‘Spiders’ on Mars: Citizen scientists investigate strange Martian terrain

"Spidery" channels spotted near Mars' south pole by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

“Spidery” channels spotted near Mars’ south pole by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.  (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona)

NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) has been surveying strange “spider-like” surface features on Mars for years, and now citizen scientists are helping the orbiter hone in on areas that require further investigation.

These prominent surface features are found near Mars’ south pole, and are believed to be linked to seasonal changes. The planet’s polar ice caps thaw bottom-side first in the spring, causing carbon dioxide to build up and carve deep channels in the terrain, according to a statement from NASA.

“The trapped carbon dioxide gas that carves the spiders in the ground also breaks through the thawing ice sheet. It lofts dust and dirt that local winds then sculpt into hundreds of thousands of dark fans that are observed from orbit,” Meg Schwamb, a planetary scientist from the Gemini Observatory in Hawaii, said in the statement. “For the past decade, [the orbiter’s instrument] HiRISE has been monitoring this process on other parts of the south pole.” [Latest Photos from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter]

The Context Camera (CTX) aboard the MRO captured the images of these spider-like cracks and crevices, which volunteer citizen scientists have analyzed using the website “Planet Four: Terrains.”

With the observations from this citizen science project, NASA has added 20 new regions to the agency’s seasonal monitoring campaign on Mars. The orbiter’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera will explore these regions in greater detail.

“It’s heartwarming to see so many citizens of planet Earth donate their time to help study Mars,” Candice Hansen, HiRISE deputy principal investigator, said in the statement. “Thanks to the discovery power of so many people, we’re using HiRISE to take images of places we might not have studied without this assistance.”

The new places of interest on Mars include some unexpected spider terrain, areas where the surface is composed of material that was ejected from impact craters. Previously, those areas were not associated with carbon dioxide ice sheets, and therefore not thought to have spider-like crevices.

The spider cracks may have formed on the material ejected from craters using a different mechanism than the ice sheets, Hansen said. “Perhaps on surfaces that are more erodible, relative to other surfaces, slab ice would not need to be present as long, or [need to be] as thick, for spiders to form. We have new findings, and new questions to answer, thanks to all the help from volunteers,” Hansen added.

Scientists to study strange star for signs of intelligent life

NOW PLAYINGAre aliens building an extraterrestrial megastructure?

Starting on Wednesday night, scientists on the hunt for extraterrestrial life will begin studying a strange star that has generated plenty of buzz because of its unique behavior.

The distant sun is known as Tabby’s star, and what’s atypical about it is that its brightness does not remain constant. Data show that the star dimmed slightly from 2009 to 2012, and then its brightness dropped by two percent over a period of six months. Now, the Breakthrough Listen project at the University of California, Berkeley, has announced that they will peer at the star using a radio telescope to see if they can detect intelligent life.

“The Breakthrough Listen program has the most powerful SETI equipment on the planet, and access to the largest telescopes on the planet,” Andrew Siemion, director of the Berkeley SETI Research Center and co-director of Breakthrough Listen, said in a statement. “We can look at it with greater sensitivity and for a wider range of signal types than any other experiment in the world.”

Related: Why is this star dimming? Astronomers still don’t know

One farfetched theory about the star is that aliens are somehow responsible for the star’s dimming, perhaps by having built a structure that passes in front of it, although Dan Werthimer, the chief scientist at Berkeley SETI, said he thinks that’s incredibly improbable.

“I don’t think it’s very likely – a one in a billion chance or something like that – but nevertheless, we’re going to check it out,” Werthimer said in the statement.

The Berkeley team is not the first to look for signs of life around this star, which is formally known as KIC 8462852, and no one has found anything yet. They’re going to spend a total of 24 hours over three nights gazing at the star using a large, movable radio telescope in West Virginia, but even in that amount of time they predict that they’ll gather oodles of data that will take a while to analyze.

The star has been a subject of much fascination since it was first described in 2015 by astronomer Tabetha Boyajian, an assistant professor at Louisiana State University.

Earlier in October, Columbia University astronomer David Kipping told FoxNews.com that he thinks the most likely explanation for what’s happening with the star is a natural one— it’s just a “gap in our present knowledge” at this point.

Follow Rob Verger on Twitter: @robverger

Impact! New moon craters are appearing faster than thought

A 39-foot diameter impact crater formed between Oct. 25, 2012, and April 21, 2013, and was discovered in a before-and-after image created from two Narrow Angle Camera (NAC) images.

A 39-foot diameter impact crater formed between Oct. 25, 2012, and April 21, 2013, and was discovered in a before-and-after image created from two Narrow Angle Camera (NAC) images.  (NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University)



New craters are forming on the surface of the moon more frequently than scientists had predicted, a new study has found. The discovery raises concerns about future moon missions, which may face an increased risk of being hit by falling space rocks.

