The Earthiest planets in the universe (that we know of)

Last week, Rob told you how scientists announced that they'd found two Earth-like planets orbiting the star Kepler-62. One of those, Kepler-62e, now ranks as the most Earth-like exoplanet we've ever found. Of course, all of this is relative.

What I like about this chart is that it kind of shows you how "Earth-like" doesn't really mean, "Man, that is totally exactly like Earth." Instead, you should translate it more as, "Welp, this is about the closest to Earth that we've found so far." Even Kepler-62e, as you can see, is much larger than the Earth and Mars. And size matters when it comes to actual habitability. As does density — and we don't know what Kepler-62e is made of yet. It's also worth noting that #2 on this list, the infamous Gleise 581g, is really a planet candidate, rather than a planet. We aren't actually certain it exists, just yet.

Popular Science has a neat little breakdown explaining what life might be like on Kepler-62e, if we could go there. But it's worth keeping the context in mind on these Earth-like planets. Don't pack your bags just yet.

Scientists discover life in Antarctica

“It appears that there lies a large wetland ecosystem under Antarctica’s ice sheet, with an active microbiology.” — There's some really exciting news coming from the land at the bottom of the world.

Spam email reveals the existence of ancient, giant furry armadillo things

Zigong Dinosaurs World Science & Technology Co.,Ltd. makes, as you can probably guess from the name, animatronic dinosaurs. Which, for some reason, they attempt to sell via spam email marketing. We at BoingBoing have gotten spam like this before, from other manufacturers in the surprisingly robust Chinese animatronic dinosaur industry. What made this particular email stand out to me, though, was the above picture, of an animatronic Glyptodont covered in fur.

Now, I'd seen Glyptodonts before, but the reconstructions that I remember came across more as giant armadillos, as opposed to the huge beaver with a shell on its back that you see here. So I contacted Brian Switek, my favorite dinosaur blogger, to ask him which image of the Glyptodont is the correct one.

His response: They both are.

Read the rest

In a neglected fossil: A vegetarian with bite

This is an artists' rendition of Pegomastax africanus, a 200-million-year-old dinosaur that is the subject of a new peer-reviewed research paper out this week in the journal ZooKeys.

It's a great face, and a fascinating species. Couple of things here that I think are worth highlighting:

First, despite the fang-y teeth Pegomastax africanus is sporting, the scientists who wrote the paper think this animal was actually a vegetarian. Or, at least, mostly a vegetarian. At LiveScience.com, the researchers told journalist Charles Q. Choi that the dinosaur had a parrot-like beak, its fangs weren't positioned well for cutting through meat, and its back teeth look like the kind of chompers plant-eaters use to slice through leaves and roughage. All of which suggest Pegomastax africanus ate more seeds, nuts, and fruit than flank steak.

The other cool thing has to do with when Pegomastax africanus was found. While the paper describing the fossil was published online today, the fossil itself was pulled out of the ground in the 1960s. In fact, the paper's main author — paleontologist Paul C. Sereno — first noticed the neglected fossil in 1983, and only recently got around to examining it more closely. Think of it this way, a successful dig might come out with lots of potentially cool rocks and fossils. The fact is that there are often more artifacts than there is time for one team to closely work with all the artifacts. The researchers who did the digging will focus on the ones that are most interesting to them. The rest get catalogued. Maybe the original researchers come back to them; maybe they don't. Maybe somebody else picks up the catalogued fossils; maybe it takes 50 years for that happen. But what this reminds us is that there are cool things waiting to be discovered in storage ... not just in the ground.

Read the full paper, which puts Pegomastax africanus into context as a member of a family of dinosaurs called heterodontosaurids.

Is Voyager I outside our solar system?

Probably not yet. But it's on the cusp. And part of what makes this entire process really, really interesting is that, by the very nature of this whole experiment, we don't know exactly what will happen when Voyager I does cross that imaginary boundary line. But, as Rebecca Rosen explains on The Atlantic, we do have some pretty good theories.

Some cosmic ray particles enter the heliosphere and we can see them here from Earth. But a slower type has a hard time entering the heliosphere. Last month, the sum of those slower particles, suddenly ticked up about 10 percent, "the fastest increase we've seen," Stone says. But an uptick does not mean Voyager has crossed over, though it does mean we're getting close. When Voyager does finally leave and enter the space "out there where all the particles are," the level will stop rising. The rising itself means that Voyager is not out there, yet. "But," cautions Stone, "we don't know. I mean this is the first time any spacecraft has been there." Since nothing's ever been there before, we don't know what it will look like, which makes it a little hard to recognize "it" at all. "That's the exciting thing," he continues.

This is the most exciting kind of science—the sort where we really don't know the answers and we're on the cusp of learning something truly, wonderously new. Stay tuned.

Read Rebecca Rosen's full article at The Atlantic

Space Shuttle Discovery's final landing (video)

As Rob noted earlier today, Space Shuttle Discovery piggybacked in flight this morning to its final resting place, at the National Air and Space Museum's Udvar-Hazy Center. Here is video of the shuttle arriving in Washington, DC.

Space reporter Miles O'Brien was at Kennedy Space Center this morning for the final departure.

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An easier-to-build solar cell

Solar cells are not easy to build, but a new technology from Notre Dame could, someday, change that. It involves a nanoparticle paste made from t-butanol, water, cadmium sulfide and titanium dioxide. Here, you watch the process of constructing a solar cell this way and see why it could be easier and cheaper than current options. The downside: These solar cells won't be coming to a neighborhood near you anytime soon. They're in the early stages of research and are still only 1% efficient at converting solar energy to electricity. (Standard solar cells tend to be closer to 25% efficient.)

Video Link

Forget love, biological sex is a battlefield

Gender isn’t a simple thing. A person can be male, female, both, neither, and more—and that identity doesn’t have to have anything to do with the particular genital plumbing they were born with.

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First study of mummy DNA leads to all sorts of discoveries

kingtutdna.jpg

King Tut—plus 10 other royal mummies—recently became the first ancient Egyptians to get their DNA analyzed. The results, published this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association, turned up a treasure trove of new information about the famous boy king, his family and Egyptian royalty in general. Among the discoveries:

  • Tut had a bone disorder that would have forced him to walk with a cane, and which may have been a result of royal inbreeding.
  • A mummy known as KV55 has turned out to be Tut's father, Akhenaten, a controversial pharaoh best known for his failed attempt at converting Egypt to monotheism. Based on sculptures and art that depict a feminized Akhenaten, researchers had long suspected that he suffered from a genetic hormone disorder called gynecomastia. But the DNA evidence says otherwise. Instead, Akhenaten's feminine features are likely to have been an artistic conceit, added for symbolic, religious reasons.
  • Other previously unidentified mummies are now known to be Tut's grandfather, grandmother and mother.
  • Contrary to speculation, Tut's mother probably wasn't his father's chief wife, Nefertiti. She and Akhenaten are never described as being related, and Tut is definitely the product of brother/sister incest.
  • King Tut had malaria. He likely died from a combination of that disease and complications of his bone disorder. The malarial DNA found in Tut's body is the oldest genetic evidence of the disease ever found.

National Geographic News: King Tut was disabled, malarial and inbred

Image courtesy Flickr user jparise, via CC