This week in science is a review of the most interesting scientific news of the past week.
NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter swept past its 50,000th orbit this week
The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) is NASA's most data-productive spacecraft already sent to Mars, and it has achieved the 50,000th orbit-sweeping mark this week. MRO is currently responsible for science observations of Mars, by using its Context Camera (CTX), and for communications-relay service for two active Mars rovers, Curiosity and Opportunity.
CTX has already taken about 90,000 images since late 2006, the time it started operating. Until early 2017, it has surpassed 99 percent coverage of the entire planet, as can be seen in the image above. According to Michael Malin, CTX Team Leader:
"Reaching 99.1-percent coverage has been tricky because a number of factors, including weather conditions, coordination with other instruments, downlink limitations, and orbital constraints, tend to limit where we can image and when."
But MRO’s CTX has also observed 60.4 percent of the planet more than once, which helps scientists to create topographic maps of those regions. Those maps can be used to study possible landing sites for future missions to the red planet, what was the case for NASA's next mission to Mars, the InSight lander, as can be seen in the image above.
We finally have a winning potato variety for future agriculture on Mars
As we have already covered here, the International Potato Center (CIP, in Spanish) has developed the Potatoes on Mars project, which is a series of experiments to determine if potatoes can grow under Mars' atmospheric conditions. By using their CubeSat environment, which is hermetically sealed to avoid interference from the outside environment, and is constantly monitored by sensors to maintain the Martian conditions, they have finally determined a winning potato variety.
The winning variety is called "Unique", and according to Julio Valdivia, an astrobiologist who is working on the project:
"It's a 'super potato' that resists very high carbon dioxide conditions and temperatures that get to freezing."
Now, scientists will build three more simulators to grow more potatoes under extreme conditions. Among those is a planned increase in the carbon dioxide concentrations, approaching those in the Martian atmosphere.
NASA selects mission to study the chaotic "interstellar medium"
As already covered here at Neowin this week, NASA has selected the Galactic/Extragalactic ULDB Spectroscopic Terahertz Observatory (GUSTO) mission to conduct the first study of the interstellar medium. This medium contains lonely dust and gas particles that drift between stars. In the case of the Milky Way galaxy for example, the medium accounts for around 15% of the total mass of our galaxy.
The mission is expected to kick-off with the launch of an Ultralong-Duration Balloon carrying a $40 million dollar telescope over Antarctica in 2021.
SpaceX has successfully launched its first recycled rocket into space
We have covered here at Neowin the first time ever a recycled rocket returned to space, a milestone achieved this week by SpaceX. As stated by Elon Musk, the company's CEO:
"It means you can fly and re-fly an orbital class booster, which is the most expensive part of the rocket. This is going to be, ultimately, a huge revolution in spaceflight."
The Falcon 9 rocket first stage took four months of inspections and refurbishments before being launched again. According to SpaceX's website, the final goal of the development of reusable rockets is to deliver highly reliable vehicles at radically reduced costs. Finally, the company aims to launch five more pre-flown Falcon 9 rockets this year, which could transform space exploration as we know it.
The latest on human brain implants
A pilot trial by scientists from the Case Western Reserve University and the Cleveland Functional Electrical Stimulation Center was successful in restoring movement to William Kochevar, who has a major spinal cord injury and is paralyzed from the shoulders down.
Scientists have implanted two chips into Kochevar’s brain, which were used to measure the electrical signals sent by neurons whenever he thought about moving his right arm. Those signals were then analyzed by an algorithm, and transmitted to the electrodes in Kochevar’s upper and lower arm. According to Kochevar:
“At first I had to think really hard to get it to do stuff. I’m still thinking about it, but I’m not recognizing that I’m thinking about it.”
Kochevar's movements are still slow and limited, and the brain implants are expected to stop recording in one to four years. Such a short-life for the brain implants is still a huge problem for patients, and scientists still have to work on increasing it. But such an issue hasn't stopped Elon Musk from announcing his latest venture this week: Neuralink.
As already covered here at Neowin, Neuralink wants to implant human brains with computing devices as a way for humans to remain relevant in the coming age of machine automation and AI. According to Elon Musk, humans face an upcoming "existential risk" that will be brought by those technologies, particularly AI.