Biotech

Genetically Modified Rice Makes More Food, Less Greenhouse Gas 274 274

Applehu Akbar writes: A team of researchers at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences has engineered a barley gene into rice, producing a variety that yields 50% more grain while producing 90% less of the powerful greenhouse gas methane. The new rice pulls off this trick by putting more of its energy into top growth. In countries which depend on rice as a staple, this would add up to a really large amount of increased rice and foregone methane.
News

Newfound Bacteria Expand Tree of Life 27 27

An anonymous reader writes: It used to be that to find new forms of life, all you had to do was take a walk in the woods. Now it's not so simple. The most conspicuous organisms have long since been cataloged and fixed on the tree of life, and the ones that remain undiscovered don't give themselves up easily. You could spend all day by the same watering hole with the best scientific instruments and come up with nothing. Maybe it's not surprising, then, that when discoveries do occur, they sometimes come in torrents. Find a different way of looking, and novel forms of life appear everywhere. A team of microbiologists based at the University of California, Berkeley, recently figured out one such new way of detecting life. At a stroke, their work expanded the number of known types — or phyla — of bacteria by nearly 50 percent, a dramatic change that indicates just how many forms of life on earth have escaped our notice so far.
NASA

Pluto's Haze 63 63

Today brings another release of images from NASA's New Horizons probe. This time, it includes an image taken seven hours after closest approach, when the probe was looking back at Pluto. It captured the dwarf planet in silhouette: the body of the planet is in darkness, but the atmosphere is luminous with deflected sunlight. "A preliminary analysis of the image shows two distinct layers of haze -- one about 50 miles (80 kilometers) above the surface and the other at an altitude of about 30 miles (50 kilometers)." Before this picture, scientists didn't expect to see such haze more than 30 kilometers above the surface.

Other findings released today include preliminary indications that Pluto's atmospheric pressure has dropped sharply from early observations. This may indicate that the atmosphere is in the process of freezing and falling to Pluto's surface. Finally, new close-up pictures of the surface transmitted back to Earth show direct evidence of nitrogen ice floes reminiscent of glacier movement on Earth. The dwarf planet also seems to be rich in methane ice and carbon dioxide ice.
Games

The French Scrabble Champ Does Not Speak French 113 113

HughPickens.com writes: On July 20, Nigel Richards won the French-language world Scrabble championship. Richards does not speak a word of French. "He doesn't speak French at all, he just learnt the words," says Liz Fagerlund. "He won't know what they mean, wouldn't be able to carry out a conversation in French I wouldn't think." Richards reportedly memorized an entire French dictionary in the two months leading up to the competition. For living-room players, Scrabble is a test of vocabularies but for world-class players, it's about cold memorization and mathematical probabilities which is why top player are often computer programmers or mathematicians, not poets or novelists. Think of the dictionary as a giant rulebook of valid text strings not as a compendium of the beauty and complexity of the English language. A good competitive player will have memorized a sizeable chunk of the 83,667 words that are two letters to eight letters long. Great players will know a lot of the 29,150 nine-letter words as well.

To the uninitiated, a scrabble game played by top players looks like they had played in Martian. Here's a taste: In a single game in last year's Nationals, Richards played the following words: zarf (a metal holder for a coffee cup), waddy (to strike with a thick club), hulloed (to hallo, to shout), sajous (a capuchin, a monkey), qi (the vital force in Chinese thought), flyboats (a small, fast boat), trigo (wheat) and threaper (one that threaps, disputes). Richards has a photographic memory and is known for his uncanny gift for constructing impossible words by stringing his letters through tiles already on the board. "He is probably the best Scrabble player in the world at this point," says John D. Williams, Jr.. "He's got the entire dictionary memorized. He's pretty much a Scrabble machine, if such a thing exists." So, really, how does he do it? As Richards said in an interview posted on YouTube, "I'm not sure there is a secret. It's just a matter of learning the words." All 178,691 of them.
Mars

Interviews: Shaun Moss Answers Your Questions About Mars and Space Exploration 48 48

Recently the founder of the Mars Settlement Research Organization and author of The International Mars Research Station Shaun Moss agreed to sit down and answer any questions you had about space exploration and colonizing Mars. Below you will find his answers to your questions.
Space

