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The Earth's Pulse
white pill #31 // wooden satellites, starship launch no. 2, a real-ish time promptable video-to-art generator, no-code robots, skin printing, japanese baby island
Readers as always I’m very happy to have the privilege of being in your inbox again for this the 31st edition of the White Pill, the local supercluster’s most excellent space, science, engineering, medicine, and hard technology newsletter. Some great stuff this week: we grew plants in a lunar regolith analog, 3D printed a soft robot hand with ligaments, bones, and tendons, developed deep learning algos to selectively cancel noise, stopped Parkinson’s in mice, and concluded — with pretty strong conviction — that our earth has a pulse.
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Alright, let’s get to it.
P.S. The PW crew has some time off around Thanksgiving, so this is the last White Pill until December. Have a warm and wonderful holiday with your loved ones, and I’ll see you on the other side.
Science-ing the sh*t out of lunar regolith (moon dirt). Last year, a team of American scientists were able to grow a weed called thale cress (pictured above) in a genuine lunar regolith sample (who knew?), but “not well enough for plants to mature and produce food.” Recently, researchers at the China Agricultural University tested three types of bacteria in a lunar soil stand-in, and found that the bacteria enhanced the availability of the vital plant nutrient phosphorous, which gave plants “more robust roots, longer stems and bigger leaves compared to untreated samples.” Really cool. (Phys.org)
Wooden satellites. NASA and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) are planning to launch a (mostly) wooden satellite called LignoSat into orbit next summer. Their 10-month test of the wood they plan to use in the harsh environment of space — where it was exposed to intense cosmic rays and extreme temperature fluctuations — returned “no decomposition or deformations, such as cracking, warping, peeling or surface damage.” The idea is that if LingoSat, which will be a cube the size of a coffee cup, is resilient enough, it could be another option for satellite makers to use. One that would easily burn up in the atmosphere upon reentry. (Space.com)
If all goes according to plan, SpaceX’s massive 40-story rocket and Martian transport system Starship will launch for the second time today at 7am CT. It was originally scheduled for yesterday at the same time, but had to be destacked from the launch platform on Thursday to replace a grid fin actuator, per Musk. If you’re catching this in time, and the launch is still on, you can watch it on SpaceX’s website.
Starship’s first launch, during which it exploded after about four minutes of flight, was on April 20th of this year. I wrote a fair amount about it in an early issue of the White Pill.
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Energy, Science, AI
3D printed, soft, robotic hands. Using a new 3D printing technique that “makes it easy to combine soft, elastic, and rigid materials… [to] create delicate structures and parts with cavities,” researchers have printed a ‘soft’ robotic hand (pictured above) with ligaments, bones, and tendons made out of polymers with different stiffnesses — and they did it in one go instead of having to assemble the parts after the fact. This could lead to better prosthetics and cooler robots. Here’s a video of the 3D printing process and robot hands in action. (ETH Zurich)
Krea.ai released (with invite code) an extremely cool real-ish time promptable video-to-art generator. There are several videos of people with access to it circulating on X that show the tool using a prompt + webcam to generate imagery (see above) — watch one of them here; the prompt used above is “cinematic still of a man walking through the desert at sunset.” (@nickfloats)
University of Washington researchers developed deep-learning algorithms for noise canceling headphones such that wearers can pick which sounds they want to hear, and which to block. There are 20 categories, including “sirens, baby cries, speech, vacuum cleaners and bird chirps.” The video demo is quite impressive. (University of Washington)
Above is a still from a mesmerizing video released by the NASA Ames Research Center of the visualization created by their Pleiades supercomputer modeling how air particles flow through a turbofan engine. “By simulating the fan’s rotations, researchers can target design innovations and modifications to reduce the impact of fan noise on people living and working in areas with heavy air traffic.” (@DrChrisCombs)
The White Pill Investment Index tracks investments in companies developing interesting, exciting, forward-thinking products. Deals are sourced using a combination of Pitchbook and reach outs to each company.
Solar panels for space — Solestial, a company developing solar cells designed to last for up to a decade in space, and priced at a 90% discount to traditional solutions, receives a $999,941 grant from Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer Programs.
Breast milk, made in a lab — Nūmi, a startup using mammary cells to produce milk in vitro (this allows mothers with breastfeeding difficulties to give their child quality milk), raises a $3.26 million pre-seed from from Kima Ventures, Heartcore Capital and HCVC.
Hydrogen-powered eVTOL — Vertiia, an Australian company developing the world’s first hydrogen-powered vertical-takeoff aircraft (they say it will have a 186mph speed, and 620 mile range), raises $3.5 million in venture funding from Australian Renewable Energy Agency.
Giving computers a sense of smell — Osmo, a company working to read, map, and write smell (they say that in the future, “computers will generate smells like we generate images and sounds today”), receives $3.5 million of grant funding from Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Wireless power distribution using lasers — PowerLight, a company developing a wireless power supply system that uses lasers to transmit power that is converted back into electricity using a specialized solar cell, raises $4.03 million in venture funding.
