SciTech Now Episode 432

In this episode of SciTech Now, we explore the science of space rocks; discuss what’s in a spacesuit; take a look at technological innovations; and degradable bones which will be replaced by a person’s growing bone tissue.



Coming up... The science of space rocks...

What we're trying to do is piece this all together, to really unravel the early solar system stories. suit secrets...

There isn't any air, there isn't any heat -- you're going to have to bring it with you.

So, the suit itself actually helps you do that.

...and new technologies, for better or worse...

And one of the ways that we could all be changed is if, uh, robotic construction became something that was common. a bone.

And we are trying to take your own cells and your own geometry, and create a new you for you.

It's all ahead.

Hello. I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Welcome to 'SciTech Now,' our weekly program bringing you the latest breakthroughs in science, technology, and innovation.

Let's get started.

The solar system is known for its complex composition, including debris from asteroids and comets called meteorites.

Arizona State University Curator Laurence Garvie shows us what we can learn from each unique space rock that's landed on Earth.

Our partner 'Science Friday' has the story.

These objects have been out there for billions of years, and then just by chance, the Earth and this object intersect.

One will be large enough that will survive the passage through the atmosphere, that fiery passage, and it falls onto the surface of the Earth.

And what we can pick up is called the meteorite.

♪♪ Very few of the things that actually fall are found.

My name is Laurence Garvie.

I am the curator for the Center for Meteorite Studies at Arizona State University.

And I'm also a research professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration.

Meteorites fall from space onto Earth all the time and, you know, these are precious, old objects.

These are objects that tell us about our early solar system.

We need a place to keep them, sort of in a safe environment for future studies.

And so, the Center for Meteorite Studies is that place.

It's a -- this is a meteorite vault around us.

Each of these meteorites really has a story locked up inside it, and our job as scientists is to unravel the story.

Almost all the meteorite that fall are from the Asteroid Belt.

When we look at the different types of meteorites, one of the most recognizable are the iron meteorites, because iron is rarely present on the surface of the Earth.

It rusts.

We now know that most iron meteorites are the cores of early asteroids.

They're telling us about the formation of early planets.

You sort of imagine early planets that were forming and failed.

Then we have the chondrites.

They really tell us about the most primitive early solar system material that have -- that have not experienced, as a whole, melting processes, and high heating processes.

If we think of one of the most famous ones called Murchison, which fell in Australia in 1969, and when you open this thing up, it's black on the inside.

It's full of carbon and organic materials.

That was telling you that the building blocks of life can form in outer space, in an environment and at a time that was even earlier than the formation of the Earth.

Actually, it's interesting, when you break open Murchison and actually smell it, it smells odd.

What you're smelling are 4 1/2 billion-year-old organic compound that are still evolving from the sample.

We have meteorites from Mars and we have meteorites from the Moon.

Nature has impacted the surface of Mars, ejected materials off Mars into space, some of which can eventually intersect with the Earth.

So, natural has brought back samples for us, and those are called achondrites.

And when we look at those, they are crystalline rocks.

Some of the most beautiful meteorites that we have are called pallasites.

If you look at them, there's this beautiful sea of gemi-green peridot crystals in a metal of matrix.

And we think that they are telling us about conditions between the core of an asteroid, which is primarily metal, and the outside of the differentiated asteroid, which primarily silicate.

You know, every once in a while, a meteorite lands, so to speak, in your backyard, and this happened here, in the Phoenix area.

This is once in a generation, a falling in our local environment.

For lack of a better word, it exploded above a remote part of Eastern Arizona.

This was the first time I participated in a meteorite fall recovery.

What we were looking for here, was something that looked out of place.

'Cause, you know, we were in high mountainous regions.

There were pine forests, there were oak forests.

This was a really remote site.

We hunted for about 132 hours, in total.

As soon as you came across this rounded, black fusion-crusted rock on this reddish ground, it completely stood out.

First thing we do, is to lift it up, very excitedly, by the way.

I mean, you cannot imagine the excitement of finding your first meteorite.

The stone turned out to be really amazing.

So, when we looked inside, it had structures that I hadn't seen before.

It has like a crushed texture to it.

It has the the chemistry of a chondrite, so what is this telling us?

So, now we're starting to do the scientific work.

