To the Stars with Data: October 10 2021

Making brain implants last longer, digital twin technology for preventative healthcare, crashing spacecraft into asteroids, and more

Hello Datanauts!

In one of my first issues, I explored dogs communicating with their people through buttons. Well, my dream is coming true! I introduced an “outside” button to my new dog, Hamilton, and he has already pressed it a few times. Next up, the “water”, “play”, and “cuddles” buttons. Wish me luck!

This week, I examine the length of daylight at different points on Earth throughout the year, how to make brain-computer interfaces longer-lasting, NASA crashing spacecraft into asteroids, and some seriously awesome, future-thinking companies.

Let’s go to the stars with data!

-Joe Lisle


Thought-Provoking Data Viz

🌞 Captivating visualization of the sun’s path over Europe during the solstices and equinox

Quick hits. Neil R Kaye visualized the sun’s path over Europe during the summer solstice (~Jun 21), spring/autumn equinox (~Mar 20 and ~Sep 22), and winter solstice (~Dec 21). In the visualization, it’s easy to see how far north someone needs to be to experience 24 hours of daylight during the summer solstice… and 24 hours of nighttime during the winter solstice.

Digging deeper. You may be wondering why I put the tilde (~) on the dates above. I did so because the dates of the solstices and equinoxes change over time in the Gregorian calendar due to leap years. Conveniently, at least one kind stranger has visualized the date changes on Wikipedia (see chart below)! Here are some other awesome visualizations from the author that explore daytime throughout the year: One, Two, Three.


Earth News

🧠 Researchers develop a brain implant that delivers anti-inflammatory drugs to calm body’s reaction

Quick hits. Neural implants can deteriorate once inside someone’s body because the body’s natural processes, such as inflammation, degrade the performance of implants over time. To tackle this problem, researchers developed an implant that also delivers anti-inflammatory drugs to calm the body’s reaction to the implant, hopefully elongating its lifespan. Initial tests on rats were promising.

Digging deeper. There’s only so much we can understand about the brain from outside the skull. That’s why there’s such a push for implants to measure brain activity from inside the skull. (Measuring brain activity more accurately also allows us to control things through thinking alone!) The primary issue with brain implants: they’re invasive! Imagine having to install a brain implant under your skull every few years. Elongating the lifespan of implants will erase this need.

👯‍♀️ Researchers develop “digital twin” technology, bringing simulation to preventative patient care

Quick hits. Researchers developed an AI that, when provided information at the organ, tissue, and cellular level, simulates a "digital twin" that projects the patient’s vital signs into the future. With this tool, researchers and doctors would be able to practice better preventative care by addressing issues long before they arise.

Digging deeper. As of yet, a whole-body projection of patients’ health into the future has not yet been conducted, although there have been various projects for specific functions (such as the pancreas and diabetes). Simulations are incredibly helpful in a number of industries, namely aviation, where pilots train in simulators before flying actual planes full of people. Even within medicine, simulations prove incredibly helpful for training surgeons. I’m hopeful to see AI-backed simulations offer a tool to aid preventative care.

Here’s the research paper if you’re interested in reading more.


Space News

🛰 BepiColombo takes picture of Mercury on its first flyby

Quick hits. BepiColombo, a joint mission from ESA (the EU) and JAXA (Japan), completed its first flyby of Mercury on October 1, 2021, capturing the above photo. It will continue conducting flybys of Mercury until 2025, when its primary mission will begin. BepiColombo's two science orbiters, ESA’s Mercury Planetary Orbiter and JAXA’s Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter, will study many aspects of the planet during their missions.

Digging deeper. BepiColombo’s visit is momentous because only 2 flybys have happened for Mercury so far - the Mariner 10, in 1974 and 1975, and MESSENGER, from 2011 to 2015. BepiColombo is facing major heat as it’s so close to the sun, with temperatures around 110 degrees Celcius (230 degrees Fahrenheit). If you want to learn more, check out ESA’s official Tweet for more information on the flyby and BepiColombo’s Wikipedia page for more information about the mission.

💥 NASA to crash a spacecraft into an asteroid

Quick hits. For The Double Asteroid Redirection Test (“DART”) mission, NASA plans to crash a spacecraft at a nearby asteroid’s moonlet to prove that we can measurably alter its trajectory. The spacecraft impact will only alter the orbit of the moonlet of the asteroid by a fraction of one percent. Although this doesn’t seem like much, it will alter the orbit of the moonlet by a few minutes per orbit of almost 12 hours. The asteroid, Didymos, is 2,560 feet wide and the moonlet, Dimorphos, is 525 feet wide. The launch window will open on November 24, 2021.

Digging deeper. An impact event occurs when one astronomical body collides with another. For Earth, an impact event could have devastating consequences on civilization. At the moment, the most we can do is detect and predict potential collisions. Thankfully, to date, we’ve identified and established orbits for an estimated 95%+ of asteroids larger than 1km, with no impacts predicted. However, we are still bad at detecting smaller bodies with the potential to collide with Earth. This is why NASA is undertaking the DART mission: so we can do something if we predict an incoming collision.

If it makes you feel any better, there’s literally an event called the Planetary Defence Conference where experts discuss possible strategies for impact scenarios. If you’re interested in learning more about the topic, I recommend the asteroid impact prediction Wikipedia page.


Future-Thinking Companies

🚕 Burro. Their premier product is an autonomous cart that navigates with "pop-up autonomy" (no training of the space needed) in agricultural fields. They raised $10.9m Series A in Sep 2021. Check out the above video to see their carts at work.

🍦 Perfect Day. They make ice cream, cream cheese, and cheese from dairy-free proteins normally found in cow’s milk. I tried their ice cream earlier today and it was very tasty. 😋 As noted on their website:

An ISO-certified, third party-validated life cycle assessment … found that Perfect Day’s whey protein production reduces water use up to 99%, greenhouse gas emissions up to 97% and non-renewable energy use up to 60% compared to conventional production methods.