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Earth worms can reproduce in Mars-like conditions, study shows

Two young earthworms are the first animals to be born in Mars-like soil conditions. The worms could be crucial for a garden-like ecosystem if we ever want to establish a Martian colony.

Overview of the pots with rucola and Mars soil simulant and Earth control. Image credits: Wieger Wamelink.

If we want to send people long-term to Mars (or on any other planet, really), it’s vital to establish a sustainable agricultural system — a garden of sorts. Now, such an ecosystem would be much more complex than it seems at a first glance, including not only plants, soil, and water, but also crucial microorganisms and worms. The poop and pee of the (human) Martian will also have to be used to fertilize the soil, and making all of that function on Mars of all places is no easy feat.

Within this ecosystem, worms break down and recycle dead organic matter. They’re very important for healthy and fertile soils, which is why researchers were thrilled to find two of them in a Mars soil experiment at Wageningen University & Research. The Mars soil simulant was already used to grow rucola (rocket), and researchers just added adult worms and fertilizer in it (they used pig slurry instead of the human excrements that would be available on Mars, for hygiene reasons). Aided by the manure, the worms started to breed, and biologists now report the first offspring in this soil.

“Clearly the manure stimulated growth, especially in the Mars soil simulant, and we saw that the worms were active. However, the best surprise came at the end of the experiment when we found two young worms in the Mars soil simulant”, said Wieger Wamelink of Wageningen University & Research.

Young worm, born in mars soil simulant. Image credits: Wieger Wamelink.

The manure helped, which was expected, but researchers were surprised to see just how much it improved the quality of the Mars soil simulant.

“The positive effect of adding manure was not unexpected’, added Wamelink, ‘but we were surprised that it makes Mars soil simulant outperform Earth silver sand,” Wamelink continued. “We added organic matter from earlier experiments to both sands. We added the manure to a sample of the pots and then, after germination of the rucola, we added the worms. We therefore ended up with pots with all possible combinations with the exception of organic matter which was added to all of the pots.”

Nowadays biologists are able to grow over a dozen crops, though some have proven more difficult to grow (ahem, I’m looking at you, spinach). However, crops such as green beans, peas, radish, tomato, potato, rucola, carrot and garden cress have all been successful. If the overall quality of the ecosystem can also be improved, a Martian garden might not be so far after all.

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Scientists create ‘Trippy Machine’ that induces drug-free hallucinations

British researchers have devised a wall-melting machine capable of inducing hallucinations. There are no drugs involved but participants reported visual hallucinations akin to those induced by LSD or psilocybin (magic mushrooms).

An example of the original scene (top left) and Deep-Dreamed scenes (top right, bottom left and right). Credit; Scientific Reports.

An example of the original scene (top left) and Deep-Dreamed scenes (top right, bottom left and right). Credit; Scientific Reports.

The experimental setup consists of a virtual reality platform into which scientists plugged in Google’s creepy DeepDream — a neural network mainly designed to identify features in images but which also, as a by-product, does the equivalent of ‘dreaming’ for robots.

Researchers at Sussex University’s Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science in the UK asked the 12 volunteers to strap on the virtual reality headset into which panoramic natural landscapes were streamed. At one point, the scientists hit the switch for DeepDream which produced “biologically realistic visual hallucinations.”

After the mind-bending experience, each participant had to fill out a questionnaire describing the whole thing. They were asked questions like whether they felt a loss of control or a loss of their sense of self, and whether they saw patterns and colors. This is how the team found that the induced hallucinations were very much similar to those caused by psilocybin, the active ingredient in ‘magic mushrooms’.

The purpose of this experiment isn’t to trip people out of their minds. What the researchers were going for is isolating the visual effects of hallucinogens sans the chemical alteration of the brain. Because Google DeepDream is basically a pattern interpreter on steroids, the resulting imagery is on overdrive — so much so that the machine starts to ‘imagine’ things that shouldn’t really be there in the first place.

