You may have missed… “Tadpole” orbiting a black hole, fighter pilot brains, CO2 trapping engineered wood, and mining at hydrothermal vents

Fighter pilot brains could tell us things about the effects of space travel

It’s important to understand the effects of space travel on the human body, especially if we’re planning to send astronauts on long-haul space flights to Mars. Previous research has suggested that the brains of astronauts may undergo structural and functional changes, in a process called neural plasticity, in response to spaceflight.

But astronauts are somewhat of a rare commodity, so researchers performed MRI scans of the brains of 10 F16 fighter pilots from the Belgian Air Force (alongside a control group of 10 non-pilots) .

 “Fighter pilots have some interesting similarities with astronauts, such as exposure to altered g-levels, and the need to interpret visual information and information coming from head movements and acceleration (vestibular information),” says Floris Wuyts, professor in the Department of Physics at the University of Antwerp, Belgium, and senior author on the study.

“By establishing the specific brain connectivity characteristics of fighter pilots, we can gain more insight into the condition of astronauts after spaceflight.”

Photo from inside the cockpit of a f-16 fighter jet showing the pilot inside and another f-16 in the background
Pilots in General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcons. Credit: Stocktrek/Images Getty Images

They found that areas of the brain processing vestibular and visual information were more connected in the pilots, compared to non-pilots. This may reflect the requirements for pilots to cope with processing multiple and occasionally conflicting visual and vestibular stimuli at once and to prioritise the most important stimuli.  

“By demonstrating that vestibular and visual information is processed differently in pilots compared to non-pilots, we can recommend that pilots are a suitable study group to gain more insight into the brain’s adaptations toward unusual gravitational environments, such as during spaceflight,” says first author Dr Wilhelmina Radstake, from the Radiobiology Unit at the Belgian Nuclear Research Centre.

The new study is in Frontiers in Biology

A “tadpole” orbiting a black hole?

A strange cloud of gas nicknamed “The Tadpole” is revolving around a seemingly empty region of space, according to a new study in The Astrophysical Journal.

Technically, the space is devoid of any bright objects, so whatever the Tadpole is orbiting is a dark object – most likely a black hole 100,000 times more massive than the Sun.

The gas cloud has a peculiar, curved tadpole-like shape that suggests it’s being stretched as it orbits the massive compact object.

Researchers used data from the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope, operated by the East Asian Observatory, and the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ) Nobeyama 45-m Radio Telescope, to identify the unusual cloud of gas about 27,000 light-years away in the constellation Sagittarius. 

The team now plan to use the ALMA (Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array) to search for signs of a black hole, or another object, at the gravitational centre of the The Tadpole’s orbit.

A illustration of a white cloud of white gas tapering off into a tadpole shape, with a black hole next to it
Artist’s Impression of the “Tadpole” Molecular Cloud and the black hole at the gravitational center of its orbit. Credit: Keio University

Engineering wood to trap carbon dioxide and becomes stronger

Materials scientists have figured out a way to engineer wood to trap carbon dioxide, through a process that also makes the material stronger for use in construction.

According to the new study in Cell Reports Physical Science, the team has found a way to include a carbon dioxide-trapping crystalline porous material into wood through a potentially scalable and energy efficient process.

First, the cellulose fibres that give wood its strength, are cleared out using delignification.

“Lignin is what gives wood its colour, so when you take lignin out, the wood becomes colourless. Removing the lignin is a fairly simple process that involves a two-step chemical treatment using environmentally benign substances. After removing the lignin, we use bleach or hydrogen peroxide to remove the hemicellulose,” explains senior author Muhummad Rahman, assistant research professor in Materials Science and Nano Engineering at Rice University in the US.

Next, the wood is soaked in a solution containing microparticles of a metal-organic framework (MOF) – the material that can absorb CO2 into its pores – which fits into the cellulose channels and attach there.

Cubes of wood lined up in a row, all in different stages of modification
Wood pieces at different stages of modification, from natural (far right) to delignified (second from right) to dried, bleached and delignified (second from left) and MOF-infused functional wood (first on the left). Credit: Gustavo Raskosky/Rice University

“The manufacturing of structural materials such as metals or cement represents a significant source of industrial carbon emissions,” Rahman said. “Our process is simpler and ‘greener’ in terms of both substances used and processing by-products.

Next steps will be an economic analysis to understand the scalability and commercial viability of this material.

Mining at one hydrothermal vent could endanger species at distant ones

Researchers have found that the destruction of key hydrothermal vents by deep-sea mining could have unforeseen impacts for species which live on other vents, even hundreds of kilometres away.

Hydrothermal vents exist in geologically active areas of the seafloor, in the extreme deep sea. They spew out mineral-rich, hot water and are teeming with unique lifeforms and often unique species.

But when the chemicals emerge from the Earth’s crust to meet the cold seawater they precipitate and create chimney-like deposits on the seabed. These sea floor massive sulphides are an attractive target for deep-sea mining.

Now, a new study has revealed vents in the Northwest Pacific are more connected to each other than previously thought. Due to ocean currents, many hydrothermal vent species can disperse from one vent to another while in the larval stage.

By comparing how many species the vent sites had in common, they created networks to identify which ones act as important hubs and should be prioritised for conservation.

20230214 sub regions hydrothermal vents northwest pacific 850
The Northwest Pacific has three sub-regions of hydrothermal vents, the Okinawa Trough, the Izu-Bonin Arc and the Mariana Trough. Red lines linking vent sites indicate a high number of species in common, while yellow lines represent low species similarity. Credit: Retrieved from by Ecology and Evolution

“These results could provide a powerful tool for helping policy makers and the mining companies decide which sites should be protected from mining,” says Otis Brunner, first author and PhD student in the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Marine Biophysics Unit, Japan.

The research is in the journal Ecology and Evolution.

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