Monday, December 04, 2017

NEWS POST(S): NASA’s Voyager Spacecraft Still Reaching For The Stars After 40 Years

An artist concept depicting one of the twin Voyager spacecraft. Humanity’s farthest and longest-lived spacecraft are celebrating 40 years in August and September 2017. Credits: NASA
Humanity’s farthest and longest-lived spacecraft, Voyager 1 and 2, achieve 40 years of operation and exploration this August and September. Despite their vast distance, they continue to communicate with NASA daily, still probing the final frontier.

Their story has not only impacted generations of current and future scientists and engineers, but also Earth’s culture, including film, art and music. Each spacecraft carries a Golden Record of Earth sounds, pictures and messages. Since the spacecraft could last billions of years, these circular time capsules could one day be the only traces of human civilization.

“I believe that few missions can ever match the achievements of the Voyager spacecraft during their four decades of exploration,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD) at NASA Headquarters. “They have educated us to the unknown wonders of the universe and truly inspired humanity to continue to explore our solar system and beyond.”

The Voyagers have set numerous records in their unparalleled journeys. In 2012, Voyager 1, which launched on Sept. 5, 1977, became the only spacecraft to have entered interstellar space. Voyager 2, launched on Aug. 20, 1977, is the only spacecraft to have flown by all four outer planets – Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. Their numerous planetary encounters include discovering the first active volcanoes beyond Earth, on Jupiter’s moon Io; hints of a subsurface ocean on Jupiter’s moon Europa; the most Earth-like atmosphere in the solar system, on Saturn’s moon Titan; the jumbled-up, icy moon Miranda at Uranus; and icy-cold geysers on Neptune's moon Triton.

Though the spacecraft have left the planets far behind – and neither will come remotely close to another star for 40,000 years – the two probes still send back observations about conditions where our Sun's influence diminishes and interstellar space begins.

Voyager 1, now almost 13 billion miles from Earth, travels through interstellar space northward out of the plane of the planets. The probe has informed researchers that cosmic rays, atomic nuclei accelerated to nearly the speed of light, are as much as four times more abundant in interstellar space than in the vicinity of Earth. This means the heliosphere, the bubble-like volume containing our solar system's planets and solar wind, effectively acts as a radiation shield for the planets. Voyager 1 also hinted that the magnetic field of the local interstellar medium is wrapped around the heliosphere.

Voyager 2, now almost 11 billion miles from Earth, travels south and is expected to enter interstellar space in the next few years. The different locations of the two Voyagers allow scientists to compare right now two regions of space where the heliosphere interacts with the surrounding interstellar medium using instruments that measure charged particles, magnetic fields, low-frequency radio waves and solar wind plasma. Once Voyager 2 crosses into the interstellar medium, they will also be able to sample the medium from two different locations simultaneously.

"None of us knew, when we launched 40 years ago, that anything would still be working, and continuing on this pioneering journey," said Ed Stone, Voyager project scientist based at Caltech in Pasadena, California. "The most exciting thing they find in the next five years is likely to be something that we didn't know was out there to be discovered." 

The twin Voyagers have been cosmic overachievers, thanks to the foresight of mission designers. By preparing for the radiation environment at Jupiter, the harshest of all planets in our solar system, the spacecraft were well equipped for their subsequent journeys. Both Voyagers are equipped with long-lasting power supplies, as well as redundant systems that allow the spacecraft to switch to backup systems autonomously when necessary. Each Voyager carries three radioisotope thermoelectric generators, devices that use the heat energy generated from the decay of plutonium-238 – only half of it will be gone after 88 years.

Space is almost empty, so the Voyagers are not at a significant level of risk of bombardment by large objects. However, Voyager 1's interstellar space environment is not a complete void. It’s filled with clouds of dilute material remaining from stars that exploded as supernovae millions of years ago. This material doesn't pose a danger to the spacecraft, but is a key part of the environment that the Voyager mission is helping scientists study and characterize. 

Because the Voyagers' power decreases by four watts per year, engineers are learning how to operate the spacecraft under ever-tighter power constraints. And to maximize the Voyagers' life spans, they also have to consult documents written decades earlier describing commands and software, in addition to the expertise of former Voyager engineers.

"The technology is many generations old, and it takes someone with 1970s design experience to understand how the spacecraft operate and what updates can be made to permit them to continue operating today and into the future," said Suzanne Dodd, Voyager project manager based at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.

