Aug 7, 2015

Underwater 'Stonehenge' Monolith Found Off Coast of Sicily

Archaeologists have discovered a mysterious Stonehenge-style monolith in the deep sea off the coast of Sicily, shedding new light on the earliest civilizations in the Mediterranean basin.

Broken in two parts, the 3.2-foot-long monolith has a rather regular shape and features three holes of similar diameter. One, which can be found at its end, crosses it completely from part to part, the others appear at two sides of the massive stone.

Such features leave no doubt that the monolith was man-made some 10,000 years ago.

“There are no reasonable known natural processes that may produce these elements,” Zvi Ben-Avraham, from the Department of Earth Sciences at Tel Aviv University, and Emanuele Lodolo, from the National Institute of Oceanography and Experimental Geophysics in Trieste, Italy, wrote in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

The monolith was found at a depth of 131 feet, on what was once an island in the Sicilian Channel. Called Pantelleria Vecchia Bank, the island was located some 24 miles north of the volcanic island of Pantelleria and was submerged during a massive flood about 9,500 years ago.

Indeed, the entire geography of the Mediterranean Basin was radically altered by the increase in sea level following the Last Glacial Maximum.

“The Sicilian Channel is one of the shallow shelves of the central Mediterranean region where the consequences of changing sea-level were most dramatic and intense,” the researchers wrote.

During the Last Glacial Maximum, the Adventure Plateau — the shallowest, north-western sector of the Sicilian Channel — was connected to Sicily, forming a broad peninsula that was separated from the North African coastline by about 30 miles.

“The gradual increase of the sea level caused the flooding of most of the peninsula, with the exception of some morphological highs that, until at least the Early Holocene, formed an archipelago of several islands separated by stretches of extremely shallow sea,” the researchers said.

One of those islands was the Pantelleria Vecchia Bank, where the massive monolith was found and where an ancient civilization thrived. These ancient people possibly colonized and settled the various islands of the archipelago, attracted by a suitable climate and a geographical position between Europe and Africa.

Everything ended about 9,500 years ago, when, according to the post-glacial curve of sea-level change for the Italian coasts, seawater submerged Pantelleria Vecchia Bank.

“This discovery reveals the technological innovation and development achieved by the Mesolithic inhabitants in the Sicilian Channel region,” Lodolo told Discovery News.

He noted that the monolith, which weights about 15 tons, was made of a single, large block that required cutting, extraction, transportation and installation.

“Such an effort undoubtedly reveals important technical skills and great engineering,” Lodolo said.

It is not known what the monolith’s fuction was or whether it was part of a large complex.

“Most likely the structure was functional to the settlement. These people were used to fishing and trading with the neighboring islands,” Lodolo said.

“It could have been some sort of a lighthouse or an anchoring system, for example,” he added.

Read more at Discovery News

Ancient Egyptian Mummies Embalmed With Unusual Recipes

Unusual embalming recipes have been identified on two ancient Egyptian mummies, according to new international research.

The study investigated the 18th Dynasty mummies of the royal architect Kha and his wife Merit, a couple who were believed to have undergone a short and poor mummification -- if no mummification at all -- despite their relative wealth at death.

Indeed, their internal organs were not removed and placed in canopic jars, as generally occurs in classical royal 18th Dynasty artificial mummification.

Surprisingly, the researchers discovered that all internal organs – brain, thoracic and abdominal organs, eyeballs as well as ocular muscles and nerves -- were in excellent state of preservation after some 3,500 years.

"Both individuals underwent a relatively high quality of mummification, fundamentally contradicting previous understanding," Frank Rühli, Stephen Buckley, Joann Fletcher, Raffaella Bianucci, Michael Habicht, Eleni Vassilika and colleagues wrote in the journal PLOS ONE.

"Elucidated ‘recipes,’ whose components had anti-bacterial and anti-insecticidal properties, were used to treat their bodies," the researchers added.

Discovered by the Italian Egyptologist Ernesto Schiaparelli in 1906 on the cliffs surrounding the ancient village of Deir el Medina, the tomb of Kha and Merit is the most intact non-royal tomb from the New Kingdom.

Two large wooden sarcophagi containing the mummies of the architect and his wife were recovered along with over 500 hundred items, which included food, five nested coffins, full sets of linen clothing, monogrammed underwear and two of the earliest known examples of the Book of the Dead.

The mummies and almost all their belongings are now kept at the Egyptian Museum in Turin, Italy.

Kha was the chief architect of three 18th Dynasty Kings: Amenhotep II (1424–1398 BC), Thutmose IV (1398–1388 BC) and Amenhotep III (1388–1348 BC). He died of unknown causes in his fifties to sixties, under the reign of Amenhotep III, Tutankhamun's grandfather.

Merit died unexpectedly at about 25 to 35 years old, long before her husband. Her own coffin was not finished, and so she was buried in Kha’s anthropomorphic coffin. Since she was much shorter than her husband, some of Kha’s monogrammed linen fabric was used to pad out the space and accomodate her corpse inside the large coffin.

The researchers used new generation X-ray imaging and chemical microanalyses to better understand the type of mummification used to embalm the couple.

Besides the presence of the internal organs, X-rays revealed that both mummies were richly decorated with jewellery, with Kha wearing funerary amulets. Analysis on tiny samples from both individuals' outer wrappings shed light on the mummification process.

“They were mummified using a natron salt solution, as were the royals in the 18th Dynasty, but unlike the wealthier royals, their internal organs were not removed,” Stephen Buckley, an archaeological chemist at the University of York in England, told Discovery News.

According to Buckley, the salt solution would have reduced the need for evisceration, but the end result, though reasonable, shows why removal of the internal organs, followed by packing the body cavities, was preferable.

“There is evidence that Kha's mummy may have been inflated by gases resulting from some bodily decay, before deflating as desiccation took place post-natron bath,” Buckley said.

He noted that Merit's mummy has disarticulated bones within the wrappings, which may be due to some, if limited, putrefaction of the internal organs left in place.

Nevertheless, the presence of shrunken internal organs and relatively well-preserved bodies suggests that significant efforts were made to embalm Kha and Merit.

Kha’s external wrappings showed the presence of animal fat/plant oil mixed with a small amount of balsam, a plant gum and a coniferous resin.

The balsam and the coniferous resin, possibly cedar resin, provided anti-bacterial and anti-insecticidal properties.

Merit’s embalming “recipe” was notably different from Kha’s. It consisted mainly of an unusual fish oil, mixed with a concoction made of balsam/aromatic plant extract, plant gum, conifer resin and beeswax.

Further chemical analysis of a linen fragment from Merit’s red linen shroud revealed a recipe in which the same highly unusual oil was mixed with a small amount of conifer resin, beeswax, and Pistacia resin.

The resin, and possibly the balsam, would have had to have been imported from the northeastern Mediterranean.

“Such findings don’t support previous claims that the two were poorly mummified,” Egyptologist Joann Fletcher, professor at the University of York, said.

Read more at Discovery News

Balanced Rocks Hint at San Andreas Secret

A mysterious group of balanced rocks that ought to have been knocked flat centuries ago may have let slip a deep, dark secret about the San Andreas Fault, according to a new study. 

For two decades a handful of researchers have been uncovering the power of centuries-old earthquakes by studying how easily it would be to tip the balanced rocks that dot the countryside: If precariously balanced rocks have stood for centuries, then the risk or frequency of large quakes is probably low in that area. But if only very sturdy balanced rocks can be found, then it could be that more frequent strong quakes knocked down everything else.

“So it's indirect evidence of what has not happened,” explained Lisa Grant Ludwig, the lead author of a paper about the balanced rocks in the latest issue of the journal Seismological Research Letters. And that's important for drawing up good earthquake hazard maps and establishing adequate building codes.

