Lab Developing Device To Help Earth Dodge Asteroids

In a corner of the campus at Riga Technical University, a team of scientists is working on technology that could one day stop asteroids from smashing into Earth.

The high-precision timers being built by hand in the lab of Latvian start-up Eventech are currently being used to track satellites.

This year, the company won a European Space Agency (ESA) contract to develop timers that will study the possibility of re-directing an asteroid before it comes too close to our planet for comfort.

NASA plans to launch the first part of the Asteroid Impact and Deflection Assessment (AIDA) mission — known as the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) — on July 22, 2021 on a Falcon 9 rocket belonging to tech tycoon Elon Musk’s Space X.

The 500-kilogram (1,100-pound) camera-equipped probe will fly to an asteroid named Didymos and smash into it, trying to blow it off its current course that will see it pass near Earth sometime in 2123.

Eventech’s deep space event timers are being developed for the follow-up HERA mission, which is planned to launch five years later, to determine if the first mission succeeded.

Imants Pulkstenis (L) and Pavels Razmajevs are part of the team that won the EDA contract Imants Pulkstenis (L) and Pavels Razmajevs are part of the team that won the EDA contract Photo: AFP / Gints Ivuskans

“Our new technology that will follow on the second ESA spacecraft named HERA will measure if the first impact steered the kilometre-sized Didymos off its previous course, avoiding harm to humanity,” Eventech engineer Imants Pulkstenis told AFP at the lab.

“It’s much more interesting to boldly go where no man has gone before than to manufacture some mundane consumer electronics for huge profit,” he added, borrowing the famous slogan from Star Trek, the cult 1960s sci-fi television series.

Eventech’s timers are part of a space technology tradition in the Baltic state stretching back to Soviet times when Sputnik — the first man-made satellite to orbit the Earth — was launched in 1957.

They measure the time needed for an impulse of light to travel to an object in orbit and back.

Eventech devices can record the measurement to within a picosecond — or one trillionth of a second — which allows astronomers to convert a time measure into a distance measurement with up to two millimetres of precision.

Eventech's timers are part of a space technology tradition stretching back to Soviet times Eventech’s timers are part of a space technology tradition stretching back to Soviet times Photo: AFP / Gints Ivuskans

Around 10 of the timers are produced every year and they are used in observatories around the world.

They track Earth’s increasingly crowded atmosphere, filled with a new crop of private satellites alongside traditional scientific and military ones.

“Tracking them all requires tools,” Eventech chief operations officer Pavels Razmajevs said.

Although Latvia only became a full member of the ESA in 2016, its engineers have been tracking satellites since the Soviet-era.

The University of Latvia even has its own satellite laser ranging station in a forest south of Riga.

Eventech’s engineers said they use analogue parts as much as possible, mainly because microchips take nanoseconds

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Researchers at the forefront of developing machine learning methods for chemical discovery

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Credit: CC0 Public Domain

The discovery and formulation of new drugs, antivirals, antibiotics and in general chemicals with tailored properties is a long and painstaking process. Interdisciplinary research at the crossroads of biochemistry, physics and computer science can change this. The development of machine learning (ML) methods, combined with first principles of quantum and statistical mechanics and trained on increasingly available molecular big datasets, has the potential to revolutionize the process of chemical discovery.


“Chemical discovery and machine learning are bound to evolve together, but achieving true synergy between them requires solving many outstanding challenges,” says Alexandre Tkatchenko, Professor of Theoretical Chemical Physics at the University.

Machine learning to help identify drug candidates

The University initiated a collaboration with Belgian company Janssen Pharmaceuticals in spring 2020 to develop novel ML methods for identifying compounds that have a strong therapeutic potential (also called drug candidates). So far, ML approaches have been developed for small molecules. This research project aims to extend the architecture and transferability of quantum mechanics-based machine learning approaches to large molecules of pharmaceutical importance.