Team members estimate they will have to turn off the last science instrument by 2030. However, even after the spacecraft go silent, they’ll continue on their trajectories at their present speed of more than 30,000 mph (48,280 kilometers per hour), completing an orbit within the Milky Way every 225 million years.

The Voyager spacecraft were built by JPL, which continues to operate both. The Voyager missions are part of the NASA Heliophysics System Observatory, sponsored by the Heliophysics Division of SMD.

NASA's Voyager 1 spacecraft launched atop its Titan/Centaur-6 launch vehicle from the Kennedy Space Centre Launch Complex in Florida on September 5, 1977, at 8:56 a.m. local time. Image Credit: NASA
NASA Successfully Fires Voyager 1 Thrusters After 37 Years
NASA's Voyager 1 spacecraft -- cruising interstellar space billions of miles from Earth -- was back on the right track Friday thanks to thrusters that were fired up for the first time in 37 years.

The unmanned spaceship was launched along with its twin, Voyager 2, more than 40 years ago to explore the outer planets of our solar system, traveling further than any human-made object in history. But after decades of operation, the "attitude control thrusters" that turn the spacecraft by firing tiny "puffs" had degraded. The small adjustments are needed to turn Voyager's antenna toward Earth, allowing it to continue sending communications.

"At 13 billion miles from Earth, there's no mechanic shop nearby to get a tune-up," NASA said in a news release.

Experts at the agency's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California decided to turn to four backup thrusters that were last used on November 8, 1980.

"The Voyager flight team dug up decades-old data and examined the software that was coded in an outdated assembler language, to make sure we could safely test the thrusters," said Chris Jones, chief engineer at JPL.

The engineers fired up the thrusters on Tuesday and tested their ability to turn Voyager using 10-millisecond pulses. Then they waited 19 hours, 35 minutes for the test results to arrive at an antenna in Goldstone, California.

Turns out the thrusters worked just fine. "The Voyager team got more excited each time with each milestone in the thruster test. The mood was one of relief, joy and incredulity after witnessing these well-rested thrusters pick up the baton as if no time had passed at all," said Todd Barber, a JPL propulsion engineer.

Being able to use the backup thrusters means the lifespan of Voyager 1 has been extended by two or three years, added Suzanne Dodd, project manager for Voyager.

NASA plans to switch over to the formerly dormant thrusters in January. They will likely also conduct similar tests on the backup thrusters on Voyager 2.

Scientists still hear from the Voyager spacecraft daily, and expect to get data for about another decade. Astronomy textbooks were rewritten on a wide scale thanks to the Voyager spacecraft, which zoomed past Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune and Uranus.

The plutonium-powered spaceships will continue until they finally run out of fuel, and will then orbit in the center of the Milky Way galaxy.

Originally published on NASA and DAILY MAIL UK/AFP WIRES

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

GUEST BLOG POST: Creativity In The Digital Age — Laura Otis

Tangerine (2016) director and co-producer, Sean Baker (R), and Star Mya Taylor (C) Image credit - Zimbio
Smart phones are changing our understanding of creativity.

Yesterday (November 01, 2016) in a Berlin museum, a guard called my attention to a special picture. People were streaming in to see the Spanish Siglo de Oro exhibit, but few were studying the museum’s glorious collection, and he and I stood alone in a room of 15th-century Flemish paintings. The one he loved portrayed an old man wearing a thin stole of fox-fur. “Look at the fur,” he said. The little-known artist had painted it in such detail, it looked as though it would tickle my cheek. With infinitely fine lines, he had turned a two-dimensional surface into an illusion of floating softness.

The guard and I spoke about how long the artist must have studied to learn his technique. He must have started as an apprentice, cleaning brushes, and at some point he would have been allowed to paint feet. Only after decades of observation and practice could he have become a master.

As psychologists such as Mark Freeman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi have shown, no one becomes an artistic genius alone (Freeman 1993; Csikszentmihalyi 1996). Popular myths depict artists as rebels who succeed despite social forces, but that is not what the data show. Artists have to learn the rules of their domains before they can break them, and their innovations must be accepted as valuable by experts in their fields (Csikszenhimihalyi 1996, 27). As Freeman’s interviews with artists have revealed, “It is not quite right to say that creativity is affected by social conditions. Instead, it would seem more appropriate to say that creativity is constituted through those conditions” (Freeman 1993, 12). The painter of the fox-fur had talent, and he probably wanted to create art. But that talent would never have bloomed into brilliance without the apprenticeship his Flemish culture allowed.

