Tag: Ocean

Future Spacecraft Landing On Jupiter’s Moon Europa May Have To Navigate Jagged Blades Of Ice

Jupiter’s icy moon, Europa, is a prime candidate in the search for life elsewhere in our Solar System — but landing a spacecraft on the moon may be even more difficult than we thought.

Certain patches of ice on Europa could be rough and jagged, resembling sharp blades, according to a new modeling. And that may make it hard for future probes to touch down gently on the surface.

It’s possible that conditions in areas around Europa’s equator may be just right to form what are known as “penitentes.” These are unique ice formations found here on Earth in places like the Andes Mountains.

Penitentes form on Earth when super-cold ice sits in direct sunlight for long periods of time, causing patches in the ice to turn directly from a solid to a gas.

In a new study, published today in Nature Geoscience, researchers found that the exact conditions needed to create this phenomena are present on parts of Europa too.

Scientists still hope to confirm the finding with visual evidence of penitentes on Europa. But the new model is a key piece of information that could help inform NASA’s future missions.

Right now, the space agency is working on two different missions to the moon.




The first, Europa Clipper, is slated to launch sometime around 2022 and will send a spacecraft to fly by Europa and possibly zoom through the world’s plumes — suspected geysers that spew water from a vast ocean below the moon’s icy crust.

In the meantime, NASA is in the very early stages of designing a lander that could also travel to Europa someday, touch down on the surface, and then drill into the ice. That way, it could potentially sample the unseen water below.

But if parts of the surface are truly shaped like blades, it would be extremely hazardous for a conventional lander. This new research could help NASA decide which areas to avoid when considering landing spots on Europa.

And it’s possible that the upcoming Europa Clipper mission will get even more detailed images of the moon’s surface, to confirm if these formations are actually there.

We’re really hoping that the Clipper mission will tell us one way or the other,” Daniel Hobley, a geologist and planetary scientist at Cardiff University in the UK, as well as lead author on the study SAID.

We should be able to take pictures of good enough quality to prove it.”

However, answers will come soon with Europa Clipper, which will fly within 16 miles of Europa’s surface. The spacecraft also has a camera and instruments with higher resolution than Galileo had.

It will be flying over the equatorial region, which is where these features are predicted to exist,” Phillips says. “I think Europa Clipper is well-suited to see any actual evidence for these formations.

Even if ice blades are found, it’s not a showstopper for a future lander. The new study only found these high sublimation rates occurring in a narrow band around the equator, but areas closer to the poles don’t seem to have the same conditions.

There are still lots of places on the surface of Europa that would be really interesting potential landing sites that are well outside of this band,” says Phillips. “There’s no reason to shoot for the equator over anywhere else.

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Pollution Is Turning Sea Snakes Black For A Surprising Reason

The turtle-headed sea snake usually sports beautiful bands of alternating black and white. But for decades, researchers have been puzzled by populations living near Pacific Ocean cities that seem to have lost their stripes.

Now a new study may finally have an answer: The pigment in black skin may help city snakes rid themselves of industrial pollutants.

By collecting shed skin from turtle-headed sea snakes in a variety of habitats, scientists discovered that all-black, urban snakes had higher concentrations of trace elements such as arsenic and zinc than did snakes far from cities.

Importantly, the team found the same phenomenon in skin samples from another black-and-white banded snake, the sea krait.




Finally, the scientists observed all-black sea snakes shed their skins more frequently than their rural counterparts, supporting the idea that the darker color allows reptiles to withstand the stresses of city life.

Snake populations are declining worldwide due to human activities, so it is good news that one species evolved a way to resist to pollution,” says study leader Claire Goiran, a marine biologist at the University of New Caledonia and the LabEx Corail.

If the researchers’ findings are correct, the turtle-headed sea snake would join a short list of animals that show “industrial melanism.”

The most famous example is the United Kingdom’s peppered moth, which evolved a darker color to stay camouflaged in forests blackened by coal pollution.

But it was another color-changing animal that made Goiran suspect industrial melanism in turtle-headed sea snakes: She read a paper by University of Warsaw biologist Marion Chatelain that found Parisian pigeons with darker feathers were better able to store toxins than their light feathered counterparts.

What’s more, the pigment that makes feathers (and skin) dark, called melanin, has a tendency to bind to metal ions, which means that growing darker feathers can actually serve as a way for birds to expel toxins from their bodies.

