Meeting Pluto (The Planet)


NASA made history this week, once again, when the project New Horizons, launched 9 years ago, reached the ‘ex-planet’ Pluto and its surrounding moons. Ever since it has arrived, it’s been sending us information from there, and putting it lightly, it has been a rollercoaster of emotions.

Scientists previously believed Pluto to be a calm, inactive dwarf planet; just a mass of ice and frozen gases floating around the Solar System. But defying all these expectations, Pluto seems to be very geologically active, actually similar to Earth, (or rather, one of Neptune’s moons, since it has a large ice mantle).

The clues that point to this surprising conclusion are many. For one, there are areas with no signs of craters caused by asteroid collisions, which would be impossible unless these sections are relatively new, as they would be if they had been formed recently by geological activity. There are also fault lines and rift valleys, both characteristic features of tectonic movement.

However, scientists are still puzzled as to how these movements are brought about. In Earth, tectonic movements happen because of the melted rock in the core of the planet, but this is not possible in Pluto, so a popular theory suggests that since it is filled with radioactive material (like most astronomical bodies), this somehow produces enough energy to heat up the surface of Pluto and causes the movement of large amounts of ice that act as tectonic plates.

But don’t think this trend of unexpectedness stops at Pluto. Its largest moon, Charon, is not far behind. It also displays signs of being geologically active, as it has deep canyons and very smooth expanses.

pluto

Pluto sure is a sweetheart

Since many new areas in Pluto and Charon have been true wonders, scientists have decided to give them appropriate names. The most famous one, unofficially nicknamed ‘The Heart’ because it is heart-shaped, is now probably going to be known as Tombaugh Regio in honour of Clyde Tombaugh, the discoverer of Pluto in 1930. Another feature is a plane made of ice, which shows troughs at regular intervals, and has been dubbed the Sputnik Planum, in honour of the first spaceship. The Norgay Mountains are named after the first Sherpa to climb Mount Everest, and are a range of 3300 meter-high mountains made entirely of frozen ice which behaves like rocks. Astronomers also seem to be huge fans of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, as they have named a feature in Pluto ‘Balrog’, a monster from this series, and a dark region in the pole of Charon is being called Mordor.

The mission also offered an opportunity to accurately measure Pluto’s diameter for the first time. The results show that it is 2.370 km large, possibly the largest of the five recognized dwarf planets in the Solar System.

Although the official flyby has ended, New Horizons’ adventures are not over. All this baffling information it has sent us only represents about 2% of all the data it has collected, so we can still expect many surprises from this mission for about 16 months as the rest comes in. And after the visit to Pluto, it is going to fly to the Kuiper Belt, a zone beyond the planets full of small icy bodies that may contain some interesting information as to how the Solar System was formed.

The Moon Is Keeping You Awake


You may have heard people justify a bad night of sleep because ‘it was a full moon’, and immediately dismissed it as a myth. Well, think again.

The moon affecting our sleep is not as weird and irrational as it sounds. In fact, it’s not even unheard of in the animal kingdom, as this is known to happen in many other organisms, from small worms to large marine animals, and can not only affect their sleep, but also their reproductive cycles. It even has its own name: the circalunar rhythm.

moon

Now you know who to blame for a lack of rest

But to see if it could happen in humans too, a group of researchers from University of Basel, Switzerland, followed a group of patients who, like normal human beings, fell asleep every night, and every time gave the scientists their opinion on how well it went. Most agreed that on the day of or close to full moon, the sleep quality was lower and they felt less rested. But this could be a subjective or biased opinion by the patients. So the scientists backed this up with the most undeniable proof of all: science.

They measured the hormone levels, brain activity and any eye movements before, during and after falling asleep. In case you’re confused about why bother measuring eye movement; it is because during REM phase, where we actually ‘rest’, our eyes subconsciously move around (in fact, REM phase stands for Rapid Eye Movement phase). After conducting this research at different times of the month, and therefore at different stages in the moon cycle, what they found only supported what the people had said themselves: there was a decrease, of up to 30%, in the people’s brain patterns during sleep. Not only was the quality worse, but it was also shorter, as they took 5 more minutes to become unconscious and in total were deprived of almost 20 minutes of blissful sleep.

