The Most Interesting Science News Articles of the Week


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The Most Interesting Science News Articles of the Week

Each week we uncover the most interesting and informative articles from around the world, here are 10 of the coolest stories in science this week.

The Veil Nebula as seen by Hubble. Because it looks cool.

The Veil Nebula as seen by Hubble. Because it looks cool.

Credit: NASA/ESA/Hubble Heritage Team

The universe shouldn’t exist, according to new ultra-precise measurements of anti-protons.

This physics conundrum focuses on the idea that all particles have their antimatter twin with the same quantum numbers, only the exact opposite. Protons have anti-protons, electrons have positrons, neutrinos have anti-neutrinos etc.; a beautiful example of symmetry in the quantum world. [Read more about the universe.]

President John F. Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline in a limousine in Dallas shortly before his assassination on Nov. 22, 1963. (Texas Gov. John Connally adjusts his tie in the foreground.)

President John F. Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline in a limousine in Dallas shortly before his assassination on Nov. 22, 1963. (Texas Gov. John Connally adjusts his tie in the foreground.)

Credit: Getty Images

In a long-awaited declassification of files related to the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy, President Donald Trump said this afternoon that he was releasing to the public 2,800 documents, while holding back others due to national security concerns. [Read more about the files.]

Jupiter's moon Europa, which harbors an ocean of liquid water beneath its icy shell.

Jupiter’s moon Europa, which harbors an ocean of liquid water beneath its icy shell.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute

E.T. may be out there, silently swimming in frigid oceans beneath miles and miles of ice.

Last week, planetary scientist Alan Stern offered: Maybe intelligent life is widespread throughout the galaxy but most of it lives in deep, dark subsurface oceans that are cut off from the rest of the cosmos. [Read more about the possibilities.]

Gal Wiener, owner and manager of the Winner's auction house in Jerusalem, holds two notes, including one on happiness, written by Albert Einstein in November 1922. Both notes were written in German on stationary from the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo.

Gal Wiener, owner and manager of the Winner’s auction house in Jerusalem, holds two notes, including one on happiness, written by Albert Einstein in November 1922. Both notes were written in German on stationary from the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo.

Credit: Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty

Two advice-filled notes Albert Einstein wrote to a bellboy in Japan 95 years ago, including one that advocated for “a calm and modest life,” fetched more than $1.5 million at an auction on Tuesday (Oct. 24).

A bidding war for the letter lasted 25 minutes, and ended with an anonymous buyer purchasing it for $1,560,000, a price that includes an additional charge known as the buyer’s premium. [Read more about the formula.]

A tiny repaired hole on the painting revealed it to be the lost Thomas Couture artwork. A conservationist of that painting had made a note of the hole.

A tiny repaired hole on the painting revealed it to be the lost Thomas Couture artwork. A conservationist of that painting had made a note of the hole.

Credit: Courtesy of the German Lost Art Foundation

A painting the Nazis looted from a Jewish leader of the French Resistance during World War II has been identified, German authorities announced yesterday (Oct. 25).

The Couture painting had been confiscated in 2012 when German authorities discovered a possible trove of Nazi-looted art in the Munich apartment of collector Cornelius Gurlitt. But it was not connected with a specific victim of Nazi artwork looting until now. [Read more about the work of art.]

A scan of the astrolabe revealed etchings on it.

A scan of the astrolabe revealed etchings on it.

Credit: University of Warwick

More than 500 years ago, a fierce storm sank a ship carrying the earliest known marine astrolabe — a device that helped sailors navigate at sea, new research finds.

The marine astrolabe likely dates to between 1495 and 1500, and was aboard a ship known as the Esmeralda, which sank in 1503. The Esmeralda was part of a fleet led by Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama, the first known person to sail directly from Europe to India. [Read more about the tool.]

A cross section of the ancient tree. Each of the black dots has its own tree ring series, unlike modern trees, which usually have just one tree ring series in their trunks.

A cross section of the ancient tree. Each of the black dots has its own tree ring series, unlike modern trees, which usually have just one tree ring series in their trunks.

Credit: Xu and Berry, 2017

Earth’s first trees had hundreds of tree-like structures within them, making them exceedingly more intricate than the insides of modern trees, a new study finds. [Read more about the first trees.]

