"Old gas blob from Uranus found in vintage Voyager 2 data"

Yes, that is actually Space.com's brilliant headline on this story about a new discovery from data collected in 1986 by NASA's intrepid spacecraft. When the probe neared Uranus (heh heh), it measured the planet's surrounding magnetic field. Recently, NASA scientists Gina DiBraccio and Daniel Gershman analyzing Voyager's old data found a "wobble" in Uranus's magnetosphere indicating a plasmoid, a bubble of plasma traveling away from the planet. From Space.com:

Scientists have studied these structures at Earth and nearby planets, but never at Uranus or its neighbor Neptune, since Voyager 2 is the only spacecraft to date ever to visit those planets.

Scientists want to know about plasmoids because these structures can pull charged particles out of a planet's atmosphere and fling them into space. And if you change a planet's atmosphere, you change the planet itself.

And from the "plain language summary" of their scientific paper published in Geophysical Research Letters:

Uranus possesses an intrinsic magnetic field that encircles the planet and influences the local space environment. The solar wind plasma, made up of charged particles, flows away from the Sun and interacts with Uranus' magnetic field to form what is called a “planetary magnetosphere.” By understanding dynamics of the magnetosphere, we are able to learn how changes in the Sun can impact the planet's space environment but also how magnetic fields and plasma are circulated throughout the system. In this work, we analyze data from the Voyager 2 spacecraft during the Uranus flyby in 1986. The data revealed a helical bundle of magnetic flux containing planetary plasma, known as a “plasmoid,” in the tail of the magnetosphere.

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It's fun to watch tardigrades squirm around on Twitch, adorably

Watch Quick test! from atinyworld on www.twitch.tv

What the world needs now are tardigrades, sweet tardigrades.

'A tiny world' is a fun little internet window into the microscope with Julie Laurin, who lives in Ottowa, Ontario. Read the rest

Scientists: Drug hippos are... good?

Cocaine, as they say, is one hell of a drug. In fact, it was recently shown in a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science to have greatly helped the re-wilding a good chunk of Columbia.

How you might ask?

Pablo Escobar's hippos, which are still hanging around breeding in Columbia today, were bought with cash made from selling massive amounts of nose candy. Instead of simply shitting in the water and troubling anything that moves, they've been busy fulfilling the role of long-absent megafauna in Columbia's ecosystem.

From Gizmodo:

“While we found that some introduced herbivores are perfect ecological matches for extinct ones, in others cases the introduced species represents a mix of traits seen in extinct species,” study co-author John Rowan, a study co-author and biology researcher at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said in a statement.

Pablo’s hippos, for instance, are similar in diet and size to the now-extinct giant llamas that once roamed the area. They’re also similar in size and semiaquatic behavior to another extinct species, notoungulates, which have been gone for thousands of years. That allows them to fill two long-vacated roles in the Colombian ecosystem they were introduced to after Escobar died and they began to roam the countryside.

According to Gizmodo, it's not just hippos jazzing up local ecosystems where they don't belong. The study also looked at 72 other invasive species to see if their introduction to an ecosystem had been a boon or a blight. In 64% of the cases that the study examined, the introduced species showed the potential to fulfill the roles of long extinct animals in a given ecosystem that could have a effect on the ecosystem's overall health. Read the rest

Show your kids! Astronaut Serena Auñón-Chancellor reads inspiring children's book from space!

Astronaut and physician Serena Auñón-Chancellor spent almost 200 days aboard the International Space Station. Here she is in orbit reading the wonderful book Ada Twist Scientist by Andrea Beaty.

(Story Time From Space) Read the rest

The subreddit r/coronavirus is a pretty great COVID-19 news source with 1.2M+ members

About a million of the people who are members of the Reddit discussion group r/coronavirus joined in just the past week. The subreddit is getting some recognition now as a pretty reliably good source of community-moderated news and information about the COVID-19 pandemic. Read the rest

Japanese spacecraft fired cannonball into asteroid

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency's (JAXA) Hayabusa2 spacecraft fired a copper cannonball into Ryugu, an 850 meter-wide near-Earth asteroid. The 2 kilogram "Small Carry-on Impactor," a bit larger than a tennis ball, hit the asteroid at approximately 7,200 kilometers/hour and blew out a 14.5 meter wide crater with a depth of .6 meters. After a year of analysis, scientists have reported their analysis of the plume created by the impact and properties of the crater. From Space.com:

The number and size of craters that pockmark asteroids such as Ryugu can help scientists estimate the age and properties of asteroid surfaces. These analyses are based on models of how such craters form, and data from artificial impacts like that on Ryugu can help test those models...

