From The Editor | August 31, 2022

Bright Ideas — Artemis Approaches Liftoff, JWST Sees CO2, And Optical Tweezers To Control Drug Delivery

abby proch headshot

By Abby Proch, Editor


There’s no shortage of news out of NASA this past week. To start, NASA is looking back on its earlier days with a commemoration of the 60th anniversary President John F. Kennedy’s address to a crowd of 35,000 at Rice University. In it, JFK inspired a nation with his unwavering commitment and enthusiasm for a successful Moon landing, which happened almost seven years later. Though he didn’t live to see the accomplishment, his passion for space exploration lives on. This week, Artemis I is slated to deliver its first uncrewed trip around the Moon as part of a larger mission to land the first woman and person of color on the Moon, and eventually the first astronauts on Mars. A recurrent fuel leak that appeared once more on Monday morning delayed the launch, with next possible liftoff being Friday, Sept. 2.

Once on the Moon, NASA intends plans to scour the surface for signs of water using a heterodyne spectrometer. Until recently, only a broadband spectrometer, which ends up finding too wide a spectrum of chemical properties, could endure the harsh space environment. Now, Dr. Berhanu Bulcha from the Goddard Space Flight Center and Longwave Photonics are creating a new quantum cascade laser that’s suitable for space and capable of specifically identifying water, not just hydrogen compounds. Within the NASA Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, the partners are developing a QCL that is small (fits in a shoe box-size CubeSat), operates in the desired frequency range, and uses quantum mechanics to outperform other laser emitters. The research team hopes to integrate the QCL into a heterodyne spectrometer in time for an anticipated Moon landing with the Artemis program sometime in 2025.

Meanwhile, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has already made strides in identifying elemental compounds in exoplanet atmospheres with the help of its NIRSpec tool. For the first time, the JWST found the presence of carbon dioxide in the gaseous planet WASP-39b. Discovered in 2011, the planet was only known to have water vapor, sodium, and potassium in its atmosphere. With this new finding, scientists are now better equipped to understand WASP-39b’s origins and JWST is trusted to have the ability to make similar findings on other planets outside our solar system.

While we have our collective eyes to the skies, we should also note that DARPA’s experimental satellite Mandrake 2 is getting ready to test satellite-to-ground laser communications after having successfully communicated via optical intersatellite links (OISLs) in May. Prime contract SEAKR Engineering, a Raytheon subsidiary, claimed they transferred “around 280GB of data…at a 114km range in a period exceeding 40 minutes.” Notably, SA Photonics built the OISL hardware. CACI International acquired SA Photonics late last year. Mandrake 2 is a risk-reduction flight for the Blackjack project, which intends to use small, less expensive satellites for military communication using commercial satellite technology.

It can be tricky, to say the least, to produce high-quality single photons for use in practices like quantum key distribution (QKD). But now a University of Technology (Sydney) researcher and his team have done so — and at room temperature. Igor Aharonovich developed 2D crystalline material called hexagonal boron nitride (hBN) as a source that can product up to 10 million single photons per second, and without having to be cooled to sub-zero temperatures. When hit with a laser beam, the crystal’s imperfect atomic structure redirects light in single-photon streams. A solid immersion lens (SIL) collects the photons, which enables “a six-fold improvement in photon collection efficiency compared to previous methods.”

Finally, microrobots injected into the human body to deliver drugs or other therapies have unwittingly caused immune responses that do more harm than good. But now, scientists are working on a way to use cells already occurring instead the body as a less threatening option. They’re honed in on neutrophils, a type of white blood cell, which can transition between blood vessels and tissue as well as carry away nanoparticles and dead red blood cells. First in vitro, then in live zebrafish, the team successfully used optical tweezers to push along the neutrophils, even at speeds up to 3 times their normal pace. The scientists also witnessed a separate neutrophil not under their control try to assist the controlled neutrophil in cleaning up red blood cell debris. Scientists believe these behaviors bode well for eventual medical use and the treatment of inflammatory diseases.