Science & Technology


Astonishing images of Mercury captured by NASA's Messenger probe before it smashes into planet

© Reuters / NASA / Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory / Carnegie Institution of Washington / Handout
As Judgment Day approaches for NASA's Messenger probe, stunning new pictures have emerged of the planet it is set to crash into on Thursday: Mercury.

The incredible close-up shots show our solar system's smallest planet as never before.

The psychedelic appearance is explained by NASA overlaying the pictures from the spacecraft's Visual and Infrared Spectrometer (Virs) onto a black and white mosaic in order to accentuate features such as craters and volcanic vents.


Gecko-inspired robots can lift items 100 times their weight

© Screenshot from video
Tiny robots can climb kilometers of walls carrying objects over 100 times their own weight. They are to be presented by their creators, Stanford engineers at an international conference to take place in the US next month.

The secret of a series of the super-strong robots, created by mechanical engineers at Stanford University in California, is in their feet, the design of which was inspired by geckos - or rather their well-known climbing skills, New Scientist reported.

Eye 2

The rocks are watching you: US Police departments using 'spy rocks'

An article on an annual border security expo for the so-called US "border-industrial complex" over at the London Guardian starts off by featuring spy rocks.

Yes. Exactly as it sounds.

Spy rocks.

Fake rocks with tiny cameras inside.

If it sounds like a lame episode of Inspector Gadget, that's because it is like that, only this is real life, modern day Surveillance State USA.

Comment: It's finally gotten to the point where we have no privacy anywhere, even in our own homes. Wonder why the elites are so scared that they feel the necessity of watching ALL of us ALL of the time? Maybe they know that something BIG is about to happen that may finally push the masses to actually do something to overcome their captive state.


Beyond genes: Are centrioles carriers of biological information?

© Pierre Gönczy/EPFL
An electron micrograph of a centriole.
Centrioles are barrel-shaped structures inside cells, made up of multiple proteins. They are currently the focus of much research, since mutations in the proteins that make them up can cause a broad range of diseases, including developmental abnormalities, respiratory conditions, male sterility and cancer. Publishing in Cell Research, EPFL scientists show that the original centrioles of a fertilized egg, which only come from the father, persist across tens of cell divisions in the developing embryo. The surprising finding raises the possibility that centrioles may actually be carriers of information, with profound implications for biology and disease treatment.

Perhaps best known for their role in cell division, centrioles ensure that chromosomes are properly passed on to the new daughter cells. However, they are also found in cilia, the long eyelash-like structures that allow many cells in the body to signal to their neighbors and other cells to exhibit motility, e.g. in cells that line the respiratory tracts. During reproduction, both parents equally contribute genetic material, while the female egg donates most of the cell organelles, such as mitochondria. However, the centrioles of the newly fertilized embryo come exclusively from the male's sperm, bringing with them any malfunctions to the first embryo cells.


Mergers of galaxy clusters drive new star formation and rebirth of comatose galaxies

© Andra Stroe
A radio image highlighting the shock wave (seen here as the bright arc running from bottom left to top right) in the 'Sausage' merging cluster, made using the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope. The shock wave was generated 1 billion years ago, when the two original clusters collided, and is moving at a very high speed of 9 million kilometres per hour.
Galaxies are often found in clusters, which contain many 'red and dead' members that stopped forming stars in the distant past. Now an international team of astronomers, led by Andra Stroe of Leiden Observatory and David Sobral of Leiden and the University of Lisbon, have discovered that these comatose galaxies can sometimes come back to life. If clusters of galaxies merge, a huge shock wave can drive the birth of a new generation of stars -- the sleeping galaxies get a new lease of life. The scientists publish their work on 24 April in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Galaxy clusters are like cities, where thousands of galaxies can be packed together, at least in comparison to the sparsely-populated space around them. Over billions of years, they build up structure in the universe -- merging with adjacent clusters, like growing cities absorb nearby towns. When this happens, there is a huge release of energy as the clusters collide. The resulting shock wave travels through the cluster like a tsunami, but until now there was no evidence that the galaxies themselves were affected very much.


Liquid mercury could lead to royal tomb in Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent

© Reuters / INAH / Files / Handout via Reuters
Tunnel that may lead to a royal tombs discovered underneath the Quetzalcoatl temple in the ancient city of Teotihuacan.
An archaeologist has made the startling discovery of liquid mercury beneath an ancient pyramid in Mexico, which predates the Aztecs. This could mean the presence of a royal tomb right below one of the most cryptic cities in the Americas.