The museum guard wanted to discuss more than painting, and I shrank when he spoke of young people’s unwillingness to work. According to a friend of his who taught high school, only three in a hundred students nowadays want to learn. The others are all playing with their smart phones. For a minute I empathized with him. I turned 55 yesterday, and I know the frustration of dodging zombies who walk staring into palm-sized boxes and expect the world to make way for them. What do they see that’s more fascinating than the people around them and the sky above? But my students with smart phones are brilliant, and no one could work harder than they. If young people who won’t learn constitute a threat, what about old people who won't learn?

The making of Tangerine is a story about the rarity of the planets aligning — for the actors, the filmmaker and the startup company, Moondog Labs, now dealing with a heavy demand for the adapter lens Baker used. To make Tangerine, his fifth feature film, Baker used two iPhone 5s’s, one 32G and one 64G. He used steadicam riggings because the light weight of the iPhone can pick up even the slightest shake. Most of the film was shot on the go, including scenes shot from the back of a moving motor scooter. A third camera was purchased but never used because it produced grainier video than the other two, Baker said. An anamorphic adaptor lens by Moondog Labs gave the movie Tangerine a cinematic feel. Photo credit: Cult of Mac
I told the guard that people could be creative with smart phones, an idea he didn’t accept. The marvelously daring film Tangerine was shot on an iPhone, and one can be active or passive with digital technology just as one can be active or passive with a pen and paper. Thinking that people stare at their smartphones because they’re interested in phones is like thinking that scientists study Drosophila genetics because they’re interested in fruit-flies. Digital devices offer views into the way the world works, and they invite rather than stifle creativity.

With all the warnings about what digital technology is doing to human brains, there has been less talk about what we’ve gained from it. If one thinks of a creator as a bounded individual, artistry remains more limited than if one thinks of human-machine networks or creative groups. The painting the museum guard admired emerged as the work of partnerships and tools: the person who cooked the artist’s meals; the person who taught him to paint; and the brushes, pigments, and canvas that constituted the technology of his time.

Creativity must be nourished and challenged, and it thrives because of cultures and technologies, not in spite of them. “The basis of art is truth,” said fiction-writer Flannery O’Connor, and it takes courage, patience, and overwhelming work to render truth in a form that engages many people (O’Connor 65). I regard it as equally courageous to shoot a feature-length film on an iPhone and to spend months painting fox-hairs so that a viewer can imagine them against her skin. As artistic creators, Tangerine director and co-producer Sean Baker and the 15th-century Flemish painter might not be as different as they seem. By studying the works of artists they admired and finding the support they needed, both created works that make their viewers feel. I left the museum guard alone with his painting, an old man contemplating an old man, hoping that artists born today would have the perseverance to create such beauty.

Works Cited
Baker, Sean S. Tangerine. 2016
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. New York: Harper Collins, 1996.
Freeman, Mark. Finding the Muse: A Sociopsychological Inquiry into the Conditions of Artistic Creativity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
O’Connor, Flannery. “The Nature and Aim of Fiction.” In Mysteries and Manners: Occasional Prose, Selected and Edited by Sally and Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

This article was originally published in Psychology Today

Laura Otis, Ph.D., is a professor of English at Emory University, where she teaches interdisciplinary courses on literature, neuroscience, cognitive science, and medicine. She is the author of Rethinking Thought.

NEWS POST: The ‘Unhackable’ Quantum Messages That Could Stop Cyber Criminals From Using Super Computers To Steal Data

Illustrative hacker image via Shutterstock
Scientists have created a high-speed encryption system to stop hackers. It is based on an existing technique called quantum key distribution. The new technique transmits data 5-10 times faster than other methods

A new high speed encryption system promises to stop hackers using the next super
computers from stealing data.

Recent advances in quantum computers may soon give hackers access to machines powerful enough to crack even the toughest of standard internet security codes.

This will enable them to break codes and access any online data making all systems from medical records to bank transactions vulnerable to attack.

But scientists are using the same strange properties that drive quantum computers to create hack-proof forms of quantum data encryption.

The new system, developed by researchers from Ohio State University, is capable of creating and distributing encryption codes at megabit-per-second rates, which is five to 10 times faster than existing methods.

