Jun 20, 2015

8 Million Dog Mummies Found in Mass Grave

In ancient Egypt, so many people worshiped Anubis, the jackal-headed god of death, that the catacombs next to his sacred temple once held nearly 8 million mummified puppies and grown dogs, a new study finds.

The catacomb ceiling also contains the fossil of an ancient sea monster, a marine vertebrate that’s more than 48 million years old, but it’s unclear whether the Egyptians noticed the existence of the fossil when they built the tomb for the canine mummies, the researchers said.

Many of the mummies have since disintegrated or been disrupted by grave robbers and industrialists, who likely used the mummies for fertilizer. Even so, archaeologists have found enough evidence to suggest that the Anubis animal cult was a large part of the ancient Egyptian economy.

Ancient Egyptians built the temple and catacomb in honor of Anubis in Saqqara, a burial ground in the country’s ancient capital of Memphis. Archaeologists have also found catacombs with the mummified remains of such other animals as the ibis (long-legged birds), hawk, baboon and bull, suggesting the ancient Egyptians also worshipped other animal gods.

“When you go to Saqqara now, you see an area of attractive desert with the pyramids sticking up and one or two of the prominent monuments” associated with animal cults, said the study’s lead researcher, Paul Nicholson, a professor of archaeology at Cardiff University in the United Kingdom.

But during the Late Period (747 to 332 B.C.), if one were to visit Saqqara, they would have seen temples, merchants selling statues of bronze deities, priests conducting ceremonies, people offering to interpret dreams and tour guides jostling for business, Nicholson said. Not far off, animal breeders likely raised dogs and other creatures that would later be mummified in honor of the gods.

“It would have been a busy place,” Nicholson told Live Science. “A permanent community of people living there supported by the animal cults.”

‘Monstrous deities’

People have known about Egypt’s penchant for mummifying animals for more than a thousand years. In about A.D. 130, the Roman poet Juvenal wrote, “Who has not heard, Volusius, of the monstrous deities those crazy Egyptians worship? One lot adores crocodiles, another worships the snake-gorged ibis … you’ll find whole cities devoted to cats, or to river-fish or dogs.”

In 1897, French archaeologist Jacques de Morgan published a paper on the necropolis at Memphis, but spent little time detailing the canine catacombs. Other researchers have taken cursory looks at the dog catacombs, but the new study is the first to analyze it in depth, the researchers said.

In fact, de Morgan drew a map showing two dog catacombs, but drifting sand and an earthquake in 1992 have made the smaller of the two inaccessible. So Nicholson and his colleagues spent countless hours examining the larger catacomb, studying its rock walls and mummified contents.

“It’s a very long series of dark tunnels,” Nicholson said. “There is no natural light once you’ve gone into the forepart of the catacomb, and beyond that everything has to be lit with flashlights. It’s really quite a spectacular thing.”

The catacombs were likely built in the fourth century B.C., and were made out of stone from the Lower Eocene (about 56 million to 48 million years ago). So, it was a nice surprise when researchers discovered a fossil in the catacomb’s ceiling. The fossil belonged to a long-extinct marine vertebrate, likely a relative of modern-day manatees and dugongs, Nicholson said.

“The ancient quarry men may have been aware of it, or they may have gone straight through it, it’s hard to know,” said Nicholson, who is still researching the fossil with several of his colleagues.

The researchers explored every possible nook of the catacomb, which measures 568 feet (173 meters) down the center passageway, with a maximum width of 459 feet (140 m) from the branch corridors. In addition to canine mummies, they found the mummies of jackals, foxes, falcons, cats and mongoose, although about 92 percent of the remains belonged to dogs, they found.

It’s unclear why these other animals were buried in the dog catacomb, “but it is likely that all ‘doglike’ creatures were interchangeable, and that mythological reasons probably underlie the choice of cats and raptors,” the researchers wrote in the study, published in the June issue of the journal Antiquity.

Pilgrims visiting Saqqara likely viewed the display of the mummies as expressions of gratitude that the gods would appreciate, Nicholson said. Many of the dogs were only hours or days old when they were mummified. Some older dogs had more elaborate burials, and may have lived at the temple, but the younger pups were likely “bred — farmed if you will — for the cult,” Nicholson said.

Read more at Discovery News

Titan's Weird Surface Dissolves Like Earth's Sinkholes

Saturn’s moon Titan is a very alien place — the surface is covered in hydrocarbons and it rains liquid methane. However, planetary scientists are increasingly turning to the hazy little world to reveal clues as to the formation of our planet. And it seems the harder you look on Titan’s surface, the more features and processes replicating terrestrial geology and atmospherics present themselves.

Ever since the NASA/ESA Cassini-Huygens mission saw though the moon’s thick, hazy atmosphere, scientists became fascinated with the huge bodies of liquid on Titan’s surface. Titan’s atmosphere is too cold for liquid water to persist, but liquid methane and ethane exists on the surface. Titan even has a methane cycle — similar to Earth’s hydrological cycle — where liquid methane, not liquid water, rains onto the landscape, forming rivers and bodies of liquids like lakes and large ‘seas.’

However, some of these features have been hard to explain, including lakes of liquid ethane and methane that don’t appear to be fed by rivers or streams. These are small lakes that appear to have smooth, rounded edges and steep sides that populate otherwise flat plains. Some of the lakes are filled with liquid, while others lie empty.

In new research published in the Journal of Geophysical Research, scientists have taken a long look at these lakes and realized that they are likely formed by similar processes that form ‘karstic’ landforms here on Earth. In other words, these Titan lakes are likely sinkholes.

On Earth, sinkholes form when soluble rocks, such as limestone and gypsum, are eroded by rainwater and groundwater percolating through the rock. Over time, sub-surface caverns form, causing the surface to slump into a sinkhole. Often, sinkholes will naturally fill with water creating lakes.

As it is extremely cold on Titan and its seasons are much longer than Earth’s, it would take far longer for these features to form. But new models suggest this is exactly what’s happening on the moon’s surface.

“We compared the erosion rates of organics in liquid hydrocarbons on Titan with those of carbonate and evaporite minerals in liquid water on Earth,” said Thomas Cornet of the European Space Agency and lead author of the study.

“We found that the dissolution process occurs on Titan some 30 times slower than on Earth due to the longer length of Titan’s year and the fact it only rains during Titan summer. Nevertheless, we believe that dissolution is a major cause of landscape evolution on Titan, and could be the origin of its lakes,” he added.

Read more at Discovery News

How Do You 'Weigh' a Spiral Galaxy's Monster Black Hole?

The prospect of measuring the mass of the most massive known objects in the universe would send most people into a cold sweat, but for astronomers using the monster Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile, it’s all in a day’s work. However, ‘weighing’ a supermassive black hole from millions of light-years away is far from being a simple task.

Supermassive black holes are known to lurk inside the cores of most galaxies. They can have galaxy-wide impacts on star formation and are intimately tied to the billions of years of evolution of their host galaxies. To understand how supermassive black holes grow and impact the health of their interstellar environment is therefore one of the most important studies in modern astrophysics.

So, first things first, like any health check, we need to find a way of measuring the mass of these black hole behemoths.

There are several ways to gauge the mass of a supermassive black hole, but it depends on how far away the block hole is and what kind of galaxy it inhabits.

For the supermassive black hole in the core of our galaxy, the Milky Way, astronomers have been able to zoom into Sagittarius A* — a region bright in radio wave emissions — and track the motions of individual stars around an invisible point using incredibly precise infrared telescopes. This invisible point, of course, is the location of a supermassive black hole that is now known to have a mass 4 million times the mass of our sun.

Gauging the mass of the closest supermassive black hole to Earth is one thing — it is, after all, ‘only’ 25,000 light-years from the nearest observatory — what about measuring black holes in the cores of other galaxies?

