Science News: 1/8/13

Happy New Year, Persephoneers! We’ve got plenty of science news to cover from the last few weeks, including flowers on Mars (not really), geysers in the Milky Way, and cheese. Let’s get right to it!

On December 19, the Curiosity rover snapped a picture that includes a bright spot on the surface of a Martian rock that somewhat resembles a flower. Despite a certain segment of the Internet freaking out, it’s not actually a plant. Some speculated that a small piece of plastic had fallen off the rover, but as it appears to be a part of the rock, it’s more likely to just be a light-colored mineral deposit. Sometime this week, Curiosity will finally drill into a rock to examine the structure below the surface. Thus far, it has only analyzed dust from the surface, so getting to the undisturbed rock layers will provide more insight into the planet’s past.

Martian rock with a small lighter-colored area on the surface that vaguely resembles a flower
“Flower” on the surface of Mars. Image credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS

A new type of Martian meteorite was found in the desert in Morocco in 2011. “Black Beauty,” as it has been nicknamed, was blasted off the surface of Mars in a collision over two billion years ago and has a different chemical composition than other known meteorites from Mars, which are mostly only 200-400 million years old. The differences may help us understand how Mars evolved and lost its water.

Enormous geyser-like emissions are blasting out of the center of the Milky Way galaxy. The image below shows a true-color photo of the Milky Way with the (normally invisible, but here tinted blue) radio-waves emitted from the material superimposed. The “geysers” are a result of star formation periods and contain a hundred million times more energy than our sun will emit in its entire 10 billion year lifespan. Wow.

Band of stars and dust comprising the edge-view of the center of the Milky Way galaxy with enormous spouts of material emitting from the top and bottom.
False-color Milky Way “geysers.” Image credit: Ettore Carretti, CSIRO (radio image); S-PASS survey team (radio data); Axel Mellinger, Central Michigan University (optical image); Eli Bressert, CSIRO (composition).

If NASA approves a proposal by the Keck Institute for Space Studies, our moon may one day have its own tiny moon. Researchers want to send a robotic spacecraft to grab an asteroid and drop it into orbit around the moon so that it can be studied up-close by a future manned mission.

On December 25, the moon and Jupiter were so close together in the sky that from the southern hemisphere the moon actually passed in front of the planet. Brazilian astronomer Rafael Defavari captured video of the occultation and later reemergence of Jupiter through his telescope, and it’s kinda freaking awesome. You can even see Jupiter’s moon Io and its shadow on the planet’s clouds!

Dino news! Dinosaurs in the oviraptor family had stubby tails that were rigid at the tip, and due to fossil evidence of large feathers on the tails of some specimens, scientists now think that they shook their tail feathers in courtship displays.

Scientists used to think an ancient elephant known as Palaeoloxodon became extinct about 10,000 years ago, but a new analysis of 3,000 year old elephant fossils from northern China that were once identified as modern Asian elephants show that the species survived much longer than was previously thought. Bronze elephant statues from 4,100-2,300 years ago corroborate this reclassification, as the statues have two fingers on the trunk while Asian elephants only have one.

Archaeologists have found evidence of 7,500-year-old cheese! Milk fat molecules were detected on ceramic vessels with holes that were apparently used to strain the cheese. The finding is significant because it shows that Neolithic people had moved beyond mere hunting and were finding other uses for animals (and had found a way to get around the fact that early humans hadn’t yet evolved lactose tolerance; cheese has less lactose and is thus easier to digest).

Ancient humanoid species evolved feet suitable for walking upright, unlike our ape ancestors. But do our stiffer ankles preclude tree climbing? Nope. Twa pygmies in Uganda still climb trees remarkably well, and though their ankles are far more flexible than average, a new study shows that this is due to calf muscle fibers that become elongated through use, not any underlying structural difference. Awesome video at the link.

Well, crap. Warming waters around Antarctica have allowed crabs to move in and decimate endemic species that have no defense against the invaders. Antarctic ecosystems are extremely delicate due to their long isolation; many species could be wiped out if the waters continue to warm and allow more predators to return to waters that became too cold for them to survive in more than 30 million years ago.

A survey of the waters off the coast of Scotland has found an enormous flame shell bed containing upwards of 100 million of the scallop-like shellfish with bright orange tentacles. Flame shells group together to form living reefs that support many other species, and finding such an unexpectedly large population is good news. Plus, they’re pretty!

Three flame shells on a rock underwater. The shells are pale and round and have a fringe of orange tentacles.
Flame shells. Image credit: Graham Saunders

New species news! We used to think there was only one species of slow loris in Borneo and the Philippines, but a new study of the poisonous nocturnal primates has determined that two groups once classified as subspecies are actually separate species, and another previously unknown species was found, bringing the total species count to four. Also, a new report has been released detailing the 126 new species discovered in the Mekong basin in 2011. The Guardian has a slideshow of some of the finds, which include a two-legged skink, gorgeous orchids, and singing frogs.

German scientists have found a unique way to assess biodiversity of regions that are hard to explore – capturing blowflies that feed on carcasses and analyzing the DNA of their last meals. Gross, but effective!

Environmental news! Concord, Massachusetts has banned the sale of any bottled water less than one liter in volume (except in cases of emergencies where tap water is unavailable or unsafe). It’s an attempt to encourage people to switch to reusable bottles instead of wasting plastic on single-serving bottles. Also, Mauritania has become the latest African nation to ban plastic shopping bags, citing the high number of livestock deaths from eating abandoned bags and the overall environmental impact.

Salvage crews are working to free an oil rig that ran aground off the coast of Alaska during a storm on December 31. The Kulluk rig owned by Shell was being towed to Seattle after the end of the season when it broke loose and became stranded off Sitkalidak Island. While a small amount of seawater has been detected between the inner and outer hull of the rig, it doesn’t appear that any of the 150,000+ gallons of diesel and other oil products on board have spilled.

Turns out that absolute zero isn’t actually the coldest possible temperature after all. Physicists have created a new quantum gas that reached sub-absolute-zero temperatures under highly controlled conditions.

We may need to find a new way to define the kilogram, as the current metal cylinders that have served as the standard kilogram since the 1880s have gained varying amounts of weight from microscopic debris that may be impossible to remove. A few dozen micrograms here or there may not seem like much, but it can throw off the precise readings needed for some experiments or for limits on radioactive material.

Rita Levi-Montalcini, an Italian neurologist who was awarded the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1986, passed away on December 30 at the age of 103. For more on her work, check out my profile of her as part of my 2011 series on women Nobel laureates.

Finally, the Daily Mail (I know) has an astonishing four billion pixel image of Mt. Everest that allows you to zoom in to view a ridiculous level of detail. Filmmaker David Breashears stitched together 477 individual pictures to create the image, and along with the nonprofit Glacier Works produced before and after images to compare the present level of glaciation to what was seen in historic photos of the mountain. It’s pretty freaking awesome. Go play with it!

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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.

6 thoughts on “Science News: 1/8/13”

      1. I’m a bit of a black sheep in my family for not majoring in geology. Ok, technically Mom switched to a math major because she didn’t want to do the summer field course (which was hellish at that time), but she started in the geology department and both my dad and sister have geology degrees.

    1. Right? I liked biology well enough, but couldn’t get through chemistry or physics well enough to consider an actual science major.

      The universe has been blowing my mind lately- we got a new National Geographic book for kids, and it starts talking distances in terms of years, and it’s just staggering.

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