Month: December, 2018

This Martian Crater Is a ‘Winter Wonderland’ Right Now, New Photo Shows

Topography of Korolev crater.

The Mars Express orbiter has sent a festive postcard back to Earth just in time for the holidays. On Thursday, the European Space Agency (ESA) released the spacecraft’s view of a “winter wonderland” of ice inside Korolev crater.

The crater is located at the Martian north pole, so it may as well be the imaginary headquarters for the Martian Santa Claus.

It may also be a not-so-imaginary home for humans one day, as igloo-like domes at the Martian north pole have been floated as one possibility for inhabiting the planet.

The image is especially timely because Mars Express will celebrate its 15th anniversary in Martian orbit on Christmas Day.

Named for the influential Soviet rocket engineer Sergey Korolev, the impact crater is 82 kilometers (50 miles) in diameter and contains a permanent ice field that stretches over a mile deep.

Mars Express captured its view with its High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC), creating a composite image out of five orbital passes over the region.




Korolev crater was also recently imaged by the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), which is jointly operated by ESA and the Russian space agency Roscosmos.

The TGO’s Colour and Stereo Surface Imaging System (CaSSIS) instrument captured a topographical view of the formation on April 4, which shows the slope of the crater in blues and purples.

The ice field is chilled by a “cold trap” of air that insulates the crater and keeps it perennially filled with frozen water.

It would be a great place to go for a skate, so long as you don’t mind low gravity, unbreathable air, and high doses of radiation.

InSight’s seismometer on the Martian surface, December 19, 2018.

Cool crater portraits aren’t the only seasonal gifts we’re getting from our Martian robots this week.

NASA also announced that its InSight lander, which touched down on Mars on November 26, successfully placed its seismometer on the surface with its robotic arm on Wednesday.

This marked the first time that a seismometer has been placed on an alien world. This instrument is designed to pick up “Marsquakes” caused by geological faults or asteroid impacts, like the one that formed Korolev crater.

InSight’s timetable of activities on Mars has gone better than we hoped,” said InSight project manager Tom Hoffman in a statement. “Getting the seismometer safely on the ground is an awesome Christmas present.”

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All Four Last Tuesday Rocket Launches Postponed

If you’re a space fan, Christmas comes a week early this year. There are four — count ’em, four! — launches scheduled to take place last Tuesday (Dec. 18), and you can watch them all live.

The action begins in the morning with a one-two punch. At 9:34 a.m. EST (1434 GMT), SpaceX plans to launch a next-generation GPS satellite for the U.S. Air Force from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Nineteen minutes later, at 9:30 a.m. EST (1430 GMT), Blue Origin’s suborbital New Shepard capsule will take to the skies from West Texas on the 10th uncrewed test flight of the reusable vehicle.

You can watch both missions live here at Space.com, or directly via SpaceX and Blue Origin.

Then, at 11:37 a.m. EST (1637 GMT), an Arianespace Soyuz rocket will loft a spy satellite for the French military called CSO-1. You can watch that liftoff, which will take place from Kourou, French Guiana, at Arianespace’s website.

Another spysat launch will wrap things up tonight. A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV Heavy rocket carrying the classified NROL-71 spacecraft for the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office is scheduled to lift off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California at 8:57 p.m. EST (5:57 p.m. local California time; 0157 GMT on Dec. 19).




You can watch that one live on Space.com as well, or directly via ULA (though it appears the weather may not cooperate for an on-time liftoff).

There will be another flurry of spaceflight activity around the new year. NASA’s asteroid-sampling OSIRIS-REx spacecraft, which has been flying along with the space rock Bennu since Dec. 3, will slip into orbit around that object on Dec. 31.

Just hours later, NASA’s New Horizons probe will zoom past the small, distant object Ultima Thule, which lies about 1 billion miles (1.6 billion kilometers) beyond Pluto.

That dwarf planet was New Horizons’ first flyby target, you probably recall; the spacecraft cruised past Pluto in July 2015, returning stunning images of water-ice mountains, vast plains of nitrogen ice and other dramatic landscapes.

