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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  • Whitewitch

    That sounds very unsafe for the unicorns Becca…maybe we could put something/one mean in the flame duct…unicorns are so rare…hate to loose even one.

  • HelenRainier

    Thanks for all the space posts, Becca. This stuff has always fascinated even though I was a poor science student in school — which I credit to one extremely mean, unable to teach it teacher in 7th grade. Science shows are my favorites on cable — especially the ones dealing with physics, astronomy, etc.

  • emjayay

    And Florida is closer to the equator for an extra boost. On the other hand, the whole state should be disappearing under the Atlantic in a few decades.

  • http://adgitadiaries.com/ karmanot

    Absolutely love these Science posts Becca!

  • RepubAnon

    These days, Texas and Florida are still arguing over which state is more gun-friendly.

  • Monoceros Forth

    Huh. According to that source of all information, sulphur hexafluoride is a more potent greenhouse gas than perfluorotris(n-butyl)amine:

    According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, SF6 is the most potent greenhouse gas that it has evaluated, with a global warming potential of 23,900[18] times that of CO2 when compared over a 100-year period.

  • Monoceros Forth

    Glad to hear it :)

  • Hue-Man

    U of T finds something worse than C02: “A new greenhouse gas that is 7,000 times more powerful than carbon dioxide at warming the Earth has been discovered by researchers in Toronto.
    The newly discovered gas, perfluorotributylamine (PFTBA), has been in use by the electrical industry since the mid-20th century.
    The chemical, that does not occur naturally, breaks all records for potential impacts on the climate, said the researchers at the University of Toronto’s department of chemistry.” http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/dec/10/new-greenhouse-gas-powerful-chemical-perfluorotributylamine

    Since it’s summertime (in Antarctica), ozone news: “The hole in the ozone layer is stabilizing but will take until about 2070 to fully recover, according to new research by NASA scientists.” http://www.latimes.com/science/sciencenow/la-sci-sn-ozone-hole-recovery-nasa-20131212,0,2385709.story#axzz2nZfQ7baW

  • nicho
  • http://www.rebeccamorn.com/mind BeccaM

    Thanks Monoceros Forth. Hearing this kind of feedback keeps me doing the posts.

  • Monoceros Forth

    Always good to see Science Sunday stories.

    There have been some photographs and footage released of the Chang’e 3 landing, a few of which can be seen here: http://www.skyandtelescope.com/news/home/Change-3-Delivers-Rover-to-Lunar-Surface-235886501.html

    Here’s another bit of news: everyone’s favorite biotech company, Monsanto, has just acquired a company called Novozymes to produce “agricultural biologicals”, specially designed bacteria or fungi that are applied to soils or coated on seeds to confer some benefit upon the growing crops: http://cen.acs.org/articles/91/i50/Microbes-Power-Crop-Alliance.html This is a line of research I hadn’t known about before and I have to admit, some part of me likes the cleverness of the idea. It is far easier to insert and manipulate genes into microorganisms than it is into plants, so using such organisms in conjunction with seed plants can perhaps get you some of the advantages of genetic modification without having to modify the plants themselves. Looking for more information on this technology I was darkly amused to find this bit of bumf in Monsanto’s press materials advertising their “Responsibility and Sustainability”:

    Resistant weeds, such as Palmer Amaranth (also known as pigweed), deplete crops of vital resources like water, nutrients and sunlight, preventing them from thriving. Early testing indicates that an agricultural biological created with BioDirect Technology can be combined with Glyphosate to control Glyphosate-resistant Palmer Amaranth; enabling farmers to preserve yield in an environmentally sustainable way. This product concept has advanced to Phase 1 in Monsanto’s R&D process.

    This is an indirect admission that Monsanto’s method of developing crops that can be saturation-bombed with glyphosate has run into a predictable snag, the rise of glyphosate-resistant weeds.

  • ArthurH

    As for that faulty pump valve in the space station cooling system, I’m wondering why nobody thought of designing things so the system could be repaired from inside the station. For nearly 30 years they have been designing refrigerator, washing machines and air conditioners to be serviced through the front of the product so you don’t have to pull it away from the wall and maybe damage the floor. Surely some NASA contractor would of thought of designing the cooling system so you don’t have to go on an expensive space walk to repair it.

  • Indigo

    Texas definitely qualifies as a “wretched hive of scum and villainy” but Florida has unicorns!

  • Monoceros Forth

    We do get everywhere.

    I find myself thinking of the chapter from Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon in which Texas and Florida wage a war of words with each other for the privilege of hosting the Gun Club.

  • Indigo

    It’s great that Space-X is bringing a space transport program back to the Space Coast. Florida with all its flaws is also the best option for a galactic spaceport. In all the world, only the Cape Canaveral area has land, sea, air, and space transportation available in the same complex. It’s “a wretched hive of scum and villainy,” as Obi-Wan Kenobi once said of Mos Eisley, and that’s what makes it home! Oh, and by the way, I see unicorns!

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