The moon is dotted with a vast number of craters, some billions of years old. Because the moon has no atmosphere, falling space rocks don’t burn up like they do on Earth, which leaves the moon’s surface vulnerable to a constant stream of cosmic impacts that gradually churn the top layer of material on its surface. You can see a before-and-after video of a new moon crater here.

Previous studies of lunar craters shed light on how they formed and on the past rate of cratering, which in turn yielded insights on the age of various features of the moon’s surface. However, less was known about the contemporary rate of lunar crater formation, which could give insight on the risk of bombardment that any missions to the moon might face. [The Moon: 10 Surprising Lunar Facts]

To find out more about the present lunar crater formation rate, a group of scientists analyzed more than 14,000 pairs of before-and-after images of the moon’s surface, taken by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO). These images covered 6.6 percent of the lunar surface — about 960,000 square miles — and could reveal when a spot was crater-free and when it later had a crater. The time gaps between observations spanned between 176 and 1,241 Earth days.

“When looking at just a single image, many of the newly formed features are indistinguishable from their surroundings,” said study lead author Emerson Speyerer, a planetary scientist at the Arizona State University at Tempe. “It’s only with these detailed comparisons with previous images that we can separate out these small surface changes.

The researchers discovered 222 craters on the moon that appeared on the surface after the first LRO images were taken — that is 33 percent more than predicted by current models. These were at least 32 feet across, and ranged up to about 140 feet wide.

The scientists also found broad zones around these new craters that they interpreted as the remains of jets of debris following impacts. They estimated this secondary cratering process is churning the top 0.8 inches of lunar dirt, or regolith, across the entire lunar surface more than 100 times faster than thought.

“I’m excited by the fact that we can see the regolith evolve and churn — a process that was believed to take hundreds of thousands to millions of years to occur — in images acquired over the past several years,” Speyerer told Space.com.

These new findings also suggest that a number of young features on the moon’s surface, such as recent volcanic deposits, “may in fact be even a bit younger than previously thought,” Speyerer said.

Although the odds of something on the lunar surface suffering a direct hit by asteroidal or cometary debris is very small, Speyerer noted these new findings illustrate the potential dangers posed by the rocks kicked up by these impacts.

“For example, we found an 18-meter (59-foot) impact crater that formed on March 17, 2013, and it produced over 250 secondary impacts, some of which were at least 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) away,” Speyerer said. “Future lunar bases and surface assets will have to be designed to withstand up to 500 meter per second (1,120 mph) impacts of small particles.”

Speyerer said that NASA recently approved a two-year extended mission for theLunar Reconnaissance Orbiter that can help collect more before-and-after images of the lunar surface.

“As the mission continues, the odds increase of finding larger impacts that occur more infrequently on the moon,” Speyerer said. “Such discoveries will enable us to further refine the impact rate and investigate the most important process that shapes planetary bodies across the solar system.”

The scientists detailed their findings online in today’s (Oct. 12) issue of Nature.

Scientists study ‘Death Star’ to save Earth

The Martian moon Phobos.

The Martian moon Phobos.  (Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory)

Computerized modeling of Mars’ moon Phobos has a connection with keeping the Earth safe from asteroids, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) announced on Wednesday.

Phobos has a huge crater, more than five miles across, and a new computer model out of the LLNL in California simulates the dramatic impact that could have caused that distinctive crater. The research is part of a planetary defence program at LLNL— in other words, studying how to protect Earth from a devastating impact.

“We’ve demonstrated that you can create this crater without destroying the moon if you use the proper porosity and resolution in a 3D simulation,” Megan Bruck Syal, a scientist at LLNL and a part of their planetary defence team, said in astatement about the new Phobos research.

According to LLNL, the object that slammed into Phobos and created what’s called the Stickney crater (which calls to mind the structure of the massive weapon on the Death Star from “Star Wars”) could have been about 820 feet across and been traveling at a speed of about 13,420 mph, in one scenario. Their work will be published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.


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The exercise at LLNL was done using a code called Spheral, and is part of a broader planetary defence initiative at the lab. That program has two elements to it, according to Nolan O’Brien, a public information officer for lab, which is part of the U.S. Department of Energy.

While NASA is keeping an eye on the heavens for objects that could threaten the Earth, LLNL is interested in deflecting such a hazard. That could involve ramming a spacecraft into the asteroid to change its course, or even detonating a nuclear device near it, O’Brien told FoxNews.com. The nuclear explosion near the asteroid would heat up one part of it, and that would act like a rocket engine, ideally propelling it on a safe course and taking Earth out of the crosshairs.

The second aspect of their work is what happens if the unthinkable occurs, and Earth is hit by a hazardous object, O’Brien said— in that case, they’d want to mitigate the damage.

Earlier this year, NASA opened a new office to track asteroids and comets that could come close to Earth. The Planetary Defense Coordination Office, or PDCO, is part of the agency’s Planetary Science Division. NASA also has an ambitious plan to launch a mission that would grab a boulder from an asteroid and place it in lunar orbit.