Local researcher Sergio Gomez announced the discovery on Friday of "large quantities" of the element underneath the Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent - the third largest in the ancient ruined city of Teotihuacan, which is shrouded in mystery and was once one of the largest in the hemisphere.

"It's something that completely surprised us," he told Reuters, standing at the entrance to the ancient pyramid, located about 30 miles (50 km) northeast of Mexico City.


Leading seismologist: California's 'Big One' could trigger super cycle of destructive quakes


A major earthquake - the Big One - is statistically almost certain in California in the coming decades, and there is even worse news below the ground: it is likely to be followed by a series of similar-sized temblors, according to a leading seismologist.

The current relatively quiet seismic period - in which "far less" energy is being released in earthquakes than it is being stored from tectonic plate motions "cannot last forever," said University of Southern California earth sciences professor James Dolan while delivering a new paper during the Seismological Society of America conference in Pasadena.

"At some point, we will need to start releasing all of this pent-up energy stored in the rocks in a series of large earthquakes," Dolan stressed.

The earthquake could spark a "super cycle," meaning "a flurry of other Big Ones, as stresses related to the original San Andreas fault earthquake are redistributed on other faults throughout Southern California," he said.

Comment: Given the amount of tectonic and volcanic activity we've been seeing in the region of the ring fire recently, it may not be decades before we see something absolutely catastrophic occur in California and the surrounding area.

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Human embryos modified in controversial first

© Dr. Yorgos Nikas/SPL
Human embryos are at the centre of a debate over the ethics of gene editing.
Scientists have genetically modified a human embryo for the first time. Junjiu Huang, a gene-function researcher at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, China, confirmed that his team has modified the gene responsible for a potentially fatal blood disorder in non-viable embryos — ones that cannot result in a live birth.

They reported their work, which up until now was merely a rumor, in this week's online journal Protein & Cell.

The results will no doubt reignite an already highly contentious debate between those who think editing the genome of a human before it's born could prevent genetic disease and those who believe the unpredictable effects could be devastating to humankind.

Huang's team used a technique well known in genetic science called CRISPR/Cas9. Essentially, scientists inject an embryo with an enzyme of the same name that can be programmed to bind and splice DNA at a specific gene location.

During the process, another molecule is introduced to that location to repair genetic damage.

Until now, no one has reported trying this technique on a human embryo.


Asteroid skimmed by Earth on Tuesday

It came close. 2015 HD1 passed just 0.2 lunar distances away (45,600 miles or 73,400 km).
© The Virtual Telescope Project
The Virtual Telescope Project acquired this image on Monday evening, April 20, 2015.
On Tuesday morning according to U.S. clocks - at approximately 3 a.m. CDT, or 8 UTC - a small and very faint asteroid passed just 0.2 lunar distances or 45,600 miles (73,400 km) above Earth's surface. That's about twice as far as geostationary satellites. The Mt. Lemmon Survey, based in Tucson, Arizona, first saw this asteroid three days ago, on April 18.

The asteroid was expected to reach climb briefly to magnitude +13.2 - much too faint to see with the eye alone. The Virtual Telescope Project viewed the asteroid last night and provided the image above. Read their report.

Comment: See also:


Significant portion of Deepwater Horizon oil transported to sea floor via marine snow

© Sean Gardner/Reuters
Where did the oil go?
After the accident on the Deepwater Horizon platform five year ago in the Gulf of Mexico, an estimated 210 million gallons of oil leaked at a depth of about 1,500 meters for 87 days. This spill was unusual, not only because of the duration and quantity of oil spilled, but because it was also the first oil spill at such great depths.

Where did the oil go? Initially the oil floated upward toward the sea surface. Crude oil consists of many different chemical components, each with different properties. Some of the components of the released oil formed a deep plume at around 1,000 meters of water depth, whereas another fraction continued its upward path until it reached the surface to form an oil carpet.

About 25% of the oil was recovered or removed by skimming and burning directly at the sea surface. Some of the oil evaporated and some was rapidly consumed by bacteria. But a large fraction dissipated, dissolved, or dispersed, naturally or due to the application of dispersants - chemicals that break down the oil into small droplets. These components of the oil remained in the water, even if concentrations were too low to measure reliably.

My research has focused on how oil and dispersants interacted with natural organisms in the water. My experiments suggest that a significant portion of the oil spilled from the well has been carried to the seafloor by marine particles and organisms, a finding that can help guide cleanup efforts in future spills.

Comment: The oil may have disappeared, but the devastating effects of the Deepwater Horizon spill continue to linger even after five years: