The Amazing Place the Rosetta Spacecraft Is Going To Die

Post 7950

The Amazing Place the Rosetta Spacecraft Is Going To Die

Tuesday 4:10pm

In two weeks, the European Space Agency will crash-land its prized Rosetta spacecraft, marking a dramatic end to the whirlwind two-year science mission that saw humanity’s first-ever comet landing. It’ll be 48 action-packed hours as Rosetta descends to its ultimate resting place on Comet 67P—and to get you properly excited for that event, we wanted to share the fascinating reason this site was chosen.

Recently, the European Space Agencyreleased images of the Rosetta spacecraft’s planned impact site, located near the top of Comet 67P’s smaller lobe. The site has been named Ma’at after the ancient Egyptian goddess of harmony, balance, and order—perhaps in the hope that Rosetta’s slow-mo crash landing will channel some of these qualities. A more accurate name for this region might have been Mordor.

Littered with goosebump-like boulders and deep, treacherous sinkholes, Ma’at is a rugged and inhospitable place, prone to violent outbursts of gas and dust.

But the very same features that give Rosetta’s landing pad a frightening appearance also make it a scientific gold mine. In fact, it’s possible this spot could hold the key to understanding how comets form.

“The pits on Ma’at have unusual structures inside their walls—it’s like the edge of the walls are made of three meter balls clumped together,” Rosetta mission scientist Laurence O’Rourke told Gizmodo. “We believe these are remnants from the formation of the comet itself.”

“An important question for Rosetta is, how does a comet become a comet?” Rosetta project scientist Matt Taylor added. “How do small particles of ice get stuck together, coagulate, and aggregate? Getting better resolution of imagery these features—we call them goosebumps, but I think they look a bit like lizard skin—will help answer that question.”

Trajectory of Rosetta’s last week in orbit around comet 67P. Image: ESA

As Rosetta descends on the evening of the 29th, it’ll be angling its OSIRIS camera to get a good look at several pits, capturing some insanely detailed glamor shots before it loses communication with the Earth.

“We’re trying to cram as much [data] collection as possible into this final section, and we hope to get the highest resolution images of the entire mission,” Taylor said.

Ultimately, the lander will be targeting the side of a 130 meter-wide pit known as Deir el-Medina, an appellation that once again pays homage to ancient Egyptian culture. (Deir el-Medina was home to artisans who worked on tombs in the Valley of the Kings.) Rosetta isn’t going to be entering the pit—at least not on purpose. Rather, it’ll be side-eyeing Deir el-Medina from an angle that offers good illumination as it aims for the pit’s rim. “Everything looks better by doing it this way,” Taylor said.

Of course, Rosetta’s other scientific instruments aren’t just going to sit tight while OSIRIS has all the fun. As the spacecraft dives through Comet 67P’s hazy coma, it’ll use its mass spectrometer to sniff out a variety of molecules within the gas, which early scientific reports have likened to cat piss. Rosetta will also be tasting Comet 67P’s airborne dust, and using plasma measurements to study how the solar wind interacts with the surface. “Really, this is a massive bonus for us in terms of science,” Taylor said.

There’s one other thing to know about the Rosetta spacecraft’s final resting place. Ma’at is located on the same chunk of Comet 67P—the head—as therecently rediscovered Philae lander. The two spacecraft will be just a few kilometers apart. So, even as humanity’s favorite icy rock plunges into the frigid void of the outer solar system and our communications go dead forever, sentimental space nerds can console themselves with the knowledge that neither Rosetta nor Philae will ever truly be alone.

Maddie is a staff writer at Gizmodo

Exquisitely Preserved 17th Century Dress Recovered From Shipwreck

Post 7949

Exquisitely Preserved 17th Century Dress Recovered From Shipwreck

4/15/16 10:18am
The dress on display at the Kaap Skil Museum in Holland. (Image: Kaap Skil Museum.)

Marine archaeologists working off the coast of Holland have recovered a remarkable trove of well-preserved artifacts from a ship that sank nearly 400 years ago. Among the items is a beautiful silken gown that likely belonged to royalty.

Back in August 2014, divers from the Texel Diving Club discovered an unassuming bundle at the site of a known wreck buried in the sands at the bottom of the Wadden Sea. It wasn’t until they brought the package to the surface that they realized what they had found: a trove of incredibly well-preserved antique textiles. This veritable time capsule had been locked in sand for nearly 400 years, immune from the damaging effects of oxygen and marine animals. According to one official, it’s one of the most significant maritime finds ever made.

Archaeologists from the Kaap Skil Museum in Holland have been analyzing the contents ever since. Museum officials only disclosed these findings to the public this week in order to protect the site from would-be interlopers.

The extraordinarily well-preserved gown, or frock, is made from silk damask. It features a bodice with loose-fitting sleeves and sleeve caps, and a full pleated skirt which is open at the front. Its style is reminiscent of those seen in paintings from the early 17th century.

The dress detail. (Image: Kaap Skil Museum.)

Because it doesn’t feature any fancy silver or gold embroidery, experts believe the flower-patterned gown was intended for every-day use. That said, the gown’s high quality suggests it likely belonged to a noblewoman, or even royalty. A leather-bound book was also found in the bundle carrying the coat of arms of the British king Charles I. This suggests that some of the cargo may have belonged to the Stuarts family of England.

Pomanders. (Image: Kaap Skil Museum.)

The bundle also contained a jacket, silk knee socks, and silk bodices woven with gold and silver thread (definitely not for every-day use). All the garments were the same size, which suggests they all belonged to one woman, who was apparently rather full-figured. Other items included a comb for lice, Italian pottery, pomanders (spheres with pleasant-smelling contents to offset foul odors), and a bunch of leather-bound books, some with locks.

Book cover with Stuart arms. (Image: Kaap Skil Museum.)

The dress and the other items are currently on display at a special one-month exhibit at the museum. After May 16th, the artifacts will be returned to the archaeologists for further study.

[The Kaap Skil Museum, The History Blog, Dutch News]

Archaeologists Make Stunning Discoveries at the Antikythera Shipwreck

Post 7948

Archaeologists Make Stunning Discoveries at the Antikythera Shipwreck

10/10/14 1:00pm

The international team of divers and archaeologists who are investigating the site of an ancient Greek ship that sank more than 2,000 years ago off the remote island of Antikythera have not been disappointed. Not only is the site bigger than they thought, it also contains a treasure trove of artifacts.

First, an explanation for that awesome image you see above. The ship, a luxury cargo vessel carrying Greek treasures from the coast of Asia Minor west to Rome, sank in bad water around 70 to 60 BC in some rather deep water. The ship is located at a depth unsafe for human divers — 55 meters (180 feet) — so the team at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) utilized a diving exosuit. It uses rebreather technology in which carbon dioxide is scrubbed from the exhaled air while oxygen is introduced and recirculated. This allowed the divers to explore the site for up to three hours at a time.

The Antikythera site is a treacherous one indeed. Back in 1900, when it was first discovered by sponge divers, the swimmers had to end their mission after one of the divers died of the bends and two were paralyzed. But not before they pulled up a spectacular haul of treasures, including bronze and marble statues, jewellery, furniture, luxury glassware, and the surprisingly complexAntikythera Mechanism.

The latest expedition, called the Return to Antikythera, is an effort to revisit the site to see what else it might hold. And wow, is there a lot of stuff down there.

Chief diver Philip Short inspects the bronze spear recovered from the Antikythera Shipwreck. (Brett Seymour, Copyright: Return to Antikythera 2014)

Greek technical diver Alexandros Sotiriou discovers an intact “lagynos” ceramic table jug and a bronze rigging ring on the Antikythera Shipwreck. (Brett Seymour, Copyright: Return to Antikythera 2014)

From the WHOI report:

Components of the ship, including multiple lead anchors over a metre long and a bronze rigging ring with fragments of wood still attached, prove that much of the ship survives. The finds are also scattered over a much larger area than the sponge divers realized, covering 300 meters of the seafloor. This together with the huge size of the anchors and recovered hull planks proves that the Antikythera ship was much larger than previously thought, perhaps up to 50 meters long.

“The evidence shows this is the largest ancient shipwreck ever discovered,” says Foley. “It’s the Titanic of the ancient world.”