And sometime in the first few days of January, China’s Chang’e 4 mission will drop onto the far side of the moon, if all goes according to plan.

Chang’e 4, which launched on Dec. 7, consists of a lander and rover, which will touch down within the huge South Pole-Aitken Basin. No probe has ever touched down on the lunar far side, which always faces away from Earth.

Update for Dec. 19: After all four launches scheduled for Tuesday were delayed, SpaceX and Blue Origin have again postponed their launches. Arianespace and United Launch Alliance are on track for a Dec. 19 launch, while the Indian Space Research Organisation successfully launched its GSAT-7A communications satellite into orbit.

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This 6000-Year-Old Chewing Gum Yields DNA

Steven LeBlanc has been dreaming about ancient DNA for several decades, but he never had any luck extracting it from museum artifacts.

Then, a few years ago, LeBlanc, an archaeologist and collections manager at Harvard University’s Peabody Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts, had a brainstorm.

He was staring at drawers full of quids–wads of plant material chewed by ancient Native Americans–when he realized, “Quid … saliva … DNA … DING!

In the September Journal of Field Archaeology, LeBlanc and several co-authors report that they have recovered DNA from 2000-year-old quids, as well as from aprons worn by Native Americans.

The quids and aprons belonged to a vanished tribe that archaeologists call the Western Basketmakers.

Between about 500 B.C.E. and 500 C.E., they lived in caves and rock shelters in what is now southern Utah and northern Arizona.

Dry conditions are ideal for preserving DNA, and researchers have previously extracted ancient DNA from skeletons and feces of both humans and animals.

After getting the idea to test quids, LeBlanc teamed up with Thomas Benjamin, a cancer biologist at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts, and other researchers.




They pulled mitochondrial DNA from 48 quids and from 18 aprons that had been stained with what was likely menstrual blood.

Then they scanned the DNA for various molecular markers called haplogroups, which appear in different frequencies in different parts of the world.

LeBlanc and his colleagues found that about 14% of these samples contained haplogroup A. This haplogroup is extremely rare in the Southwest, but it occurs in about half of the population of Central America.

The intermediate frequency in the sample of Western Basketmakers fits with the idea that they migrated from somewhere in central Mexico, bringing agriculture into the turf of foragers.

The results were confirmed by a second laboratory, and LeBlanc says the absence of European haplogroups rules out the possibility of contamination.

The larger conclusion is that museum artifacts can provide a new source of data. Quids are common in collections, notes Connie Mulligan of the University of Florida, Gainesville, although aprons less so.

Next, the team hopes to sample other textiles, samples, and cigarettes made from hollow reeds. “It’s a neat and novel application,” says Anne Stone, an ancient DNA expert at Arizona State University in Tempe.

She notes that testing artifacts may be especially important when Native American tribes are reluctant to allow sampling of their ancestors’ skeletons.

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Scientists Invented 3D-Printed Hand That Plays Jingle Bells

Scientists have made a 3D-printed robot hand that can play Jingle Bells on the piano.

Researchers at Cambridge University said soft and rigid materials in the design replicate the bones and ligaments of a human hand, but not the muscles or tendons.

The hand cannot move its fingers independently, but can play simple musical phrases by moving its wrist – known as “passive” movement.

It was “taught” to play several tunes, including Jingle Bells, to test its dexterity.

Academics said the project shows how challenging it is to replicate all the abilities of a human hand, and how much complex movement can still be achieved through design.

The basic motivation of this project is to understand embodied intelligence, that is, the intelligence in our mechanical body,” said Dr Fumiya Iida, who led the research.

Our bodies consist of smart mechanical designs such as bones, ligaments, and skins that help us behave intelligently even without active brain-led control.




By using the state-of-the-art 3D printing technology to print human-like soft hands, we are now able to explore the importance of physical designs, in isolation from active control, which is impossible to do with human piano players as the brain cannot be ‘switched off’ like our robot.”

The findings of the project, reported in the journal Science Robotics, could help inform the design of robots that are capable of more natural movement with minimal energy use.