Then a few years ago researchers found a group of balanced rocks that seem to defy common sense, located in the San Bernadino Mountains, northeast of Los Angeles. These rocks are far too close to the large San Jacinto Fault, right where it edges near the even more notorious San Andreas Fault.

“Based on what we know about the physics of earthquakes and fault ruptures, these shouldn't be here,” said Ludwig. So Ludwig and her colleagues looked for the possible reasons the rocks have remained. “We kind of had a process of elimination.”

One possibility is that the balanced rocks are much younger than they appear and so they have not been around long enough to experience a less frequent, but strong earthquake. Maybe they are even younger than the great earthquakes of 1812 and 1857, the former of which famously toppled the big church, which still lies in ruins, at San Juan Capistrano.

To find out, the rocks were dated using cosmogenic dating techniques. These allow researchers to determine how long a rock surface has been exposed to the sky. That showed the rocks were in place for up to 18,000 years -- plenty of time to have experienced lots of San Andreas and San Jacinto quakes.

To find out, the rocks were dated using cosmogenic dating techniques. These allow researchers to determine how long a rock surface has been exposed to the sky. That showed the rocks were in place for up to 18,000 years -- plenty of time to have experienced lots of San Andreas and San Jacinto quakes.

Another possibility is that the rocks really aren't as fragile as they look. There are a few ways to estimate the fragility of the rocks, including directly pushing to see if they move and modeling the rocks and working out their center of gravity, to see how they might respond to shaking. But that was a dead end as well.

“They look fragile and the data came back that they're fragile too,” Ludwig said. “Finally it occurred to us that the San Andreas and San Jacinto faults are very close together -- just 2 to 2 1/2 kilometers apart there. We began to wonder if it was a step over.”

A step over is when one fault ruptures and then the rupture ends and jumps over to a nearby fault, no more than about 2 1/2 miles (4 kilometers) away. These have been known to happen, and usually suggest that the two faults are really connected deep underground.

Modeling of the faults by Ph.D. student Julian Lozos, a coauthor on the paper, showed that just such a thing could happen between the San Jacinto and the San Andreas, and that it could create a region of less shaking where the balanced rocks are found.

“The modeling shows that ... near the nucleation point (of a quake in that area) you can have rather low shaking,” said seismic hazard scientist Mark Stirling at GNS Science in New Zealand. “She might actually be identifying an area of relatively low shaking.”

Read more at Discovery News

Ghostly Orb is Dying Star's Final Farewell

When a star like our sun runs out of fuel and begins to die, violent stellar winds rip it to shreds, blasting massive quantities of stellar matter into space. The result is a planetary nebula, a vast bubble of expanding gas that represents a star’s final, beautiful, farewell.

As imaged by the ESO’s Very Large Telescope, this particularly exquisite planetary nebula is called ESO 378-1 and very little was known about the object until the powerful telescope located in northern Chile zoomed in.

Also known as the Southern Owl Nebula, this planetary nebula is nearly 4 light-years wide and joins its visual cousin, the Owl Nebula, in the northern constellation of Hydra (The Female Water Snake).

Planetary nebulae are fairly short-lived stellar phenomena. As the star, with a mass less than 8 times that of our sun, starts to die, a huge envelope of gas expands into interstellar space. The core of the star remains in the center of the planetary nebula, powerful ultraviolet light ionizing the gas, causing it to glow.

When the nebula fades away, a white dwarf star will remain behind, glowing and slowly cooling down for billions of years, long after the nebula is gone.

From Discovery News

The Ant That Blasts Itself Out of Danger With Its Face

"Gee ya know what Carnivorous Antlion I'd love to stay and chat but I think I left the oven on."
For ants, it’s not all invading picnics and eating my ice cream and stinging me for good measure. Sure, they live a pretty charmed life—their protective exoskeletons and tendency to hang out together have allowed them to take over the world. But a whole lot of predators have their eyes on them, so ants have to put up a solid defense, too. They can rely on those aforementioned stings, of course, while others like to get more creative with it, like one variety that fends off attackers by squeezing itself until it explodes, coating the villain in toxins.

Then there are the trap-jaw ants of the genus Odontomachus, which prefer—oh, I don’t know—not blowing themselves to pieces. As their name would suggest, these ants have remarkable mandibles, huge things that cock back and fire off at up to 145 miles per hour. The strike lasts a mere .13 milliseconds and generates so much force that an attacker can find itself tumbling through the air end over end as the ant makes its retreat. And if it finds itself outmatched, the ant will point its face at the ground and blast itself out of danger.

Here’s how those jaws work. The ant uses muscles to pull back the mandibles until a latch snaps into place, locking the jaws at 180 degrees. “And then [the ants] turn on closer muscles really intensely,” says biologist Sheila Patek of Duke University, “but the jaws don’t close because there are these little latch mechanisms that are blocking them.” When the ant wants to fire the jaws, it triggers muscles that pull out the latches, releasing a tremendous amount of stored energy.

The ant can set off the whole mess manually—say, to bite the ground to fire itself off—or automatically. Lining the insides of the mandibles are sensory hairs, so all the ant has to do is bump into its prey for the jaws to snap shut. Interestingly, these hairs are wired right to the jaw muscles, so the signal doesn’t have to waste time traveling to the brain for processing. It may seem like overkill, but when the ant is hunting blazingly fast insects like springtails, every teeny-tiny fraction of a second counts. It’s so quick that should a toad set its eyes on a trap-jaw and fire its tongue, the ant can launch itself clear out of danger before the tongue can fully unravel out of the toad’s face.

The weapon of choice. Though I suppose the ant doesn’t have a choice in the matter since the things are attached to its face.
I’d like to say that they’re actually aiming themselves when they do this, but sadly that isn’t strictly speaking … true. “It turns out that they exert very little control over their trajectory, so they are for the most part bound to flying backward at whatever angle of whatever it is they’re hitting,” says Patek. “So it’s an interesting behavior, because it really is something between an intentional act and a blooper. They don’t have a lot of control over it, but it does get them out of the way.”

It all gets even more impressive when you disturb a whole nest of trap-jaw ants. “There’s also this thing we call the popcorn effect,” says Patek, “where you walk into a nest of these things or they’re concerned about a predator and they all start popping like this all over the place and some of them land on you and sting you.”

“It’s almost like a group terror signal,” she adds, “to launch themselves all over the place and onto the predator. And they do have really bad stingers, just like wasps and bees.”

The antlion sees the trap-jaw ant’s mandibles and raises it a million dollars’ worth of horror.
Anything With ‘Lion’ in Its Name Is Probably Trouble (Except Cecil the Lion—He Was Legit)

Nowhere are the trap-jaw’s battles more dramatic than in Florida (hell, what isn’t more dramatic in Florida?), where ferocious antlions lie in wait. These predators—actually the larval form of an order called nerve-winged insects—dig pits in sand and wait at the bottom for prey like ants to tumble in. As the victim struggles to drag itself out, the antlion flicks sand at it, ideally knocking it down and into some gnarly jaws.

Scientists have figured for a century that trap-jaw ants launch themselves to escape predation, but no one had confirmed experimentally that this actually worked well enough to boost their chances of survival—until entomologist Fred Larabee of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign and his colleagues came along. They got themselves some antlions, starved them a bit, and dropped in two groups of trap-jaw ants, one of normal individuals and the other of ants whose jaws the scientists glued shut.

And sure enough, unrestrained ants were twice as likely to escape a less than pleasant death as their counterparts. So “it actually does what prior to this we were waving our hands saying it does. It acts as an adaptive behavior for escape from predators,” says Larabee. What’s really interesting here is that evolution likely first produced such powerful jaws to aid the ant in hunting, according to Larabee, allowing it to punt and stun potentially dangerous prey, but it seems it was later co-opted as a defensive mechanism.

