How Big Space Really Is

 

Zooming Out

A new website called “The Size of Space” illustrates how incomprehensibly vast the cosmos are.

As you scroll to the side, the site takes you on a journey from the size of an astronaut all the way up to the entire observable universe. As the scale ramps up, from spacecraft to moons to planets and onward, the smaller objects become tiny dots before vanishing altogether.

Close Up

Neal Agarwal, the coder behind The Size of Space who’s also built pages like “Grandpa’s Art Show” and “Share This Page,” used some of the best visualizations for each of the objects — a rotating Earth based on satellite imagery, for example.

That means that most of the black holes are simply hand-drawn circles mixed in among the colorful images of distant galaxies and supernovas. Except, that is, for the giant black hole M87*, which was imaged earlier this year.

More on space visualizations: NASA’s New Black Hole Simulation Will Completely Melt Your Brain

Caterpillars on the Moon

 

Space Prospector

Iconic construction vehicle company Caterpillar is working with NASA to build machines that could excavate and mine the lunar surface.

The goal is to determine whether it makes sense to send autonomous or remote-controlled construction equipment to the Moon, according to CNBC, to gather rocks, dust, and water that NASA could use as raw materials for its planned lunar outpost.

Self-Driving Shovel

NASA and Caterpillar have long collaborated on robotics projects, CNBC reports. But it’s the company’s autonomous capabilities — unusual for the construction vehicle market — that make it a standout candidate to build lunar infrastructure.

“There are many synergies between what NASA needs to meet exploration goals and Caterpillar technologies used every day on Earth,” NASA spokesperson Clare Skelly told CNBC.

Hazardous Workplace

Though Caterpillar’s resource industries division president, Denise Johnson, wouldn’t confirm any tangible lunar mission plans to CNBC, the idea of using at least semi-autonomous vehicles on the Moon is to cut down on how much dangerous construction work astronauts would have to do themselves.

“Customers are finding it difficult to operate in those remote locations, getting personnel in and out in a consistent way, which drives the value proposition,” Johnson told CNBC, specifically referring to using autonomous tech in hazardous areas on Earth. “The application of the technology becomes a necessity to make it work from a value-add perspective.”

READ MORE: Caterpillar’s autonomous vehicles may be used by NASA to mine the moon and build a lunar base [CNBC]
More on the Moon: NASA’s Plan for a Lunar Outpost Just Leaked

Livestreaming Human Autopsies

 

A bloody online video shows a doctor slicing into a human cadaver’s scalp, peeling back the skin, cutting open the skull with a brutally whining saw, and removing its brain. He holds the brain up for the camera to see, all the while explaining the process to a live online audience.

The cadaver’s face was covered by a towel, so by the end of the stream all the audience could see was a closeup of the inside of a skull that was so empty it no longer seemed like part of a human. The Twitch-style comments section was teeming with viewers sharing thoughts and questions.

“Nice trick to do that with the cut,” said one as the doctor sliced away.

The archived recording of a January 2019 livestream was posted to the website Autopsy.Online, a gruesome educational project run by the Autopsy Center of Chicago. The center was founded by autopsy pathologist Ben Margolis, the doctor who performed the brain removal.

Margolis offers clients — usually family members of the deceased who want answers or closure — the distinctly 21-century option to have their loved ones’ autopsies recorded or broadcast live. And many, he says, are taking him up on the offer.

Livestreaming the process of cutting into and dissecting a dead body may sound grisly or voyeuristic — almost like a snuff film or the unsettling wave of pimple-popping videos that flooded the internet a few years ago. But Margolis, who’s also an accomplished orchestral musician and improv performer, sees his services as an empowering tool for families of the recently deceased. Not only to provide useful information in the face of a tragic event, but also to help them come to terms with their loss.

“Families come to us for closure, for grief, to find out what happened,” Margolis told Futurism.

Margolis founded the Autopsy Center of Chicago in 2010. Archiving autopsies through photographs or video recordings is a common practice — there are years of gory videos (you’ve been warned!) on YouTube. But it wasn’t until January 2017 that Margolis performed his first live broadcast, strapping a GoPro camera to his head and giving viewers a first-person vantage point on the procedure as he explained each step on Facebook Live.