Home to around 100,000 people and a nickel metallurgical plant, Nouméa and its surrounding waters contain both urban and industrial pollution, she says. Goiran suspects the snakes absorb the toxins via the fish that they eat.

Chatelain called the new study interesting, as it’s likely the first to demonstrate a link between darker colorations and metal concentrations in a reptile.

For instance, the study analyzed the metal content between dark and light bands on sea kraits, not turtle-headed sea snakes.

The authors hypothesize that the same trends hold true for the turtle-headed species— but to know this, Chatelain says, skin samples from both colorations of the species from an urban area are required.

Therein lies the problem: It’s almost impossible to find a striped turtle-headed sea snake in an urban area these days, says Goiran.

In Nouméa, as few as 5 percent of the turtle-headed snakes still have their stripes, she says. What’s more, the species only sheds its skin three to four times a year, reducing the odds a researcher will find a sample.

On the other hand, sea kraits shed their skins on land, so they’re much easier to collect.

The study is not finished yet,” Goiran says. “We have many more things to learn from sea snakes.

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NASA Takes A Deep Dive Into The Search For Life

Deep space and the deep sea are not as different as you might think. In 2018 and 2019, NASA’s search for life beyond Earth will dive beneath the waves here at home to explore hydrothermal systems of underwater volcanoes.

These special locations could look a lot like what we’ll find on the other ocean worlds in our solar system – prime candidates to potentially support life.

Many projects at NASA study places on Earth that could be analogous to extraterrestrial locations.

The project pulling together ocean and space is called SUBSEA, which stands for Systematic Underwater Biogeochemical Science and Exploration Analog.

While searching for clues about similar environments on other ocean worlds and their potential to support life, the team will also assess the best ways to conduct a remote science mission and streamline future exploration.

This could have implications for near-term human exploration destinations like the Moon and Mars.

This synergy of ocean and space research makes a lot of sense, when you realize that in both fields robotic explorers are sent to work where humans can’t easily go, with input from groups of people both relatively nearby and much farther afield.

Combining the two worlds allows the SUBSEA team, led by Darlene Lim of NASA’s Ames Research Center, in California’s Silicon Valley, to help prepare for new types of space exploration missions by practicing now under realistic conditions on Earth.




Simulating a Space Mission at Sea

NASA’s long-term strategy for deep space exploration may include joint human-robotic missions. One potential design involves astronauts close enough to communicate almost instantaneously with robots exploring a surface site, such as on the Moon – something called low-latency teleoperations, or LLT.

The LLT crew could send commands down to robots instantaneously, based on scientific guidance and exploration direction from an Earth-based science team, despite being separated from that team by long communication delays.

The SUBSEA project operations parallel this mission design. Their scientific fieldwork takes place from on board the ship Nautilus, which is equipped with the Hercules and Argus remotely operated vehicles, or ROVs.

These underwater robots are controlled by ship-based human operators. They, in turn, receive guidance from a remote science team located at exploration command centers throughout the U.S.

Connected to the Nautilus via a communications infrastructure designed for teleoperations, video and other data streams provide science team members with information from the field site.

With the scientists conducting research on seafloor hydrothermal systems in the context of a simulated LLT mission, the whole team can begin to understand how best to accomplish tasks and develop tools that will be needed for science-driven exploration in space.

Their approach focuses on three main areas: the scientific research, science operations and information technologies.

With its science results, SUBSEA will also broaden our understanding of the potential for other ocean worlds in the solar system to host life.

Scientists will gain a better idea of how a range of water-rock reactions can affect the availability of energy sources to sustain microbial metabolism, and where such conditions are most likely to exist.

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The Mystery Of Blue Diamonds And Where They Come From Finally Solved

They are the world’s most expensive diamonds, with some stones valued at £100 million.

But until now nobody has known how rare blue diamonds are made or where they come from.

Now scientists have discovered that they are formed 400 miles down in the Earth, around four times as deep as clear diamonds, where the element boron combines with carbon in such extreme pressure and heat that it crystallizes into the world’s most precious stone.

And because boron is mostly found on the Earth’s surface, scientists believe that it must have travelled down into the mantle when tectonic plates slipped beneath each other.

Eventually volcanic action brought the diamonds up closer to the surface.




The study, published in the journal Nature, suggests blue diamonds are even rarer than first thought.

We now know that the finest gem-quality diamonds come from the farthest down in our planet.”  said Steven Shirey, of the Carnegie Institution of Science.

