Inside an Ant Royal Rumble

By Carl Engelking | May 27, 2016 11:21 am
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Indian jumping ants form a “police ball” around a feisty subordinate (somewhere in the middle). (Credit: Clint Penick)

A months-long Indian jumping ant Battle Royale is almost as brutal as the process to elect members of Congress. But after the dust settles in the ant colony and on the campaign trail, the hierarchies that emerge are, in a loose sense, similar.

When an Indian jumping ant (Harpegnathos saltator) colony’s queen dies, her distinctive I’m-having-babies pheromones stop circulating, and workers, alerted by the absence of her familiar scent, gather at the center of the colony and form a circle around the larvae and pupae. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts

In Memory of the Spirit Rover

By Korey Haynes | May 26, 2016 3:04 pm
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The Spirit rover explored the Red Planet for more than five years, well past its original mission lifetime. (Credit: NASA)

Five years ago, NASA officially ceased recovery efforts for the Spirit rover. They didn’t give up without a fight. The rover had been silent since March of 2010, more than a year earlier, and stationary since 2009, when it drove into a patch of soft martian soil.

With Spirit’s twin rover, Opportunity, driving merrily along to this day (though not without signs of aging), it’s tempting, in hindsight, to consider Spirit the disappointing sibling. Certainly it’s difficult not to dream about the wealth of images and data Spirit might have returned had it not become mired in a soft patch of martian soil.

But we would be ungrateful not to look back on what was still a spectacular science mission lifetime for Spirit. Let’s re-live some highlights.

Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, Top Posts

Mental Health Alerts via Facebook?

By Dani-Elle Dube | May 23, 2016 1:26 pm
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(Credit: Gil C/Shutterstock)

Every day, 730,000 comments and 420 billion statuses are posted on Facebook, 500 billion 140-character tweets are posted and 430,000 hours of new video is uploaded to YouTube.

The Internet is a goldmine of data just waiting to be analyzed.

Ever since social media crept deeper and deeper into our daily lives, governments and advertisers have been utilizing this data for myriad purposes. Now, a team of researchers at the University of Ottawa, University of Alberta and the Université de Montpellier in France is examining ways to use social media data to detect and monitor people who are potentially at risk of mental health issues. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: mental health

The Doomsday Clock in Fiction and Reality

By David Warmflash | May 18, 2016 7:00 am
the doomsday clock is set at three minutes before midnight.

(Credit: Bank Artist/Shutterstock)

A nuclear-armed Pakistani aircraft crashes just over the Indian border and the situation is about to spiral out of control. In Washington D.C., nuclear physicists and geopolitical analysts belonging to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists are meeting to decide whether to advance the “Doomsday Clock” ahead by two minutes.

The Doomsday Clock is a symbolic representation of the level danger on planet Earth, and moving it ahead two minutes would take it to two minutes before midnight — two minutes before the end. This fictional scenario played out on a recent episode of Madam Secretary, but the Clock has been used as a snapshot of the dangers we face for well over five decades. But how do the hands on the Clock tick?  Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Technology, Top Posts

The First Moon Base Will Be Printed

By Morgan Saletta, University of Melbourne | May 17, 2016 1:59 pm
3-D printers building a moon base from materials harvested from the lunar surface.

3D Printers would scoop material from the lunar surface into bins and spit it out as building material. (Credit: Contour Crafting)

Planetary Resources, a company hoping to make asteroid mining into a trillion dollar industry, earlier this year unveiled the world’s first 3D printed object made from bits of an asteroid.

3D printing, and additive manufacturing processes more generally, have made many advances in recent years. Just a few years ago, most 3D printing was only used for building prototypes, which would then go on to be manufactured via conventional processes. But it’s now increasingly being used for manufacturing in its own right.

Nearly two years ago, NASA even sent a 3D printer to the International Space Station with the goal of testing how the technology works in micro-gravity. While the printer resembles a Star Trek replicator, it’s not quite that sophisticated yet; the objects it can print are small prototypes for testing.

The 3D printer used in the ISS. (Credit: Made In Space)

But 3D printed objects don’t have to be small. Entire houses have now been 3D printed, including out of renewable resources such as clay and earth.

And visionary architect Enrico Dini, a pioneer of 3D construction featured in the film The Man Who Prints Houses, isn’t thinking small, confessing:

What I really want to do is to use the machine to complete the Sagrada Familia. And to build on the moon.

Above and Beyond

NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA) and entrepreneurs aiming to jump-start human colonization of space see the 3D printing of large scale objects, including entire habitations, as a major enabling technology for the future of space exploration.