The archaeologists also recovered a beautiful intact table jug, part of an ornate bed leg, and most impressive of all, a 2-meter-long bronze spear buried just beneath the surface of the sand. Too large and heavy to have been used as a weapon, it must have belonged to a giant statue, perhaps a warrior or the goddess Athena, says Foley. In 1901, four giant marble horses were discovered on the wreck by the sponge divers, so these could have formed part of a complex of statues involving a warrior in a chariot that was pulled by the four horses.

Fascinatingly, it appears that much of the ship’s cargo is still preserved beneath the sediment. The archaeologists plan to return next year to excavate the site further and recover more of the ship’s cargo.

[ WHOI ]

Archaeologists Discover Perfectly Preserved 168-Year-Old Ship in the Arctic Ocean

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 Archaeologists Discover Perfectly Preserved 168-Year-Old Ship in the Arctic Ocean

Yesterday 9:45am
“Perilous Position of HMS ‘Terror’, Captain Back, in the Arctic Regions in the Summer of 1837″ by William Smyth R.N.

An arctic research mission claims that it’s discovered the HMS Terror, one of two Franklin Expedition ships that sunk during a doomed attempt to traverse the Northwest Passage. Incredibly, the 168-year-old wreck would probably not have been found if it weren’t for information provided by an indigenous crew member.

As reported in the The Guardian, the Arctic Research Foundation discovered the HMS Terror in Nunavut Bay. “Resting proud on 24 metres [78 feet] of water, we found HMS Terror—203 years old, it is perfectly preserved in the frigid waters of the Northwest Passage,” noted Arctic Research Foundation spokesperson Adrian Schimnowski.

Underwater footage shows the ship in excellent condition, with all three masts still standing and nearly all hatches closed. A pair of wine bottles, tables, a desk (with its drawers open), and empty shelving were seen inside the wreck.

The ship was abandoned in sea ice in 1848 during a failed attempt to find the Northwest Passage from the Atlantic Ocean to Asia. All 129 crew members were lost, nearly three years after the Franklin Expedition set out from England. Two years ago, it’s companion ship, the HMS Erebus, was discoveredby underwater archaeologists from Parks Canada. Inuit oral history helped researchers narrow its location.

The HMS Terror was finally located 60 miles (96 kilometers) south of where archaeologists thought it had been lost. Finding nothing, the Martin Bergmann-led crew decided to take a detour to Terror Bay after hearing a story from an indigenous crew member named Sammy Kogvik. He told the crew that he noticed a large piece of wood sticking out of the Terror Bay’s sea ice while on a fishing trip several years ago, and that it resembled a ship’s mast. It turned out to be one hell of a tip.

The archaeologists had assumed that the HMS Terror was trapped in ice somewhere between King William Island and Victoria Island, but its location much further to the south is altering our understanding of what happened during the doomed mission.

Now that both Franklin Expedition ships have been found, there’s still one lingering mystery: the final resting place of Sir John Franklin himself. And once again, it’s here where oral tradition can help; legend has it that Franklin was buried in a vault somewhere on northern King William Island. Probably a good place to start.

[Guardian, CBC]

George is a contributing editor at Gizmodo and io9.

How to Survive a Mass Extinction

Post 7946

How to Survive a Mass Extinction

4/05/16 11:50am
An early Triassic Lystrosaurus murrayi specimen, National Museum Bloemfontein, South Africa (Image: Jennifer Botha-Brink)

If we want to know what sorts of creatures will survive the next mass extinction, the best place to look is the fossil record. After examining the bones of Lystrosaurus, a vertebrate that famously thrived during the worst apocalypse in the history of life on Earth, a team of paleontologists think they know how it managed to adapt.

Lystrosaurus is a lineage of mammalian ancestors that flourished some 250 million years ago. If you know your Earth history, you’ll know that timeframe coincides with the end Permian extinction, wherein a series of volcanic eruptions sent billions of tons of carbon into Earth’s atmosphere, triggering runaway climate change and the largest extinction event of all time. Some 70 percent of all terrestrial species and 80 to 96 percent of all marine life perished as our planet transformed into a noxious hellscape.

A study published today in Scientific Reports sheds light on how Lystrosaurus defied death, earning itself the nickname “disaster taxon.” Analyzing the bone microstructure and body size distribution of Lystrosaurus fossils both before and after the Permo-Triassic boundary, paleontologists at the Field Museum learned that these ancient animals survived radical climate change by radically altering their life history strategy. Their lifespans shortened, and they shrank hundreds of pounds, from the size of a pygmy hippo to that of a large dog.

