Month: September, 2017

The Dark Side Of The Singularity

Or… How To Not Be A Horse. Automation and AI promise to usher in an era of amazing productivity and innovation. But they also threaten our very way of life.

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Tony Seba’s talk about why transportation and energy will be obsolete by 2030:……

Okuma Automation:…

CNet News on the automated Amazon fulfillment centers:…

Fully Charged – Self-Driving Nissan Leaf:…



Partial Transcript:

For hundreds, even thousands of years, the horse was humanity’s go-to form of transportation. And in 13 years, that all changed.

Right now, we are on the cusp of a technological disruption that will make the switch from horses to cars look like switching from Coke to Pepsi.

So we talk a lot on this channel about exponential growth, artificial intelligence, the singularity, and that’s a lot of fun, but there is a dark side to all this change, one that really needs to be talked about because the way we respond to it is going to significantly alter our future as a species.

The BBC released a report just a few weeks ago that said that 30% of jobs are going to go away in the next 10 years because of automation.

In the U.S., we’ve heard a lot over the last election about the proverbial coal miners and our current president specifically campaigning to bring back coal jobs.

But coal is just one of hundreds of industries that are taking advantage of employees that can work 24/7, never need a bathroom break, never sleep, never make a mistake and work twice as fast. Oh, and you don’t have to pay them.

Factories already decimated by outsourcing are now losing even more jobs to automation. And as automation becomes more sophisticated, more industries are at risk.

The transportation sector actually makes up 25% of the jobs in the United States, if you can believe that. A full quarter of the population. And autonomous cars… They’re pretty much here, guys.

Famously, the Tesla Model 3, going into production this year, will have autonomous capability, though it may not have the software available, it will have the hardware ready for it.

But less famously, there are a lot of other car companies trying to beat Tesla to market with this. Nissan has a fully self-driving prototype in development that they took a drive in on Fully Charged and it was spooky how good it was.

Cadillac is so bullish on self-driving technology, they spent millions of dollars to create a lidar map of every highway in the United States using their own proprietary system.

This way their cars won’t just rely on sensors and GPS to find their way, the Cadillac system will contain a 3D map of everything, including the roadsigns.

Google’s working on a car, Apple supposedly is working on a car, but the people who are really big on this technology are the service providers.

Uber made over 2 billion dollars last year. Imagine how much they could make if they didn’t have to pay their drivers…

Uber has been working for years on a transportation fleet of autonomous cars, and even Ford has made some intentions known of pivoting in a similar direction.

Many are predicting that cars will go from a retail industry to a service industry, with Peter Diamandis saying that in ten years, car ownership will be an outdated idea.

The fact of the matter is, you can be for automation or against it, you can agree with its use or not, but this is happening. And we need to be ready for it.

Some people are talking about a basic minimum income, a flat amount of money that everybody in a society makes, as a safety net to keep people above water. This is an interesting idea that’s even being tested in some places.

There is a coming change on a fundamental and massive level in this world. One that is filled with amazing advancements and technological wonders. The question is, will we be able to change with it?

How Cosmic Crashes Could Have Kick-started Plate Tectonics

A rock the size of a small city hurtles towards Earth, smashing a crater bigger than the span between Washington, D.C. and New York City.

The heat and shockwave raises the temperature of the atmosphere above boiling as huge seismic waves ripple through the Earth’s crust.

New research indicates that such an impact may have happened to our planet, although (thankfully) it was long before civilization arose.

About 3.26 billion years ago, an object between 23 and 26 miles wide (37 and 58 kilometers) crashed into the Earth somewhere and left geological evidence behind in South Africa.

Surprisingly, the impact may have made the Earth a friendlier place for life because it corresponds with this planet’s establishment of plate tectonics.

Finding the crater, though, is likely an impossible task. There are few rocks of this age on the entire Earth, the notable exception being the nearly 4-billion-old Canadian Shield that stretches across much of eastern Canada.

Little remains of that era of history, making it necessary for researchers to do detective work to learn more about the impactor.

It’s like the aftermath of a tornado where the insurance company won’t pay because your car was sucked off of your driveway and you can’t find the car, so they can’t pay it,” said Norm Sleep, a geophysicist at Stanford University who led the research.

You don’t know if it was stolen or damaged or wrecked or whatever because you can’t find it. We have the same difficulty.

Sleep and departmental co-author Donald Lowe published their research in the journal Geochemistry, Geophysics and Geosystems in April.