NASA Spies Earth-Sized Exoplanet Orbiting Sun-Like Star 134 134

An anonymous reader writes: NASA has announced that a new Earth-like planet has been discovered that may be the closest thing yet to a first true "Earth twin." Kepler 452b is located 1,000 light years away, is 60% larger than Earth, and orbits Kepler 452 at a distance similar to that between Earth and the Sun. "It is the first terrestrial planet in the habitable zone around a star very similar to the Sun," says Douglas Caldwell, an astronomer at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California.
Earth

Fossil Fuels Are Messing With Carbon Dating 108 108

Taco Cowboy writes: The carbon dating method used in determining the age of an artifact is based on the amount of radioactive carbon-14 isotopes it contains. The C-14 within an organism is continually decaying into stable carbon isotopes, but since the organism is absorbing more C-14 during its life, the ratio of C-14 to C-12 remains about the same as the ratio in the atmosphere. When the organism dies, the ratio of C-14 within its carcass begins to gradually decrease. The amount of C-14 drops by half every 5,730 years after death.

The fossil fuels we're burning are old — so old they don't contain any C-14. The more we burn these fossil fuels, the more non-C-14 carbon we pump into the atmosphere. If emissions continue as they have for the past few decades, then by year 2050 a shirt made in that year (2050) will have the same C-14 signature as a shirt worn by William the Conqueror a thousand years earlier.
Education

Video CanSat Helps Students Make & Launch Sub-Orbital 'Satellites' (Video) 22 22

The Magnitude (motto: "Powered by Curiosity") "Can-sized satellites" aren't technically satellites because they're launched on rockets that typically can't get much higher than 10,000 feet, or as payloads on weather balloons that can hit 100,000+ feet but (obviously) can't go beyond the Earth's atmosphere. But could they be satellites? Sure. Get a rocket with enough punch to put them in orbit and off you go -- something Magnitude Co-founder and CEO Ted Tagami hopes to see happening in his local school district by 2020. Meanwhile, they'll sell you assembled CanSat packages or help you build your own (or anything in between), depending on your schools resources and aspirations. Have a question or an idea? Talk to Ted. He'd love to hear from you. Use the Magnitude Web form or send email to hello at magnitude dot io. Either way works.
Communications

Comet Lander Falls Silent; Scientists Fear It Has Moved 36 36

vivaoporto writes: European scientists say the Philae comet lander fell silent on Monday, raising fears that it has moved again on its new home millions of miles from Earth. Over the last few weeks, Rosetta has been flying along the terminator plane of the comet in order to find the best location to communicate with Philae. However, over the weekend of 10-11 July, the star trackers struggled to lock on to stars at the closer distances. No contact has been made with Philae since 9 July. The data acquired at that time are being investigated by the lander team to try to better understand Philae's situation.

One possible explanation being discussed at DLR's Lander Control Center is that the position of Philae may have shifted slightly, perhaps by changing its orientation with respect to the surface in its current location. The lander is likely situated on uneven terrain, and even a slight change in its position – perhaps triggered by gas emission from the comet – could mean that its antenna position has also now changed with respect to its surroundings. This could have a knock-on effect as to the best position Rosetta needs to be in to establish a connection with the lander.

The current status of Philae remains uncertain and is a topic of on-going discussion and analysis. But in the meantime, further commands are being prepared and tested to allow Philae to re-commence operations. The lander team wants to try to activate a command block that is still stored in Philae's computer and which was already successfully performed after the lander's unplanned flight across to the surface to its final location. "Although the mission will now focus its scientific priority on the orbiter, Rosetta will continue attempting – up to and past perihelion – to obtain Philae science packets once a stable link has been acquired," adds Patrick Martin, Rosetta mission manager.
Space

Company Aims To Launch Spacecraft On Beams of Microwaves 120 120

MarkWhittington writes: The quest for cheap access to space, to make space travel as inexpensive as air travel, has eluded engineers, government policy makers, and business entrepreneurs from before the beginning of the space age. It has become axiomatic, almost to the point of being a cliché, that the true space age will not begin until launch costs come down significantly. Forbes reported about a company called Escape Dynamics that has a unique approach to the problem. The company proposes to launch payloads into low Earth orbit on beams of microwaves.
ISS

