Joe Palca

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A giant dust storm on Mars is threatening to end the mission of a NASA rover. The rover called Opportunity depends on solar panels to charge its batteries. Right now, the storm has practically blotted out the sun. NPR's Joe Palca has more.

Each year, malaria kills about half a million people around the world. Health officials say a fast, cheap, accurate way to test for people infected with the malaria parasite would be extremely helpful in combating the disease. Now some engineers in California say they've invented a device they hope someday will do just that.

The device takes advantage of the fact that the malaria parasite produces tiny crystals inside infected red blood cells. These crystals have a magnetic property. Put a magnet next to a drop of infected blood, and the crystals move toward the magnet.

NASA is heading back to Mars. If all goes well, a two-stage Atlas V 401 will lift off from California's Vandenberg Air Force Base on Saturday morning. Onboard will be a lander named InSight, an $813.8 million mission to study the interior of the Red Planet.

Recent Mars missions have snapped pictures of the surface, studied rocks, dug in the dirt and looked for signs that water once flowed on Mars. But as Insight's principal investigator William "Bruce" Banerdt sees it, that's just scratching the surface.

An engineer in California has an invention that she hopes will someday help people with damaged lungs breathe easier.

Stanford University's Annelise Baron has developed a synthetic version of something called lung surfactant. Lung surfactant coats the tiny air sacs in the lung. Without it, every breath would be a struggle, like blowing up millions of little balloons. With surfactant, breathing is as easy as blowing soap bubbles.

A critical part of NASA's next $2 billion rover mission to Mars broke during testing earlier this month.

The Mars 2020 mission's heat shield was undergoing stress-testing when it developed a crack that appeared around its entire circumference. The shield is designed to protect the rover as it enters the Martian atmosphere.

A startup company in California is using machine learning and artificial intelligence to advise fire departments about how to plan for earthquakes and respond to them.

The company, One Concern, hopes its algorithms can take a lot of the guesswork out of the planning process for disaster response by making accurate predictions about earthquake damage. It's one of a handful of companies rolling out artificial intelligence and machine learning systems that could help predict and respond to floods, cyber-attacks and other large-scale disasters.

If the United States were more like the rest of the world, a McDonald's Quarter Pounder might be known as the McDonald's 113-Grammer, John Henry's 9-pound hammer would be 4.08 kilograms, and any 800-pound gorillas in the room would likely weigh 362 kilos.

One reason this country never adopted the metric system might be pirates. Here's what happened:

In 1793, the brand new United States of America needed a standard measuring system because the states were using a hodgepodge of systems.

An international team of astronomers has concluded that when it comes to theories about colliding neutron stars, Einstein got it right. Everybody else, not so much.

A neutron star is what's left when a star burns out and collapses in on itself, leaving a small, incredibly dense ball.

Astronomers in California are building the largest digital camera in the world. It will go on a giant telescope taking shape in Chile called the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope.

LSST is different from most large telescopes. Instead of staring at a tiny patch of the sky and taking essentially one snapshot in time, LSST will take a panorama of every part of the sky...and it will do so over and over and over. The idea is to see what's moving or changing in the heavens.

Editor's note: The Environmental Protection Agency has approved the use of mosquitoes infected with Wolbachia bacteria as a "biopesticide" in 20 states and the District of Columbia. The bacteria keep mosquitoes from spreading diseases like dengue and Zika. Back in 2012, NPR's Joe Palca wrote about scientist Scott O'Neill's 20 years of struggle to make the idea of Wolbachia-infected mosquitoes work. Here is his story.

Scientists in California think they may have found a way to transplant insulin-producing cells into diabetic patients who lack those cells — and protect the little insulin-producers from immune rejection. Their system, one of several promising approaches under development, hasn't yet been tested in people. But if it works, it could make living with diabetes much less of a burden.

For now, patients with Type-1 diabetes have to regularly test their blood sugar levels, and inject themselves with insulin when it's needed.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Let's say you're a scientist, and you've invented what you think is a useful treatment for pain. But you have a problem. You don't have the money to go through the regulatory approval process. Should you try to sell it to consumers anyway, and run the risk of being accused of selling snake-oil?

