ICYMI: This Week’s Science News (2/27/17)
By Jaclyn Cascio (@jaclynator)
Sometimes it feels like there’s not enough hours in the day. And that means that sometimes it’s hard to keep up on all the nerdy and wonderful science news coming out. So ICYMI, here’s some of the science news from this last week! (Spoilers: NASA has been crazy busy!)
Shhhh! NASA’s talking!
NASA spent the entire week teasing us about an announcement about planets outside our solar system (called exoplanets). Exoplanets aren’t something new, but they appeared to be hyping up the news! So what did they tell us?
It turns out that a tiny, cool dwarf star (called Trappist-1), a mere 40 light years away, has not only 4 Earth-like planets orbiting it (as announced in May of 2016), but actually has seven possible Earth-like planets. The announcement is an exciting leap in the search for habitable worlds and potential life on planets aside from our own! Michael Gillon (a lead author of the publication about the discovery) said that, “it’s the first time that so many planets of this kind are found around a same star [and] the seven planets could have some liquid water and maybe life on the surface.”
The rocky exoplanets also provide an incredible opportunity for atmospheric study. The James Webb Space Telescope will be launched in 2018, and it will be able to measure the composition of the exoplanets’ atmospheres. If the atmospheres contain certain gases, we may have more information about potential life living there. And maybe we’ll find that we’re not alone!
NASA has even launched a website along with the announcement, dedicated to the sister system of exoplanets. Check it out at: http://www.trappist.one/. You can learn more about the system, explore infographics, watch videos, and even look at “fan art” of the new exoplanets!
When I was your age, Pluto was a planet!
In August of 2006, Pluto was demoted from planet status, due to a new definition of planets proposed by Mike Brown of Caltech. Now, NASA scientists, spearheaded by Alan Stern (a lead investigator of NASA’s mission to Pluto that rewarded us with photos of the demoted rock) are proposing a new definition of planets which would not only reinstate Pluto as a planet, but would add more than 100 planets to our solar system. (Good luck memorizing all those, future students!). The new definition would even reclassify our own moon as a planet!
The International Astronomical Union (IAU) will evaluate the manifesto by the NASA researchers and will eventually decide if the official definition of planets will change or remain as it is.
Breaking news: NASA has found life on earth!
NASA isn’t just exploring space, they are also exploring the Cave of Crystals in the Naica mine in Mexico. A team of NASA microbiologists have found a new form of microbial life residing within the gigantic gypsum crystals in the cave. (Side note: One enormous crystal is 39 feet long!)
The new microbes, trapped in a type of fluid found inside the crystals, might be as old as 50,000 years old, and are still living today (as the team proved by extracting and reviving them in a laboratory). The data gathered by the team is still undergoing peer review, so that’s all the news we have about the microbes for now. But more will surely come in the future!
Don’t make Hulk angry! You won’t like him when he’s angry!
Gamma rays. They made Bruce Banner big and green in Marvel’s comic books. But in the real world, they mean something else entirely!
NASA’s Fermi Gamma-Ray Space Telescope has recently found a gamma-ray signal at the center of the Andromeda Galaxy (like the center of our own Milky Way) which might indicate the possible presence of dark matter or a concentration of spinning neutron stars (called pulsars).
The similarities at the center of the two galaxies will also help the scientists study each galaxy, as each one has unique properties that make observations easier in their respective areas, to create a more complete picture of both the Andromeda and Milky Way Galaxies. And who knows? With all those gamma rays, maybe Planet Hulk is out there somewhere too!
The hoverboard is out of stock. Would you like to take a look at our hoverbike?
Hoversurf, a Russion drone start-up, has just posted a video showcasing a manned hoverbike, called the Scorpion-3. The new aircraft prototype is electric-powered and uses quadcopter technology to lift itself and its driver into the air. The Scorpion-3 is the first manned quadcopter to undergo testing, but other companies are not far behind! It is beginning to look like Dubai’s plan for hover-taxis by July of this year might be within reach.
Forget me not!
Australian scientists have found a potential non-invasive treatment for Alzheimer’s disease. One in eight elderly Americans fall victim to this disease of dementia. Researchers in Brisbane have genetically altered mice to produce plaques in the brain (as is seen in patients with Alzheimer’s disease). They then used focused ultrasound beams on the brains of the mice and found an incredible effect – the plaque was completely cleared in 75% of the mice with no brain damage noted. The animals then displayed significantly improved memory in three different tests following the treatment.
The team of researchers hopes to try the treatment with humans sometime this year.