A trap-jaw ant escapes an antlion. Notice the antlion flick sand at the ant to trip it up, as if to say, “You fool. Ants don’t have ovens.”
But why evolve such wild power in the first place? A clue might be that unlike species such as the army ants, which march through the forest en masse in search of food, trap-jaws are generally solitary foragers—lone guns, if you will—with smaller colonies. Without the support of its comrades, an ant would do well to both quickly disable prey that may itself come packing a sting, and to defend itself against its enemies.

And defend itself it must: It’s an invaluable asset in a small colony. “Individual workers are more valuable because an individual worker does more in terms of foraging and comprises a larger fraction of the whole colony as opposed to, say, an enormous colony of leaf-cutter ants,” says Larabee. “So having a behavior that improves that individual forager’s survival might be disproportionately beneficial to trap-jaw ants.”

Read more at Wired Science

Aug 6, 2015

Brazilian Frogs Use Their Venomous Heads as Weapons

It has long been known that some frogs secrete venom out of their skin, but two frogs have taken this phenomenon to a whole new level by using their heads as venomous weapons.

The venom released from the head of one of the frogs is so toxic that it could kill 80 humans, or more than 300,000 mice. The frogs are described in the latest issue of the journal Current Biology.

“Discovering a truly venomous frog is nothing any of us expected, and finding frogs with skin secretions more venomous than those of the deadly pit vipers of the genus Bothrops was astounding,” co-author Edmund Brodie, Jr., of Utah State University said in a press release.

Brodie and his colleague Carlos Jared of Instituto Butantan in São Paulo, Brazil, made the determination — painfully — while studying the Brazilian frogs Corythomantis greeningi (Greening’s frog) and Aparasphenodon brunoi (Bruno’s casque-headed frog).

While collecting frogs for research in Brazil, Jared picked up a Greening’s frog and instantly felt a jab. That moment led to about 5 hours of excruciating, radiating pain.

Both of the frog species have little spines coming out of their head that the researchers discovered deliver the venom. You cannot see the spines well in this photo, but check out page 8 of this document to see how the frogs’ heads are armed with an injury-inflicting surprise for anyone who messes with the amphibians.

The researchers calculated that a single gram of the venom from Bruno’s casque-headed frog is more potent than that of deadly pit vipers. These snakes come from the genus Bothrops, and are among the most dangerous snakes in the world. Until better and more modern treatments, the human fatality rate after being bitten by such a snake was around 9 percent in Costa Rica alone.

Jared was grateful that his encounter happened with a Greening’s frog, whose venom is somewhat less toxic.

Read more at Discovery News

Ancient Walrus Cousin Looked More Like a Sea Lion

About 10 million years ago, a distant cousin of the modern walrus snapped at fish as it swam near the shore of what is now modern Japan, a new study finds.

The roughly 10-foot-long (3 meters) creature didn't have tusks as walruses do today, but instead sported "moderate-sized upper canines," that measured 3.4 inches (86.3 millimeters) long, the researchers wrote in the study.

It's no surprise this ancient pinniped (a group of fin-footed, semi-aquatic animals that includes seals, sea lions and walruses) didn't have tusks, researchers said. The walrus ancestor, which weighed a whopping 1,042 pounds (473 kilograms), looked more like a sea lion.

"We have a really good fossil record for walruses, and we see them gradually change from these sea-lion-looking animals to the really weird-looking, giant-tusked modern walrus," said Morgan Churchill, a postdoctoral researcher of anatomy at the New York Institute of Technology in Old Westbury, New York, who wasn't involved in the study. "This new fossil that's described, it just slots in really nicely into one of these small gaps that we see."

The fossil, a male young adult, was found in 1977, buried in a riverbank in Hokkaido, an island in northern Japan. Study co-author Naoki Kohno, an evolutionary biologist at the National Museum of Nature and Science in Japan, helped excavate the walrus fossil. Yoshihiro Tanaka, the study's first author and a doctoral student at Hokkaido University, joined the project in 2006 and helped finish cleaning the fossil and analyzing its anatomy, he said.

They named the new species Archaeodobenus akamatsui, meaning "ancient walrus" — in Greek, "archaios" means ancient, and Odobenus is the genus name of modern walruses. The species name honors Morio Akamatsu, a curator emeritus of the Hokkaido Museum, who assisted the researchers as they examined the fossil.

Archaeodobenus isn't the first fossil walrus found in Hokkaido. In 2006, Kohno published a study on another newfound walrus cousin, Pseudotaria muramotoi, from the same location. A comparison of the two fossils suggests A. akamatsui split from P. muramotoi during the late Miocene in the western North Pacific Ocean, the researchers said in the study.

Changing sea levels may explain how the two species diverged, the researchers said. It appears that an ancestral population was living in the western North Pacific, but during the late Miocene, about 12.5 million to 10.5 million years ago, a sea level drop caused a change in shelf environments, the researchers said.

"That may have isolated these populations along different areas of the coast, allowing them to diverge in their ," Churchill told Live Science. "When sea level rose again, the amount of habitat available increased, and these two species were able to come back and contact one another."

However, "by that point, they were distinct enough that they were probably not interbreeding, as far as we can tell," Churchill said.

It's interesting to find that two members of the Odobenidae family lived at the same time, the researchers said. Today, the modern walrus (Odobenus rosmarus) is the only surviving member of the family, but fossil finds such as these show that the family was once diverse, with at least 16 genera and 20 species.

Read more at Discovery News

Mysterious Message Found in 2000-Year-Old Ritual Bath in Jerusalem

A mysterious message has been found in an underground cave which turned out to house the remains of a Jewish ritual bath, the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) said Wednesday.

Found during construction work for a nursery in Jerusalem, the ritual bath, or mikve, dates to the first century A.D. and features walls treated with ancient plaster.

Encoded in symbols and inscriptions, the puzzling message was written in mud, soot and carvings.

The inscriptions are in the ancient language of Aramaic — the language spoken in the time of Jesus — and written in cursive Hebrew script, which was customary at the end of the Second Temple period. This era spans about six hundred years, beginning in 530 B.C. and ending with the destruction of the second Jewish Temple by the Romans in 70 A.D.

“Such a concentration of inscriptions and symbols from the Second Temple period at one archaeological site, and in such a state of preservation, is rare and unique and most intriguing,” Royee Greenwald and Alexander Wiegmann, IAA excavation directors, said in statement.

Among the symbols that are drawn on the bath’s walls are a boat, palm trees and various plant species, and possibly the Jewish seven-branched candelabrum known as menorah.

Experts are trying to decipher the message — so far without much success.

“At this point in the research the inscriptions are a mystery,” the archaeologists said.

While some of the inscriptions might indicate names, the symbols appear to be common elements in the visual arts of the Second Temple period.

According to the researchers, the drawing that appears to depict a menorah is exceptional.

“In those days they abstained from portraying this sacred object which was located in the Temple,” they said.

The reason why, the symbols and the inscriptions were drawn in the ritual bath, of all places, is another mystery.

“Who is responsible for painting them? Was it one person or several people? Was it someone who jokingly wanted to scribble graffiti, or perhaps what we have here is a desire to convey a deeply spiritual and religious message, perhaps even a cry for help as a result of a traumatic event?” the archaeologists wondered.

Read more at Discovery News

Changing Seasons Also Change How You See Color

In many parts of the world, the annual seasons come with their own colors – more green in the summer, more white and gray in the winter.

Interestingly, the change of seasons may also affect how we perceive certain colors, according to new research published in Current Biology.

The specific color in this case is yellow, and our eyes tend to interpret what ‘real’ yellow looks like as being different in the winter compared to summer.

Yellow is one of four “unique hues” perceived by the human eye, along with blue, green, and red. This distinction means that these colors are read by the eye as ‘pure’ – or not mixed with any other colors.