This could’ve all been due to a decrease in the levels of melatonin, a very interesting hormone which can be found in animals that somewhat ‘predicts’ when it is going to get dark and prepares us for sleep, so a lack of it could lead to us not sleeping as deeply.

But researchers don’t know how the moon can even affect the amount of this hormone in our body and can end up causing the other symptoms. It’s not the presence of moonlight, as this was eliminated by keeping the test subjects in closed rooms. So this leaves the two most plausible ideas being either that the moon’s gravity somehow manages to affects us even though it is extremely weak at such a large distance, or that humans have a physiological clock inside of them which keeps track of the moon cycles. Although this may sound just bizarre, it already exists; but instead of with the moon, it uses the Sun. You may have heard of it: it’s called the circadian rhythm and it has a great effect on us as thanks to it, our body knows how to behave at the different times of the day.

The test was only done on 33 people, quite a small sample regardless of how standardised the whole procedure was. So in future investigations, larger groups of people should be investigated to not only support these scientists’ hypothesis, but maybe to even find out the mechanism by which the moon manages to ruin a good night’s sleep.

Fossils on the Moon


the moon

The answer to the origin of life on Earth may actually not be on Earth

Although the Universe is 13.8 billion years old, life took a lot longer to develop. Estimates say that life ‘happened’ up to 17 million years ago somewhere in the Universe, but only spread through the Earth 3 million years ago. There are various theories as to how life developed on Earth specifically. Some think that the random collisions of molecules that give rise to life happened independently on Earth, since it had favourable conditions. Others think that this may have occurred someplace else, deep in the vastness of space, and that those small living creatures were transported to Earth via a meteorite.

At the moment, there is no way to confirm which of these theories is correct. It was thought that analysing fossil records could show whether any meteorite that arrived at the time life started actually contained living organisms. But Earth is an active planet, and its continuous geological activity has pretty much erased all evidence of it. But scientists have thought of an alternative.

If 17 million years ago there were meteorites containing life roaming around the universe colliding with planets like the Earth, they could have hit the Moon, since they are so close together. And the great thing about this possibility is that it is actually verifiable. The Moon has a much calmer tectonic history, since it currently does not contain any lava in its center to wreck fossil records. But at the time life is thought to have spread on Earth, the Moon was covered in lava, which is more helpful than you imagine. Several experiments in the past have shown that complex organic molecules that made up early life are able to withstand the high temperatures in the lava, and may have actually been protected from radiation by being buried deep inside the hot liquid.

So now we only need to go on a mining expedition to the Moon to find any fossils that may give us the next clue as to when and how life started in this wonderful Solar System of ours.

2014 Science Highlights: Part 2


Continuing last week’s list of the most interesting scientific events of 2014, here I present 5 more discoveries that marked this year.

6. Curious Curiosity

moon earth curiosity

The picture Curiosity took in which the Moon and Earth can be seen together

2014 was Curiosity’s year. It was always present in the news, whether it was because of its 2 Earth years anniversary, its 1 Martian year anniversary, the popular selfie it took of itself or the breathtaking picture of the Moon and the Earth. But Curiosity is not only a great photographer; it’s a great researcher too. Since its arrival on Mars, it has provided us with a lot of information about the Red planet. It has made some curious discoveries on the methane gas concentrations in Mars’ atmosphere, and the deuterium to hydrogen ratio, to shed some light on the controversial history of water in Mars.

