September 19, 2018

Here are the hottest places in Los Angeles, literally

Southern California is usually a pretty comfortable place, temperature wise, but you'd never know it when you find yourself stuck in a traffic jam on a packed freeway. NASA's powerful new ECOSTRESS instrument installed on the International Space Station can generate incredibly detailed heat maps of whatever it's pointed at, and NASA just pointed it at Los Angeles. The map, which differentiates the temperatures it detects using a rainbow color pattern, paints LA as a pleasant oasis punctuated by grueling stretches of pavement, which is a pretty accurate way of describing the city in general. The image you see above was taken very early in the morning, at a time when the Sun hasn't yet had a chance to really do its work. Subsequent images from later in the day, especially the shot from 3:01 pm, show just how incredibly hot the most popular areas of the city can get. It's important to note that the ECOSTRESS tool measures the temperature of surfaces, rather than the temperature of the air. Even a relatively cool day, if sunny, can result in scorching-hot blacktop, so a temperature reading of 140 degrees Fahrenheit on the map doesn't actually translate to the temperature you'd feel just walking around. "The Los Angeles area is known for its Mediterranean climate and abundant sunshine but also for its extreme "micro-climate" temperature swings — from cooler coastal areas to much warmer inland regions like the San Gabriel Valley," NASA explains in a blog post. "ECOSTRESS can detect the distribution and pattern variations of that surface heat over areas the size of a football field." The ECOSTRESS system — which is short for "ECOsystem Spaceborne Thermal Radiometer Experiment on Space Station" — was built to allow scientists to measure the temperature stresses on plants around the world. Temperatures of foliage can be a great indicator of how healthy plant life is. It can help experts form plans to deal with droughts and heat waves, and in this case it shows that central LA is a hellish volcano not fit for human life. But you knew that already.
September 19, 2018

Ticked-off Canadian crabs are waging war on the United States and scientists are powerless to stop them

Canada and the United States usually get along pretty well, and that's probably because Canadians are just so darn nice. They apologize for everything, they don't mind bizarre weather, and they're always looking out for each other. Unfortunately the same can't be said for Canadian crabs, which are some of the most absurdly aggressive marine creatures around, and now they're moving south. As the Boston Globe reports, green crabs from Canada are beginning to march down to coast of the United States, and they're picking fights with anyone who comes near. They're unpleasant, rude, and might actually push away native species that were getting along just fine on their own. The crabs are actually the same species that can already be found further south along the coast of Maine, but for some reason they're a whole lot more aggressive. Rather than simply living their lives in flowing sea grass and eating when they're hungry, the Canadian crabs take a scorched-Earth approach by chopping down vegetation with their claws and killing any small sea creatures that get in their way. These angry organisms have been found along Maine on occasion, but it seems they're pushing farther south than before. In a new survey of crab populations in Maine, the nasty Canadians were spotted at a rate of about one out of every 50 green crabs. A study of the local marine ecosystem and the crabs' impact on it is being prepared for publishing. As University of New England researchers Louis Logan explains, we might be powerless to stop them. "It will be an entirely different ball game," Logan told the Boston Globe. "It’s just a question of when more of the crabs come and out-compete the Maine green crabs. We can’t do anything about it. The only thing that we can do is learn how to live with it."
September 19, 2018

ESA space probe found dead, and gravity is the prime suspect

When the European Space Agency launched the SMART-1 probe back in the early 2000s it was designed to have a relatively short lifespan. The spacecraft was only meant to orbit the Moon for a few years before making a "controlled" impact with the lunar surface. Everything went according to plan... except for the fact that the ESA had no idea exactly where the probe actually struck. That was back in 2006, and now over a decade later we finally know where the spacecraft ended up. In a recent news release, the European Space Agency reveals an image of the probe's crash site, bringing a twelve-year mystery to its inevitable conclusion. During its years orbiting the Moon, the probe did its job well. It was packed with a suite of instruments and sent back a wealth of data on the Moon, while also testing a number of new technologies related to space communication and propulsion. It was a success by pretty much any measure, but with only a small amount of fuel on board it was destined to call the Moon its final resting place. When the impact happened, some astronomers on Earth actually spotted the brief flash it produced. Unfortunately, no observation tools were pointed at the probe when it made its final descent, and the ESA and NASA could only guess where it might have struck. Twelve years later, NASA has come to the rescue. The NASA Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has been taking stunning photos of the lunar surface at a resolution never possible before, managed to actually spot the probe's crash site. "The spacecraft carved out a four-metre-wide and 20-metre-long gouge as it it impacted and bounced," ESA explains in a press release. "It cut across a small crater and sent lunar soil flying outwards from its skidding, ricocheting path, creating the brighter patches of material seen either side of the crater, with debris from spacecraft and oblique dust ejecta coming to a halt several to tens of kilometres in the forward stream direction." RIP SMART-1.
September 18, 2018