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

After 13 years in orbit around Saturn, NASA's Cassini spacecraft is about to plunge itself into the planet's atmosphere and disintegrate. NASA decided to put an end to the mission on Friday because the probe is almost out of fuel.

Cassini has provided exquisite details about the second-largest planet in our solar system.

Copyright 2017 WNYC Radio. To see more, visit WNYC Radio.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Sometimes the true value of an invention isn't obvious until people start using it.

Consider what happened to inventor Nate Ball and his powered ascender. About 15 years ago, Ball was an undergraduate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology when the U.S. Army approached MIT with a request: Can somebody build a powered device that can pull somebody up a rope, like Batman does?

There is a lifesaving drug that owes its existence to moldy hay, sick cows and rat poison.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

A prototype of what could be the next generation of space stations is currently in orbit around the Earth.

The prototype is unusual. Instead of arriving in space fully assembled, it was folded up and then expanded to its full size once in orbit.

Even the most commonplace devices in our world had to be invented by someone.

Take the windshield wiper. It may seem hard to imagine a world without windshield wipers, but there was one, and Mary Anderson lived in that world.

In 1902, Anderson was visiting New York City.

Scientists are about to get an up-close and personal look at the planet Jupiter's most famous landmark, the Great Red Spot.

NASA's Juno spacecraft will be directly over the spot shortly after 10 p.m. ET Monday, July 10, about 5,600 miles above the gas giant's cloud tops. That's closer than any spacecraft has been before.

The spot is actually a giant storm that has been blowing on Jupiter for centuries. It's huge, larger than Earth in diameter.

The war in Syria is a conflict of the social media age. Everyone — the rebels, the government, ordinary citizens, everyone — has a cellphone.

And that means almost no bad deed goes unrecorded by someone.

NASA's Juno spacecraft has spotted giant cyclones swirling at Jupiter's north and south poles.

That's just one of the unexpected and puzzling findings being reported by the Juno science team.

Astronomers are offering the general public a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: the chance to discover a new planet in our solar system.

Many astronomers now think there may be a massive, undiscovered planet lurking in the far reaches of our solar system. Right now, however, the existence of this planet is theoretical. So the hunt is on to actually capture an image of it.

It's easy to feel overwhelmed by the size of the refugee problem confronting the world today. According to the U.N. Refugee Agency, more than 30,000 people are forced to flee their homes every day because of conflict or persecution.

But one energetic university professor in Germany decided that bemoaning and hand-wringing wasn't solving anything, so she decided to take action.

The scientific community has been roiled by the Trump travel ban.

Like tens of thousands of residents of the seven Muslim-majority countries, scientists have been stranded — cut off from their labs, worried they won't be able to attend upcoming conferences. And even though the ban has been temporarily reversed by a court order, they are uncertain about what the future holds — and the implications for their work.

Consider the case of Ph.D. candidate Hanan Isweiri. She left her lab at Colorado State University to fly home to Libya after the death of her father.

Imagine being able to collect the DNA of a human ancestor who's been dead for tens of thousands of years from the dirt on the floor of a cave. Sounds fantastic, but scientists in Germany think they may be able to do just that. If they're successful, it could open a new door into understanding the extinct relatives of humans.

Two researchers in Germany are trying to determine the best way to teach the German language to nonnative speakers, and at the same time make life a little easier for the wave of Syrian refugees arriving in their city.

Thousands of those refugees have landed in Leipzig, a city of about half a million, in what used to be East Germany. Some of the newcomers have had a difficult time; there have been news reports of racist animosity and violence against them.

On the top of Hawaii's Mauna Kea mountain Thursday, astronomers will point the large Subaru Telescope toward a patch of sky near the constellation of Orion, looking for an extremely faint object moving slowly through space.

If they find what they're looking for, it will be one of the most important astronomical discoveries in more than a century: a new planet in our solar system.

Pages