In 2013, a project led by the ESA used simulated lunar regolith – i.e. loose top soil – to produce a 1.5-ton hollow cell building block. It was conceived as part of a dome shelter for a lunar base that would also incorporate an inflatable interior structure. The project used a D-Shape printer using Enrico Dini’s company, Monolite.

The 1.5-ton building block produced as a demonstration. (Credit: ESA)

Since 2011, NASA has been funding similar research led by Professor Behrokh Khoshnevies at the University of Southern California. His team has been using a technology called contour crafting, which also has the goal of using 3D printing to construct entire space habitations from in situ resources.

After testing 3D printing in space, NASA has decided the technology is close to a tipping point. As part of a new program of public/private partnerships aimed at pushing emerging space capabilities over these tipping points, NASA has awarded a major contract to the Archinaut project.

Multi-dome lunar base being constructed, based on the 3D printing concept. Once assembled, the inflated domes are covered with a layer of 3D-printed lunar regolith by robots to help protect the occupants against space radiation and micrometeoroids. (Credit: ESA)

The project will see a 3D printer, built by Made in Space, mated with a robotic arm, built by Oceaneering Space Systems, with Northrup Grumman providing the control software and integration with the ISS systems.

The goal of the project is to provide an on-orbit demonstration of large, complex structure – in this case a boom for a satellite – sometime in 2018.

Archinaut is a technology platform that enables autonomous manufacture and assembly of spacecraft systems on orbit. (Credit: Made In Space)

Down to Earth

But 3D manufacturing is already changing the aerospace industry. Composites, for example, have become a commonly used material for a wide variety of applications.

But composites tend to suffer weakness between their laminating layers, which can lead to material failures in crucial components. 3D weaving, which deploys fibers on three axes, is set to revolutionize these materials and their performances.

Indeed, NASA is now using 3D woven quartz fiber compression pads for its Orion Space Vehicle and exploring the technology for use in other thermal protection surfaces.

But the ability to use in situ materials, both for fuel, water and construction whether on the moon, Mars, or asteroids has long been recognized as a crucial ability to enable human exploration of the solar system.

Contests such as last the 3D Printed Habitat Challenge, part of NASA’s Centennial Challenges, are an important element of an innovation strategy designed to push the envelope of technology, leveraging entrepreneurial spirit, scientific and technological know-how and design thinking in a bid to take human space exploration to the next level.

Mars Ice House cross section. (Credit: Space Exploration Architecture and Clouds AO)

The winning design, announced at the New York Makers Faire in September, was the Mars Ice House.

The Mars Ice House Habitat, which would be printed out of ice from relatively abundant water on Mars’ northern hemisphere, is a far cry from the bunker-like spaces frequently envisioned for Mars bases. The ice would provide ample radiation protection while creating a radiant, light filled space reminiscent of a cathedral.

Space exploration has always been associated with visionary fiction and grandiose plans, and it looks like 3D manufacturing and construction may finally bring the printed word to life.

 

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, Technology, Top Posts

If There’s Life on Mars, How Should We Treat It?

By Kelly Smith, Clemson University | May 12, 2016 11:19 am
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NASA’s Curiosity rover captured this image of the Kimberley formation on Mars. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

NASA’s chief scientist recently announced that “…we’re going to have strong indications of life beyond Earth within a decade, and I think we’re going to have definitive evidence within 20 to 30 years.” Such a discovery would clearly rank as one of the most important in human history and immediately open up a series of complex social and moral questions. One of the most profound concerns is about the moral status of extraterrestrial life forms. Since humanities scholars are only just now beginning to think critically about these kinds of post-contact questions, naïve positions are common.

Take Martian life: we don’t know if there is life on Mars, but if it exists, it’s almost certainly microbial and clinging to a precarious existence in subsurface aquifers. It may or may not represent an independent origin – life could have emerged first on Mars and been exported to Earth. But whatever its exact status, the prospect of life on Mars has tempted some scientists to venture out onto moral limbs. Of particular interest is a position I label “Mariomania.”

Should We Quarantine Mars?

Mariomania can be traced back to Carl Sagan, who famously proclaimed

If there is life on Mars, I believe we should do nothing with Mars. Mars then belongs to the Martians, even if the Martians are only microbes.

Chris McKay, one of NASA’s foremost Mars experts, goes even further to argue that we have an obligation to actively assist Martian life, so that it does not only survives, but flourishes:

…Martian life has rights. It has the right to continue its existence even if its extinction would benefit the biota of Earth. Furthermore, its rights confer upon us the obligation to assist it in obtaining global diversity and stability.