“Before the Permo-Triassic extinction, the therapsid Lystrosaurus had a life span of about 13 or 14 years based on the record of growth preserved in their bones,” study co-author Ken Angielczyk said in a statement. “Yet, nearly all of the Lystrosaurus specimens we find from after the extinction are only 2 to 3 years old. This implies that they must have been breeding when they were still juveniles themselves.”

These changes seem to have paid off. Combining their fossil findings with ecological simulations, the study’s authors showed that by breeding younger, Lystrosaurus may have increased its chance of survival by up to 40 percent. As Earth’s land masses emptied of biodiversity, Lystrosaurus spread far and wide, becoming the most abundant vertebrate on the planet.

This mammalian forerunner’s ancient evolutionary win is relevant in light of our current global predicament. Almost a year ago, scientists confirmed that we’re definitely in the early stages of a sixth mass extinction event—a very rapid die-off of species that could lead to ecological collapse. Hopefully, the transition from the Holocene to the Anthropocene won’t be as catastrophic as the end Permian, but one does have to wonder if the survivors will learn to live fast and die young.

History does, after all, have a way of repeating itself.

[Scientific Reports]

Maddie is a staff writer at Gizmodo

The Sixth Mass Extinction Will Be Like Nothing In Earth’s History

Post 7945

The Sixth Mass Extinction Will Be Like Nothing In Earth’s History

Yesterday 2:00pm
Image: Wikimedia

The sixth mass extinction—the one that seven billion humans are doing their darnedest to trigger at this very moment—is shaping up to be like nothing our planet has ever seen. That’s the conclusion of a sweeping new analysis, which compared marine fossil records from Earth’s five previous mass extinction events to what’s happening in the oceans right now.

“There is no past event that looks biologically like what’s happening today,” lead study author Jonathan Payne, of Stanford University, told Gizmodo. Unlike the past, Payne said, “processes like warming and ocean acidification are not the dominant cause of threat in the modern ocean.”

Instead, the dominant threat is people. It’s the nets, harpoons, and trawlers that are systematically emptying the oceans of fish and other marine life forms. Whereas the mass extinctions of the past tended to target organisms in certain environments, the sixth mass extinction is poised to hit the biggest animals the hardest. And that could have have profound implications for how our planet’s future unfolds.

A paleontologist by training, Payne and his research group started compiling data on modern marine organisms several years back, in order to study how body size and ecological traits have changed over evolutionary time. Payne, who has studied the End Permian extinction event that wiped out more than 95 percent of all marine species 250 million years ago, soon realized that his dataset—which included living and extinct members of nearly 2500 marine genera—could serve another purpose.

“We thought the data we had would allow us to examine extinction in the modern [era] in a way that would be very comparable to the fossil record,” Payne said. “Our hope was that we might be able to identify past events that biologically were most similar to the extinction threat the oceans are facing today.”

So that’s exactly what the researchers did. By comparing the extinction threat faced by modern marine genera (as indicated by their official conservation status) with their ancestral counterparts, Payne and his colleagues discovered that modern extinction threat is more strongly associated with body size. Larger animals face a greater risk of disappearing than smaller animals.

In past mass extinction events, body size didn’t matter that much. Instead, it was an organism’s habitat that dictated its fate. Animals that lived in the open ocean, or pelagic zone, went extinct at a higher rate than benthic creatures living on the seafloor.

This difference in “extinction selectivity” can be explained by different drivers. During the End Permian, changes in ocean chemistry triggered by microbes, volcanoes, or some combination of the two are thought to have created a toxic environment for most marine life. At the end of the Cretaceous period, an enormous asteroid impact followed by supervolcano eruptions sent plumes of dust into the sky, choking out sunlight and cutting off the energy supply at the bottom of the food chain. In both cases, organisms that lived in more isolated, sheltered environments away from the ocean’s surface fared better.

Today, the dominant driver of marine extinction is people, and people aren’t terribly selective about which environments they pluck animals from. We go for the biggest game, fishing down the food web and removing top predators. Within species, too, we tend to hunt the largest individuals, which is why North Atlantic cod and Chesapeake oysters were historically much larger. “In a sense, we’re driving evolution [toward smaller individuals],” Payne said.

