The Washington Post is one of many sources to report the possibly disappointing news that NASA's Curiosity rover has failed to find any methane on Mars. "[NASA planetary scientist Michael] Mumma had high hopes for a positive result because he and his colleagues believe they have detected methane on Mars remotely, from telescopes on Earth that can discern the chemical nature of Mars’s atmosphere. A European orbiter around Mars also spotted methane. But the methane has proved ephemeral — now you see it, now you don’t. Mumma said he and his colleagues are reviewing their work to see if there is some error in the mix. Perhaps the methane simply disappears quickly on Mars, through some unknown chemical process. 'It’s possible that we don’t understand something that’s going on in the Martian atmosphere,' said Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA’s Mars Exploration Program.'"
Catch up on stories from the past week (and beyond) at the Slashdot story archive
From an article at Discovery News: "A bustling airport would hardly seem the place to find a new species of reclusive animal, but a team of California biologists recently found a shy new species of legless lizard living at the end of a runway at Los Angeles International Airport. What’s more, the same team discovered three additional new species of these distinctive, snake-like lizards that are also living in some inhospitable-sounding places for wildlife: at a vacant lot in downtown Bakersfield, among oil derricks in the lower San Joaquin Valley and on the margins of the Mojave desert." Here's some more information in the form of a press release from Cal State Fullerton, home to James Parham, one of the discoverers.
Reuters has a quick report that "[a] software glitch will delay Orbital Sciences' trial cargo ship from reaching the International Space Station until Tuesday, officials said on Sunday. The company's Cygnus capsule, which blasted off Wednesday from Virginia for a test flight, had been scheduled to reach the station on Sunday. ... Orbital Sciences said it had found the cause of the data discrepancy and was developing a software fix. ... The next opportunity for the capsule to rendezvous and dock with the station will be on Tuesday." The WSJ has a more detailed article, and notes "The mission is a challenge for Orbital, which has invested more than five years and about $500 million of its own funds to develop a commercial-cargo capability. But it also presents a dramatic test of NASA's plans to outsource to industry all U.S. resupply missions to the space station. The agency has paid Orbital about $285 million to spur development of the Cygnus and Antares rocket system."
schwit1 writes "In a paper published today on the Los Alamos astro-ph preprint service, astronomers propose that as many as eleven past extinction events can be linked to the Sun's passage through the spiral arms of the Milky Way. (You can download the paper here [pdf].) From the paper: 'A correlation was found between the times at which the Sun crosses the spiral arms and six known mass extinction events. Furthermore, we identify five additional historical mass extinction events that might be explained by the motion of the Sun around our Galaxy. These five additional significant drops in marine genera that we find include significant reductions in diversity at 415, 322, 300, 145 and 33 Myr ago. Our simulations indicate that the Sun has spent ~60% of its time passing through our Galaxy's various spiral arms.'"
An anonymous reader writes "Songbirds living along the Hudson River in New York state are exposed to levels of PCBs that don't kill them but do disrupt the songs they sing, reports a team of researchers from Cornell University. Their study reveals that birds residing in regions with higher environmental PCB contamination levels have higher total blood PCBs, which affects their singing behaviour: the team found these species' songs varied predictably based on their PCB load, and also based upon the type of PCBs. Thus, the scientists suggest that another of the many toxic effects of sublethal environmental PCB pollution are neurological effects that translate into observable behaviour changes that disrupt song quality used by birds to communicate."
R3d M3rcury writes with the story that "NASA and Boeing, along with other nations, are studying the feasibility of keeping the International Space Station in orbit until 2020 and possibly until 2028 — the 30 year anniversary of the launch of the first module." From the article: "To assess the long-term structural health of the station, Boeing engineers developed detailed computer models based on NASA's projected use -- the expected stresses caused by future dockings, reboosts, crew activity and thermal cycles -- and combined that with actual data from on-board accelerometers and strain gauges. ... "What we're looking at is theoretical crack growth," Pamela McVeigh, the engineer in charge of the Boeing structural analysis in Houston, told CBS News. "So the failure mode would be you'd have a crack beginning, probably (at) a bolt hole, and the crack would grow to another edge. So you'd lose like a flange on a C-beam, or an I-beam. The stiffness of your structure would then change, the bolt hole you that you were growing the crack out of, now that bolt wouldn't be effective."