An Italian woman has a rare condition that causes her to sweat blood. On the left, an image of the woman's face during a bleeding episode. On the right, an image of the woman's skin under a microscope, which showed normal tissue.
An Italian woman has a rare condition that causes her to sweat blood. On the left, an image of the woman’s face during a bleeding episode. On the right, an image of the woman’s skin under a microscope, which showed normal tissue.

Credit: Reprinted with permission from CMAJ

A young woman in Italy has a rare and mysterious condition that causes her to sweat blood, according to a new report of her case. [Read more about the condition.]

A samurai unsheathes his traditional katana in this stock image.

A samurai unsheathes his traditional katana in this stock image.

Credit: zummolo/Shutterstock

What should you name a baby samurai? What food should a samurai bring to a battle? What is a samurai’s most treasured possession? A newly translated 450-year-old book supposedly written by a renowned samurai provides answers to these and many other questions about the Japanese swordsmen.

The rules also highlight the importance of archery, even suggesting that the best name for a baby born into the samurai class is “Yumi,” which means “bow.” [Read more about the book.]

Whoever said chemistry is boring hasn’t seen YouTube user Amazing Timelapse’s video showing a calculator melting into a surreal shape, reminiscent of a Salvador Dalí painting. Surprisingly, the calculator isn’t melting at all, or even being heated.

Plastics are different. The long carbon chains aren’t polar — they don’t have the same positive and negative sides. So water just bounces off the molecules and doesn’t separate them from their fellows. [Read more about the vapors.]

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A Nearby Neutron Star Collision Could Cause Calamity on Earth


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A Nearby Neutron Star Collision Could Cause Calamity on Earth

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A Nearby Neutron Star Collision Could Cause Calamity on Earth

This illustration the hot, dense, expanding cloud of debris stripped from neutron stars just before they collide in a “kilonova,” or an explosion 1,000 times stronger than a typical nova.

Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/CI Lab

A long time ago in a galaxy far away—NGC 4993, to be exact—two neutron stars collided and created a spectacular light show.

After billions of years spent slowly circling each other, in their last moments the two degenerate stars spiraled around each other thousands of times before finally smashing together at a significant fraction of light-speed, likely creating a black hole. The merger was so violent it shook the universe, emitting some 200 million suns’ worth of energy as perturbations in the fabric of spacetime called gravitational waves. Those waves propagated out from the merger like ripples on a pond, eventually washing over Earth — and into our planet’s premiere gravitational-wave detectors, the U.S.-built LIGO and European-built Virgo observatories.

Yet gravitational waves were not the merger’s only products. The event also emitted electromagnetic radiation — that is, light — marking the first time astronomers have managed to capture both gravitational waves and light from a single source. The first light from the merger was a brief, brilliant burst of gamma rays, a probable birth cry of the black hole picked up by NASA’s Fermi Gamma-Ray Space Telescope. Hours later astronomers using ground-based telescopes detected more light from the merger—a so-called “kilonova”—produced as debris from the merger expanded and cooled. For weeks much of the world’s astronomical community watched the kilonova as it slowly faded from view.

As astronomers studied the merger’s aftermath in various wavelengths of light, they saw signs of countless heavy elements forming instantly. Astronomers had long predicted merging neutron stars may be responsible for forming elements such as gold and titanium, neutron-rich metals that are not known to form in stars. Most everything they saw in the changing light of the merger’s kilonova matched those predictions, although no one definitively, directly saw the merger spewing out gold nuggets by any stretch.

Even seen across its estimated 130 million light-year separation from us, the event was big, bright and glorious. Based on the rarity of neutron stars—let alone ones that happen to merge—it is unlikely we will ever see such a display significantly closer to us. But let’s imagine if we could—if it happened in the Milky Way or one of its several satellite galaxies. Or, heaven forbid, in our immediate stellar neighborhood. What would we see? What effects would it have on our home world? Would the environment, civilization, even humanity, emerge intact?

Although LIGO, by design, can “hear” the mergers of massive objects such as neutron stars and black holes, astronomers were still lucky to detect this particular event. According to Gabriela González, a LIGO team member and astrophysicist at Louisiana State University, if the merger had been three to four times farther away, we would not have heard it at all. Ironically, LIGO’s exquisite tuning for detecting distant black hole mergers could make it miss big ones occurring around the solar system’s nearest neighboring stars. The immense and intense gravitational waves from such a nearby event “would probably be [greater] than the dynamic range of our instrument,” Gonzalez says.