Robot jellyfish could save the world’s coral reefs

The world's coral reefs are in dire need of some love. Global warming and ocean temperature spikes have left massive stretches of vital coral reefs damaged, possibly beyond all repair, and if we don't do something to stop the continuing damage it's going to cost mankind dearly. But studying coral is no easy task, so researchers from the US Office of Naval Research and Florida Atlantic University have come up with a solution. The issue at hand is the fragility of coral itself. It's incredibly hard to monitor reef habitats and the health of the reef ecosystem using human divers or bulky equipment which could cause damage. The solution? Soft-bodied robotic jellyfish. Using the moon jellyfish as inspiration, the scientists built prototypes to test the feasibility of using a simple hydraulic movement system to allow their creation to move around in the water with very little effort. The work paid off, and the result is a small robot that can move effortlessly along a coral reef without risking any damage. A research paper based on the work was published in Bioinspiration & Biomimetics. "A main application of the robot is exploring and monitoring delicate ecosystems, so we chose soft hydraulic network actuators to prevent inadvertent damage," Dr. Erik Engeberg of Florida Atlantic University said in a statement. "Additionally, live jellyfish have neutral buoyancy. To mimic this, we used water to inflate the hydraulic network actuators while swimming." The soft exterior of the robot, which is made of a rubbery silicon material, allows it to squeeze through tiny gaps. A future iteration of the robot could even incorporate a sonar sensor to gauge the size of openings before muscling through them, Dr. Engeberg noted. In the future, robotic jellyfish like these could be outfitted with any number of sensors to monitor water temperature and quality or even relay images of various parts of the reef to scientists on shore. These eyes-in-the-sea, so to speak, could be vital to monitoring ongoing reef recovery efforts worldwide.
September 18, 2018

This massive solar-powered yacht will let oligarchs cruise the seas without stopping for gas

Electric vehicles certainly seem to be the future, with just about every major auto brand following Tesla's lead to a gas-free future, but will the same be true for boats? Yachts are a big status symbol for wealthy folks, but they're also huge gas-guzzlers. Now, a Swedish company called Solar Impact is hoping to change that with a gorgeous pleasure boat that never sips a drop of fuel. The ship is a technological marvel — which, it should be noted, has yet to actually be built — and is absolutely covered in power-generating solar panels. The ability to generate its own power gives the yacht unlimited range, but that claim comes with a bit of an asterisk. Called simply the Solar Impact Yacht (that might change at some point), the nearly 80-foot long vessel offers three floors of fun. A total of six cabins are tucked away below while large social areas dominate the main deck, and a lounge area is situated up top. This mighty vessel is rated at over 1,300 horsepower, and when at full throttle it can cruise at an impressive 22 knots. However, that speed would drain the large 800kWh battery faster than the solar panels can actually recharge it. For truly unlimited range you'd need to scale back your speed to a much slower 5 knots. When in electric mode, the yacht is "noiseless," according to its manufacturer. If you find yourself stuck with cloud-covered skies and an empty battery you can either wait for the Sun to shine through again or start up the dual diesel backup engines to push you along. Along with these power options, the company claims that the yacht comes with some kind of artificial intelligence, though it hasn't exactly explained how it works. Despite plenty of specs and a detailed layout available to browse on its website, the company has left a lot of questions unanswered. No actual availability information is available aside from a vague hint that "next year" is when the yacht may or may not actually be a real thing. Most importantly, there's not even a ballpark price, but an all-electric solar-powered super yacht sure sounds like something that only about a dozen people on Earth will be able to afford.
September 18, 2018