But yellow stands alone even within the ‘unique’ category. That’s because most people agree on what ‘real’ yellow looks like, despite individual differences between eyes.

Could stable perception of the color yellow by so many people be due to environmental reasons rather than physiological ones, researchers wondered?

To test their theory, they asked 67 men and women in the U.K. to judge when a colored light had reached ‘unique yellow’ in both June and January and “found a significant seasonal change in (unique yellow) settings.”

“What we are finding is that between seasons our vision adapts to changes in environment,” study author Lauren Welbourne said in the release.

She suspects that our visual systems naturally strive to balance how we perceive color as the colors around us change with the seasons — much like you might adjust the color on a TV set.

“In York (U.K.), you typically have grey, dull winters and then in summer you have greenery everywhere. Our vision compensates for those changes and that, surprisingly, changes what we think ‘yellow’ looks like.”

Read more at Discovery News

Mars Mission Will Drill Deep for Inside Information

Besides some Martian meteorites collected on Earth, some gravity data from spacecraft and other bits of information, our knowledge of the planet’s insides is small, said Bruce Banerdt, the principal investigator of a new lander called InSight, at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. But that's about to change.

InSight (Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) will launch for Mars in March on a quick six-month journey to the Red Planet. Upon arriving at the Martian equator, the spacecraft will deploy a small drill to probe the planet’s interior and a seismometer to measure any “marsquakes” that occur.

“Mars is a really good laboratory to understand how planets form into the complex bodies they are,” Banerdt told Discovery News. This is because the lack of plate tectonics means the planet did not meld its early rocks into the interior (unlike Earth). Also, it’s big enough to have a complex interior with a core and mantle, unlike Earth’s nearby moon.

For the past two months, engineers have been testing InSight’s chops at a Lockheed Martin facility in Colorado. So far, things are going well, the company says. The contractor has decades of experience working with NASA and helps to operate two spacecraft that will relay information from InSight to orbit — Mars Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter — and then to Earth. (MRO was recently repositioned in orbit to help with InSight’s landing.)

Testing is divided into two phases — the launch and cruise to Mars, and then the complex entry, descent and landing. Luckily for InSight, a similar system was tested before when the Phoenix lander safely made it to the surface in August 2007. But there still are a number of steps to consider, including separating the lander from the cruise shield and safely deploying the legs InSight will rest on while sitting on the surface.

“After we touch down, the first most critical event is the deployment of the landing solar array,” Stu Spath, InSight program manager at Lockheed Martin Space Systems Co., told Discovery News. “It will unfurl into a nearly circular pattern and collect the solar energy for power. Then we’ll test our most critical components and do a communications check to communicate properly (to Earth).”

The first 80 sols (Martian days) of work will be busy. In the first 40 sols, InSight will test out its systems and place the seismometer on the surface. Then comes the drill. It will be slowly lowered below the surface a half-meter (1.6 feet) at a time. Investigators will then take a few days to send out a heat pulse to see how the environment around the drill is reacting. The mission goal is to get the drill at least 3 to 5 meters (10 to 16 feet) deep.

Read more at Discovery News

Aug 5, 2015

How Humans Survive 165-Degree Heat

Summer is traditionally barbecue season in the United States, but the Middle East is the part of the world that's really cooking right now.

The region is being enveloped by a "heat dome" raising temperatures to near record-breaking levels, made all the more unbearable by power failures and sandstorms. Some of the most sizzling temperatures were recorded in the Iranian city of Bandar Mahshahr, which achieved a heat index of a whopping 165 degrees Fahrenheit (74 Celsius), the second highest ever reported, according to the Washington Post. What's worse is there doesn't seem to be any relief in sight, according to weather forecasts.

Entire cities are literally as hot as saunas right now. Saunas might have health benefits, but no one has ever tried to live in one. How could anyone survive such extreme temperatures over a sustained period? Is it even possible to breathe in those conditions?

Well, yes, breathing is possible, but not necessarily comfortable, experts say. The heat can change air quality, which in turn can affect those breathing that air, according to Albert A. Rizzo, senior medical adviser to the American Lung Association. Higher temperatures mean higher ozone levels on the ground.

"Ozone has almost like a sunburning effect on the airways of the lungs," Rizzo told Discovery News. "That tends to make the airways sometimes inflamed. They tighten up, so it becomes harder to get the air in and out."

The extreme temperatures can be particularly taxing on anyone with an underlying lung condition, such as asthma, COPD or emphysema. "Even for people with normal lungs, doing activities outdoors in the heat of the day when ozone levels are high is not advisable," Rizzo said.

So a person outside in extremely hot weather would be able to breathe, but probably with some difficulty. And breathing is in fact one of the ways humans cool down. The other is sweating, but that doesn't work as well when it's humid. While we tend to sweat more in humidity, which is why we often associate it with "sticky" heat, the moist air isn't evaporating sweat, and therefore doesn't produce a cooling effect.

Excessive sweating can lead to dehydration, fatigue and muscle cramps. This can add up to heat exhaustion. Eventually, all that lost water will lead a person to stop sweating and the ever-rising body temperature will stress internal organs.

The heart, for example, would increase circulation to regulate internal temperatures or overcome dehydration, which can thicken the blood and make it harder to pump, the Environmental Protection Agency's Excessive Heat Events Guidebook (PDF) explains. When the body gets so hot that organs shut down and cells are damaged, an individual experiences heat stroke, and must be cooled down immediately.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), between 1979 and 2003 in the United States, excessive heat exposure caused 8,015 deaths, more than hurricanes, lightning, tornadoes, floods and earthquakes combined. The CDC also lists a range of risks factors for those most susceptible to heat-related illness, including "age, obesity, fever, dehydration, heart disease, mental illness, poor circulation, sunburn, and prescription drug and alcohol use."

Demographics and geography can also play a role, according to the EPA. The poor are more likely to suffer from heat-related illness. Those in northern latitudes, who are less adapted to hotter weather, also can struggle to cope with extreme heat.

Heat waves can have both a physical and a psychological impact. In 2001, the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science published a meta-analysis of studies on the link between heat and violence, which uncovered a causal relationship between the two. A 2007 study from the British Journal of Psychiatry found an increased risk of suicide during hot weather. And a 2008 study appearing in Environmental Health Perspectives noted a rise in the number of beds occupied at psychiatric hospitals during heat waves.

Read more at Discovery News

Male Spiders Eavesdrop to Master Mating Routine

For male wolf spiders, mating is all about the leg tapping. Much like the rhythmic peacock spider, a musically inclined male wolf spider can impress a female with his precisely choreographed series of leg taps.

Or, he can steal another male’s routine. New research published in the journal Animal Behavior shows that the brush-legged wolf spider is a master eavesdropper.

Researchers raised a group of wolf spiders in a laboratory setting, where the tiny creatures weren’t exposed to any mating behaviors. When the laboratory spiders saw videos of wild males’ leg tapping routines, they unexpectedly emulated and mastered the behavior in as little as four days.

“There’s a lot of eavesdropping that occurs in the natural world, but it’s usually associated with more highly social animals with much bigger brains,” co-researcher George Uetz, a University of Cincinnati professor of biological sciences, explained in a news release. “It’s very common in birds, fish and mammals, but infrequently seen among invertebrates.”

Perhaps it’s for the better that male spiders take some cues from their competition: a nonplussed female will eat her suitor, making the mating game a matter of life and death.

From Discovery News

An EPIC View of the Moon in Earth's Orbital Embrace

As a suitably impressive follow-up to the new “blue marble” image of our world released in July, today NASA shared a gorgeous animation created from pictures captured by NOAA’s Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) spacecraft positioned nearly a million miles (1.5 million km) away -- over four times farther than the moon.