The paper is called “Physics of crustal fracturing and chert dike formation triggered by asteroid impact, ∼3.26 Ga, Barberton greenstone belt, South Africa.

The only life in that era was microbial, although Lowe pointed out they would have struggled with their new circumstances. “To say the least, it would have adversely affected life near the surface,” he said.

While whole microbe communities could have been wiped out, on the species level many would have survived.

Life was all over the Earth and not just in the area of the impact, and microbes are better able to withstand sudden temperature changes than more advanced lifeforms.

Perhaps microbes would have suffered after the impact, but in its wake, the impactor could have helped change our planet into one that better supports complex life.

Lowe pointed out that plate tectonics seems to have appeared around 3 billion to 3.2 billion years ago, around the same time the impactor smashed into the Earth.

If enough big objects hit the Earth frequently enough, it could have broken up the primitive plate structure on our planet into the plate tectonics we have today, they said.

This has important implications for life, as other researchers have said that plate tectonics might be necessary for complex life to exist.

Another clue came from the isotopes (types) of chromium. The surface rocks on Earth have a uniform ratio of chromium isotopes, but Lowe and a colleague in San Diego found that the isotopes in this layer had a different ratio.

The unusual proportions, along with the iridium, the platinum and the widespread distribution of the layer, all suggested this was produced by an impact.

The crash happened somewhere far away, though.

In the area around a crater, the rocks of this age would have been destroyed,” Lowe said. “We’ve never found evidence that we were at or close to an actual crater.

Perhaps further examination of the greenstone will turn up more information on this impactor, but similar sites will be hard to come by.There are few regions like the Barberton around

There are few regions like the Barberton around today, so that scientists will have trouble finding other impactors that could have affected plate tectonics.

Life on Earth is also adapted to plate tectonics, he pointed out, and as we have not found life elsewhere it is hard to say if tectonics are necessary for life to exist.

Even when looking outside of the Solar System, it will be a challenge to detect plate tectonics on extrasolar planets because they are so far away.

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Pass it on: New Scientist

End Of The World Is Still Coming Soon, Christian Numerologists Said It Was Just Postponed

The so-called ‘Christian numerologist‘ who alleged that the world would end on September 23 has clarified that the apocalypse has in fact been delayed.

The conspiracy theorist David Meade – who claimed that a mysterious planet would collide with Earth – is now saying that Saturday only marks the beginning of the end of the end of times.

Indeed, Saturday will see the beginning of a number of cataclysmic events that will occur over a number of weeks, that will lead to our demise.

The world is not ending, but the world as we know it is ending.”

Meade added: “A major part of the world will not be the same the beginning of October.

Meade used the ‘biblically significant’ number 33 and his interpretation of the Bible’s Book of Revelation to suggest that the legendary – and widely debunked – planet Nibiru would strike Earth on September 23.

The impact would set in motion cataclysmic events, according to Meade.

Nibiru would strike 33 days after the total solar eclipse. In his analysis, Meade cited how Jesus allegedly lived for 33 years.

I’m talking astronomy. I’m talking the Bible,” Meade said.

Another Christian fringe group, called Unsealed, claims that a Biblical image will appear on the sky on September 23.

In late August, Meade said that ‘Nibiru’ would hit Earth between September 20 and 23.

He said the clues are written on the Pyramids of Ancient Egypt and in the Bible.

The conspirator said: ‘It is very strange indeed that both the Great Sign of Revelation 12 and the Great Pyramid of Giza both point us to one precise moment in time – September 20 to 23, 2017.

Is this the end of the Church Age and the transition to the Day of the Lord? There couldn’t be two greater witnesses.

Earlier this year Mr Meade made a September prediction using verses from the Bible, but he now claims this date is backed up by marking on the pyramids.

Of the pyramid, he said: ‘It faces true north with only 3/60th of a degree of error and is located at the centre of the land mass of the Earth.

The east/west parallel that crosses the most land and the north/south meridian that crosses the most land intersect in two places on the Earth – one in the ocean and the other at the Great Pyramid.

Despite a lack of evidence for the hidden world, which Nasa has previously stated is an ‘internet hoax’, many people believe it is real. The scientific community does not agree Nibiru exists.

Nibiru and other stories about wayward planets are an internet hoax,” NASA has said previously. “Obviously, it does not exist.

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How Do Hurricanes Form? A Step-By-Step Guide.