Because they are so distant, measuring the velocity of stars in the cores of other galaxies is not possible. So, to measure the masses of these objects, astronomers will be on the lookout for radio-bright objects called ‘megamasers’ speeding around the central black hole and use them as a beacon of sorts. Unfortunately, megamasers are very rare.

Alternatively, astronomers will try the next best thing and measure the motion of ionized gases inside the galactic core; the velocity of these gas clouds can reveal the mass of the black hole. But this method is best suited for elliptical galaxies; it cannot be used to gauge the mass of supermassive black holes in the cores of spiral galaxies.

But now, it seems astronomers have found a way to measure the mass of supermassive black holes in the cores of sprial (and barred) galaxies using the observing power of ALMA.

Turning their attention to the barred-spiral galaxy NGC 1097, around 45 million light-years away in the constellation of Fornax, researchers led by Kyoko Onishi at SOKENDAI (the Graduate University for Advanced Studies) in Japan precisely measured the distribution of hydrogen cyanide (HCN) and formylium (HCO+) molecules in the galaxy’s central region. Then, using computer models to simulate different distributions of these molecules around supermassive black holes of different masses, they were able to find a black hole mass that fitted with the observations.

It turns out that NGC 1097′s black hole is the definition of supermassive. This black hole has a mass of around 140 million times the mass of our sun, approximately 35 times more massive than our galaxy’s humble, not-so-supermassive black hole Sagittarius A*.

Read more at Discovery News

Real-Life 'Jurassic World' Dinos May Be 10 Years Off

Dino-chicken. Chickosaurus. Squawkasaurus Rex. None of these sound quite as terrifying as the reptilian star in “Jurassic World,” which set box-office records when it opened this past weekend. Dubbed Indominous rex, the behemoth is a fictitious chicken-based dinosaur that was created in a lab — an idea that is not so far-fetched, says a famed dinosaur hunter.

Why, of all things, a chicken? As it turns out, fossilized dinosaur DNA that is still viable has been impossible to find so far … and may not even exist. But the secret coding of dinosaurs is alive and well at your local Colonel Sanders.

“Chickens and all birds are carrying much bigger chunks of dinosaur DNA than we are ever likely to find in the fossil record,” said James Horner, the inspiration for the original Jurassic Park’s Alan Grant.

State of the field

Horner shook up the paleontological establishment with his work onMaiasaura fossils in the 1980s, when he published a book detailing their communal behaviors. He has also championed the idea that Tyrannosaurus rex was a scavenger, not a hunter.

More recently, in his lab at Montana State University, Horner has been experimenting with bird DNA alteration for more than a decade. And while he has been an adviser to the “Jurassic Park” franchise for years, Horner says that author Michael Crichton’s original idea behind the park — the creation of dinosaurs from intact, fossilized DNA — is unlikely.

“DNA is an enormous molecule, made from trillions of pieces, held together in a cell nucleus by chemistry. As soon as the cell dies, that chemistry shuts down, and this molecule, which is very fragile, starts to come apart,” Horner said.

It’s a process that happens quickly, he added. “We don’t think that there would be anything left after millions of years.”

Scientific truth?

Indominous rex, the enormous killing machine at the center of “Jurassic World,” is a far cry from what could be created in Horner’s lab anytime soon, but that’s OK with him.

“It’s all about form,” he said. “Size is something we can work on at another time. But lots of dinosaurs were little.

Even making a poodle-size T. rex will not be easy, but he’s working on it.

“The proof of concept has been accomplished,” Horner said. “We can get teeth into a bird and just recently a team from Yale and Harvard have managed to retro-engineer [a bird's] beak back into a dinosaur-looking mouth. So we basically have the tail to reinstate, and to transform the wings back into an arm and hand.”

In “Jurassic World,” velociraptors are trained for the entertainment of park patrons. The big, bad Indominous rex is portrayed as quite intelligent. And crafty. How likely is this to occur in a real-world breeding program?

“Regarding intelligence, we really don’t understand it very well. We are very mammal-centric — that our way of thinking is the best way to do it. Yet we have absolutely no idea how other kinds of animals think or process information,” Horner said.  “With the Indominous rex, we’ve taken … the different characteristics from different animals and combined them together. Obviously, if you took some of the processing characteristics from other kinds of animals you would get a better thinker.”

Pet dinos

How far off might a little pet T. rex be? It’s hard to say, according to Horner.

“We already make transgenic animals,” he said. “We make glowfish, you can go get one at the pet store. That’s a transgenic animal — a zebra fish that has had glow genes from jellyfish implanted into the embryo during development that makes it glow in the dark. We have that proof of concept, so we know we can make transgenic animals.”

There are real-world benefits to this kind of research, beyond the “wow” factor. “Learning how to switch genes on and off and figuring out what different genes do will have tremendous application in medical fields and into many other areas as well, including making better food,” Horner said. His research may also have applications in other areas, including treatment of spinal disorders.

Horner estimates the creation of a miniature dinosaur may be about 10 years off, though he admits that it is hard to predict.

“We might find a couple of these genes tomorrow or it might take 10 years,” Horner said. “There is just no way to predict.” Advancements in the field are typically not linear, which means progress can come in fits and starts as researchers piece together the genetic puzzle.

Read more at Discovery News

Forget the Platypus. The Echidna Is the True Champ of Weird

This long-beaked echidna just can't even. Can't. Even.
Knuckles from the Sonic the Hedgehog games is supposed to be an echidna, one that flies around like Superman and runs so fast its legs become blurs. “Knuckles is a cool guy with a bad attitude,” claims Urban Dictionary in increasingly stilted English. “He does’nt [sic] like to be pushed around. Him and Sonic fight a lot, but I think their [sic] good buddies.”

Other than the being friends with hedgehogs bit, it’s not an inaccurate description of actual echidnas, the great misfits of the mammal family. There’s four species, including one in Australia called the short-beaked echidna. But it’s New Guinea’s three species of the little-studied long-beaked variety, which I’ll be focusing on here, that really amp up the weirdness—as you might have noticed from the photo above.

These nocturnal creatures lay eggs like reptiles and detect electrical fields like sharks. They’ve got the mug of an anteater and the spines of a porcupine. And of course the males have four-headed penises like … well, maybe something out of hentai?

Bowed Legs and Laid Eggs

It’s a good idea to start here by talking about mammals’ ancient ancestors the synapsids for a hot second. They superficially resembled modern reptiles (though reptiles are a distinct lineage), yet had many mammalian characteristics as well. Synapsids eventually gave rise to the three groups of mammals: monotremes, which include only the platypus and echidnas; placental mammals like humans; and marsupials. The monotremes split off from the mammalian lineage first, and did so very, very early on, some 200 million years ago, and today retain many “reptilian” features of their ancestors.

Perhaps the most conspicuous reptilian quality is the long-beaked echidna’s odd posture, which makes it look like a meathead that just got his pump on. “The legs are kind of splayed out to the side somewhat, like you might imagine a lizard whose legs kind of shoot out and then go down,” says Kristofer Helgen, a zoologist at the Smithsonian. “Whereas most of the mammals we’re familiar with, whether it’s us or a dog or a horse or a kangaroo, the legs go straight down under the body and support it. And so these things have more of a splayed reptilian posture.”

But where the echidna one-ups the reptiles is with its penis. Let me rephrase that. The echidna’s penis is far more fascinating than a reptile’s, specifically the fact that it has four heads, whereas reptiles have dual penises called hemipenes. However, the female echidna has only a paired vagina, so why the mismatch? Well, it seems the male will alternate, using two heads to inseminate the female before switching to the other two heads and inseminating again.

This is what the long-beaked echidna version of that beach scene from the movie 10 looks like.
Another reptilian characteristic is of course the fact the long-beaked echidna lays eggs. And while the female has a pouch like a marsupial, there’s one significant difference: this pouch isn’t permanent. “So what’s crazy about it is basically the muscles in the skin of the belly of the echidna temporarily form into a pouch that can house the baby or babies when they’re hatched out of the egg,” Helgen says. Here the young don’t suckle nipples, but instead lap up milk from glands that leak the stuff directly onto the mother’s fur.