 7. ALS Fever

als icebucketchallenge

ALS got lots of attention from the insanely popular Ice Bucket Challenge

The Ice Bucket Challenge swept the world; almost everyone, from celebrities to normal citizens did it, and most donated some amount of money to the ALS Association. Overall, $115 million dollars were raised, and the money will now go into helping people with this condition and into research for a treatment and a cure. Although ALS is not a very common disease, it is a crippling one and can leave those affected with a very disabled life. Therefore, it is absolutely amazing to see the amount of support this charity received, and very hopeful how much effort was put into spreading awareness.

 8. The $1000 Genome

genome 1000

By making reading genomes cheaper, we are getting closer to personalized medicine

A machine that could effectively read a person’s whole genome for less than 1000 dollars was invented this year. This has been a very sought after discovery, and a milestone in the genetic field. Scientists have expected this for years, and it is such an important creation that even prizes were created for those who could accomplish this feat to motivate scientists into researching it. Now that we finally have it, it’s better than we imagined. The machine can actually sequence 5 sets of genomes per day. This could set off a revolution in genomics, and fasten the pace of discovery tremendously.

 9. Giant Dinosaur

giant dinosaur

A drawing of the largest creature ever; its size is roughly that of a seven-story biulding

Dinosaurs have always been known for their size, ferocity and majesty. A new species of dinosaur discovered in Patagonia has been calculated to measure 40m long and 20m high, with an estimated weight of 77 tonnes; that’s 77000 kg! Not only is this the largest dinosaur ever found, but it is also the largest animal to ever walk the Earth. What’s also great bout this discovery is that there were dozens of bones from this creature and allconserved in a great condition, so investigating these bones won’t be too difficult. Unfortunately, it still doesn’t have a name; it is such an important aspect that archeologists want time to think of a name that can represent the importance of this animal.

 10. Fake Life Flourishes

X and Y

Base X (left) and base Y (right), completely new bases which act like the natural ones

Synthetic biology grew greatly this year. On one hand, scientists were able to create a synthetic version of yeast’s chromosome, by substituting the original, natural genes by artificial ones created in the lab. But also, two new bases were proven effective this year. All animals use the usual 4 bases (A, G, C, T) in their genes to code for proteins. But new research has created a bacterium that uses two extra bases, named X and Y, which can code for new amino acids and extend the range of chemicals organisms can produce.

 

2014 was a great year for science; let’s hope 2015 has even more interesting and fascinating discoveries in store for us!

2014 Science Highlights: Part 1


Another year passes, so it’s time for another round up of the most interesting scientific events that have happened in the last 12 months. 2014 has been a year full of fascinating discoveries, both in this planet and outside of it, but with some disappointing realisations too.

 1. The Ebola Crisis Continues

ebola

The Ebola virus keeps taking lives and will continue to do so until we find a treatment

The Ebola virus gained a lot of attention this autumn when it grew to an unprecedented size: it became the larges Ebola outbreak in history. In fact, the WHO declared it a global public health emergency and many countries and organisations rushed to contribute some help. At first contained in West Africa, there were a couple of isolated cases in Europe and the USA which caused even more panic, but it has died down. As with many catastrophes, after the initial spotlight, the Ebola pandemic has lost a lot of attention from the public, even though it has not stopped growing. However, it is slightly more controlled, and due to all the press it received, plenty of research is going into treating it, which should hopefully yield some treatments or a vaccine.

2. Stem Cells Stump

Mouse embryo with beating heart

The original STAP cells, which held so much potential, but turned out to be too good to be true

There was a great flurry of excitement at the beginning of this year when researchers in Japan claimed to have created stem cells by simply dipping blood cells into acid. The STAP (Stimulus-Triggered Acquisition of Pluripotency) cells were great for medical research since they got rid of the ethical issues of using embryonic stem cells. The potential of this easy and cheap method were immense, so as soon as the results were published, many scientists from around the world tried to carry out the experiment themselves. But they couldn’t. The results couldn’t be replicated. A more in depth investigation showed that the results of the original experiment were not accurate, and now the theory has, unfortunately, been disproved.