“Planet of the Apes” might need some psychologists and doctors.
Japanese scientists have published a case study this week in which they have diagnosed a chimpanzee named Kanako with a genetic condition that is comparable to Down’s syndrome in humans. Only the second known case of the condition (the first found in 1969), Kanako suffers from a defect known as trisomy 22, where she has three copies of chromosome 22, instead of the usual two. This is similar to Down’s syndrome in humans where those affected have a third copy of chromosome 21. Kanako has suffered from several physical abnormalities, and the scientists suspect that they may be a direct result of the chromosomal condition.
The condition appears to be extremely rare, but it is unknown what rates of prevalence might be found in the wild chimpanzee population. It creates a unique opportunity for study, and could lead to a better understanding (and possible future treatments) of the condition in both apes and humans.
Ay lassie! I’ve found yer sword!
An archaeological excavation near the town of Carnoustie, on the east coast of Scotland, has turned up some extraordinary pieces of history! The digging team has found a bronze sword, a spear head with gold decoration, sheath fittings, and fur skins. The items are believed to be approximately 3,000 years old and have been found along with remains of pottery, dwellings, and other artefacts. The findings have been called “rare” by GUARD Archaeology experts carrying out the excavation, and are expected to provide more information about the Bronze age in that area.
Settlements have also been found in the surrounding area, to include the largest Neolithic hall in Scotland (which is around 6,000 years old). The evidence of the last 6,000 years also provides proof that the area has been inhabited by generations upon generations of humans over the years! Who knows what they’ll find next?
“Jurassic Park” taught us nothing, apparently.
Researchers at Harvard have recently announced their intention to use the gene-editing tool CRISPR to potentially produce elephant-mammoth embryos. The team expects to be able to culture such hybrid embryos in the next two years. The animals would not be true wooly mammoths, like those that went extinct and whose bones now reside in museums around the world. But the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park were gene-spliced with frog DNA and they were still loads of dangerous fun! And while we’re talking about Jurassic Park, there are of course ethical concerns with such experimentation that may eventually halt such research in the future.
In the meantime, the Harvard scientists continue to experiment with various combinations of elephant and mammoth genes.
Your pain meds work at a snail’s pace, you say?
Research conducted by a team at the University of Utah, led by Baldomero Olivera, have found a compound in the venom of a certain species of sea snail that blocks pain. The compound is a peptide naturally found in the venom of Conus regius, a sea snail commonly found in the Caribbean Sea.
In tests using rodents, the compound successfully blocked the pain pathway. While it is not guaranteed that the same results would be achieved in human subjects, the team of researchers is hopeful. The scientists will soon be conducting a pre-clinical trial, and if it goes well, human clinical trials could follow. If successful, the compound could be a safer alternative to current addictive opioid medications that kill an estimated 90 Americans each day.
Well, well, look what the black hole dragged in!
We’ve seen and heard about black holes in movies, especially those about time travel. Finally ready to begin operating, the Event Horizon Telescope will hopefully be able to provide one of the most detailed looks at black holes so far! The project has been going on for two decades and the team will finally be able to link nine radio telescopes around the world to create a single powerful telescope to look at the massive black hole at the center of our Milky Way Galaxy!
The research team hopes to successfully observe the event horizon (edge) of the black hole sometime within the first two weeks of April this year.
Empty nest syndrome is no longer a problem for SpaceX.
During traditional space launches, the initial rockets thrusting the vessels into space detach and crash back into the ocean. But SpaceX is saving approximately $62 million with each launch by creating resusable rockets that land back on the ground (rather than building new rockets with each launch).
This Sunday, a postponed launch of supplies and experiments (to include the superbug mentioned in last week’s science news) was finally sent on its way to the International Space Station (ISS). 10 minutes after the launch, the SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage rocket flew back to the ground to successfully land on the pad at Cape Canaveral. You can even watch a video of the surreal landing posted by SpaceX on Youtube, here:
It seems that zombies aren’t the only ones craving brains. BBC News has recently reported that some of the brain banks (yes, that’s a thing) in the U.S. are suffering through a brain supply shortage.
While many people sign up for organ donation, giving up various organs (like kidneys, lungs, and hearts) after death, most people don’t know that there’s a need for brain donation too. But many major advances in treatments of brain diseases and mental disorders come from research on donated brain tissue.
If you want your nerdy brain donated for the almighty science, here’s one option! You can fill out a brain donor registration form with the Harvard Brain Tissue Resource Center and a loved one can contact 1-800-BRAINBANK (yes, it’s real) just before or after your death for the donation.