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Satellites, semantics and education

Nanosatellites are not nano. After all, they are cubes with 10 cm edges or, if in the form of a cylinder, up to 10 cm in height, while the nanometric scale actually refers to measurements on the order of a millionth of a millimeter. However, whether for marketing or other unknown reasons, the name nanosatellite for these small, light multi-functional devices—invented by Bob Twiggs and Jordi Puig-Suari, professors at Stanford and California Polytecnic State University, respectively—caught on. Any complaint about the name seems fruitless at this late date. So, on to nanosatellites. And, in this case, to the Brazilian researchers who are the subject of the cover story of this issue of Pesquisa FAPESP.

First of all, in a view that I recognize as being completely partial, I must say that nothing surprised and enchanted me in this story as much as the participation by 150 young students from an Ubatuba, São Paulo school in the construction of one of the Brazilian nanosatellites that is being prepared to be launched into space soon. For this reason I suggest the reader pay special attention to the passages in which these children grace the text, even though the Tancredo-1 satellite is not the most important of these undertakings from a technological standpoint—though from an educational standpoint it certainly is.

Four CubeSat-type nanosatellites are expected to be launched in 2014, ten years after INPE researchers, with funding from the Brazilian Space Agency, began the Brazilian program for building small satellites, which are highly valued for scientific research. They are used, observes Dinorah Ereno, our assistant editor for technology and author of the detailed report that begins on page 16, for tasks ranging from detection of the electromagnetic signals that precede earthquakes to testing biological systems, such as the production of bacterial proteins in space, and they include a highly varied range of other applications. Note that the first CubeSats in the world were launched 11 years ago. The activity is developing at an increasing speed: 130 have been launched so far, 65 of which were launched in 2013 alone. And we hope that readers can decide for themselves whether Brazil is behind in this field on the international scene based on hard data after reading the article in question.

I would also like to highlight here two reports from the Science section, both involving questions about the complex and always challenging physiology of the human body. The first, prepared by special editor Marcos Pivetta, starting on page 44, addresses the recent studies of two groups, one led by a Brazilian researcher living in London, and the other coordinated by a researcher at Unicamp, who establish important connections between inflammatory processes and depression. In particular, their work finds links between inflammation, immune system problems, and unsatisfactory responses to treatment with antidepressants, while indicating the possibility of finding biological markers that quickly predict if a given patient will respond positively or not to a certain category of antidepressant. The second article, prepared by the reporter Rodrigo de Oliveira Andrade (page 48), covers a study by the Unifesp group led by Helena Nader that differentiated between heparin structures with low and ultra low molecular weight, shedding new light on heparin’s action as an anticoagulant. As we know, in medicine heparin is the basic substance used to treat thrombi, blood clots, and all situations in which undesired blood clotting has to be avoided. And, once again, more efficient therapies to treat these episodes are on the horizon.

The biochemical focus of this edition is completed with an intriguing interview with Professor Walter Colli, awarded special recognition by the CNPq in March, 2014 for his body of work, with special emphasis on his work with T. cruzi (page 24). And, finally, with my space running out, I recommend the report on the important question of endowments at Brazilian universities, prepared by the assistant editor for politics, Bruno de Pierro (page 38).