3. Rosetta and Philae

rosetta philae

A representation showing Rosetta (left) and Philae (right) on the surface of 67P

You can’t summarise 2014 without mentioning either the Rosetta spacecraft or the Philae lander. They have both accomplished feats in science which could have only been dreamed of. Rosetta has been in space for 10 years in pursuit of the 67PN comet which is travelling through our Solar System. This year it finally reached it and is now moving relative to it, becoming the first object to rendezvous with a comet. But Rosetta is not the only one who’s kept busy. After rendezvousing with the comet, Rosetta released Philae, a small robot whose objective was to land on 67P. And so it did, although it was a bumpy ride. Unfortunately, it ran out of battery soon after the landing, making it impossible for it to analyse the comet and take samples; its original purpose. But 67P is supposed to pass close to the Sun at some point, which might reactivate Philae and help it complete its mission

4. Dusty Waves

primordial waves

The graph showing what scientists thought were primordial waves, the proof of inflation theory, but is actualy dust

There was another fascinating discovery this year, in which a special type of wave was detected coming from space, with massive implications. Called primordial waves, they are theorised to have been produced during the Big Bang, and if their existence was confirmed, the theory of inflation, which states that the universes started expanding just after it was created would be proved. What were supposed to be these waves were then detected, and scientists were ecstatic. The Big Bang is one of the most confusing aspects of science, and this discovery could help clarify it greatly. But again, after further investigation, the results did not look too good. The alleged ‘primordial waves’ were most likely just dust in the Universe, interfering with the results and creating false hopes.

5. Young Calls Young

blood

Blood could hold secrets for eternal youth

In a truly zombie-like procedure, scientists sewed young and old rats together so they created blood vessels between each other and shared blood. After some time, they investigated how tissues had grown and developed in the two rats and the results were utterly fascinating. The old rats had created more neural connections in their brains, their muscles had healed faster, and their heart muscles had been rejuvenated. However, the young mice suffered the opposite effects.

But scientists concentrated on the positive side, on what chemicals in the young rats caused these changes in the old ones and detected a specific protein, GDF11, which seemed to activate stem cells and cause all these beneficial effects. They also discovered chemicals in older mice which did the opposite: they made stem cells react slower, which in turn deteriorated the health of the younger rats. The next step is finding the equivalent proteins in humans, so that older people can be healed from diseases such as Alzheimer’s or arthritis.

 

Stay tuned for the more of the most interesting scientific events of 2014 in the epic conclusion: 2014 Science Highlights: Part 2.

Planet Plant


As populations grow, extending humanity to other planets is an increasingly viable solution to overpopulation. But for us to live on other planets, we would need a stable environment and community, which inevitably involves plants. Plants are the starters of the food chain: without their ways of converting light energy from the Sun into chemical energy, we would not be able to survive.

But growing plants in, for example, the moon, presents many problems. For one, there is a very weak gravity. In previous experiments, plants grown in microgravity have not done too well: they grow in weird shapes, develop unusual genetic mutations and produce seeds which don’t germinate.

However, a new method seems to solve these problems. It uses a capsule where the plant lives, and the soil that it needs to survive is kept ‘down’ using a net. The container, designed by scientists at University of Wisconsin-Madison, controls all abiotic factors: light, temperature, moisture, carbon dioxide and oxygen concentration… and has been sent into space to rest in the ISS (International Space Station) for months. However, it has been monitored from millions of kilometres away in the university itself.

This new model has proven much more successful than other attempts, and the plant sent, a Arabidopsis thaliana, has grown perfectly well, albeit with some oddly shaped branches. In fact, a control experiment set up on Earth showed that the two plants were not actually that different from each other. But that doesn’t actually matter too much; what’s important is that the plant in space has produced viable seeds which can germinate and grow into new plants. This is precisely what future populations living in other planets want, as this means they can have a sustainable, self-renewing farm.

Another important factor is soil quality. Both the moon and Mars are made out of basaltic and volcanic material, so experiments here in Earth imitating conditions there use volcanic soil.

space

The future?