To truly stop the spread of malaria, we might have to treat mosquitoes instead of ourselves

Malaria is an incredibly devastating disease that regularly infects hundreds of millions of people every year, causing hundreds of thousands of deaths. In tropical areas, the disease runs rampant as infected mosquitoes spread the parasite from person to person. The most common preventative measures to curb the spread are mosquito nets and pesticides to keep the insects away from human hosts, but a new study suggests there may be a better way, and it involves treating the actual mosquitoes that are spreading the disease in the first place. The research, which was published in Nature Communications, focused on finding a way to prevent humans from infecting mosquitoes. That might sound backwards, but it's actually a pretty smart approach once you understand how malaria parasites spread. You see, when a person is infected with malaria and then successfully treated, their symptoms disappear but the parasites are actually still in the person's body. That dormant form of the parasite lies in wait for a mosquito to bite the person once more. When that happens, the parasites enter the mosquito's body and begin reproducing, and when the mosquito bites another person the disease begins wreaking havoc once again. A team of scientists led by Jake Baum of Imperial College London tested tens of thousands of compounds to see how they affected the malaria parasites' ability to reproduce inside mosquitoes and subsequently infect humans. From a pool of over 70,000 compounds, six potential candidates were discovered. "What we propose is antimalarial drugs that protect mosquitoes, blocking the parasites from continuing their infectious journey," Baum said in a statement. "By combining such a drug with a conventional antimalarial, we not only cure the individual person, but protect the community as well." "At the level of the individual person, fighting malaria is a constant battle as parasites become resistant to antimalarial drugs. Since transmission occurs in the mosquito, drugs targeting this process have the added benefit of being naturally much more resistance-proof, which could be essential for eliminating malaria." The team simulated what the inside of a mosquito's body is like in order to test the reaction of the malaria parasites to the various compounds. The preparation was tedious and it took "several years" to set up the system to test the compounds. Once that was completed, the researchers were able to screen over 10,000 different compounds per week, which is quite impressive. The compounds the team identified will need further testing, but they are thought to be both safe for humans and active against the parasite's typical life cycle. If a previously infected person were treated with a drug based on one of these compounds, and then bitten by a mosquito, it could actually treat the insect and prevent it from spreading the disease in the future. Could we be watching the fight against malaria finally being won? We might not have to wait long to find out.
September 18, 2018

Neil deGrasse Tyson says smoking weed in space is a recipe for disaster

Neil deGrasse Tyson is probably the most recognizable scientists alive today, and he also happens to have some pretty strong opinions on a variety of things. In a recent street interview with TMZ, the famous astrophysicist was asked about his feelings on Elon Musk smoking weed as well as his thoughts on smoking weed in space. Tyson starts out by defending Musk's right to spark a joint if he wants to, but notes that because his company is public he still has an obligation to abide by certain guidelines. On the idea of smoking weed in space, however, Tyson is firmly against it, and for a pretty obvious reason. "The problem is, in space, now, many things will kill you," Tyson says. "So, if you do anything to alter your understanding of what is reality, that's not in the interest of your health. So, if you want to get high in space, you can like lock yourself in your cabin, and don't come out, 'cause you could break stuff... inadvertently. That's how that goes." He makes a pretty good point. If you've ever seen the inside of the International Space Station it's apparent that there's a whole lot of knobs, levers, and buttons that should probably be left alone by anyone who isn't fully alert and attentive. If something were to go wrong — you know, like a hole popping open and spewing oxygen out into space — it's best that the crew is as clear-headed as possible. Smoking a bowl on a spacecraft will probably lead to lots of staring out the windows and vague statements about the meaning of life. There's also no pizza delivery or gas station snacks in space, which would probably hamper the experience anyway.
September 18, 2018

SpaceX’s first Moon trip passenger is billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, and he wants to bring others along for the ride