Whenever hurricane season arrives in the Atlantic Ocean — typically between June and November — a bunch of meteorological terms get hurled around.

Tropical storm. Tropical depression. Category 3 hurricanes. Category 4 hurricanes.

So what’s the difference between all these types of weather events? One way to understand this is to walk through the different stages of a hurricane, step by step.

We’ll use Hurricane Irma, which started out as a wave off the African coast and went on to pound several Caribbean before it hit Florida as a Category 4 storm, as an example:

1) Tropical disturbance: A hurricane in the Atlantic Ocean typically begins life as a lowly “tropical disturbance” — defined as organized thunderstorm activity that stretches at least 100 miles across and maintains its identity for more than 24 hours.

During the summer, these disturbances often start as storms moving westward off the coast of Africa in what are known as “tropical waves.”

If meteorologists think a tropical disturbance may develop further, they’ll designate it as an “investigative area,” or invest.

Irma became a disturbance off the Cape Verde Islands in late August, with forecasters keeping close watch as it headed west.

2) Tropical depression or cyclone: Under the right conditions, a tropical disturbance can develop further and start to spin around a low-pressure center. Once that happens, it’s classified as a “tropical cyclone” or “tropical depression”:

For a tropical depression to form, conditions have to be just right: The water has to be warm enough to fuel the system, with temperatures of 80°F or hotter.

There needs to be enough moisture in the lower and middle part of the atmosphere. Local winds also have to be arranged so that they allow the depression to spin — too much wind shear can tear an aspiring tropical cyclone apart.

3) Tropical storm: This is the next stage. When the pressure in the center of the tropical depression drops, air rushes in, creating strong winds.

If the system strengthens and wind speeds rise past 39 mph, the system is dubbed a “tropical storm” and is given a name.

That’s what happened to Irma on August 30, as it picked up speed in the far Eastern Atlantic and intensified.
The US National Hurricane Center makes the call for when a tropical depression officially becomes a tropical storm.

It relies on data from islands and buoys as well as from reconnaissance aircrafts that fly into the storms to measure wind speed.

4) Hurricane: Tropical storms can intensify quickly if they pass over a region of especially warm water and don’t face much wind shear. As that happens, the pressure in the center drops even further and the winds really pick up.

The system gets rounder and often forms a clearly defined “eye.” Here’s Irma on Wednesday:

When the winds reach sustained speeds of 74 mph or more, the storm system is classified as a hurricane. Hurricanes are categorized according to the Saffir-Simpson Scale based on their wind speed and propensity for damage.

Irma was a Category 5 as of September 5 with wind speeds of 185 miles per hour. That’s serious — major hurricanes can do structural damage to buildings, take down trees, and cause widespread flooding.

Side note: The fact that you need especially warm water here explains why hurricanes only form in the Atlantic during the late summer months.

It also helps explain why global warming may lead to stronger hurricanes, although this gets complicated, since climate change can also affect wind shear that suppresses hurricanes.

5) Back down to tropical storm: Hurricanes can also weaken, however, as they move over land (or cooler water) and no longer have warm, moist air to fuel them.

Once wind speeds drop below 75 miles per hour, the hurricane gets downgraded to a tropical storm — and, later on, a “post-tropical cyclone” as it degrades further.

For example, Hurricane Hermine in 2016 was downgraded to a tropical storm not long after it made landfall in Florida in September.

But then Hermine moved back over the Atlantic Ocean and hit record-warm ocean temperatures there, gathering to hurricane strength again.

It’s worth emphasizing that even tropical cyclones that aren’t hurricanes can still do a great deal of damage by bringing torrential rain, dangerous surf, beach erosion, high winds, and flooding.

In 2012, “superstorm” Sandy was technically no longer a hurricane when it hit the East Coast, but it still proved devastating to the New York and New Jersey coasts.

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Pass it on: Popular Science

A French Man Has Regained Consciousness After 15 Years In a Vegetative State

A French man has regained consciousness after 15 years in a vegetative state, doctors reported Monday in the journal Current Biology.

The man, who remains unnamed, was in a car crash at age 20 and has spent the last 15 years in a vegetative state, able to occasionally open his eyes (therefore ruling out a coma, which results in no bodily movement), but with no other signs of awareness.

The study was led by Dr. Angela Sirigu of the Institut des Sciences Cognitives — Marc Jeannerod in Lyon, France, who, along with a team of researchers, discovered that the key to waking the man up lied in the vagus nerve.

