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Science news digest – 21st May 2013

In the science news this week, asthma sufferers could find some relief in the sunshine, Kepler mission sees yet another setback, and finally… Major Tim Peake will be first British astronaut on the International Space Station.

Sunshine could help treat asthma patients

Researchers from King’s College London have found that asthma patients with low levels of vitamin D could have worse symptoms, reported the BBC news website.

It seems that the vitamin, which is made by the body when exposed to sunlight, calms a part of the immune system which is over-active in those who suffer from asthma.

However, the vitamin has not yet been tested as a treatment for asthma patients.

"We know people with high levels of vitamin D are better able to control their asthma - that connection is quite striking," said researcher Prof Catherine Hawrylowicz.

"We think that treating people with vitamin D could make steroid-resistant patients respond to steroids or let those who can control their asthma take less steroids,” she said.

Prof Hawrylowicz’s team were looking at the effects vitamin D has on the chemical interleukin-17, a vital part of the immune system, which has previously been shown to be above normal levels in some asthma patients.

They found that vitamin D was able to lower the interleukin-17 levels when it was added to blood samples from 28 patients.

The team will now conduct a clinical trial to see if giving vitamin D to patients helps to ease their symptoms. In particular, they will look at those patients who are resistant to steroids as they can have interleukin-17 levels that are seven times higher than other patients.

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Kepler’s planet-hunting days are over

There was some sad news from NASA last week – it looks like the Kepler space telescope’s planet hunting days are over.

The telescope, which was launched in 2009, has since discovered 132 exoplanets – planets located outside of our solar system – and identified nearly 3,000 more possible ones, including rocky worlds similar to the ones found in our solar system.

However, in recent months, the telescope has been having issues with its reaction wheels, the structures which keep the telescope in a fixed position and orientation, reported New Scientist.

In July last year, one of the five wheels stopped working, and the telescope needed four to work properly. However, at the start of this year, another of the wheels started to show signs of breaking down, something that the telescope would not be able to work without.

The mission managers shut down operations for a few weeks to see if a rest would help to get the wheel working again, but last week the telescope put itself into safe mode – an automated response for when a system glitch has occurred. Further communication with the telescope has shown that the wheel has stopped working, and the attempts to restart it have also failed.

"Unfortunately, Kepler is not in a place where I can go up and rescue it," John Grunsfeld, a former NASA astronaut who now works in the agency's science directorate, said during the press briefing.

However, the team are not ready to give up on Kepler just yet, and will continue to work on it over the next few weeks.

"We're looking at the data very carefully to see if it's possible to get back into science mode," said Grunsfeld. "I wouldn't call Kepler down and out just yet."

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And finally…

Major Tim Peake heading to the International Space Station in 2015

Astronaut Tim Peake will be working on the International Space Station (ISS) in the near future it was revealed this week.

He will join Expedition 46 to the ISS, due to launch in November or December 2015. His stay is expected to last just over five months and there is a strong chance he will also get to do a spacewalk, reported the BBC.

"I am delighted to have been assigned to a long-duration mission to the International Space Station," Peake said.

"On a personal level, this feels like the high point of an incredibly rewarding career in aviation.

"It is a huge privilege to be able to fly to space. I look forward to the challenges ahead and I shall be doing my utmost to maximise this opportunity for European science, industry and education to benefit from this mission."

Peake has also recently taken part in the Ask the Experts project run by the National Science + Engineering Competition where he answered the questions sent in from young people all across the UK.

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