In January 2004, the Mars rover Opportunity, along with its brother Spirit, landed on the Red Planet. Eight months later we were wowed by their longevity, as both the machines had crawled long past their expected 90-day lifetimes. This year Spirit got intractably stuck in the sand and NASA announced that its days of wandering were finally at an end. But not Opportunity: The less mechanically troubled of the twins, Opportunity continues to rove the surface of Mars, and this week it passed the duration record for time on Mars set by NASA’s Viking 1 lander when it died in 1982. As of today, Opportunity has been operating on Mars for six years and 118 days.
By this March, Opportunity had driven more than 12 miles on the surface of Mars (on the far side of the planet from Spirit). But even a plucky rover needs breaks, especially now when the light level doesn’t allow constant driving. This image shows Opportunity’s tracks on a journey from one well-lit spot to the next, where it could recharge. However, the light level is increasing where the rover is located, so soon it should be able to take longer drives.
Click through for some more of Opportunity’s best images.
For lovers of stellar beauty, the Herschel space telescope may have already earned its keep. Just one year after its launch, researchers from the European Space Agency have released this stunning image of a massive star being born in a vast bubble of cold dust.
Herschel’s far-infrared detectors are finely attuned to stellar nurseries. When a star begins to form, the dust and gas surrounding it heats up to a few tens of degrees above absolute zero, and it begins to emit far-infrared wavelengths. In the galactic bubble shown, known as RCW 120, the newborn star is the white blob at the bottom of the bubble.
The “baby” star is perhaps a few tens of thousands of years old. It is some eight to 10 times the mass of our Sun but is surrounded by about 200 times as much material. If more of that gas and dust continues to fall in on the star, the object has the potential to become one of the Milky Way Galaxy’s true giants [BBC].
Giant stars pose a particular challenge to our understanding of star formation, researchers say. Present theories suggest that stars that are larger than about 10 solar masses shouldn’t exist, because their fierce radiation should blast away the clouds that feed them materials to grow on. Yet astronomers have spotted stars that have 120 times the mass of our Sun.
Click through the gallery for a couple more amazing shots from Herschel.
A flying frog that changes colors, a stick insect that’s a foot and a half long, and a “ninja slug” that shoots “love darts.” These are among the 120 new species discovered or described over the past three years on the lush island of Borneo–the Southeast Asia island divided between Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei.
On Earth Day, the conservation group WWF released a report on some of the recent discoveries in a 54-million-acre nature preserve known as the Heart of Borneo. WWF ecologist Adam Tomasek says that on an average, three new species were found every month.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Slugs?
This colorful green and yellow slug species, named Ibycus rachelae, was discovered atop high mountains in the Malaysian section of Borneo. The slug has a tail three times the length of its head, and it wraps the tail around itself when it is resting. From the Ariophantidae family, this unusual species makes use of so-called ‘love darts’ in courtship. Made of calcium carbonate, the love dart is harpoon-like which pierces and injects a hormone into a mate, and may play a role in increasing the chances of reproduction [Guardian].
Image: Peter Koomen / WWF
On this Earth Day, NASA’s focused on the sun. It just released the first images from the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), launched in February to study our star in breathtaking detail at a rate of 60 images per minute. The new pictures include the evolution of this loop. Known as a prominence eruption, the loop was born from a relatively cold cloud of plasma, or charged gas, tenuously tethered to the sun’s surface by magnetic forces. Such clouds can erupt dramatically when they break free of the sun’s unstable hold [National Geographic].
Scroll through the gallery for a few more blazing wonders.
Kaleidoscopic. Delightfully odd. And too numerous to truly grasp.
There are many more words one could deploy to describe the worlds unknown under the sea. An international group of scientists has been scouring them for life for the last decade, and later this year, on October 4, the Census of Marine Life will release it catalog of marine inhabitants. “The number could be astonishingly large, perhaps a million or more, if all small animals and protists are included,” the organization says.
Octopuses, jellyfish, and other sprawling sea creatures dominated the census’ prior reports. But this time they’ve dived even deeper, surveying tiny life. Remotely operated deep-sea vehicles discovered that roundworms dominate the deepest, darkest abyss. Sometimes, more than 500,000 can exist in just over a square yard of soft clay [AP].
And then there are the microbes. The scientists conservatively estimate that there must be at least 20 million kinds of microbe in the oceans. The true number may even be billions or trillions [Nature]. Individual microbes reach even more astronomical number. There are probably a nonillion of them in the sea, the scientists estimate. That’s a billion cubed, and then times 1,000. Or, if you prefer your measurements given in the weight of African elephants, it’d be 240 billion of them.
Take a peek through this quick slideshow of some of the weirdest ocean life seen so far.
Image: David Patterson et. al.
Life: Ain’t it grand?
That seems to have been the starting point for the new nature documentary series LIFE, which spotlights some of the planet’s most gloriously unusual critters. The series, which airs on Sunday evenings on the Discovery Channel, presents animals that belong in the evolution hall of fame. Many have developed remarkable tricks to survive in inhospitable environments, while others have developed fascinating mating rituals that ensure that the fittest individuals pass on their genes, generation after generation.
Click through the gallery for some of our favorite hall-of-famers from the show.
A Restless Trail-Runner
Size does matter, especially for the tiny rufous sengi, an “elephant shrew” whose small size and constant movement makes it hungry—all the time! But movement in a forest full of predators is dangerous, so the sengi devised a clever method to forage for food.