Despite being strong enough to shake the universe, the gravitational waves from even a nearby merger of two large black holes would still be scarcely noticeable, because the shaking manifests on microscopic scales. (If gas, dust or any other matter was very close the merging black holes, however, astronomers might see light emitted from that infalling material as it plunges in.) “The amazing thing to me is that you could be so close to black holes colliding, even as close as just outside the solar system, and you wouldn’t even notice the stretching of spacetime with your eyes,” González says. “You would still need an instrument to see or measure it.”

In contrast, a kilonova from a neutron star merger in our galaxy would probably be quite noticeable. Gonzalez says it could suddenly appear as a bright star in the sky, and would be clearly detectable by LIGO, too. Rather than lasting for a matter of seconds, the gravitational waves heard by LIGO would be drawn out over minutes, even hours, as the neutron stars spiraled ever-closer together before their ultimate coalescence. It would be a bit like tuning into a live Grateful Dead jam instead of a studio version. (And yes, let’s say the song is “Dark Star” for our purposes.)

Even if LIGO tuned in, however, there are ways we might miss seeing much of the light from a nearby neutron star merger and its subsequent kilonova. Kari Frank, an astronomer at Northwestern University, says such a large, luminous event could end up obscured by dust and other stars—at least at visible and infrared wavelengths. In other words, LIGO and telescopes looking in wavelengths such as radio or x-ray might glimpse a nearby kilonova that optical astronomers would miss. “There have been supernovae—at least ones that we know of in our galaxy in the last 100 years or so—for which we didn’t see the explosion at all, we only saw what was left afterward,” Frank says. And a kilonova, for all the punch it packs, is only a fraction of the luminosity of a typical supernova.

Still, astronomers’ responses to any stellar cataclysm in or around the Milky Way would likely be swift. After all, there’s the example of supernova 1987A to consider.

As its name suggests, supernova 1987A occurred in 1987, unfolding in a dwarf galaxy that orbits the Milky Way called the Large Magellanic Cloud. A star about eight times the sun’s mass collapsed in on itself and sent its outer envelope of gas out into interstellar space, forming a nebula of heavy elements and other debris before collapsing into either a neutron star or a black hole. It remains the only nearby supernova astronomers have seen in modern times.

Frank has studied the subsequent global campaign to observe supernova 1987A, focusing on how astronomers organized and executed their observations at a time when the internet was embryonic at best.”Somebody sees something, and they send out notices to everybody,” she says. “The people who first discovered it had to phone whomever they could to tell them that this thing was happening, that they saw this supernova in the sky that was really close by,” Frank says. “They sent these circulars—letters and things to people—and then everyone who could would go to their telescope and point to it.”

For months, astronomers worldwide scrutinized the event, utilizing almost every available telescope. “Everybody wanted to make sure that as many [telescopes] looked at it as possible,” Frank says. Eventually, things settled down, but several researchers—including Frank—are still studying the supernova’s remnants 30 years later. “For some people, it was life-changing, or at least career-changing,” Frank says. “This was the thing in astronomy that year.”

Like LIGO, the observation campaign for supernova 1987A involved thousands of collaborators. But not all of them shared in the glory of co-authoring any of the many resulting studies published in the scientific literature. Consequently, there’s no real head count of how many people participated. Counting collaborators working on the recent neutron star merger is much easier—some 3,000 authors across 67 papers, or an estimated 15 percent of the entire field of astrophysics.

The question of how many astrophysicists would receive credit for another event like supernova 1987A depends, in no small part, on just how close the event would be. If supernova 1987A had occurred much, much closer to Earth—around a nearby star, for instance—the key uncertainty could become not how many scientists observed the event, but how manysurvived it.

According to a 2016 study, supernovae occurring as close as 50 light-years from Earth could pose an imminent danger to Earth’s biosphere—humans included. The event would likely shower us in so much high-energy cosmic radiation that it could spark a planetary mass extinction. Researchers have tentatively linked past instances of spiking extinction rates and plummeting biodiversity to postulated astrophysical events, and in at least one case have even found definitive evidence for a nearby supernova as the culprit. Twenty million years ago, a star 325 light-years from Earth exploded, showering the planet in radioactive iron particles that eventuallysettled in deep-sea sediments on the ocean floor.That event, researchers speculate, may have triggered ice ages and altered the course of evolution and human history.

