Posted: 09 Oct 2009 04:21 PM PDT
This image of the male sex organ of a flowering plant took first place in Nikon's annual Small World photomicrography competition this year.
Chosen for both its scientific and artistic qualities from among a record 2,000 entries, this image was captured by Estonian scientist Heiti Paves.
"As part of my work as a research scientist, I have been taking photographs through the microscope for almost 30 years to observe the processes in living cells," Paves said Thursday in a press release.
Nikon honored 20 images including an anglerfish ovary,cotton fibersand fish scales.
Winning the popular vote online out of 137 finalists was the image below of a bundle of fluorescent actin protein filaments captured by Dennis Breitsprecher of the Institute of Biophysical Chemistry at Germany's Hannover Medical School.
See the winners of the competition over the last 35 years on the following pages.
Images: Above: Arabidopsis thaliana (thale cress) anther (20x) Confocal / Heiti Paves, Tallinn University of Technology, courtesy of Nikon Small World.
Below: Fluorescent actin protein filaments. / Dennis Breitsprecher, Institute of Biophysical Chemistry at Germany's Hannover Medical School. Courtesy of Nikon Small World.
Posted: 09 Oct 2009 10:45 AM PDT
LIFE on Earth was all neatly packed up inside a pucklike container and ready to blast off on an unmanned Russian mission to a Martian moon this month.
After more than 10 months traveling through deep space, the Planetary Society's Living Interplanetary Flight Experiment would land on the surface of the Martian moon Phobos with its cargo of voyagers from all three kingdoms of life, including tiny, extremely hardy animals called tardigrades.
Then, after a couple of weeks on the surface, the first Earthly life to have lived on another solar body would return to Earth. A tiny, robotic, interplanetary lander was going to spring off the base craft, fire off its rocket, and hurtle through space before crash landing in Kazakhstan.
Now, though, Russian space officials have delayed the mission due to safety and technical problems that typically plague ambitious trips beyond low-Earth orbit. And because of the nature of Earth's orbit in relation to Mars, the Planetary Society-backed researchers will have to wait two long years before their next launch window to determine if life could have originated outside Earth and hitched a ride here.
Despite the delay, LIFE will eventually get a chance to fly, assuming the funding will remain in place.
"LIFE is a test of part of the so-called transpermian theory to see whether life can travel through space between planets," said Bruce Betts, the experiment's manager at the Planetary Society, which was co-founded by Carl Sagan. "If we send a bunch of microorganisms out to space for three years, will they still be alive?"
But deep space is different. At the International Space Station, say, the Earth's magnetosphere protects life from radiation. We're not really sure what will happen when life is exposed to the depths of space for years. The Biostack 1 and 2 experiments, flown during the Apollo 16 and 17 missions to the moon proved organisms could survive during a two-week journey through space. But that's not long enough to simulate the hypothetical journey of bacteria from Mars to Earth.
"It's a see-what-happens experiment, which you don't get a lot of anymore," Betts said.
If the living things in the LIFE experiment survive the 34-month journey aboard thespacecraft Phobos Grunt, it would provide support for the idea that living things could travel between planets aboard rocks ejected by cosmic collisions.
On the other hand, Betts said, "If you find everything is dead and confirm it's not some fluky other thing, then it casts more doubt on whether life can travel between the planets."
They fought through months of bureaucracy, both in the United States and Russia, to make the mission happen.
"Because this launch is on a spacecraft, we are subject to [International Traffic in Arms Regulations], so the Planetary Society is registered as what you might call an arms tracker," Betts said.
If the governments were a hassle, the engineering assignment was much worse. Completing the packaging of 30 living specimens into a tiny 100-gram "BioModule" consumed the team as they raced to send off their part of the mission to Russia.
"You need to understand the constraints for the Phobos mission," Betts said. "We had 100 grams. We had to be passive. We had to not interfere with anything else. And, by the way, you have to survive a 4,000-g impact."
The Phobos lander won't have a parachute, so it's possible the landing will bring intense forces to bear on the scientific instruments. It's imperative, too, that the organisms remain sealed in their container for the duration of the journey, so they won't contaminate Phobos.
To test the BioModule's durability, they first filled the inside with fluorescent liquid, so that any leakage would be apparent. Then, the scientists strapped it to a shake table and violently vibrated it. Then, they shot it out of an air cannon onto a target. The first iteration of the BioModule leaked a bit of its fluorescent liquid, but held tough in the second round.
Sitting tight now, though, has become the scientists' main task.
More photos of the assembly and testing of the LIFE experiment can be found on the following page.
Images: 1) The LIFE BioModule. 2) The BioModule strapped to the shake table.
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