Studying Virus

Viral Load and COVID-19

As the COVID-19 pandemic has rapidly progressed, researchers, medical professionals and scientists alike have entered into a race against time not only to understand the virus and stop its spread but to also develop urgent tests and vaccinations for the world. At first, we saw the elderly and those with underlying health conditions most at risk, and whilst that is still true, as the virus has seeped its way further and further into society, young and healthy people are becoming quite severely affected by the disease too. In all cases of the disease we see some who need life-support and hospitalisation and others who have very mild conditions or are completely asymptomatic. One theory that has emerged which could add a facet of understanding to the situation is that of the viral load.

The notion of viral load, is a term that is quite common in the medical community. Simply put, it is a measurement of how much virus a person has in their body, recorded by the ratio in a standard measurement of bodily fluid, such as blood or plasma. It is commonly used in the treatment of HIV patients, to understand how well they are responding to antiviral drugs – if they have a low viral load, they are managing their treatment well. Studies into common viruses such as Influenza have also underlined the relevance of viral load.

As experts studying the new COVID-19 virus are still working to glean a full understanding of the disease, professionals often defer to knowledge of similar viruses such as influenza, SARS and MERS which have all demonstrated a higher severity of infection when exposed to a higher dose of the virus. Some researchers have suspected that this is the case for COVID-19, theorizing that perhaps, if a person has been privy to a higher viral load, that they are more likely to have a more severe case of the disease. Of course, this also needs to consider a person’s level of health prior to catching the disease.

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According to the New Scientist ‘a study of patients hospitalised with covid-19 in Nanchang, China, found a strong association between disease severity and the amount of virus present in the nose. “Those with more severe disease had a higher level of virus replication, although we have no evidence to relay the initial exposure dose to disease outcome,” says Leo Poon at Hong Kong University, who was involved in the study.’

However, the theory is still under review. Similar studies in Germany and Italy found that there was little to no difference in viral load between patients with mild to no symptoms and mild to severe symptoms, but again these studies are also under review and have not yet been published. However, many other early indications are showing a relevance to this theory. The reputable medical Journal The Lancet has published papers which have studied this theory and been under the ‘gold standard’ peer review system to indicate reliability. It suggests that there is a correlation between high viral load and severe symptoms.

When it comes to infection, the term ‘infectious dose’ also comes into play. With viruses such as Influenza, a person needs to be exposed to a relatively low infectious dose to become sick. For COVID-19, scientists do not know what constitutes an infectious dose, but due to the rapidness of its spread suspect it is rather low. According to Dr Ellen Foxman speaking to New York Magazine ‘If you’re exposed to one little viral particle, you probably have a much lower chance of becoming infected than if you are right next to someone on an airplane who is coughing for eight hours. The amount of virus needed to cause an infection is the infectious dose, which is different than the viral load.’

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Talking to The Telegraph, Professor Wendy Barclay, head of the department of infectious disease, Imperial College London, said: “In general with respiratory viruses, the outcome of infection – whether you get severely ill or only get a mild cold – can sometimes be determined by how much virus actually got into your body and started the infection off. It’s all about the size of the armies on each side of the battle, a very large virus army is difficult for our immune system’s army to fight off.”

For a virus to infect a person, its cells need to enter the body, replicate and take over other cells. A small dose of the virus, would allow a person’s immune system to effectively fight off the invaders before the virus cells duplicate to a level where they overwhelm the body. If one was to ingest a large hit of the virus, more cells would enter the body at once and naturally the virus would develop so rapidly that the immune system could not effectively cope.

Once a person is infected with the virus they could then be viral shedding during the period that they are infectious. One of the reasons why the coronavirus is spreading so quickly Is because people are infectious before they even know that they are ill. A higher viral load may also mean that you shed more virus particles that increase the likelihood of you infecting another person.