The vagus nerve is the longest cranial nerve, extending from the colon all the way up through the abdomen, chest, and neck to the brain.

It’s in charge of tasks like regulating heart rate, sweating and controlling muscles in the small intestine. Doctors stimulate the vagus nerve to treat depression and seizures from epilepsy.

Sirigu and her team stimulated the nerve by implanting a device underneath the skin in his chest, similar to a pacemaker, and sending electrical currents along the nerve to the brain stem.

They saw improvement after just a month, but six months later, he was able to move and consciously respond to external stimuli.

The man still suffers severe brain damage and cannot speak, but he was able to follow movement with his eyes, turn his head when someone was speaking to him and even appeared to cry upon hearing his favorite song.

Because traumatic brain injuries have so many different causes, this technique may not work for all patients in similar vegetative states, but it is a key to “challenging the belief that disorders of consciousness persisting after 12 months are irreversible,” states the study.

Vegetative states lasting more than a year are typically seen as lost causes, but this French man isn’t the first person to wake up after long-term unconsciousness lasting over a decade.

Martin Pistorius, from South Africa, was in a vegetative state for 12 years, Terry Wallis of Arkansas woke from a 19-year coma in 2003 and Jan Grzebski, from Poland, woke from his 19-year coma in 2006.

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Why Is The Speed Of Light The Speed Of Light?

You may be familiar with the speed of light, but the reason it exists and how we discovered it is pretty fascinating.

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PBS Space Time videos:

The Speed of Light is NOT About Light…

The Geometry of Causality…………



So when we talk about the speed of light, the first thing to remember is that light is just a sliver of the entire electromagnetic spectrum, ranging from gamma rays to radio waves.

So we’re really talking about the speed of electromagnetism.

James Clerk Maxwell was the genius who first described the properties of electromagnetism into physics equations.

From these equations, we can calculate the speed of light 299,792 kilometers per second.

Einstein was able to prove his theory of special relativity that the closer you get to the speed of light, the more time slows down for a person in that relative frame.

And if you were to go the speed of light, time would stop altogether.

So if you were able to travel faster than light through spacetime, time itself would actually flip. Time would go backward. And that would break causality.

The effect would precede cause, which is impossible. The speed of light is the speed of causality.

The other prediction that supports a speed limit is the idea that inertia increases as velocity approaches the speed of light.That means mass increases.

So mass is a speed impediment. Nothing that has mass can go the speed of light.

But if you are massless, you can only go the speed of light, because you have no speed impediments. And photons are massless particles.

Particles that must travel at the speed of light and because they are traveling at the speed of light, time stands still from its point of view.

So really, that video I talked about earlier is all wrong, from the perspective of the photon, that journey would have occurred instantly.

So when you look at a star at night, that massless photon might have traveled a million light-years to reach you, but its experience was instantaneous.

Now there is another theory that’s a little controversial but starting to gain some ground.

It says that the speed of light is actually caused by quantum vacuum fluctuations.

See, quantum field theory claims that empty space is actually not empty at all but filled with quantum fluctuations and virtual particles popping in and out of existence.

And two different teams of researchers have calculated c using electromagnetic properties of the quantum vacuum, so it could be that the quantum foam of virtual particles and fluctuations may be slowing the speed of light.

But what if the speed of light wasn’t the speed of light?

What if Galileo was right and the speed is infinite?

Then nothing would exist. Because matter is made of energy, it would take infinite energy to create any mass. Time and space wouldn’t exist because all things communicate with each other instantaneously. Cause and effect wouldn’t exist.

But if the speed of light were slower, that might be even cooler. Because then we could see all the way back to the big bang.

The speed of light, of course, is just one of many constants in the universe, like gravity, the specific charges and masses of the fundamental particles, quantum effects, and the list goes on.

A whole handful of very specific constants that if they were just a little bit different, we would never exist.

How To Eat Healthy And Save The Planet

Dieticians and food companies are awaiting the US Department of Agriculture’s highly anticipated new dietary guidelines by the end of this year with one key question in mind: will they include environmental considerations?

The USDA updates its guidelines on what’s healthy for Americans to eat and what’s not every five years. This year, for the first time, the USDA’s advisory panel recommended that those guidelines should also include sustainability.

The government agency is being asked to factor in whether or not a food is good for the planet when deciding whether its healthy.

