Science News: 10/2/12

Science news! It was a bit of a slow week, but Curiosity found evidence of ancient water on Mars, Google introduced new underwater panoramas of coral reefs, and you won’t believe what they’re doing with whisky in Scotland. 

Curiosity found an ancient streambed on Mars! The Rover found some tilted slabs of conglomerate, a type of sedimentary rock formed from fused pebbles that are tumbled in running water. Images from orbit show that the rocks were once part of an alluvial fan, where a stream tumbled down the crater wall and spread out debris collected above.

Ancient streambed on Mars, with rock made of cemented pebbles sticking out of the red, sandy surface.
Pebbles fused by running water on Mars. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

A new comet discovered in orbit around our sun may put on a spectacular show late next year. Comet 2012 S1 is currently out between the orbits of Jupiter and Saturn and while it can only be seen with powerful telescopes now, it’s brighter than most comets are at that distance and could be brighter than the moon after it passes the sun on November 28, 2013. However, it could get broken up by the sun’s heat and fail to put on any show at all, so we’ll just have to wait and (hopefully) see.

After spending a total of over 500 hours staring at one tiny piece of the sky, the Hubble Space Telescope has produced an amazing new image called the eXtreme Deep Field (XDF) that includes 5,500 distant galaxies, one of which may be the oldest one ever photographed, surpassing even the one we discussed last week. The image was compiled from more than 2,000 individual infrared exposures over the course of 10 years.

eXtreme Deep Field Hubble image. Photo with 5,500 distant galaxies, with insets showing the potential most distant one, the size of the area of the photo as compared to the full moon, and captioned "5,500 galaxies, 2,000 separate exposures, 500 hours total exposure time."
eXtreme Deep Field. Image courtesy NASA/ESA

A recent series of earthquakes off the coast of Sumatra may indicate that the Indo-Australian tectonic plate may be in the process of dividing into two plates. The division has probably been going on for 8-10 million years and could take millions of years more before the plate is completely split by one continuous fault. The magnitude 8.7 quake that struck in April of this year was the largest earthquake ever recorded in the interior of a plate; such powerful quakes usually only occur at plate boundaries.

Analysis of more than 18 years of satellite records of sea levels across the globe show that on average, sea levels are rising 3mm per year. However, the changes are much more extreme in some regions, with waters rising at over 1cm per year in the Philippine Sea of the western Pacific Ocean and other areas actually dropping slightly. These regional variations are due in part to shifting weather patterns such as El Niño and La Niña, and could be totally different in coming years.

Google Street View just got even cooler with the addition of several underwater panoramas at coral reefs around the world. Along with being absolutely gorgeous images, they’re helping scientists assess reef health, as the images were actually captured by the Catlin Seaview Survey. There goes the rest of my day.

Coral reef in the Molokini crater in Hawaii
I found an eel! Screencap from Molokini Crater streetview, courtesy Google.

Gross but fascinating animal news (not for the faint of heart)! African spiny mice have a unique way of escaping predators: sloughing off large patches of skin. Fortunately, they also have the ability to completely regenerate the lost skin and hair without any scarring. Cool! Also, scientists have known for a long time that starfish and sea stars eat by extruding their stomachs into open shellfish and releasing acids to dissolve the tissue within. Now we have video for the first time!

Ape habitats are shrinking drastically in Africa according to the first continent-wide study of areas where the primates can safely live. Some species have lost more than half of their habitat in just the last 20 years, while others have seen more modest losses. Deforestation and poaching have affected ape populations in recent years, and many are already stressed or declining.

Iran’s Asiatic cheetahs are critically endangered, with only 70 individuals thought to survive in the wild. Poachers have thinned out the numbers of gazelles, wild sheep, and goats that used to be their primary food source, so they’ve been forced to hunt livestock to survive. Conservationists hope to reduce poaching and limit the protected areas that can be used to graze farm animals with the goal of bringing back the wild herds and helping stabilize the cheetah’s numbers.

Using a wind tunnel, researchers found out that hummingbirds expend the same amount of energy whether they’re flying forwards or backwards, but actually have to work harder to hover in one place. Weirdly hypnotic slow-mo videos at the link.

Cars in Scotland will soon be fueled by whisky byproducts, after a deal was reached between the Tullibardine distillery and biofuel company Celtic Renewables. Bacteria will feed on the leftovers, which account for 90% of the output of the distillery, and turn it into butanol. Awesome.

Scientific American’s Science Sushi blog has a great article about conventional vs. organic foods, and the conclusions may not be what you’d expect. Nutritionally, there’s no difference between conventional and organic food, and in some cases, organic pesticides may be more harmful than synthetic ones because they aren’t as well studied or regulated. We’re exposed to much higher levels of pesticides from sources other than foods, anyway, and tiny doses may even be beneficial. It’s a cool article, and I recommend it to anyone worried about food safety.

A study of eunuchs in Korean history may show why women have longer average lifespans than men, and the culprit just might be testosterone. Genealogical records of 81 eunuchs born between 1556 and 1861 showed that they lived on average to about 70 years of age; 19 years longer than other men in the same noble social class and 25 years longer than royal males. Castration before puberty drastically lowers levels of male sex hormones, which may damage other body systems and lead to earlier death. Records weren’t kept of women’s lifespans at the time, so we don’t know how they compare.

Speaking of men without any balls, the New York Times has an interesting rundown of how Mitt Romney the presidential candidate has largely turned his back on the environmentalism and energy policy of Mitt Romney, governor of Massachusetts. Flip-flopper!

Finally, Wikipedia is gonna get even more awesome on October 19, as the Royal Academy in London is planning an “edit-a-thon” to add and expand profiles of women who work in science, math, engineering, and technology. Hell, yes!

By [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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