To many people, this position seems noble because it calls for human sacrifice in the service of a moral ideal. But in reality, the Mariomaniac position is far too sweeping to be defensible on either practical or moral grounds.

Streaks down Martian mountains are evidence of liquid water running downhill – and hint at the possibility of life on the planet. (Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona)

A Moral Hierarchy: Earthlings before Martians?

Suppose in the future we find that:

  1. There is (only) microbial life on Mars.
  2. We have long studied this life, answering our most pressing scientific questions.
  3. It has become feasible to intervene on Mars in some way (for instance, by terraforming or strip mining) that would significantly harm or even destroy the microbes, but would also be of major benefit to humanity.

Mariomaniacs would no doubt rally in opposition to any such intervention under their “Mars for the Martians” banners. From a purely practical point of view, this probably means that we should not explore Mars at all, since it is not possible to do so without a real risk of contamination.

Beyond practicality, a theoretical argument can be made that opposition to intervention might itself be immoral:

  • Humans beings have an especially high (if not necessarily unique) moral value and thus we have an unambiguous obligation to serve human interests.
  • It is unclear if Martian microbes have moral value at all (at least independent of their usefulness to people). Even if they do, it’s certainly much less than that of human beings.
  • Interventions on Mars could be of enormous benefit to humankind (for instance, creating a “second Earth”).
  • Therefore: we should of course seek compromise where possible, but to the extent that we are forced to choose whose interests to maximize, we are morally obliged to err on the side of humans.

Obviously, there are a great many subtleties I don’t consider here. For example, many ethicists question whether human beings always have higher moral value than other life forms. Animal rights activists argue that we should accord real moral value to other animals because, like human beings, they possess morally relevant characteristics (for instance, the ability to feel pleasure and pain). But very few thoughtful commentators would conclude that, if we are forced to choose between saving an animal and saving a human, we should flip a coin.

Simplistic claims of moral equality are another example of overgeneralizing a moral principle for rhetorical effect. Whatever one thinks about animal rights, the idea that the moral status of humans should trump that of microbes is about as close to a slam dunk as it gets in moral theory.

On the other hand, we need to be careful since my argument merely establishes that there can be excellent moral reasons for overriding the “interests” of Martian microbes in some circumstances. There will always be those who want to use this kind of reasoning to justify all manner of human-serving but immoral actions. The argument I outline does not establish that anyone should be allowed to do anything they want to Mars for any reason. At the very least, Martian microbes would be of immense value to human beings: for example, as an object of scientific study. Thus, we should enforce a strong precautionary principle in our initial dealings with Mars (as a recent debate over planetary protection policies illustrates).

For Every Complex Question, There’s a Simple, Incorrect Answer

Mariomania seems to be the latest example of the idea, common among undergraduates in their first ethics class, that morality is all about establishing highly general rules that admit no exception. But such naïve versions of moral ideals don’t long survive contact with the real world.

By way of example, take the “Prime Directive” from TV’s “Star Trek”:

…no Star Fleet personnel may interfere with the normal and healthy development of alien life and culture…Star Fleet personnel may not violate this Prime Directive, even to save their lives and/or their ship…This directive takes precedence over any and all other considerations, and carries with it the highest moral obligation.

Hollywood’s version of moral obligation can be a starting point for our real-world ethical discussion.

As every good trekkie knows, Federation crew members talk about the importance of obeying the prime directive almost as often as they violate it. Here, art reflects reality, since it’s simply not possible to make a one-size-fits-all rule that identifies the right course of action in every morally complex situation. As a result, Federation crews are constantly forced to choose between unpalatable options. On the one hand, they can obey the directive even when it leads to clearly immoral consequences, as when the Enterprise refuses to cure a plague devastating a planet. On the other hand, they can generate ad hoc reasons to ignore the rule, as when Captain Kirk decides that destroying a supercomputer running an alien society doesn’t violate the spirit of the directive.

Of course, we shouldn’t take Hollywood as a perfect guide to policy. The Prime Directive is merely a familiar example of the universal tension between highly general moral ideals and real-world applications. We will increasingly see the kinds of problems such tension creates in real life as technology opens up vistas beyond Earth for exploration and exploitation. If we insist on declaring unrealistic moral ideals in our guiding documents, we should not be surprised when decision makers are forced to find ways around them. For example, the U.S. Congress’ recent move to allow asteroid mining can be seen as flying in the face of the “collective good of mankind” ideals expressed in the Outer Space Treaty signed by all space-faring nations.