But why would the platypus and echidna go the egg-laying route when every other mammal gives birth to live young? Well, the beauty of evolution is that different strategies suit different organisms perfectly fine, however ridiculous they may seem. Placental and marsupial mammals evolved to give birth to live young, while the monotremes held onto the egg-laying ways of their ancestors. Keep in mind that creatures are on Earth for one purpose only: to reproduce (the meaning of life is therefore nothing like what Monty Python says). If something is at all inefficient in that regard, that’s it for the species. Yet here, after hundreds of millions of years of evolution, is the echidna. It’s got a weird sex life, sure, but it works.

The Hunter and the Hunted

When the little long-beaked echidna eventually sets out on its own, it’s well-equipped to run down earthworms and millipedes and other invertebrates in the soft soils of New Guinea. Just like the platypus can pick up the electrical signals of its prey in the water using its bill, the long-beaked echidna uses its giant, electricity-detecting snout to probe for food in the darkness (the short-beaked echidna hunts social insects like ants, and therefore has no use for such a long schnoz). Strangely enough, though, the echidna has no teeth. Instead, it uses its tongue, which is studded with lots of tiny, sharp spines, to grind the prey against the roof of its mouth, which also has these spines.

And the echidnas share another extraordinary adaptation with their platypus relatives. “Platypuses are known to be venomous, and they have on their hind foot a spur that’s connected to a venom gland that’s situated just below the knee,” says Helgen. The long-beaked echidna has a similar structure, and “a lot of people have said it’s not poisonous, but studies are ongoing now that suggest that they may also be venomous at certain times of year.”

The less absurd though no less thorny short-beaked echidna crossing “conquer a log” off its bucket list.
As with the platypus, it may be a defensive adaptation, which Helgen experienced firsthand while doing fieldwork in New Guinea, where one long-beaked echidna put up a bit of a fight. “It was trying to dig and escape, but when I did manage to pick it up it was contorting its body. And it seems like it was trying to stick me with that thing.”

Sadly, such weapons—combined with its many spines—can’t protect the long-beaked echidna from humanity at large. Like much of Earth’s endangered wildlife, the three species of long-beaked echidna have the unfortunate distinction of being palatable to humans (luckily, the short-beaked variety in Australia seems to be doing OK). Also like much of Earth’s endangered wildlife, the echidnas find themselves ever more crowded out by human settlements.

That could all spell disaster for the species. “You can talk to people in areas where this animal lives,” says Helgen, “and even though older men—maybe they’re in their 50s, 60s, and 70s—they can usually count on two hands how many times they’ve hunted and killed these animals.” Part of the problem has been dogs. While a hunter will have a hard time tracking the nocturnal creatures, canines certainly won’t. By hunting with dogs, a party can rapidly clear entire areas of any long-beaked echidnas.

Read more at Wired Science

Jun 18, 2015

All Kangaroos Are Left-Handed

All kangaroos are left-handed, according to new research.

Previously it was thought that “true”-handedness, meaning predictably using one hand over the other, was a feature unique to primates. The new research, published in the journal Current Biology, not only negates that but also goes one step further: kangaroos are even more true-handed than we are.

“According to a special-assessment scale of handedness adopted for primates, kangaroos pulled down the highest grades,” said project leader Yegor Malashichev in a press release. “We observed a remarkable consistency in responses across bipedal species in that they all prefer to use the left, not the right, hand.”

Malashichev, a researcher from Saint Petersburg State University in Russia, and his team observed that wild kangaroos show a natural preference for their left hands when performing particular actions, such as grooming their noses, picking leaves, or bending tree branches. Left-handedness was particularly apparent in eastern grey and red kangaroos.

The kangaroos that they studied were at various locations in the wild at Tasmania and Australia. The term “hand” really does apply here, because kangaroos have five-fingered hands that somewhat resemble human hands, save for the kangaroos’ long claws in place of fingernails.

Not all marsupials were found to exhibit such handedness. The researchers determined that red-necked wallabies, for example, prefer their left hand for some tasks and their right for others. Generally speaking, these wallabies use their left forelimb for tasks that involve fine manipulation and the right for tasks that require more physical strength. The researchers also found less evidence for handedness in species that spend their days in the trees.

Read more at Discovery News

Pink Octopus Might Be Named 'Adorabilis'

Some say she looks like a ghost from the Pac-Man video game, but she's anything but spooky. In fact, the fist-sized pink octopus is so cute scientists may call her Opisthoteuthis Adorabilis.

Researchers in California are looking for an appropriate Latin species designation for the mysterious cephalopod and, while little is yet known about it, few would deny that the specimens found so far are adorable.

Stephanie Bush of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute said that after a year of study she is preparing to submit a report to a scientific review that would confer a name on the species, a form of Flapjack octopus.

"New species are discovered every year, not all of them get described, it can take a lot of time, years sometimes," she said.

Some other species have been deemed adorable -- such as Lophornis adorabilis, the White-crested Coquette hummingbird -- and Bush said: "I don't see any obvious reason why it would be inappropriate ... it's easy to pronounce and popular with the public."

Aside from how she looks, we don't know much more about the new octopus, it lives in deep cold waters and the 12 individuals that have been studied so far have all been female.

"They spend most of their time on the bottom, sitting on the sediment, but they need to move around to find food, mates," Bush said.

Bush is trying to incubate a batch of octopus eggs in her laboratory, but they develop very slowly because of the cold temperature of the deep ocean and may not hatch for two or three years.

Anyone charmed enough by the cute creature to want to see one in the wild would have to dive in the Pacific to between 200 and 600 meters to where the water is only 6 degrees Celsius (42 Fahrenheit).

From Discovery News

DNA Links 8,500-Year-Old Kennewick Man to Native Tribes

Kennewick Man, one of the oldest and best-preserved skeletons ever found in North America, is closely related to Native Americans, says a year-long genetic study on the 8,500-year-old bones.

The international study, published in the journal Nature, is likely to reignite a bitter legal and scientific battle over the ultimate fate of the skeleton.

“Kennewick Man’s genome sequence is closer to that of Native Americans than any other contemporary people’s  including the Ainu and Polynesians,” senior author Eske Willerslev, from the University of Copenhagen’s Centre for GeoGenetics, told Discovery News.

The researchers from the University of Copenhagen and Stanford University School of Medicine used the latest in DNA isolation and sequencing techniques to analyze the genetic material in the ancient bones.

“Although the exterior preservation of the skeleton was pristine, the DNA in the sample was highly degraded and dominated by DNA from soil bacteria and other environmental sources,” lead author Morten Rasmussen said.

“With the little material we had available, we applied the newest methods to squeeze every piece of information out of the bone,” he added.

Willerslev, Rasmussen and colleagues compared the DNA sequences from the skeleton with those of modern Native Americans.

They concluded that, although it is impossible to assign Kennewick Man to a particular tribe, he is closely related to members of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation in Washington.

The results challenge a 2014 study that concluded, based on anatomical data, that Kennewick Man was more related to indigenous Japanese or Polynesian peoples than to Native Americans.

The remains of Kennewick Man were discovered in 1996 along the shores of the Columbia River in Washington state. He “lived a vigorous life,” according to National Park Service Chief Archaeologist Francis McManamon, who carried the first extensive examination of the bones three years after the discovery.

“His stature was robust and remained strong right up to his death at about 45-55 years old,” wrote McManamon.

He added that Kennewick Man was seriously wounded in his hip by a spear while still a teenager.

“He lived long after recovering from the wound. His hip bone grew and molded completely around the stone point that remained embedded there,” McManamon said.

