Science News: 12/11/12

What do volcanoes on Venus, Voyager 1, President Obama, and killer catfish have in common? They’re all in this week’s science news update!

Not content to be shown up by Mercury and Mars, Venus is in the news this week with the discovery that it most likely does have active volcanoes. Scientists have long debated whether Venus’s hundreds of volcanoes are extinct or still active, and new data from the European Space Agency’s Venus Express spacecraft shows chemicals in the atmosphere consistent with active volcanic eruptions.

On its voyage out of our solar system, Voyager 1 has encountered a new and unexpected layer that NASA scientists are calling the “magnetic highway.” They’re hopeful that this is the last bit of the heliosphere before the probe finally becomes the first manmade object to enter interstellar space.

Drawing of the outer reaches of our solar system. The sun at center is surrounded by a rough circle denoting the termination shock, then a curved boundary between the heliosheath and interstellar wind. Voyager 1 is shown near the edge of the heliosheath, with Voyager 2 just outside the termination shock on a different trajectory.
Artist rendition of our understanding of the outer solar system. Image credit NASA/JPL-Caltech

Asteroid news! If you hear about a large asteroid passing near the earth next week, don’t panic. While astronomers are eager to study Toutatis to get a better picture of the early days of our solar system, “near” in this case means it’ll be about 18 times farther from us than the moon. No need to worry! Vesta is also in the news this week; NASA announced that the Dawn spacecraft has detected long, steep gullies inside some of its craters. Such gullies are caused by flowing water on Earth, but so far scientists are puzzled as to what caused them on the massive asteroid.

Dino news! Fossils uncovered in Tanzania may be the oldest dinosaur species ever found, or might just be a closely related reptile. Our oldest known dino discoveries are from 230 million years ago, when dinosaurs were already widespread around the globe. Nyasasaurus parringtoni is 10-15 million years older, but since only 7 bones were found, there’s no way to know for certain how to classify it. Another new dinosaur found in Mexico has been named for its unusually large nose. Latirhinus uitstlani is an important discovery because it fills in gaps in the hadrosaur fossil record in the Americas. Finally, a newly-discovered small lizard that went extinct at the same time as the dinosaurs has been named Obamadon gracilis after President Obama.

Nearly 100,000 year old shell beads found in Algeria and Israel may be the oldest jewelry ever found, suggesting that ancient humans were beginning to develop modern culture far earlier than was previously known. Most artifacts showing evidence of the start of modern behavior (the symbolic thinking that separates us from apes) only date to about 40,000 years ago, so this could revolutionize our understanding of early human civilization.

Genetic analysis of modern European Romani people has conclusively traced their heritage. Romani peoples first arrived in Europe more than a thousand years ago and due to linguistic and cultural clues, it was long suspected that they originally came from South Asia. The genetic info shows a close match to several lower caste groups in north-west India, confirming these beliefs.

Global warming news! Warming after the last ice age 39,000 years ago likely caused the extinction of the woolly rhino. Analysis of a well-preserved rhino found buried in Siberia shows that with its short legs, it was likely unable to navigate the thick snows that fell due to the changing climate. Greenland’s ice sheet is melting at an accelerated rate not only due to warming temperatures, but also because soot from Arctic wildfires is darkening the surface of the ice and causing it to absorb more heat from the sun. The most comprehensive study to date has found that melting polar ice has caused sea levels to rise 11mm globally over the last 20 years. This only accounts for about one fifth of the total rise in sea level, with the rest due to other factors.

Now for some better environmental news. Deforestation in the Amazon is at its lowest rate this year since the Brazilian government started tracking it 24 years ago. Large swaths of the forest were still cut down and there were some regional increases, but overall it’s still a step in the right direction.

A NASA satellite has captured two really cool pictures of an eruption of the Tolbachik volcano on the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia. In visible light the lava flows aren’t that prominent, but when you add the infrared spectrum the heat coming off the fresh lava is clearly visible.

Side by side pictured of the Tolbachik volcano in visible and infrared light. In visible light the lava is only visible as a black streak on the mountain, while in infrared the lava is bright red while the cooler ground is green
Tolbachik in visible (left) and infrared (right) spectrums. Images courtesy NASA / EO-1 / USGS

Weird animal feeding news! A movement is under way to get some orcas classified as a new species based on their feeding habits. While most of the killer whales off the coast of British Columbia and Washington state have a fairly defined territory and eat fish, transients that eat seals and other mammals pass through without interacting with the resident whales. Whale researchers hope to name these transients Bigg’s killer whales after Michael Biggs, who revolutionized the study of killer whales. Research on blue whales has shown that these massive animals are able to perform surprising acrobatic feats while chasing their prey. Finally, some catfish introduced to the River Tarn in France have developed a unique way to feed: They temporarily beach themselves to grab pigeons before dragging them into the water. Kinda awesome pics and video at the link if you aren’t particularly squeamish.

A new technique of blasting food in a microwave array can kill fungus and leave bread mold-free even after 60 days and also safely eradicated germs from other foods. If the technique catches on and can be made affordable on a wide scale, it would not only solve much of the problem of food waste due to spoilage, it would eliminate the need for many preservatives.

synchrotron particle accelerator named Sesame is under construction in Jordan, and it’s bringing together some unlikely allies. Nicknamed “the Middle East Cern” after the particle accelerator in Europe, it’s being supported by nations ranging from Iran and Pakistan to Israel. I love it when science breaks down political barriers.

Finally, the Higgs boson was a nominee for Time Magazine’s “Person of the Year,” even though the writers at Time apparently have no bloody idea what the Higgs boson is. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

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[E] Hillary

Hillary is a giant nerd and former Mathlete. She once read large swaths of "Why Evolution is True" and a geology book aloud to her infant daughter, in the hopes of a) instilling a love of science in her from a very young age and b) boring her to sleep. After escaping the wilds of Waco, Texas and spending the next decade in NYC, she currently lives in upstate New York, where she misses being able to get decent pizza and Chinese takeout delivered to her house. She lost on Jeopardy.

2 thoughts on “Science News: 12/11/12”

    1. Lots of artist renditions of what they thought the new dinos looked like, but I didn’t see any fossils pics. With the oldest dino/lizard they’re extrapolating from 6 vertebrae and one other bone, so there’s not much to see. I forget what bones they found on the others, but they weren’t complete skeletons.

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