Therefore, although lockdown procedures are predominantly in place to limit the spread of Coronavirus and social distancing will reduce a person’s probability of contracting the disease, they could also be effective in limiting one’s exposure to higher doses of the virus. Whilst the theory is still being discussed amongst scientists, it will be helpful in understanding the virus further.

Research Studies COVID-19

New Trial Drug Shows Promising Signs of Tackling Early Stage COVID-19

In the race to find a cure or a treatment for COVID-19, a trial drug has been found to effectively block how SARS-CoV-2 infects its host.

An international team led by Dr. Josef Penninger from the University of British Columbia has revealed the potential for a treatment which could stop the early infection of novel coronavirus, and interfere with how it interacts on a cellular level, effectively stopping the virus from entering the body and multiplying. Most notably, it also impacted how the virus infected blood vessels and the kidneys, where it is known to cause some of the most fatal manifestations.

The team behind the pioneering discovery included a vast array of academic researchers and companies including Dr. Ryan Conder’s gastrointestinal group at STEMCELL Technologies in Vancouver, Nuria Montserrat in Spain, Drs. Haibo Zhang, Art Slutsky from Toronto and Ali Mirazimi’s infectious biology team in Sweden. All have been working around the clock to try and study this virus in intricate detail in order to better understand how it affects the body. Such intricate knowledge is needed in order to devise the best solutions to reduce the impact of the virus, or ideally, stop it in its tracks.

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Most research is currently focussed on the ACE2 protein which lives on the surface of the cell membrane. This protein is sticky and enables the virus to easily attach itself and infect its host. Put in its most simplest terms, finding a way to turn off this ‘stickiness’ could help to prevent the virus from taking hold. Research into this area is already extensive as it is this protein which was identified as a key receptor in the previous SARS virus, which caused the 2003 outbreak. Although SARS was considered a global issue, it was by no means as wide-reaching as COVID-19. However, despite research into this area for several years, there has so far been no clinically proven antiviral therapy that effectively targets the ACE2 receptor at a molecular level, which has meant that medical professionals have no available treatment for COVID-19 and can only at best manage the symptoms as the body tries to fight off the virus itself.

This new research has helped to provide evidence that a drug called PN01 (human recombinant soluble angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 — hrsACE2) could hold the key to tackling the highly elusive and devastating ACE2 protein. There are now plans to begin clinical trials of the drug with the view to it being used as an antiviral therapy for COVID-19 if they prove successful. This will still take time though as there are many hoops to pass through before any new drug can be approved for mass use in human medicine.

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To help speed up this process, the current study looked at how the virus infected human blood vessels and kidneys using ‘organoids’ which are engineered replicas grown from human stem cells. It showed that the virus infects and replicates easily within these tissues, which goes some way to explain why severe cases are resulting in multiple organ failure and why patients also display cardiovascular damage. Critically, these tests also showed that hrsACE2 was able to inhibit the coronavirus load by a factor of 1,000-5,000. hrsACE2 also reduced the level of SARS-CoV-2 in these tissues. The fact that ACE2 was identified so quickly as the entry gate has led to the understanding that a soluble form of ACE2 could be used to essentially stop the virus in its tracks. It essentially shuts off the pathway the virus needs to actually infect the body and could have transformational results for the future treatment of COVID-19.

Organoids are increasingly being used to help test new treatments, as they help to speed up this crucial time between research and human trials. They are particularly useful when facing a time critical health crisis such as the novel Coronavirus, where time really is of the essence. The speed at which this research was conducted was expedited thanks to emergency funding from the Canadian federal government which was providing funds specifically to help speed up the development, testing and implementation of measures which contribute directly to the fight against COVID-19.
Many scientists are racing against time to find a cure or a treatment for COVID-19 as it continues to cause the premature deaths of tens of thousands of people across the world. As global infection rates soar past the 1 million mark, it is impossible to know which treatment will pass the post first, but any progress towards this ultimate goal is positive and takes us one step closer to beating this invisible killer. We continue to wait with baited breath for a vaccine or treatment which can help to reduce the severity of the symptoms.