“Unravelling the brain basis of unusual perceptual experiences, like hallucinations, is important both for understanding how normal everyday conscious perception works, and it also sheds new light onto how changes in visual processing in the brain lead to specific kinds of hallucinatory experience,” said Anil Seth, one of the lead researchers on the study published in the journal Scientific Reports.

In a second experiment, 22 participants were questioned about whether they felt any sense of temporal distortion or warped sense of time, another hallmark of hallucinogens. Their responses matched those recorded after watching control videos though. This suggests that the machine can replicate some but not all the effects of psychedelic drugs.

“Overall, the Hallucination Machine provides a powerful new tool to complement the resurgence of research into altered states of consciousness,” conclude the researchers.

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Can coral reseeding save the Great Barrier Reef?

Scientists have become adept coral reef matchmakers by breeding baby coral on the Great Barrier Reef, and the success of this project could be used to save reefs around the world.

“This is the first project of its kind on the Great Barrier Reef to successfully re-establish a population of juvenile corals from larvae settling directly on the reef,” Southern Cross University’s Peter Harrison and lead researcher on the project said in a statement.

“The success of this new research not only applies to the Great Barrier Reef but has potential global significance — it shows we can start to restore and repair damaged coral populations where the natural supply of coral larvae has been compromised.”

Coral growing across the sea

Fish swim through coral at the Great Barrier Reef The coral of the Great Barrier Reef has struggled to survive assaults from climate change and coral bleaching. (Photo: William West/AFP/Getty Images)

Harrison and his team traveled to Australia’s Heron Island in November 2016 during coral spawning season. During that time, the researchers collected coral eggs and sperm and used them to grow and cultivate more than a million coral larvae. These larvae were then planted on dead spots along the island’s reef to see if they would settle into their new homes. Harrison and the other scientists also covered the larvae with underwater mesh tents to aid their growth.

The researchers returned this November to check on the status of their transplanted larvae, and they found that more than 100 of the larvae had established themselves on the reef and were thriving.

While that number may be small compared to the number the team reseeded onto the reef, Harrison is enthusiastic about the possibilities.

“The results are very promising, and our work shows that adding higher densities of coral larvae leads to higher numbers of successful coral recruits,” Harrison said.

The project builds on previous work Harrison had done in the Philippines. Reefs there have suffered ill effects from blast fishing, the practice of using explosives to stun or kill fish for easier collecting. Harrison had conducted a similar restoration project there that resulted in the coral growing from larvae to “dinner plate-sized adult colonies within three years” that were also able to reproduce on their own.

The process also provides an alternative to coral gardening, a process by which pieces of healthy coral are broken off from their original locations and planted elsewhere or moving coral cultivated and grown in labs back to reefs. The process has had some success in the Caribbean, but Harrison believes the process “is expensive and often doesn’t work very well.”

A new hope for the Great Barrier Reef

Harrison conducted the Heron Island project with funds from the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, and based on its success, the Australian government is also stepping in to help Harrison expand the scope of the larval reseeding so that it can be reproduced on a much larger scale.

“With this new funding from the Australian government and continued support from the Great Barrier Reef Foundation and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, our research team used the technique again this month at Heron Island to collect and ‘match-make’ coral spawn, producing mass quantities of coral larvae to deliver new coral ‘babies’ onto the reef,” Harrison said.

Australia has struggled in recent years to protect the Great Barrier Reef. The reef suffered back-to-black years of bleaching in 2016 and 2017, with the reef described as being in a “terminal stage” of its life as a result of the bleaching. Efforts outlined by the country’s Reef 2050 plan, including restricting port development and reducing agricultural runoff, haven’t been able to counter warmer-than-usual temperatures.

NASA astronauts identify Earth landmarks the low-tech way


NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei puts an atlas to good use in space.

Randy Bresnik/NASA

The International Space Station is one of the great technological marvels of our time, but not everything on board could have stepped out of a sci-fi show. Sometimes, the old ways are still the best ways when it comes to identifying unfamiliar landmarks down on Earth. 

