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Pegasus-style spyware found on thousands of South Korean smartphones

Pegasus phone spyware

NSO makes Pegasus spyware favored by governments and intelligence agencies worldwide
Cybersecurity researchers have found spyware, similar to the notorious 'Pegasus' malware peddled by Israeli company NSO Group, on thousands of South Korean smartphones. The software is disguised as innocent yoga and photo apps.

Used by governments worldwide to spy on rival politicians, foreign powers, journalists, lawyers, and business figures, NSO Group's Pegasus malware has gotten significant media attention since its existence was revealed earlier this year by activists. While the Israeli firm has found itself maligned by the press and blacklisted by Washington, similar snooping software is reportedly still active and going unnoticed, as highlighted in a report published on Wednesday by cybersecurity company Zimperium.


A ferris-wheel-size chunk of the moon is orbiting close to Earth

Kamo`oalewa asteroid piece of moon
© Addy Graham/University of Arizona
An artist impression of Earth quasi-satellite Kamo`oalewa near the Earth-Moon system.
The asteroid Kamo'oalewa passes within 9 million miles of Earth every April. It may have once been part of our moon.

A small asteroid orbiting close to Earth could be a fragment of the moon that snapped off during an ancient impact, according to new research published Nov. 11 in the journal Nature Communications Earth & Environment.

If confirmed, that would make the asteroid the first near-Earth object with a known lunar origin — and could help shed light on the chaotic history of our planet and its pockmarked companion, the researchers said.

The asteroid in question is called Kamo'oalewa — a Hawaiian word that roughly means "the oscillating celestial fragment" — and was discovered in 2016 by astronomers using the PanSTARRS telescope in Hawaii.


Get ready: The longest partial lunar eclipse of the century is happening November 19, 2021

lunar eclipse colors
© Westend61 via Getty Images
The moon takes on a dull orangey-red hue during a lunar eclipse
The partial eclipse takes place next week on the morning of Nov. 19

The longest partial lunar eclipse of the century is due to take place next week between Nov. 18 and. 19, and the gorgeous phenomenon will be visible in all 50 U.S. states.

NASA forecasts that the almost-total eclipse of the Micro Beaver Full Moon will last around 3 hours, 28 minutes and 23 seconds — beginning at approximately 2:19 a.m. EST (7:19 a.m. UTC); reaching its maximum around 4 a.m. EST (9 a.m. UTC); and ending at 5:47 a.m. EST (10:47 a.m. UTC). The Micro Beaver moon is so named because it occurs when the moon is at the farthest point from Earth and in the lead-up to beaver-trapping season.


Screen of 250,000 species reveals unexpected tweaks to genetic code

RNA molecules
Transfer RNA (tRNA) molecules ferry amino acids to a ribosome as it decodes a strand of mRNA to make a protein.
A massive screen of bacterial and archaeal genomes revealed five previously unknown instances where an organism uses an alternate code to translate genetic blueprints into proteins.

The genetic code that dictates how genetic information is translated into specific proteins is less rigid than scientists have long assumed, according to research published today (November 9) in eLife. In the paper, scientists report screening the genomes of more than 250,000 species of bacteria and archaea and finding five organisms that rely on an alternate genetic code, signifying branches in evolutionary history that haven't been fully explained.

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Alternative rocket builder SpinLaunch completes first test flight

SpinLaunch 1
© SpinLaunch
A prototype vehicle launches out of the company’s suborbital accelerator during its first test flight on October 22, 2021 at Spaceport America in New Mexico.
SpinLaunch, a start-up that is building an alternative method of launching spacecraft to orbit, conducted last month a successful first test flight of a prototype in New Mexico.

The Long Beach, California-based company is developing a launch system that uses kinetic energy as its primary method to get off the ground - with a vacuum-sealed centrifuge spinning the rocket at several times the speed of sound before releasing.

"It's a radically different way to accelerate projectiles and launch vehicles to hypersonic speeds using a ground-based system," SpinLaunch CEO Jonathan Yaney told CNBC. "This is about building a company and a space launch system that is going to enter into the commercial markets with a very high cadence and launch at the lowest cost in the industry."

Founded in 2014 by Yaney, SpinLaunch's successful test on Oct. 22 at Spaceport America in New Mexico marks a major milestone in the company's progress. SpinLaunch has largely stayed quiet until now, which Yaney explained was due to the ambitions of the company.


Study finds a striking difference between neurons of humans and other mammals

pyramidal neurons
MIT neuroscientists analyzed pyramidal neurons from several different mammalian species, including, from left to right, ferret, guinea pig, rabbit, marmoset, macaque, and human.
Neurons communicate with each other via electrical impulses, which are produced by ion channels that control the flow of ions such as potassium and sodium. In a surprising new finding, MIT neuroscientists have shown that human neurons have a much smaller number of these channels than expected, compared to the neurons of other mammals.

The researchers hypothesize that this reduction in channel density may have helped the human brain evolve to operate more efficiently, allowing it to divert resources to other energy-intensive processes that are required to perform complex cognitive tasks.

"If the brain can save energy by reducing the density of ion channels, it can spend that energy on other neuronal or circuit processes," says Mark Harnett, an associate professor of brain and cognitive sciences, a member of MIT's McGovern Institute for Brain Research, and the senior author of the study.