Molecular Switch Mechanism Explains How Mutations Shorten Biological Clocks

Understanding the molecular mechanisms of our internal clocks may enable the development of therapies for sleep disorders and other effects of clock disruption.

A new study of molecular interactions central to the functioning of biological clocks explains how certain mutations can shorten clock timing, making some people extreme “morning larks” because their internal clocks operate on a 20-hour cycle instead of being synchronized with the 24-hour cycle of day and night.

The study, published February 11 in eLife, shows that the same molecular switch mechanism affected by these mutations is at work in animals ranging from fruit flies to people.

“Many people with sleep phase disorders have changes in their clock proteins,” said Carrie Partch, associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry at UC Santa Cruz and a corresponding author of the paper. “Generally, mutations that make the clock run shorter have a morning lark effect, and those that make the clock run longer have a pronounced night owl effect.”


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Blue Sky

Curious Kids: Is The Sky Blue On Other planets?

Unlike Earth’s atmosphere, Jupiter’s “sky” hosts magnificent shades of orange, white, brown and blue.

Before I get too excited talking about the atmospheres of other planets, first we have to talk about what an atmosphere actually is.

Earth’s atmosphere is split into different layers. ESA

The atmosphere is normally the outermost layer of a planet. On rocky worlds like Earth it is usually the lightest and thinnest layer.

The thing that makes an atmosphere an atmosphere is what it’s made of. It’s not made up of big lumps of rocks or huge swirling oceans; it is made up of gases.

Atmospheres can contain a wide variety of gases. Most of Earth’s atmosphere is a gas called nitrogen that doesn’t really react with anything. There’s also a fair bit of oxygen, which is what we need to breathe. There are also two other important gases called argon and carbon dioxide and tiny amounts of lots of other ones.


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Woman Getting Skin Facial

Scientists Find New Ways To Prevent Skin Scarring

A new study in Burns & Trauma, published by Oxford University Press, reveals promising new strategies to prevent skin scarring after injuries.

While scars are common when wounds heal, hypertrophic scarring is a skin condition characterized by deposits of excessive amounts of collagen. This results in a thick and often raised scar. The underlying mechanisms of hypertrophic scar development are poorly understood, however. The Burns & Trauma paper reviewed strategies for treating hypertrophic scars.

Skin wound healing is a process that consists of three phases: inflammation, proliferation, and regeneration. Hypertrophic scar formation can occur as a result of an abnormality in these processes. The frequency of such scarring ranges from 40% to 94% following surgery and from 30% to 91% following a burn injury. In poorer countries, the incidence rate is greater reflecting the high rate of burn injuries.

Major risk factors for hypertrophic scar formation include gender, age, genetic predisposition, wound size and depth, anatomical site, and mechanical tension on the wound. Such scarring hinders normal function, and obviously results serious physical, psychological, and aesthetic problems for patients.

It is widely accepted that the time to complete wound healing is the most important factor to predict the development of hypertrophic scars. Only one-third of wounds developed scarring tissue if healing occurred between 14 and 21 days. Some 78% of the sites resulted in serious scarring if the wound healed after 21 days.

The established therapies for preventing serious skin scarring include pressure therapy, which has long been considered the mainstay non-invasive treatment for hypertrophic scarring. It is widely used worldwide and its effectiveness has been established. It’s likely more effective suggested that it is more effective if pressure therapy is performed within two months after the initial injury.

Other interventions include silicone, steroids, and laser therapy. While the effectiveness of silicone therapy has not been completely determined, the topical administration of steroids for burn injuries has been generally used and reported to be effective. There is consistent evidence that early laser intervention for the prevention would be beneficial in both the speed of scar reduction and the efficacy of therapeutic response.

Resection (cutting out the tissue) and radiation can often be used in addition to the primary therapies. Surgical approaches do, however, vary with the type of scar. Researchers involved with this paper argue that we need long term results in order to make decisions about using resection or radiation as a medical intervention.

