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The 5 Coolest Things On Earth This Week

Sam Worley
September 23, 2020

Engineers in California are building the world’s largest digital camera that will help photograph the far corners of the cosmos, while other astronomers made a significant finding much closer to home: tantalizing hints of life on Venus. Far out, right? But even on Earth’s surface, cool scientific developments abounded, including a brain implant that could restore sight to people with vision loss.



New Vision

Cortical implant


What is it? Researchers at Australia’s Monash University are preparing to begin clinical trials on a brain implant that could restore sight to people with vision loss.

Why does it matter? The device bears promise not only for blind people but also for using implants to treat other disorders that involve the brain, including limb paralysis and beyond. Dr. Yang Wong, part of the Monash Vision Group, said, “The commercialization of the bionic vision technology also ties in nicely to our plans for exploring further applications beyond vision and spinal cord injury, such as the moderation of epilepsy and depression, brain-controlled prosthetics and the restoration of other vital senses.”

How does it work? Described in the Journal of Neural Engineering, the implantable device is geared toward patients who have damaged optical nerve — the connection between the retina and the brain’s visual cortex. The system bypasses the retina in favor of a head-mounted camera with a wireless transmitter, a vision processor unit and software, and 9x9 millimeter tiles implanted on the surface of the brain. The visual data is made into useful information by the processor, then sent to the implants, which convert it into electrical pulses that stimulate the brain’s visual cortex.

Let’s Get In Formation

Fello Fly


What is it? European planemaker Airbus has an idea for how to reduce flight-related emissions, and it’s for the birds. No, that’s not right — it’s from the birds. Fello’fly, as the initiative is called, uses avian behavior as inspiration to cut fuel consumption.

Why does it matter? Initial flight tests suggest fuel savings between 5% and 10% per trip, according to Airbus, which figures it can reduce CO2 emissions by 3 to 4 million tons per year on widebody passenger operations.

How does it work? Geese don’t fly in a V because it looks neat: They do it to reduce their overall energy consumption, with each bird able to coast a bit on the updraft created by the ones in front. (CNN mentions one 2001 study in which pelicans were outfitted with heart monitors; researchers found that trailing birds glided more and had a slower heart rate.) Though aircraft on the same route are required to be 30 to 50 nautical miles apart in oceanic airspace, Fello’fly aims to have planes separated by only 1.5 nautical miles, plus 1,000 vertical feet — a proximity that will safely allow the follower to save a little juice, on the same energy-conservation principle the birds use. Obviously, this will require new flight protocols, pilot training and other steps; Airbus has teamed up with industry partners to investigate, hoping to begin flight demonstrations in 2021.

Only Skin Deep


What is it? A patch made of painless, biodegradable microneedles could help people at home diagnose conditions like prediabetes, according to the researchers who designed it at the University of Tokyo’s Institute of Industrial Science. Prediabetes means “you have a higher than normal blood sugar level,” but “it's not high enough to be considered Type 2 diabetes yet,” according to the Mayo Clinic.

Why does it matter? Patches have a lot of promise for DIY medical monitoring, said Hakjae Lee, first author of a new paper in Medical Devices & Sensors: “Prediabetes testing is just one application of the technology,” which can detect most of the biomarkers that traditional blood tests look for.

How does it work? The microneedles are so short that, applied to the skin, they don’t hit any neurons and don’t draw any blood — they merely draw fluid from the skin up to a paper-based sensor, which changes color in response to whatever the patch has been designed to measure. Having figured out how to make the microneedle technology work with paper sensors, Lee and colleagues plan to begin testing on human subjects.

Say Cheese

LSST camera


What is it? Engineers at the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in California used a huge array of imaging sensors to take the largest digital photos ever captured in a single shot — 3,200 megapixels. Hope they remembered to take the lens cap off!

Why does it matter? The sensors will be part of the world’s largest digital camera, currently under construction at SLAC and bound for Chile’s Rubin Observatory, where it will take panoramic pictures of the southern skies and “drive unprecedented astrophysical research,” according to a news release. The images it captures will be part of the Rubin Observatory Legacy Survey of Space and Time, or LSST: “a catalog of more galaxies than there are living people on Earth and of the motions of countless astrophysical objects.” (Specifically, the camera is set to capture images of 20 billion galaxies over 10 years.)

How does it work? In some ways, the focal plane of the LSST camera is similar to any other digital camera: It captures light and converts it to electrical signals. But where digital cameras capture, say, 16 megapixels, the LSST camera’s focal plane — which is more than 2 feet wide — is made up of 189 individual sensors that capture 16 megapixels each. Testing the camera’s capabilities, engineers snapped pics of a variety of objects including a head of romanesco, the weird-looking brassica with a highly detailed surface. The resulting images are so large that 378 4K (or ultra-high definition) TV screens would be needed to display them at full size. The “resolution is so high that you could see a golf ball from about 15 miles away,” according to a SLAC news release.


Life On Venus?


What is it? Astronomers searching for signs of life in the cosmos often focus on Mars — but what if they’re looking at the wrong planet? Recently scientists at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cardiff University and elsewhere found tantalizing signs of life on Earth’s neighbor that’s closer to the Sun: Venus.

Why does it matter? In addition to simply being evidence of life on other planets? The findings, which relate to a specific chemical that astronomers discovered in a gas in Venus’ clouds, also give a hint of the planet’s backstory. Venus is not a particularly comfortable place to be, with temperatures on the ground approaching 900 degrees Fahrenheit on the surface and an atmosphere full of sulfuric acid — a factor that tends to discourage life. But it wasn’t always that way, said MIT’s Clara Sousa-Silva: “A long time ago, Venus is thought to have oceans, and was probably habitable like Earth. As Venus became less hospitable, life would have had to adapt, and they could now be in this narrow envelope of the atmosphere where they can still survive. This could show that even a planet at the edge of the habitable zone could have an atmosphere with a local aerial habitable envelope.”

How does it work? Some scientists had previously theorized that if life did exist on Venus, it would be found in a temperate part high up in the planet’s atmosphere. That’s where astronomers just detected a chemical called phosphine, which — when occurring on a rocky terrestrial planet like Venus — could only come from living organisms. At least, that’s been the theory. “It’s very hard to prove a negative,” Sousa-Silva said. “Now, astronomers will think of all the ways to justify phosphine without life, and I welcome that. Please do, because we are at the end of our possibilities to show abiotic processes that can make phosphine.”

Top image credit: Venus. Getty Images.