Science News: 3/12/13

Welcome to this week’s installment of science news. We’ve got SpaceX, comets, Arctic camels, Neanderthal-killing bunnies, and more!

A glitch on Curiosity last week caused NASA to switch it to running on a backup hard drive, and then in the middle of troubleshooting the corrupted files, the rover had to be put back into sleep mode temporarily to protect it from radiation from a massive solar flare. Poor Curiosity. A press conference is planned for today to announce the findings from last month’s drilling into the surface of Mars.

SpaceX’s Dragon capsule docked with the International Space Station on March 3. It’s the second supply mission to the ISS for the private company.

Robotic arm of the International Space Station reaching out to the Dragon capsule for docking. The edge of the earth is in the background.
The Dragon Capsule docking with the ISS, as captured by one of the astronauts on board. Image credit: NASA

If you have a clear view of the western horizon at twilight this week, you may be able to catch a glimpse of Comet Pan-Starrs. Space.com has a great guide to the best way to spot it. In other comet news, Mars is in for a close call with Comet Siding Spring in October 2014. It probably won’t crash into the planet, but it’ll be a hell of a show if it does!

Our sun has some new neighbors! A pair of brown dwarf stars were discovered only 6.5 light years away, making them the third-closest star system to Earth. They’ve avoided notice until now because they’re so small and dim, but astronomer Kevin Luhman noticed them because they’d changed positions in several infrared photos taken by the WISE satellite.

Jupiter’s icy moon Europa may have sprung a leak from its subsurface oceans. The presence of liquid water below its surface had been proposed by astronomers for a number of reasons, but new evidence of chemicals on the surface that presumably came from rocks in the moon’s core lends credence to the theory and may mean that the moon harbors the ingredients for life. If water is leaking onto the surface, it’ll make studying the moon easier; previously it was thought that we’d have to actually drill into the kilometers of ice to learn more about the moon’s makeup, but specialized probes would be a much easier (and cheaper!) solution.

On the heels of the announcement that the American team that drilled into Antarctica’s Lake Whillans found new kinds of bacteria, a member of the Russian team that drilled into Lake Vostok also claims to have found previously unknown microbes. However, the head of the genetics laboratory has said that all the microbes found were surface contaminants, so it looks like there may not have been any life in Vostok after all.

Warmer Arctic summers and increased polar ice melting may lead to an increase in ships being able to traverse the Arctic Ocean, and scientists fear they may bring along invasive species that could further damage the polar ecosystem.

The fossil remains of a giant camel were found in the High Arctic of Canada. Ancient camels were known to have lived in North America, but none had been found so far north.

Did bunnies kill the Neanderthals? Not directly, of course, but studies of animal remains found in caves show that ancient people switched from a predominantly large-animal diet to eating more small animals like rabbits around 30,000 years ago, right about when Neanderthals disappeared. If they were unable to switch to hunting smaller animals as large ones became scarce, it could have contributed to their demise. Further research is needed to see if this was indeed a factor or merely coincidental.

2013 could be a record year for rhino poaching in South Africa. Some have suggested that legalizing the trade in rhino horns could lead to a reduction in poaching, as people would be able to simply take shavings of horns without killing the animals, but others fear that demand would increase even more if the horns (purported to have medicinal properties) were widely available. Meanwhile, new surveys show that 60% of Africa’s forest elephants were killed between 2002 and 2011. Fucking poachers.

Humans aren’t the only ones getting buzzed on caffeine. Bees have been found to have their long-term memory enhanced by ingesting pollen from flowers with low levels of caffeine, such as those found on coffee plants.

Atherosclerosis, clogged arteries that may lead to heart attacks or strokes, has long been blamed on modern lifestyles and diets. However, studies of mummies dating back up to 4,000 years ago show that 1/3 of them have signs of clogged arteries, so it may just be part of the aging process.

A man in the U.S. has had 75% of his skull replaced with a 3D printed implant that was custom-made to fit his head in only 5 days. It’s better than the old metal implants because it’s transparent in X-Rays (and won’t set off metal detectors at the airport).

Scientific American has a great piece on the child who was cured of HIV and why it does not mean we’ve found a cure for the disease in general.

Finally, SpaceX tested their new Grasshopper rocket booster last week. Current boosters can only be used once, but this one has a guidance system that allows it to return to the launch pad. The test took the rocket 24 stories into the air above their test facility in McGregor, Texas before landing. I’m annoyed they didn’t have any test in mid-January when I was staying at my late grandmother’s house that’s literally just down the road! (Though the tests are LOUD; my parents can hear them from their house about 17 miles away.) Still, I’d have killed for a closer look at a test like this.

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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.

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