The exact details of past (and future) astrophysical cataclysms’ impact on Earth’s biosphere depend not only on their distance, but also their orientation. A supernova, for instance, can sometimes expel its energy in all directions—meaning it is not always a very targeted phenomenon. Merging black holes are expected to emit scarcely any radiation at all, making them surprisingly benign for any nearby biosphere. A kilonova, however, has different physics at play. Neutron stars are a few dozen kilometers in radius rather than a few million like a typical stars. When these dense objects merge, they tend to produce jets that blast out gamma rays from their poles.

“[W]hat it looks like to us, and the effect it has on us, would depend a lot on whether or not one of the jets was pointed directly at us,” Frank says. Based on its distance and orientation to Earth, a kilonova’s jets would walk the fine line between a spectacular light show and a catastrophic stripping away of the planet’s upper atmosphere. If a jet is pointed directly at us, drastic changes could be in store. And we probably wouldn’t see them coming. A kilonova begins with a burst of gamma rays—incredibly energetic photons that, by definition, move at light-speed, the fastest anything can travel through the universe. Because nothing else can move faster, those photons would strike first, and without warning.

“What [the gamma rays] would do, probably more than anything else, is dissolve the ozone layer,” says Andrew Fruchter, a staff astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute. Next, the sky would go blindingly white as the visible light from the kilonova encountered our planet. Trailing far behind the light would be slower-moving material ejected from the kilonova—radioactive particles of heavy elements that, sandblasting the Earth in sufficient numbers, could still pack a lethal punch.

That’s if the kilonova is close, though—within 50 light-years, give or take. At a safer distance, the gamma rays would still singe the ozone layer on the facing hemisphere, but the other side would be shielded by the planet’s bulk. “Most radiation happens very quickly, so half the Earth would be hidden,” Fruchter says. There would still be a momentarily blinding light. For a few weeks, a new star would burn bright in the sky before gradually fading back into obscurity.

Don’t let all this keep you up at night. Kilonovae are relatively rare cosmic phenomena, estimated to occur just once every 10,000 years in a galaxy like the Milky Way. That’s because neutron stars, which are produced by supernovae, hardly ever form as pairs. Usually, a neutron star will receive a hefty “kick” from its formative supernova; sometimes these kicks are strong enough to eject a neutron star entirely from its galaxy to hurtle at high speeds indefinitely through the cosmos. “When neutron stars are born, they’re often high-velocity. For them to survive in a binary is nontrivial,” Fruchter says. And the chances of two finding each other and merging after forming independently are, for lack of a better term, astronomically low.

The binary neutron stars we know of in our galaxy are millions or billions of years away from merging. Any local merger of neutron stars at all would take LIGO by surprise, given that the events are so rare, and astronomers might not even see the resulting kilonova at all. But if one did occur—say, in one of the Milky Way’s satellite galaxies—it would be a great reason to run to a telescope to witness the flash and fade of a brief, brilliant new “star.” The dangers would be nearly nonexistent, but not the payoff: Our generation of astronomers would have their own supernova 1987A to dissect. “This is a once-in-many-lifetimes kind of event,” Frank says. Thus, she says, we would need to follow something like it with all the world’s astronomical resources. “We have to remember to think beyond the initial explosion,” she adds. “Stuff might still happen and we have to keep a watch out for that.”

For now astronomers’ attentions are still fixated on the kilonova in NGC 4993. The Earth’s orbital motion has placed the sun between us and the distant galaxy, however, hiding the kilonova’s fading afterglow. When our view clears, in December, many of the world’s telescopic eyes will again turn to the small patch of sky containing the merger. In the meantime papers will be penned and published, careers minted, reputations secured. Science will march on, and wait—wait for the next possible glimpse of a kilonova, the whispers of a neutron star merger or, if we’re lucky, something new altogether.

This article was first published at ScientificAmerican.com. ©ScientificAmerican.com. All rights reserved Follow Scientific American on Twitter @SciAm and @SciamBlogs. Visit ScientificAmerican.com for the latest in science, health and technology news.

Sweet Lullaby: Scientists Uncover How Herpes Virus Sleeps and Wakes


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Sweet Lullaby: Scientists Uncover How Herpes Virus Sleeps and Wakes

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Sweet Lullaby: Scientists Uncover How Herpes Virus Sleeps and Wakes

A micrograph picture of the herpes simplex virus, within tissue taken from a penile lesion of a patient with genital herpes.

Credit: CDC

Viruses are tricky beasts. Some of these “submicroscopic” pathogens can “go to sleep” inside a person’s body, essentially hiding from the immune system indefinitely, only to reactivate and cause illness later.

