International Space Station as seen from Space Shuttle Discovery (Photo: NASA)

International Space Station as seen from Space Shuttle Discovery (Photo: NASA)

Last week’s failure of the Russian spacecraft Progress sparked questions about how the International Space Station will be affected.  Although Progress was carrying supplies to the ISS, NASA officials say the space station is well stocked and can continue operating at a higher orbit (which consumes less fuel) for several more months without a visit from a resupply vehicle.

The unmanned Russian supply freighter, which was launched on a Soyuz rocket, crashed last Wednesday shortly after takeoff.  Since then, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has ordered the Russian space agency Roscosmos to improve its oversight of spacecraft production. Roscosmos postponed a scheduled launch of a satellite until next month so that they can inspect the Soyuz rocket.

The ISS has a crew of six people.  The crew is sent up to the space station three at a time,  replacing the three crew members who have been up in space the longest.

A few months later this crew rotation is repeated.  Each three person team is scheduled to be aboard the ISS for six months.  But if necessary, they  can stay with the ISS for a longer period.

Meanwhile, a scheduled ISS crew rotation, set for early September, may need to be postponed until Rocosmos completes its investigation and clears its rockets for launch.

If Roscosmos is unable to replace those three crew members by October, then the three will be forced return to Earth in one of two Soyuz spacecraft already docked with the ISS.

That would leave the space station operating with a three-person crew.

The newest three person team is scheduled to return in November, but if there are no issues to prevent it, the three could remain aboard the ISS until early 2012 .

NASA says that if the Russian rockets are still not cleared for launch after that time, conceivably the space station could be temporarily abandoned to allow the remaining three crew members to return to earth in their Soyuz spacecraft.

NASA says it’s confident the Russian space agency will soon resolve the problems, allowing future supply missions and crew changes to proceed as scheduled.

At present NASA says that they’re not making any plans to abandon the ISS.

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Mobile Phones Provide Valuable Disaster Data

In this June 14, 2010 photo, Daisuke Tsuda tweets with his mobile phone at a station in Tokyo. "Japan is enjoying the richest and most varied form of Twitter usage as communication tool," says Tsuda, 36, a writer with more than 65,000 "followers" for his tweets. "It's playing out as a rediscovery of the Internet." (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara)

(AP Photo/Koji Sasahara)

Researchers from Sweden and the US have discovered that mobile telephone positioning data can be used to monitor population movements during disasters and other emergencies.

According to a recently published study, reports on the locations of affected groups of people in need of assistance can be generated within hours of receiving data from mobile phones.

Emergency response and public safety officials say it can be difficult to deliver essential and appropriate relief assistance to the right place due to the unpredictable movement of people following disasters.

In the study, teams from the Karolinska Institute in Sweden and New York’s Columbia University investigated whether the position data taken from the mobile phone’s SIM cards (subscriber identity modules) can be used to estimate the scope and magnitude of these post-disaster population movements.

The researchers worked with Digicel, Haiti’s largest mobile phone operator, to look back and follow the positions of some 1.9 million SIMs in Haiti before and after the January 2010 earthquake.  What they discovered was that the estimates of population movements using data from the SIM cards were more accurate than estimates generated by emergency officials immediately after the earthquake.

Employing this method of harvesting data from the mobile phones, the research teams then tracked the population movements during the first few days of the cholera outbreak that followed the earthquake and found that they were able to generate accurate population reports within 12 hours of receiving SIM positioning data.

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USC Scientists Find Solution to Hydrogen Storage Problem

A research team from the University of Southern California has developed what they call a robust and efficient method of using hydrogen as a fuel source.

Hydrogen has long been seen as an ideal alternative to fossil fuels.  Scientists and environmentalists have been looking to hydrogen because it can easily be converted to electricity in a fuel cell. And, since its carbon free, no greenhouse gases are produced from its use.

The problem with using hydrogen for fuel is the issue of how to store it safely.

Anyone familiar with the 1937 Hindenburg disaster knows just how explosive hydrogen can be.  So far, just about the only way to safely store this highly flammable material is in the form of cumbersome and heavy high-pressure or cryogenic tanks, which makes it impractical for use in automobiles.

As a solution, the USC team looked to store hydrogen in a safe chemical form. Earlier this year, the team figured out a way to release hydrogen from a harmless chemical material that can be stored as a stable solid.

Now the USC team has developed a catalyst system that releases enough hydrogen from its storage in this material, a nitrogen-boron complex called ammonia borane, to make it usable as a fuel source. The researchers say that they’ve also found this system to be air-stable and reusable.

Best of all the researchers say that they have found that this system is quite lightweight and efficient enough to have potential fuel applications ranging from motor-driven cycles to small aircraft.

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Using Social Media to Recruit Subjects for Medical Research

To conduct clinical research on various diseases and conditions, scientists must first recruit a good number of compatible and appropriate human research subjects. As you can imagine, rounding up those who fit the specific criteria of the research project can be a difficult and time consuming endeavor, especially if the scientists are investigating a rare disease.

For years the research community has employed a number of methods ranging from physician referrals to advertising in newspapers and other mass media.

Now doctors as the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, have taken advantage of social media and other forms of online networking.

A team of Mayo Clinic cardiologists conducting research into a rare and poorly understood heart condition called spontaneous coronary artery dissection, or SCAD,  were able to find qualified test subjects through various patient-run websites dedicated to heart conditions and women’s heart health.

A co-author of this study points out that those who suffer from rare diseases tend to find one another, seek each other out and connect because they, too, are looking for information and support. And, since studies of rare diseases are often underfunded, people with these conditions are often quite motivated to help one another.

The study outlines how subject recruitment through social media and online networks could help researchers put together large and demographically diverse patient groups more quickly and inexpensively than they can by using traditional outreach methods.  This study is set for publication in the September issue of ‘Mayo Clinic Proceedings.’

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