Cosmos news coverage is moving to even greater heights

[Credit: Getty Images]

This is the last post on the Cosmos Newsblog – but never fear, we're not floating off very far. 

The Newsblog was created in July 2014 to supplement the weekly bulletins of science news we published over on our main site, cosmosmagazine.com.

We wanted to provide a service for our subscribers, and other science lovers, that kept them in the loop of important, quirky or just plain fascinating science developments as they happened.

Well it turns out that is exactly what our readers wanted too and the response to the blog has been terrific with close to two million visitors coming to the site.

So successful was the experiment, that we have changed the way the Cosmos digital magazine will work. 

We'll still provide you with the in-depth analysis of the important science stories, and premium stories, but we will also cover daily news, most of it freely available on our main Cosmos website.

So check it out and subscribe to either our RSS feed or take out a digital subscription for just $25 a year and never miss any of our premium or pay-walled content.

We look forward to your company as we continue our fabulous voyage of discovery in the world of science.

NASA engineers take Orion spacecraft to next stage

Orion's pressure vessel on the workshop floor. [Credit: NASA]

NASA’s deep space craft Orion has completed another stage in its development with engineers finishing the welding on the pressure capsule.

Technicians at Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans used a state-of-the-art process called friction-stir welding, which produces incredibly strong bonds by transforming metals from a solid into a plastic-like state, and then using a rotating pin tool to soften, stir and forge a bond between two metal components to form a uniform welded joint, a vital requirement of next-generation space hardware.

Orion is the spacecraft that will take NASA astronauts to Mars.

Antarctic flights to check ocean's carbon dioxide capacity

A new project is designed to see just how much carbon dioxide the Southern Ocean can absorb. [Credits: Flickr user Reeve Jolliffe/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]

A series of research flights over the Southern Ocean surrounding Antarctica will assess how much carbon dioxide the icy waters can absorb.

The project, called  ORCAS, will show how oxygen and carbon dioxide are exchanged between the air and the Southern Ocean.

It is is led by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). Michelle Gierach of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory is a principal investigator, along with other scientists from a range of universities and research institutions.

The oceans have increased the amount of carbon dioxide it absorbs from the air, the more that has been emitted, but it's unclear how long that can go on with continued emissions.

[Credit: Alison Rockwell, NCAR]

Previous studies have disagreed about whether the Southern Ocean's ability to absorb carbon dioxide is speeding up or slowing down.

It is hoped the measurements and air samples collected by ORCAS – which stands for the O2/N2 Ratio and CO2 Airborne Southern Ocean Study – will help clarify what's happening in the remote region.

NASA details the plan:

The researchers plan to make 14 flights out of Punta Arenas, Chile, across parts of the Southern Ocean during the campaign, which ends Feb. 28. A suite of instruments will measure the distribution of oxygen and carbon dioxide, as well as other gases produced by marine microorganisms, microscopic airborne particles and clouds. The flights also will observe ocean color -- which can indicate how much and what type of phytoplankton is in the water -- using NASA's Portable Remote Imaging Spectrometer (PRISM). The scientists hope that adding these other measurements to the carbon dioxide data will give them new insight on chemical, physical and biological processes that are affecting the ocean's ability to absorb the greenhouse gas.

"The Southern Ocean is very inaccessible, and existing measurements represent only a few tiny dots on a huge map," said NCAR's Britton Stephens, co-lead principal investigator for ORCAS.

"Understanding the Southern Ocean's role is important, because ocean circulation there provides a major opportunity for the exchange of carbon between the atmosphere and the vast reservoir of the deep ocean."

There is more information on the ORCAS website.

Zebra stripes not for camouflage, new study finds

[Credit: Johannes Eisle/ Getty Images]

A new study has called into question whether the zebra's stripes are used for camouflage.

The study found that stripes cannot be used to either blend the zebras in with the background or in breaking up their outlines, because at the point at which predators can see zebras stripes, they probably already have heard or smelled their zebra prey.

"The most longstanding hypothesis for zebra striping is crypsis, or camouflaging, but until now the question has always been framed through human eyes," says the lead author of a new study, Amanda Melin, of the University of Calgary, Canada.

"We, instead, carried out a series of calculations through which we were able to estimate the distances at which lions and spotted hyenas, as well as zebras, can see zebra stripes under daylight, twilight, or during a moonless night.