Blue diamonds have always held a special intrigue. The world’s most famous jewel, the Hope Diamond, which was once owned by Louis XIV, Marie-Antoninette, and George IV was said to be cursed with many of its owners and their families coming to a sticky – and often headless – end.

The postman who delivered the Hope Diamond to its current location in the National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC had his leg crushed in a lorry accident shortly after and then his house burned down.

But the value and rarity of blue diamonds makes them difficult to study and researchers at the Carnegie Institution have spent two years tracking down and studying 46 blue diamonds from collections around the world.

And they were looking for the rarest of blue diamonds, those which include tiny mineral traces called inclusions which hint at their origins.

These so-called type IIb diamonds are tremendously valuable, making them hard to get access to for scientific research purposes,” said lead author Evan Smith of the Gemological Institute of America, adding,

“And it is very rare to find one that contains inclusions, which are tiny mineral crystals trapped inside the diamond.”

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Flash Recovery Of Ammonoids After Most Massive Extinction Of All Time

The study, conducted by a Franco-Swiss collaboration involving the laboratories Biogéosciences (Université de Bourgogne / CNRS), Paléoenvironnements & Paléobiosphère (Université Claude Bernard / CNRS) and the Universities of Zurich and Lausanne (Switzerland), appears in the August 28 issue of Science.

The history of life on Earth has been punctuated by a number of mass extinctions, brief periods of extreme loss of biodiversity. These extinctions are followed by phases during which surviving species recover and diversify.

The End-Permian extinction, which took place between the Permian (299 – 252.6 MY) and Triassic (252.6 – 201.6 MY), is the greatest mass extinction on record, resulting in the loss of 90% of existing species.

It is associated with intensive volcanic activity in China and Siberia. It marks the boundary between the Paleozoic and Mesozoic Eras.




Until now, studies had shown that the biosphere took between 10 and 30 million years to recover the levels of biodiversity seen before the extinction.

Ammonoids are cephalopod swimmers related the nautilus and squid. They had a shell, and disappeared from the oceans at the same time as the dinosaurs, 65 million years ago, after being a major part of marine fauna for 400 MY.

The Franco-Swiss team of paleontologists has shown that ammonoids needed only one million years after the End-Permian extinction to diversify to the same levels as before.

The cephalopods, which were abundant during the Permian, narrowly missed being eradicated during the extinction: only two or three species survived and a single species seems to have been the basis for the extraordinary diversification of the group after the extinction.

It took researchers seven years to gather new fossils and analyze databases in order to determine the rate of diversification of the ammonoids.

In all, 860 genera from 77 regions around the world were recorded at 25 successive time intervals from the Late Carboniferous to the Late Triassic, a period of over 100 million years.

The discovery of this explosive growth over a million years takes a heated debate in a new direction.

Indeed, it suggests that earlier estimates for the End-Permian extinction were based on truncated data and imprecise or incorrect dating.

Furthermore, the duration for estimated recovery after other lesser extinctions all vary between 5 and 15 million years.

The result obtained here suggests that these estimates should probably be revised downwards.

The biosphere is most likely headed towards a sixth mass extinction, and this discovery reminds us that the recovery of existing species after an extinction is a very long process, taking several tens of thousands of human generations at the very least.

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5 Reasons Why Octopuses Are the Weirdest

No matter how well they camouflage, octopuses will always stand out for a variety of crazy reasons — at least to those of us who live above the water line.

Octopuses are really good at blending in. They match their skin color and texture to whatever’s around them until it looks as if they’ve disappeared.

But no matter how hard they try, there are other reasons octopuses still stand out — at least to those of us who live above the water line. Here are a few ways octopuses set themselves apart:

1. They see with their skin.

No, they don’t have a million eyeballs. But scientists at the University of California in Santa Barbara discovered that octopus skin contains the same proteins that are found in eyes.

Just like the pupils of your eyes expand and contract with light, so do the muscles around an octopus’s chromatophores, which are the cells that allow it to change color.

They probably don’t pick up detail very well through their skin, but they definitely see the light!

2. They shape-shift.

Some octopuses are masters of the fake-out. The appropriately named mimic octopus would totally win Halloween with its ability to make itself look like something it’s not.




3. They have three hearts and nine brains.

Two of the hearts pump blood to the gills, and the third pumps blood to the organs in the rest of the octopus. According to Smithsonian, the third heart stops beating while the octopus is swimming.