Most have generated fairly positive results: without adding any new nutrients, volcanic soil by itself was able to grow a variety of plants for 50 days. The only problem was water: most planets in our Solar System don’t actually contain water, so the water necessary to grow the plants would have to be provided by the astronautic farmers.

As always, more research is needed, but the prospect of growing plants in space to feed large populations does not seem too far from the nearby future. And the research put into this objective could have repercussions and applications in the present, for example, in plant engineering to maximise crop yields.

Philae Fall


The misadventures of the famous Philae lander have been the hot scientific topic of the week. 10 years of preparation, hard work and effort finally came to fruition when the robot detached itself from the Rosetta Spacecraft after being together for a decade and set off on its journey to comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko.

philae

How Philae was supposed to look on the surface of 67P

A couple days before the actual separation, ESA, the European Space Agency, which has been supervising the mission all these years; carried out a series of tests to make sure all the machinery in the lander worked perfectly. There was a minor problem with the thrusters, but since there was nothing scientists at Earth could do to fix it, they decided to keep the mission going anyway.

On the 12th of November of 2014, Philae made history when it became the first object to ever land in a controlled manner on a comet. And although this feat is outstanding and impressive by itself, there were some technical difficulties. The idea was that the lander would fire some harpoons to adhere to the comet and use thrusters so that together, they would push the robot towards the comet. But neither of these devices worked as planned, so when Philae did ‘land’, it bounced back. Twice. The first bounce made Philae jump almost 1km high into space (another record), and took the incredible amount of 2 hours for it to fall back. The second leap was much smaller, and only took a couple of minutes for it to settle down. But this was not the last obstacle in Philae’s way. Due to all the bouncing around, the machine ended up about 1 km away from the original landing site, and on top of that, it has stopped in a rather unusual posture. Instead of having its three legs on the pressed on the ground, one of them is dangling midair.

Facing these problems head-on, scientists still tried to carry out some of the proposed experiments. For example, they wanted Philae to take a sample of the comet dust using a drill incorporated into it. This apparatus comes out of the bottom part of the robot, but since Philae is sloping, the drill couldn’t actually reach the ground.

But Philae actually has more pressing problems at the moment. After bouncing all around 67P, it stopped in an area of the comet where the sun rays can’t reach; a fatal location for a solar powered machine like Philae. This soon alerted scientists regarding the duration of the battery, which would quickly run out. The solution was to turn on a ‘power-saving’ mode, but right in the middle of this process they lost contact with the robot. As of the 15th, Philae has used up all its stored energy and has basically shut down. There is still hope that when 67P reaches areas closer to the Sun, the lander will become powered again, but chances are slim.

Regardless of the many problems with the landing and its consequences, Philae did end up on a moving comet, and that’s reason enough to congratulate scientists at ESA for so many years of dedication and a successful mission.

Alien Molecule


isopropyl cyanide

Isopropyl Cyanide, the molecule found light years away that could tell us about how we were formed

Where did life come from? Are we alone in the universe? These are common questions which scientists from all around the world are trying to answer everyday, and that have yet to be answered. But we could be closer to understanding the origin of life thanks to the combined work of researchers at Cornell University, the Max Planck Institute, and Cologne University in Germany, who have discovered a complex organic molecule deep in the heart of the universe.

The molecule itself is isopropyl cyanide and consists of carbon, hydrogen and nitrogen. Compared to other chemicals floating around in space, it’s special because it’s branched, rather than straight, and larger than usual. In fact, it may be the largest molecule ever detected in a region of space without a fully formed star.

Obviously, scientists didn’t go all that way themselves to retrieve a sample of the compound to analyse it, and sounding rockets don’t go that far. Instead, they used ALMA, a set of radio telescopes in Chile which can detect microwaves produced by chemicals many light years away, to scan an area of space an examine its chemical makeup. Surprisingly, they found isopropyl cyanide, 400 light years away, in gas cloud Sagittarius B2, where a star is in the process of being formed.