The move caused a major uproar throughout the food industry, with thousands of commenters arguing that environmental concerns were beyond the scope of the guidelines and that addressing them was an overreach of the USDA’s authority.

The public comment period closed last month and the USDA will be releasing final dietary guidelines by the end of the year.

The finished product may or may not include references to sustainability. Regardless, it’s clear that nutritionists are increasingly drawing connections between health and the environment.

According to Geagan, consumers are driving the push for dietary sustainability – and encouraging dietitians to get onboard.

Consumers aren’t just looking for what’s on the nutrition fact panel anymore – they have a whole list of other things they want to know about and how they define eating right,” she says.

Supermarkets are also looking at the intersections of health and environmental concerns, Geagan adds.

Supermarket dietitians are very interested in this as a way to engage consumers and create value,” she says, pointing to Kroger’s Free From 101+ as a prime example.

The supermarket chain conducted consumer testing and surveyed shoppers to pinpoint 101 ingredients they don’t want in their food, and are now in the process of weeding them out of stores nationally.

Christopher Gardner, a professor at Stanford University’s School of Medicine, says he sees the various aspects of sustainability – creating local economies, fair labor practices, animal rights, and environmental impacts – as useful drivers of behavior modification.

I spent decades doing all this research to show people what they should be eating and I had very little success getting anyone to change their diet,” he said during a presentation at the Sustainable Foods Institute in Monterey, CA, last month.

But when I started adding in discussions about animal rights or labor practices or climate change, I saw really meaningful shifts in people’s willingness to change.

The reason, he says, is that most people relate to at least one of those drivers, and that adding multiple reasons to shift a behavior tends to be more effective than focusing on any one.

There may even be a business benefit to shifting the composition of our dinner plates.

Wasserman points out that, while McDonald’s is somewhat locked into the quarter pound beef patty, some newer entrants to the industry – like Five Guys – are offering smaller meat servings.

In the process, they’re delivering health benefits to customers, environmental benefits to the planet, and financial benefits to the company, all without sacrificing quality or customer satisfaction.

It’s hard for people to get jazzed up about changing eating habits for a result they’ll see 10 years from now,” Geagan says.

But framing it as a more immediate payoff or benefit – in terms of weight loss, health, energy, really focusing on the health benefit overlap of these issues, that’s where I think health professionals can really add value to the conversation.”

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Pass it on: New Scientist

Optical Illusion: How Your Eyes Trick Your Mind

Visual, or optical, illusions show us that our minds tend to make assumptions about the world – and what you think you see is often not the truth.

Throughout history, curious minds have questioned why our eyes are so easily fooled by these simple drawings.

Illusions, we have found, can reveal everything from how we process time and space to our experience of consciousness.

Early illusions

Illusions have a long history, going as far back as the ancient Greeks.

In 350BC, Aristotle noted that “our senses can be trusted but they can be easily fooled”.

He noticed that if you watch a waterfall and shift your gaze to static rocks, the rocks appear to move in the opposite direction of the flow of water, an effect we now call “motion aftereffect” or the waterfall illusion.

Tracking the flow of the water seems to “wear out” certain neurons in the brain as they adapt to the motion.

When you then shift your gaze to the rocks, other competing neurons over-compensate, causing the illusion of movement in the other direction.

Mind shift

The real boom in studying illusions began in the 19th Century. A school of scientists who studied perception – among many other things – created simple illusions to shed light on how the brain perceives patterns and shapes, which kick-started the early theories on how our eyes can play tricks on our mind.

In-depth view

Around the same time, the Ponzo illusion illustrated that context is also fundamental for depth perception.

It shows that identically sized lines can appear to be different lengths when placed between converging parallel lines.

This shows how our sense of perspective works.

Like a train track, the slanted lines make us believe the top line is further away.

This confuses the brain, and it overcompensates, making the line appear bigger – as it would have to be in real life to produce those kinds of proportions.

Early illusions like this appeared at a ground-breaking time for the study of perception, says illusion historian Nicholas Wade from the University of Dundee in Scotland.

They were of interest theoretically because they went against the prevailing view that you could understand vision if you understood the way in which an image is formed in the eye.

The phenomena were small but reliable; they were experimentally tractable and it generated this incredible boom of variations on simple figures.

Yet this period also saw a series of misguided attempts to find a ‘unifying theory’ of illusions. The literature on illusions is “littered with over-interpretations”, says Wade.

As researchers would later discover, our reactions to illusions can be even more complicated than the early pioneers realised.