Now, scientists have learned how to prevent one type of virus, the herpes virus, from slipping into its sleep-like dormant phase and out of sight. This is a major step in understanding the virus’s unique ability to essentially hide from the immune system, the scientists say.

More than 80 percent of the world’s population is infected with herpes simplex virus (HSV), according to the World Health Organization, which includes HSV-1, which causes cold sores, and HSV-2, which causes genital warts.

But most people who are infected with the virus have no symptoms until something external — stress, illness or even sunlight, for example — triggers the virus to wake up and start replicating and spreading. This, in turn, prompts the immune system to attack the virus, resulting in inflammation and the characteristic blisters around the mouth, lips, nose or genitals. It’s during this “reactivation” that the virus can spread from person to person. [The 9 Deadliest Viruses on Earth]

Unlike viruses such as those that cause the common cold or the flu, the herpes virus usually quickly enters a latent, or dormant, mode, in the human body. Scientists have tried to study this process. But in a laboratory setting, they have had difficulty placing the live virus to “sleep” without extreme and harmful measures, akin to clubbing your subject into an unconscious state and hoping it wakes up normally.

Now, in the first of two advances, scientists at Princeton University have developed a laboratory technique that more naturally induces the herpes virus into a latent mode, as gently as a lullaby, allowing them to better simulate the natural life cycle of the herpes virus. The same group of researchers then used this technique to find a key set of proteins involved in the virus’s tendency to sleep and wake.

The findings were published yesterday (Oct. 27) in the journal PLOS Pathogens.

Viruses that don’t quickly go into hiding are easier for the immune systemto find and kill. But this is not the case for the herpes viruses, which stay with you for life.

These viruses are part of a subfamily of the virus called alphaherpesvirinae, which is known to infect and then hide in nerve cells. The immune system has learned to treat these viruses with kid gloves, because immune cells can’t outright kill these herpes viruses without killing the nerve cells that serve as a host.

“Usually, killing a virus infection by the immune system involves killing the infected cells,” said senior study author Lynn Enquist, a professor in molecular biology at Princeton University. But “in this case, these cells would be the [nerve cells] that are irreplaceable. So, ‘putting the virus to sleep’ is a better and more protective way for the nervous system.”

A major question about herpes, however, is although the virus can sometimes cause symptoms immediately, why, most of the time, does it go into hiding right away?. The answer would reveal better ways to control infections.

To get to the heart of the issue — what causes the natural virus to stay awake and “escape from silencing,” as the researchers described it — the scientists used a type of herpesvirus called pseudorabies virus, which is closely related to HSV-1.

The researchers’ first step was to develop a method that would essentially put the virus to sleep in infected nerve cells. The technique involved using a novel three-chamber environment in which the nerve cell’s nucleus and its tentacle-like axon structures are isolated.

Then, the researchers focused on how to wake the virus up. They discovered two ways to do so: with chemical stress signals present at the time the virus enters the cells, as expected; or in the presence of a cluster of proteins called viral tegument proteins, a new concept.

Further analysis ruled out a hypothesis that perhaps it’s the size of the viral load, or the amount of virus in a person’s system, that somehow overrides the typical immune response to let the viruses sleep. Rather, the researchers found that the viral tegument proteins alone were the key trigger, acting like a splash of ice water on the face of the viruses, waking them up or otherwise keeping them awake and active.

“The question we and others are working on now is to determine if” this approach for waking viruses up in the lab is the same as what goes on naturally in the immune system when a virus wakes up, Enquist told Live Science. “We think there is a lot in common.” [Tiny & Nasty: Images of Things That Make Us Sick]

The Princeton researchers’ technique “represents an important advancement,” in studying the virus latency cycle and controlling infections, said Felicia Goodrum Sterling, an immunologist at the University of Arizona Cancer Center, who was not involved in the research.

“In understanding herpesvirus latency, model systems are everything,” Goodrum Sterling said. “This is the first model system that does not require drug treatment” to put viruses to sleep.

A better understanding of this mechanism, the researchers said, may lead to a class of drugs that could target viral tegument proteins to prevent them from waking up viruses or keeping them awake, thus preventing symptoms and the spreading of the virus to other people.

Follow Christopher Wanjek @wanjek for daily tweets on health and science with a humorous edge. Wanjek is the author of “Food at Work” and “Bad Medicine.” His column, Bad Medicine, appears regularly on Live Science.