4. They’re cannibals.

At least the giant Pacific octopus is. Found in the northern Pacific Ocean, adults often weigh more than 50 pounds.

They prefer to live alone until it’s time to mate, which is probably for the best, since they eat almost anything they can get their eight arms on — from small sharks to each other.

5. They manipulate their own RNA.

Scientists may have just discovered how an invertebrate got so smart. It turns out that octopuses can edit their own RNA.

Think about it like this: If you’re building a house, you’re going to get an architect to draw up a blueprint. That blueprint is your DNA.

To build the house, you’re going to have to hire a general contractor to execute what’s on the blueprints.

In humans, the general contractor mostly does what the blueprint says. He knows that putting in a deck when you wanted a pool could end up costing him a lot.

But for some reason, the octopus’s general contractor changes the plan in the heat of the moment. Literally. Scientists have known for a while that octopuses use RNA editing to function in the cold.

But with new information on the extent to which they pull this off, researchers now wonder if this ability will translate to a survival strategy as the oceans warm and acidify.

If humans want to make changes like this, we have to go back to the blueprints. We rely on DNA mutations passed to the next generation.

So what’s the cost to the octopus for the decisions of a headstrong contractor? Its blueprint hasn’t changed much in the last hundred million years.

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180 Million-Year-Old Crocodile Had Dolphin-Like Features, Tells Tale Of ‘Missing Link’

The discovery of an ancient type of crocodile that lived during the Jurassic Period, at the height of the age of dinosaurs, has shed new light on the species.

The 180 million-year-old fossil, named Magyarosuchus fitosi, shows that some ancient crocodiles evolved to have dolphin-like features.

The fossil was analyzed recently and found to have abnormal vertebra in its tail fin, effectively combining two different families of crocodiles – one that had limbs for walking on the surface and a bone-like protective armor on its back and one that had tail fins and flippers to aid with swimming in the ancient seas.




This fossil provides a unique insight into how crocodiles began evolving into dolphin and killer whale-like forms more than 180 million years ago,” Dr. Mark Young, of the University of Edinburgh’s School of GeoSciences, said in a statement.

The presence of both bony armour and a tail fin highlights the remarkable diversity of Jurassic-era crocodiles.

The new finding was made after the team of paleontologists analyzed the bones, which had been kept at a museum in Budapest. The fossil was originally discovered in Hungary in the Gerecse Mountains.

With an estimated body length of 4.67–4.83 m [15 feet – 16 feet] M. fitosi is the largest known non-metriorhynchid metriorhynchoid,” the study’s abstract reads.

The abstract continues: “The combination of retaining heavy dorsal and ventral armors and having a slight hypocercal tail is unique, further highlighting the mosaic manner of marine adaptations in Metriorhynchoidea.”

In addition, the newly-discovered species had large, pointed teeth, used to grasp prey, the statement added.

The study was published on May 10, in PeerJ, a peer-reviewed scientific journal.

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Meet The Snot-Dwelling Sea Creatures Who Help Move Food Through The Ocean

Hundreds of feet below the ocean’s surface, animals smaller than the palm of your hand make their houses out of snot.

These bizarro creatures called larvaceans keep the oceans teeming with life by gobbling up anything nutritious that’s floated down from the surface.

These little guys, which are shaped like tadpoles, filter a truly shocking amount of water in a single hour — between two and four of those giant five-gallon water jugs that get delivered to your office, according to a study in the journal Science Advances.




Giant larvaceans could push all of the water around them in Monterey Bay through their filters within 500 days; if a lot of them were all together and working as hard as they could, they could filter that same volume of water in just 13 days.

In order to find out exactly how these mysterious mucus-dwellers work, scientists at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute outfitted a remote-controlled vehicle with an arm wielding a laser to light up the food particles, and trained it on the giant larvaceans as they pumped water through their mucus and into their mouths.

A video camera on the vehicle recorded the flow, and the scientists published their findings today in the journal Science Advances.

The nutrients that don’t go toward keeping these creatures alive and in luxurious mucus homes get pooped onto the seafloor. And if the snot houses get too clogged up, the larvaceans simply drop them.

There, the poop and old mucus-shrouds feed bottom-dwelling sea creatures. It’s like a giant, oceanic, digestive system where nothing gets wasted — and where food gets grosser as it travels downward.

