Science Sunday Roundup and Open Thread

Time once again, friends, for our regular installment of Science Sunday, with a particular heavy dose of NASA news this week.

First up, space news, heavy on the NASA

NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has seen water vapor over Europa’s southern polar region, suggesting strong evidence of water plumes bursting through the frozen, icy surface.

NASA’s Curiosity rover on Mars has dated mudstone rock to between 3.86 and 4.56 billion years old — which confirmed roughly what had been estimated from Earthside measurements based on crater-counting techniques. (In my opinion, this is doubly cool because mudstone is what you think it is: Sedimentary deposits, further proving Mars once had abundant water.)

Pad 39a flame trench, via NASA. Unicorns via Shutterstock.

Pad 39a flame trench, via NASA. Unicorns via Shutterstock.

NASA has picked SpaceX to be the exclusive tenant for the mothballed man-rated Launch Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center, in large part because Elon Musk’s company — through multiple successful launches of its Falcon series of rockets — has proven they need the pad sooner rather than later. Blue Origin, the startup founded by Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com, and the aerospace/defense company group United Launch Alliance, protested the selection, saying they wanted a multi-tenant option for the launch pad. To which Musk replied:

“[Blue Origin] has not yet succeeded in creating a reliable suborbital spacecraft, despite spending over 10 years in development,” Musk wrote. “If they do somehow show up in the next  5 years with a vehicle qualified to NASA’s human rating standards that can dock with the Space Station, which is what Pad 39A is meant to do, we will gladly accommodate their needs. Frankly, I think we are more likely to discover unicorns dancing in the flame duct.

NASA is continuing to evaluate the coolant system shutdown on the International Space Station, which may be due to a faulty valve in a pump outside the station. If so, repairs may require a spacewalk. Despite the somewhat alarmist reporting in some media outlets, while serious, this is not a catastrophic situation. The station actually has two independent cooling systems, the other of which remains operational.

Artist's depiction of China's Chang'e lander and Yutu mini-rover (photo: Beijing Institute of Spacecraft System Engineering)

Artist’s depiction of China’s Chang’e lander and Yutu mini-rover (photo: Beijing Institute of Spacecraft System Engineering)

China’s Chang’e 3 lander has successfully touched down on the moon, the first soft landing on Earth’s satellite since 1976 when the Soviet Union landed a probe there, the Luna 24 sample-return mission. NASA’s last landing on the moon was Apollo 17, in 1972.

The age and origins of Saturn’s rings has long been debated. I remember in my own elementary school science classes being told that it was possible they were only a few million years old and might disappear within a few hundred thousand years. Well, it turns out they’ve been around a very long time. NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has been providing a wealth of data — and researchers now think the rings formed around the same time Saturn did, about 4.4 billion years ago.

Earth News

Heavy fog inundates London. Nothing really special or unusual about this, it just made for a cool photograph, as shown by the London Metropolitan Police.

London buried in fog (Photo: Metropolitan Police)

London buried in fog (Photo: Metropolitan Police)

Chimpanzees will choose rational decisions over social pressure. Chimps were trained separately in different sized groups with vending machines that gave peanuts in exchange for inserted wooden balls. When put together, the minority continued to use their preferred machine, even though both machines gave the same number of peanuts (one, to be exact). When the minority’s machine was boosted to give five peanuts for each wooden ball, the group would gradually shift to using the more profitable one.

Kilimanjaro’s glaciers — which existed for an estimated 10,000 years — will probably disappear completely by the year 2030. The latest estimate comes from the American Geophysical Union.

Weird News

How did Harrison Okene manage to survive at the bottom of the ocean in a tiny air pocket for nearly three days? It turns out he was very, very lucky in the overturned tugboat– plus chemistry and physics was involved. First of all, due to the depth, it was estimated that the actual amount of air was compressed in volume by a factor of four, due to the depth. Secondly, the sea water in which Mr. Okene was splashing around managed to absorb the CO2 that would’ve otherwise killed him.

It is possible that some forms of obesity may be caused by upper respiratory viruses or by certain types of microbes in our guts.

Lithopedion, also known as a 'stone baby' (photo: Otis Historical Archives National Museum of Health and Medicine, Creative Commons license)

Lithopedion, also known as a ‘stone baby’ (photo: Otis Historical Archives National Museum of Health and Medicine, Creative Commons license)

82-year-old woman discovers her stomach pain is a 40-year-old “stone baby” fetus. An elderly Colombian woman was complaining of stomach pains, and when doctors operated, they found a large calcified mass in her stomach, which turned out to be a dead fetus. The condition is known as lithopedion, and can happen if a fetus develops outside the womb. The body’s reaction, if it does not absorb the tissue, is to encapsulate it in calcium. This has been estimated to happen in roughly one in 11,000 pregnancies.

And today’s video: Earth and the Moon, as seen by NASA’s Juno spacecraft, as it used a maneuver known as a gravitational slingshot to accelerate on its way to Jupiter. It’s expected to arrive on the 4th of July, 2016


Published professional writer and poet, Becca had a three decade career in technical writing and consulting before selling off most of her possessions in 2006 to go live at an ashram in India for 3 years. She loves literature (especially science fiction), technology and science, progressive politics, cool electronic gadgets, and perfecting Hatch green chile recipes. Fortunately for this last, Becca and her wife currently live in New Mexico. @BeccaMorn

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