Features of the artificial crater and the plume suggested that the growth of a crater was limited mostly by the asteroid's gravity and not by the strength of the space rock's surface. This, in turn, suggested that Ryugu has a relatively weak surface, one only about as strong as loose sand, which is consistent with recent findings that Ryugu is made of porous, fragile material.

These new findings suggest that Ryugu's surface is about 8.9 million years old, while other models suggested that the asteroid's surface might be up to about 158 million years old. All in all, while Ryugu is made of materials up to 4.6 billion years old, the asteroid might have coalesced from the remains of other broken-apart asteroids only about 10 million years ago, Arakawa said.

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Grad student proves one of Darwin's theories almost 140 years after his death

In On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin posited that animal lineages with more species should also have more sub-species, or "varieties" in Darwin's terminology. Now, nearly 140 years after Darwin's death, Laura van Holstein, a PhD student in Biological Anthropology at the University of Cambridge, and her colleagues have proven Darwin right. According to a University of Cambridge report, "her research could now be used to predict which species conservationists should focus on protecting to stop them becoming endangered or extinct":

A species is a group of animals that can interbreed freely amongst themselves. Some species contain subspecies – populations within a species that differ from each other by having different physical traits and their own breeding ranges. Northern giraffes have three subspecies that usually live in different locations to each other and red foxes have the most subspecies – 45 known varieties – spread all over the world. Humans have no subspecies.

van Holstein said: “We are standing on the shoulders of giants... My research investigating the relationship between species and the variety of subspecies proves that sub-species play a critical role in long-term evolutionary dynamics and in future evolution of species. And they always have, which is what Darwin suspected when he was defining what a species actually was.”

van Holstein’s research also proved that evolution happens differently in land mammals (terrestrial) and sea mammals and bats (non-terrestrial)­ because of differences in their habitats and differences in their ability to roam freely.

Here is the scientific paper: "Terrestrial habitats decouple the relationship between species and subspecies diversification in mammals" (The Royal Society)

image credit: Nordin Ćatić, University of Cambridge news release Read the rest

This is a great 'Flatten the Curve' video explainer on how to slow COVID-19 and coronavirus

A great video to help friends and family understand why these huge, early measures are necessary to stop the pandemic.

“So far our new video about how to #FlattenTheCurve for COVID-19 has been translated into 26 languages,” says Dr. Joe Hanson and the team behind the PBS science show “It's Okay To Be Smart.” Read the rest

Apollo 15 astronaut Al Worden, who circled moon, dies at 88

Twenty-four human beings have traveled from Earth to the moon. Fewer than half of them remain.

Astronaut Al Worden, who flew to the moon in 1971 as a member of the Apollo 15 crew, has died. The retired astronaut was 88.

Worden circled the moon alone on that mission, while his two crewmates test-drove the first lunar rover. Read the rest

Physicist Freeman Dyson's alien megastructure legacy

In 1960 during the early days of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson, who died last month, wrote an article titled "Search for Artificial Stellar Sources of Infrared Radiation" for the journal Science. He posited that "if extraterrestrial intelligent beings exist and have reached a high level of technical development, one by-product of their energy metabolism is likely to be the large-scale conversion of starlight into far-infrared radiation." One way to achieve that, he suggested, was by building an "artificial biosphere surrounding one star." And with that seed, the science fiction (science fact?) idea of an alien megastructure has grown, even making its way onto an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. From Elizabeth Howell's article in Space.com:

One of Dyson's daughters sent the physicist a videotape of a 1987 episode of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" called "Relics," Dyson said. The plot follows a distress call heard by the famous USS Enterprise starship; fans of the series may recall this as a crossover episode with "Star Trek: The Original Series" star Montgomery "Scotty" Scott (played by James Doohan).

The crew warps in space to the source of the call and discovers an immense Dyson sphere — which is indeed portrayed as a solid spherical object — surrounding a star. If we were to place this sphere in our own solar system, it would be so large that it would extend almost as far as the orbit of Venus, according to "Star Trek" fan site Memory Alpha.