You know, what we do is we look at these meteorites and we look at their characteristics and their chemistry and their isotopes and their structures, and what we're trying to do is piece this all together to really unravel the early solar system stories.

When we look at our current solar system, why does it have, you know, the rocky planets near the Sun, and then we have the Asteroid Belt, and we have the gas giants.

How unique are we?

We're always hoping for the next thing to fall, the next thing that's different and unusual.

♪♪ ♪♪

Ainissa Ramirez is a scientist, author, and a self-proclaimed science evangelist.

She is the creator of a podcast series called Science Underground.

She joins me now to discuss the secret behind space suits.

Yeah. Space suits.

I never really thought about the fact that space suits are almost like space shuttles, so to speak, for one, right?

It's your entire environment inside.

You know, there's -- there isn't any air, there isn't any heat -- you're going to have to bring it with you.

So, the suit itself actually helps you do that.

So, there's many different layers.

Here's like a segment of a space suit.

Starts off with a shell.

This shell is actually pretty tough.

Uh, the reason why it has to be tough is that there's small micro-meteoroids flying in the air and this --

All the time.

All the time in space.

Not on Earth, in space.

And this stops them from puncturing the suit.

So, you need the shell.

That's very important.

After that, you're going to have to have some insulation.

So, this is just a reflective layer, which sends your heat back to you.

UH, there's a couple of those just to keep you warm.

This is just a liner.

There's a structure that provides strength, because, otherwise, this thing'll just flop around like a wet towel, so you need something to support it.

And then, because engineers always like to use words that are technical, this is the bladder.

And all that is doing, is that's actually holding the air that you're going to breathe.

Now, the air that we breathe is -- is nitrogen and oxygen at a high pressure.

Uh, in space, it's only oxygen, and it's at a very low pressure.

And the reason why they do that, is if it was at the pressure that we're accustomed to, well, this thing would expand, and you'd look like a baby in a snow suit.

Oh, boy.

So, you want to keep it very low, so that you can move around.

Now, underneath that is a gauze suit, which looks like a jumper, and it has hose going through it, and that's the cooling system.

Just like your -- your air conditioner has a cooling system, you have your own cooling system so you can be comfortable in space.

And then, that's about it.

Or so they say.

There's actually one more layer.

Can I share that with you?



Oh, the reveal!

That looks like a diaper.

It is an adult diaper, yeah.

It's called a Maximum Absorbancy Garment, the MAG.

[ Laughter ] It's just a male way to say 'diaper.'

Say 'diaper.'

Well, yeah, if you're out on a space walk, you can't really just come on back in.

That's right.

You can't have a time-out.

'Hey, I got to go in.'

You know, you're out there for six hours, so you have to have one of those things.

So, that's the space suit secret.

So, do we learn something from all the stuff, all the technology that we've put into designing this space suit?

Has it made a better diaper here on Earth, or has it made, you know, for example, better, tougher shells that we might see in a jacket one day?

Well, a lot of things that have happened in NASA have translated to -- to us, I mean, just to have materials that can survive very tough environments.

Before we used to have just wool and natural textiles, like copper -- like, cotton.

But this is, uh, you know, a synthetic, so this is very tough.

This insulation reflective layer is also a technology that we use a lot, as well.

I have a hat that has this kind of thermal layer, so we borrow a lot from space science to our everyday clothing, as well.

And it seems that they've gotten more svelte over time.

You know, the pictures you see of the guys hoping around on the Moonscape versus what you see today, they just seem a little leaner, and they're probably more comfortable than what those guys had to do in the --

Right, and also how they're fitted.

They used to be clamped together.

Now, they've got different ways of attaching it.

Yeah, there are people working on the space suit, trying to get it to be more nimble.

Before, they would just make it for guys.

There are women that are going to go in space.

They have to have a different shape, a different size.

So, there's a lot of technology in -- in fitting these things.

That's one of the things that we don't really see, uh, accurately on the space-related shows.

What we see, is a very nice, sort of svelte outfit.

And if it had to have all those layers in it to protect you, uh, as you were walking around on Mars, you'd probably need something a little thicker.

That's right, that's right.

And we definitely don't talk about the secret.

[ Laughter ]

The secret.

The secret diaper layer.

Uh, when they're out there, when you're talking about these micro-meteoriods, the -- the space station is orbiting at a certain speed, right?

