Science News: 3/26/13

So many cool science stories this week! Conditions were right for there to have been life on Mars! Daisy Morris, dinosaur hunter, is the coolest 9-year-old on the planet. And can earthquakes really turn water to gold?

NASA has finally released the analysis of the rock sample taken by Curiosity several weeks ago, and it’s the best possible news: the chemical signature of the clay sediments shows that all the elements were in place for Mars to have hosted life similar to that found on Earth. The rover’s landing site in the Gale Crater was selected after analysis from earlier missions pointed to it as a likely dried-up lakebed, and it is! No signs of life have been found yet, and it’s still possible that it never did exist, but these findings make the eventual discovery of past Martian microbial lifeforms much more likely. Further evidence of water on Mars comes from a rock that the rover ran over and broke open back in January; the interior is full of white minerals that form in the presence of water.

A NASA spacecraft that monitors solar activity captured a video of Comet Pan-STARRS passing between Mercury (left, in the solar wind) and Earth.

Grayscale image of Comet Pan-STARRS passing between Earth and Mercury
Comet Pan-STARRS. Image credit: NASA

It was widely reported last week that the Voyager 1 probe had finally left the solar system, but the reports were wrong. A new paper was released reviewing the data sent back in December that indicated that the probe had entered a new layer of the heliosphere, but there is still no evidence that it has actually reached interstellar space. Oops.

A specialized new array of radio telescopes in Chile are on the hunt for ancient starburst galaxies that used to create new stars at a much faster rate than we see today. The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) telescopes can peer through dust clouds to see in minutes what used to take several nights with visible light telescopes. Meanwhile, NASA announced that the Hubble Space Telescope will remain operational for at least another three years.

Two Russian cosmonaut and an American astronaut have returned via Soyuz capsule from their stint on the International Space Station, and their replacements are preparing to launch later this week. The leader of the ISS Expedition 35 is the Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, who has the coolest twitter ever.

Astronomers have discovered a black hole with a companion star that orbits it in a period of only 2.4 hours! That means it’s travelling at about 1.2 million miles per hour!

New data from the Planck spacecraft has fundamentally changed our understanding of the universe: it’s older than we thought, expanding slower, and has a different composition. The current best estimate of the universe’s age is 13.82 billion years; previous estimates put it at 13.73 +/- 0.12 billion years (so the new number was within the margin of error). We also now believe that ordinary matter makes up 4.9% of the universe, dark matter makes up 26.8%, and dark energy makes up the last 68.3%.

Dino news! Hundreds of dinosaur eggs were found at a site in northeastern Spain, including four sauropod species that hadn’t been previously found in the region. Some early birds had long feathers on their legs, effectively giving them four wings instead of two. Daisy Morris, now 9 years old, was only 4 or 5 (reports vary) when she discovered a previously unknown pterosaur fossil; the species now bears her name: Vectidraco daisymorrisae. Finally, the meteorite that caused the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago may have been a small, fast-moving comet rather than a large, slow-moving asteroid.

Yet another culprit has been proposed for the demise of the Neanderthals – their keen eyesight. Studies of Neanderthal skulls shows that while their brains were about the same size as early humans, their visual cortex was much larger. With less room left for social cognition, they may have had trouble cooperating and trading for supplies when times got tough.

Microbes keep popping up in unexpected places. Bacteria has been found at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the deepest spot in the ocean. They feed on organic material that falls to the ocean floor and are specially adapted to cope with the extreme pressure at that depth. Another expedition drilled deep into the crust below the ocean off the coast of Washington state and found anaerobic microbes that survive through chemosynthesis, using hydrogen to convert carbon dioxide into organic matter. We knew that microbes lived in the sediment on the ocean floor and in exposed basalt, but this is the first confirmation that they live deep inside the rock as well.

Researchers have figured out how earthquakes create deposits of gold (though, headlines to the contrary, the water does not turn into gold). During earthquakes, the water trapped in faults can vaporize and any elements that were dissolved in the water are deposited onto the rocks within the fault.

Google Maps has taken us below the sea, and now it’s taking us to several famous mountains around the world. There goes the rest of my day!

Another story where the headlines don’t quite match reality – scientists haven’t fully resurrected the extinct gastric-brooding frog, but they have successfully created early-stage embryos. (And yes, “gastric-brooding” is as creepy as it sounds; the frogs swallowed their eggs and then would deliver live young through their mouths.) Carl Zimmer has a cool article in National Geographic about other candidates for “de-extinction.”

Evolution news! Cliff swallows have given us an example of evolution during our lifetimes. The birds build nests under highway underpasses, leaving them prone to getting hit by cars. However, in the last 30 years their wings have gotten shorter since birds with longer wings are bigger targets and thus less likely to survive to reproductive age. Giant squid from around the world have remarkably similar genomes, showing that at some point in the past they nearly became extinct but rebounded from a small population. And while we once thought that polar bears descended from brown bears living on the ABC Islands of Alaska, new genetic evidence points the other way – the island-dwelling brown bears are a hybrid of polar bears and brown bears from the mainland.

The United States has started producing plutonium (of the non-weapons grade variety) for the first time in 25 years. Many NASA projects use it as a fuel source.

Scientists at CERN have announced that they are confident that the particle they first tentatively announced last year is, in fact, the Higgs boson.

Scientists have discovered a potential new treatment for viruses such as Ebola, rabies, and many other viruses for which we currently have no medicines or vaccines. Countless lives could be saved if they prove successful; Ebola can have up a a 90% fatality rate.

The genome of the famous HeLa cells  has finally been decoded, and it’s a mess. The cells were taken from Henrietta Lacks’ cervical tumor, and like many tumor cells, there are a lot of errors in the DNA – duplicated chromosomes, duplicated genes, and large sections of chromosomes that are out of order. While her cells are widely used in research, these mistakes mean they may not actually be a very good model of average human cells when it comes to testing drugs.

And in the most infuriating science news of the week, Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah), the new chairman of a House subcommittee on the environment thinks the jury is still out when it comes to climate change and that even if humans are contributing to global warming, that doesn’t necessarily mean we should actually do anything to counteract it. He also wants to get rid of the EPA and thinks the Endangered Species Act is government overreach. Insert rage gif of your choice here.

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.

3 replies on “Science News: 3/26/13”

Loved this. I really wish I understood more about science, but it intimidates me. These though are written in interesting ways that I get.

Then I read highlights to my man friend last night and he was all impressed and I pretended it was because of me, but really it was because of you.

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