This Weird Spider-Bot Could Soon Crawl on the Moon

By Hailey Rose McLaughlin | October 21, 2019 6:23 pm
The tiny rover only weighs a little over two pounds. (Credit: Spacebit)

The United Kingdom is sending a small, four-legged robot to the moon in 2021. The tiny rover, which looks like a cross between a spider and a children’s toy, will be the first moon rover for the U.K. It will also be the first rover with legs to walk on the moon.

Created by the private U.K.-based company, Spacebit, the tiny rover will fly on a United Launch Alliance Vulcan rocket, and be launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida. The rover will hitch a ride inside the Peregrine lander, created by U.S. company, Astrobotic. The lander will bring the small robot to our orbiting neighbor before releasing it off for its 10-day mission.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, top posts
MORE ABOUT: moon, spaceflight

Scientists Laid Out a Technological Roadmap for What They’ll Need to Write Synthetic Genomes From Scratch

By Alex Orlando | October 21, 2019 6:15 pm
An artist’s representation of big data applied to DNA. (Credit: Zita/Shutterstock)

At first, it was just Mendel and some pea plants. In the 150 years that followed, matching pairs of chromosomes were labeled, As, Ts Cs and Gs were coupled off and, ultimately, 3 billion base pairs were sequenced in the correct order. By the end of the decade-long global effort known as the Human Genome Project, the genetic blueprint of life was finally sketched out.

Now, a smattering of scientists are joining forces in pursuit of a similarly expansive, multidisciplinary goal: The ability to write and test whole genomes.

In a paper published in the journal Science last Thursday, a group of researchers outlined a technological roadmap toward a future where synthesizing entire genomes is as commonplace as DNA sequencing is today. The roadmap is part of an initiative called Genome Project-write, which is coordinating the efforts of scientists worldwide to synthesize the DNA of different organisms. And the authors say this ability to design entire genomes could completely transform the fields of medicine, agriculture, industry and more.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, top posts
MORE ABOUT: genetics

Scientists in the Amazon Have Recorded the World’s Loudest Bird. It Hits a Painful 125 Decibels

By Leslie Nemo | October 21, 2019 5:35 pm
The male white bellbird. (Credit: Anselmo d’Affonseca)

Visitors to the mountains of the northern Amazon can get unusually close to the white bellbird. Ornithologists have long suspected that this bird’s call is the loudest in the world, but a recent trek into the mountains and some careful measurements confirms that male White bellbirds do indeed have the loudest birdsong ever recorded. 

The observation, published Monday in the journal Current Biology, comes with some unanswered questions about the strange bird.

Most animals reserve their loudest calls for long-distance communication, says study co-author Jeff Podos, a bird vocalization researcher at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. But the male white bellbird blasts the louder of its two songs within 13 feet of females. As strange as the behavior is, it’s not too far-fetched a find in the Amazon. “If you’re going to see something weird going on in the bird world, you’re more likely to see it in the tropics,” Podos says

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MORE ABOUT: animals

This New Gene-Editing Tool Can ‘Search-and-Replace’ Genes Without Breaking DNA

By Alex Orlando | October 21, 2019 10:00 am
The popular gene-editing tool CRISPR works by cutting out genes. A new genetic tool instead works by searching for and replacing targeted genes, without breaking DNA. (Credit: Steven McDowell/Shutterstock)

Snip, snip. If you’ve been paying attention to the hubbub about gene editing, the first image that pops into your head might be of a pair of scissors. Today, when scientists use the popular gene-editing tool CRISPR, they’re essentially slicing through both strands of the iconic double helix with molecular shears before splicing in a new gene and allowing the cell to recover.

But the revolutionary CRISPR-Cas9 system has its limitations. These double-stranded breaks in DNA can create an uncontrolled, unwanted cocktail of insertions and deletions. And scientists think that they may actually disrupt how the edited gene functions. Beyond that, the approach isn’t that efficient at correcting most types of mutations — which can cause an array of genetic diseases — with precision.

CRISPR isn’t the only widely used method for genome editing, either. In 2016, researchers developed an approach called “base editing,” which directly converts one letter of DNA into another without hacking through the double helix. If the CRISPR approach is like using a pair of scissors, base editing is more comparable to using a pencil. Yet even it is incapable of making exact insertions or deletions, like those needed to correct the extra or missing DNA letters that give rise to Tay-Sachs disease or cystic fibrosis.