The difficulty in establishing the skeleton’s provenance has prompted a legal, spiritual and scientific dispute between scientists, who want to study the bones, and Native Americans, who claim Kennewick Man as an ancestor and call him the Ancient One.

The court battle began with a lawsuit filed against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers by eight scientists seeking access to study the bones. The agency had jurisdiction over the site where the skeleton was discovered and planned to honor the tribes’ request to repatriate the bones under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990.

In February 2004, a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the anthropologists, concluding that “a significant relationship of the tribal claimants with Kennewick Man” could not be proved.

Reburial requests were thus halted to allow further investigation into the skeleton’s origins.

Read more at Discovery News

Cubesats to Hitchike on Next Mission to Mars

When NASA’s InSight lander settles itself on the surface of Mars next year, a pair of tiny experimental satellites will be nearby to relay the action — in real time — back to Earth.

The project, spearheaded by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., will mark the first time CubeSats travel in deep space.

CubeSats are standard 4- by 4- by 4-inch cubes that can be customized for a wide array of space missions. For the Mars Cube One project, engineers are building a pair of six-unit, radiation-hardened CubeSats, each outfitted with a softball-sized radio that can collect and transmit signals simultaneously. Only one satellite is needed for the mission, with the second flying as a spare.

Mars Cube One will supplement the communications relay from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which cannot simultaneously receive radio data from InSight in one frequency and transmit signals back to Earth on another.

Using Mars Cube One should speed up confirmation of a successful landing by more than an hour, NASA said.

The pair of CubeSats will piggyback rides on the Atlas 5 rocket that is scheduled to launch InSight in March. The lander, due to arrive in September 2016, is designed to collect data about the interior of Mars.

Mars Cube One will separate from the Atlas rocket and fly themselves to Mars, passing by just as InSight makes its descent through the planet’s atmosphere and touches down.

If the demonstration is successful, future Mars spacecraft could carry along their own communications relays, NASA said in a press release.

Read more at Discovery News

Jun 17, 2015

Mysterious Warm Blob in Pacific Wreaking Havoc

A large expanse of unusually warm water in the northern Pacific Ocean continues to grow and is having a profound effect upon marine animals from Mexico to Alaska, and may be altering weather across the continent.

“The blob,” a term coined by University of Washington meteorologist Nicholas Bond, who was among those who first observed it in late 2013, consists of  water that is roughly around 5 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the typical ocean temperature.

While that may not seem like much of a difference, the circular patch of warmth, which started as a small patch of water off the coast of Alaska, has grown to 500 miles across,and is the biggest and longest-lasting temperature anomaly in the historical record.

“Just the enormous magnitude of this anomaly is what’s incredible,” Art Miller, an oceanographer at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in La Jolla, Calif., told the San Jose Mercury News. Miller was among a group of 100 researchers who gathered recently at Scripps to discuss the phenomenon and its impacts.

Scientists aren’t sure exactly what caused the blob, but they think it may have links to everything from the California drought to the large numbers of starving sea lion pups who’ve washed up on west coast shores.

The temperature change also has caused creatures from tropical and temperate zones to wander north into places where they’re not usually found, and others that normally stay far out at sea have ventured closer to the coast, according to this Seattle Times article.

In an article for Earth and Sky in April, Bond wrote that the blob is related to an unusual weather pattern that developed over a huge region of the Earth, extending from the northern Pacific across North America, in the fall of 2013 and early 2014.

The pattern featured a higher-than-normal pressure ridge off the coast of the Pacific Northwest, which Bond says reduced the number and intensity of storms that made landfall, and led to reduced precipitation in the western United States.

But the ridge also affected weather farther east, Bond wrote, by diverting cold Canadian air into the middle and eastern U.S., especially around the Great Lakes region.

From Discovery News

Comets Leave Dust Cloud Around the Moon

Earth’s moon is wrapped in a permanent cloud of dust, similar to what has been found around the icy moons of Jupiter and Saturn, new research shows.

The moon’s cloud stems from impacts of fast-moving dust particles shed by highly eccentric comets, physicist Mihaly Horanyi, with the University of Colorado Boulder, and colleagues write in this week’s Nature.

The cloud grows denser during annual meteor showers, particularly the Geminids, the authors note.

Scientists used NASA’s now-defunct Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer, or LADEE, to detect dust particles striking the spacecraft as it circled the moon at altitudes ranging from about 13 miles to about 62 miles above the surface.

Between October 2013 and April 2014, LADEE’s Lunar Dust Experiment detected about 140,000 dust hits during about 80 days of cumulative observation time.

The researchers discovered that the moon’s cloud is asymmetrical, a contrast to the roughly spherically symmetric clouds found around Jupiter’s icy moons. They suspect Jupiter’s powerful gravity tempers the orbits of bombarding interplanetary dust particles.

“The dust production on the lunar surface is dominated by particles of cometary origin, as opposed to slower asteroidal dust particles, which follow near-circular orbits as they migrate toward the sun,” the scientists wrote.

“We expect all airless planetary objects to be immersed in similar tenuous clouds of dust,” they added.

From Discovery News

Philae Rises! What's Next for Rosetta's Comet Lander?

Perched on the surface of a comet, the revived Philae lander should soon be able to resume -- and possibly expand -- an unprecedented examination of organic material believed to date back to the beginning of the solar system.

Released by the Rosetta mothership, Philae floated down to the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko on Nov 12, but its anchoring harpoons failed and the 220-pound probe shot back into space. It landed a second time, bounced and finally came to rest about a half-mile away with two of its three legs on the ground and wedged next to a cliff wall.

Nevertheless, Philae ran through a 64-hour, pre-programmed series of experiments before its batteries died. The lander was supposed to set down in an area nearly always illuminated by the sun to recharge its batteries. Instead it ended up in shadow and fell silent.

Spacecraft controllers continued to use the orbiting Rosetta spacecraft to hunt for a signal from Philae while they waited for the comet to move closer to the sun, hoping the lander would recharge itself.

Over the weekend, Philae finally phoned home -- twice – rekindling scientists’ hopes that the mission could resume.

First, though, flight controllers need to figure out when Philae will be in regular position to communicate with Rosetta, which is used to relay the lander’s signals to Earth.

“It’s of utmost importance to see if we can get a stable communications pattern between the two machines,” Rosetta deputy flight director Elsa Montagnon, with the European Space Agency, told reporters during a webcast press conference at the Paris Air Show.

“If we can do that, then we can do the next step and resume the scientific operation of Philae,” she said.

Managers plan to reposition Rosetta a bit closer to the comet, which is becoming more active as it races toward the sun. The closest approach will be on Aug. 13. The comet is in a 6.5-year orbit around the sun that comes as close as between Earth and Mars and as far as beyond Jupiter.

Moving Rosetta is a bit risky because gas, dust and ice jetting from the comet can confuse the spacecraft’s navigational cameras.

“Imagine taking your car through a snowstorm -- you don’t see very much. It’s not very safe,” Montagnon said.

However, the potential for more science from Philae, particularly as the comet undergoes dramatic changes from heating, makes the risk worthwhile, project managers said.

Philae completed about 80 percent of the studies planned during its initial mission, including operating a small drill intended to dig out samples for chemical analysis.

Because of the lander’s angle, however, the drill didn’t reach down far enough to collect samples.

Scientists are keen to learn if the carbon-based material covering the comet’s surface is similar to organics found on Earth. One test, for example, would assess the molecular asymmetry to determine its chirality, or handedness.

“We are optimistic now that this analysis can be realized in the upcoming weeks. Temperature and energy of Philae seem sufficient and very promising,” Philae scientist Uwe Meierhenrich, an analytical chemist at the University of Nice Sophia Antipolis in France, wrote in an email to Discovery News.

Rotating Philae for drilling, however, will be among the last tasks ground control teams will attempt.

“We will start with something simple, not demanding too much power,” and no movement of the lander, before attempting activities that are more complex and higher risk,” said Barbara Cozzoni, with the German Aerospace Center’s Philae lander control center in Cologne.

