Archive for September, 2011


HD Earthrise Set to Yuko Tsuchiya’s “Furusato”

September 12, 2011

I came across this video on JAXA’s YouTube channel. HD footage of Earthrise taken by the Kaguya lunar orbiter, set to Yuko Tsuchiya’s “Furusato” (Hometown). They go together beautifully, in my opinion. I recommend watching it at full screen.

The actual name of the orbiter was SELENE (Selenological and Engineering Explorer), but it was given the nickname Kaguya after the Moon Princess of Japanese legend. The craft reached the moon in late 2007, where it orbited for just over a year and a half, gathering some incredible HD footage of the moon’s surface from an altitude of 100km. In June 2009, the mission completed, the craft was guided down to a controlled impact with the lunar surface.


New Handsome Ken’ya Videos by Kosuke Sugimoto

September 8, 2011

Once again, I’m putting up videos by Kosuke Sugimoto, of whom I’m a huge fan.


Recently, Sugimoto has been producing music videos for Handsome Ken’ya, a Kyoto-based (and evidently very modest) pop-rock artist who goes beyond the standard guitar-bass-keyboard-drum style set.

The first was “Kore Kurai de Utau (Sing in My Own Way)”, a fully-drawn animated work based around the different outcomes that arise as the singer makes different choices. Like “The TV Show” this one contains dozens of tiny background details that Sugimoto manages to consistently develop through the video.


The next was “Mushi no Tameiki” (Sigh of the Insects), which uses cut-out animation to show Ken’ya as an unwitting king of the ants in an insect war.


Most recent is “Kesshin Sokudo” (Speed of Decision), which combines stylized live action and typography into a high-energy portrayal of the singer’s thoughts and anxieties.


I look forward to more from both of them.


RIKEN Develops Transparent Mice

September 7, 2011

Researchers at the natural sciences institute RIKEN announced in the journal Nature Neuroscience that they had succeeded in developing a reagent that turns organic matter almost fully transparent. This breakthrough opens up new possibilities for far more detailed analysis of how the complex networks within our organs function.

Right: a preserved mouse embryo that has been placed in standard saline. Left: a preserved mouse embryo that has been incubated for two weeks in a solution of  sca/eA2, the reagent developed by the RIKEN team.

For biologists and medical researchers, mapping out the microscopic structures of organs is a problematic endeavor: because the majority of our organs (and those of other animals) are opaque, viewing them under a microscope requires slicing them down to just a millimeter thick. While this allows one to view the inner structures of the cells, it makes it impossible to directly observe the larger networks of cells, which have complex 3-D structures. In fact, intricate mapping work such as tracing the circuitry of the brain still has to be done largely by hand.

3-D imaging of neurons and their interconnections inside the brain of a mouse treated with sca/eA2

In his published report, researcher Atsushi Miyawaki describes how he and his team developed sca/eA2, a reagent that turns organs transparent without disrupting their shape or cohesion, and without affecting the function of genetically encoded fluorescent proteins frequently used in cell research. Already, Miyawaki’s team has used sca/eA2 to image the brains of mice embryos to a much greater depth than was previously possible, revealing a surprising level of detail in the networks of neurons, as well as allowing them to visualize the connections between the brain’s hemispheres.

3-D image of the connections between the right and left halves of a mouse brain, made visible with the sca/eA2 reagent.

One big advantage of sca/eA2 is the price tag. The reagent is made from three simple ingredients readily available in any laboratory: urea, Triton-X, a detergent used to make cell membranes more permeable, and glycerol. This puts it easily within the budget of almost any research group, opening up a wealth of new imaging possibilities. “Our current experiments are focused on the mouse brain, but applications are neither limited to mice, nor to the brain,” says Miyawaki. “We envision using Sca/eA2 on other organs such as the heart, muscles and kidneys, and on tissues from primate and human biopsy samples.”

3-D visualization of mouse neural stem cells and blood vessels.

Currently, sca/eA2 only works on dead tissue, but Miyawaki and his team are already looking into changing that. “We are currently investigating another, milder candidate reagent which would allow us to study live tissue in the same way, at somewhat lower levels of transparency. This would open the door to experiments that have simply never been possible before.”

P.S. A lot of articles, blogs and aggregators have been making a big deal of the fact that sca/eA2 uses urea (“How do you turn a mouse brain transparent? Pee on it!”). Grow up guys. If it bothers you that much, then you really don’t want to know what goes into diesel emission treatments, dish soap, cigarettes or cattle feed.


ISS Crew Gets a New Member: Robonaut 2

September 1, 2011

I’m finally back from my vacation and somewhat recovered enough from jet lag and catch-up work to post a new update, so here goes:

A while back I wrote about the lift-off of JAXA astronaut Satoshi Furukawa, who, along with RSA cosmonaut Sergey Volkov and NASA astronaut Michael Fossum, set off for the International Space Station on a five-month expedition. On August 23, a new crew member was awakened to assist the team: Robonaut 2, a prototype that NASA hopes will soon be able to able to work side-by-side with human astronauts.

Good to Go

Robonaut 2 aboard the ISS following a successful activation.

Crew members joke with NASA ground control while unpacking Robonaut 2

Robonaut 2, or R2, arrived at the ISS in February, riding aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery on its final flight. At the time, it was unpowered and could do little more than pose for the cameras.

Robonaut 2 with ISS Expedition 26 Commander Scott Kelly

The result of a joint project between NASA and General Motors, R2 was developed to assist astronauts aboard the ISS with routine maintenance functions and possibly even help with hazardous jobs outside the space station in the future, as well as to test the feasability of robots playing more substantial roles in future space missions. A humanoid form was chosen so that it could operate in the same environments as humans without requiring special alterations to be made to accommodate it.

Upon being opened from its storage case, astronauts Mike Fossum and  Satoshi Furukawa put R2 through a ‘power soak’ to ensure its electrical systems are functioning properly. The first motion test is scheduled for early morning (US time) September 1.

Fossum and Furukawa get Robonaut switched on

R2 is currently just a head, torso, and arms (though still weighs in at about 150kg), although if initial tests are successful, additional components may be carried up by future missions to provide R2 with a battery for wireless operation, a mobility platform for more freedom of movement around the interior, and possibly even upgrades to allow it to work in the vacuum outside.

Robonaut 2’s head is almost completely taken up by the five cameras inside, arranged so as to give it depth perception. Despite its large brain, powered by 38 Power PC processors and fed by over 350 sensors, R2 will not be working autonomously: all of its actions will be directly controlled by station crew members or technicians on Earth. R2 is significantly stronger and faster than its predecessors, although the 10kg load limit of its arms and 5kg grasping force in each hand mean it won’t be doing much of the heavy lifting.

Currently, Robonaut 2 has its own Flickr photostream, its own Facebook page, and even its own Twitter feed, where it (or rather someone with NASA’s PR department) answers questions about its capabilities and mission (first tweet upon being switched on: “Those electrons feel GOOD! One small step for man, one giant leap for tinman kind”).

P.S. The Sep 1 motion tests appear to have gone well.

P.S. 2 [Added Sep 8, 2011] I realize this isn’t really Japan-related. I could justify it by saying that Japanese astronaut Furukawa is on board the ISS doing some of the start-up tests, but that’s a reach. Basically, I found this interesting and I needed to post something to snap out of my month-long doldrums.