opening the door to improvements in an array of technologies for military and civilian use.</p> <p>Kenneth Karlin, chairman of the Department of Chemistry, said winning the competitive award was "a great honor for [Bowen] and for the department. ... He deserves it; he's been an outstanding researcher, very productive."</p> <p>The grant announced in June will pay chiefly for graduate student salaries and some overhead costs for the institutions.</p> <p>Johns Hopkins has two research groups working on the project, one headed by Bowen, the other by <a href="">Tim Mueller</a>, an assistant professor of materials science and engineering in the Whiting School of Engineering. The University of Maryland, College Park also has two groups on this effort, and each of the other schools has one.</p> Wed, 08 Jul 2015 08:25:00 -0400 Video: How far has New Horizons traveled on its journey to Pluto? <p>Almost 10 years ago, the <em>New Horizons</em> spacecraft <a href="">launched on its way to Pluto</a>. A few days from now, it finally arrives and gets to work on a week of intense science as it sails past the most distant known planetary body in the solar system. How long has the trip been? When <em>New Horizons</em> launched, the iPhone didn't exist, Barack Obama was a largely unknown U.S. senator, and Pluto had not yet been designated a dwarf planet. Watch this animation to get a feel for how far <em>New Horizons</em> has voyaged. Talk about a long commute.</p>