Read more at Discovery News

Could Methane in Mars Meteorite Hint at Ancient Life?

Methane, a potential sign of primitive life, has been found in meteorites from Mars, adding weight to the idea that life could live off methane on the Red Planet, researchers say.

This discovery is not evidence that life exists, or has ever existed, on Mars, the researchers cautioned. Still, methane "is an ingredient that could potentially support microbial activity in the Red Planet," study lead author Nigel Blamey, a geochemist at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada, told Space.com.

Methane is the simplest organic molecule. This colorless, odorless, flammable gas was first discovered in the Martian atmosphere by the European Space Agency's Mars Express spacecraft in 2003, and NASA's Curiosity rover discovered a fleeting spike of methane at its landing site last year.

Much of the methane in Earth's atmosphere is produced by life, such as cattle digesting food. However, there are ways to produce methane without life, such as volcanic activity.

To shed light on the nature of the methane on Mars, Blamey and his colleagues analyzed rocks blasted off Mars by cosmic impacts that subsequently crash-landed on Earth as meteorites. About 220 pounds (100 kilograms) of Martian meteorites have been found on Earth.

The scientists focused on six meteorites from Mars that serve as examples of volcanic rocks there, collecting samples about one-quarter of a gram from each — a little bigger than a 1-carat diamond. All the samples were taken from the interiors of the meteorites, to avoid terrestrial contamination.

The researchers found that all six released methane and other gases when crushed, probably from small pockets inside.

"The biggest surprise was how large the methane signals were," Blamey said.

Chemical reactions between volcanic rocks on Mars and the Martian environment could release methane. Although the dry thin air of Mars makes its surface hostile to life, the researchers suggest the Red Planet is probably more habitable under its surface. They noted that if methane is available underground on Mars, microbes could live off it, just as some bacteria do in extreme environments on Earth.

Read more at Discovery News

Jun 16, 2015

Rare Inscription Bearing Biblical Name Found in Israel

A rare inscription showing a name shared with a biblical rival to King David has been found on a 3,000-year-old earthenware jar that was broken into shards, the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) announced on Tuesday.

Pieces of the large Iron Age jar were found in a 2012 excavation at Khirbet Qeiyafa, in the Valley of Elah west of Jerusalem. This is where the biblical battle between young David and the giant Goliath took place.

As hundreds of pottery fragments were glued together to form the whole pot, letters carved in the ancient script of the Canaanites, a biblical people who lived in the present-day Israel, were clearly visible. They read: Eshba’al Ben Bada’.

“This is the first time that the name Eshba’al has appeared on an ancient inscription in the country,” Yosef Garfinkel of the Institute of Archeology of the Hebrew University and Saar Ganor of the Israel Antiquities Authority said in a statement.

The name recalls the biblical Eshba’al, a son of King Saul and a rival to King David for rule over the Israelite kingdom.

Eshba’al was murdered by former captains loyal to his late father a few years after he succeeded Saul as king of Israel. They stabbed him in the stomach, decapitated him, and brought his head to David at Hebron.

Although it has no connection with the biblical character, the inscription shows that Eshba’al was a common name during the early Israelite period.

“It is interesting to note that the name Eshba’al appears in the Bible, and now also in the archaeological record, only during the reign of King David, in the first half of the tenth century B.C.,” Garfinkel and Ganor said.

After the 11th and 10th centuries B.C., names bearing Ba’al fell out of favor among Judeans, as they were reminiscent of the Canaanite storm god Ba’al.

“The original name was therefore changed to Ish-Bashat,” Garfinkel and Ganor said.

According to the researchers, the fact that the name Eshba’al was carved on a jar indicates he was an important person, possibly the owner of a large agricultural estate.

Products grown there “were packed and transported in jars that bore his name,” the IAA said.

Identified with the biblical city Sha’arayim, Khirbet Qeiyafa, the site where the jar was found has yielded a number of important findings.

During several seasons of excavations, remains of a fortified city, two gates, a palace, storerooms, dwellings and rooms of worship were unearthed there.

Unique findings included the discovery of the world’s earliest Hebrew inscription.

Read more at Discovery News

Nepal Quake Moved Everest Southwest; Height Unchanged

A devastating earthquake that hit Nepal in April moved Mount Everest three centimeters (just over an inch) to the southwest, but did not change its height, according to Chinese research published on Tuesday.

The 7.8-magnitude quake reversed the gradual northeasterly course of the world’s highest peak, which straddles Nepal and China, the National Administration of Surveying, Mapping and Geoinformation found.

But its height — usually given as 8,848 meters (29,029 feet) — was unchanged by the disaster, according to the research, published in Chinese state media.

The report said Everest has moved 40 centimeters to the northeast over the past decade at a speed of four centimeters a year, and risen three centimeters over the same period.

Nepal rests on a major fault line between two tectonic plates — one bearing India pushing northward into a plate carrying Europe and Asia at a rate of about two centimeters (three-quarters of an inch) per year — the process that created the Himalayas.

Roger Bilham, professor of geological science at the University of Colorado, agreed with the Chinese findings.

ut he said the focus should not be on Everest, calling the peak “a lump of uneroded rock that just happens to have survived a little bit higher than all the other rocks in the Himalaya.”

“The Everest region was a mere bystander, and was pulled slightly by this movement by a few centimeters south and a little bit down,” he told AFP in an email.

Kathmandu shifts south

More than 8,700 people were killed in the April 25 quake and a major aftershock on May 12, which also triggered landslides and destroyed half a million homes, leaving thousands without shelter.

Scientists say the densely populated Kathmandu Valley, around 80 kilometers (50 miles) southeast of the epicenter, moved south by nearly two meters during the quake.

Nepal’s government said it had not yet studied the impact on Everest, but that quake-affected areas had moved south.

“We have been studying the core areas affected by the quake and there has been a general southward movement,” said Madhu Sudan Adhikari, head of the survey department in Nepal’s land ministry.

“Kathmandu has shifted south by over 1.5 meters and was uplifted by nearly a meter.”

Read more at Discovery News

After Higgs, Supercharged LHC to Probe Physics Frontier

Don Lincoln is a senior scientist at the U.S. Department of Energy's Fermilab, America's largest Large Hadron Collider research institution. He also writes about science for the public, including his recent "The Large Hadron Collider: The Extraordinary Story of the Higgs Boson and Other Things That Will Blow Your Mind" (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014). You can follow him on Facebook. Lincoln contributed this article to Live Science's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

Somewhere under the French-Swiss border, two protons have a date with destiny. Trapped inside the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the world's largest and most powerful particle accelerator, they follow a circular path in opposite directions with velocities very near the speed of light.

As they approach each other, their fate is clear: A collision is inevitable. One could imagine that an impact between two protons might look like a collision between subatomic billiard balls. But the rules of the microrealm are quite different from what familiar intuition developed in the corner pub would suggest.

Colliding with Success

After a hiatus of more than two years, the LHC is up and running again. After a broad program of refurbishments, retrofits and upgrades, the accelerator is essentially an entirely new facility. Operating at nearly double the energy and triple the number of collisions per second, the LHC will create collisions within the centers of four huge experiments, each ready to make the discovery of the century.

Since Einstein's 1905 papers on relativity, physicists have known of the equivalence between energy and mass. As described by Einstein's famous equation (E=mc2), energy can be converted into matter and vice versa. And that's one of the big things that happens inside a particle accelerator. The huge kinetic (i.e., moving) energy of the two incoming beam particles is converted into the mass of particles that didn't exist before the collision.

It is in this manner that two protons, each having a low mass (about 1 billion electron volts for the techno-crowd), can collide and make the Higgs boson, which is a particle with a mass about 125 times heavier than that of a proton. The motion energy of the protons is literally transformed into a very heavy particle.