Dead coral around Lizard Island after the coral bleaching event on the Great Barrier Reef in May 2016. Image: XL Catlin Seaview Survey

There are a few big caveats to the analysis. For the sake of comparison, Payne and his co-authors only analyzed marine genera that have fossil counterparts, which means certain soft-bodied organisms that don’t preserve well (like octopods) were excluded. What’s more, they only looked at organisms whose extinction risk has been assessed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). That creates a rather serious bias toward big, charismatic groups—fish, sea turtles, marine mammals, and the like. There are countless species of marine invertebrates that we simply don’t have enough data on to do a proper threat assessment.

Perhaps most significantly, the study excluded corals, which are currently in the midst of a catastrophic, global die-off. As habitat for roughly a quarter of all marine species, the loss of coral reefs due to global warming and ocean acidification would be a major blow to the health of the oceans overall.

“This study largely does not address the impact we are having on ocean ecosystems through global climate change,” Mark Eakin, a biological oceanographer with NOAA who was not involved with the study told Gizmodo. “Our increases in atmospheric CO2 will add to the impacts found by the authors to broaden our species’ destructive reach.”

Even considering the omissions, the pattern the authors uncovered implies that the trajectory of the sixth mass extinction could be unique. The loss of large animals tends to cause what ecologists call a “tropic cascade,” basically, a ripple effect down the food chain. Larger organisms also play an outsized role in global nutrient cycling—whale poop fertilizes the oceans with iron, for instance, while salmon migrations bring nitrogen and phosphorus upstream and even onto the land.

It’s unclear whether the loss of these ecosystem services will make it harder for marine life to recover, but it’s certainly a possibility. The study minces no words to this point: “The preferential removal of the largest animals from the modern oceans, unprecedented in the history of animal life, may disrupt ecosystems for millions of years.”

There is, however, a bright spot: things haven’t gotten too terrible yet. In Payne’s dataset, there is only one genus that has actually gone extinct in the past 500 years. While more species have gone extinct, and some genera are too poorly studied to be sure, we’re at best on the precipice of a sixth mass extinction. We can still turn this sinking ship around.

“We have the opportunity to totally avert this, if we make the right decisions,” Payne said. “Even on the land, where we have lost a bunch of large species, almost everything at the genus level is still here.”

“To claim we’re in a sixth mass extinction is something very enormous,” he continued. “It is a possibility. It is not the reality yet.”


This article has been updated to include comments from Dr. Mark Eakin.

Maddie is a staff writer at Gizmodo

We Finally Know What This Big Red Splotch on Pluto’s Moon Is

Post 7944

We Finally Know What This Big Red Splotch on Pluto’s Moon Is

Yesterday 2:28pm
Charon’s red splotch (Image: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)

Almost as soon as Pluto’s moon Charon came into view, we had a question: what’s that big red splotch on top of it? Now, we finally have an answer.

A new paper out in Nature looks at data from NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto to come up with a solution to the mystery. It turns out that, although the color is on Charon, it’s really methane from Pluto that’s turning Charon red. When methane escapes from Pluto, some of that gas gets caught in the atmosphere of its near moon, Charon. Because of Charon’s long orbit, its poles alternate between century-long periods of nonstop sun and nonstop dark.

“It gets cold on earth here on Earth when it’s dark for 10 hours. There, it stays dark for a century at a time,” Will Grundy, a co-investigator for NASA’s Horizons mission who works out of Lowell Observatory in Arizona noted to Gizmodo.

This extreme cold freezes the methane gas until the sunny season arrives again. When things begin to thaw, the byproducts of the methane gas leave behind a reddish residue, which slowly accumulates into the rusty patch we see now.

The finding does more than just explain a strange patch of color, though. It also shows that Pluto and its moon Charon have an usually close relationship—one that could change how we think of lunar behavior.

“We’re not really used to planets doing things to their moons beyond pulling on them. This is two worlds that are sharing an atmosphere in a way, which is a sort of alien setting,” said Grundy. The next step is to look for more systems like this, to figure out just how unusual Pluto and Charon really are.