The solution is to do the hard work of formulating the right principles, at the right level of generality, before circumstances render moral debate irrelevant. This requires grappling with the complex trade-offs and hard choices in an intellectually honest fashion, while refusing the temptation to put forward soothing but impractical moral platitudes. We must therefore foster thoughtful exchanges among people with very different conceptions of the moral good in order to find common ground. It’s time for that conversation to begin in earnest.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: Mars

Extreme Fossil Hunters Dig the Dirt in Antarctica

By Nathaniel Scharping | May 11, 2016 10:12 am
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A view of the researchers camp on Vega Island from on high. (Credit: Antarctic Peninsula Paleontology Project)

A recent expedition to Antarctica has returned with a cache of fossils and data gathered over the course of almost two months of work on the frozen continent.

Before you ask what they found, however, let’s get to the real question: What were they even doing there in the first place? Hunting for fossils in the most inaccessible and inhospitable continent on the planet, where over 99 percent of the ground is covered in solid ice,  seems like a tall order, verging on an exercise in masochism. Antarctica may be possessed of bone-chilling winds and desolate tundras, but it also hides a trove of fossils from one of the most intriguing epochs of life on earth.

The Antarctic Peninsula Paleontology Project, or AP3 for short, is a diverse team of paleontologists and geologists, along with a large support staff, that has made three trips to Antarctica over the past seven years to prospect, explore and collect data. Their latest trip, which lasted from February 2 to March 24, was the longest and largest to date and built on their work from previous expeditions. This year, they returned with a wealth of fossils — still to be studied — that likely represent several new species and further illuminate one of the more mysterious moments in Earth’s history.

Although the paleontological rewards are big in Antarctica, every day tests researchers’ patience and grit in a new way.

Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts

Lessons from ‘Living Cadavers’

By Ben Thomas | May 10, 2016 3:01 pm
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(Credit: Photographee.eu/Shutterstock)

The dead, the headlines read, might soon be brought back to life.

As pop-science headlines tend to, they blew the actual research proposal out of proportion, but the premise is real: The ReAnima Project recently received “ethical permission” from the government of India to take 20 patients who’ve been declared clinically brain dead, and try to restore a limited range of brain functions using cutting-edge neuroscience techniques.

When we get past the knee-jerk references to zombies and Dr. Frankenstein, though, we’re left with the question of what this research is really about. Can scientists actually bring brain-dead patients back to life? Has anyone tried it before? And what does it mean, exactly, to resurrect a brain dead person? Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Top Posts

The Myth of the Virgin Rainforest

By Karen Coates | May 6, 2016 10:23 am
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The modest village of Bario in the Kelabit Highlands hosts a school that offers surrounding communities educational opportunities—and brings them into contact with forces that threaten to radically alter their culture. (Credit: Samantha Elsie Jones)

(This post originally appeared in the online anthropology magazine SAPIENS. Follow @SAPIENS_org on Twitter to discover more of their work.) 

The little village of Pa Lungan sits in a grassy clearing, high in the hills of Malaysian Borneo, in a region called the Kelabit Highlands. The people here—a few dozen—belong to the Kelabit tribe, one of more than 50 Indigenous groups living on Asia’s largest island. They have sturdy wooden homes with slat glass windows, metal roofs, kitchen sinks, and TVs. Generators and solar panels power a few lightbulbs, laptops, and mobile phones (typically used to play music and games). Most households have a kitchen garden, an outdoor toilet, a cold-water shower, and a laundry line. A patchwork of coops and fences keeps chickens and buffalo in check. Just beyond these homes and yards lie rice fields fed by mountain waters and hemmed in by trees. It’s a tidy, orderly life in Pa Lungan—and it’s an easy walk to some of the most biologically diverse rainforests on Earth. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: forest

Kicking Stones, Bathroom Breaks Yield Fossils in the Desert

By Jon Tennant | May 4, 2016 12:37 pm
Linheraptor skull

A Linheraptor skull. (Courtesy Michael Pittman)

In the vast emptiness of the Gobi Desert, the days are long and weary, and the searing sun does little to boost the spirit, even with the prospect of discovering new dinosaur species on the horizon.

Exhaustion and sunstroke are a hard-working paleontologist’s enemies out there, and staying well-hydrated is of utmost importance. Thus, an enemy to the paleontologist’s productivity emerges: frequent “relief” breaks out in the wilderness. But sometimes a diversion from the task at hand leads down the road to discovery.

During one such “relief” break in 2008, Michael Pittman and his international team of fossil hunters made the history books while prospecting in the region of Bayan Mandahu in Inner Mongolia, China. Pittman is the current head of the Vertebrate Paleontology Laboratory at the University of Hong Kong, and has spent years scouring the Gobi for fossils. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: paleontology
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