NASA astronaut Randy Bresnik tweeted a photo on Sunday of fellow astronaut Mark Vande Hei studying a physical atlas. A laptop sits open in front of Vande Hei and shows an unidentified view of Earth. The astronaut has his finger pointing to part of a map in the book. 

The space station crew members often share Earth views on social media, whether it’s a hard-to-capture look at the pyramids in Egypt or strange parallel lines in the snow in Russia. When looking back at the many photos, it’s not always immediately obvious exactly which part of the planet they show.  

“When we take a picture of somewhere on Earth we are unfamiliar, @Astro_Sabot shows how we look it up and learn where we were,” Bresnik writes.

Finding a large book of maps on the ISS may seem like a surprise, but it’s far from being the strangest item we’ve ever sent into orbit. That honor probably goes to this gorilla suit.

Has An Alien UFO From Area 51 Been Discovered On Google Maps?

Area 51 is perhaps the most mysterious governmental property in the United States, with a history filled with rumors and speculation. As an area that’s strictly off limits to civilian populations, the highly-classified offshoot of Edwards Air Force Base is widely thought to be the testing ground for experimental aircraft and weapons systems. Google’s mapping technology captures all sorts of images from around the world, and while there aren’t pictures of Area 51, it seems as if a previously designed Area 51 aircraft was discovered in Australia. New photographs from Google Maps seem to indicate some sort of strange aircraft, which some speculate might be an Alien UFO originally held at the military base.

Alien UFO From Area 51Image source: YouTube Video Screenshot

After the pictures were discovered, many thought it to be some variation of the triangular TR-3B, created by the military and subsequently hidden from the public. Not much is known about this aircraft, but interested parties have since discovered video footage of what appears to be the TR-3B shooting some sort of laser. The aircraft features 3 lights on each of the triangular design’s 3 points, and some sort of portal seems to open in the middle. Most people believe that the aircraft is a secret developed by the government and closely guarded by the military, but some suggest that this supposed TR-3B was an alien UFO visiting Earth.

A triangular object, a picture of which is included below, was discovered on Google Earth between Badgingarra National Park and Wongonderrah Nature Reserve in western Australia. Subsequently, it seems as if the images have disappeared off of the website which leads some to believe it may be some sort of cover up. Alien UFO hunter Mike Zeroh believes the images to be legitimate, stating, “We have no idea what it’s doing in Australia but I fully believe it’s real footage and not a hoax and could be military aircraft or something from another planet perhaps.”

It’s important to understand, however, that these are all just rumors and speculation. Many people doubt that this image is any sort of alien UFO, instead attributing the triangular formation to equipment from a nearby wind farm. Whether or not Area 51 is holding some sort of significant alien discovery away from the public may never be revealed, but for many people this image on Google Earth is an insignificant discovery. The uncovering of anything related to government secrets or alien technology is always met with skepticism, as it should be. These new images are anything but a confirmation of an alien visitor.

Area 51 remains shrouded in mystery, and it’s possible we’ll never know exactly what goes on in that secret government facility. If the triangular object spotted by users on Google Earth is truly from the military base, it’s far more likely that it’s some sort of experimental aircraft designed by our government. But many people remain convinced that Area 51 is a holding place for alien UFO technology. Whether designed by the government or a visitor from outer space, there’s no doubt about it: this triangular image certainly looks otherworldly.

We Could See More Volcanic Eruptions, Thanks To Climate Change

A new study suggests that climate change could cause a sudden increase in volcanic eruptions. Scientists say global warming that’s occurring due to human activities is melting ice fast in some parts of the world with volcanic activity. They believe this could result in a rapidly growing number of volcanic eruptions.

volcanic eruptionsWikiImages / Pixabay

Melting ice could cause more volcanic eruptions

University of Leeds researchers led the study and published their findings in the journal Geology. Dr. Graeme Swindles from the university’s School of Geology explained to R&D Magazine that volcanic activity in Iceland was less when glaciers covered the country more extensively. However, as the glaciers melted, they observed a rising number of volcanic eruptions because of pressure changes on the surface.