Now, researchers at Harvard University and MIT’s Broad Institute have developed a new approach that they say is more like a word processor’s “search-and-replace” tool. Scientists say the method, published Monday in Nature, is the first form of gene editing able to make insertions or deletions in human cells without breaking the double helix.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, top posts

Hubble Reveals New Evidence for Controversial Galaxies Without Dark Matter

By Jake Parks | October 21, 2019 8:00 am
This new and incredibly deep image from Hubble shows the dim and diffuse galaxy NGC 1052-DF4. New research presents the strongest evidence yet that this strange galaxy is basically devoid of dark matter. (Credit: NASA/ESA/STScI/S. Danieli et al.)

stronomers have all but confirmed the universe has at least one galaxy that’s woefully deficient in dark matter. The new finding not only indicates that galaxies really can exist without dark matter, but also raises fundamental questions about how such oddball galaxies form in the first place.

The research, posted October 16 on the preprint site arXiv, used Hubble’s keen eye to take new, deep images of the ghostly galaxy NGC 1052-DF4 (or DF4 for short). Equipped with fresh observations, the researchers identified the bizarre galaxy’s brightest red giant stars (called the Tip of the Red Giant Branch, or TRGB). Because TRGB stars all shine with the same true brightness when viewed in infrared, the only thing that should affect how bright they appear is their distance.

So, by identifying the galaxy’s TRGB and using that to determine DF4’s distance, the new data essentially confirms the galaxy is located some 61 million light-years away. And according to the researchers, this essentially debunks other studies that claim DF4 is much closer and therefore contains a normal amount of dark matter.

“I think this is definitive,” co-author Pieter van Dokkum of Yale University told Astronomy via email.

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MORE ABOUT: dark matter, galaxies

Supermassive Black Holes Are Stopping Star Formation in Tiny Galaxies

By Alison Klesman | October 18, 2019 4:59 pm
The dwarf irregular galaxy NGC 1569 is frantically forming stars. New research shows that some dwarf galaxies, however, have had their star formation halted by the supermassive black hole in their center. (Credit: HST/NASA/ESA)

Astronomers know that most galaxies house supermassive black holes in their centers, from the largest galaxies down to small dwarfs. They also know that when supermassive black holes are actively feeding, they can slow or even stop the formation of stars in their home. Although this relationship has been well established for large galaxies, it has not been studied much in dwarf galaxies. Now, researchers have discovered that black holes in dwarf galaxies are capable of shutting down star formation, just like their more massive counterparts.

The finding, published October 11 in The Astrophysical Journal, shows that winds of energetic gas and particles blasted out by supermassive black holes can stop star formation in dwarf galaxies.

It is the first time that black hole winds in dwarf galaxies have been studied in such detail, according to the team. And it’s an intriguing find, because astronomers didn’t expect such strong winds from the black holes in dwarf galaxies. They also didn’t expect those winds to stop, or quench, star formation galaxy-wide.

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MORE ABOUT: black holes, galaxies

Some Volcanoes Create Undersea Bubbles Up to a Quarter Mile Wide

By Meeri Kim | October 18, 2019 4:02 pm
Bogoslof Volcano
A plume of steam flows upward from Bogoslof volcano, a partially submerged volcano that created giant underwater bubbles when it erupted in 2017. (Credit: Dave Withrow, Alaska Volcano Observatory)

(Inside Science) — As a geophysicist at the Alaska Volcano Observatory, John Lyons spends much of his days trying to decipher the music of volcanic eruptions. Sensitive microphones scattered across the Aleutian Arc — a chain of over 80 volcanoes that sweeps westward from the Alaskan peninsula — eavesdrop on every explosion, tremor and burp. 

In 2017, the partially submerged volcano Bogoslof erupted, sending clouds of ash and water vapor as high as 7 miles above sea level and significantly disrupting air traffic in the area. Throughout the nine months that the volcano remained active, the observatory’s microphones picked up a strange, low-and-slow melody that repeated over 250 times. 

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, top posts
MORE ABOUT: oceans

Ancient Middle Eastern Astrologers Recorded the Oldest-Known Evidence of Auroras

By Erika K. Carlson | October 18, 2019 3:00 pm
(Credit: Y. Mitsuma’s tracing of the photographs of H. Hayakawa)

Astronomers have watched sunspots come and go on the sun’s surface for at least 400 years. But to learn about the history of the sun’s activity before the time of telescopes, they have to turn to historical references to phenomena linked to solar activity, like the northern lights. 