Asteroid Mining Company's First Satellite Launches From Space Station 35 35

An anonymous reader writes: Planetary Resources, the company trying to jumpstart an asteroid-mining industry, has launched its first spacecraft. Its 90-day mission is to boldly... test avionics, control systems, and software. The Arkyd 3 Reflight craft was launched from the International Space Station after being delivered there in April. (They had intended to test earlier, but their first craft was lost in the Antares rocket explosion last October.) "The spacecraft is small, but mighty: At just 12 by 4 by 4 inches (30 by 10 by 10 centimeters), it will test key systems and control schemes that will allow later craft to land on asteroids to extract water and minerals. Eric Anderson, co-founder and co-chairman of Planetary Resources, said in the statement that the mining technologies could also help monitor and manage Earth's valuable resources. Later this year, once the satellite completes its 90-day mission, Planetary Resources will send up another satellite: the Arkyd-6, which will be twice as large and will test even more systems needed for the asteroid-mining process, representatives said."
Earth

2014 Was Earth's Warmest Year On Record 384 384

An anonymous reader writes: A lengthy report compiled by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration using work from hundreds of scientists across 58 countries has found that 2014 was the hottest year on record. "The warmth was widespread across land areas. Europe experienced its warmest year on record, with more than 20 countries exceeding their previous records. Africa had above-average temperatures across most of the continent throughout 2014, Australia saw its third warmest year on record, Mexico had its warmest year on record, and Argentina and Uruguay each had their second warmest year on record. Eastern North America was the only major region to experience below-average annual temperatures." They've also published a page showing highlights of the major findings. Greenhouse gas concentrations continue to rise, the global sea level reached a record high, and average sea surface temperatures reached a record high.
Earth

Mini Ice Age: Nothing To Worry About 195 195

Geoffrey.landis writes: Last week a news story suggested that a new model of sunspot activity predicted a dramatic drop in solar activity coming up, possibly resulting in coming a mini-ice age. Take that prediction with a bit of skepticism, though-- later news analysis suggests that the story may be more media hype than science. Valentina Zharkova, the scientist whose research is being quoted, made no mention of a "mini Ice age"-- her work was only on modelling the solar dynamo. And, in any case, the solar minimum predicted was estimated to last only three solar cycles-- far less than the 17th century Maunder Minimum.

Phil Plait, known for his "bad astronomy" column, does a more detailed analysis of the claims, pointing out that the effect, if it even exists at all, is weak-- and the much discussed "Little Ice Age" is currently believed to most likely have been triggered by volcanic action, not sunspots. And, in any case, any predicted cooling is small compared to already-present global warming. So, probably no need to stock up on firewood, dried food, and ammunition quite yet-- the mini ice age isn't likely to be coming quite yet.
Mars

Does Elon Musk's Hyperloop Make More Sense On Mars? 143 143

An anonymous reader writes: Elon Musk's Hyperloop project has its challenges in places that have air. But in places with little air and no fossil fuels, where you can't fly and there's little drag, it makes a lot more sense. Post-doc researcher Leon Vanstone thinks the Hyperloop may have more of a future on Mars than here on Earth. He says, "Conservative cost estimates for building a single Hyperloop track from Los Angeles to San Francisco come in at US$6 billion. Taking the technology nationwide would cost hundreds of billions of dollars more. When you consider that normal, boring airplanes already travel at about 500-600 mph – about two-thirds as fast as the Hyperloop’s predicted speed – you might begin to wonder if an extra 200 mph is enough of a payoff for those hundreds of billions of dollars. ... Well, Elon Musk is no idiot, and he certainly has the money to hire some of the best and the brightest. ... A high-speed, safe, self-powered transportation system will be vital to connect Martian settlements – likely to be few in number and separated by large distances."
Space

New Horizons Phones Home After Pluto Flyby -- Craft Healthy, Data Recorded 134 134

Tablizer was one of several readers to note that the New Horizons probe has completed its flyby of Pluto and radioed home to confirm that it went without incident. Mission Ops manager Alice Bowman said the spacecraft was healthy, full of data, and sharing telemetry. The images New Horizon collected haven't been downloaded yet, but NASA decided to tide us over by releasing this high-resolution view from the day before. It was taken when the probe was still 768,000 kilometers away with a resolution of 3.8km per pixel. (Closest approach was approximately 12,500km.) They also released an exaggerated-color image of Pluto and Charon which highlights the non-uniformity of both worlds.