In a series of images acquired between 3:50 and 8:45 p.m. EDT on July 16, 2015, the moon can be seen passing in front of a rotating Earth, the warm gray face of its far side framed by the swirling-cloud-covered blue water of the eastern Pacific Ocean. The north pole is at the 11 o’clock position, illustrating our planet’s 23.5-degree axial tilt.

“It is surprising how much brighter Earth is than the moon,” said Adam Szabo, DSCOVR project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “Our planet is a truly brilliant object in dark space compared to the lunar surface.”

The individual images were taken by the high-definition EPIC instrument (yes, that’s a real NASA acronym) using visible-light channels; it’s how Earth and the moon would appear to our eyes were we there with DSCOVR at L1 (perhaps with a little help from a telephoto lens). DSCOVR is a partnership between NASA, NOAA and the U.S. Air Force.

L1 is a point in space about 1/100th the distance to the sun where the gravitational pulls from it and the Earth cancel each other out, allowing spacecraft to be “parked” there. Launched aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on Feb. 11, 2015, NOAA’s DSCOVR spacecraft arrived at L1 on June 8.

Read more at Discovery News

Curiosity's 3 Years Unraveling Mars' Mysteries

NASA's Mars rover Curiosity has now been trundling across the Red Planet for three very productive and eventful years.

Curiosity landed on the night of Aug. 5, 2012, pulling off a dramatic and unprecedented touchdown with the aid of a rocket-powered "sky crane" that lowered the 1-ton rover gently to the Martian surface via cables.

The six-wheeled robot then set out to determine if its immediate environs — a 96-mile-wide (154 kilometers) crater named Gale — could ever have supported microbial life. That work and more are chronicled in a new NASA video on Curiosity's discoveries on the Red Planet.

Curiosity quickly succeeded in this main task. The rover's observations of rocks at an area near its landing site called Yellowknife Bay allowed mission scientists to deduce that Gale Crater supported a potentially habitable lake-and-stream system for long stretches in the ancient past — perhaps for millions of years at a time.

Curiosity departed the Yellowknife Bay area in July 2013, making tracks toward the foothills of the towering Mount Sharp, which rises 3.4 miles (5.5 km) into the Martian sky from Gale's center.

Mount Sharp's base has been Curiosity's primary destination since before the $2.5 billion mission's November 2011 launch. The rover team wants Curiosity to climb up through the mountain's lower reaches, reading a history of Mars' changing environmental conditions in the rocks along the way.

Curiosity reached the mountain in September 2014, rolling up to a Mount Sharp outcrop team members dubbed Pahrump Hills. The rover studied the Pahrump Hills area for about five months, drilling into rocks three separate times for analysis purposes.

"That was an investment of time specifically because it was the first chance we got to see what the mountain was made out of," said Curiosity project scientist Ashwin Vasavada, of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. "That was a great five months."

Curiosity left Pahrump Hillls in March to investigate outcrops higher up the mountain. Recently, the rover has been eyeing a geological "contact zone" where two distinct rock types come together.

"It's been an adventure, partly because we're on the mountain now, and driving is much more challenging," Vasavada told

For example, thick sand and steep, slippery terrain thwarted Curiosity's first attempt to reach the contact zone. But the rover team found another route and got Curiosity where it needed to go.

The rover's work at Mount Sharp's base so far strongly suggests that liquid water deposited the bottom layers of the mountain, Vasavada said. These results extend the discoveries made at Yellowknife Bay, providing a more complete picture of the region.

"Our view of Gale Crater as an ancient habitable environment has grown tremendously, both spatially and through time in Mars history," Vasavada said. "And that's really what the rest of the mission will be about as well."

Curiosity currently sits at an elevation of perhaps 66 to 98 feet (20 to 30 meters) above Gale Crater's floor, he added. The rover team would ideally like to climb about 1,650 feet (500 m) up, to sample a number of different Mount Sharp layers.

Such mountaineering will take time — time that the mission team does not officially have at the moment. Curiosity is about halfway through its first two-year extended mission, which NASA approved after the two-year prime mission ended in 2014. The rover's handlers plan to keep applying for additional two-year extensions for the foreseeable future, Vasavada said.

He said he thinks they'll have a very good case for at least the next four years, because Curiosity remains productive and in good health.

The rover team has made a lot of progress in troubleshooting a glitch that recently cropped up in Curiosity's drilling mechanism, and concerns about the mounting damage to the rover's six wheels have abated recently, Vasavada said.

Read more at Discovery News

Oddball Asteroid Outcasts Spied by Infrared Space Telescope

NASA’s NEOWISE mission has tracked down an elusive family of asteroids that shun regular orbits in the asteroid belt, instead preferring a crazy roller coaster ride through the solar system’s equatorial plane.

These highly inclined asteroids are thought to be the product of a massive collision that fragmented a much larger asteroid, called Euphrosyne, some 700 million years ago. The impact, which is thought to be one of the last great impacts in the solar system’s evolution, left the main 156 mile (260 kilometer) wide asteroid behind and a family of smaller chunks in this highly inclined orbital path.

Euphrosyne is one of the ten largest asteroids to exist in the asteroid belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.

The Euphrosyne family of asteroids are of great interest to astronomers tracking near-Earth objects (NEOs) — through a delicate resonance with Saturn’s gravity, Euphrosynes have, in the future, the potential to drop into orbits closer to Earth.

“The Euphrosynes have a gentle resonance with the orbit of Saturn that slowly moves these objects, eventually turning some of them into NEOs,” said Joseph Masiero, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif. and lead scientist on the Euphrosynes study, in a JPL news release. “This particular gravitational resonance tends to push some of the larger fragments of the Euphrosyne family into near-Earth space.”

Originally launched in 2009 to scan the whole infrared sky, the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (or WISE) was retired in 2011 after running low on coolant. Now the WISE spacecraft has been re-booted to seek out NEOs in a mission called NEOWISE. It just so happens that the revived spacecraft is an ideal tool to find dark, high-inclination asteroids like the Euphrosynes.

Masiero’s team tracked and studied 1,400 Euphrosyne asteroids with NEOWISE, finding that they were large and dark with highly inclined and elliptical orbits.

With over 700,000 known objects in the asteroid belt, there are many more asteroids that have yet to be spotted. However, many are small and very dark, making surveys a very difficult task. NEOWISE, however, specializes in seeking out these hard to spot asteroids, identifying which ones occupy orbits that could, one day, encounter Earth. Characterizing the source of NEOs is therefore very important — a near-impossible task in the jumbled asteroid belt.

Read more at Discovery News

Aug 4, 2015

Super star takes on black holes in jet contest

A super-dense star formed in the aftermath of a supernova explosion is shooting out powerful jets of material into space, research suggests.

In a study, a team of scientists in the Australia and the Netherlands has discovered powerful jets blasting out of a double star system known as PSR J1023+0038.

It was previously thought that the only objects in the Universe capable of forming such powerful jets were black holes.

PSR J1023+0038 contains an extremely dense type of star astronomers call a neutron star, in a close orbit with another, more normal star nearby.

It was first identified as a neutron star in 2009 but it was only when the research team observed the star with the Very Large Array radio telescope in the United States in 2013 and 2014 that they realised the star was producing much stronger jets than expected.

Astronomer James Miller-Jones, from the Curtin University node of the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR), says neutron stars can be thought of as stellar corpses.

"They're formed when a massive star runs out of fuel and undergoes a supernova, and the central parts of the star collapse under their own gravity," he says.

"These things are typically about one and a half times the mass of the Sun and yet they're only 10-15km across, so they're incredibly dense."

ASTRON astronomer Adam Deller, who led the research, says neutron stars and black holes are sometimes found in orbit with a nearby "companion" star.

"Gas can then flow from the companion star to the neutron star or black hole, producing spectacular displays when some of the material is blasted out in powerful jets at close to the speed of light," he says.