And these quantum encryption techniques are secure from common attacks, even in the face of equipment flaws that could open up leaks.

Professor Daniel Gauthier, an author of the study, said: 'We are now likely to have a functioning quantum computer that might be able to start breaking the existing cryptographic codes in the near future.

'We really need to be thinking hard now of different techniques that we could use for trying to secure the internet.'

When we buy online, make a bank transaction or share data like medical records, ciphers called encryption keys turn the data so it cannot be read. Personal information sent over the web is first scrambled using one of these keys, and then unscrambled by the receiver using the same key.

But for this system to work, both parties must have access to the same key, and it must be kept secret.
The new system, developed by researchers from Ohio State University, is capable of creating and distributing encryption codes at megabit-per-second rates, which is five to 10 times faster than existing methods (stock image)
Quantum key distribution (QKD) takes advantage of one of the fundamental properties of
quantum mechanics - measuring tiny bits of matter like electrons or photons automatically changes their properties - to exchange keys in a way that immediately alerts both parties to the existence of a security breach.

Though QKD was first theorized in 1984 and implemented shortly thereafter, the technologies to support its wide-scale use are only now coming online.

Companies in Europe now sell laser-based systems for QKD, and in a highly-publicised event last summer, China used a satellite to send a quantum key to two land-based stations located 1,200 km apart.

But PhD candidate, Nurul Taimur Islam, explained the problem with many of these systems is that they can only transmit keys at relatively low rates - between tens to hundreds of kilobits per second - which are too slow for most practical uses on the internet.

He said: 'At these rates, quantum-secure encryption systems cannot support some basic daily tasks, such as hosting an encrypted telephone call or video streaming.'
Like many QKD systems, Mr Islam's key transmitter uses a weakened laser to encode information on individual photons of light.

But they found a way to pack more information onto each photon, making their technique faster.

By adjusting the time at which the photon is released, and a property of the photon called the phase, their system can encode two bits of information per photon instead of one.

This trick, paired with high-speed detectors powers their system to transmit keys five to 10 times faster than other methods.

Prof Gauthier said: 'It was changing these additional properties of the photon that allowed us to almost double the secure key rate that we were able to obtain if we hadn't done that.'

In a perfect world, QKD would be perfectly secure as any attempt to hack a key exchange would leave errors on the transmission that could be easily spotted by the receiver.

But real-world implementations of QKD require imperfect equipment, and these imperfections open up leaks that hackers can exploit.

The researchers carefully characterized the limitations of each piece of equipment they used.

Mr Islam said: 'We wanted to identify every experimental flaw in the system, and include these flaws in the theory so that we could ensure our system is secure and there is no potential side-channel attack.

'All of this equipment, apart from the single-photon detectors, exist in the telecommunications industry, and with some engineering we could probably fit the entire transmitter and receiver in a box as big as a computer CPU.'

Companies in Europe now sell laser-based systems
for QKD, and in a highly-publicised event  last summer,
China used a satellite to send a quantum key to two
 land-based stations located 1,200 km apart
(artist's impression pictured)

Originally published on DAILY MAIL SCI & TECH

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

NEWS POST: Grads Receive James Dyson Award For Cancer Detection Device

An affordable and effective device for detecting skin cancer has picked up an award of £30,000 ($40,000) from Britain's best-known inventor. This year's James Dyson prize for engineering was given to a group of four Canadian graduates, for their sKan device
What started as a final year engineering class project at McMaster University is now an internationally recognized improved solution for the early detection of melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer.

Michael Takla, Rotimi Fadiya, Prateek Mathur and Shivad Bhavsar, all graduates of McMaster's Electrical and Biomedical Engineering program, have received the prestigious James Dyson Award and US$50K to support the development of The sKan, the team's skin cancer detection device.

The sKan was one of only two Canadian projects that made the shortlist of 20 finalists, selected from over 1,000 entries from 23 countries by a panel of Dyson engineers. Named after the renowned British inventor, designer and force behind Dyson, the home appliance technology company, the James Dyson award celebrates, encourages and inspires the next generation of design engineers.

The sKan assists physicians and the average person in detecting melanoma by creating a thermal map on the region of interest on the skin. The device is made up of 16 temperature-sensitive components called thermistors that look for areas of significant temperature difference on the skin, which may indicate risk of melanoma.