“The generation of novel chemicals with activity on relevant biological targets is the core business of pharmaceutical companies. Machine learning approaches have the potential to speed up the process and reduce failure rates in drug discovery. Having been approached by a leading pharmaceutical company to work together in identifying drug candidates is a gratifying sign of the industrial recognition of our expertise,” comments Dr. Leonardo Medrano-Sandonas, a postdoctoral researcher in Prof. Tkatchenko’s group.

Partner in an Innovative Training Network funded by the European Commission

Together with three large European pharma companies (Bayer, AstraZeneca, Janssen), the chemical company Enamine and ten academic partners with expertise in computational drug design, Prof. Tkatchenko has been granted the Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions—Innovative Training Network grant for the project Advanced machine learning for Innovative Drug Discovery (AIDD) for the period 2021-2023. This project aims to develop innovative ML methods to contribute to an integrated “One Chemistry” model that can predict outcomes ranging from molecule generation to synthesis and understand how to intertwine chemistry and biology to develop new drugs.

Here scientific expertise joins forces with medicinal and synthetic chemistry expertise of the industrial partners, and benefits from large valuable datasets. For the first time, all methodological developments will be available open source. The training network will prepare a generation of scientists who have skills both in machine learning and chemistry to advance medicinal chemistry.

“Making accurate predictions using machine learning critically depends on access to large collections of high-quality data and domain expertise to analyze them,” explains Prof. Tkatchenko. “Putting our forces together is a first step towards a chemical discovery revolution driven by machine learning.”

The field of machine learning for chemical discovery is emerging, and substantial advances are expected to happen in the near future. Prof. Tkatchenko has recently published an article in the journal Nature Communications in which he discusses recent breakthroughs in this field and highlights the challenges for the years to come. The article is

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COVID-19: Oxford University developing five-minute antigen test | United Kingdom

The university said it hoped to start product development in early 2021 and have an approved device available six months after.

Scientists from Britain’s University of Oxford have developed a rapid COVID-19 test able to identify the coronavirus in less than five minutes, researchers said on Thursday, adding it could be used in mass testing at airports and businesses.

The university hopes to start product development in early 2021 and have an approved device six months later.

It will be able to detect the coronavirus and distinguish it from other viruses with high accuracy, the researchers said.

“Our method quickly detects intact virus particles,” said professor Achilles Kapanidis, at Oxford’s Department of Physics, adding that this meant the test would be “simple, extremely rapid, and cost-effective”.

Rapid antigen tests are seen as key in rolling out mass-testing and reopening economies while the coronavirus is still circulating.

Siemens Healthineers on Wednesday announced the launch of a rapid antigen test kit in Europe to detect coronavirus infections but warned the industry may struggle to meet a surge in demand.

Although the Oxford platform will only be ready next year, the tests could help manage the pandemic in time for next winter.

Hopes for a rapid vaccine rollout recently suffered a setback as US pharmaceutical firm Eli Lilly said on Tuesday it had suspended the phase three trial of its antibody treatment over an unspecified incident, the second in less than 24 hours after Johnson & Johnson ran into a similar problem.

Health officials have warned the world will need to live with the novel coronavirus even if a vaccine is developed.

“A significant concern for the upcoming winter months is the unpredictable effects of co-circulation of SARS-CoV-2 with other seasonal respiratory viruses,” said Dr Nicole Robb, of Warwick Medical School.

“We have shown that our assay (test) can reliably distinguish between different viruses in clinical samples, a development that offers a crucial advantage in the next phase of the pandemic,” added Robb, who is working on the Oxford University device.

The virus is still spreading worldwide, with more than one million deaths and 37 million infections. Many nations that suppressed their first outbreaks now face a second wave.

This week, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced new restrictions to control the surge in infections, with bars and pubs closing in the worst-hit parts of England.

In the United Kingdom, Labour opposition leader Keir Starmer called for a two-to-three-week “circuit break” lockdown to slow the rates.

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