Pictures from closest approach are not yet available. Expect another post late Wednesday or early Thursday with those images. The reason for this is that New Horizons can't take pictures and send them to us at the same time, so imaging activity is interspersed with downlinks to Earth to transmit data. Emily Lakdawalla has posted a downlink schedule. On Wednesday afternoon (ET), the probe will transmit three images of Pluto that were taken from 77,000km away, with a resolution of 0.4 km per pixel. They'll be the first three pieces of a mosaic of Pluto's surface, and the dwarf planet will fill all three frames. It will take a full 16 months for New Horizons to transmit all the data it collects. (Lakdawalla also added Pluto to a montage of the biggest non-planets in the solar system. New Horizon's measurements indicate Pluto is slightly larger than we thought. It's now considered the largest of the Kuiper Belt objects.)
Space

Video Planet Labs Has Launched Over 100 Imaging Satellites with Many More to Come (Video) 15 15

According to a recent CNN article, Planet Labs produces Great photos of Earth from the world's smallest satellites. Most satellites these days are about the size of a car. Planet Labs micro-satellites are closer to the size of a shoebox. The company was founded in 2012 and has attracted major venture capital. They're using that money to launch an ever-increasing number of Flocks (their word) of satellites they call "Doves," which are basically nothing but cameras and simple comm equipment, along with solar panels, batteries, and control circuitry required to make everything work. Interviewee Shaun Meehan gets into most of this in the video; for more detail, please read the transcript.
Earth

Google To Reopen Maps To User Edits, With an Anti-Abuse Plan 28 28

jfruh writes: When Google opened up its Maps to user edits, a lot of useful information got added — along with plenty of spam and outright abuse, some of it obscene, which led to the program being shut down. Now the company is planning to reopen things to user input, recruiting local mappers that they're calling "regional leads" to filter out problematic content.
Earth

How the Biggest, Most Expensive Oil Spill In History Changed Almost Nothing 195 195

merbs writes: Tthe biggest oil spill in US history, despite incurring the largest environmental fine on the books—$18.7 billion, handed down this month—has done almost nothing to change the nation's relationship to oil. Five years after the spill, and, by BP's count, $54 billion in projected total expenses, there have been no serious legislative efforts to improve the oversight or regulation of the United States' still-expanding offshore oil operations. Public opinion of deepwater drilling barely budged during the ordeal; today, a majority of Americans favor doing even more of it.
NASA

NASA's New Horizons Focuses On Pluto's Largest Moon Charon 77 77

MarkWhittington writes: New Horizons has already discovered much of what was previously unknown about Pluto, the dwarf planet that is the former ninth planet from the sun. NASA reported that the space probe has also uncovered some of the secrets of Pluto's largest moon, Charon. It has found indications of impact craters on the moon's gray surface as well as a chasm that seems to be bigger than the Grand Canyon on Earth. Charon has a diameter of just 1440 miles. By contrast, Earth has a diameter of 7918 miles.
Earth

Double-Dynamo Model Predicts 60% Fall In Solar Output In The 2030s 249 249

sycodon points out reports of a new model of solar dynamics from University of Northumbria professor Valentina Zharkova, predictions from which "suggest that solar activity will fall by 60 per cent during the 2030s to conditions last seen during the 'mini ice age' that began in 1645." Zharkova's model, based on observation of solar magnetism, "draws on dynamo effects in two layers of the Sun, one close to the surface and one deep within its convection zone." Zharkova’s and her colleages at three other universities believe that this two-layer model "could explain aspects of the solar cycle with much greater accuracy than before — possibly leading to enhanced predictions of future solar behaviour. “We found magnetic wave components appearing in pairs; originating in two different layers in the Sun’s interior. They both have a frequency of approximately 11 years, although this frequency is slightly different [for both] and they are offset in time.”