Tag: Astronomy

Diagnosing Diseases in Space

TAU researchers successfully test genetic diagnosis under microgravity conditions.

If pursuing the unknown in space is on your bucket list, you can take comfort in knowing that TAU researchers recently conducted a unique experiment at the International Space Station to test genetic diagnosis under microgravity conditions. The researchers launched a kit together with Israeli astronaut Eytan Stibbe to space and proved that an existing technology based on a bacterial immune system against viruses, ‘CRISPR’, can be used to identify viruses and bacteria infecting crew members during space missions.

The study was led by Dr. Dudu Burstein from the Shmunis School of Biomedicine and Cancer Research, Tel Aviv University and Dr. Gur Pines from the Volcani Institute. The experiment was conducted by Stibbe as part of the “Rakia” mission in April, under the leadership of the Ramon Foundation and the Israel Space Agency.

Suited for Astronauts

CRISPR systems are the immune systems of bacteria from viruses. Bacteria use the CRISPR-Cas systems as a sort of molecular ‘search engine’ to locate viral sequences and cleave them to disable viruses.

As part of their scientific vision, the researchers hypothesized that genetic diagnostics using this method, which requires minimal and easily operated equipment, could be suitable for long space missions: “Conditions in space are extremely problematic,” explains Burstein. “Treatment methods are limited, so it is essential to identify pathogens [= a microorganism that can cause disease] in a rapid, reliable, and straightforward method.” The method stands in contrast to tests like PCR (which we are now all familiar with due to Covid-19), which Burstein notes require trained personnel and relatively complex equipment.”

 

Researchers discussing the experimental design. From left to right: Dan Alon, Dr. David Burstein, Dr. Gur Pines (Photo: Ella Rannon)

Burstein outlines the process: “First, the DNA is amplified: each targeted DNA molecule is repeatedly duplicated many times. Then the CRISPR-Cas goes into action: If it identifies the target DNA, it activates a fluorescent molecular marker. The fluorescence lets us know whether the bacteria or viruses of interest are indeed present in the sample. This whole process can be conducted in one tiny test tube, so it is well suited for the astronauts’ needs.”

Zero Gravity? No problem!

Dr. Burstein describes the preparation for the space experiment: “Doctoral student Dan Alon and Dr. Karin Mittelman planned the experiment in detail and conducted it countless times in the lab under various conditions. After reaching the desired result, they prepared a kit, including the CRISPR-Cas system and the other components required for detection. Eventually, the kit was launched with Eytan Stibbe to the International Space Station.”

The experiments conducted by Stibbe were very successful, and proved that it is indeed possible to perform precise and sensitive CRISPR-based diagnosis – even in an environment with virtually no gravity.

What now? “This is the first step towards the simple and rapid diagnosis of diseases and pathogens on space missions,” says Burstein, adding that there is still some work to do on the next stages, including, “simple extraction of DNA from samples, making the system more efficient, so that it will be able to test a variety of organisms in one test tube, and diagnosis of more complex samples.”

“It was inspiring to see our test kit in Eytan’s hands at the Space Station, and we’re even more excited by the possibility that such kits will help future astronauts on their extraterrestrial missions,” he concludes.

 

Eytan Stibbe executing the experiment on the International Space Station (Photo: the Ramon Foundation and the Israel Space Agency)

Featured image: International space station on orbit of planet Earth 

Two New Planets Found in Milky Way

TAU team leads discovery of giant planets, similar in size to Jupiter, in remote corner of the galaxy.

Tel Aviv University researchers led the recent discovery of two new planets in remote solar systems within the Milky Way galaxy. They identified the giant planets, named Gaia-1b and Gaia-2b, as part of a study in collaboration with teams from the European Space Agency (ESA) and the body’s Gaia spacecraft.

The development marks the first time that the Gaia spacecraft successfully detected new planets. Gaia is a star-surveying satellite on a mission to chart a 3D map of the Milky Way with unprecedented accuracy comparable to standing on Earth and identifying a 10-shekel coin (roughly the size of a U.S. nickel) on the Moon.  

TAU’s Prof. Shay Zucker, Head of the Porter School of the Environment and Earth Sciences, and doctoral student Aviad Panhi from the Raymond and Beverly Sackler School of Physics & Astronomy led the initiative. The findings were published in the scientific journal Astronomy & Astrophysics. 

More Discoveries on the Horizon

“The discovery of the two new planets was made in the wake of precise searches, using methods of artificial intelligence,” said Prof. Zucker. “We have also published 40 more candidates we detected by Gaia. The astronomical community will now have to try to corroborate their planetary nature, like we did for the first two candidates.”