The drug botulinum toxin A (btxA) is widely used for cosmetic purposes, as well as treating headaches and other pain. It is also often used to treat hypertrophic scars. Researchers involved in this paper emphasize that while btxA appears to have some positive effect on scar prevention, researchers still haven’t decided on the optimal concentration of the drug to treat scarring. It may depend on the size or severity of the wound. They conclude the drug is promising and worth investigating further.

Future management possibilities for hypertrophic scar therapy include anti-angiogenesis therapy, which inhibits the development of new blood vessels, fat grafting, and stem cell therapy. There are several experimental investigations on the effectiveness such therapies to reduce abnormal tissue formation.


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Online Drugs

Startup Developing ‘Digital’ Drugs To Boost US Troops In Space

The company, AeBeZe Labs, is just three years old. In traditional startup fashion, it is based in Palo Alto, California, and has fewer than 10 people. The founder, Michael Moskowitz, is an entrepreneur who previously held positions at eBay and IDEO.

The company’s app, Moodrise, provides a glimpse into how troops might be monitored for anxiety and depression in space, and the most harmful effects of mental illness staved off. The app uses slideshows of different videos, mined from the internet, to target specific neurotransmitters associated with mood. The app is intuitive to use and the videos well selected but whether it can produce a mood shift is difficult to quantify and likely depends on the user.

The phenomenon of technology addiction is proof that digital images release certain neurotransmitters in our brains. AeBeZe Labs thinks it can leverage this to improve mental health in a low-cost and accessible way. AeBeZe has already developed interfaces for smart watches, home devices, and phones.

The technology keeps a record of the user’s emotional changes throughout the day, and, according to AeBeZe’s patent, will eventually be able to mine text messages and facial expression — using a built-in-camera — for emotional content. The patent also includes the potential to “push” emotionally coded content to the user throughout the day, which can be easily imagined in outer space.

In the recent film “Ad Astra,” the astronaut played by Brad Pitt is continuously subject to psychological monitoring via an AI interface, and uses a “comfort room” filled with screens playing videos designed to improve his mood. The videos include birds flying and bees pollinating flowers, meant to generate calm feelings. On the Moodrise app, the therapy would be described as releasing the GABA neurotransmitter, which reduces the activity of neurons and likely reduces feelings of anxiety and fear.

The market for direct-to-consumer mental-health technology has proved viable through apps such as Headspace and Calm, but Moskowitz’s bet is on providing digital-therapy technology to large organizations interested in institutional health, such as the US military and its newly created Space Force.

The renewal of the Air Force contract shows the military is listening. The first contract with the Air Force was worth $41,094 and the second $749,136. Strategies for improving mental health are desperately desired, and significant investments are being made in digital-health technology. The Department of Veterans Affairs has already begun expanding telehealth, or medical assistance delivered remotely through technology, to improve the quality of service. In fact, Moskowitz was clued into the military applications of this technology in 2016 from a former Air Force officer.

“You don’t have cigarette breaks anymore,” Moskowitz says. “We need a new way for servicemen and women to cope with stressors of the job.”


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10 Woman In Science You Need To Know About

Science is often considered a male-dominated field. In fact, according to United Nations data, less than 30% of scientific researchers worldwide are women.

Studies have shown that women are discouraged from, or become less interested in, entering the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) beginning at a young age. And according to the Pew Research Center, women remain underrepresented in engineering, computer science and physical science.

But despite challenges of gender discrimination and lack of recognition in the scientific community, countless inspiring women in these fields have made historic contributions to science and helped advance understanding of the world around us. Many were not recognized in their own lifetimes, but their achievements have helped generations of female scientists to come.

We all learned about Marie Curie and Jane Goodall, but here are 10 more women in science you should know.

