If it’s Sunday, it must be time for this week in science. And of course, an open thread.
The Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) probe is being readied for launch on November 18, on an Atlas 5 rocket. Upon arriving at Mars (hopefully) in 10 months, it will assume a highly elliptical orbit, from 3800 miles down to 93 miles above the Martian surface, including five ‘dip’ maneuvers during its mission. These will go as low as 78 miles, and within the lower boundary of Mars’ upper atmosphere. At the risk of bringing up politics, it’s a good thing this launch is going forward; it had been endangered by the GOP government shutdown.
NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has found a genuine oddity in our solar system’s asteroid belt: An asteroid that appears to have six comet-like tails jetting in different directions. At first, astronomers weren’t sure why Asteroid P/2013 P5 has been doing this, as the tails don’t look like they were caused by impacts. The current theory is the asteroid is rotating fairly quickly and is in the process of breaking up.
Human Health News
Move over, X-Men. We’re all mutants. Dr. Scot Williams at Dartmouth University’s Geisel School of Medicine has found that people can have multiple DNA mutations in different parts of their bodies — with original, non-mutated DNA in others. And furthermore, the same mutation can happen to different people.
From the asteroid discovery time-lapse video by Scott ManleyHaving multiple genotypes from mutations within one’s own body is somewhat analogous to chimerism, a condition in which one person has cells inside his or her body that originated from another person (i.e., following an organ or blood donation; or sometimes a mother and child—or twins—exchange DNA during pregnancy. Also, occasionally a person finds out that, prior to birth, he or she had a twin who did not survive, whose genetic material is still contained within their own body). Chimerism has resulted in some famous DNA cases: one in which a mother had genetic testing that “proved” that she was unrelated to two of her three biological sons.
Researchers at the University of Arizona and University of Tübingen are developing a new artificial retinal implant, which could restore sight to people otherwise completely blind. Unlike the glasses I described in last week’s post, these new implants are ambitious to the point where they’re hoping “an implant patient (can) make out a bird flying across the sky.”
There’s a new Windows malware exploit making the rounds. Unlike the one I described in a post the other day, this is the more typical variety: Spread through email primarily, and it targets Windows systems running Microsoft Office. The exploit takes advantage of a flaw in the way TIFF graphics files are handled. You receive a booby-trapped Word doc, you click on it, and boom, infected. All versions of Windows are vulnerable if running Office 2003 or 2007. If running Office 2010, only Windows XP is vulnerable. As ever, the lessons are (1) Never, ever click on an unexpected or unknown file attachment; and (2) Use some form of up-to-date virus scanning software.
Researchers at Duke University have come up with a way to extract energy from thin air. No, this isn’t a rerun of one of my very first posts, the backscatter transmission device, but a whole new technology. Using a power-harvesting device comprised of ‘metamaterials’ — engineered structures comprised of fiberglass and copper conductors, they were able to convert microwaves into 7.3 volts of usable DC current. (Cell phones and other USB-type devices only need 5v.) One of their thoughts is cell phones could be redesigned to charge themselves using ambient WiFi signals, or even be able to function (even if minimally) using just the energy from nearby cell transmission towers.
Fun and Weird News
Music can make solar cells more efficient. Yes, you read that correctly. Researchers at the Imperial College London found that certain sound vibrations — especially the high pitched frequencies associated with rock or pop music — can increase solar cell output by as much as 40%. They think it may have something to do with the so-called “piezoelectic effect,” whereby certain substances under pressure or vibration can generate electricity.
A few more odds and ends
The 3D printing company announced it successfully 3D-printed a gun out of metal. Somehow, I think we all knew this was coming.
Researchers at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University believe they’ve solved the mystery as to why warm water freezes faster than cold.
Motorola has applied for a patent for an electronic skin tattoo capable of linking with a wireless communication device (i.e., cell phone), which would act like a microphone. Right… not creepy at all, sure.
And finally, this week’s video
Some of you may have seen it before, but it’s just cool: A time-lapse video showing the discovery of asteroids dating from 1980 up through 2011, as compiled by Scott Manley. For a detailed explanation as to what’s going on, you can check out the 2012 version of the video where he narrates what’s going on (the dude has a lovely Scottish burr, too – NOTE FROM JOHN: It’s Scottie! Well, younger hotter Scottie). Personally, I prefer the version from 2010, with the haunting soundtrack by Trifonic, “Transgenic” — from the album Emergence.
For this post though, I’ll include the version from 2011 with support for ultra-high definition and some other music (which I don’t recognize, but which is okay). In summary, the numbers in the lower left are (1) the year and (2) the known number of asteroids discovered as of that date. The white flashes are the asteroids as they’re discovered, the green ones considered ‘safe’, and the red ones are Earth orbit crossers.