After a relatively brief period of teasing the announcement, SpaceX took the opportunity on Monday night to announce its very first paying passenger for a trip around the Moon. The man is Yusaku Maezawa, and he's a very, very wealth Japanese man who plans on inviting up to eight others along for the ride around the Moon and back to Earth. Maezawa might not be a household name in the US but his brands are huge in Japan and abroad. He's the founder of Japan's largest online clothing retailer, Zozotown, and also has his own clothing brand call Zozo. He's also an avid art collector, and broke auction records with individual purchases of $57.3 million and $110.5 million in 2016 and 2017, respectively.  During the SpaceX reveal event, Maezawa explained that his desire is to bring a bunch of artists with him on his trip around the Moon. That's not a symbolic claim; he actually plans on recruiting up to eight artists who will join him and participate in a project he calls #dearMoon. "A painter, musician, film director, fashion designer... Some of Earth's greatest talents will board a spacecraft and be inspired in a way they have never been before," Maezawa's new #dearMoon website reads. "During the week-long spaceflight, what will they see? What will they feel? And what will they create?" His idea is to inspire the passengers and then bring their various works together in a collaborative showcase of art inspired by the Moon journey. SpaceX forecasts the flight taking place in 2023, but as founder Elon Musk explained during the announcement event, there's a lot of factors that could impact how it all plays out. As Reuters reports, the actual cost of the trip hasn't been revealed, but Maezawa noted that the journey will set him back significantly more than his art purchases. The billionaire has reportedly already placed a large deposit on the flight which is helping SpaceX in the development of the BFR launch platform that will actually take the passengers around the Moon.
September 18, 2018

Watch SpaceX introduce its first Moon trip passenger live

SpaceX is already making headlines around the world for its efforts to make spaceflight more affordable for organizations like NASA as well as private companies, but today the company will announce something truly revolutionary. In a news conference scheduled to start at 9pm ET, SpaceX will introduce its first paying private customer who will ride a spacecraft around the Moon just for the fun of it. The as-of-yet-unnamed patron will be paying a huge price for the privilege of traveling around the Moon, and SpaceX has a huge job ahead of it to actually make the trip happen. You can watch the entire event from start to finish right here. "SpaceX has signed the world’s first private passenger to fly around the Moon aboard our BFR launch vehicle - an important step toward enabling access for everyday people who dream of traveling to space," SpaceX says in a posting of its live stream. "Only 24 humans have been to the Moon in history. No one has visited since the last Apollo mission in 1972." This goes without saying, but the trip isn't exactly happening tomorrow. SpaceX is still working hard at getting its Big Falcon Rocket ready for its first test launches, and the company will need to put its launch systems through their paces well in advance of taking passengers anywhere. The company has been racing to meet NASA's need of a crew-capable spacecraft to take astronauts to the International Space Station and back, along with Boeing, and both companies have fallen well behind their original schedules. Nevertheless, SpaceX is pressing on, and apparently feels confident enough in its work that it is comfortable parading its first paying private space "tourist" in front of the world. The event is schedule for 9pm ET, and SpaceX usually does a great job with its live streams so we can expect plenty of commentary and context both before and after the formal announcement.
September 17, 2018

The first science image from NASA’s TESS exoplanet hunter is mind-boggling

NASA's TESS spacecraft — that stands for Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, in case you had somehow forgotten — is an incredibly powerful tool for spotting distant worlds. It was launched back in April, but it took some time to get the satellite up to speed and begin working on actual science objectives. Now, in a demonstration of its power, NASA is showing off the first science image the satellite has captured, and boy is it a beauty. The image is absolutely packed with stars, taking a half hour to soak in the light and produce the collection of pictures you see below. It watches for tiny dips in the brightness of far-away stars to detect planets moving in front of them, which happens to be a great way to prove the existence of planets outside of our own Solar System. It's a surprisingly straightforward way of spotting planets that are otherwise invisible with current technology, but it requires an incredibly sensitive lens to notice the changes in brightness. “In a sea of stars brimming with new worlds, TESS is casting a wide net and will haul in a bounty of promising planets for further study,” NASA's Paul Hertz, astrophysics division director, said in a statement. “This first light science image shows the capabilities of TESS’ cameras, and shows that the mission will realize its incredible potential in our search for another Earth.” This image was taken of the southern hemisphere, but the spacecraft has a lengthy mission that will see it scan all areas of space. TESS will spend a year or so on the southern hemisphere and then work its way to the northern hemisphere, collecting an immense amount of data and relaying it back to scientists on Earth. That data will be combed and, it's expected, will yield countless new exoplanet discoveries.