An anonymous reader writes with a story excerpt that may inspire envy in some readers: "Most beer guts are the result of consuming fermented brew, but a new case study describes a rare syndrome that had one man's gut fermenting brew, not consuming it. It's called gut fermentation syndrome or auto-brewery syndrome, and it's 'a relatively unknown phenomenon in Western medicine' according to a study published in July's International Journal of Clinical Medicine. 'Only a few cases have been reported in the last three decades' according to Dr. Barbara Cordell, the dean of nursing at Panola College in Carthage, Texas, and Dr. Justin McCarthy, a Lubbock gastroenterologist, the study's authors." (More at NPR.)
Taco Cowboy writes "'NASA is calling off attempts to find its Deep Impact comet probe after a suspected software glitch shut down radio communications in August, officials said on Friday.' Last month, engineers lost contact with Deep Impact and unsuccessfully tried to regain communications. The cause of the failure was unknown, but NASA suspects the spacecraft lost control, causing its antenna and solar panels to be pointed in the wrong direction. NASA had hoped Deep Impact would play a key role in observations of the approaching Comet ISON, a suspected first-time visitor to the inner solar system that was discovered in September 2012 by two Russian astronomers. The comet is heading toward a close encounter with the sun in November, a brush that it may not survive." Deep Impact has had a pretty good run, though: from its original mission to launch a copper slug at a comet (hence the name), to looking for Earth-sized planets.
Sockatume writes "By now you have likely read about the 'alien life forms' discovered in the upper atmosphere over Yorkshire, via the mass media reprinting a press release from the University of Sheffield. Unfortunately, the paper comes from researchers with an infamous tendency to identify inanimate objects as aliens, and is published in a journal that seems to principally exist to print unlikely astrobiological claims. Phil Plait points out flaws in a number of their claims. Quoting: 'They found what appears to be a fragment of a frustrule, the hard outer casing around a diatom. It certainly does look like one. But is it? Weirdly, they apparently didn’t even check. Seriously, in the paper they describe the photo of the object and say [emphasis mine], "On one stub was discovered part of a diatom which, we assume, is clear enough for experts on diatom taxonomy to precisely identify." That implies very strongly they didn’t ask an expert in diatoms to look at their sample. That’s bizarre. If I were claiming this were an ET plant, that’s the very first thing I’d do!'"
minty3 writes "Found in the Ocucaje Desert in southern Peru, the fossils belong to a group called Achaeocetes, or ancient whales, that possess both land and sea-dwelling characteristics. Over time, the ancient land animals adapted to water environments where their legs became fin-like and their bodies began to resemble modern sea mammals like dolphins and whales."
Funksaw writes "Here's an op-ed by first-time politician, long-time Slashdotter Brian Boyko, where he talks about his experiences testifying at the Texas Board of Education in favor of having real science in science textbooks. But beyond that, he also tries to examine, philosophically, why there is such hardened resistance to the idea of evolution in Texas. From the article: '[W]hat is true is that evolution tests faith. The fact of evolution is incontrovertible and supported by mounds of empirical evidence. Faith, on the other hand, is fragile. It is supported only by the strength of human will. And this is where it gets tricky. Because to many believers, faith, not works, is the only guarantee that one can pass God's litmus test and gain access to His divine kingdom. To lose one's faith is to literally damn oneself. So tests to that faith must be avoided at all costs. Better to be a philosophical coward than a theological failure.'"
An anonymous reader writes "A recent Slate article makes the argument that manned space exploration is not useful and we should concentrate on Robots. The article makes the claim that manned space exploration was never popular and by diverting money to robotic space exploration we can get more bang for the buck. From the article: 'Most of the arguments in favor of manned space exploration boil down to the following: a) We need to explore space using people since keeping the entire human race on a single piece of rock is a bad strategy, and even if we send robots first, people would have to make the journey eventually; and b) humans can explore much better than robots. Both these arguments are very near-sighted—in large part because they assume that robots aren’t going to get any better. They also fail to recognize that technology may radically change humans in the next century or so.'"
ananyo writes "Russia's lower house of parliament, the State Duma, approved controversial reforms to the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) on 18 September. More than 330 members of the Duma voted in favor of the law, with only 107 against, in a move critics say will deprive the 289-year-old body of its independence and halt attempts to revitalize Russia's struggling science system. If, as is widely expected, the parliament's upper house and Russian President Vladimir Putin approve the law, the 436 institutes and 45,000 research staff of Russia's primary basic-research organization will be managed by a newly established federal agency that reports directly to Putin. The agency will manage the academy's 60-billion-rouble (US$1.9-billion) budget and extensive property portfolio, which includes lucrative sites in Moscow and St Petersburg, and will also have a say in the appointment of institute directors. 'This is not a reform — this is a liquidation of science in Russia,' says Alexander Kuleshov, director of the academy's Institute for Information Transmission Problems in Moscow."