When the LHC began operations in 2010, it had a clear mission. Two large experiments, each comprised of around 3,000 scientists, were focused predominantly on finding the Higgs boson. Predicted in 1964, the Higgs boson is connected to the Higgs field, which is thought to give the mass to fundamental (i.e., pointlike) subatomic particles. Finding the Higgs boson meant that the idea of the Higgs field was validated.

Prior to its discovery, the Higgs boson was the last missing component of the wildly successful Standard Model of particle physics. When combined with Einstein's theory of general relativity, the Standard Model can describe the behavior all of the matter ever observed — from the matter in you and me, to majestic galaxies careening through the cosmos.

While the discovery of the Higgs boson in 2012 was indeed an enormous success for the scientific community, the triumph came with a disappointment. Explaining this is simple: Essentially, the Higgs boson was like a final piece that completed the Standard Model puzzle. However, as any puzzle enthusiast will tell you, it is the tabs and blanks of pieces that allow one to build a puzzle. The hanging tab gives you a hint as to what the next piece will be. But a completed puzzle is silent on what to do next.

The Mysteries That Remain

It's not like we don't have mysteries in the world of physics. From our observation of galaxies, we know that they rotate faster than can be explained by the known laws of gravity and the matter we can detect. To explain that mystery, we invented an unobserved form of matter called dark matter. The fundamental nature of dark matter is certainly a big mystery.

Another mystery stems from that famous Einstein equation, E=mc2. It actually says that when energy is converted into matter, an equal amount of antimatter will be made. During the Big Bang, the universe was full of energy, and this energy transformed into equal amounts of matter and antimatter. Yet when scientists look at the universe, they see only matter. So where did the antimatter go? While physicists have had a few hints from previous experiments, we don't really know the answer. This is another mystery.

There are other mysteries, too, like wondering if there are smaller building blocks of the universe than those with which we are now familiar. Following the history of investigations into that question, we have learned of molecules and then atoms. Research in the early 1900s revealed protons, neutrons and electrons, and the 1960s brought to light the quarks and leptons that are currently considered the smallest particles of nature. However, it is natural to ask if there might be even smaller building blocks. While scientists don't know the answer, there must be some sort of deeper and more fundamental physics that can explain the patterns seen in the quarks and leptons. The answer to that question is yet another mystery.

The Curious Higgs boson Mass

Physicists don't know the answer to any of those fundamental questions, and, to be honest, it is possible that the LHC won't teach us about any of those secrets of nature. But there is one question for which LHC data is a surer bet.

It stems from mysteries that arise in calculations of the Higgs boson's mass. When scientists try to calculate this value directly from the theory, the result is much higher than the LHC data suggest.

Because of the laws of quantum mechanics, the Higgs boson can fluctuate into other types of particles (e.g., the top quark, the W and Z bosons, and even pairs of Higgs bosons). This behavior leads to predictions of the mass of the Higgs boson that are closer to the Planck mass which is a hundred quadrillion times heavier than the mass that scientists have measured. (The Planck mass is the highest mass our current theories could possibly apply and marks a frontier beyond which we are certain that we will have to rethink everything.)

Obviously, this is a problem, and physicists have spent several decades imagining possible explanations, even before the Higgs boson's discovery. (After all, it was clear even early on that this problem would exist if the Higgs boson had a mass that could be discovered.)

The most popular theoretical explanation is a principle called supersymmetry. This idea essentially postulates that the force-carrying bosons (particles with a subatomic spin that is integer multiple of ?, which is the natural unit for spin in the quantum world). For example, photons of spin 1 × ? and the matter-carrying fermions (particles with half integer subatomic spin, e.g. electrons of spin 1/2 x ?) should appear in the theory in a symmetric way. That means if you swap all the fermion and boson symbols, the equation will remain unchanged. Essentially this puts forces and matter on equal footing, making them conceptually interchangeable.

And in theories with supersymmetry, a new set of particles emerge, cousins of the familiar particles of the Standard Model. Supersymmetry says that the familiar quarks and leptons must come with new, related particles physicists now call squarks and sleptons. Similarly, supersymmetric analogs of the photon and gluon, called photinos and gluinos, must exist.

Mind you, no direct evidence for the existence of these supersymmetric particles has ever been found. However, if they do exist, scientists can use these particles' quantum mechanical properties to cancel the contribution of the familiar particles in calculations of the mass of the Higgs boson. With supersymmetry accounting for the other particles, the calculations result in a predicted mass of the Higgs boson that is small, in accordance with measurements.

Some scientists' enthusiasm for supersymmetry has been dampened by the fact that supersymmetric particles haven't been observed. Thus, researchers are exploring other possibilities, for example, the ideas that there might exist additional dimensions of space or that the Higgs boson might contain smaller particles within it. These ideas and others are alternative approaches for taming the unruly predictions of the mass of the Higgs boson.

Read more at Discovery News

Thunderstorms on Saturn May Drive Epic Polar Cyclone

Many thunderstorms in Saturn’s atmosphere could be driving the gas giant’s vast polar cyclones, according to new simulations inspired by observations from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. What’s more, this research could help astronomers study large-scale atmospheric phenomena on exoplanets light-years away.

For decades, the powerful, swirling hurricane-like features at Saturn’s poles have been a mystery — what drives these storms and why do they persist for so long? Associated with these vortexes are “hot-spots” as observed by Cassini.

In addition, Saturn’s north polar cyclone is surrounded by a mesmerizing hexagonal feature etched into the atmosphere. The hexagon is thought to be a product of turbulent eddies surrounding the central vortex, so scientists want to understand the driving forces behind these powerful atmospheric flows as an answer to the hexagon may also be found.

On Earth, cyclones are driven by the flow of moisture over oceans. However, Saturn certainly does not possess huge masses of water, making astronomers look for other clues as to how a cyclone could form.

Using a planetary model of Saturn, new research published in the journal Nature Geoscience suggests that it could be many small thunderstorms in Saturn’s tumultuous atmosphere that combine to form these vast swirling cyclones.

“Before it was observed, we never considered the possibility of a cyclone on a pole,” said lead author Morgan O’Neill, former PhD student in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS) and now a postdoc at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel. “Only recently did Cassini give us this huge wealth of observations that made it possible, and only recently have we had to think about why [polar cyclones] occur.”

O’Neill’s team was able to create a simple model of Saturn’s atmosphere that generated many small thunderstorms over time. Taking simple atmospheric dynamics into account, they found that the many storms pulled atmospheric gases toward the poles — a mechanism known as “beta drift” — building up angular momentum (or spin) in the planet’s atmosphere, culminating in vast cyclones at the poles.

With this connection made, the researchers realized that whether or not a polar cyclone forms depends on 2 parameters: “the energy within a planet’s atmosphere, or the total intensity of its thunderstorms; and the average size of its thunderstorms, relative to the size of the planet itself,” writes an MIT press release. This means that the larger the average storm compared to the planet's size, the more likely a long-lived polar cyclone will occur.

So, looking at the other gaseous planets in our solar system, the team plugged in the numbers for Jupiter and Neptune. They found that, from their model, Jupiter, the largest planet in the solar system, is unlikely to ever have storm-driven cyclones at its poles, whereas Neptune will have transient (or short-lived) polar cyclones.

Their model seems to, so far, hold true for Saturn and Neptune, but we haven’t had a good look at Jupiter’s poles, so we have little idea whether or not the gas giant possesses powerful polar cyclones. But it just so happens that we have a probe, NASA’s Juno mission, heading toward Jupiter orbit in 2016 — a mission that will study the Jovian magnetic field and swing over its poles.

Read more at Discovery News

Jun 15, 2015

The LHC Needs to Take a Short Nap

The Large Hadron Collider may have only just gone back online, but it’s already going to take a vacation, shutting down data collection for 5 days. What gives?