Josie Hughes, the paper’s first author, said: “We can use passivity to achieve a wide range of movement in robots: walking, swimming or flying, for example.

“Smart mechanical design enables us to achieve the maximum range of movement with minimal control costs: we wanted to see just how much movement we could get with mechanics alone.”

She added: “Piano playing is an ideal test for these passive systems, as it’s a complex and nuanced challenge requiring a significant range of behaviours in order to achieve different playing styles.

Researchers said the project, funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, will drive further study of the underlying principles of skeletal dynamics to achieve complex movement tasks.

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Astronomers Just Found a New Dwarf Planet That Is Three Times As Far Away As Pluto

“Far Out!”

It’s official: astronomers found a new dwarf planet in our solar system — and it’s the most distant object ever observed in our solar system.

I said ‘far out!’ when I discovered it, and it’s a very far out object,” said astronomer Scott Shepard from the Carnegie Institution for Science.

The tiny planet is called 2018 VG18 — later nicknamed “Farout” by the team that discovered it — and it’s about 3.5 as far away as Pluto, some 18 billion kilometers (11.2 billion miles) away.

That’s more than 100 times the distance between the Earth and the Sun — and about the same distance as Voyager 2, the NASA probe that launched in 1977 and reached interstellar space this month.

Farout was spotted by the Japanese Subaru telescope in Hawaii on November 10 by Shepard and several colleagues, according to a statement on Carnegie Institution for Science’s website.




Unusual Orbits

So far, Farout is still deeply mysterious. But one aspect already attracting scientific interest is its unusual orbit. Farout orbits at an unusual angle, along with other so-called “trans-Neptunian objects.”

There’s been a lot of speculation in recent years about what might be causing those astronomical bodies’ unusual trajectory.

One of the most popular explanations is the possible existence of a ninth planet, or Planet X. In fact, the astronomers discovered Farout while searching for the existence of a ninth planet, according to the statement.

Most recent data suggests it could also be a group of objects within the same gravitational field.

Slow and Pinkish

But we can glean at least some details about Farout. Farout is estimated to be 500 km in diameter, and to take more than 1,000 years to orbit the Sun. It also has a pinkish hue, according to the researchers.

With new wide-field digital cameras on some of the world’s largest telescopes, we are finally exploring our Solar System’s fringes, far beyond Pluto,” said Chad Trujillo, astronomer from Northern Arizona University.

The discovery shows that even though researchers are now routinely finding planets orbiting other stars, there are still planet-sized undiscovered objects in our own solar system.

It really goes to show how much there still is to learn about our relatively small corner of the galaxy.

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A Deodorant Maker is Using Machine Learning to Detect Your B.O.

Unilever — that’s the owner of prominent deodorant makers Axe and Dove — has teamed up with an all-star squad of academics and electronics manufacturers to create a machine learning-powered gadget that’ll tell you if you have body odor.

That’s according to a detailed story in the magazine IEEE Spectrum about Unilever’s work with chipmaker Arm, electronics firm PragmatIC, and researchers at the University of Manchester.

They aim to use some of the most advanced artificial intelligence (AI) and sensor technology in the world — to tell you whether you smell bad.




Smell-O-Vision

The gadget will take the form of a thin plastic strip, according to IEEE, with a tiny processor and an array of organic semiconductors that detect “gaseous analytes” — chemical signs, apparently, that you’re giving off a nasty pong.

And because those gaseous analytes are complex, the system will employ machine learning to analyze the data and decide whether it’s time for a fresh misting of the “hot chocolate” and “red peppercorn notes” from Axe’s Dark Temptation XL Body Spray.

Food Waste

The technology wouldn’t just provide relief for your family and coworkers. It could also potentially evaluate food freshness, according to IEEE — possibly cutting into the 1.3 billion tons of food that went to waste in 2016.

And, to be fair, it also represents a step forward for AI and sensor technology, which have become adept at recognizing sights and sounds but struggled to categorize smells.