American chemist Alice Ball was the first woman and first African American to receive a master’s from the University of Hawaii and went on to become the university’s first female chemistry professor. At just 23 years old, Ball developed a groundbreaking treatment for leprosy — a disease which previously had little chance of recovery and forced victims into exile.

Prior to Ball’s research on leprosy, the best treatment available was chaulmoogra oil, which was difficult for patients to ingest or apply topically and too thick to inject. While working as a research assistant at Kalihi Hospital in Hawaii, Ball developed an easily injectable form of the oil that ultimately saved countless lives and became the best treatment for leprosy until the 1940s.

Unfortunately she died before she was able to publish the findings, and the president of the University of Hawaii attempted to claim the research as his own until Ball’s former supervisor publicly spoke out that she deserved the credit for the lifesaving injection. It wasn’t until the 21st century that her achievements were fully recognized and the governor of Hawaii declared February 29 “Alice Ball Day.”

Legend has it that British chemist and DNA researcher Rosalind Franklin knew she wanted to be a scientist since she was 15 years old. That dream went on to become a reality when she was offered a prestigious scholarship to King’s College London, where she became an expert in the X-ray crystallography unit.

Franklin’s research data was the first to demonstrate the basic dimensions of DNA strands and reveal the molecule was in two matching parts, running in opposite directions. Her data was used by James Watson and Francis Crick to get their research on the DNA model across the finish line, and was published separately as supporting data alongside Watson, Crick and Maurice Wilkins’ research articles in Nature.

Many people in the scientific community argue that Franklin should have been awarded a Nobel Prize alongside Watson, Crick and Maurice Wilkins, who won the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine “for their discoveries concerning the molecular structure of nucleic acids and its significance for information transfer in living material.” Unfortunately, Franklin died from ovarian cancer in 1958, just four years before the prize was awarded, even though at the time the organization could have awarded it posthumously.

Dorothy Hodgkin was a British chemist on the cutting edge of X-ray crystallography. In 1964, Hodgkin became the first and only British woman to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry “for her determinations by X-ray techniques of the structures of important biochemical substances.”

Throughout her career, she made numerous breakthrough discoveries, including the atomic structure of penicillin, the structure of vitamin B12 and the structure of insulin. Hodgkin also spent decades improving X-ray crystallography techniques, which made it possible for her to complete her innovative research on insulin and improve treatments for diabetes.

She also became the second woman to win the UK’s prestigious Order of Merit in 1965. While Hodgin was a professor at Oxford University, she even mentored Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who would go on to win the Order of Merit herself.

Grace Hopper was a trailblazing computer programmer who helped develop multiple computer languages and is considered one of the first programmers of the modern computing age.

Armed with a master’s degree and PhD in mathematics from Yale, Hopper went on to have an influential career in the private sector and the US Navy. She joined the US Naval Reserve in 1943 to help with the American war effort, and throughout WWII she worked in a prestigious lab responsible for top-secret calculations such as calibrating minesweepers, calculating the ranges of anti-aircraft guns and checking the math behind the creation of the plutonium bomb.

Her career also contributed to modern computer vernacular. While Hopper was developing some of the earliest electromechanical computers — MARK I and MARK II — she dismantled a malfunctioning computer to find that a dead moth was causing the problem. She became the first person to call computer problems “bugs” in the system.

Barbara McClintock (1902-1992)

American botanist Barbara McClintock was responsible for several groundbreaking discoveries in the field of genetics following her decades-long career studying the genetic structure of maize. McClintock studied how genetic characteristics are passed down through generations, eventually uncovering that some genes could be mobile.

In the 1940s and 1950s, McClintock’s research revealed that genetic elements could sometimes move on a chromosome and thus cause nearby genes to activate. But it wasn’t until decades later that scientists apart from maize specialists understood and recognized the immense value of her discovery.

McClintock was awarded the National Medal of Science in 1971 and won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1983 “for her discovery of mobile genetic elements,” now called transposons.