Robots for construction sites — Raise Robotics, a company developing robots that can assist with high-risk or repetitive processes on the job site (the robot has an arm that can reach almost six feet), raises a $4.11 million Seed from Cybernetix Ventures, UNION Labs VC and Zacua Ventures.
Autonomous driving for any car — Ghost Autonomy, a startup building a self-driving platform that can be installed on any consumer car without the need for extensive hardware modifications, raises an additional $5 million of Series E venture funding from OpenAI Startup Fund.
No-code robots — Augmentus, a company that provides factory robots that can be programmed to do their job by nontechnical workers (they claim average programming time is 30x faster than traditional methods), raises a $5 million Series A led by Sierra Ventures.
Advanced prosthetic limbs — Aether Biomedical, a company developing an IoT-enabled bionic arm for amputees (its modular design allows it to be repaired by clinicians in under 30 minutes, and the internet-connected software allows providers to remotely configure the hand without a trip to the doctor), raises $5.8 million of venture funding in a deal led by J2 Ventures.
Near-instant delivery, via tubes — Pipedream Labs, a company developing a network of underground tubes that carry goods such as food at a rate far faster than standard car delivery, raises a $9.43 million round from 305 Ventures, Asymmetry Ventures and Vibe Cap.
AI copilot for therapists — Eleos Health, a company developing a “tool that can run in the background of mental health sessions and uses voice AI capabilities to analyze it and give insights and information about the patient,” (they say it reduces time spent on documentation by 50%), raises a $40 million Series B led by Menlo Ventures.
Skin printing. Scientists at New York’s Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute 3D printed hair follicles into lab-grown human skin, a first for the field of human skin growing 👻. This is actually, potentially, a big step toward growing more realistic skin in the lab for use in treating burn victims and other medical conditions, as hair follicles “play an important role in skin healing and function […] [they] produce sweat, [help] regulate body temperature, and they contain stem cells that help skin heal.” Trippy description of how exactly this works:
The scientists begin by allowing samples of skin and follicle cells to divide and multiply in the lab until there are enough printable cells. Next, the researchers mix each type of cell with proteins and other materials to create the "bio-ink" used by the printer. Using an extremely thin needle to deposit the bio-ink, the printer builds the skin layer by layer, while also creating channels for depositing the hair cells. Over time, the skin cells migrate to these channels surrounding the hair cells, mirroring the follicle structures present in real skin.
Halting Parkinson’s in mice. Researchers at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center recently removed a gene in mice that produces the enzyme USP30, which plays a role in killing off dopamine cells — a process central to the progression of Parkinson’s disease — and observed that the mice were essentially “protected against the development” of the disease. Then, in a second set of experiments, the team validated their initial findings by using a molecule to prevent the enzyme’s action in dopamine-producing neurons. From David K. Simon, MD, Ph.D., director of the Parkinson's Disease & Movement Disorders Center at BIDMC and professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School: “The two experimental strategies together are much more convincing than either alone. Together, our very significant findings support the idea that reducing USP30 warrants further testing for its potentially disease-modifying effects in [Parkinson’s disease].” (MedicalXpress)
Another type of brain cell sends signals, not just neurons. Looks like our model for how the brain works needs a small update. Swiss neuroscientists recently found that one type of glia — normally a class of cells that support neurons, but don’t communicate — communicate with neurons through glutamate, a common neurotransmitter. These type of glia cells seem to occur in fairly small numbers, and only in certain areas of the brain, which is why they were missed until now. What’s next? From Scientific American:
First, neuroscientists must map where in the brain these special cells can be found. Because [study co-author] Volterra's team located them in structures associated with memory, the researchers plan to examine data from people with Alzheimer's disease to see whether, and how, their signaling astrocytes are altered. “We know they're located in memory circuits, so the next question is, What happens in dementia?” Volterra says. “If these cells are modified, they become a new target” for research.
Scientists at the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology (ACAAI) developed a toothpaste to treat peanut allergies, and just concluded the first human trials successfully (cool!). The toothpaste works by delivering tiny amounts of peanut proteins to allergy sufferers, essentially building up their tolerance. (IFL Science)
Finally, the fun stuff
The earth’s pulse. For some time it’s been suspected that events on the geological time scale — like mass extinctions, major sea-level fluctuations, continent scale eruptions of flood basalt, etc. — tend to correlate together, and seem to have a periodicity of around 26 to 30 million years. A new paper looking at 89 well understood geological events over the past 260 million years lends further weight to this idea of periodic catastrophic pulses occurring. Nobody is sure yet what the cause, or (more likely) causes are. Theories range from some unknown cycle of mantle activity and plate tectonics, to where the solar system is in the galaxy, to periodic comet strikes, or rogue stars. Not to worry though, we likely have about 20 million years before the next pulse. 😬 (Science Alert)
Japan welcomed a new island into its territory last week as the result of an undersea volcano’s weeks-long ongoing eruption — awesome footage here. “The new island could grow larger and change shape if the eruptions continue, but it could also disappear beneath the waves,” said the Guardian.
Kurzgesagt released an epic video last week where he takes an entire hour to narrate the 4.5 billion years of Earth’s geological, biological, and (right in the last few seconds) human history. 👍 (Kurzgesagt)
Touch grass this weekend.