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An artist’s impression of a syzygy between the moon, Kamo`oalewa and the earth.

With a major research university right in our backyard, a strong military presence and innovative companies throughout the metro region, there’s often a plethora of interesting science, medical and technology news to be found in Southern Arizona. Here’s a breakdown of the most interesting recent developments.

 

Lunar Loss. A near-earth asteroid may actually be a fragment of the moon, shed many years ago according to new research from the University of Arizona. A new paper published from UA Planetary Sciences examines the material that forms Kamo`oalewa, a 150-foot wide asteroid that orbits the sun but remains relatively close to Earth. Kamo`oalewa was first identified by a Hawaiian telescope in 2016, and gets as close as about 9 million miles from Earth during its orbit. 

A team of astronomers led by UA planetary sciences graduate student Ben Sharkey found that Kamo`oalewa reflects light in a similar way to lunar rocks from NASA’s Apollo missions, suggesting it originated from the moon. According to the paper, three other near-Earth asteroids have orbits similar enough to Kamo`oalewa that they may all be “break-up companions.”

“It is very unlikely that a garden-variety near-Earth asteroid would spontaneously move into a quasi-satellite orbit like Kamo`oalewa’s,” said UA planetary sciences professor and study co-author Renu Malhotra. “It will not remain in this particular orbit for very long, only about 300 years in the future, and we estimate that it arrived in this orbit about 500 years ago.”

The paper, “Lunar-like silicate material forms the Earth quasi-satellite,” was published in the science journal Nature Communications Earth & Environment.

 

Space Simulation. Last week, the University of Arizona’s new Applied Research Building received a large-scale thermal vacuum chamber capable of simulating the environmental conditions in space. The 30-foot, 80,000-pound chamber is used to test balloon and satellite performance. Researchers at UA work with a wide variety of space technology, including miniature “cube” satellites that can measure atmospheric conditions, 3D-printed autonomous robots for lunar mining, and the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft designed to harvest a sample of an asteroid’s surface. 

The new space vacuum chamber is one of the technological anchors of the university’s new $85 million Applied Research Building, which will be open for occupants in early 2023. The 89,000-square-foot facility will be devoted to advancing research, and will contain a number of other unique scientific tools. These include an anechoic chamber designed to absorb reflections and electromagnetic waves for antenna testing, a high bay lab for high altitude balloons, and a dynamic testing lab for large objects. The ARB is located at the southeast corner of Helen Street and Highland Avenue, next to the university’s Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering Building, serving as a confluence for advanced manufacturing and technology. 

The ARB was built with the university’s strategic plan in mind, which includes five “pillars” of focus. Specifically, the ARB is dedicated to research programs related to the “Grand Challenges” pillar, which deals with pressing issues for humanity like space access, artificial intelligence, health care technology and the environment.

 

Opioid Reduction. Researchers at the UA’s College of Medicine have made a breakthrough on a pain-relief compound. The new compound, called Compound 194, provides non-opioid pain relief with non-addictive properties. According to UA, the research team observed a synergistic effect when 194 was combined with morphine or gabapentin. While morphine is an opioid, this is a sign that 194 could also be used in a dose-reduction strategy, leading to patients taking in less opioids for pain relief. 

The team includes Rajesh Khanna, professor of pharmacology; May Khanna, associate professor of pharmacology; and Vijay Gokhale, associate research professor. Their findings were published in the medical journal Science Transitional Medicine. The university has already patented the compound and licensed it to a startup founded by the Khannas and Gokhale. 

“The publication of these results represents a huge proof point for our research and positions Regulonix for our next big leap forward,” said Raj Khanna. “We launched the company with this moment in mind, and we’re excited to have this validation and move ahead.”

Non-opioid pain-relief has been a major focus of medical researchers as the “opioid epidemic” ravages parts of the United States. In 2016 alone, more than 40,000 Americans died of an opioid overdose. Many consider the addictive painkillers to be overprescribed, and responsible for the United States’ decline in life expectancy. Earlier this year OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma agreed to pay $4.5 billion for their liability in the addiction epidemic to settle court claims.