Never fear, the LHC hasn’t gone workshy on us; this is the first of 3 planned “technical stops” of 2015 that give CERN engineers a chance to carry out maintenance tasks.

As described in a recent LHC news update, powering up the world’s largest particle accelerator after being shut down since 2013 for an upgrade isn’t as simple as “pressing a button.” In the build-up to Run 2, that officially began this month, recommissioning of the particle beam actually began in early April and the whole system was cryogenically cooled at the end of 2014.

In short, just because science wasn’t being carried out for the majority of the past few months, the LHC has been an engineering beast and work on the 17 mile ring of superecooled electromagnets and complex experiments never slowed down.

“The accelerator is made up of thousands of components that all have to work together harmoniously and need to be re-tuned at regular intervals,” writes the LHC news release. “Each year of LHC operation therefore includes five-day technical stops every ten weeks or so. The experiments take advantage of these intervals to carry out their own maintenance work.”

During this technical stop, several days will be dedicated to “scrubbing the beam pipes” in preparation for an increase in the accelerator’s luminosity in this higher-energy regime. Also, while one of the LHC’s smallest experiments (LHCf) gets dismantled for maintenance, there will be a low-energy beam run that will be used by the other experiments for calibration purposes while avoiding high-energy damage to the dismantled LHCf detector.

Read more at Discovery News

Origin of Mysterious 'Cannon Earthquakes' in Red Sea Found

Mysterious earthquakes that sound like cannon blasts have been puzzling people for decades, and now their origin has been traced way back to a giant block of volcanic rock hundreds of millions of years old, researchers say.

For generations, Bedouin nomads living in the region of the Egyptian coastal resort Abu Dabbab, by the Red Sea, have heard noises that sound like cannon blasts accompanying small quakes in the area.

“The name of Abu Dabbab are Arabic words that mean ‘the Father of Knocks,’ which is related to the sound heard in this area,” Sami El Khrepy, a seismologist at King Saud University in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, told Live Science.

Previous research had found that rocks in the region are about twice as warm as they are elsewhere in Egypt, suggesting that rising magma may be related to the origin of these “cannon earthquakes.” However, there has been no volcanic activity in the region in at least 65 million years, so the scientists ruled out that possibility.

So, to learn more about what could be causing these noisy earthquakes, El Khrepy and his colleagues analyzed the structure of the crust at Abu Dabbab as well as data collected by the National Seismic Network of Egypt, which was completed in 2002. Then, they applied a technique known as seismic tomography, which uses information on the speed of seismic waves to create a 3D map of rock types in the area — similar to the way ultrasound can produce images of pregnancies.

Earthquake swarms are common near Abu Dabbab. However, most of these quakes are weak, ranging in magnitude from 0.3 to 3.5. The largest well-documented earthquakes in the area, which reached magnitude 6.1 and magnitude 5.1, happened in 1955 and 1984, respectively.

The scientists found that the earthquakes at Abu Dabbab occur along an imaginary line that extends from the coast into the Red Sea. This seismic activity is apparently caused by an active fault that lies below a 6-mile-deep (10 kilometers) block of rigid volcanic or igneous rock that’s at least 540 million years old. The fault originated from the rifting of the Earth that created the Red Sea that began about 30 million years ago. (The African and Arabian tectonic plates have been spreading apart slowly in a rifting process for the past 30 million years.)

The researchers said the surface of the block slides along active parts of the fault, lubricated by water from the Red Sea that has penetrated the crust.

Read more at Discovery News

Cannibal Tribe Evolved Resistance to Fatal Disease

The practice of cannibalism in one Papua New Guinea tribe lead to the spread of a fatal brain disease called kuru that caused a devastating epidemic in the group. But now, some members of the tribe carry a gene that appears to protect against kuru, as well as other so-called “prion diseases,” such as mad cow, a new study finds.

The findings could help researchers better understand these fatal brain diseases, and develop treatments for people who have the diseases, the researchers said.

The Papua New Guinea tribe, known as the Fore people, used to conduct a funeral ritual that involved consuming the human brain. Early in the 20th century, tribe members began to develop kuru, a neurological disorder caused by infectious prions, which are proteins that fold abnormally and form lesions in the brain. This was the start of an epidemic of kuru among the Fore people, which at its peak in the 1950s, killed up to 2 percent of the tribe each year.

The tribe stopped practicing cannibalism in the late 1950s, which lead to a decline in kuru. But because the disease can take many years to show up, cases continued to appear for decades.

Recently, researchers discovered that some of the people who survived the kuru epidemic carry a genetic mutation called V127, whereas those who developed kuru did not have this mutation. This led the researchers to suspect that V127 conferred protection against the disease.

In a new study, researchers genetically engineered mice to have the V127 mutation, and then injected the animals with infectious prions. Results showed that mice with one copy of the 127V mutation were resistant to kuru, as well as a similar disease called classical Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. Mice with two copies of V127 were resistant to those diseases, as well as another prion disease, called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, which is sometimes referred to as the “human form of mad cow disease.”

Although the cessation of cannibalism among the Fore people led to a decline in kuru cases, the new study suggests that if the disease had continued to spread, the “region might have been repopulated with kuru-resistant individuals,” the researchers wrote in the June 10 issue of the journal Nature.

It’s important to note that the practice of cannibalism did not directly lead to development of resistance to kuru. Rather, this mutation was likely present in the population before the kuru epidemic, but it became much more common when it provided a genetic advantage — that is, people with the mutation were able to survive kuru. Such selection of genetic traits is the basis of evolution.

Read more at Discovery News

Life Was Miserable for Dinosaurs in the Tropics

Raging fires, droughts, food shortages and extreme climate change help to explain why most dinosaurs failed to populate the tropics for more than 30 million years after these iconic prehistoric animals first emerged, according to a new study.

Only a few small-bodied meat-eating dinosaurs eked out a living near the equator around 200 million years ago, reports the study, which is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“Our data suggest it was not a fun place,” co-author Randall Irmis, curator of paleontology at the Natural History Museum of Utah and assistant professor at the University of Utah, said in a press release. “It was a time of climate extremes that went back and forth unpredictably and large, warm-blooded dinosaurian herbivores weren’t able to exist nearer to the equator — there was not enough dependable plant food.”

The researchers, led by geochemist Jessica Whiteside of the University of Southampton, focused on Chinle Formation rocks, which were deposited by rivers and streams between 205 and 215 million years ago at Ghost Ranch in northern New Mexico. (This site in the subtropics is well known to art admirers too, as it’s where artist Georgia O’Keeffe lived and painted for much of her career. The multi-colored rocks of the Chinle Formation are a common sight on the Colorado Plateau at places such as the Painted Desert at Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona.)

The rock layers contain multiple clues for what the environment was like in the tropics and subtropics back in the dinosaur era. These include fossils, charcoal left by ancient wildfires, stable isotopes from organic soil matter, and carbonate nodules, which formed in ancient soils.

“Each dataset complements the others, and they all point towards similar conditions,” Whiteside said. “I think this is one of the major strengths of our study.”

Fossilized bones, pollen grains and fern spores revealed the past flora and fauna of the site, or lack thereof. Dinosaur remains were surprisingly rare for the time, given that they were much more prevalent then in more northern and southern latitudes. Here, closer to the equator, however, their remains accounted for less than 15 percent of all animals. Reptiles that later gave rise to today’s crocodiles and alligators instead dominated the food chain.

The dinosaurs that did manage to live at the site were small, carnivorous ones. Big, long-necked plant-eating dinosaurs were completely absent.

The charcoal remains discovered in the sediment layers show that numerous wildfires occurred, with some being incredibly intense. The scientists suspect that plant die-offs, due to climate change, fueled hotter fires, which in turn killed more plants, damaged soils and increased erosion.