Melin conducted the study with Tim Caro, a UC Davis professor of wildlife biology.

"The results from this new study provide no support at all for the idea that the zebra's stripes provide some type of anti-predator camouflaging effect," Caro said. "Instead, we reject this long-standing hypothesis that was debated by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace."

The researchers found that beyond 50 metres in daylight or 30 metres at twilight, when most predators hunt, stripes can be seen by humans but are hard for zebra predators to distinguish.

On moonless nights, the stripes are particularly difficult for all species to distinguish beyond 9 metres. 

This suggests that the stripes don't provide camouflage in woodland areas, where it had earlier been theorised that black stripes mimicked tree trunks and white stripes blended in with shafts of light through the trees.

Nor did the study find evidence suggesting that the striping provides some type of social advantage by allowing other zebras to recognise each other at a distance – another previous theory.

That leaves open the question as to why, then, the animals are patterned the way they are.

In 2014, Cosmos reported on a new theory, also put forward by Caro, that suggested the pattern offered protection against swarms of horseflies and tsetse flies, who were deterred by the stripes.

See Why do zebras have stripes?

Blizzard by moonlight – NASA images giant US snow storm

[Credit: NASA]

NASA has released this satellite image of the massive blizzard that has shut down the eastern United States.

The storm was born as two low-pressure systems merged blanketing the country in snow from Virginia to New England.

Snowfall totals have hit records in several states, and hurricane-force winds have battered the coastlines leading to serious flooding. 

This image was acquired using the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) on the Suomi NPP satellite at 2:15 a.m. EST on 23 January.

NASA writes:

It was composed through the use of the VIIRS “day-night band,” which detects faint light signals such as city lights, moonlight, airglow, and auroras. In the image, the clouds are lit from above by the nearly full Moon and from below by the lights of the heavily populated East Coast. The city lights are blurred in places by cloud cover.

The video below shows a NASA supercomputer model of the flow of the blizzard from 19-24 January.


Space tourism - floating to the edge of the cosmos in 80 minutes

[Credit: World View]

The company World View is planning the balloon ride to beat all balloon rides, taking paying passengers to the edge of space by 2017.

The balloon would lift six passengers in a pressurised cabin to an altitude of 30 kilometres, not quite space but above 99% of the Earth's atmosphere.

From that vantage point, passengers would have a good view of the curvature of the Earth below and the blackness of space above, reports ars technica.

The company has priced tickets at $75,000 per person for the excursion that would last four to six hours in total.

The enterprise relies on existing established technology. Weather balloons have flown into the stratosphere for nearly a century.

High altitude balloons, like the one World View will use, are made of a high performance polyethylene film. When inflated with helium, at its maximum altitude, World View’s balloon will be about the size of a football field.

Ars technica says the balloon will climb at a rate of about 300 metres a minute. During the descent a parafoil will allow a pilot to fly the capsule.

New brain-computer interface would connect to one million neurons

[Credit: Getty Images]

[Credit: Getty Images]

A new program at the Defence Advanced Research Project's Agency (DARPA) is developing a human implant able to connect with up to one million neurons, providing unprecedented signal resolution and data-transfer bandwidth between the human brain and the digital world.

The device would be tiny, the agency says.

The interface would serve as a translator, converting between the electrochemical language used by neurons in the brain and the ones and zeros that constitute the language of information technology. The goal is to achieve this communications link in a biocompatible device no larger than one cubic centimeter in size, roughly the volume of two nickels stacked back to back.

“Today’s best brain-computer interface systems are like two supercomputers trying to talk to each other using an old 300-baud modem,” said Phillip Alvelda, the Neural Engineering System Design (NESD) program manager.

“Imagine what will become possible when we upgrade our tools to really open the channel between the human brain and modern electronics.”

The technology could provide solutions for people who have lost their sight or hearing.

NESD is part of President Obama’s brain initiative that he announced early in the presidency.

For more information of DARPA’s work in the field, see http://www.darpa.mil/program/our-research/darpa-and-the-brain-initiative.

James Mitchell Crow, deputy editor of Cosmos magazine took an in depth look at some of these initiatives in The day you upload your brain to a computer just got closer.

Dengue mosquitoes genetically engineered to self-eliminate

The Aedes aegypti mosquito. [Credit: Moment/Getty Images]

The Aedes aegypti mosquito[Credit: Moment/Getty Images]

The Brazilian city of Piracicaba is expanding the use of genetically engineered mosquitoes to control mosquito borne diseases.

It is the first city to trial the mosquitoes, which cause insect populations to crash by passing on a gene that causes offspring to die when they mate with wild insects. 

The mosquitoes are produced by the British company Oxitec.

The Aedes aegypti mosquitoes are the main carrier of dengue fever and chikungunya, they carry Yellow Fever and are also thought to be responsible for the Zika virus which is sweeping through South and Central America.

The program was approved by Brazil’s National Biosafety Committee (CTNBio) and began in April 2015.

"By the end of the calendar year, results had already indicated a reduction in wild mosquito larvae by 82%," the company said in a statement. 

The program has been extended for another year. 

Like many invasive insect species, Ae. aegypti’s territory is expanding. Brazil has the highest reported incidence of dengue in the Western Hemisphere, with both chikungunya and Zika virus having entered the country in 2014 and 2015 respectively.

Geneticists have broadly welcomed the program.

“Oxitec’s Aedes control technology involves the release of sterile male mosquitoes that are incapable of biting and taking blood from people and are not directly involved in transmitting pathogens," Dr. David O’Brochta, Professor of Entomology of University of Maryland, was quoted on the Genetic Experts webpage as saying.

"The biological basis of this biological control strategy is well understood and similar strategies have been used for decades for insects mainly of agricultural significance<" he said.

He said the move was "generally an encouraging sign that this and related genetics-based technologies for the control or local elimination of mosquitoes is moving towards the mainstream".

 

Dr. Heidi E. Brown, of the University of Arizona, also welcomed the move, but said it is an intense operation. "These modified, competing mosquitoes will need to continue to be released in order to keep the wild type population down," she said. 

Hubble focuses on the brightest stars in the Milky Way

Star cluster Trumpler 14. [Credits: NASA, ESA, and J. Maíz Apellániz (Institute of Astrophysics of Andalusia, Spain), Acknowledgment: N. Smith (University of Arizona)]

This image from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope shows a glittering star cluster containing some of the brightest stars seen in our Milky Way galaxy.

The cluster is called Trumpler 14, and is located 8,000 light-years away in the Carina Nebula, a huge region where stars are formed.

The cluster is extremely young – only 500,000 years old – and so has one of the highest concentrations of massive, luminous stars in the entire Milky Way.

But these blue-white stars are burning their hydrogen fuel so ferociously they will explode as supernovae in just a few million years.

NASA explains the effects of this:

The combination of outflowing stellar “winds” and, ultimately, supernova blast waves will carve out cavities in nearby clouds of gas and dust. These fireworks will kick-start the beginning of a new generation of stars in an ongoing cycle of star birth and death.

Sol 1229 - Curiosity rover spends the day hard at work sifting sand

Curiosity's current work area on the Bagnold Dunes, a band of dark sand dunes along the northwestern flank of Mars’ Mount Sharp. This image was taken on 20n January, during the 1,229th Martian day, or sol, by Curiosity’s front hazardous avoidance camera. [Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech]

NASA's Curiosity Mars rover has used some of its sample-processing moves for the first time, scooping up sand from the Bagnold Dunes region near Mount Sharp and sieving it to sort it by grain size.

The rover is using two sieves and it is the first time it has used the coarser one.

The samples are dropped into an inlet port for laboratory analysis inside the rover.

"It was pretty challenging to drive into the sloping sand and then turn on the sand into the position that was the best to study the dunes," said Michael McHenry of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. 

Testing second of three planned sand scoops at Mars' Namib Dune. [Credit: NASA]

Testing second of three planned sand scoops at Mars' Namib Dune. [Credit: NASA]

Curiosity has scooped up sample material at only one other site since it landed on Mars in August 2012. It sampled dust and sand at a windblown drift site called "Rocknest" in October and November 2012.

At other times, the rover has acquired samples by drilling rather than scooping.

Curiosity is currently involved in the first-ever close-up study of active sand dunes anywhere other than Earth.

The Namib dune, where it is working, and nearby mounds of dark sand line the northwestern flank of Sharp – the layered mountain where Curiosity is examining rock records of ancient environmental conditions.

See also: First-ever close-up inspection of a Martian sand dune