Today, illusion research is booming once more. Technology advances now allow scientists to peer inside our brains as we look at illusions, and to begin to understand the underlying mechanisms going on inside our head.

ll of this research points to one thing: our visual system remains too limited to tackle all of the information our eyes take in.

For that our brain would need to be bigger than a building, and still then it wouldn’t be enough,” says Martinez-Conde.

And so our minds take shortcuts. Like betting for the best horse in a race, our brain constantly chooses the most likely interpretation of what we see.

Seeing, then, is certainly not always believing.

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Pass it on: Popular Science

A NASA Spacecraft Is About To Slingshot Around Earth To Meet Up With An Asteroid

On Friday, a spacecraft the size of an SUV will slingshot around Earth’s South Pole, altering its trajectory through space.

The probe is NASA’s OSIRIS-REx, and its upcoming maneuver around our planet is known as a gravity assist — a way to harness Earth’s gravity to alter its orbit.

The move is critical, since it will put OSIRIS-REx on course to meet up with an asteroid in the fall of 2018.

OSIRIS-REx launched last year with a relatively straightforward purpose: grab a sample of rocks from an asteroid and bring them back to Earth.

If all goes well, the vehicle should retrieve the largest sample ever collected from an asteroid, and give scientists the chance to study the space rock components in more detail than ever before.

But first, the probe has to reach its target — a nearby asteroid named Bennu.

NASA picked Bennu partly because the asteroid’s orbit is similar to Earth’s orbit, and that makes it an easier target to reach.

But their paths aren’t the exact same: Bennu’s orbit is tilted by about six degrees compared to Earth’s. In the past year, OSIRIS-REx has been orbiting in the same plane as Earth, traveling slightly ahead of our planet.

And now it’s time for OSIRIS-REx to match Bennu’s orbit in space.

There are two main options to change a spacecraft’s trajectory: one is to use the vehicle’s onboard engines to propel the spacecraft in a certain direction.

The problem with this option is that it uses up the spacecraft’s finite amount of fuel. And OSIRIS-REx would have needed a lot of fuel to alter its course to reach Bennu in time — more than the vehicle is carrying.

So instead, the probe’s navigators opted to use the second option — a gravity assist. “This was the only option to reach Bennu, launching in 2016,” Michael Moreau, a flight engineer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center said.

This maneuver has been used on many previous space missions, to increase or decrease a spacecraft’s speed and course. It’s essentially an exchange of energy, similar to when a roller coaster speeds up while going down a hill.

When OSIRIS-REx swings by Earth, it will steal a little bit of our planet’s momentum in order to change its orbit. Earth is so massive that the maneuver won’t really affect our planet.

But OSIRIS-REx will change its speed and course by more than 8,400 miles per hour. That’s nearly twice the amount the spacecraft would get if it used up all its fuel.

OSIRIS-REx will approach the Earth at a speed of 19,000 miles per hour, flying over Australia first. It will then make its closest approach to Earth at 12:52PM ET, coming within 11,000 miles of Antarctica.

Around that time, the vehicle will lose contact with NASA since it will be out of range with the space agency’s closest tracking stations.

The blackout should last just 50 minutes, though, and NASA expects to regain communications around 1:40PM ET.

The vehicle is also supposed to come into areas dominated by satellites, but NASA says it has taken steps to make sure no collisions happen during the assist.

After Friday’s maneuver, OSIRIS-REx will cruise through space for another year, reaching Bennu in October.

At that point, the vehicle is supposed to fly around the asteroid for two years, surveying the rock’s surface, before actually grabbing the coveted sample and returning to Earth.

The gravity assist is the first step to getting there, and it’ll allow the mission team to meet up with Bennu exactly when they needed to, while saving on fuel.

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Study Says That Plant-Eating Dinosaurs May Have Dined Shellfish On Special Occasions

Think dinosaurs didn’t mix things up at mealtime? Think again.

Researchers studying fossilized dinosaur feces from about 75 million years ago have discovered that at least some plant-eating dinosaurs also snacked on shellfish.

The discovery of crustacean remains in the droppings, described in Scientific Reports, reveals that large herbivorous dinosaurs such as hadrosaurs may have had far more complex eating habits than we usually give them credit for.

We need to refine our presumptions about dinosaur diets,” said lead author Karen Chin, a paleontologist at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

Scientists studying the creatures of the lost world, which was ultimately annihilated by an asteroid some 66 million years ago, typically look at the bones these animals left behind.