Now, a team of scientists have discovered what may be the oldest written records of auroras to date. These three Assyrian and Babylonian cuneiform tablets from about 680 to 650 B.C. seem to refer to auroras lighting up the skies. Chemical analysis of tree rings also show that there was likely a spike in solar activity around that time. This extends the known timespan of aurora records to about 2,700 years, as the team reported earlier this month in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

“Historical records of aurorae improve our understanding of the history of solar activity,” study author Hisashi Hayakawa said via email. He’s an astrophysicist at Osaka University in Japan and a visiting researcher at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in the U.K.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, top posts
MORE ABOUT: physics, stars

NASA Reveals New Spacesuits Designed to Fit Men and Women

By Hailey Rose McLaughlin | October 17, 2019 2:38 pm
These two new spacesuits will help the space agency put astronauts back on the surface of the Moon, enhance their mobility, and keep them safe along the way. (Credit: (NASA/Joel Kowsky)

NASA revealed two new spacesuits this week that may be worn by astronauts on future missions to the Moon. The suits feature a number of improvements from the Apollo era spacesuits used on the last Moon missions 50 years ago.

The two new suits were shown off by NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine during a demonstration at NASA headquarters. The suits, called xEMU and the Orion Survival Suit, will be a core part of the upcoming Artemis missions, as NASA prepares to return to the Moon by 2024.

“We are looking to do things in space that we have never been able to do before,” said Bridenstine.

The xEMU, which will be the spacesuit used on the surface of the Moon, looks much different from the Apollo era suits. To enhance mobility for astronauts on the Moon, the suit’s joint areas have been enhanced to allow astronauts to move with ease. Now, astronauts will be able to reach across their body and pick up objects off the ground, two basic functions they couldn’t do in the Apollo suits, or with the suits still used on the International Space Station (ISS).

The suit design will also eliminate the bunny-hopping motion that Apollo astronauts did to get around the Moon. This time, astronauts can have more of a walking motion with only a slight hop.

Besides the mobility, the spacesuits are designed to adapt a wide range of bodies as well, which has been a problem with current spacesuits. For example, an all-female spacewalk on the space station last May had to be cancelled because there was only one medium-sized suit, and the other spacesuits were too large. The new suits were designed with these concerns in mind.

The spacesuits will be modular, meaning they can be changed and adapted as technology changes throughout time. The suits can also be adapted in space by astronauts who may not have the suit engineering background, which means they will not have to go back to Earth to be enhanced.

The CO2 systems in the suit have also been upgraded from the Apollo era suits. Before, the life support system would have a chemical that would hold the CO2 released during the mission, but it could only hold so much. Now with the new suits, the CO2 is burned off and released into space as well as having the chemical holding component. That means an astronaut will be able to stay in the xEMU spacesuit on the lunar surface about eight hours.

There’s also a chance the suit will be tested on the International Space Station during a spacewalk, NASA said during the press briefing after the announcement. Three total xEMU suits will have to be designed, two for the Moon by 2024, and the one of the ISS. With the focus mainly on the Moon missions, there is a possibility the suit will not be tested on the ISS before the Artemis missions reach the Moon. There is a plan to use both the EMU suits, which are currently in use at the ISS and eventually the new xEMU suits in future spacewalks once there are more suits.

The other suits, the Orion suits, will be used solely during launches and return flights to Earth. These will be fully integrated with the launch vehicle as well as tailored to the astronaut inside the suit. On longer journeys, like traveling to Mars, the astronauts will be able to take the suits off once they reach orbit and store them until the flight home.

These suits will also act as a safe haven if there’s an emergency decompression. The astronauts can survive in the suit for six days if there is an issue with the compression on the spacecraft.

“This is in essence, when necessary, a spacecraft,” Bridenstine said.

In order to get the spacesuits ready for a potential Moon mission in 2024, the administration pulled the schedule forward to add room for error in the design process. The Artemis missions are expected to start in mid-2020 in order to reach the Moon within four years.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, top posts
MORE ABOUT: space exploration

From 440 to 25,000: One Humpback Whale Population’s Amazing Recovery

By Leslie Nemo | October 17, 2019 2:08 pm
Humpback Whales
Humpback whale populations have recovered since whaling was banned, some from near extinction. (Credit: Tomas Kotouc/Shutterstock)

In the late 1950s, only 440 humpback whales — or 1.6 percent of their onetime number — were swimming around the southwestern Atlantic Ocean. Thanks to whaling restrictions, these school bus-sized aquatic mammals have started to come back.

Now, a new paper estimates that the western South Atlantic whales have recovered even better than scientists previously thought. The massive cetaceans are 93 percent of the way to their pre-hunting population levels, the researchers say.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, top posts
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