The two new planets are referred to as “Hot Jupiters” due to their size and proximity to their host star: “The measurements we made with the telescope in the U.S. confirmed that these were in fact two giant planets, similar in size to the planet Jupiter in our solar system, and located so close to their suns that they complete an orbit in less than four days, meaning that each Earth year is comparable to 90 years of that planet,” he adds.  

Giant Leaps for Astronomy 

There are eight planets in our solar system. Less known are the hundreds of thousands of other planets in the Milky Way, which contains an untold number of solar systems. Planets in remote solar systems were first discovered in 1995 and have been an ongoing subject of astronomers’ research ever since, in hopes of using them to learn more about our own solar system.  

To fulfill its mission, Gaia scans the skies while rotating around an axis, tracking the locations of about 2 billion suns, stars at the center of a solar system, in our galaxy with precision of up to a millionth of a degree. While tracking the location of the stars, Gaia also measures their brightness — an incomparably important feature in observational astronomy, since it relays significant information about the physical characteristics of celestial bodies around them. Changes documented in the brightness of the two remote stars were what led to the discovery. Aviad Panhi explains: “The planets were discovered thanks to the fact that they partially hide their suns every time they complete an orbit, and thus cause a cyclical drop in the intensity of the light reaching us from that distant sun.”

To confirm that the celestial bodies were in fact planets, the researchers performed tracking measurements with the Large Binocular Telescope, in Arizona, one of the largest telescopes in the world today. The telescope makes it possible to track small fluctuations in a star’s movement which are caused by the presence of an orbiting planet.

The discovery marks another milestone in the scientific contribution of the Gaia spacecraft’s mission, which has already been credited with a true revolution in the world of astronomy. Gaia’s ability to discover planets via the partial occultation method, which generally requires continuous monitoring over a long period of time, has been doubted up to now. The research team charged with this mission developed an algorithm specially adapted to Gaia’s characteristics, and searched for years for these signals in the cumulative databases from the spaceship.  

Signs of Life?

What about the possibility of life on the surface of those remote new planets? “The new planets are very close to their suns, and therefore the temperature there is extremely high, about 1,000 degrees Celsius, so there is zero chance of life developing there,” explains Panhi. Still, he says, “I’m convinced that there are countless others that do have life on them, and it’s reasonable to assume that in the next few years we will discover signs of organic molecules in the atmospheres of remote planets. Most likely we will not get to visit those distant worlds any time soon, but we’re just starting the journey, and it’s very exciting to be part of the search.” 

Out of This World

A new star and satellite observatory is currently being set up on the roof of TAU’s Shenkar building, and is set to become one of the most sophisticated labs in the world.

If you’d like to take a look at the positioning of the receivers at the International Space Station or see how TAU’s own Nano-satellite, TAU SAT-1 (which has been orbiting the Earth for almost a year now) is doing, we’re here to tell you that you will soon be able to do so. A new state-of-the-art optical ground station is currently being built on the roof of Raymond & Beverly Sackler School of Physics & Astronomy. The new optical ground station will allow us to observe tiny details far above us.

The optical ground station will be used for advanced communication with satellites and other spacecraft and tracking of relatively close-up celestial bodies, but also stars that are millions of light-years away. At a later stage, the station will serve as a tool for quantum encryption in space, one that will allow us to best encrypt any type of information.

Moments before the most sophisticated telescope in Israel will be installed here at Tel Aviv University, we met with Prof. Yaron Oz, Head of the Quantum Center; Prof. Haim Suchowski from the School of Physics and Astronomy, and Michael Tzukran, a professional astronomy photographer who will be operating the new station, for a light conversation about, you know, the usual: quantum optical communication, space photography and surprise meetings that would lead to groundbreaking projects.  

Replacing Light Pollution

Prof. Suchowski’s department, together with the University’s Engineering and Maintenance Division and partial funding from the Quantum Center, are currently working on making the Tel Aviv University campus free of celestial light pollution. This is a side-project that was born in conjunction with the construction of the new observation station. In the coming months, all polluting lighting on campus will be replaced with ecological lighting fixtures, making Tel Aviv University the first University in Israel to be free of light pollution.

Where it all started: Michael Tzukran in the old observatory on the roof of the Shenkar building the non-linear interaction of light with various materials in nature. In recent years, I’ve also been involved in the intensive activities at the Nano-Satellite Center and the new Quantum Center that have started operating on campus. What we’re dealing with on the roof these days is a combination of all these things,” he explains.

