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Students from Across US to Speak with NASA Astronauts Aboard Space Station – Stockhouse

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WASHINGTON, June 16, 2020 /PRNewswire/ — Students from across the nation will have an opportunity this week to ask questions of NASA astronauts aboard the International Space Station. The Earth-to-space call will air live at 1:10 p.m. EDT Friday, June 19, on NASA Television and the agency’s website.

NASA astronauts Robert Behnken, Christopher Cassidy and Douglas Hurley will answer questions recorded by K-12 students from the Challenger Center’s national network of learning centers. Challenger Center provides more than 250,000 students annually with experiential STEM education programs. Challenger Center President and CEO Lance Bush will give opening remarks via a pre-recorded video. The student question-and-answer session will be the first of its kind with astronauts who arrived to the station on a commercially owned and operated spacecraft.

Cassidy launched to the space station April 9 and currently serves as the commander of Expedition 63. On May 30, Behnken and Hurley became the first NASA astronauts to launch to the station aboard a commercial spacecraft and rocket, lifting off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida aboard SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule atop the company’s Falcon 9 rocket as part of NASA’s SpaceX Demo-2 mission. Behnken and Hurley joined the Expedition 63 crew after their Dragon spacecraft, named Endeavour, arrived to the station May 31.

Linking students directly to astronauts aboard the space station provides unique, authentic experiences designed to enhance student learning, performance and interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Astronauts living in space on the orbiting laboratory communicate with NASA’s Mission Control Center in Houston 24 hours a day through the Space Network’sTracking and Data Relay Satellites (TDRS).

For nearly 20 years, astronauts have been continuously living and working on the space station, testing technologies, performing science and developing the skills needed to explore farther from Earth. Through NASA’s Artemis program, the agency will send astronauts to the Moon by 2024, with eventual human exploration of Mars. Inspiring the next generation of explorers – the Artemis Generation – ensures America will continue to lead in space exploration and discovery.

Follow America’s Moon to Mars exploration at:

https://www.nasa.gov/topics/moon-to-mars

Follow NASA astronauts on social media at:

https://www.twitter.com/NASA_astronauts

See videos and lesson plans highlighting research on the International Space Station at:

https://www.nasa.gov/stemonstation

Cision View original content to download multimedia:http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/students-from-across-us-to-speak-with-nasa-astronauts-aboard-space-station-301078075.html

SOURCE NASA

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NASA injects $17M into four small companies with Artemis ambitions – TechCrunch

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NASA awards millions of dollars a year to small businesses through the SBIR program, but generally it’s a lot of small awards to hundreds of companies. Breaking with precedent, today the agency announced a new multi-million-dollar funding track and its four first recipients, addressing urgent needs for the Artemis program.

The Small Business Innovation Research program has various forms throughout the federal government, but it generally provides non-dilutive funding on the order of a few hundred thousand dollars over a couple of years to nudge a nascent technology toward commercialization.

NASA has found, however, that there is a gap between the medium-size Phase II awards and Phase III, which is more like a full-on government contract; there are already “Extended” and “Pilot” programs that can provide up to an additional $1 million to promising companies. But the fact is space is expensive and time-consuming, and some need larger sums to complete the tech that NASA has already indicated confidence in or a need for.

Therefore the creation of this new tier of Phase II award: less than a full contract would amount to, but up to $5 million — nothing to sneeze at, and it comes with relatively few strings attached.

The first four companies to collect a check from this new, as yet unnamed program are all pursuing technologies that will be of particular use during the Artemis lunar missions:

  • Fibertek: Optical communications for small spacecraft that would help relay large amounts of data from lunar landers to Earth
  • Qualtech Systems: Autonomous monitoring, fault-prevention and health management systems for spacecraft like the proposed Lunar Gateway and possibly other vehicles and habitats
  • Pioneer Astronautics: Hardware to produce oxygen and steel from lunar regolith — if achieved, an incredibly useful form of high-tech alchemy
  • Protoinnovations: Traction control to improve handling of robotic and crewed rovers on lunar terrain

It’s important to note that these companies aren’t new to the game — they have a long and ongoing relationship with NASA, as SBIR grants take place over multiple years. “Each business has a track record of success with NASA, and we believe their technologies will have a direct impact on the Artemis program,” said NASA’s Jim Reuter in a news release.