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A neuroscientist's take on synthetic telepathy, electrified ESP, and mind control

Telepathy. ESP. The ability to communicate thoughts, feelings, or experiences without using our known sensory channels is a timeless superpower. Soon, advances in neuroscience, molecular biology, and computer science will make some kinds of synthetic telepathy possible. Meanwhile though, methods to treat brain disorders through magnetic stimulation of brain circuits could enable crude (or eventually not-so-crude) mind control. National Institutes of Health neuroscientist R. Douglas Fields -- author of Electric Brain: How the New Science of Brainwaves Reads Minds, Tells Us How We Learn, and Helps Us Change for the Better -- wrote a brief essay for Scientific American surveying the present, past, and possible future of this strange field. From Scientific American:

Neuroscientist Marcel Just and colleagues at Carnegie Mellon University are using fMRI brain imaging to decipher what a person is thinking. By using machine learning to analyze complex patterns of activity in a person’s brain when they think of a specific number or object, read a sentence, experience a particular emotion or learn a new type of information, the researchers can read minds and know the person’s specific thoughts and emotions. “Nothing is more private than a thought,” Just says, but that privacy is no longer sacrosanct....

...The prospect of “mind control” frightens many, and brain stimulation to modify behavior and treat mental illness has a sordid history. In the 1970s neuropsychologist Robert Heath at Tulane University inserted electrodes into a homosexual man’s brain to “cure” him of his homosexual nature by stimulating his brain’s pleasure center.

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The strange planet where it rains iron

On the planet Wasp-76b, it rains iron. Researchers from the University of Geneva (UNIGE) and colleagues observed the planet, 650 light years from Earth, using the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope in northern Chile. On the planet's "hot side" that faces it star, temperatures can be above 2,400°C. It's a good thing the residents of Wasp-76b carry tungsten umbrellas. From ESO:

“One could say that this planet gets rainy in the evening, except it rains iron,” says David Ehrenreich, a professor at the University of Geneva in Switzerland. He led a study, published today in the journal Nature, of this exotic exoplanet. Known as WASP-76b, it is located some 640 light-years away in the constellation of Pisces.

This strange phenomenon happens because the 'iron rain' planet only ever shows one face, its day side, to its parent star, its cooler night side remaining in perpetual darkness. Like the Moon on its orbit around the Earth, WASP-76b is ‘tidally locked’: it takes as long to rotate around its axis as it does to go around the star.

On its day side, it receives thousands of times more radiation from its parent star than the Earth does from the Sun. It’s so hot that molecules separate into atoms, and metals like iron evaporate into the atmosphere. The extreme temperature difference between the day and night sides results in vigorous winds that bring the iron vapour from the ultra-hot day side to the cooler night side, where temperatures decrease to around 1500 degrees Celsius.

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This tiny skull trapped in amber belongs to the smallest dinosaur ever discovered

The tiny skull, about the size of a thumbnail, trapped in amber may belong to the smallest dinosaur scientists have ever discovered. Paleontologist Lida Xing of the China University of Geosciences spotted the skull in a 99-million-year-old chunk of amber from northern Myanmar. From the New York Times:

[Xing, Chinese Academy of Sciences paleontologist Jingmai O’Connor, and their colleagues] called the bird Oculudentavis khaungraae — a name that comes from the Latin words for eye, teeth and bird. The dinosaur’s skull is only 14.25 millimeters, or a little more than half an inch, from its beak to the end of its skull. The animal had bulbous eyes that looked out from the sides of its head, rather than straight ahead like the eyes of an owl or a human.

“We were able to show that this skull is even smaller than that of a bee hummingbird, which is the smallest dinosaur of all time — also the smallest bird,” O’Connor said. “This is a tiny skull, and it’s just preserved absolutely pristinely"....

Most scientists now believe that birds are theropods, dinosaurs of a group that included tyrannosaurus and spinosaurus, but that birds were on their own evolutionary branch from a common ancestor. Paleontologists have long assumed that as birds evolved away from other dinosaurs, having teeth was a trait that was in the process of disappearing altogether. “But this specimen strongly shows that evolution’s really going in all different directions,” Dr. O’Connor said.

More at Nature: "Tiny bird fossil might be the world’s smallest dinosaur"

image: Lida Xing Read the rest

Delirium is real and a huge risk for aging patients

With unfortunate frequency, elderly patients go to the hospital for a surgery or other treatment and quickly become confused, bewildered, and sometimes agitated or totally disoriented. This is called delirium and while it apparently affects between 10 and 50 percent of patients over 65, it's only recently been studied in depth. Sharon K. Inouye, director of Harvard's Aging Brain Center, is leading the charge to understand delirium, its impact on patients' longterm cognitive faculties, and how to prevent it. From Scientific American:

[Delirium] is the phenomenon, sadly familiar to many families, of Grandpa never being quite the same after an operation...