But though bones reveal much about an animal’s shape, they reveal only so much about how an animal actually interacted with its environment for example, how it fit into its ecosystem’s complex food web.

That’s why a dinosaur’s poo is a paleontologist’s precious stone. In the rare event that it happens to be deposited in the right environmental conditions to become a fossil, it can reveal much about what a dinosaur was actually eating.

Direct evidence for diet in the fossil record is very rare,” Chin said.

We are usually forced to rely simply on the bones, so we study the teeth and the jaw and other aspects of functional morphology. So when we find coprolites like these … they do provide a different perspective on the diet.”

These particular coprolites were discovered in southern Utah at the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument’s Kaiparowits Formation.

They were dark a sign that they had been filled with rotting wood and were marked by backfilled dung-beetle tunnels.

The researchers could tell that the wood had been rotting before the animals ate it because it was so fragmented. This meant that a tough polymer in the cell walls called lignin had been broken down.

Animals have a tough time eating fresh wood because they can’t properly digest lignin but fungi can, which allows animals to then access the wood’s complex sugars.

Though it might seem weird that a plant-eater would eat rotting tree bits, it’s not totally out of the question, Chin said.

Cattle in Chile are known to eat rotting logs on occasion, probably for the same reason.

Similar wood-filled dinosaur dung had been found in Montana, too, about 1,000 miles or so away from the Utah site.

The really strange component of the dung was this: fragments of what appeared to be crustacean shell in 10 of the 15 specimens studied.

The researchers are not sure exactly what species these crustaceans might be, but the shell comes in tubular shapes reminiscent of appendages and flat, thin-layered structures that would have made up crustaceans’ cuticle, their hard outer layer.

One specimen full of crustacean bits could have been a fluke, but Chin and her colleagues found the shell-filled dung over three different levels of rock.

That implies this eating behavior persisted over time perhaps very long periods of time.

The scientists say the plant-eating dinosaurs were probably hadrosaurs, large duck-billed dinosaurs that ate plants and thrived in the area.

And with rows of teeth housed in their mouths, they would have been one of the few of their plant-eating peers that could chomp through wood and even cuticle.

Why would these animals eat crustaceans? Chin suspects the herbivores couldn’t rely on rotting wood year-round, because there wasn’t enough of it to go around.

The crustaceans may have been eaten along with the rotting wood during breeding season, when the dinosaurs needed extra calcium and protein to lay their eggs, she said.

This idea might have a parallel in the behavior of some birds, which are dinosaurs’ only living descendants.

Chin pointed out that some seed-eating birds look for insects when it comes time to lay eggs, probably seeking out the extra proteins and minerals.

If that’s the case for these dinosaurs, then their eating habits may have been far more complex than previously thought, Chin said.

The findings came as something of a surprise, said Jordan Mallon, a paleontologist at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa who was not involved in the study.

Duck-billed dinosaurs are a group that we’ve known about for a long time, well over 100 years, and we thought we had them figured out and we thought we had them pinned as these strict herbivores,” Mallon said.

So to find that in fact their feces occasionally contain these crustacean cuticles kind of caught us off-guard.

Of course, it’s nearly impossible to discern the animals’ intentions. But scientists can’t help but wonder: Were the crustaceans eaten by accident or by choice?

Chin points out that the shelled animals were probably at least 5 centimeters, big enough that a hadrosaur would have noticed and could have spit it out if it wanted, the way that ducks spit out bits of food they’ve decided aren’t worth eating.

Mallon said he didn’t think the dinosaurs were intentionally eating the crustaceans; in all likelihood, they were an unintentional addition to the meal.

Plenty of ocean animals today end up with plastic or other man-made debris in their guts, Mallon pointed out — trash that offered no nutritional value and should have been avoided.

Yes, animals can be selective, but you don’t have to look very long to find counter-examples in the world today,” he said.

And the fact that both shell and wood were found in the same droppings does not necessarily mean they were part of the same entrée, Mallon said.

They could have been eaten at separate times, but because both are tough materials that take time to digest, they might have ended up making their exit together.

Regardless, he added, the findings highlight how important it is to continue digging into dinosaur droppings.

I think what she’s been showing is that these fossilized blobs of poo are worth looking at a little further,” Mallon said of Chin and her work.

It’s showing that there’s some interesting things to be found in there; that we bear to learn a lot from looking at them.

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