at10u8 writes "The ITU-R and BIPM are holding a joint workshop on the Future of the International Time Scale. This is the next of many steps toward the possibility that radio broadcasts of time signals might abandon leap seconds. All of the presentations are online and the press release for the workshop indicates there will be video interviews afterwards."
astroengine writes "NASA's Mars rover Curiosity has been scouring the thin Martian atmosphere for methane — a potential tracer for the presence of Martian life. However, since the gas also can be produced geologically, any findings promised a meaty debate. That discussion can be shelved, perhaps permanently, new findings from a team of Curiosity scientists shows. The most extensive search yet for methane in Mars' atmosphere has come up empty. 'It's disappointing, of course. We would have liked to get [to Gale Crater] and found lots of methane and measure all the isotopes,' lead researcher Christopher Webster, with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., told Discovery News."
MTorrice writes "The same wells that energy companies drill to extract natural gas from shale formations could become repositories to store large quantities of carbon dioxide. A new computer model suggests that wells in the Marcellus shale, a 600-sq-mile formation in the northeastern U.S. that is a hotbed for gas extraction, could store half the CO2 emitted by the country's power plants from now until 2030."
KentuckyFC writes "Astronomers think that near-Earth Asteroids the size of apartment blocks number in the millions. And yet they spot new ones at the rate of only about 30 a year because these objects are so faint and fast moving. Now astronomers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory have developed a technique called synthetic tracking for dramatically speeding up asteroid discovery. Insteads of long exposures in which near-Earth asteroids show up as faint streaks, the new technique involves taking lots of short exposures and adding them together in a special automated way. The trick is to shift each image so that the pixels that record the asteroid are superimposed on top of each other. The result is an image in which the asteroid is sharp point of light against a background of star streaks. They say synthetic tracking has the capability to spot 80 new near Earth asteroids each night using a standard 5 metre telescope. That'll be handy for spotting rocks heading our way before they get too close and for identifying targets for NASA's future asteroid missions."
cold fjord writes with this excerpt from Wired: "Most of what humanity knows about the outer planets came back to Earth on plutonium power. ... The characteristics of this metal's radioactive decay make it a super-fuel. ... there is no other viable option. Solar power is too weak, chemical batteries don't last, nuclear fission systems are too heavy. So, we depend on plutonium-238, a fuel largely acquired as by-product of making nuclear weapons. But there's a problem: We've almost run out. 'We've got enough to last to the end of this decade. That's it,' said Steve Johnson, a nuclear chemist at Idaho National Laboratory. And it's not just the U.S. reserves that are in jeopardy. The entire planet's stores are nearly depleted. ... what's left has already been spoken for and then some. ... Political ignorance and shortsighted squabbling, along with false promises from Russia, and penny-wise management of NASA's ever-thinning budget still stand in the way of a robust plutonium-238 production system." The plutonium shortage has been deepening for a long time, leading to some creative solutions. The Wired article alludes to the NASA project underway to create more, but leans toward gloom.
Kristian vonBengtson writes "Objective Europa aims to send human beings to Jupiter's icy moon, Europa, on a one way mission in search of extraterrestrial life while expanding the borders of exploration and knowledge for all mankind. The starting point of Objective Europa is purely theoretical (Phase I) but will move into more advanced phases including prototyping, technology try-outs, and eventually a crewed launch. Objective Europa is a crowd-researched project made up of an international team of volunteers. Many people from a wide range of backgrounds have already joined and become a vital part of the mission. ... [Europa's] deep ocean and active geology provide a solid platform for extraterrestrial life, making Europa one of the most enticing locations to explore in the solar system. The 600-day flight required to reach Europa is manageable with today's technology, and the many challenges of such a mission pose a perfect starting point for new research and innovative thinking."
Google has announced the formation of a new company called Calico, which aims to promote health and fight aging. Larry Page said, "That’s a lot different from what Google does today. And you’re right. But as we explained in our first letter to shareholders, there’s tremendous potential for technology more generally to improve people’s lives. So don’t be surprised if we invest in projects that seem strange or speculative compared with our existing Internet businesses." He expanded upon this in an interview with Time: "I'm not proposing that we spend all of our money on those kinds of speculative things. But we should be spending a commensurate amount with what normal types of companies spend on research and development, and spend it on things that are a little more long-term and a little more ambitious than people normally would. More like moon shots." The new company's CEO will be Arthur Levinson, who is currently the chairman of Apple and biotech company Genentech. Apple CEO Tim Cook said, "For too many of our friends and family, life has been cut short or the quality of their life is too often lacking. Art is one of the crazy ones who thinks it doesn't have to be this way."