Science & Technology

Comet 2

Comet fragments best explanation of mysterious dimming star?

© NASA/JPL-Caltech
This illustration shows a star behind a shattered comet. Observations of the star KIC 8462852 by NASA's Kepler and Spitzer space telescopes suggest that its unusual light signals are likely from dusty comet fragments, which blocked the light of the star as they passed in front of it in 2011 and 2013. The comets are thought to be traveling around the star in a very long, eccentric orbit.
Astronomers have responded to the buzz about a mysterious dimming star by studying data from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. They conclude the dimming was probably caused by a family of comets passing in front of the star.

Was it a catastrophic collision in the star's asteroid belt? A giant impact that disrupted a nearby planet? A dusty cloud of rock and debris? A family of comets breaking apart? Or was it alien megastructures built to harvest the star's energy?

Just what caused the mysterious dimming of star KIC 8462852?

Massimo Marengo, an Iowa State University associate professor of physics and astronomy, wondered when he saw all the buzz about the mysterious star found by citizen scientists on the Planet Hunters website.

Those citizen scientists were highlighting measurements of star brightness recorded by NASA's Kepler spacecraft. Tiny dips in a star's brightness can indicate a planet is passing in front of the star. That's how Kepler astronomers -- and citizen scientists using the internet to help analyze the light curves of stars -- are looking for planets.


3D-bioprinted thyroid gland implant pioneered by Russians proves functional in mice

© Ruptly
A Moscow laboratory has conducted the first successful organ translation using a unique Russian 3D-printing technology. The breakthrough could potentially help millions suffering from thyroid disorders - and paves the way for printing other human organs.

The thyroid, a butterfly-shaped gland in the neck, can have a dramatic impact on a huge variety of human bodily functions. The groundbreaking operation, thus far only in rodents, was performed by a team from the 3D Bioprinting Solutions Laboratory in the Russian capital some three months ago.

"Then we were monitoring them over eight weeks and the level of the hormone continued growing," said Elena Bulanova, 3D Bioprinting Solutions Laboratory Head.

The thyroid glands in mice were first killed by a radioactive iodine injection, before the research team transplanted newly-printed organs into their subjects.Three weeks into the experiment, the team, headed by Vladimir Mironov, observed "higher" levels of the hormone T4, which is responsible for growth and the metabolism, and measured higher body temperatures, Bulanova said.After 11 weeks of monitoring the subjects' 3D printed thyroid glands, they were fully functional with completely restored thyroid function.

"All in all we consider experiment to be successfully conducted because we managed to raise the level of hormone T4," Bulanova said.


Indestructible tardigrade (water bear) found to have foreign DNA

© Eye of Science
Tardigrade in Moss
Tardigrades, already made of indestructible win, have shown up again in the scientific weirdness Hall of Fame this week, thanks to a new study that sequenced the first tardigrade genome and found that 17.5% of it came from other species. Otherwise known as water bears, tardigrades are actually a large group of related species which have a key trait in common: They're impossible to kill. Tardigrades are the only species ever observed to survive outside Earth's sheltering atmosphere. Now scientists are speculating that horizontal gene transfer, the phenomenon identified by a team of researchers at UNC as the reason for the unprecedented proportion of foreign DNA discovered in the tardigrade genome, may also be responsible for some of the tardigrade's famous durability.

Comment: See also:
  • Tiny water bears become first creatures to survive in space [link]
  • Study documents new rare creatures in Smokies [link]
  • Horizontal gene transfer [link]


NASA study: Antarctic temperatures cooled over past six years

Heimdal Glacier southern Greenland, from NASA's Falcon 20 aircraft at 33,000 feet above sea level.
ANTARCTIC temperatures have cooled over the past six years, according to US space agency NASA

An intensive scientific study of both Earth's poles has found that from 2009 to 2016 overall temperature has dropped in the southern polar region.

NASA's Operation IceBridge is an airborne survey of polar ice and has finalised two overlapping research campaigns at both the poles. In the last few weeks NASA has revealed the overall amount of ice has increased at the Antarctic and the amount of sea ice has also extended. Coupled with the latest announcement of slight cooling in the area, it has fuelled claims from climate change deniers that human industrialisation is not having the huge impact on global tenperature as often is claimed.

Christopher Shuman, a University of Maryland, Baltimore County glaciologist working at Goddard, said: "Field data suggests that there's been a modest cooling in the area over the 2009 - 2015 time period, and images collected during that time by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer on the Terra and Aqua satellites show more persistent fast ice (sea ice that is attached to the shore) in the Larsen A and Larsen B embayments"

However, Mr Shuman warned that in some areas of the Antarctic, glaciers continued to melt at significant levels, despite the slight temperature drop. At the south polio, the mission observed a big drop in the height of two glaciers situated in the Antarctic Peninsula. Mr Shuman added: "These IceBridge measurements show that once the ice shelves collapse, even some cooling and a good deal of persistent sea ice is not able to hold back these larger glaciers and they continue to lose mass overall."

Comment: See also:


Researchers create lamps powered by plants and bacteria to help Peruvian communities

A lamp powered by microorganisms in dirt.
Researchers in Peru have a new way to capture electricity from plants and bacteria to help rainforest communities.

