International Cooperation in Spaceflight and Gravity-Wave Black Hole Astrophysics leads to Purified Water for the Thirsty Poor and promises Better Bone Grafts for Victims of Landmines

While politics at the moment seems increasingly fragmented and divisive, international scientific cooperation on Earth and in space continues to advance and improve the quality of life for people in many surprising ways.

The International Space Station (ISS) is a triumph of peaceful collaboration between nations: embodying the space-side thaw in Cold War international relations that began with the first international docking & handshake in space during the 1975 Apollo–Soyuz Test Project, and then continued through Asian, European and North American nations’ cooperation with Russia aboard ‘Mir’ (the first modular space station in history), before blossoming into the ongoing 19 year long construction of the ISS – which at roughly 420 tonnes in mass and almost 17 years continuously crewed is the largest and longest occupied space vehicle ever built by the human race. It has taken the collaboration of five participating space agencies and 26 nations to establish the ISS: the USA’s NASA, Russia’s ROSCOSMOS, Japan’s JAXA, the 22 European nation state members of ESA, along with Canada’s CSA.

Public domain photo. Credit: NASA/Crew of STS-132

The ISS functions as the world’s primary microgravity laboratory, which often directly involves bioscience such as: research into the cardiovascular consequences of long-term microgravity on astronauts, or the successful growth of various edible plants and even flowers in space. However, just establishing this outpost of humanity in Low Earth Orbit has had beneficial spin-offs here on Earth, for example – one of the great challenges of long duration spaceflight is the provision of enough fresh air and clean drinking water, both of which require sophisticated and efficient recycling systems. NASA’s regenerative Environmental Control and Life Support System (ECLSS) provides both air recycling and cutting-edge water purification aboard the ISS.

Increasingly, systems derived from the Water Recovery System (WRS) section of the ISS Life Support have been put to work in areas here on Earth where safe, clean drinking water is otherwise inaccessible. This iodinated-resin system controls microbial growth without the use of power by dispensing iodine into the water in a controlled manner; this iodination is also in itself an important secondary nutrient – which helps promote proper brain function and maintain levels of hormone that regulate cell development and growth. (Children born and raised in iodine-deficient areas are at risk of neurological disorders and problems with mental development.)

The Water Security Corporation (WSC) took up a licence to produce the WRS system on Earth, and cooperated with both the non-profit Concern for Kids and the US Army, all working together to bring the system to the little Kurdish village of Kendala, Iraq in 2006 – where the well had failed leaving the people without safe drinking water.

Since this initial successful deployment, the WSC’s commercialisation of this ISS Life Support technology has provided aid and disaster relief for people across the world, including: home water purifiers in India, village processing systems in remote areas of Central & South America and Mexico, as well as water bottle filling stations in Pakistan, and even a survival bag designed for use in natural disasters and refugee camps.

Meanwhile, another very famous international scientific collaboration – designed to test Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity by detecting the collision of enormous black holes far out across the vast deeps of space – now promises an unexpected biomedical benefit to Earthlings.

The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) consists of two large observatories in the USA, designed to detect a change in their 4 km mirror spacing of less than 1/10,000th the diameter of a proton. The Advanced LIGO Project cost a total of $620 million to build and operate, all funded by the USA’s National Science Foundation (NSF), along with the UK’s Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), the Max Planck Society of Germany (MPG), and the Australian Research Council (ARC).
What’s more, LIGO is part of a larger international collaboration: the LIGO Scientific Collaboration, which itself then collaborates with the VIRGO Collaboration – that operates the large VIRGO gravitational wave detecting interferometer in Italy. VIRGO alone involves funding and scientists from Italy, France, the Netherlands, Poland and Hungary. Altogether the ‘LIGO & VIRGO Collaboration’ involves over 1,000 scientists worldwide.

Image credit: SXS Lensing (via NASA)

It was the ‘LIGO & VIRGO Collaboration’ that successfully made the first direct gravitational wave detection on the 14th of September 2015 – observing two massive black holes merging 1.3 billion light-years away from Earth!

Now, a group of scientists from four Universities in Scotland and Ireland have used sophisticated laser interferometer systems (based on those built for gravitational wave detectors like LIGO) to encourage donated human mesenchymal stem cells to change into bone cells in 3D printed scaffolds – creating living 3D bone grafts, that could be used in the future to repair or replace damaged sections of bone.

This is an exciting breakthrough, because bone is the second most grafted bodily tissue after blood and is used in a wide variety of important surgeries, but right now surgeons can only harvest small amounts of living bone from the patient for use in grafting. Live bone from other donors will likely be rejected by the body’s immune system, so surgeons must use donor sources without any cells capable of regenerating bone, and that limits the size of repairs they can carry out.

Scientists were able to use a technique called ‘nanokicking’ – which targets cells with very precisely measured, very small, nanoscale vibrations while they are suspended inside collagen gels – ‘nanokicking’ stimulates the cells to differentiate into a ‘bone putty’ that may be used in the future to heal bone fractures and fill bone where there is a gap. Patients’ own mesenchymal stem cells can be harvested from their own bone marrow – which means surgeons will be able to avoid tissue rejection by the immune system, and can bridge larger gaps in bone.

Public domain image. Internal structure of the femur bone. Credit: Popular Science Monthly Volume 42 1892-1893 {{PD-US}}

Matthew Dalby, professor of cell engineering at the University of Glasgow, said: “In partnership with [Sir Bobby Charlton’s landmine charity] Find A Better Way, we have already proven the effectiveness of our scaffolds in veterinary medicine, by helping to grow new bone to save the leg of a dog who would otherwise have had to have it amputated. Combining bone putty and mechanically strong scaffolds will allow us to address large bone deficits in humans in the future.”
Professor of bioengineering Manuel Salmeron-Sanchez recently visited Cambodia to meet local people who have suffered landmine injuries – he added: “For many people who have lost legs in landmine accidents, the difference between being confined to a wheelchair and being able to use a prosthesis could be only a few centimetres of bone”.


– The four Universities involved in the bone graft research are the Universities of: Glasgow, Strathclyde, the West of Scotland and Galway.
– The research was funded by Find a Better Way, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), with aspects of the laser interferometry and computational techniques having been developed previously through support from the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) and Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE).
– The team’s paper, titled ‘Stimulation of 3D osteogenesis by mesenchymal stem cells using a nanovibrational bioreactor’, is published in Nature Biomedical Engineering.


See also:


UFEx Ep.7: Carrington Class Solar Storm Could Wreck Electric Technology & Power Grids all over Earth!

Welcome to Episode 7 of Ultra Frontier Explorer with Dr Jon Overton. Following up on my last blogpost, now you can witness the immense power of solar storms erupting from the surface of the Sun in glorious HD video – as captured by solar monitoring spacecraft!

In this episode we’ll find out how the most extreme solar storms could wreck electrical technology on Earth, setting civilization back decades. We’ll get the low-down on the near miss in 2012 that could have caused $2Trillion worth of damage.
We’ll learn all about the dangers of Solar Flares versus Coronal Mass Ejections (CME); what really happened in 1859 & 1989; and the current & future risks from solar storms – all in an action-packed 11mins!

Also, we’ll learn about new research that suggests it will be harder than scientists previously thought to predict whether or not any one particular solar storm will strike the Earth..

Coincidentally, just a few days ago, while this video was being rendered, an X9.3 solar flare went off that blacked out satellite GPS for an hour, that flare and later solar storm events blocked HF radio on Earth for days! An X9 is a very big flare, but not on a par with the flares that preceded the 1859 ‘Carrington Event‘.

Eruptions from the Sun move Less Like Bullets, More Like a Sneeze: A Sneeze that Could Blow Out All the Lights on Earth

Solar Flares and Solar Energetic Particles emitted by the Sun’s ‘solar storms’ may cause severe radio interference on Earth and endanger astronauts and spacecraft, but the most dangerous part of a ‘solar storm’ for Earthlings is a Coronal Mass Ejection, (CME) – which occurs when magnetic reconnection on the Sun’s surface “pinches off” a giant loop of magnetic field, blasting off a big chunk of the Sun’s super-hot plasma.

