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UPI NewsTrack Science and Technology News

Dec. 17, 2012 at 7:08 PM   |   Comments

Lights to combat astronaut insomnia

GREENBELT, Md., Dec. 17 (UPI) -- NASA says it will use lighting technology to help astronauts on the International Space Station sleep better during their "nights" in orbit.

High-tech light-emitting diodes are intended to help sustain a normal day-night cycle in the station's inhabitants, about half of whom routinely find themselves needing medication at some point to get to sleep, SPACE.com reported.

Astronauts have complained of insomnia and difficulty of getting even just six hours of sleep with their demanding schedules and unearthly environment.

"The station is noisy, carbon dioxide is high, you don't have a shower, there's a lot of angst because you've got to perform," NASA flight surgeon Smith Johnston said.

In an $11.2 million project, NASA will switch out the space station's fluorescent bulbs for an array of LEDs alternating between blue, white and red light, based on the time of day.

Blue light stimulates the human brain and suppresses melatonin, a sleep-inducing hormone, while spurring the formation of melanopsin, a "protein pigment" that keeps people awake.

The color red reverses the process, increasing melatonin while melanopsin is suppressed.

"You can dial in a natural day-night cycle on the space station," using the colored light technology, Johnston said.

NASA says it plans to have the light switchover complete by 2016.


Saber-tooth cat fossil found in Nevada

LAS VEGAS Dec. 17 (UPI) -- Paleontologists working near Las Vegas say they've made an important and rare fossil find, the bones of a saber-tooth cat.

"I hate to say we hit the jackpot, this being Vegas -- but we did!" Eric Scott, curator of paleontology at the San Bernardino County Museum in California, told the Highland (Calif.) News.

"Meat-eaters are generally uncommon in the fossil record. This makes fossil remains of extinct carnivores very rare and special -- and very tough to find."

Saber-toothed cats, so named for their iconic long canine teeth, became extinct near the end of the Pleistocene Epoch some 11,000 years ago.

The fossil of the ambush predators unearthed by the San Bernardino County Museum researchers are thought to by more 15,000 years old, LiveScience.com reported Monday.

While teeth and bones of mammoths, camels, horses and bison have been found in considerable number in southern Nevada, little evidence of the saber-toothed cats that would have preyed on them has been found before, researchers said.

"We're ecstatic," Kathleen Springer, senior curator for museum, told the Highland News. "We've been saying for years that these critters were out here, somewhere. It was just a matter of time until we found one."


Optics turn smartphones into microscopes

BERKELEY, Calif., Dec. 17 (UPI) -- Smartphones connected to magnifying optics could become diagnostic-quality microscopes for use by clinics in developing countries, U.S. researchers say.

Bioengineers at the University of California, Berkeley, have applied the optic add-ons to create what they've dubbed CellScopes, a release from the American Society of Cell Biology said Monday.

The researchers initially intended a mobile phone-microscope so rugged it could provide high-resolution imaging outside traditional laboratory environments, especially for disease diagnostics in developing countries.

But following a chance encounter with a local science teacher, they decided to evaluate CellScope in a different environment: a middle school science classroom.

Students at San Francisco Friends School took part in the development of educational CellScopes by carrying out a year-long "Micro:Macro" project taking macroscopic and microscopic pictures of objects in their homes, gardens, parks and playgrounds.

Images could be displayed in real time on the phones' touch screens and viewed simultaneously by multiple individuals, sparking interactive discussions among students and teachers, the researchers said.

The devices are now being tested for educational use with other classrooms and museums, they said.


Effort to drill to ice-covered lake halted

LONDON, Dec. 17 (UPI) -- Technical problems have temporarily halted a British attempt to search for life in an ancient lake beneath the antarctic ice-sheet, project officials say.

They said work was stopped by "a serious problem" with the main boiler used to heat water to 190 degrees Fahrenheit to power a drill intended to melt and blast its way through two-miles of ice to reach Lake Ellsworth, the BBC reported Monday.

Drilling intended to reach the lake sealed below the glacial ice and retrieve samples of water and sediment to search for life in the lake was halted Saturday when a key circuit on the boiler controlling the primary burner failed, the scientists said.

"The good news is that we found the fault relatively early on in our deployment system and so we have quite a lot of fuel that is left remaining," project chief scientists Martin Seigert of the British Antarctic Survey said. "If we didn't have that of course we wouldn't be able to continue any further."

A replacement component is on its way and should reach the site -- where temperatures can drop to minus 22 degrees Fahrenheit -- in a few days, researchers said.

"We're working very hard to make sure things are right here," Seigert said. "It's not the end of the field season by any means and with our suppliers in the United Kingdom and the expertise we have on site we're hopeful to restart drilling in a few days' time."

Topics: Eric Scott
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