To conduct the study, the researchers analyzed volcanic ash that had been preserved in peat deposits and lake sediment in Iceland. Based on their examination of the preserved ash and sediment, the researchers believe that about 4,500 to 5,500 years ago, volcanic activity in Iceland was greatly reduced.

Temperatures dropped before volcanic eruptions declined

They correlated this timeframe with temperatures in the region and found that temperatures around the globe had declined significantly before this period of reduced volcanic activity. The main result of those lower temperatures was glacier growth in Iceland, they added.

The researchers estimate that about 600 years passed between the global temperature drop and the significant decline in the number of volcanic eruptions. They theorize that a similar time lag can be expected between the global warming trend of the modern era and, possibly, a time of increased volcanic eruptions at some point in the future.

According to R&D, the volcanic system in Iceland is currently undergoing a recovery from what scientists refer to as the “Little Ice Age,” which occurred between 1500 and 1850 and was marked by significantly lower temperatures. Since the end of that era, global warming — caused by humans and also from natural causes — has resulted in Iceland’s glaciers melting again.

How humans impact climate

According to Dr. Swindles, the fact that some of the global warming is caused by humans makes it even harder to predict how long the time lag will be between the climate change and probably uptick in volcanic eruptions. However, he said that understanding the impact humans are having on climate change is important because it helps us see how today’s actions might have an impact on generations to come.

The volcanic system in Iceland is greatly affected by any change in surface pressure because it changes stress levels on underground chambers where magma can build up. Rifts in the boundaries between the continental plates interact with build-up in magma and gases underground. All of these effects also interact with pressure on the surface of the volcano caused by the ice and glaciers in Iceland, which also has an impact on the surface pressure.

Study co-author Dr. Ivan Savov explained that as ice melts and glaciers in Iceland retreat, the amount of pressure that’s exerted on the surface of the Earth is reduced, which can cause mantle melt to increase and also have an impact on magma flow and also on the amount of magma the Earth’s crust can hold. Thus, he said that even “small” surface pressure changes can change the probability of volcanic eruptions in areas that are covered by ice, such as Iceland.

Video: Medieval chain mail armor-inspired ‘Superelastic’ tires could find their way onto next-gen space rovers

NASA has taken a cue from the Middle Ages when designing a new tire built to be truly out of this world. This next-generation innovation NASA’s Glenn Research Center developed the “Superelastic” tire, a technology inspired by chain mail armor worn by medieval knights.

Capable of withstanding more deformation than any other non-pneumatic tire, NASA intends for it to replace the aluminum wheels found on rovers such as Curiosity, which is currently exploring the dunes of Mars. With both the Red Planet and our Moon covered by rough terrain featuring sharp rocks and jagged edges, NASA’s Superelastic tire could prove to be very beneficial to Curiosity, which has taken quite a beating in the five years it has been active.

The flexible chain mail-type tire is built from alloys like nickel titanium that make it capable of withstanding up to 10 percent deformity.

NASA has developed superelastic tires that could serve a purpose in future space exploration, as well as here on Earth.

NASA has developed superelastic tires that could serve a purpose in future space exploration, as well as here on Earth.

“The use of a NiTi shape memory alloy yields a superelastic tire that is virtually impervious to plastic deformation,” according to a press release from NASA. “In addition, the utilization of shape memory alloys provides enhanced control over the effective stiffness as a function of the deformation, providing increased design versatility.”

Although we probably won’t be seeing these tires on rovers any time soon, NASA does intend for its impressive development to contribute to future space exploration missions. The agency is also well aware that the Superelastic tire could have an even more immediate role here on Earth. Difficult to penetrate and capable of undergoing high strain, NASA believes the tires could be very useful in improving automobile safety, as well as the technology being applied to all-terrain vehicles, military vehicles, and even aircrafts.