Current diagnosis methods are purely qualitative and based only on visual inspection. The sKan provides quantitative information about skin spots so that physicians can select appropriate patients for a biopsy.

"We came across the issue of skin cancer and how technology hasn't had the same impact on its diagnosis as it has on other fields in medicine,"Mathur said. "We found research that used the thermal properties of cancerous skin tissue as a means of detecting melanoma. However, this was done using expensive lab equipment. We set out to apply the research and invent a way of performing the same assessment using a more cost-effective solution."

The knowledge the team gained from their undergraduate engineering programme, which has since evolved into the new Integrated Biomedical Engineering & Health Sciences (iBiomed) programme, helped them develop and execute their idea.

The gadget picks up on subtle changes in the skin's ability to retain heat, which can indicate the presences of cancerous tissue. When an area of interest on the skin is rapidly cooled, cancerous tissue will regain heat at a faster rate than non-cancerous tissue
"Our education on anatomy and physiology allowed us to understand the physiological concepts discussed in the research papers we used," said Bhavsar. "We were also able to design a large portion of our electrical system based on the knowledge we gained from our Electrical & Computer Engineering courses."

Hubert deBruin, Co-Director, iBiomed, Michael Noseworthy, Director, School of Biomedical Engineering and Raimond Wong, Associate Professor, Department of Oncology worked closely with the team as mentors while working on sKan for their final year engineering capstone project.

"They played a big role in the development of our device," Takla said. "They provided guidance in the design, made us aware of possible sources of error and provides suggestions when we came across challenges. Dr. Noseworthy was also kind to offer us his lab space and equipment for us to complete some preliminary calibration tables."

"I'm elated to see students from our program developing a start-up that can have direct impact on patient health," said Noseworthy. "The Biomedical Engineering faculty at McMaster are always focusing on real life medical problems and how engineering can play a pivotal role in solutions."

Raimond Wong, who is also chair of the Gastrointestinal Oncology Site Group at the Juravinksi Cancer Centre, assisted the team in providing a clinical perspective on the project.

"Engineering students will spend all of their time and effort to work towards finding a solution" said Wong. "They're willing to listen carefully to what the problem is and find all the answers they can get from all sources. It's exciting to work with students like that."

"We're proud of The sKan team for winning this international award," said Ishwar K. Puri, McMaster's Dean of Engineering. "At McMaster Engineering we inspire all of our students to have big ideas through design thinking, innovation and entrepreneurship. We educate them to become engaged citizen scholars who will transform the world and solve those wicked problems our society faces."

A team of four medical and bioengineering undergraduates from McCaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, are behind the non-invasive medical marvel
The next step for the sKan group is to create a new prototype that will bring them to the pre-clinical testing phase.

"Our aspirations have become a reality," said Mathur. "Skin cancers are the most common form of cancer worldwide, and the potential to positively impact the lives of those affected is both humbling and motivating."

Originally published on PHYS.ORG and DAILY MAIL UK

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

NEWS POST: Malaria Breath Test Shows Promise

People with malaria give off a distinctive "breath-print" that could be used as a test for the disease, according to American scientists. They had already tried out a crude prototype breathalyzer in Africa, a tropical medicine conference heard.

The test was reasonably good at detecting cases in children, but needs developing to become a routine device.

One of the odours it sniffs out is identical to a natural smell that attracts insects that spread malaria. Pine trees and conifers emit these terpenes to summon mosquitoes and other pollinating insects, say the researchers, from Washington University in St Louis.

They believe people with malaria who have this odour in their breath may also attract mosquitoes and infect more of the biting insects, which can then spread the disease to other people that they bite. Although the test needs perfecting, it could offer a new cheap and easy way to help diagnose malaria, Prof Audrey Odom John and colleagues say.

Distinct odour
The prototype breath test detects six different odours or volatile organic compounds to spot cases of malaria. The researchers tried it on breath samples from 35 feverish children in Malawi, some with and some without malaria.

It gave an accurate result in 29 of the children, meaning it had a success rate of 83%.

This is still too low for the test to be used routinely, but the researchers hope they can improve its reliability and develop it into an off-the-shelf product. Simple, rapid blood tests for malaria are already available, but they have limits, say the Washington University researchers. Testing blood can be expensive and technically challenging in rural settings.

A non-invasive method of detection that does not require blood samples or technical expertise could be of great benefit.

