ICYMI: Weekly Science News (12/4/17)


It’s the holiday season, and some of the greatest gifts we get this year might just be coming from the world of STEM. More discoveries and experiment results are always coming, and we’ve got some of the fun that happened in the last week! From Mars and the moon to dogs and eggs, there’s plenty to learn. ICYMI, here’s some of last week’s science news!

The wheels on the rover go round and round…

The Mars Curiosity rover has been exploring our neighboring red planet for a while now, but NASA noticed that after only a year of exploration, the tires of the rover were being torn up, with rips and holes developing due to the terrain of Mars. Curiosity’s has 20-inch wheels made of aluminum with tough internal rings and outer rims, along with V-shaped tread to grip the terrain and flexible internal spokes to help absorb shock. But the aluminum simply doesn’t have enough flexibility. New research, after several years of testing, has led the NASA team to a nickel-titanium alloy, treated specially for Mars. The new alloyed tires have 30 percent more flex than the tires currently on the rover, able to deform almost all the way to the axle and then springing back to its original shape. The testing continues, and NASA doesn’t expect the rigorous testing process to be completed in time to get the tires on the 2020 Mars rover, but if it works as well as they hope in all testing conditions, they might just make it onto the 2024 rover (and maybe Earth-side cars one day too)!

Up, up, and away!

The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) has announced plans to land a rover on the moon in March 2018, 5 years after the 2013 Chinese Yutu rover made its way to the moon’s surface. In 2008, ISRO sent a probe into lunar orbit, where it later crashed into the moon and was lost in the lunar orbit until it was found again in 2016. More ambitious with their new mission, the ISRO hopes to send three unmanned craft to the moon, an orbiter craft, a lander, and an actual rover to explore the space rock orbiting Earth. Who knows what a close look at the surface will reveal?

Put a cape on the moon and call it super!

The moon moves in an elliptical orbit around Earth, which results in one night where the moon is closer to our planet than any other. Early Sunday morning (December 3) was this year’s only supermoon. When at the closest point, the moon can be up to 14 percent closer to us, and up to 30 percent brighter than what we typically view in the night sky, even causing changes in tides and weather! The supermoon of 2016 was the overall closest the moon has ever been to Earth since 1948, so this year’s display may not be as dramatic (or even noticeable to the untrained eye), but still a night to note! Did you see the supermoon fly across the sky (cape and all)?

Eggs everywhere, but not a one to eat!

A discovery published on Thursday revealed an astonishing cache of pterosaur eggs has been uncovered in China’s Turpan-Hami Basin in Xinjiang province. Pterosaurs were flying reptiles that walked the Earth during the era of dinosaurs (around 162 million years ago). Until the new discovery, only a handful of pterosaur eggs had ever been uncovered, with only six being three-dimensional specimens that weren’t crushed by millions of years of accumulated sediment. With the discovery, that number has jumped to more than 200 three-dimensional specimens, with 16 of them holding embryonic remains as well! Researchers also believe that there might be as many as 300 more eggs to be found in the same area with further exploration. With such a plethora of eggs to work with, researchers will be able to do even more in their studies, without fear of ruining a rare specimen. More news may come from the discovery as time goes on. What an eggstravaganza!

Meow! Ruff! Meow! RUFF!

The dog and cat debate may never end, with each species surrounded by loyal humans attesting to their love and devotion. In that debate, there’s often been argument about which species is actually smarter. A new study on the number of neurons within various predators may give the sides more to argue about! Researchers looked at the outer layers of brains of several species (dog, cat, brown bear, raccoon, ferret, mongoose, hyena, and lion) to analyze the number of cortical neurons in each brain. They hypothesized that predators would have a higher number of neurons, due to the specialized skills needed to hunt. They believed that the number of neurons is a direct reflection of brain processing power and the depth of their mental state (related to intelligence). Their study showed that dogs had the highest number of cortical neurons of all the animals studied, weighing in at around 530 million neurons (compared to 250 million in our feline friends). The study didn’t necessarily determine intelligence of each animal, but if neuron numbers are found to be directly related to intelligence, then the dogs are topping the charts!

Do you even lift, girl?

Our bones tell a story. Living tissue, it changes in response to the activities we regularly put our bodies through. Impact and muscle activity can prompt the bone to change shape, curvature, strength, and density over time. Knowing that, researchers have compared the arm bones of women who lived 7,000 years ago to contemporary women and female athletes. Neolithic women reportedly had 11-16 percent stronger arms than modern-day female rowing athletes (and 30 percent stronger arms than female non-athletes). Bronze age women had arms 9-13 percent stronger than those of contemporary rowers. This news may help scientists deduce activities that our human predecessors participated in, resulting in the significant strength difference. We can only wonder what scientists studying crossfit fanatics will discover in the future!

Single and Confused?

A healthy analysis research project has found a surprising cognitive correlation to marital status. Looking at approximately 800,000 participants, researchers found that those who chose to never marry were 42 percent more likely to develop some form of dementia. Widowers were 20 percent more likely to suffer from dementia, as well. The research is correlational, of course, so don’t panic just yet! The numbers may be tied to the overall social network of subjects (which is typically found to be stronger in those with live-in partners), the financial stability (and stress relief) that comes with a household with more than one individual working, or it could even be tied to earlier recognition of symptoms in those who are single, due to more introspection opportunities. The analysis opens the door for further research on the subject, perhaps to determine causality, so in the meantime, continue living your life!

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