The total awarded is $17 million, but NASA, citing ongoing negotiations, could not be more specific about the breakdown except that the amounts awarded fall between $2.5 million and $5 million per company.

I asked the agency for a bit more information on the new program and how companies already in the SBIR system can apply to it or otherwise take advantage of the opportunity, and will update this post if I hear back.

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Watermelon snow shows up on Italian Alps – The Weather Network

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Watermelon snow has appeared atop the Presena Glacier in the Italian Alps.

Researcher Biagio Di Mauro, of the Institute of Polar Sciences at Italy’s National Research Council, told CNN his team went to investigate the site over the weekend and encountered an “impressive bloom” — but that’s bad news for the glacier, as it can speed up melting.

Di Mauro says watermelon snow has been unusually common this year.

He plans to study it in greater detail with the help of satellite data.


File photo courtesy: USDA.

WHAT IS WATERMELON SNOW?

While it is a naturally-occurring phenomenon, watermelon snow is becoming increasingly common in the spring and summer because it requires light, higher temperatures, and water to grow.

“Watermelon snow is formed by an algal species (Chlamydomonas nivalis) containing a red pigment in addition to chlorophyll,” U.S. Geological Survey scientist Joe Giersch said in 2018 in an Instagram post of a photo of watermelon snow that he spotted at Glacier National Park.

This pigment protects the algal chloroplast from solar radiation and absorbs heat, providing the alga with liquid water as the snow melts around it. As snow melts throughout the summer, the algae are concentrated in depressions on the snow surface (which further accelerates melting), with small populations persisting in puddles through the fall.”

Watermelon snow is one of nature’s peculiarities. Scientists don’t fully understand it, or the long-term impact it could have on the environment.

Here’s one thing they do know: Watermelon may look neat but it’s not something conservationists want to see.

According to a study in Nature Communications, red algae can reduce a snow’s albedo — i.e., the ability to reflect light — by up to 13 per cent. That means the snow absorbs more of the sun’s energy and melts faster.

Couple that with a stint of above-seasonal temperatures and you’ve got a recipe for accelerated melting.

Oh, and one more thing: If you come across a patch of watermelon snow don’t eat it. You’ll make yourself sick.

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Compounds Identified That Halt COVID-19 Virus Replication by Targeting Key Viral Enzyme – SciTechDaily

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Three configurations of active sites where inhibitor GC-376 binds with the COVID-19 virus’s main protease (drug target Mpro), as depicted by 3D computer modeling. Credit: Image generated by Yu Chen, University of South Florida Health, using X-ray crystallography

Four promising antiviral drug candidates identified and analyzed by a University of Arizona-University of South Florida team in the preclinical study.

As the death toll from the COVID-19 pandemic mounts, scientists worldwide continue their push to develop effective treatments and a vaccine for the highly contagious respiratory virus.

University of South Florida Health (USF Health) Morsani College of Medicine scientists recently worked with colleagues at the University of Arizona College of Pharmacy to identify several existing compounds that block replication of the COVID-19 virus (SARS-CoV-2) within human cells grown in the laboratory. The inhibitors all demonstrated potent chemical and structural interactions with a viral protein critical to the virus’s ability to proliferate.

The research team’s drug discovery study was published on June 15, 2020, in Cell Research, a high-impact Nature journal.

Yu Chen, USF

Yu Chen, PhD, an associate professor of molecular medicine at the University of South Florida Health Morsani College of Medicine, has turned his with expertise in structure-based drug design toward looking for new or existing drugs to stop SARS-CoV-2. Credit: © University of South Florida Health

The most promising drug candidates – including the FDA-approved hepatitis C medication boceprevir and an investigational veterinary antiviral drug known as GC-376 – target the SARS-CoV-2 main protease (Mpro), an enzyme that cuts out proteins from a long strand that the virus produces when it invades a human cell. Without Mpro, the virus cannot replicate and infect new cells. This enzyme had already been validated as an antiviral drug target for the original SARS and MERS, both genetically similar to SARS-CoV-2.