“Other autopsy videos basically plant a camera a few feet away from the case and it’s sort of a still perspective,” Margolis told Futurism, “and the person’s working away — you don’t know where to look.”

Margolis says that more immersive approach isn’t just a good sell to current or future doctors, but also more comprehensive for the casual, science-curious viewer, though sometimes he does use a stationary camera instead.

“Here it’s really directed,” he said. “You know the ‘Blair Witch Project’ — that live video — it’s kind of like you’re in it.”

While the livestreams are an engaging project, Margolis puts even more effort into his edited videos, which he turns into educational resources. To get the Autopsy Center of Chicago videos out there, Margolis created an app and is still building out his Autopsy.Online platform, which is full of annotated autopsy recordings.

Margolis’ ultimate goal is to complete a virtual “body map” where viewers can click on a body part and watch a video clip of that particular organ being removed and examined — a resource he says is particularly valuable for students who don’t have hands-on access to cadavers.

The platform also has a separate page for livestreams, parts of which are later edited into the shorter clips. Prior to launching his own app and platform, Margolis streamed on Facebook, which meant his audience was much larger and broader than the people who now pay for his content.

When it comes to the comments that pop up on his livestreams, Margolis says they’re largely positive. Sometimes, trolls will mock people for asking questions about what they’re seeing or share gross, occasionally sexually-explicit thoughts. But most people engage with the material in a constructive way.

“It’s not macabre, it’s the human body,” Margolis said. “We all have one, and it’s interesting.”

Most jarring for some viewers, Margolis told Futurism, is coming to terms with the fact that they’re looking at a dead body that was once a living person with thoughts and feelings. On one stream, Margolis was removing a cadaver’s brain when someone commented “Is that person dead?”

“That’s part of it: how do you talk about death? I’ve made an effort to be sensitive,” Margolis said, explaining that he’s banned people for making fun of others who asked questions, even if the answer seems obvious to some. “If you’re asking a question, there’s no issue. How wonderful that you can ask! If you’re ready to know what dead is, then teach. Help someone know, build a positive attitude.”

But the community response raises an important issue: how do you respect the deceased and their relatives while also putting meaningful content out there? Margolis says once he had 1 million people watching a livestream on Facebook at once — a lot of eyes casually observing the cut-open body of someone’s dead family member.

“The primary concerns with livestreaming autopsies are making sure that you are respecting the wishes and the privacy of the decedent and his or her family,” Baylor College of Medicine bioethicist Amy McGuire told Futurism, “and that you are treating the body with respect.”

Other bioethicists shared similar concerns — especially in regards to respecting the privacy of the deceased and their family members.

“It seems like a lot would depend on the purpose of the autopsy and whether the identity of the subject was going to be disclosed,” Mark Aulisio, chair of the bioethics department at Case Western Reserve University, told Futurism. Margolis keeps the names and identifiable characteristics of corpses under wraps. “If identifying information is not going to be disclosed, then professional and respectful comportment would be the main issue of concern,” Aulisio said.

Margolis takes pains to preserve the anonymity of cadavers. Before he begins recording, he covers up the deceased’s face in addition to any identifiable markings like tattoos or body tags. He also never discloses the person’s age or other personal details.

“We need to set it up in a way that’s ethical and empowers the family,” Margolis told Futurism.

McGuire saw those anonymizing steps as a positive sign, but also noted that as an ethicist she would want to make sure people were only using the videos for educational purposes.

New York University bioethicist Brendan Parent was most concerned about how clients are being approached about livestreaming or recording.

“Autopsy usually happens when we are suspicious about cause of death, which often involves private or sensitive life stories,” Parent told Futurism. “Even though this group is taking measures to prevent display of identifiable features and getting consent from family members, it’s unlikely any of the people whose bodies are being used conceived of this possible post-mortem state.”

Parent noted that Margolis’ practice is working on setting up a way for people to donate their bodies as part of their wills — similarly to how medical schools acquire cadavers to use as educational tools — saying that that would be a step in the right direction.

Margolis told Futurism that he spends upwards of an hour getting to know family members who approach him for autopsies before he considers bringing up the possibility of a video recording or livestream. In his consent forms, there are separate boxes asking for permission to take photos, video recordings, livestreams, or allow students into the room. If a client hesitates or seems uncomfortable after Margolis brings up the option to record to stream the autopsy, he says that he immediately backs down.