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Video Shows Rocket Burning Up in a Giant Fireball Over Canada

Canadians glimpsed a rarely seen phenomenon Friday night: A piece of space junk falling back to Earth and burning up in the atmosphere. Scientists said it was actually the remains of a rocket that had launched earlier in November.

Here’s what the rocket body’s fiery grand finale looked like from the ground:

The U.S. Strategic Command confirmed over the weekend that the fireball, which some observers had worried was a plane crashing to Earth, was indeed the remains of the rocket, according to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. The group, which is part of the Department of Defense, monitors space junk as part of its Joint Space Operations Center’s work.

Of course, their goal isn’t simply to answer queries from the public about what they saw in the sky: Space junk also poses a real threat to American resources, including the lives of astronauts onboard the International Space Station, which could be damaged by a collision with space junk. Most space junk stays in orbit much longer than this Antares rocket did, and although there’s enough of the stuff that re-entry is pretty common, it usually occurs over the ocean and in smaller pieces that are harder to spot.

The Antares rocket, produced by the commercial space company Orbital ATK, had launched on November 12, sending the company’s Cygnus spacecraft to meet with the International Space Station. The company first began using the rocket design in 2013, and it can carry more than 17,000 pounds of material to low-Earth orbit. This month’s launch was the second flight of an enhanced design that Orbital ATK began flying after a 2014 launch failed. The company is currently scheduled for five more Antares missions next year.

Space junk can be monitored, and re-entry can even be predicted based on an object’s size, speed and flight path. The Center for Orbital and Reentry Debris Studies at Aerospace, a U.S.-based company, both predicts and tracks re-entries. It had expected the Antares rocket body to fall to Earth between 10 p.m. Eastern Time on Friday and 2 a.m. on Saturday near Australia. It ended up burning up about 12:48 a.m. Saturday Eastern Time, Friday night over Saskatchewan and Alberta where it was spotted.

11_27_antares_rocket_fireball The Antares rocket before its launch earlier in November. NASA/Bill Ingalls/AFP/Getty Images

If you see something you think may be space junk re-entering Earth’s atmosphere or a natural meteor burning up, you can report it to the American Meteor Society, which gathers and investigates reports like this one.

Graphene Loophole Could Provide “Clean And Limitless” Energy In The Future

Researchers say they have discovered an unusual property of graphene that means it could be a “clean and limitless” source of energy in the future.

The scientists from the University of Arkansas studied the movement of graphene, the so-called “miracle material” that’s composed of a single layer of carbon atoms, first discovered in 2004.

Its existence is a bit of quandary, however, as graphene is essentially a two-dimensional material that shouldn’t exist. But thanks to a loophole, namely that the carbon atoms that make up graphene are fluctuating, it is able to exist. This is known as Brownian motion.

In this research, published in Physical Review Letters, Paul Thibado from the University of Arkansas and his students observed the movement of graphene under a scanning tunneling microscope (STM). At incredibly small scales, they found there was not only Brownian motion but also larger movements of the graphene sheet itself, with the atoms moving together.

“This is the key to using the motion of 2D materials as a source of harvestable energy,” Thibado said, reported Research Frontiers.

Using a graphene sheet that measured 10 microns across, the researchers said they were able to produce about 10 microwatts of power continuously, without any loss. So it does sort of raise the possiblity of a clean and somewhat limitless source of energy.

In a video, Thibado explained how this motion could be used to replace batteries that we use today. Creating something called the Vibration Energy Harvester (VEH), he showed how a negatively charged sheet of graphene between two electrodes could produce an alternating current.

“If you had this powering your watch for example, you would never have to replace the batteries,” he said in the video. “If you could have a battery alternative that you didn’t have to go and replace, imagine all the things you could do.”

In addition, the technology has the potential to allow any object to send, receive, and store information, powered solely by the heat of being at room temperature.

Graphene has a number of other purported uses, including making more advanced solar cells, thinner television screens, and much more. The idea of it also being a battery replacement, well, that will surely only add to its allure.