“With a rapidly emerging infectious disease like COVID-19, we don’t have time to develop new antiviral drugs from scratch,” said Yu Chen, PhD, USF Health associate professor of molecular medicine and a coauthor of the Cell Research paper. “A lot of good drug candidates are already out there as a starting point. But, with new information from studies like ours and current technology, we can help design even better (repurposed) drugs much faster.”

Before the pandemic, Dr. Chen applied his expertise in structure-based drug design to help develop inhibitors (drug compounds) that target bacterial enzymes causing resistance to certain commonly prescribed antibiotics such as penicillin. Now his laboratory focuses its advanced techniques, including X-ray crystallography and molecular docking, on looking for ways to stop SARS-CoV-2.

Michael Sacco

University of South Florida Health doctoral student Michael Sacco worked with Dr. Chen to determine the interactions between antiviral drug candidate GC-376 and COVID-19’s main protease. Sacco is shown here looking at viral protein crystals under a microscope. Credit: © University of South Florida Health

Mpro represents an attractive target for drug development against COVID-19 because of the enzyme’s essential role in the life cycle of the coronavirus and the absence of a similar protease in humans, Dr. Chen said. Since people do not have the enzyme, drugs targeting this protein are less likely to cause side effects, he explained.

The four leading drug candidates identified by the University of Arizona-USF Health team as the best (most potent and specific) for fighting COVID-19 are described below. These inhibitors rose to the top after screening more than 50 existing protease compounds for potential repurposing:

  • Boceprevir, a drug to treat Hepatitis C, is the only one of the four compounds already approved by the FDA. Its effective dose, safety profile, formulation and how the body processes the drug (pharmacokinetics) are already known, which would greatly speed up the steps needed to get boceprevir to clinical trials for COVID-19, Dr. Chen said.
  • GC-376, an investigational veterinary drug for a deadly strain of coronavirus in cats, which causes feline infectious peritonitis. This agent was the most potent inhibitor of the Mpro enzyme in biochemical tests, Dr. Chen said, but before human trials could begin it would need to be tested in animal models of SARS-CoV-2. Dr. Chen and his doctoral student Michael Sacco determined the X-ray crystal structure of GC-376 bound by Mpro, and characterized molecular interactions between the compound and viral enzyme using 3D computer modeling. 
  • Calpain inhibitors II and XII, cysteine inhibitors investigated in the past for cancer, neurodegenerative diseases and other conditions, also showed strong antiviral activity. Their ability to dually inhibit both Mpro and calpain/cathepsin protease suggests these compounds may include the added benefit of suppressing drug resistance, the researchers report.

All four compounds were superior to other Mpro inhibitors previously identified as suitable to clinically evaluate for treating SARS-CoV-2, Dr. Chen said.

A promising drug candidate – one that kills or impairs the virus without destroying healthy cells — fits snugly, into the unique shape of viral protein receptor’s “binding pocket.” GC-376 worked particularly well at conforming to (complementing) the shape of targeted Mpro enzyme binding sites, Dr. Chen said. Using a lock (binding pocket, or receptor) and key (drug) analogy, “GC-376 was by far the key with the best, or tightest, fit,” he added. “Our modeling shows how the inhibitor can mimic the original peptide substrate when it binds to the active site on the surface of the SARS-CoV-2 main protease.”

Instead of promoting the activity of viral enzyme, like the substrate normally does, the inhibitor significantly decreases the activity of the enzyme that helps SARS-CoV-2 make copies of itself.

Visualizing 3-D interactions between the antiviral compounds and the viral protein provides a clearer understanding of how the Mpro complex works and, in the long-term, can lead to the design of new COVID-19 drugs, Dr. Chen said. In the meantime, he added, researchers focus on getting targeted antiviral treatments to the frontlines more quickly by tweaking existing coronavirus drug candidates to improve their stability and performance.

Reference: “Boceprevir, GC-376, and calpain inhibitors II, XII inhibit SARS-CoV-2 viral replication by targeting the viral main protease” by Chunlong Ma, Michael Dominic Sacco, Brett Hurst, Julia Alma Townsend, Yanmei Hu, Tommy Szeto, Xiujun Zhang, Bart Tarbet, Michael Thomas Marty, Yu Chen and Jun Wang, 15 June 2020, Cell Research.
DOI: 10.1038/s41422-020-0356-z

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