The first Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) observed by humankind was the Carrington Event in 1859, when a huge fast moving CME struck Earth in just 17 hours after a solar flare – distorting Earth’s magnetic field and creating a massive magnetic storm across the globe.
The resulting Auroras filled the sky in spectacular fashion, with the Aurora Borealis being visible as far south as the Caribbean and sub-Saharan Africa, while the Auroras were so bright in the northern USA that some people mistook them for the dawn light and began preparing breakfast!
More ominously, the huge magnetic disturbance induced strong electrical surges and sparks in the telegraph systems that spanned Europe and North America, disrupting humanity’s equivalent to the ‘Internet’ at the time.

It’s these induced electrical currents created by CMEs hitting Earth that makes them such a great threat to our highly electrified civilization today. In 1989 a smaller magnetic storm knocked out power across most of Quebec, but as inconvenient as that was, it’s small potatoes compared to the damage another ‘Carrington-class’ CME could do to us.

Photo: 2012 CME as seen by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO)
Credit: NASA (public domain)

In the summer of 2012 there was another giant ‘Carrington-class’ solar ‘superstorm’ – luckily when the huge CME blasted across the path of Earth’s orbit our planet was a few days further along, so we were well out of the way.
If that CME had struck Earth the magnetic storm and induced electrical surges would have destroyed vital power transmission grids and transformers, and would have wrecked electrical & electronic equipment across the world, doing an estimated $2Trillion of damage – knocking civilization back decades.
What’s more, one physicist estimated there’s a 12% chance of another huge ‘Carrington-class’ CME like this hitting the Earth in the next ten years!

Worse still, the 2012 CME was actually a ‘double whammy’ of two CMEs travelling 10 to 15minutes apart. New work from researchers at the University of Reading in the UK may help explain why such ‘one-two-punch’ CMEs occur.

According to Professor Mathew Owens: “Up until now, it has been assumed CMEs move like bubbles through space, and respond to forces as single objects. We have found they are more like an expanding dust cloud or sneeze, made up of individual plasma parcels all doing their own thing.”

Basically, scientists found that CMEs expand so quickly that they soon stop being a singular coherent structure. So, one or other part of the CME cloud can be distorted by external forces without affecting the rest of the cloud. External forces include: the braking forces generated as a fast CME ploughs its way through the spiral magnetic fields of the interplanetary solar wind.

Image: Visualisation of the heliospheric current sheet – the spiral surface where the magnetic field of the Sun / interplanetary solar wind switches its polarity from N-S.
Credit: NASA/Werner Heil via Wikimedia (public domain)

The cloud-like nature of CMEs makes trying to predict their shape and movement as they plough through the solar wind extremely difficult. Perhaps, if the solar wind varies strongly enough it’s possible that it could tear one CME cloud apart into two! Clearly, we need a much more thorough understanding of the solar wind.

We do know that when the Sun moves into the quieter, less active half of its 11 year cycle, then the interplanetary solar wind gets thinner and weaker – so it has less of a braking effect on fast moving CMEs. So, even though CMEs happen about 17 times less often in this quieter part of the solar cycle – if the Sun does sneeze out a huge CME in the direction of Earth, it would hit us faster and harder, inducing stronger magnetic storms, and wreaking greater destruction on our electrical technology.

We’re currently about nine and half years deep into Solar Cycle 24, dropping into the minimum period of solar activity. However, most of Cycle 24 has been unusually low in activity – in fact it’s shown the lowest activity since accurate records began around the year 1750.
Scientists at the University of Reading predict that by around 2050 the Sun’s overall activity will drop to the kind of ‘grand minimum’ that we’ve not seen since the 70 year-long ‘Maunder minimum’ which was way back in the 17th Century. That would mean a thinner, weaker solar wind lasting for decades!

There is some good news: right now humanity has the best early warning systems monitoring the Sun in history – there’s a whole fleet of spacecraft dedicated to solar monitoring, with no less than four (SOHO, WIND, ACE & DSCOVR; operated variously by NASA, ESA and NOAA) in orbit directly between the Earth and the Sun – providing data on any incoming solar space weather before it hits Earth, indeed yielding enough data that US Federal agencies NOAA & NWS can provide real-time online Space Weather forecasts to the public.