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More Than 90 Percent Of All Organisms That Have Ever Lived On Earth Are Extinct

As new species evolve to fit ever changing ecological niches, older species fade away. But the rate of extinction is far from constant.

At least a handful of times in the last 500 million years, 50 to more than 90 percent of all species on Earth have disappeared in a geological blink of the eye.

Though these mass extinctions are deadly events, they open up the planet for new life-forms to emerge.

Dinosaurs appeared after one of the biggest mass extinction events on Earth, the Permian-Triassic extinction about 250 million years ago.

The most studied mass extinction, between the Cretaceous and Paleogene periods about 65 million years ago, killed off the dinosaurs and made room for mammals to rapidly diversify and evolve.




Scientists have narrowed down several of the most likely causes of mass extinction. Flood basalt events (volcano eruptions), asteroid collisions, and sea level falls are the most likely causes of mass extinctions, though several other known events may also contribute.

These include global warming, global cooling, methane eruptions and anoxic events–when the earth’s oceans lose their oxygen.

Both volcano eruptions and asteroid collisions would eject tons of debris into the atmosphere, darkening the skies for at least months on end.

Starved of sunlight, plants and plant-eating creatures would quickly die.

Space rocks and volcanoes could also unleash toxic and heat-trapping gases that—once the dust settled—enable runaway global warming.

An extraterrestrial impact is most closely linked to the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event, one of the five largest in the history of the world, and the most recent.

A huge crater off Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula is dated to about 65 million years ago, coinciding with the extinction.

Global warming fueled by volcanic eruptions at the Deccan Flats in India may also have aggravated the event. Dinosaurs, as well as about half of all species on the planet, went extinct.

Massive floods of lava erupting from the central Atlantic magmatic province about 200 million years ago may explain the Triassic-Jurassic extinction.

About 20 percent of all marine families went extinct, as well as most mammal-like creatures, many large amphibians, and all non-dinosaur archosaurs.

An asteroid impact is another possible cause of the extinction, though a telltale crater has yet to be found.

The Permian-Triassic extinction event was the deadliest: More than 90 percent of all species perished. Many scientists believe an asteroid or comet triggered the massive die-off, but, again, no crater has been found.

Another strong contender is flood volcanism from the Siberian Traps, a large igneous province in Russia. Impact-triggered volcanism is yet another possibility.

Starting about 360 million years ago, a drawn-out event eliminated about 70 percent of all marine species from Earth over a span of perhaps 20 million years.

Pulses, each lasting 100,000 to 300,000 years, are noted within the larger late Devonian extinction.

Insects, plants, and the first proto-amphibians were on land by then, though the extinctions dealt landlubbers a severe setback.

Today, many scientists think the evidence indicates a sixth mass extinction is under way. The blame for this one, perhaps the fastest in Earth’s history, falls firmly on the shoulders of humans.

By the year 2100, human activities such as pollution, land clearing, and overfishing may drive more than half of the world’s marine and land species to extinction.

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Will an asteroid hit Earth? Frequent Asteroid Questions (FAQ)

Should I be worried about asteroids hitting Earth?

No, and yes. You shouldn’t lose sleep over it because damaging asteroids do not hit very often.

But you should care about it: they have hit and dangerous asteroids will hit again, unless we prevent that from happening—which we can if we put in the work to find, track, characterize asteroids, develop methods to deflect dangerous asteroids, and internationally coordinate and educate.

What is an asteroid, exactly?

An asteroid is a small, rocky or metallic object orbiting the Sun. They are now usually defined as being larger than 1 meter in diameter with objects smaller than that being called meteoroids.

The largest asteroid is Ceres at 965 km (600 mi) diameter. Most asteroids, including Ceres, are located in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, but some asteroids come near to or cross Earth’s orbit.

How do asteroids form? Where do asteroids come from?

Asteroids are typically material left over from the period of planetary formation 4.5 billion years ago, the stuff left over that didn’t form into planets in the inner solar system.  Often they are fragments of collisions between asteroids in the past.




How many near-Earth asteroids are there?