Harnett and his colleagues analyzed neurons from 10 different mammals, the most extensive electrophysiological study of its kind, and identified a "building plan" that holds true for every species they looked at — except for humans. They found that as the size of neurons increases, the density of channels found in the neurons also increases.


NASA to deflect asteroid in test of 'planetary defense'

DART spacecraft

Illustration shows DART spacecraft prior to impact with asteroid Dimor
In the 1998 Hollywood blockbuster Armageddon, Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck race to save the Earth from being pulverized by an asteroid. While the Earth faces no such immediate danger, NASA plans to crash a spacecraft traveling at a speed of 15,000 miles per hour (24,000 kph) into an asteroid next year in a test of "planetary defense."

The Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) is to determine whether this is an effective way to deflect the course of an asteroid should one threaten the Earth in the future.

NASA provided details of the DART mission, which carries a price tag of $330 million, in a briefing for reporters on Thursday. Lindley Johnson, NASA's Planetary Defense Officer, said:
"Although there isn't a currently known asteroid that's on an impact course with the Earth, we do know that there is a large population of near-Earth asteroids out there. The key to planetary defence is finding them well before they are an impact threat. We don't want to be in a situation where an asteroid is headed towards Earth and then have to test this capability."
The DART spacecraft is scheduled to be launched aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket at 10:20 pm Pacific time on November 23 from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California.

Bizarro Earth

Slower Atlantic Ocean currents are driving extreme winter weather

Slower ocean circulation as the result of climate change could intensify extreme cold weather in the U.S., according to new UArizona research.
Texas Winter

Throughout Earth's oceans runs a conveyor belt of water. Its churning is powered by differences in the water's temperature and saltiness, and weather patterns around the world are regulated by its activity.

A pair of researchers studied the Atlantic portion of this worldwide conveyor belt called the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation, or AMOC, and found that winter weather in the United States critically depends on this conveyor belt-like system. As the AMOC slows because of climate change, the U.S. will experience more extreme cold winter weather.

The study, published in the journal Communications Earth & Environment was led by Jianjun Yin, an associate professor in the University of Arizona Department of Geosciences and co-authored by Ming Zhao, a physical scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory.

AMOC works like this: Warm water travels north in the upper Atlantic Ocean and releases heat into the atmosphere at high latitudes. As the water cools, it becomes denser, which causes it to sink into the deep ocean where it flows back south.

"This circulation transports an enormous amount of heat northward in the ocean," Yin said. "The magnitude is on the order of 1 petawatts, or 10 to the 15 power watts. Right now, the energy consumption by the entire world is about 20 terawatts, or 10 to the 12 power watts. So, 1 petawatt is enough to run about 50 civilizations."

But as the climate warms, so does the ocean surface. At the same time, the Greenland ice sheet experiences melting, which dumps more freshwater into the ocean. Both warming and freshening of the water can reduce surface water density and inhibit the sinking of the water, slowing the AMOC. If the AMOC slows, so does the northward heat transport.


Glassy rocks in the Atacama Desert likely created by an ancient exploding comet

Heat from a comet exploding just above the ground fused the sandy soil into patches of glass stretching 75 kilometers, a study led by Brown University researchers found.
Atacama Desert
© Shutterstock
PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Around 12,000 years ago, something scorched a vast swath of the Atacama Desert in Chile with heat so intense that it turned the sandy soil into widespread slabs of silicate glass. Now, a research team studying the distribution and composition of those glasses has come to a conclusion about what caused the inferno.

In a study published in the journal Geology, researchers show that samples of the desert glass contain tiny fragments with minerals often found in rocks of extraterrestrial origin. Those minerals closely match the composition of material returned to Earth by NASA's Stardust mission, which sampled the particles from a comet called Wild 2. The team concludes that those mineral assemblages are likely the remains of an extraterrestrial object — most likely a comet with a composition similar to Wild 2 — that streamed down after the explosion that melted the sandy surface below.

"This is the first time we have clear evidence of glasses on Earth that were created by the thermal radiation and winds from a fireball exploding just above the surface," said Pete Schultz, a professor emeritus in Brown University's Department of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences. "To have such a dramatic effect on such a large area, this was a truly massive explosion. Lots of us have seen bolide fireballs streaking across the sky, but those are tiny blips compared to this."


New analysis of ancient DNA continues to rewrite corn's 9,000-year society-shaping history

ancient corn dna honduras
© Thomas Harper
An international team of collaborators reported on the fully sequenced genomes of three roughly 2,000-year-old cobs from the El Gigante rock shelter in Honduras.
Some 9,000 years ago, corn as it is known today did not exist. Ancient peoples in southwestern Mexico encountered a wild grass called teosinte that offered ears smaller than a pinky finger with just a handful of stony kernels. But by stroke of genius or necessity, these Indigenous cultivators saw potential in the grain, adding it to their diets and putting it on a path to become a domesticated crop that now feeds billions.

Despite how vital corn, or maize, is to modern life, holes remain in the understanding of its journey through space and time. Now, a team co-led by Smithsonian researchers have used ancient DNA to fill in a few of those gaps.

A new study, which reveals details of corn's 9,000-year history, is a prime example of the ways that basic research into ancient DNA can yield insights into human history that would otherwise be inaccessible, said co-lead author Logan Kistler, curator of archaeogenomics and archaeobotany at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History.