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5 Hard-Shelled Facts About Horseshoe Crabs

The plodding sea creatures have weird blood, weirder swimming habits, and a secret weapon that’s probably saved your life.

1. HORSESHOE CRABS ARE INCREDIBLY OLD.

Discovered in 2008, the 25 millimeter-wide Lunataspis aurora crawled over Manitoba 445 million years ago. This makes it the world’s oldest-known horseshoe crab.

Four species are with us today, all of which closely resemble their long-extinct ancestors.

Supposedly frozen in time, horseshoe crabs are often hailed as “living fossils” by the media.




Yet, appearances can be misleading. Evolution didn’t really leave these invertebrates behind. They’ve transformed quite a bit over the past half-billion years.

For instance, some prehistoric species had limbs that split out into two branches, but today’s specimens have only one.

2. THEY’RE NOT CRABS.

In fact, they aren’t even crustaceans. Unlike real crabs and their kin, horseshoe “crabs” lack antennae.

So, where do the strange ocean-dwellers belong on the arthropod family tree? Biologists classify them as chelicerates, a subphylum that also includes arachnids.

Members possess two main body segments and a pair of unique, pincer-like feeding appendages called chelicerae.

3. EACH ONE HAS A HUGE ARRAY OF SIGHT ORGANS.

Large compound eyes rest on the sides of their shells. Come mating season, these bean-shaped units help amorous crabs locate a partner. Behind each one, there’s a small, primitive photoreceptor called a lateral eye.

Towards the front of the shell are two tiny median eyes and a single endoparietal eye. On its underside, a horseshoe has two “ventral eyes,” which presumably help it navigate while swimming.

4. BABIES CAN SWIM UPSIDE DOWN.

Walking around on the ocean floor is generally how horseshoe crabs get from point A to point B.

Nevertheless, young ones will often flip over and start propelling themselves through the water, using their gills as extra paddles. With age, they do this less frequently.

5. THE SPIKED TAIL HAS SEVERAL USES.

Stinging isn’t one of them, despite what many falsely believe. Among its uses are assuming rudder duties and helping the arthropod right itself after getting stuck on its back.

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Is There Still Time To Save The Great Barrier Reef?

New research published today in the scientific journal Global Change Biology shows that adopting best management practices can help the Great Barrier Reef in a time of climate change.

The study models a range of predicted outcomes for the Reef out to 2050 under different scenarios of future climate change and local management action.

There is significant potential for coral recovery in the coming decades,” said Dr Nick Wolff, Climate Change Scientist at The Nature Conservancy.

But under a scenario of unmitigated greenhouse gas emissions and business-as-usual management of local threats, we predict that after this recovery, average coral cover on the Reef is likely to rapidly decline by 2050.”




The research involved scientists from The Nature Conservancy; The University of Queensland; James Cook University; the UK’s Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture; and the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS).

It modelled changes to corals that make up the Great Barrier Reef in the presence of a range of threats including cyclones, Crown-of-Thorns Starfish, nutrient runoff from rivers and warming events that drive mass coral bleaching.

The study provides much-needed clarity around how conventional management actions can support the resilience of the world’s largest coral reef ecosystem.

The $60M package announced recently by the Federal Government including $10.4M for Crown-of-Thorns Starfish control and $36.6M for measures to reduce river pollution is a positive step.

This could buy us some critical time,” said Dr Wolff.

The Queensland and Federal Governments have the right strategy in pursuing ambitious targets for water pollution reduction by 2025.

Further large-scale investments from both the private and public sectors should now be mobilised to expand and accelerate a range of innovative and tailored solutions to ensure targets are met.

Importantly though, the positive signs for the future shown in the research also depend strongly on whether the world meets the ambitious carbon emission targets of the Paris Climate Agreement.

The study shows that in a world of unmitigated carbon emissions, the increased frequency and severity of coral bleaching events will overwhelm the capacity of corals to recover and the benefits of good management practices could then be lost.

The study’s results also come with an important warning: not all coral reefs can be protected by good management under climate change, even if global warming can be kept below 1.5°C.

To protect the most climate sensitive species in the hardest-hit places, we would need to consider additional and unconventional management interventions beyond carbon mitigation AND intensified management.

“A new innovative R&D program to develop such interventions, including ways to boost the spread of warm-adapted corals to naturally cooler parts of the Great Barrier Reef, is included in the Australian Government’s recent $60M announcement. It’s a big step in the right direction,” concluded Dr Anthony.

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