"From what we had seen previously, black holes were previously considered the undisputed kings of forming powerful jets, even when they were only fed by a little bit of material from their companion star."

"In comparison, neutron stars seemed to make relatively puny jets, which only became bright enough to see when the neutron stars were gobbling gas from their companions at a very high rate."

Dr Deller says when the team looked at PSR J1023+0038 it was only consuming a trickle of material and should have been producing a very feeble jet.

"But our observations suggest its jets are nearly as strong as you'd expect from a black hole," he says.

Dr Miller-Jones says PSR J1023+0038 is a "transitional" neutron star, spending years at a time powered mainly by the rotation of the neutron star but transitioning occasionally into an active gathering state, when it gets much brighter.

Read more at Discovery News

Lab experiment mimics early-stage planetary formation process

Physicists have directly observed, for the first time, how highly charged dust-sized particles attract and capture others to build up clusters particle by particle. This process can lead to the formation of "granular molecules" whose configurations resemble those of simple chemical molecules.

These interactions are fundamentally important in situations ranging from airborne pollutant coagulation to the clustering of dust in interstellar space. Nevertheless, a full picture of how electrostatic interactions contribute to particle aggregation has remained elusive, mainly owing to the absence of direct, in-situ experiments.

In a recent paper published in the journal Nature Physics, a research team at the University of Chicago has shown how to experimentally resolve this problem. Spearheading the project was Victor Lee, a graduate student in physics, working with co-authors Scott Waitukaitis, PhD'13; Marc Miskin, PhD'14; and Heinrich Jaeger, the William J. Friedman and Alicia Townsend Professor in Physics.

Using a freefalling stream of particles to create a low-gravity environment, and tracking the stream with a high-speed video camera falling along with it, the team observed how charged grains in their mutual electrostatic interactions can undergo attractive as well as repulsive trajectories similar to planetary orbits. The team's results highlight the importance of polarization effects in promoting the capture and aggregation of grains via multiple collisions.

"This can have implications for the very earliest stages of planet formation, which is believed to start via collisions among interstellar dust grains," Jaeger said. "Single head-on collisions typically do not dissipate enough energy to lead to sticking."

Scientists have long speculated that electrostatic interactions could help colliding particles stick together instead of flying apart. But the Chicago team has now observed in detail, for the first time, cluster growth by successive capture of individual particles via long-range electrostatic interactions.

In related work, a team led by UChicago's Karl Freed, the Henry G. Gale Distinguished Service Professor of Chemistry, Emeritus, and Juan de Pablo, the Liew Family Professor in Molecular Engineering, has just completed calculations that can explain some of the "granular molecule" configurations that Lee and his co-authors see in their experiments.

Read more at Science Daily

Blinding Hogweed Plant Found in Rural Michigan

It may sound like something out of a sci-fi movie, but a toxic plant recently found in the Michigan wilderness has a sap so powerful, it can cause permanent blindness.

The giant hogweed, which can also cause blisters and scars if it comes into contact with human skin, was removed, according to the Calhoun County Public Health Department. Officials warn there may be more of the plants in the area and the department will continue to monitor the area for years to come, reported the Detroit Free Press.

A member of the carrot family, this invasive species can grow from 6-18 feet tall, with leaves spanning up to 5 feet. It's sometimes confused with Queen Anne’s lace.

Anyone who comes into contact with the nightmare plant should flush eyes and skin and seek immediate medical help, the Free Press reported.

From Discovery News

Earthworms' Secret to Eating Dead Leaves Found

Worms may not be the most photogenic creatures, but they’re essential to our planet as we know it. By munching on fallen leaves and other dead plant material, they reduce mounds of matter on the ground and return carbon to the ground, enriching the soil.

Now researchers at Imperial College London have figured out how the worms manage to digest dead plants despite toxic chemicals that deter most other herbivores. Plants make polyphenols, which act as antioxidants and give the plants their color. They also usually block digestion.

The scientists identified molecules in the earthworm’s gut that counteract the plant’s natural defenses. The molecules, named drilodefensins, allow an earthworm to eat up to one-third its body weight in a single day. The more polyphenols detected in an earthworm’s diet, the more drilodefensins it produces in its gut, the researchers found.

As earthworms burrow into the ground, they eat soil with their mouths, located in their first segment. They extract nutrients from decomposed organic matter, transporting nutrients and minerals from below to the surface through their waste — and their tunnels aerate the ground.

“Without drilodefensins, fallen leaves would remain on the surface of the ground for a very long time, building up to a thick layer,” Jake Bundy from the Department of Surgery and Cancer at Imperial, said in a press release. “Our countryside would be unrecognizable, and the whole system of carbon cycling would be disrupted.”

So much munching requires a lot of the earthworm’s digesting molecule. Manuel Liebeke from Imperial College London estimates that for every person on Earth there are at least 1 kg (2.2 lbs) of drilodefensins present in the planet’s earthworms. Even with such a quantity of the molecules, they are still in such high demand that earthworms recycle the molecules to keep on digesting.

The researchers identified the key to the worms’ digestion by using modern visualization techniques based on mass spectrometry. Manuel Liebeke from Imperial College London explained that the technology has allowed scientists to zero in on animals’ biology like never before.

Read more at Discovery News

Giant Mystery Ring of Galaxies Should Not Exist

Astronomers are constantly uncovering the “most distant,” “most massive” or “most energetic” objects in our universe, but today, researchers have announced the discovery of a truly monstrous structure consisting of a ring of galaxies around 5 billion light-years across.

The galactic ring, which was revealed by 9 gamma-ray bursts (GRBs), is located 7 billion light-years away and spans an area of the sky more than 70 times the diameter of a full moon.

GRBs are thought to be detonated when a massive star reaches the end of its life. As the star implodes after running out of fuel, a black hole is formed and vast quantities of energy are blasted in collimated beams. Should Earth be aligned with these beams, an incredibly luminous signal can be observed and these beacons can be used to precisely gauge the distance to the GRB and the location of the galaxy that hosts it.

The GRBs are all cataloged in the Gamma Ray Burst Online Index, which precisely records each GRB distance and location, like pins on a cosmic map.

Astronomers believe these GRBs (and therefore the galaxies they inhabit) are somehow associated as all 9 are located at a similar distance from Earth. According to its discoverers, there’s a 1 in 20,000 probability of the GRBs being in this distribution by chance — in other words, they are very likely associated with the same structure, a structure that, according to cosmological models, should not exist.

“If the ring represents a real spatial structure, then it has to be seen nearly face-on because of the small variations of GRB distances around the object’s center,” said Lajos Balazs, of Konkoly Observatory in Budapest, Hungary, and lead author of a paper published in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. “The ring could though instead be a projection of a sphere, where the GRBs all occurred within a 250 million year period, a short timescale compared with the age of the universe.”

But what could possibly be creating a sphere an unprescedented 5 billion light-years across?

According to most cosmological models, the universe should have a roughly uniform distribution of matter over the largest scales. This is known as the “Cosmological Principal” and observations by NASA’s Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) and Europe’s Planck space telescope, which both studied the distribution of the universe’s ancient cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation, seem to agree. However, other results have recently challenged this idea hinting that structures as large as 1.2 billion light-years may exist. But a growing list of discoveries in the cosmic abyss seem to contradict even the 1.2 billion light-year “limit.”

Read more at Discovery News

Aug 3, 2015

Scientists study ‘peanut-shaped’ asteroid near earth

A mile-long asteroid that raced past Earth July 25 at about 45,000 miles per hour -- at a safe distance of 4.5 million miles -- was imaged by radar telescopes so that astronomers like Cornell's Sean Marshall could discern its precise orbit and physical shape.