It is not a clear sign or of life, so all you crazy UFOs enthusiasts can calm down, but it is an interesting discovery. Its complex structure, although simpler, is reminiscent of amino acids, the building blocks of life. These are often found in meteorites, so a popular theory is that the ingredients for life were formed in space and then drifted onto our planet, where they became ‘alive’.

Finding out more about how this chemical is formed and the conditions under which it is produced could be used to paint a better picture of how life managed to originate in our planet.

 

Rosetta Pioneer


rosetta spacecraft

The Rosetta Spacecraft, an inspiration to all other spacecrafts

After ten years of travelling (Are we there yet?), the spacecraft Rosetta, lead by investigators in ESA (European Space Agency), has finally reached its destiny: the 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko comet.

Since the 2nd of March of 2004, the explorer has travelled the unimaginable distance of 400 million kilometres, and it was only now, on the 6th of August of 2014, that it managed to move close enough to the comet and actually obtain a relative velocity of 1 m/s compared to the space rock. This makes Rosetta the first man made object to rendezvous with a comet.

67p comet

[67P Comet] Does it look like a rubber duck to you?

 67P, which resembles a rubber duck due to the odd shape formed by two rocks fusing in space, is of interest because it was formed from the remnants of the original formations in the beginning of our Solar System, so it could provide vital information on water and the origin of life. That’s why Rosetta will now spend the next 16 months investigating 67P’s characteristics, first from 100km away to study its shape and eventually moving closer. But Rosetta won’t work alone. A small probe named Philae will soon land on the surface of the comet, after scientists at the ESA decide on a safe landing spot. Once there, it will dig into the surface and analyse what its composition, and even use X-rays to visualise the structure. Meanwhile, the dusty and icy comet will travel at 55000 km/h towards the Sun, heating up expelling dust which Rosetta will analyse.

There’s a lot to be learned form this comet, and this will take time, but after ten years, the climax of the story has only but started. Be prepared to hear amazing discoveries from this dedicated project.

Happy Selfie, Curiosity!


The iconic robot has joined the trend and taking this peculiar image of itself to celebrate his first Martian year in the red planet. He arrived there the 5th of August of 2012, but since a year in Mars takes longer to happen than in Earth, only now has Curiosity reached this milestone. It has been plenty of time for the machine to surprise scientists everywhere with its discoveries, which we will recount in its honour.

Curiosity Selfie

The acclaimed robot takes the first selfie on Mars

On the 27th of September, it was announced the Rover had discovered an ancient riverbed. Of course, there was no water in it, so how did they know it was a river bed? This conclusion was reached because the robot found small, rounded boulders, instead of the sharp ones with jagged edges that usually occur, and the most common explanation for rocks being smooth and curved is due to flowing water transporting them for long distances and eroding them. However, doubt lies as to whether it was actually water flowing, and not some other liquid or maybe even a gas like CO2, but since there are hydrated minerals in Mars, it is most likely water was the liquid. But even if it was an actual river, it doesn’t immediately mean life on Mars exited, because there were no traces of carbon in the area so it is impossible to say if there had actually been living organisms in the area.

September was a busy month, since at that time Curiosity also shone more light into the methane mystery in Mars. In past studies, some scientists had concluded there was a high abundance of methane in Mars, and since methane is mostly produced by living beings, such as cows and rice, some though this was proof of the existence of extraterrestrial life on Mars. But after 8 months of analysing the atmosphere, the rover concluded there was little to none methane there. In fact, it estimated there was only 1 part per billion of methane in Mars. However, it is arguable that some methane is trapped in the planet, so Curiosity will be doing more detailed investigations in the future.

Those are the main ventures pursued by Curiosity, and it has plenty of time to investigate further, since the original 2-year-mission was prolonged indefinitely. For now, please join me on wishing the rover a late Happy Birthday!

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(By the way, this is my 50th post in Science for Scientists after 2 and a half years of blogging. It was about time, right?)