Researchers at the Universidad de Ingeniería y Tecnología (UTEC) have developed a technique for capturing the electricity emitted from plants. Actually, to be fair, it's Geobacter— a genus of bacteria that live in the soil — that do the grunt work. Robby Berman at Slate explains the process:
"[N]utrients in plants encounter microorganisms called 'geobacters' in the dirt, and that process releases electrons that electrodes in the dirt can capture. A grid of these electrodes can transfer the electrons into a standard battery."

Comment: See also: New technology being developed to create energy from living plants


Study finds wild birds willing to forego reliable food sources to stay with their partners

© taviphoto/Shutterstock
Research shows mating pairs of great tits would rather stay together and be a little hungrier than dine alone.
Wild birds are love birds. A recent study found great tits pairs were willing to forego reliable food sources in order to stay together.

Using a unique bird feeding experiment, researchers at the University of Oxford revealed the great tits' commitment to love. Scientists designed feeders to only allow access to birds tagged with the matching radio frequency transmitter.

Some great tit pairs were tagged so mates were unable to access from from the same feeder. One bird would have access to only certain feeders, while the other would have access to others -- no overlap.

Compared to pairs allowed to feed at the same feeder, separated pairs spend less time feeding. Presumably, they couldn't bear to be apart.

Of course, this isn't simply sentimentalism, but an evolved form of self-preservation and species perpetuation. Birds need each other to survive and reproduce.



"Resurrection plants" might lead to drought-tolerant crops

Jill Farrant, a professor of molecular and cell biology at the University of Cape Town, hopes that unlocking the genetic codes of drought-tolerant plants could help farmers toiling in increasingly hot and dry conditions
As the race to adapt to climate change quickens, a South African scientist is leading global research into developing crops that mimic the extraordinary survival skills of "resurrection plants".

Jill Farrant, a professor of molecular and cell biology at the University of Cape Town, hopes that unlocking the genetic codes of drought-tolerant plants could help farmers toiling in increasingly hot and dry conditions.

With more than 130 known varieties in the world, resurrection plants are a unique group of flora that can survive extreme water shortages for years.

During a drought, the plant acts like a seed, becoming so dry it appears dead.

But when the skies finally open and the rain pours down, the shrivelled plant bursts "back to life", turning green and robust in just a few hours.

Solar Flares

VW and the Paris climate summit: Crass crony corporate capitalistic capitulation

© Unknown
Winston Churchill famously defined an appeaser as someone who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last. In the debate about global warming, business, especially large corporations, is the largest sector of appeasers and some, like Volkswagen, are now, rightfully, paying the price.

Churchill was talking about Neville Chamberlain's appeasement with Adolf Hitler. In a classic example of the claim that fact is stranger than fiction, it was Adolf Hitler who sketched the design for the first Volkswagen (Figure1).


Study shows Europeans developed ability to tolerate milk thousands of years later

© Getty Images
Without a key mutation, the enzyme that enables us to digest lactose becomes deactivated after weaning.
The ability for adult Europeans to drink milk was inherited from Russian herders just 4,000 years ago, a genetic study has shown.

The findings come from the largest ancient DNA study of its kind published in the journal Nature.

"Everyone assumed it came to Europe with the first farmers," co-author Dr Bastien Llamas, from the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA at the University of Adelaide, said.

"But you actually had a 4,500-year period when European farmers could not actually drink milk."

The study of DNA from 230 Eurasians who lived between 6500 BC and 300 BC showed that Russian herders from the Great Steppes brought the enzymes for lactose tolerance into Europe.

"Suddenly 4,000 years ago there's a revolution when the Steppe herders brought the enzymes they needed," Dr Llamas said.

Earlier this year, Dr Llamas and colleagues found Europeans descended from three groups: Stone-Age hunter-gatherers, farmers that migrated from Anatolia (modern-day Turkey), and nomadic herders that migrated west from the Great Steppe in Russia.

For this study, the researchers analysed patterns in the genomes of these groups to look at how human traits had changed since the advent of agriculture in Europe around 8,500 years ago.

One of the most surprising findings related to the emergence of the genetic mutation that enables humans to drink raw milk.

This mutation enables the enzyme lactase, which digests lactose in milk, to remain active long after weaning occurs.

Most people had assumed the mutation, which is widespread in Europe today, would have been introduced by the Anatolian farmers, who had been keeping animals such as cows since around 6500 BC.

However, Dr Llamas and colleagues found the mutation did not enter the European population until 4,000 years later, when the Russian herders arrived.


NASA's tensegrity robot planned for planetary exploration

Image: NASA
Despite all the predictions from futurologists over the years on how robots would look and work, NASA's newest bot aimed at exploring distant worlds proves them all wrong. It's not a humanoid or a mechanical animal from science fiction, but resembles a geometric structure and was actually inspired by a baby toy.

NASA has unveiled the Super Ball robot, the space agency's newest tool for space exploration specifically designed for landing safely on distant planets with unstudied terrains and landscapes, always a challenge for spacecraft and exploration vehicles.

The creation, designed by engineers from NASA's Innovative Advanced Concepts Program, resembles a baby toy made of wire and rods that is indestructible, and as such scientists believe it can handle strong impacts like those caused by landing on a planet's surface. The idea came to NASA's developers when they first saw the toy falling — it was absorbing impact of landing on the ground surprisingly well — and they decided that this physical principle, known as tensegrity, is perfect for space robotics.

Comment: see a tensegrity demonstration [link]

  • Super Ball Bot for Planetary Exploration [link]
  • Report: Planetary Landing and Exploration [link]