“The field of space once ‘belonged’ exclusively to NASA and very specific bodies, such as the aerospace industry in the case of Israel. Today, even high school students can send satellites into space,” explains Suchowski. “The New Space Revolution allows private companies to send and operate relatively affordable Nano-satellites into space and has changed our lives. Over the past 15 years, universities have been sending their own Nano-satellites as well.”

The University’s own Nano-satellite, TAU SAT-1, was devised, developed, assembled and tested under the leadership of Dr. Meir Ariel, Dr. Ofer Amrani of The Iby and Aladar Fleischman Faculty of Engineering and Prof. Colin Price of the Porter School of the Environment and Earth Sciences. The satellite, which carries scientific experiments, was launched about a year ago.

Up until now, the project has consisted in building a standard radio communication ground station to communicate with the launched satellite. According to Suchowski, one of the next projects will be to create optical communication through space, and thereafter quantum optical communication through space, which is a new and evolving field.

Quantum-Encrypted Communication Satellites

Information encryption is an essential subject with many applied meanings, and quantum mechanics is changing the rules of the game in this regard.

“Today, we encrypt our information based on complex mathematical algorithms, and assume that computers will take a long time to solve these problems and therefore the information is secure,” explains Prof. Yaron Oz, Chairman of the Tel Aviv University Quantum Science and Technology Center. “Quantum computers, however, are based on a different computational paradigm and can change the picture. Decomposing an integer into its primary factors – the complexity of which protects encryption algorithms that are widely used today – will be quickly solved by a quantum computer. Therefore, it is important to depict what the encrypted methods will be in the age of quantum computers.”

“Quantum systems have exceptional encrypted information transfer capabilities due to the fact that quantum mechanics do not allow information to be copied. Any attempt to copy or modify it destroys the original information. As a result, a quantum communication line is completely safe from eavesdropping. Transmitting a cipher key in a quantum communication network is completely secure, and indeed quantum optical encryption already exists via fiber optics,” he says.

Today, this type of encryption is possible, but limited to a distance of 150-200 km. Prof. Oz tells us that such communication networks already aid financial sectors in Switzerland. However, the transfer of information between continents (for example from New York to London) in this way is not yet possible. 

 

Prof. Yaron Oz

Prof. Oz explains that in Israel there’s an understanding of the need to move in the direction of encrypting information on a satellite quantum communications network, and here at Tel Aviv University we have decided to take steps at the operational and research level. The new lab with the telescope on the roof is thereby about to take part in the future satellite project of the Nano-Satellite center.

With the help of various bodies here at TAU, the Quantum Center in particular, and with the support of Prof Erez Etzion, Head of the School of Physics and Astronomy, budget and space was ensured to build the advanced observatory and buy the massive equipment. With a telescope with a 24-inch mirror, the precise and huge robot will be able to track stars, galaxies, nebulae and other bodies. The robot, which weighs 300 kg, can move at an angular speed of up to 50 degrees per second and accurately track moving satellites at low altitudes, as well as lower flying aircraft. “We are already doing preliminary experiments in optical communication. With the level of accuracy of the new telescope we’ll be the only ones in Israel with such equipment,” promises Prof. Suchowski.

 

The construction of the new ground station, as documented in Michael Tzukran’s Instagram account

The Stargazer

Quite by chance, another actor entered the picture and helped Prof. Suchowski leverage the idea into practice: Michael Tzukran, a world expert in astronomical and satellite photography and research observatory construction consultant.

“As a seasoned astronomy photographer, I wanted to challenge myself and photograph the International Space Station. I needed an open roof close to the space station’s orbit as it passes over the skies of Israel. And so I simply asked whether it could be done here.” Tzukran brought his own equipment and took one of the most detailed photos ever taken of the space station from Earth. During the photography, the space station was flying at a speed of close to 28,000 km per hour. No big deal.

 

Passing at a speed of close to 28,000 km/h. The space station, photographed by Michael Tzukran

Michael’s specialty is to adjust and control the sophisticated robot, monitor the satellites and photograph them according to requests from researchers. With the new equipment, he plans to document satellites like they’ve never been observed before from Earth.

Prof. Ady Arie from the Faculty of Engineering and doctoral students Dolev Bashi, Georgi Gary Rosenman, Yonatan Piasetski, Sahar Shahaf, Tomer Nahum and Yuval Reches are also working on the establishment of the technological system for laboratory quantum optical communication.

Prof. Suchowski estimates that various industries, such as security and other universities, will be interested in using the new platform in the future: “This is a national resource. I believe it will become instrumental in promoting applied and basic research in Israel and the world,” he concludes.