Austrian physicist Lise Meitner contributed significant advancements to the field of nuclear physics. She was also the first woman to become a physics professor in Germany.

Meitner’s work on nuclear fission was instrumental in her longtime research collaborator Otto Hahn winning the 1944 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, so much so that many scientists later argued it was unfair for her contributions to not have been recognized equally by the Nobel Committee. Meitner was also an advocate for the peaceful use of atomic energy and flatly refused to work on the Manhattan Project because she strongly opposed using fission to create an atom bomb.

Today, multiple prestigious awards in physics are named in honor of Meitner and she even has a chemical element — meitnerium — named after her.


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W.H.O. Weighs Science And Politics In Global Virus Emergency Decision

Most of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) criteria for declaring a global emergency have been met, but it is awaiting clear evidence of a sustained spread of the new coronavirus outside China before doing so, some experts and diplomats said.

The U.N. agency is seeking to balance the need to ensure China continues to share information about the virus while also giving sound scientific advice to the international community on the risks, according to several public health experts and a Western diplomat who tracks the WHO’s work.

The WHO has declared five global emergencies in the past decade, including the ongoing Ebola epidemic in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Doing so can hurt host countries because it may lead to flight cancellations and travel or trade restrictions, dragging on the economy.

In the latest case, the WHO declined to declare China’s coronavirus a public health emergency of international concern(PHEIC) twice last week, although its Emergency Committee was split “50-50” over whether to do so.

“What was lacking for them to declare an international emergency were deaths abroad and human-to-human transmission outside of China,” said the Geneva-based diplomat following the agency.

“If there was proof of human-to-human spread among the ‘imported’ cases, the panel would lean toward another finding.”

WHO spokesman Christian Lindmeier declined to comment beyond what he told a news briefing earlier on Tuesday.

He restated that the WHO’s criteria for a global emergency include a “serious or unusual” health situation that affects other countries and may require a coordinated international response.

In reply to a question, he added: “It is not ‘wildly spreading’ outside of China.”

While the vast majority of the 4,500 or so confirmed cases and all 106 deaths so far have been in China, cases in Germany, Vietnam, Taiwan and Japan where the virus has spread person-to-person have heightened concerns.

“As information is coming in, it seems to be confirming our worst fears,” Lawrence Gostin, university professor at Georgetown Law in Washington, DC, told Reuters.

“So I do believe that the WHO is going to have to declare an emergency and is going to have to take the lead … You can’t leave this to China.”

The WHO’s 16-member expert panel is being “kept in the loop” and could be reconvened at any time to reassess the outbreak.

“Just because of rising numbers in China now this would not automatically trigger an Emergency Committee,” Lindmeier told the briefing.

A declaration would lead to boosting public health measures, funding and resources to prevent and reduce global spread. It could include recommendations on trade and travel, although the WHO generally tries to avoid disruptive trade restrictions.

The Emergency Committee deliberations are secret and its members have been told not to speak about their debate, several WHO officials told Reuters.

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and Chinese President Xi Jinping met in Beijing on Tuesday to discuss how to protect Chinese citizens and foreigners in areas affected by the virus and “possible” evacuation alternatives, Lindmeier said.

China has agreed that the WHO can send international experts there as soon as possible to increase understanding of the new coronavirus and guide the global response to the outbreak, the WHO said at the end of Tedros’ two-day visit.

Some experts believe the Geneva-based health agency is in a difficult position, having drawn fire in the past for acting either too quickly or too slowly.

“Essentially the WHO is between a rock and a hard place,” said Jeremy Farrar, an expert in infectious disease epidemics and director of the Wellcome Trust global health charity.


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Volcano in Philippines

Scientists Fear Major Volcanic Eruption in the Philippines

Researchers in the Philippines are monitoring the Taal volcano closely for signs of a major eruption. The volcano’s activity has eased since it began spewing steam and ash more than a week ago, but the threat of a large-scale eruption remains, say scientists. In addition to the immediate risk to life, such an event could contaminate water supplies and disrupt power generation for millions of people, and halt ground and air travel.