Amazing Images: The Best Science Photos of the Week


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Amazing Images: The Best Science Photos of the Week

 Each week we find the most interesting and informative articles we can and along the way we uncover amazing and cool images. Here you’ll discover 10 incredible photos and the stories behind them.

Checkin’ things out:

A great white shark left scientists “buzzing” after it grabbed a baited underwater research camera and dragged it to the surface — not once, but three times, according to researchers at Massey University in New Zealand.

[Full Story: Crunch! Curious Great White Shark Snags Underwater Camera]


Strange behavior:

Nest-building wasps in Malaysia were recently captured “blowing bubbles,” expelling tiny droplets of water that they absorbed from their damp nests.

[Full Story: Incredible Image of Bubble-Blowing Wasp Has a Scientific Explanation]


Saving a life:

A rescued bear with an enormous tongue gets surgery in Myanmar.

[Full Story: Unbearable: An Enormously Swollen Tongue Was Destroying a Bear’s Life]


Ancient rarity:

An old sketch reveals a rare solar phenomenon.

[Full Story: Teen Astronomer’s 1886 Sketch Reveals Rare White Solar Flare]


Frightening moth:

Male <i>Creatonotos gangis</i> moths have hairy scent organs that release pheromones during courtship.
Male Creatonotos gangis moths have hairy scent organs that release pheromones during courtship.

Credit: Alamy

A moth that looks like it crawled out of a shadowy underworld is freaking out Facebook users, including some who are wondering whether the creature in the post is even real.

[Full Story: What on Earth? Freaky Moth with Hairy ‘Butt Appendages’ Stuns Facebook]


Odd source:

More than 1,000 years ago, a woman living in the British Isles became horribly disfigured after catching leprosy from an unlikely source: a squirrel, according to a new study.

[Full Story: How a Squirrel May Have Infected a Medieval Woman with Leprosy]


A winter home:

Scientists spotted this huge jellyfish (<em>Chrysaora melanaster</em>) dragging a crustacean with one of its tentacles under the sea ice covering the Chukchi Sea off the north coast of Alaska.
Scientists spotted this huge jellyfish (Chrysaora melanaster) dragging a crustacean with one of its tentacles under the sea ice covering the Chukchi Sea off the north coast of Alaska.

Credit: Andrew Juhl and Craig Aumack

Surprisingly, adult jellyfish survive the winter under the Arctic’s thick sea ice.

[Full Story: Rare Footage Captures Giant Jellyfish Living Under Arctic Ice]


Weather changes:

In winter, something happens to the skulls of adult red-toothed shrews that is exceedingly rare among vertebrates.

[Full Story: Shrews’ Heads (and Brains) Shrink As Seasons Change]


Rules? What Rules?

In cognition tests, clever raccoons demonstrated that they would not hesitate to bend the rules to get their rewards.

[Full Story: Raccoons Ace Cognition Test (But Sometimes They Cheat)]


Hiding in plain sight:

A “masked” dinosaur that lived 130 million years ago was a master at disguise who could hide even in broad daylight from its predators, relatives of the fearsome Tyrannosaurus rex, a new study finds.

[Full Story: Dinosaur with Raccoon-Like Mask Hid in Broad Daylight]

Explorers Will Dive Beneath Antarctic Ice Shelf Looking for Life


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Explorers Will Dive Beneath Antarctic Ice Shelf Looking for Life

 Explorers Will Dive Beneath Antarctic Ice Shelf Looking for Life
The expedition members hope to dive beneath the ice up to four times a day.

Credit: Patrick Degerman

Chill-proofed divers are about to plunge beneath the Ross Ice Shelf inAntarctica in an attempt to figure out how global warming is affecting the diverse array of life that hangs out there.

And for the first time, they are recording 360-degree video of the entire six-week expedition to create a virtual-reality experience of the mysterious polar environment above and below the ice.

“The aim of the outreach is to raise awareness about the unique and fragile Antarctic coastal under-ice ecosystems and the broader effectclimate change might have on the ecosystems and the whole planet,” Alf Norkko, a marine biologist at Helsinki University, said in a statement.

Norkko is one of three Finnish members of the expedition, along with University of Helsinki marine biologist Joanna Norkko, who is also married to Alf Norkko, and the explorer and photographer Patrick Degerman, which set out Thursday (Oct. 26) from Scott Base in Antarctica. [In Photos: Diving Beneath Antarctica’s Ross Ice Shelf]

In addition to their scientific studies and diving duties beneath the ice shelf, the Finnish team members are responsible for shooting the 360-degree video and keeping the world informed through a series of regular updates, photographs and videos on their Facebook page.