Read more at Discovery News

Jun 14, 2015

Spanish Gangs Use Voodoo to Traffic Girls

Earlier this week Spanish police arrested a half-dozen members of a human trafficking gang that lured four girls from Nigeria to Spain with the promise of jobs but instead forced them into prostitution and kept them there under threat of juju, or voodoo magic retribution.

“The Local,” an English-language Spanish news organization, reported that “Officers rescued four victims and arrested six members of the organization that used juju voodoo rituals to sexually exploit women… The traffickers had put the women through a juju voodoo ritual that used the victims’ fingernails or (hair) and involved animal sacrifice in front of idols in a temple in order to ‘guarantee that the women complied with everything they demanded, under threat of death to them and their families.’”

The women had been taken from Nigeria overland to the Moroccan coast, where they then went by boat to Lanzarote, the easternmost of the Canary Islands. The operation was conducted as part of Spain’s “National Police Plan Against Trafficking in Human Beings for Sexual Exploitation,” launched in 2013.

The girls’ belief in -- and fear of -- powerful magic prevented them from going to authorities. In many countries throughout the world belief in witches is common, and black magic is considered part of everyday life. A 2010 poll of 18 countries in sub-Saharan Africa found that over half of the population believe in magic. Witch doctors are consulted not only for healing diseases but also for placing or removing curses, and many Africans fear that witch doctors -- or those who hire them -- have power over their lives and health.

In her book “The AIDS Conspiracy: Science Fights Back,” Nicoli Nattrass, director of South Africa’s AIDS and Society Research Unit, notes that there “is a rich South African literature suggesting that many black people believe that HIV may have spiritual causes, notably witchcraft attacks.”

Those who subscribe to this belief system may sincerely fear that they could get AIDS simply by disobeying their pimps and traffickers or going to the police. Whether the traffickers believe in magic or curses is irrelevant; what’s important is that the victims do.

Read more at Discovery News

Hello Earth! Comet Probe Philae Wakes Up

The European space probe Philae woke up overnight after nearly seven months in hibernation as it hurtled towards the Sun on the back of a comet, mission control said Sunday.

The tiny robot lab may be ready to resume science work, adding a fresh chapter to its extraordinary voyage, excited officials said.

"Hello Earth! Can you hear me?" the washing machine-sized lander tweeted under the hashtag #WakeUpPhilae.

"We got a two-minute... successful communication" at 2228 Central European Time (2028 GMT) on Saturday, mission manager Patrick Martin told AFP from the operations centre in Madrid.

"This was sufficient to confirm that Philae is healthy and that its sub-systems are OK in terms of energy and temperature for ongoing communication with Rosetta," he said, referring to the lander's mothership orbiting Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

The mission seeks to unlock the long-held secrets of comets -- primordial clusters of ice and dust that scientists believe may reveal how the Solar System was formed.

The 100-kilogram (220-pound) robot lab touched down on "67P" on November 12 after an epic 10-year trek piggybacking on Rosetta.

But instead of harpooning itself onto the dusty iceball's surface, Philae bounced several times before settling at an angle in a dark ditch.

It had enough stored battery power for about 60 hours of experiments, enabling it to send home reams of data before going into standby mode on November 15.

As "67P" drew closer to the Sun, scientists hoped better light would recharge Philae's batteries enough for it to reboot, then make contact, and ultimately carry out a new series of experiments.

After two failed bids to make contact in March and April, a new attempt was launched in May.

"We were surprised, yes, because we didn't expect it at all last night, on a weekend -- it's really exciting," Martin said.

An ESA statement said Philae communicated with its ground team for 85 seconds, and preliminary analysis of the data showed it must also have been awake earlier but unable to make contact.

According to Martin, the lander's temperature was about minus 36 degrees Celsius (-29 Fahrenheit) and its energy at 24 watts -- both higher than the minus 45 C and 19 watts required to operate.

"Philae is doing very well," said Stephan Ulamec, Philae project manager with the German space agency DLR. "The lander is ready for operations."

Martin was more cautious, saying: "We have already lined up more communication windows which hopefully will see a repeat of this successful communication.

"If we get a stable communications pattern we should be able within a week or so to think about operating the instruments on board the lander."

A tweet in the name of Rosetta announced: "Incredible news! My lander Philae is awake!", before prompting the robot to "take it easy for now" while checks are run to see that it is "fit, healthy and warm enough".

This prompted a Twitter response from Philae: "Oh, OK... I’m still a bit tired anyway... talk to you later!"

NASA tweeted "Rise and shine!" while Britain's usually staid Royal Observatory shouted: "YES!!!"

The comet and its precious cargo are 215 million kilometers (134 million miles) from the Sun and 305 million km from Earth, racing at a speed of 31.24 km a second, according to ESA's website.

Read more at Discovery News

Book Shows Rare Snapshots from NASA's Early Days

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin, in a rarely-seen photo from his spacewalk in 1966, is featured on the cover of "Spaceshots and Snapshots of Projects Mercury and Gemini" by J.L. Pickering and John Bisney.
J.L. Pickering usually doesn't take kindly to books claiming "never before seen" NASA photographs.

A space historian and one half of the team behind the new title, "Spaceshots and Snapshots of Projects Mercury and Gemini: A Rare Photographic History," now available from University of New Mexico Press, he has almost assuredly already seen the photos. In fact, it's not uncommon to find him calling out the false descriptions.

"When we would go into any bookstore, we would naturally check out the space books," John Bisney, Pickering's co-author, said about the catalyst that led to their new book, which presents some of the truly seldom reproduced shots from NASA's first piloted space programs. "We'd pull them out, look through them, and it would always be like, 'Seen that, seen that, seen that.'"

Worse still, was when the not-so-never-before-seen photos were also misidentified.

"There was this problem of just seeing 'the greatest hits,' but then there was also sloppiness in terms of identifying what was what," Bisney explained. "And J.L. kept showing me all these amazing images out of his collection. 'Never seen that, never seen that, never seen that.'"

"So why don't we do a book of photos people haven't seen instead of a book of photographs people have seen?" he recalled asking.

And so that's what they did.

The first of two volumes — the second, which is due out in September, will cover the Apollo moon landing program — "Spaceshots and Snapshots" captures the one and two man Mercury and Gemini flights using photos culled from the literally hundred of thousands of images Pickering has collected over the course of decades from veterans of the U.S. space program.

"At one point, I was hauling back two, three, four hundred, five hundred photos each trip," Pickering described. "And then it just kind of dawned on us at some point, maybe we can figure out a way to put all this stuff together."

The "way" was the 224-page "Spaceshots and Snapshots" with its almost 700 images of astronauts, space capsules, rockets and launch pads.

"It could have been much bigger," Pickering noted. "We started out with 60 to 75 pictures per mission. But we tried not to duplicate the same sort of event too often."

"If it was only up to me, there would be a night shot of the vehicle on the launch pad in every chapter, but John was the person of reason on that," he said.

Bisney, a former correspondent who covered the space program for more than 30 years for CNN, the Discovery Channel and SiriusXM Radio, organized the photos that he and Pickering selected for inclusion in the book and wrote their captions.

"When this first started out, it was just a photo book," said Pickering. "So what I would do, after we picked the photos we were using, I would give John the basic information, like the date that I had, anything about it that I would know about that photo."

"And we started out with these brief captions. But all of a sudden, it became these mega-captions, and that is what made the book, I think," he said.

The extended photo descriptions grew out of two factors. First, Bisney had never written captions for a book before, but even more than that, the more he stared at the photos, the more he wanted to know more about them.

"The more I looked at the pictures, the more I thought, 'What is that thing? Who is that person? What is going on there?" Bisney recalled. "And the more I would look at the pictures and blow them up sometimes, there were just so many tidbits you could talk about."

And that, in turn, led to Pickering and him learning even more about the history of Mercury and Gemini than they knew going into the project.

"We learned a lot of stuff doing this," Pickering noted. "I'm sure that just about anybody [reading the book] is going to learn some stuff."

Read more at Discovery News