Even then, Margolis won’t bring up videos or streams at all if the deceased is a child or if the case involves an active criminal investigation, like for a suspected homicide.

But for those who agree to have their loved one’s autopsy recorded or streamed, Margolis says he sees the gesture as a gift and a way to build a legacy, akin to donating an organ or donating one’s body to science.

“What happens in the hospital is they get cut off, they get cut off from their relationships. If there’s some way to give life to that world again, to participate, it makes such a difference,” Margolis said. “It’s like organ donation, they want their loved ones to live on, to make a difference. Anything for the death not to be in vain is wonderful for them.”

He’s done cases where the autopsy reveals genetic medical conditions or helps determine whether living relatives might inherit conditions like Alzheimer’s. Armed with that information, those people can then go on to ask better questions and more effectively advocate for themselves when navigating the healthcare system.

“Autopsy is always for the living,” Margolis said.

The End of The World as we know it

 

Growing Divide

As jobs are automated out of existence, the division between the very wealthy and the very poor will grow — and any notion of a comfortable middle class will vanish.
That’s according to Roey Tzezana, a future studies researcher at Israel’s Tel Aviv University, according to Haaretz. That stands in contrast to the common argument that new jobs will emerge as others vanish, painting a grim picture for the workforce and global economy.

Survival Wages

Tzezana argues that the jobs that tend to survive automation are lower-paying, according to Haaretz, meaning that as companies generate increased wealth, almost none of it ends up in the pockets of workers. Instead, more people are stuck living paycheck to paycheck, even if unemployment rates are technically low.
“This figure is the end of the world for the average people,” Tzezana said, speaking about the growing gap between labor productivity and wages. “It reflects a rather depressing picture: The state and the economy are advancing by storm — but the workers are almost not benefitting from this progress and are left behind. It is almost a catastrophe.”
The end result? A society defined by pockets of extreme wealth but otherwise dominated by people who barely have enough to get by.

READ MORE: Futurist Sees ‘The End of the World as We Know It for Average Person’ [Haaretz]
More on automation: Globally, Most Workers Think Robots Couldn’t Handle Their Jobs

If Earth Collided with a Black Hole

 

Worlds Collide

A new online tool calculates just how much cosmic destruction a run-in between the Earth and a black hole would cause.
The aptly-named Black Hole Collision Calculator determines how much a black hole would expand and the amount of energy it would release if it absorbed the Earth — or any other object, since the calculator is totally customizable, Space.com reports.
 

Big Kaboom

Particle physicist Álvaro Díez created the tool, which is hosted on the calculator database project Omni Calculator. Based on his calculations, a black hole swallowing the Earth would release some 55 quintillion times the planet’s annual energy consumption.
But even that destructive event would be a light snack for a supermassive black hole — its event horizon would only expand by a hundredth of a trillionth of a percent, per the calculator.
The main flaw with the calculator? The artistic rendering of a black hole obliterating the Earth that pops up next to the results doesn’t change to match any increasingly goofy collisions.
 

READ MORE: See What a Black Hole Would Do to Earth with Online ‘Collision Calculator’ [Space.com]
More on cosmic annihilation:Two Supermassive Black Holes Are on a Devastating Crash Course
 

Crops in Martian Soil

 

Astronaut Farmer

Martian and Moon soil is surprisingly fertile, and new research suggests it may someday be possible to harvest crops grown at off-world colonies.

When Wageningen University scientists tried to grow ten different crops in soils developed by NASA to mimic that found on Mars and the Moon, nine of them grew edible parts and viable seeds, according to research published this month in the journal Open Agriculture.

While future off-world farmers will have to grapple with countless other problems — like, uh, the lack of an atmosphere — the experiment is still a tentative good sign for the future of off-world settlements.

First Steps

The plants grown in simulated Martian or lunar soil weren’t as successful as those grown in normal Earth conditions, and in most cases the mock Martian crops fared better than the Moon plants. Still, vegetables like tomatoes, radishes, rye, and quinoa grew in both types of space soil, with spinach as the lone casualty.

