Science News: 7/26/13

So much science news, so little time! The last three weeks have brought us a lot of cool stories about space, dinosaurs, and the rest of the scientific world. Plus, there’s a special treat at the end for my fellow Neil deGrasse Tyson and Carl Sagan lovers.

The Earth was particularly photogenic last week, with two new pictures of our planet being captured from spacecraft studying Saturn and Mercury.

Rings of Saturn with an arrow pointing out the tiny dot that is the Earth
The Earth as photographed by the Cassini spacecraft. Also visible: Saturn’s rings and the glowing edge of the planet. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI (cropped)
Blurry photo of Earth and Moon as seen from Mercury, with insets.
The Earth and Moon as seen from Mercury by the Messenger orbiter. The images are blurred due to slight overexposure. Insets show the faces of Earth and the Moon that would have been facing the camera when the picture was taken (numbers on the Moon indicate Apollo landing sites). Image credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington

Pluto news!

  • The New Horizons spacecraft en route to the planetoid has spotted Pluto’s largest moon, Charon, for the first time. The picture doesn’t look like much, but since the moon is tiny (about the size of Texas) and orbits very close to Pluto, which itself is very far away from Earth, it’s the best picture to date.
  • Pluto’s two most recently-discovered moons have been named at last; they’re now officially Kerberos and Styx. The internet had overwhelmingly voted to name one of them Vulcan; NPR explains why that wasn’t a viable option (even if it was an awesome name).

Four billion years ago, Mars had an oxygen-rich atmosphere.

A 14th moon was discovered in orbit around Neptune. The moon was first photographed by Hubble in 2004 but was so small that no one noticed it until an astronomer from the SETI Institute decided to analyze some old photos.

There could be twice as many potentially habitable exoplanets in the universe as we previously estimated, up to 60 billion. Astronomers had thought that planets in extremely close orbits to stars would be too hot to support life as they would likely become tidally locked (where one side always faced the sun), but if those planets had enough liquid for clouds to form, that could cool the surface sufficiently. In other exoplanet news, we’ve detected the color of a planet outside out solar system for the first time. HD189733b is a blue gas giant; the coloration is likely due to glass that falls like rain through its atmosphere.

DNA found in Lake Vostok, which has been sealed beneath Antarctic ice for up to 15 million years, may belong to more than 3,500 species, mostly bacteria. Some of the bacteria are normally found in the digestive system of fish, leading to speculation that complex life could survive below the surface, though others are skeptical and claim that the samples are contaminated.

Two earthquakes measuring 5.9 and 5.6 on the Richter scale struck less than an hour and a half apart in Dingxi, China. At least 75 people are dead with about 400 more injured.

Fossil fuel news!

  • A new study confirms that fracking, specifically the wastewater disposal wells currently used, can cause reflex earthquakes in regions that aren’t usually prone to them. (Click through for a fantastic explanatory gif.)
  • There are some seriously fucked up oil spills going on in Alberta, Canada, right now.
  • natural gas rig in the Gulf of Mexico is burning after a rupture on Monday night. All 44 crewmembers were evacuated without injury, and plans are underway to drill a relief well to stop gas from escaping.

Scientists in the Netherlands have developed a new formula for concrete that can actually neutralize smog particles.

Why can’t species just adapt to deal with changing conditions due to global warming? Because a new study shows that the climate is changing 10,000 times faster than vertebrate evolution.

Dinosaur news!

  • A new species of horned dinosaur was found in Utah. Dubbed Nasutoceratops titusi, it lived 76 million years ago on what was then Laramidia, an island separated from the rest of North America by an inland sea.
  • A 16-foot-long hadrosaur tail was found in remarkable condition near the border town of General Cepeda in the Mexican state of Coahuila. Dinosaur tails are rarely found, yet this one had all 50 vertebrae intact.
  • Speaking of hadrosaur tails, a different fossil was found in South Dakota with a T-rex tooth embedded in it. Since the bone had grown around the tooth, we can tell that the T-rex had lost it in an attack on a live dinosaur that managed to escape, rather than while scavenging. Paleontologist John R. Hutchinson would like us to please drop the predator vs. scavenger narrative already; tyrannosaurs did both, just like pretty much every other carnivore ever.
  • Caterpillars didn’t cause the extinction of the dinosaurs, but the theory is pretty entertaining anyway.
  • Hepatitis B was infecting the ancient dino ancestors of birds as far back as 82 million years ago.

Orangutans spend far more time out of the trees and on the ground than we previously thought. Hopefully this will help them adapt to increasing deforestation in their habitat.

Many have speculated that whale and dolphin strandings may be related to the use of military sonar, and for the first time a study confirms that whales will abandon feeding and flee when they hear sonar.

The orcas of Antarctic waters may actually be a different species than those living farther north.

Following the death of thousands of bees in the parking lot of a Target in Oregon, another 37 million bees were found dead in Elmwood, Ontario.

When they hear the ultrasound signals emitted by bats to locate their prey, some tropical hawkmoths can create their ultrasound signals by rubbing their genitals against their abdomens. Researchers think this may in some way scare the bat away or jam the bat’s signal so that it can’t detect the moth.

Buttercup the duck was born with a deformed foot, so a bird sanctuary had a 3D-printed prosthetic developed for him.

Since Rachel Maddow was so excited about the first ever recorded drip of tar pitch, I’ll let her explain it to you. It is pretty awesome.

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Bless them, scientists from the National Weather Service and the NOAA’s National Severe Storms Laboratory actually issued statements on the plausibility of Sharknado. Verdict – not gonna happen, but just like any other tornado, the best way to protect yourself would be to take cover.

Two more people who received bone marrow transplants as a part of cancer treatment now appear to be HIV-free. It’s too soon to say if they’re definitively “cured,” since they could still have hidden repositories of the virus that could spread again. Another patient was declared HIV-free after a transplant from a donor with a rare mutation that causes resistance to the virus, but the most recent individuals received donations from ordinary individuals and continued their antiretroviral drugs during the transplant process and for several years following it. Unfortunately, bone marrow transplants have a 15% fatality rate, so they aren’t a viable option for most people.

Jenny McCarthy has been announced as the newest cohost of The View. Emily Willingham (and a lot of other people) wants her to publicly renounce her past claims that vaccines contain “toxins” that cause autism.

Are you a fan of a well-executed and completely nerdy put-down? You’re in luck! Bad Astronomy’s Phil Plait teamed up with Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal’s Zach Weinersmith and illustrator Jess Fink to write 27 Nerd Disses: A Significant Quantity of Disrespect. It’s available as a PDF download with a minimum donation of $1.

Finally, I can’t freaking wait for 2014! This is gonna be so awesome.

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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