The tiny mammal constructs a series of neatly cleared trails between its regular feeding spots and memorizes their details. Then it launches itself on a trail patrol at breakneck speed, stopping only to check for tasty insects and to clear the trail of any debris. A single twig can be fatal, so the sengi spends up to 40 percent of its time running the trails and clearing away obstacles.
Scotland is getting ready to capitalize on something the country has plenty of: fierce, stormy waves.
About 750,000 Scottish homes expect to be powered by ocean technology by 2020, as the Scottish Government announced that 10 wave and tide power schemes capable of generating up to 1.2GW in total would be built around the Orkney islands and on the Pentland Firth on the northern coast of the Scottish mainland [Guardian]. The 10 projects will comprise the world’s first commercial-scale wave and tidal power scheme. With this project, Scotland plans to produce the same amount of clean energy as a small nuclear power station, and hopes to start on a path to becoming the “Saudi Arabia of marine energy.”
Some of the strongest tidal currents in the world race around UK shores and there’s some of the highest energy in the waves that roll in from the Atlantic. And while wave power is, to an extent, dependent on the weather, tidal power has the tremendous advantage of being totally predictable [Channel 4].
It will cost about $7.6 billion in total to install and maintain the structures used to generate power from the strong waves and tides, and to transmit the energy back to land. The bulk of the work will be done by three major power firms: E.ON, Scottish and Southern Energy (SSE) Renewables, which already operates the UK’s largest hydro schemes, and Scottish Power Renewables, a heavy investor in windfarms, in joint ventures with four of the UK’s leading marine energy firms [Guardian].
Click through the photo gallery to see the wave and tidal devices that will soon get their try-outs in the cold, turbulent waters off the Scottish coast.
Image: flickr / jack_spellingbacon
Dinosaurs and explosives—science stories don’t get much cooler than this.
Researchers in Utah have excavated two complete and two partial skulls of a dino called Abydosaurus mcintoshi, a 105-million-year-old sauropod, which the scientists think might have descended from the brachiosaurus family. “It is amazing. You can hold the skull in your hands and look into the eyes of something that lived a very long time ago” [USA Today], says paleontologist Brooks Britt, co-author of the study that appeared in the journal Naturwissenschaften.
Click through the photo gallery for more pictures from the dig, and for the whole story.
Image: Brigham Young University
After more than six years of exploring the Red Planet, the Mars rover Spirit will rove no more. The robotic adventurer is mired in a sand bed, and NASA has officially given up on trying to extricate it.
While it will continue to operate as a “stationary research platform” for the time being, there’s no denying that the rover’s swashbuckling days are over. No longer will Spirit spot an interesting landmark in the distance and gamely trek towards it, with the possibility of a fresh scientific discovery around every corner and under every rock. This photo gallery is a well-deserved eulogy for Spirit, in which we’ll survey its travels and achievements.
In 2003, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory launched Spirit and its twin rover, Opportunity, on a three-month mission to investigate Martian terrain and atmosphere on opposite sides of the planet. The solar-powered rovers surpassed NASA’s wildest dreams, extending their missions by nearly 25 times their anticipated lengths.
Since landing on Mars in January 2004, Spirit has snapped more than 127,000 pictures. The robot probed beneath the worn surface of Mars, analyzing the microstructure of rocks and soil with a sophisticated array of instruments: spectrometers, microscopic imagers, and other tools. Spirit has also gathered strong evidence that water once flowed on the Martian surface, which could have created a hospitable environment for microbial life.
Spirit and its twin rover (which is still traveling on) will be replaced by more advanced machines that will roll onto the Martian soil in the coming decades. But Spirit will be remembered long after its operating system flickers off for good. Like a robotic Neil Armstrong, the rover has earned its place in the space explorers’ hall of heroes.
All text by Aline Reynolds. Image: NASA/JPL/Cornell
On January 7, 1610, Galileo Galilei pointed his “spyglass” to the heavens and stared up at Jupiter, one of the brightest lights in the evening sky, and noted what he at first assumed to be three bright stars near the planet. But over the following nights, he realized that those three bright bodies weren’t fixed in the heavens like stars, but rather seemed to dance around Jupiter along with a fourth, smaller body.
Galileo triumphantly announced his discovery of four “planets” that revolved around Jupiter in his March treatise, Starry Messenger [pdf]. Thinking of his pocketbook, he dutifully proposed naming them the Medicean Stars in honor of his patron, Cosimo de Medici. But the name didn’t stick, and today we honor the scientist rather than the patron by calling Jupiter’s four largest satellites the Galilean moons.
The discovery dealt a death blow to the Ptolemaic understanding of the universe, in which all planets and stars were believed to orbit the Earth. For, as Galileo wrote in his treatise, “our own eyes show us four stars which wander around Jupiter as does the moon around the earth.”
In the 400 years that have passed since Galileo first laid eyes on them, we’ve learned a great deal about the moons Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto (all named after the mythological paramours of Jupiter). If all goes according to plan we’ll soon get to know them much more intimately–NASA and the European Space Agency are currently planning missions to closely observe three of the moons. Click though this gallery to view NASA’s most stunning photos of the four satellites, and to find out what we’ve discovered in the four centuries since Galileo began the work.
(For more on Galileo’s discovery and what it meant to science, check out this post from DISCOVER’s Phil Plait.)