Also, some governments and corporations are waking up to the danger of solar storms, and are starting to take some action to reduce the predicted disruption of electrical infrastructure – although there’s still a lot of work to be done before humanity is really ready to ride out another ‘Carrington Event’, without it suddenly throwing us back about 100years, technologically speaking.

Sources for quotes by & paraphrases of University of Reading scientists:

Source for some of the info re. 2012 CME:

UFEx Ep.6: Incredible Osiris-Rex Mission Launched to bring back Samples from Potentially Hazardous Near Earth Asteroid ‘Bennu’!

Image: to-bennu-and-back_mp4_4Images: NASA

Welcome to Episode 6 of Ultra Frontier Explorer with Dr Jon Overton.
In this episode there’s:
– Epic footage of NASA’s Osiris-Rex rocket launch on its journey from Earth to the potentially hazardous near Earth asteroid Bennu.
– All about WHY this Sample Return Mission is so exciting: what it might tell us about the Solar System and Earth’s past, including the origins of life on Earth. Also, how this mission will gather data to help protect us from the danger of catastrophic collisions in the future!
– Find out what the ‘Yarkovsky Effect’ is, and why understanding it is vital for Planetary Security and the survival of the Human Race versus Asteroid impacts!

Ultra Frontier Explorer- Episode 5: Celebrating the 10th Anniversary of New Horizons launch. Key findings from the Pluto & Charon flyby, plus latest photos & footage

It’s now the 10th Anniversary of New Horizons launch, and six months since the historic Pluto & Charon flyby (July 14th, 2015). New Horizons has spent those months beaming the data it collected back to us here on Earth, across 5 billion km of space. Recently, the New Horizons team have released some excellent photos and footage, and there has been an entire scientific conference focussing solely on the data from New Horizons (no doubt the first of many such conferences).


Scroll down for UFEx Episode 5, which is Part 2* of my video coverage of New Horizons ground-breaking mission to flyby Pluto & Charon, (and onward, deeper into the Kuiper Belt), featuring new photos and footage, and covering:
– Some of the engineering that went into New Horizons construction to protect it from any micro-meteorite collisions.
– How New Horizons instruments are powered so far from the Sun.
– Some perspective on navigating New Horizons safely through the multi-body Pluto system at over 49,000km/hr.
– Fascinating geological and meterological phenomena on Pluto & Charon, and proposed explanations for these, including: the composition of Pluto’s “heart” (Sputnik Planum) and the mountain ranges around it (Hilary Montes, Norgay Montes); the discovery of what appears to be two enormous cryo-volcanoes (Wright Mons and Picard Mons) and their implications for Pluto’s interior structure; the probable composition and origin of the reddish-brown material (tholins) patchily distributed on much of Pluto’s surface and at one pole of Charon, (and what that material might have had to do with the origin of life on Earth); plus an explanation for Pluto’s breathtaking blue sky.
– And finally, which of the myriad unexplored Kuiper Belt worlds will be New Horizons next destination, and when it will arrive there.

All of this and more, covered in less than 23minutes! So make yourself a cuppa, sit back and discover how much more we now know about the mysterious worlds of Pluto & Charon than we did before flyby.

*See below for ‘UFEx Episode 4, “New Horizons Journey to Pluto” Part 1’ – covering New Horizon’s gravitational slingshot around Jupiter (9 years ago) and its observations of the Jovian system, especially the Galilean moons.

Welcome to Once and Future Science

Welcome to Once and Future Science, where I’ll be blogging about scientific & technological advances in general, and advances in space science, medicine and energy in particular.

I’m Dr Jon Overton – you might be familiar with my space science series Ultra Frontier Explorer (that I produce for ) – you can catch up on UFEx here:


The background image I’ve used above is “The Day The Earth Smiled” which is an amazing composite photograph of Saturn, its rings and moons, with some planets of the Inner Solar System in the background. The Earth, as seen from 898million miles away (on Sat 19th July 2013) appears as the Pale Blue Dot in the lower right of the image. This image was produced by NASA’s Cassini mission, and is public domain, credit: NASA/JPL. You can see annotated and larger versions of this image here: