Links in your brain, asteroid broom and soccer robots

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ESO / B. Tafreshi (

Three bands of light

The faint light extending from the horizon just below centre of this photo is known as zodiacal light, caused by sunlight scattering from cosmic dust in the plane of Earth’s orbit around the Sun.

A second band of red light can be seen at the horizon on the lower left. This airglow is caused by numerous processes in the upper atmosphere, including cosmic rays, excited atoms, and various chemical reactions between oxygen, nitrogen, hydroxyl, sodium and lithium atoms.

The third and final band is the Milky Way, our home galaxy, high in the sky. This band consists of billions of stars of all kinds. Many are hidden to the human eye behind large layers of interstellar dust, giving the Milky Way its characteristically mottled look.

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NASA / GSFC / METI / ERSDAC / JAROS, and U.S. / Japan ASTER Science Team

Earth data now available – for free

The Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER) instrument, which images Earth to map and monitor the changing surface of our planet, captured the eruption of Nicaragua’s Momotombo volcano in visible and thermal infrared wavelengths.

Blue-grey visible bands depict the ash plume; the thermal infrared bands show hot lava flows in yellow and the active summit crater in white. Vegetation is red.

ASTER’s database currently consists of nearly three million individual scenes and beginning this week, all imagery from this prolific Japanese remote sensing instrument are now available to users everywhere at no cost. They range from massive scars across Oklahoma from an EF-5 tornado and the devastating aftermath of flooding in Pakistan, to volcanic eruptions in Iceland and wildfires in California.

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Clay Reid, Allen Institute / Wei-Chung Lee, Harvard Medical School / Sam Ingersoll, graphic artist

Largest map of brain connections to date

Even the simplest networks of neurons in the brain are composed of millions of connections, but examining these vast networks is critical to understanding how the brain works. An international team of researchers published in the journal Nature this week the largest such network to date between neurons in the cortex, where high-level processing occurs, and have revealed several crucial elements of how networks in the brain are organised.

The network of cortical neurons connections were traced from a multi-terabyte 3-D data set created by an electron microscope designed to collect millions of images in nanoscopic detail, so that every one of the “wires” could be seen, along with the connections between them. Some of the neurons are colour-coded according to their activity patterns in the living brain. This is the newest example of “functional connectomics”, which combines high-throughput functional imaging at single-cell resolution with terascale anatomy of the very same neurons.

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ATTA KENARE / AFP / Getty Images

Robots kicking goals in lead up to world competition

The 2016 RoboCup IranOpen kicked off in Tehran this week, with teams taking part in soccer matches to show off their skills in the lead up to the world championships held in Germany in June.

RoboCup is an international research and education initiative that fosters AI and intelligent robotics research.

In order for a robot team to actually play a soccer match, various technologies must be incorporated including: design principles of autonomous agents, multi-agent collaboration, strategy acquisition, real-time reasoning and sensor-fusion.

Pictured are robots from Berlin United University’s FUmanoids team, and the Bit Bots team of Hamburg University.

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Added Value Solutions / ESA

Asteroid cleaner

Collecting the surface dust on far-away worlds is particularly tricky in low gravity, because a simple scoop would just push the lander away from the surface.

Engineers are thinking of ways to collect and analyse these dusty surface layers using robots. A new prototype (pictured) uses three rotating brushes to scoop dust into a container for analysis. It is designed to collect at least 100 grams within 20 seconds.

Designed and built by Added Value Solutions of Spain, the machine automatically detects the distance between the brushes and the surface to adapt as necessary, collect the dust, and direct it into a hermetically sealed box for storage and analysis.

Everything looks promising on Earth, but will it work without gravity? To check it in action, the prototype will fly on the European Space Agency’s 64th parabolic aircraft campaign later this month, providing more than 90 bursts of microgravity lasting 20 seconds at a time. By running the prototype on a parabolic flight, engineers can fine-tune key factors such as speed, brush depth and sampling duration.

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