The other thing is that there's a lot of space junk and debris out there that's floating around, but it's also floating at such a speed that it's not like, uh, in that movie 'Gravity,' or whatever it was, where Sandra Bullock can kind of see it coming over the horizon.

Right, right.

It'd be on you, it'd be over.

It'd be instantaneous, right?

Right, right.

Uh, well, as for the micro-meteoroids, we don't experience them on Earth, because they're actually burning up as they hit and come into our atmosphere.

Uh, but this is strong enough for those small -- they're less than the size of a pebble.

But for space junk, I mean, that's -- that's a serious problem right now, because it can hit parts of the ship, it can hit an astronaut when he or she is out in space, so that's something that people are mitigating, as well.

I don't have the solution to that.

Do they think about that before they go out there?

Yeah, they definitely think about that.

Are we in a particular angle where there -- where there's a debris field that we're going through, and you can't do the walk now?


Space junk is a huge problem for -- for NASA.

All right, so, hopefully, this space technology will get to our clothes soon enough.

Thank you very much, Ainissa Ramirez, for joining us.

Thank you. Thanks.


Similar to how meteorologists fly into hurricanes, NASA has now flown a mission through the heart of a magnetic reconnection explosion.

We call this mission MMS.

This team of four spacecraft studies magnetic reconnection -- powerful explosions that occur when magnetic fields collide and realign -- a process that occurs regularly throughout space.

Close to Earth and throughout the universe, space is far from empty.

It contains elections and ions, and most importantly, magnetic fields.

This dynamic environment is unlike anything we experience on the ground.

As we rely more on satellites, or even prepare for a journey to Mars, we need to understand this complex system.

Magnetic reconnection is one of the key forces driving particles to accelerate through space, and it's a fundamental driver of space radiation, a critical phenomenon to understand when protecting our satellites and astronauts.

On October 16, 2015, MMS traveled straight through a magnetic reconnection event at the boundary where Earth's magnetic fields bump up against the Sun's magnetic fields.

In only a few seconds, MMS collected hundreds of observations of the way the magnetic fields and particles were moving, represented with arrows in this visualization.

Watch how they go along steadily and then suddenly begin to go in every direction.

This is the point where the magnetic fields reconfigured, and particles were sent racing off at high speed.

For the first time, we have observations from the epicenter of an energy transfer as important to how things move in space, as gravity is to how things move on Earth.

This is just the start.

In its first year, MMS made more than 4,000 trips through the magnetic boundaries around Earth, each time gathering information about the way the magnetic fields and particles move and interact in our space environment -- crucial information as we make plans to explore far beyond our home planet.

♪♪ What do robot swarms, space elevators, and augmented reality have in common?

They're all technological innovations explored in a new best-selling book called 'Soonish: Ten Emerging Technologies That'll Improve and/or Ruin Everything.'

Joining me now is co-author and noted researcher Kelly Weinersmith.

First of all, where'd you get the idea for this book?

All right, so, I do see in the book, there's certainly the comedic stuff.

The comical stuff is also sometimes comedic.

I like that part of it.

Um, what is the... Um, give me an example of one of the things that you think is going to change is all.

Okay, and the ruin, I guess, would come from the fact that the robots would be displacing the jobs of all the construction workers that would've built the house.

What about in the medical arena?

What kind of technologies and what kind of impact do you think we should be facing soon?

So, this isn't your traditional kind of science book that I would find in the bookstore.

What's the response been so far?

So, do you have another one in the works already?

A follow-up?

All right, Kelly Weinersmith, thanks so much for joining us.

Thanks for having me.


As new technologies continue to evolve, 3D printing bones has become a reality.

Bioengineers are developing degradable bones that, once placed in a human body, will eventually be replaced by a person's own growing bone tissue.

In this segment, we go inside the lab of the Syracuse Biomaterials Institute to learn more.

We're using technology, so bioengineering technology combined with cell biology, to essentially create a patient-specific bone replacement.

We are making a patient-specific bone, which can slowly integrate and become patient bone itself.


It's something external that's put into the body, but eventually, unlike a piece of metal, it becomes the person.

Yes. Yes, exactly.


And this material that we're using to build these is made out of a material that's used commonly.

You may have had -- if you ever had absorbable stitches, same material is being used there, approved by the FDA in that application.