Using the cut-off for asteroid diameter of 1 meter, there are estimated to be more than half a billion near-Earth asteroids.

For objects that cause major damage if they hit Earth (larger than about 30 meters), there are about a million. So far, we are approaching 20,000 found.

It is easier to find larger objects, so we think we have found more than 90% of the asteroids 1 km and above, but for smaller asteroids still capable of causing major regional damage, we have only found a small percentage.

Are there any asteroids heading for Earth?

There are a few asteroids that currently are known to have a low probability of hitting Earth in tens to hundreds of years.

What are near-Earth objects and how could they affect us?

For example, one of the highest probabilities currently is an approximately 37 meter diameter asteroid called 2000 SG344 that has a 1 in 1100 chance of impact in 2071.

But these always are based on asteroid observations that have uncertainties in them. Usually, as more observations are obtained, the impact probability will drop to 0; in other words we know it won’t hit.

JPL keeps an online list of all asteroids with any probability of hitting Earth.

The big uncertainty is that we haven’t discovered most of near Earth asteroids yet, so we don’t know if they are on a collision course with Earth, which is why finding and tracking them is crucial.

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4 Megaprojects That Could Reverse Climate Change

Climate change is happening, and time is running out to turn it around. The IPCC’s most recent report gives us about 10 years to reverse our carbon emissions. We’re not going to get there by reducing our emissions alone. Here are 4 megaprojects that could actually save the planet.

Biomass Energy with Carbon Capture and Storage Biomass is the burning of biological material (usually plant matter) to generate energy. BECCS scrubs the CO2 out of the exhaust and sequesters it underground, thus taking CO2 out of the air via that plants and putting it into the ground.

Direct Air Capture With DAC, giant carbon scrubbers pull CO2 out of the air, after which the CO2 can be used to produce other items like fuel. Two companies that are leading in this field are Carbon Engineering and Climeworks. Stratospheric Aerosol Injection SAI is, basically, creating an artificial volcano. The Mount Pinatubo eruption of 1991 cooled the planet by half a degree for 18 months. By flying a fleet of SAI Lofters (SAILs) regularly into the upper atmosphere, we could spread particulates around the planet and cool the atmosphere.

Space Solar Shield By creating a giant solar shield at the L1 Lagrange point, we could block up to 2% of the sun’s rays, enough to alter the amount of heat getting trapped by the atmosphere.

Fossil Fuel Emissions Have Climbed For A Second Straight Year

In the United States, emissions of carbon dioxide are projected to increase 2.5 percent in 2018 after a decade of declines.

We thought, perhaps hoped, emissions had peaked a few years ago,” said Jackson, a professor of Earth system science in Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences (Stanford Earth).

After two years of renewed growth, that was wishful thinking.

Culprits for the increase include unusual weather — a cold winter in Eastern states and a warm summer across much of the nation ramped up energy needs for seasonal heating and cooling — as well as a growing appetite for oil in the face of low gas prices.

Consumption of one fossil fuel, however, is no longer on the rise: coal. The study shows coal consumption in Canada and the United States has dropped by 40 percent since 2005, and in 2018 alone the U.S. is expected to take a record-setting 15 gigawatts of coal-fired capacity offline.




Market forces and the drive for cleaner air are pushing countries toward natural gas, wind and solar power,” Jackson said. “This change will not only reduce CO2 emissions but will also save lives lost to air pollution.”

Yet the study shows renewables around the world are largely coming online as add-ons to fossil fuel energy sources — particularly natural gas — rather than replacements. “It isn’t enough for renewables to grow,” Jackson said.

They need to displace fossil fuels. So far, that’s happening for coal but not for oil or natural gas.”

Over time, the researchers warn increased coal use in regions where large swaths of the population lack access to reliable electricity could eventually exceed the steep cuts to coal use elsewhere.

India’s emissions, for example, are projected to grow by 6 percent this year as the country races to build new power plants for both industrial and consumer needs.

They’re building everything — wind, solar, nuclear and coal — very quickly,” Jackson said.

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