Last week, the team from Finland joined six researchers from New Zealand’s National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research and the University of Auckland at Scott Base, on Ross Island in McMurdo Sound in the New Zealand Antarctic territory, a short distance from the large U.S. Antarctic base, McMurdo Station.

Snow tractors and helicopters will provide transport to the tent camps on the ice shelf.
Snow tractors and helicopters will provide transport to the tent camps on the ice shelf.

Credit: Patrick Degerman

The digital equipment for the social media component of the expedition includes 32 cameras, three drones, a remote-controlled drone submarine and “countless” batteries, the team said.

Their updates, photographs and digital recordings will be sent from the field through scheduled communications over satellite telephone to a back-up team at the University of Helsinki.

They also have five 360-degree video cameras to shoot the virtual-reality record of their work, which will become available in early 2018, after it can be processed and edited back in Finland.

Bad weather and low visibility delayed their departure for several days, but yesterday, the expedition members made the journey to their first camp on the Ross Ice Shelf, near New Harbour in the Ross Sea, about 50 miles (80 kilometers) from Scott Base. [Antarctica: 100 Years of Exploration (Infographic)]

The three researchers from Finland and six from New Zealand have trained in snow-survival techniques for their six-week stay in the field.
The three researchers from Finland and six from New Zealand have trained in snow-survival techniques for their six-week stay in the field.

Credit: Patrick Degerman

Joanna Norkko told Live Science in an email that the expedition team would spend about 20 days diving and taking samples from the sea floor at New Harbour before moving on to a second site on the ice at Cape Evans on Ross Island, about 18 miles (30 km) from Scott Base.

Depending on the weather and ice conditions, the team would reach the new site either by helicopter, or by traversing the sea ice, with the expedition equipment being pulled by Hägglund and PistenBully snow vehicles, she said.

The gear for the entire nine-member expedition was considerable, Joanna Norkko added: “scientific gear, camera equipment, computers, dive gear, dive compressors, hole-melters, generators, heaters, two skidoos for transport around the camp … tents, sleeping bags, personal clothing, kitchen gear, cookers, a few hundred kilos of food, first aid supplies, radios, satellite phones, [a] toilet tent, pee canisters and poo buckets, and lots of fuel.”

Both sites on the Ross Ice Shelf were chosen because they will allow comparison studies to be made with the results of previous expeditions, Joanna Norkko explained. [Life on the Edge: Photos from Drilling the Ross Ice Shelf]

The expedition scientists hope to complete up to four dives a day beneath Antarctica's Ross Ice Shelf
The expedition scientists hope to complete up to four dives a day beneath Antarctica’s Ross Ice Shelf

Credit: Patrick Degerman

“The objective of this diving expedition is to examine the sensitivity ofAntarctic seafloor communities to climate change,” Norkko said. “This area is special, because it is the most southerly marine ecosystem on the planet.”

The team made their first visit to the sites in 2001 and several times since then. “Each time the seafloor communities have been sampled in a standardized way, so these sites are so-called monitoring sites [where] we can start assessing whether there have been any changes,” she said.

Seven of the nine-member team would be diving beneath the ice, and they hoped to complete four dives each day by two-person diving teams, for a total of 60 dives during their six weeks of fieldwork on the ice shelf, Joanna Norkko said.

Safety while diving under the ice will be a top priority, she said: Whenever two divers enter the water, one safety diver will be suited up on the surface and ready to jump in immediately if there is a problem. The divers will also be attached to ropes and can communicate with team members at the surface through rope pulls, she said.

The water temperatures will be around 28.6 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 1.9 degrees Celsius), which is below the normal freezing point because of the high salinity — so the divers could get very cold in a 45-minutes dive despite their thick diving suits, she said. There is also a danger of their metal regulators freezing up, which means they have to carry extra tanks and regulators.

In addition, for each dive the expedition members will need to melt two access holes into 10-foot-thick (3 meters) ice, so that one could be used as a safety hole if the divers could not return through the main hole, she said.

“The greatest risk is posed by seals, who in general are harmless, but who might take a fancy to our nice dive holes and just decide to occupy them,” Joanna Norkko said. “A 300-kilogram [660 lb.] seal that does not want to move away from your dive hole is a bit of a problem.”

Original article on Live Science