Using NASA's Deep Space Network antenna at Goldstone, California, and the National Science Foundation's Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia, the space agency's scientists bounced radar signals off the passing asteroid -- named 1999 JD6 -- to produce images of the peanut-shaped celestial body as it zipped by Earth. The Goldstone radar signal was transmitted toward the asteroid, and the Green Bank Telescope received the radar echoes.

Marshall then used the National Science Foundation's Arecibo Telescope in Puerto Rico on July 29 to re-examine the asteroid in further detail. "I'm interested in this particular asteroid because estimates of its size from previous observations -- at infrared wavelengths -- have not agreed," said Marshall, a Cornell doctoral student in the field of astronomy. "The radar data will allow us to conclusively resolve the mystery of its size to better understand this interesting little world."

Radar images of asteroids -- gathered from millions of miles away in some cases -- have resolutions as small as 12 feet, with 1999 JD6 at about 30 feet. "All of these images will allow us to determine its size and shape and measure its rotation rate -- no other Earth-based observations can match the resolution of the radar," said Marshall. "The only way to get a better shape model would be with a spacecraft flyby."

NASA places a priority on protecting Earth by detecting and tracking asteroids. In fact, the robust detection program has discovered more than 90 percent of the large near-Earth asteroids.

The orbit of asteroid 1999 JD6 swings past Earth, Venus and Mercury. It comes within 4.4 million miles of Earth -- about 18.6 times the distance of the moon from the Earth. The next time the asteroid gets this close to Earth will be in July 2054.

From Science Daily

An Orbital 'Pac-Man' to Chomp Through Space Junk?

A team of engineers has been at work for the past three years to develop a space cleanup satellite. The intent is to eliminate threatening, human-made orbital debris.

The worry is not new -- there's lots of clutter to pick and choose from, be it broken down satellites to tossed away rocket stages.

A new entry to de-litter Earth orbit is the Clean Space One project, spearheaded by researchers from eSpace, Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne's (EPFL) Center for Space Engineering and Signal Processing 5 Laboratory and HES-SO University of Applied Sciences and Arts Western Switzerland.

Their intent is to trap a small satellite -- SwissCube -- tossed into space in late 2009. SwissCube is a joint cubesat project of various laboratories at EPFL and universities in Switzerland.

Sizing up the Situation

This small cubesat-type satellite, measures just 4 inches by 4 inches (10 centimeters by 10 centimeters). Barring an unforeseen event, SwissCube's demise has been programmed for 2018.

The size of SwissCube makes it tough to grasp, but it also has darker and lighter parts that reflect sunlight differently, explains Christophe Paccolat, a PhD student working on the concept.

CleanSpace One could be launched as early as 2018 in collaboration with the company S3, headquartered in Payerne. The engineering team is reporting a major step forward in designing an approach and capture system – a so-called "Pac-Man" solution.

The prototype CleanSpaceOne resembles a net in the form of a cone that unfolds and then closes back down once it has captured the small satellite. It will trap the small satellite and the two would combust together in the atmosphere.

Other work on the initiative involves creating and testing visual approach algorithms on the cleanup satellite's cameras. To be accurate, they must take into account a variety of parameters, a team press statement notes, such as the angle of illumination of the sun and the relative speed at which the cubesat is moving through space.

Larger Margin

Muriel Richard-Noca, head of the project, emphasizes the extreme delicacy of the mission: "It only takes one error in the calculation of the approach for SwissCube to bounce off CleanSpace One and rocket out into space."

Read more at Discovery News

Oldest Known Animals Had Complex Asexual Lives

The earliest evidence for reproduction in a complex organism had two surprisingly sophisticated modes of reproduction.

The creatures, known as rangeomorphs, lived 565 million years ago in what is now Newfoundland, Canada, according to a study about the find in the journal Nature. The research focused on a particular rangeomorph, called Fractofusus.

"Microscopic multicellular organisms had been around long before the Ediacaran (635–542 million years ago), but it was only during this period that large organisms with complex body arrangements appear in the fossil record," lead author Emily Mitchell told Discovery News.

"The complexity of Fractofusus' reproductive mode is intriguing, in part, because it would be surprising if large complex organisms hadn't existed prior to this development."

While Fractofusus has been considered to be one of the world's first animals, scientists are still not entirely sure what it was.

Mitchell, who is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Cambridge's Department of Earth Sciences, explained, "Fractofusus looked like nothing that is alive today, and lived in very deep water (1.2 miles below the surface) far below the photic zone, so we know that they were not plants."

On the other hand, "They have no mouths, or any other animal features, nor fungi characters," she added.

For now, Fractofusus is either referred to as being an animal, or as a member of a long-gone clade with no modern counterparts. Remarkably, however, the fossil record is excellent for this ultra ancient creature and other members of its ecosystem. A Pompeii-like volcanic disaster wiped them all out at once, freezing their remains over time.

Mitchell and her team were able to investigate Fractofusus' reproduction by using high-resolution GPS, spatial statistics and modeling to examine how its fossils multiplied and changed on three rock surfaces excavated from the site, which is called Mistaken Point.

They determined that larger "grandparents" of the species were randomly distributed and were surrounded by smaller "parents" and "children." The patterns strongly resemble the biological clustering observed in modern plants, such that the "grandparents" arose from ejected waterborne propagules that drifted along in the current.

The "children" grew from runner-like extensions that were sent out by the older generation. This second form of reproduction is similar to how strawberry plants grow and spread.

Together, both ways of reproducing allowed Fractofusus to reproduce asexually and to cover the sea floor, thereby becoming a dominant presence in its environment. Corals and sponges today use a similar combo technique, coupling release of buds or fragments with production of spores. Certain plants and fungi also engage in comparable forms of reproduction.

Read more at Discovery News

New Dinosaur Was a Super Sniffer

While pursing his Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania, Steven Jasinski fulfilled a childhood dream: he discovered a brand new dinosaur.

Jasinski, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Earth and Environmental Science and curator of paleontology and geology at the State Museum of Pennsylvania, was reviewing the museum's collection when he found a fossil that caught his eye. “As soon as I looked at the specimen, I could tell it was not the dinosaur it was thought to have been,” he told Live Science.

The fossil was originally believed to be Saurornitholestes langstoni, a species within the Dromaeosauridae family. Dromaeosaurs are colloquially referred to as raptors, due to the popularization of a specific genus of dromaeosaur: Velociraptor.

The specimen is a skull fragment with an unusually large structure in the forebrain, known as the olfactory bulb. This suggests the dinosaur had a sharp sense of smell, Jasinski said.

The dinosaur's acute nose likely helped it to be a competitive predator, potentially by allowing it to hunt at night, the researchers said. This keen sense of smell could have also aided in communication — namely, by helping the dinosaur detect chemical signatures called pheromones in other dinosaurs, which is crucial for animals that live and hunt in packs.

Jasinski compared the fossil to other dromaeosaurs using holotype specimens, which essentially act as the dictionary definition of a species. Holotype specimens are agreed upon by scientists to be the most representative examples of an animal. Jasinski compared the skull fragment to available samples in the western United States, Canada, Mongolia, China, and Europe, but his fossil remained unique. This gave him reasonable grounds to declare that he had found something entirely new: Saurornitholestes sullivani.

S. sullivaniwas relatively small compared to other species alive during the late Cretaceous, but its speed, agility, and impressive olfactory capability gave it a necessary advantage over other predators. It could have brought down a meal and eaten quickly before a tyrannosaur could come by and capitalize on the food. It was thriving about 8 million to 10 million years before the dinosaurs died out, when a good mix of herbivores and carnivores were coexisting. At the time, a large seaway divided North America into two major continents: Laramidia to the left of the seaway and Appalachia to the right. S. sullivani lived on the eastern portion of Laramidia.

Most large herbivores, like duck-billed dinosaurs, would have been too large for a small dromaeosaur to take down, so packs of S. sullivani would target juveniles or subadults.