The consequences of delirium, if it lasts more than a few days and especially if it is followed by cognitive decline, are enormous. “It’s a house of cards,” Inouye says. “Patients start getting treated with medications for agitation or disruptive behavior, and those medications lead to complications. Or they are very sedated, and that leads to complications.” Delirious patients may choke on their food or pills and die of aspiration pneumonia. They may wind up in bed for long periods and suffer fatal blood clots. Once up, they are prone to falling. It’s a downward spiral and a costly one. Delirium adds more than $183 billion a year to U.S. health care costs, outstripping congestive heart failure.

Fortunately, basic steps can be taken to prevent delirium or shorten its course, such as making sure the patient is well hydrated, has access to eyeglasses and hearing aids if he or she uses them, gets out of bed and walks as soon as possible, has adequate sleep, and is socially engaged by hospital staff and loved ones.

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NASA won't be able to talk to Voyager 2 for the next year

For the next year or so, the NASA Deep Space Network's 70-meter-wide (230-feet-wide) radio antenna in Canberra, Australia will have limited functionality is it undergoes critical upgrades. As a result, NASA won't be able to transmit commands 12 billion miles into space to the intrepid Voyager 2 space probe that recently recovered quite beautifully from a glitch. Both Voyager 1 and 2, launched in 1977, are currently hurtling through the interstellar space carrying scientific instruments and a Golden Record ready to be played by any extraterrestrials who might encounter the probes over the next few billion years. From NASA:

The repairs will benefit far more than Voyager 2, including future missions like the Mars 2020 rover and Moon to Mars exploration efforts. The network will play a critical role in ensuring communication and navigation support for both the precursor Moon and Mars missions and the crewed Artemis missions. "The maintenance is needed to support the missions that NASA is developing and launching in the future, as well as supporting the missions that are operating right now," said Suzanne Dodd, Voyager project manager and JPL Director for the Interplanetary Network.

The three Canberra 34-meter (111-foot) antennas can be configured to listen to Voyager 2's signal; they just won't be able to transmit commands. In the meantime, said Dodd, the Voyager team will put the spacecraft into a quiescent state, which will still allow it to send back science data during the 11-month downtime.

"We put the spacecraft back into a state where it will be just fine, assuming that everything goes normally with it during the time that the antenna is down," said Dodd.

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Freeman Dyson as remembered by Tim O'Reilly

Legendary physicist and mathematician Freeman Dyson, whose mind-blowing work ranged from quantum electrodynamics to nuclear engineering to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, died last week at 96-years-old. Tim O'Reilly just published a tribute to Dyson's genius, curiosity, kindness and unique lens on, well, everything. From O'Reilly Radar:

When I interviewed Freeman on stage at OSCON in 2004, along with his son George, the subject strayed to digital preservation. I lamented how much would be lost due to incompatible standards for information storage, and he said, “Oh no, forgetting is so important! It is what gives room for new ideas to come in.” This was such a typical Freeman moment: bringing a profoundly fresh perspective to any discussion. Perhaps the most famous example is the paper he wrote in 1949 at the age of 25 making the case that the visualizations of Richard Feynman were mathematically equivalent to the calculations of the more conventional physicists Julian Schwinger and Shin’ichirō Tomonaga, a paper that led to Feynman, Schwinger, and Tomonaga receiving the 1965 Nobel Prize in Physics for the theory of quantum electrodynamics...

After George sent an email to a group of friends about Freeman’s death, Danny Hillis replied with a story that seems to perfectly encapsulate this gift of Freeman’s for seeing things that others missed. “I visited him recently,” Danny wrote, “and we got into a conversation about self-organizing systems. After lunch we climbed up the long stairs to his office, and when we sat down he seemed a bit distracted.

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NASA's spectacular new 1.8 billion pixel panorama photo from Mars

Between November 24 and December 1, 2020, NASA's Curiosity rover captured the above image on the surface of Mars. The image contains nearly 1.8 billion pixels composed of more than 1,000 images. From NASA:

The rover's Mast Camera, or Mastcam, used its telephoto lens to produce the panorama and relied on its medium-angle lens to produce a lower-resolution panorama that includes the rover's deck and robotic arm.

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