At 2:30pm local time on 12 January, Taal — which is on an island about 60 kilometres south of the capital Manila — started ejecting lava and blew a giant plume of rock fragments, known as tephra, up to 15 kilometres high. Ash travelled as far north as Quezon City, some 70 kilometres away, forcing tens of thousands of people living on Taal’s Volcano Island and in nearby provinces to evacuate.

The volcano’s activity has stalled, but this does not mean the worst is over, says volcanologist Mariton Bornas, who heads the division responsible for monitoring and predicting eruptions at the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (PHIVOLCS), a government agency in Quezon City, just north of Manila.

The volcano remains at level 4, the second-highest level on the country’s volcano-alert system, which means a hazardous eruption could happen in hours or days. Scientists say the threat of a major eruption remains high because PHIVOLCS has reported some 450 volcanic earthquakes in the past 24 hours, as well as the emergence of fissures, and receding of the surrounding lake. The ongoing seismic activity suggests that magma is continuing to rise to the volcano’s surface from deep within the Earth, says Bornas.

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Scientists Want To Turn Moondust Into Oxygen

NASA’s plan is to return astronauts to the Moon by 2024, but the European Space Agency is working on a plan to help humans breathe on the celestial satellite — by turning moondust into oxygen.

The ESA announced that it was creating a “prototype oxygen plant” to create oxygen using simulated lunar material, not only to help astronauts breathe, but for rocket fuel as well, according to Beth Lomax of the University of Glasgow, whose work is being supported by the ESA’s Networking and Partnering Initiative.

“Having our own facility allows us to focus on oxygen production, measuring it with a mass spectrometer as it is extracted from the regolith simulant,” Lomax said in a statement. “Being able to acquire oxygen from resources found on the Moon would obviously be hugely useful for future lunar settlers, both for breathing and in the local production of rocket fuel.”

On the left side of this before and after image is a pile of simulated lunar soil, or regolith; on the right is the same pile after essentially all the oxygen has been extracted from it, leaving a mixture of metal alloys. Both the oxygen and metal could be used in future by settlers on the Moon. (Credit: ESA)

Alexandre Meurisse, a research fellow at the ESA, notes that by having their own facility, the researchers can tweak the process, including “reducing the operating temperature” and “eventually designing a version of this system that could one day fly to the Moon to be operated there.”

Samples returned from the lunar surface have confirmed that the regolith (the layer of rocky material that covers the bedrock) is comprised of between 40 and 45 percent oxygen, but it’s mostly in the form of minerals or as oxides, making it not available for immediate use. So to fix that, the ESA is using their oxygen extraction and using a method known as molten salt electrolysis to help create oxygen into a usable form, while also turning the regolith in metal allows that can be used.

“At Metalysis, oxygen produced by the process is an unwanted by-product and is instead released as carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide, which means the reactors are not designed to withstand oxygen gas itself,” Lomax explained. “So we had to redesign the [European Space Research and Technology Center] version to be able to have the oxygen available to measure. The lab team was very helpful in getting it installed and operating safely.”

The ultimate goal is to get a “pilot plant” that could work in a sustainable manner on the Moon, with the target date in the middle of the decade.

“ESA and NASA are heading back to the Moon with crewed missions, this time with a view towards staying,” Tommaso Ghidini, Head of ESA’s Structures, Mechanisms and Materials Division, added. “Accordingly we’re shifting our engineering approach to a systematic use of lunar resources in-situ. We are working with our colleagues in the Human and Robotics Exploration Directorate, European industry and academia to provide top class scientific approaches and key enabling technologies like this one, towards a sustained human presence on the Moon and maybe one day Mars.”

NASA’s Artemis program aims to land American astronauts on the Moon by 2024 and establish a sustainable human presence on Earth’s natural satellite.


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