“We were thrilled when we saw the first tomatoes ever grown on Mars soil simulant turning red,” project leader Wieger Wamelink said in a press release. “It meant that the next step towards a sustainable closed agricultural ecosystem had been taken.”

READ MORE: Soil on moon and Mars likely to support crops [De Gruyter via Phys.org]
More on Mars farming: Contaminating Mars With Microbes Could Kickstart Colonization
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Black Holes Dark Energy

 

Well Actually

Some of the black holes floating around our universe might actually be something else entirely.

It’s possible that some may be blobs of dark energy, the mysterious theoretical force thought to be pushing the universe’s outward expansion, according to Live Science. A pair of University of Hawaii scientists arrived at the unexpected conclusion when they were trying to make sense of that expansion — and if their work holds up it could rewrite our understanding of the cosmos.

Space Blobs

Conventional physics holds that a black hole’s singularity is an infinitely dense point that exerts a gravitational pull so strong that it absorbs anything that ventures too close. But some black holes may actually be dense masses of dark energy that grow larger as the universe expands, whether or not they feed on anything nearby, according to research published in The Astrophysical Journal in August.

In a second study posted on the preprint server ArXiv last month, the team found that the interactions of these theoretical objects could have caused some of the more bizarre and difficult to explain gravitational waves that were detected a few years back, Live Science reports.

Measure Twice

In essence, replacing black holes with these so-called Generic Objects of Dark Energy would help explain several mysteries of the cosmos. But theoretical calculations aside, their work hasn’t yet been confirmed.

And other experts are far from convinced. Vitor Cardoso, a physicist at Portugal’s Instituto Superior Técnico told Live Science that the new models are “counterintuitive and hard to digest.”

READ MORE: Black Holes As We Know Them May Not Exist [Live Science]
More on black holes: New “Chameleon Theory” Could Explain Dark Energy, How Galaxies Formed

Ufo Tech Fusion

 

Space Age

A U.S. Navy researcher with a quasi-facetious reputation for working on “UFO-like technology” just patented a compact nuclear fusion reactor that could allegedly fit inside of a vehicle — and don’t worry, we’re going to try our hardest to unpack that for you.

Salvatore Cezar Pais, the engineer who also patented room-temperature superconductors for the Navy, was granted a patent for a small nuclear fusion reactor capable of generating anywhere from 1 billion to 1 trillion watts, according to The Drive. That’s far more powerful than any of America’s operational nuclear power plants — but it’s also not clear how much, if any, of the patent represents feasible technology.

Science Fiction

As with any bizarre tech patent, it’s hard to tell what’s really going on here — it seems unlikely that the Navy has suddenly cracked the long-elusive mystery of practical fusion reactors.

But then again, The Drive reports that Pais’ tiny reactor sailed through the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office without ever being rejected. That, it’s worth noting, is unusual for his seemingly sci-fi inventions. Typically, The Drive reports, he’s had to appeal patent office rejections.

Hush-Hush

The Navy hasn’t yet commented on the new patent, which says the reactor could be used in a “space, sea, or terrestrial environment.”

It remains unclear specifically what applications, if any, the Navy expects to use such a device, should it actually someday exist. But hey, maybe someday we’ll see U.S. military flying saucers zipping across the sky.

READ MORE: Scientist Behind The Navy’s “UFO Patents” Has Now Filed One For A Compact Fusion Reactor [The Drive]
More on bizarre Navy patents: US Military Files Patent for Room-Temperature Superconductor

Plan to capture of a Black Hole

 

Candid Camera

The black hole cinematic universe is growing: scientists running the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) just announced plans to capture real-time video footage of Sagittarius A*, the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way.

The EHT, an international network of observatories that combine their data to function like a planet-sized telescope, first captured that groundbreaking image of a black hole back in April. But now the team is getting more ambitious, telling Business Insider that it plans to capture actual video of a black hole.

Looking Inward

Scientists already plan to record and share video of M87*, the black hole in that image from April. But Sagittarius A* has been notoriously difficult for astronomers to image due to a massive accretion disk of superhot gas blocking their view.

But the M87* video will be months of time-lapse footage, not a real-time movie, BI reports. That’s because M87* has a larger, slower-moving accretion disk that doesn’t change nearly as rapidly.

Galactic Feast

With video footage, EHT astronomers hope to better understand the intense light beamed outward by feeding black holes.

“Imagine you could see the black hole during one of those periods of activity,” EHT head Shep Doeleman told BI. “You’d see exactly where that emission was coming from.”

READ MORE: Astronomers plan to film the black hole at the center of the Milky Way galaxy as it gobbles up stars and planets. The video could open a ‘new field’ of science. [Business Insider]

More on black hole vids: Astronomers Say They’ll Soon Release First Video of a Black Hole

A cable from the Earth to the Moon?

 

t’s a space elevator concept that could actually work.

DAN ROBITZSKI

It would be much easier to escape Earth’s gravity if you could skip the energy-intensive rockets.

That’s the idea behind the Spaceline, a newly-proposed type of space elevator that would link the Earth and the Moon in a bid drastically cut the cost of space travel.

Described in research published to the preprint server ArXiv by researchers at Columbia University and Cambridge University, the Spaceline would be tethered to the surface of the Moon and dangle down into geostationary orbit around the Earth like a plumb bob, waiting for astronauts to latch on and ride into the cosmos. The proof-of-concept paper found that the Spaceline could be constructed out of materials that exist today, raising the possibility of easier space travel and perhaps even orbital settlements.

Instead of rocketing all the way out of orbit, astronauts would only need to reach the end point of the Spaceline, cutting back the cost and challenge of rocket launches. Once it reaches the vacuum of space, free of terrestrial gravity and atmospheric pressure, the spacecraft would meet up with the cable and latch onto a solar-powered shuttle that would climb along its length.

Zephyr Penoyre, one of the Columbia astronomy graduate students behind the Spaceline, told Futurism that “the line becomes a piece of infrastructure, much like an early railroad — the movement of people and supplies along it are much simpler and easier than the same journey in deep space.”

Earth-based space elevators would be too taxing for any existing material — Earth’s stronger gravitational pull and rotation speed would snap the cable before it could be completed. But the risk of a catastrophic collapse, the researchers say, is lower when the cable is only tethered to the Moon. Throughout the paper, Penoyre and Cambridge astronomy graduate student Emily Sandford often noted that carbon nanotubes would be the best material to use, but they can’t yet be built to scale.

Based on the calculations in the paper, it seems that several existing materials could be up for the challenge — it’s just a matter of finding the strongest thing that can be made at scale.

“That’s a good way to put it. Only thing to add is that it also needs to be able to survive well in deep space,” Penoyre said. “I have briefly looked into this, but am no expert in materials science. I often used Dyneema as an example material in calculations and it has some pretty good properties.”

As for the line itself, the researchers investigated a number of shapes, ultimately arriving at a cable that was extremely narrow at either end so it didn’t collapse under gravitational pressure but thickened at the middle to prevent snapping. At this stage, the astronomers didn’t factor in space debris collisions in near-Earth orbit, but Penoyre pointed out other projects that had grappled with the challenge.

If it all works out and the Spaceline someday comes to fruition, the researchers envision a future in which humanity uses it as a tether for orbital telescopes, research centers, and other facilities that could hover at the Lagrange point, the altitude at which the Moon and Earth exert equal-but-opposite gravitational force.

“Think of the early Antarctic basecamps, at first there might only be three engineers up there at any one time, but unlike low Earth orbit the Lagrange point is the perfect place to build,” said Penoyre. “We could (indulging in a little imagination) picture prefabricated panels being sent up the line, and assembled into an ever-growing colony. I was amazed to find that there are now thousands of people living a significant part of the year in Antarctica — eventually the same could be true of the Lagrange point.”

More on space elevators: Why Space Elevators Could Be the Future of Space Travel

“Anti-Aging” Blood

 

In February 2019, the FDA issued a warning: medical clinics offering transfusions of blood from young people as anti-aging treatments were likely scams, based on dangerous pseudoscience. The warning spelled doom for Ambrosia, LLC, a young blood transfusion clinic that shut down soon afterward.

Now, Ambrosia founder Jesse Karmazin is back. Last month, the Stanford-alum-turned-blood-tech-guru (sound familiar?) contacted Futurism to announce the foundation of his new clinic, Ivy Plasma. This time, Karmazin said the clinic will provide plasma transfusions — no longer specifically sourced from young folks — and it would do so off-label, meaning the transfusions would be administered for purposes the FDA didn’t explicitly approve and endorse.