Nick Longrich, a senior lecturer at the University of Bath, whose research focuses on the end-Cretaceous mass extinction that wiped out the dinosaurs, has discovered new dinosaur species in the same manner as Jasinski. Rummaging through forgotten museum collections is a far cry from the romanticized, Indiana Jones-esque paleontological fantasy, he said.

“I’ve done fieldwork and love the badlands but it’s expensive and it’s too much of a lottery," Longrich told Live Science. "Everyone assumes it’s a great way to do science but National Geographic does not cover all the failed field expeditions."

One of the main challenges is that there are gaps in our knowledge of the many species that once roamed the Earth. “The fossil record is incomplete enough that if you’re in a new area or a new time, there’s a fair chance that the dinosaurs there are going to be distinct," Jasinski said. For instance, scientists might discover a toe from a brand new species, but such subtle differences may be unrecognizable or impossible to prove.

"hings that we call separate species today would be very, very hard to tell apart based on their skeleton (crow versus raven, for example),” Longrich told Live Science in an email. He went so far as to suggest that because S. sullivani is so noticeably distinct to the naked eye, Jasinski may have identified an entirely new genus, rather than just a new species.

Read more at Discovery News

Aug 2, 2015

Stars in Milky Way have moved

New Mexico State University researchers are part of a team of scientists with the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) who created a new map of the Milky Way that shows nearly a third of the stars have dramatically changed their orbits.

This discovery, published July 29 in The Astrophysical Journal, brings a new understanding of how stars are formed, and how they travel throughout our galaxy.

In our modern world, many people move far away from their birthplaces, sometimes halfway around the world," said Michael Hayden, NMSU astronomy graduate student and lead author of the new study. "Now we're finding the same is true of stars in our galaxy -- about 30 percent of the stars in our galaxy have traveled a long way from where they were born."

To build a new map of the Milky Way, scientists used the SDSS Apache Point Observatory Galactic Evolution Explorer (APOGEE) spectrograph to observe 100,000 stars during a 4-year period.

For the last six years, NMSU astronomers in the College of Arts and Sciences, along with collaborators from member institutions around the world, have been using the 2.5-meter SDSS telescope at the Apache Point, located in the Sacramento Mountains about 20 miles south of Cloudcroft complete a suite of experiments that includes studies of Milky Way stars to unlock the history of our galaxy.

The key to creating and interpreting this map of the galaxy is measuring the elements in the atmosphere of each star. "From the chemical composition of a star, we can learn its ancestry and life history," said Hayden, who is completing his Ph.D. at NMSU this summer.

The chemical information comes from spectra, which are detailed measurements of how much light the star gives off at different wavelengths. Spectra show prominent lines that correspond to elements and compounds. Astronomers can tell what a star is made of by reading these spectral lines.

"Stellar spectra show us that the chemical makeup of our galaxy is constantly changing," said Jon Holtzman, NMSU astronomy professor who was involved in the study. "Stars create heavier elements in their cores, and when the stars die, those heavier elements go back into the gas from which the next stars form."

As a result of this process of "chemical enrichment," each generation of stars has a higher percentage of heavier elements than the previous generation did. In some regions of the galaxy, star formation has proceeded more vigorously than in other regions -- and in these more vigorous regions, more generations of new stars have formed. This means the average amount of heavier elements in stars varies among different parts of the galaxy. Astronomers then can determine what part of the galaxy a star was born in by tracing the amount of heavy elements in that star.

Hayden and his colleagues used APOGEE data to map the relative amounts of 15 separate elements, including carbon, silicon, and iron for stars all over the galaxy. What they found surprised them -- up to 30 percent of stars had compositions indicating that they were formed in parts of the galaxy far from their current positions.

When the team looked at the pattern of element abundances in detail, they found that much of the data could be explained by a model in which stars migrate radially, moving closer or farther from the galactic center with time. These random in-and-out motions are referred to as "migration," and are likely caused by irregularities in the galactic disk, such as the Milky Way's famous spiral arms. Evidence of stellar migration had previously been seen in stars near the Sun, but the new study is the first clear evidence that migration occurs throughout the galaxy.

Read more at Science Daily

This could replace your silicon computer chips

Silicon Valley in Northern California got its nickname from the multitude of computer chip manufacturers that sprung up in the surrounding area in the 1980's. Despite its ubiquity as a chip building material, silicon may be facing some competition from a new version of an old substance.

Researchers working at the Institute for Basic Science (IBS) Center for Integrated Nanostructure Physics at Sungkyunkwan University (SKKU) in South Korea, led in part by Director Young Hee Lee, have created a high performance transistor using black phosphorus (BP) which has revealed some fascinating results.

Transistors are made up of materials with semiconducting properties, which come in two varieties: n-type (excess electrons) and p-type (excess holes). With the BP crystal, researchers have discovered that they can change its thickness and/or the contact metals and that will determine if it is high performance n-type, p-type, or ambipolar (function as both n- or p-type) material.

What does this mean?

Silicon has to be extrinsically doped (inserting another element into its crystal structure) to make it n-type or p-type in order for it to work in a semiconductor chip. The BP crystals can operate as both n-type and p-type or something in between, but don't require extrinsic doping. This means that instead of having to fabricate a silicon-arsenic crystal sandwiched between silicon-boron crystals, a transistor can have a single, lightweight, pure black phosphorus logic chip -- no doping required.

Additionally, changing the metals used to connect the chip to the circuit has an influence on whether BP will be n- or p-type. Instead of doping to make an n- and p-type material, both n- and p-type BP can be put all together on one chip just by changing its thickness and the contact metal used.

Why is this important?

Technology manufacturers are in an arms race to make their devices lighter, smaller and more efficient. By using BP that is only several atomic layers thick, transistors can be made smaller and more energy efficient than what exists now.

Silicon chips exist in all of our electronic devices, and as manufacturers make devices smaller and more energy efficient, they begin to approach the threshold for just how small components can be. BP may provide a thinner, more efficient alternative to silicon chips in electrical devices.

Another example is tiny autonomous data recording and transmitting devices which will make up the Internet of Things (IoT). A major constraint from preventing IoT from taking off immediately is the inability to scale down the component size and the lack of a long-term power solution. 2 dimensional layered materials (such as black phosphorus) are interesting in this aspect, since both the electrical and mechanical properties are often enhanced compared to their bulk (3 dimensional) counterparts.

Is BP a good alternative to current semiconductor materials?

It is a great material for transistors since it has a high carrier mobility (how quickly an electron can move through it). This gives BP the ability to operate at lower voltages while also increasing performance, which translates to greatly reduced power consumption.

With aluminum as a contact, thicker BP flakes (13 nanometer) show ambipolar properties similar to graphene while thin 3 nm flakes are unipolar n-type with switching on/off ratios greater than 105. The thinner they can make the material, the better the switching performance.

Perello explains, "The driving force in back phosphorus is the carrier mobility. Everything centers around that. The fact that the band gap changes with thickness also gives us flexibility in circuit design. As a researcher it gives me a lot of things to play with."

Is it ready to compete with silicon?

Unlike other industry standard semiconductor materials, there isn't a good method for making pure BP on a large scale. Currently, thin layers can be made only from scraping bulk crystalline BP samples, as no other manufacturing method exists yet. Tackling the scaling problem is already underway, with chemical vapor deposition (CVD) and other thin film growth techniques being investigated in labs across the world. The lack of a monolayer fabrication technique isn't necessarily a problem though. SKKU research fellow David Perello explains, "We can probably operate with 3, 5, or 7 layers and that might actually be better in terms of performance."

When asked if BP was ready to compete with silicon today, Perello said, "I don't think it can compete with silicon at the moment, that's a dream everybody has. Silicon is cheap and plentiful and the best silicon transistors we can make have mobilities that are similar to what I was able to make in these BP devices."

Read more at Science Daily