And we're using the same sort of material, which again, degrades over time, and, um, we can tune that to the rate of degradation to the rate of replacement of the bone that we're trying to grow.

So, as -- as we're building new bone, we're wearing away the support structure that used to be there.

And to -- and to sort of add to this, I mean, since we can use 3D printing approach to basically print a bone of an athlete, or a bone of a small kid, um, exactly be based on, sort of, the CT scan or images from that -- that patient, right, which is not -- which can't be really done with approaches right now.


And that's an important point on the rehabilitation end, because the structure that you place in there plays an important part on how the forces are transduced through the bone and through the tissue.

And so, from the aspect of rehabilitation, not having to retrain your nerves and muscles to operate that -- that part of the anatomy, um, will get you back up and moving even faster.

A new heart of a new kidney is one thing, but to have to have the structural strength, in addition, to keep it living, is something that's --

The bone is -- as they say, bone is hard, both literally and metaphorically.

And so, really unique aspects of this project are that we're able to combine the hard and the soft parts, put them together in a way where we're able to support the mechanical loads that our -- that our skeleton is able to -- to support, but then also make it a biologically living tissue.

And so, those two -- two pieces have been really hard out in the field to put those two aspects together.

And so, we're really lucky in this collaboration to have both the people and the skills to do so.


I make use of the inert stuff, uh, in combination with the non-inert stuff.

And if you think about the bone, it is partly-inorganic and partly-organic.

So, the inorganic part is made with my approach, and I integrate that with the organic part, which is made by Dr. Horton's approach.

My part in there is -- is to bring the cells into it, so we are able to isolate these, uh, skeletal stem cells from a patient's own bone marrow, by putting these cells into the walls, that we can cause them to produce new bone, and that new bone then becomes integrated and is -- makes for the replacement tissue that we're trying to, uh, replace the injured tissue.

This area that we're in right now, is the Cell Culture Facility at Syracuse University, where we actually take the 3D printed constructs from Dr. Soman's lab, and put the cells from Dr. Horton's lab around our 3D printed pipes.

So, we have our pipes and our frames.

And so, basically what happens is, is we put the pipe, uh, our frame, and we cast our, uh, cells around them, uh, and eventually, the pipe will dissolve out, giving us the -- the vasculature within the construct.

See, our 3D printed hard construct, and in the center of our 3D printed hard construct, we have our gel containing our cells.

Now, that one pipe in the very center, that is actually, uh, bone that's been formed in the center of our construct via the profusion of nutrients from this syringe.


People be worried about sort of, some kind of Frankenstein element?

Are you making stuff that's going to make me different?

Dr. Frankenstein, right, when he tried to put someone together, he -- what he was able to do, is he went to the grave, and tried to collect parts of various people, and tried to stitch them together.

What we are doing is not that, right?

We are trying to take your own cells, and your own geometry, and create a new you, for you.

This is like, the most fun I've ever had in the last four, five years, because it's -- it sort of houses faculties of various expertise in one place.

It's sort of an open lab, uh, uh, culture where my group can, sort of, my group of Ph.D students can interact with other groups, and they sort of share the same sort of area and space, and it has all the equipment which I would need, essentially, to build a project like this.

Is it fair -- can we say, absolutely nobody else is doing it, beside you guys?

We're the only ones doing this combined additive and subtractive, uh, approaches to the manufacturing of the construct, but then also using the skeletal stem cells and vascular stem cells to really create a, uh, unit that can be, um -- can contain blood flow and support the mechanical loads that activities, that daily -- daily living require.


After 20 years, I would imagine if a patient walks in, and he has any kind of bone defect anywhere in the body, like, defect in your skull, in your arm, in your hips, anywhere, all we have to do is take a scan of that patient, and ask engineers to make a new part for that specific patient.

And that'll be made, replaced, and he'll be on his way in a few months' time, where there is no need of anymore operations, anymore surgery, and he can restore the function of that specific part fully.

And so, that's what I would imagine after 10, 15 years.

And that's a really important aspect of things, is that we also have the people and the ability to do that here locally with the relationship between SBI and SUNY Upstate, where we can design and run these clinical trials.

We have a great orthopedics department, a great rehabilitation department, and again, a great engineering department here.

All the pieces are falling into place, right here in Syracuse to do this work.


And that wraps it up for this time.

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Until next time, I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Thanks for watching.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