Asked what the purported benefits of the treatment might be, Karmazin’s response was evasive.

“Off-label prescribing is legal, however the FDA does not permit companies to discuss the potential benefits or risks of off-label medications, sorry,” Karmazin wrote in an email responding to Futurism’s questions.

The FDA currently approves the use of plasma transfusions in emergency situations. But in its February warning, it listed possible side effects of young-blood transfusions ranging from infections and allergic reactions to lung injury and circulatory problems. The FDA didn’t reply to questions about Ivy Plasma or provide an updated statement on plasma transfusions (though, of note, it has been argued that the FDA retains the ability to levy a selective “functional ban” on off-label uses).

As for the theoretical benefits of young plasma transfusions, the FDA warned in February that “plasma is not FDA-approved to treat other conditions such as normal aging or memory loss. Additionally, there have not been any well-controlled studies that show the clinical benefit of the administration of plasma from young donors, and there are associated safety risks.”

Why, then, do people think young plasma would slow down aging?

One recent study showed human brain cells grown in a petri dish and treated with two proteins found in the blood of young mice grew more branches and formed more connections with other cells than those that weren’t. Mouse studies lent more evidence to the idea that young blood has rejuvenative properties.

But medical research conducted on animals often fails to translate to clinical relevance — as of yet, there’s no conclusive evidence showing the phenomenon working for humans as it does in mice. Some groups have run human experiments, but they involved such a small number of participants that their findings weren’t definitive. One Stanford study found Alzheimer’s patients better able to perform daily tasks (like taking medications) after getting a young blood transfusion. But the entire study only included 18 participants, and there was no reported improvement in their moods or other cognitive abilities.

Because of that lack of evidence, the FDA hasn’t approved clinical treatments with young plasma, which is why Ivy Clinic offers off-label services (and can’t claim medical benefits). But over the course of the two weeks that Futurism was in contact with Karmazin — all over email, because he says he doesn’t provide formal phone interviews to the press — the mystery surrounding the new clinic only grew.

Karmazin told Futurism that he believes reporters got a lot wrong about Ambrosia. He pushed back on the suggestion his company was broadly controversial, while also declining to explain what specifically he felt had been incorrect about past press coverage.

When asked if he, as an actual doctor, still believed that plasma transfusions have anti-aging effects, Karmazin explained that because he was CEO of Ivy Plasma, the FDA’s restrictions on the marketing of off-label medications still prevented him from commenting.

“I really do try both to adhere to the FDA’s rules and run my businesses in the best interests of our patients,” Karmazin told Futurism.

Ivy Plasma’s website says that the company offers treatments in San Francisco, California and Tampa, Florida. The prices are the same as they were for Ambrosia’s patients: $8,000 for one liter of plasma and $12,000 for two liters, all of which Karmazin told Futurism is sourced from blood banks.

When he talked about Ivy Plasma itself, Karmazin described outpatient clinics “staffed by doctors and nurses mostly.” But he repeatedly refused to answer questions about those staffers, the treatments they offer, or the process of setting up medical clinics in either city, citing privacy concerns.

All in all, it’s a tough sell. Ivy Plasma offers prohibitively-expensive treatments, supported by weak science, and technically can’t claim that they do any good for people. As such, it would be easy to write it off as some weird quirk of Silicon Valley, a peculiar medical trend for wealthy geeks.

But Ambrosia’s messaging is still out there, even if the clinic itself was dissolved. The high price tag also suggests that these plasma treatments are aimed at the rich — people for whom an $8,000 liter of blood bank-sourced plasma is affordable. Tech billionaires seem obsessed with extending their own lives as long as possible, an endeavor with which experimental blood treatments fall perfectly in line.

It seems like a story distinctly of the moment, but it’s not. The ages-old trope of a fountain of youth for the most privileged of the privileged among us continues apace. But try, if you will, to imagine a world where the people who have hoarded enough cash to create change at a society-wide scale focused less on extending their own lives and the maybe-kinda-supposed science of plasma transfusions, and instead dedicated their resources to the kind of wide-reaching medical research that could improve the lives of billions around the globe.

At the very least, it’d be a new story.