Prof James Logan from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine said: "The rapid detection of asymptomatic malaria is a challenge for malaria control and will be essential as we move towards achieving the goal of malaria elimination. A new diagnostic tool, based on the detection of volatiles associated with malaria infection is exciting."

He said more work was now needed to see if it could be made into a reliable test.

The findings are being presented at this year's annual meeting of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene.

Originally published on BBC

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

NEWS POST: How Solar-Powered Suitcases Are Helping Babies In Nepal

Hari Sunar's final antenatal check at Pandavkhani health post in Nepal
Hari Sunar is a 24 year-old mum whose second child is due in a few days. She walked from her home in the remote Nepalese village Pandavkhani for her final antenatal checkup at her local birthing centre through shuddering thunder, a drenching rainstorm and one of the village's frequent power cuts.

These power cuts can last up to two weeks and used to cause the birthing centre significant problems. But now it has its own power solution. The light in the birthing centre stays on and she smiles.

"I am really happy," the young mum says. "Because we have a solar light at the birthing centre."

That light is powered by a bright yellow suitcase bolted to the delivery room wall. This is a solar suitcase. Connected to a solar panel on the roof, the device is a miniature power station that provides light, heat and battery charging and a baby monitor.

Life saving
For local midwife, Hima Shirish, the solar suitcase has been a lifesaver. She was determined find a solar solution for her health centre's energy problems. A charity called One-Heart Worldwide sourced the solar suitcase and installed it in Pandavkhani in 2014. Since then there have been no maternal or baby deaths here.

"Pregnant mothers used to be afraid of the dark when they came to give birth at the health post," Hima says.

"They feared losing their babies. But now the fear is gone and they are relieved that they are going to have a baby using the solar light."

Off-grid solution
Midwife Hima Shirish switches on the solar suitcase to power life-saving medical equipment
The solar suitcase is the brainchild of California-based obstetrician-gynaecologist Dr Laura Stachel of We Care Solar.

While in Nigeria in 2008, she witnessed complications and even deaths when babies were delivered at night without reliable light or power. Dr Stachel devised a suitcase-sized, off-grid, solar electric system with her husband, solar engineer, Hal Aronson.

The prototype was so successful in Nigeria, they decided to bring the innovation to clinics and health stations in other countries with high rates of maternal and new-born baby mortality.

Earthquake challenge
In Nepal, the 2015 earthquake destroyed many of its hospitals and left most of the remaining facilities without reliable power.

Weighing just 16kg (35lbs) solar suitcases were ideal for deployment over tough terrain. They provided life-saving power to makeshift medical and birthing tents in the immediate aftermath of the quake.

But, even without such natural disasters, Nepal is a long way from being able to generate the electricity its people need.

"There are a lot of maternity or small clinics in rural areas where they have no electricity at all." Up to a third of rural areas have no reliable power, says Raj Kumar Thapa, managing director of Solar Solutions Private Limited.

The solar suitcase was the brainchild of obstetrician Dr Laura Stachel, co-founder of We Care Solar
Government schemes to increase small-scale power generation using solar, wind or hydro have had limited success, he says, because it is difficult for private companies to install and maintain systems in remote areas while still making a profit.

"So as long as the users are provided with proper training on the operation of the system I think there is a bigger role to play for solar energy especially on a charitable basis in Nepal."

Before the birthing centre was built in Pandavkhani in 2013, most babies were delivered at home, sometimes by torchlight or in total darkness. In difficult cases, mothers in labour would be taken on a 65km (40-mile) mountainous trek over mud and rocks to the hospital in the nearest town, Baglung.

"Some babies were in the wrong position and we did not have the equipment to help them," Hima recalls. "Mothers used to die from haemorrhaging."

Now Hima and her staff are also able to charge their mobile phones, another vital piece of kit in this remote part of the world.

"Sometimes the power cuts can last for 15 days," Hima explains. "We used to be completely out of contact because we could not charge our mobile phones."

Mrs Sunar is just one of 175 mothers who have already given birth at the centre at least once. As she waits to deliver her second child, she is reassured by her experience during the birth of her daughter.

"When I was in labour with my first child… I arrived at the health post and the light had just been cut. But the health worker said they had a solar suitcase so I didn't need to worry."

Diagram of the Solar Suitcase. (Image courtesy of WCS)
Originally published on BBC