“Something as big and fast as what caused the Stickney crater [on Phobos] would have a devastating effect on Earth,” Syal said in the statement. “If NASA sees a potentially hazardous asteroid coming our way, it will be essential to make sure we’re able to deflect it. We’ll only have one shot at it, and the consequences couldn’t be higher.”

Follow Rob Verger on Twitter: @robverger

Air Force’s X-37B space plane mystery mission wings by 500 days in orbit

An artist's depiction of the U.S. Air Force's unmanned X-37B space plane in orbit with its solar array deployed and payload bay open.

An artist’s depiction of the U.S. Air Force’s unmanned X-37B space plane in orbit with its solar array deployed and payload bay open.  (United Launch Alliance/Boeing)

The latest secretive mission of the United States Air Force’s X-37B space plane has cruised beyond 500 days in Earth orbit since its launch last year.

The U.S. military launched the robotic X-37B space plane on May 20, 2015, marking the fourth flight for the Air Force program. A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket lofted the spacecraft from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station to kick off the OTV-4 mission (short for Orbital Test Vehicle-4).

Exactly what the winged space plane’s duties are while it’s in orbit continues to remain a tight-lipped affair. Similarly, how long the vehicle will remain in orbit has not been detailed. [The X-37B’s Fourth Mystery Mission in Photos]

The first OTV mission launched in April 22, 2010, and concluded on Dec. 3, 2010, after 224 days in orbit. The second OTV mission — which used a different vehicle than the first — began March 5, 2011, and concluded on June 16, 2012, after 468 days on orbit. The subsequent OTV-3 mission reused the X-37B that flew on the first mission, and chalked up nearly 675 days in orbit.

So far, the U.S. military has not stated where the OTV-4 mission’s craft will ultimately land once it’s current flight ends. In the past, all three X-37B flights ended at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, gliding to a runway landing on autopilot.

New landing site for X-37B?

Progress has been made, however, to consolidate its space plane operations, including use of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida as a landing site for the X-37B. A former KSC space-shuttle facility known as Orbiter Processing Facility (OPF-1) was converted into a structure that will enable the Air Force “to efficiently land, recover, refurbish and relaunch the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV),” according to Boeing representatives.

The X-37B vehicle development falls under the Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems in El Segundo, California, the firm’s center for all space and experimental systems and government and commercial satellites.

The Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office is leading the Department of Defense’s OTV initiative, by direction of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics and the Secretary of the Air Force.

A fleet of two space planes

Only two reusable X-37B vehicles have been confirmed as constituting the fleet. This current OTV-4 trek is the second flight of the second X-37B vehicle built for the Air Force by Boeing.

The reusable X-37B military space plane looks like a miniature adaptation of NASA’s now-retired space shuttle orbiter. The space plane is 29 feet (8.8 meters) long and 9.6 feet (2.9 m) tall, and has a wingspan of nearly 15 feet (4.6 m).

The space drone has a payload bay about the size of a pickup truck bed. It has a launch weight of 11,000 lbs. (4,990 kilograms) and is powered on orbit gallium arsenide solar cells with lithium-ion batteries.

Onboard payloads

A few payloads onboard the OTV-4 craft have been identified.

Aerojet Rocketdyne has announced that its XR-5A Hall Thruster had completed initial on-orbit validation testing onboard the X-37B space plane.

It is also known that the vehicle carries a NASA advanced materials investigation, as well as an experimental propulsion system developed by the Air Force.

“It remains a very useful way to test out things,” Winston Beauchamp, deputy undersecretary of the Air Force for Space told Inside Outer Space during last month’s American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) meeting in Long Beach, California.

Asked about any interest in increasing the X-37B fleet size, Beauchamp said that the number of vehicles currently in use is fine due to the pace of experiments it conducts.

‘Beardog’ discovery offers clues to how canines evolved

This undated illustration provided by Monica Jurik and The Field Museum in Chicago, shows the artist's reconstruction of an early 38 million year-old beardog.

This undated illustration provided by Monica Jurik and The Field Museum in Chicago, shows the artist’s reconstruction of an early 38 million year-old beardog.  (Monica Jurik/The Field Museum via AP)

For decades a fossilized carnivore jawbone sat largely unnoticed in a drawer at Chicago’s Field Museum.

Now the scientist who grew curious when he opened that drawer has established with a colleague that the fossil belonged to an early, long-extinct relative of dogs, foxes and weasels known as a beardog. The Field Museum fossil and another at the University of Texas each represent a new genus, the taxonomic rank above species.

The researchers believe these beardogs, which lived up to 40 million years ago, may eventually tell the world more about the evolution of dogs and other carnivores and how animals adapt to changes in climate.

According to a paper to be published Wednesday in the journal Royal Society Open Science, the jawbones belonged to two closely related types of Chihuahua-sized beardogs, new genera now named Gustafsonia and Angelarctocyon.

The Field Museum fossil set off the research by post-doctoral researcher Susumu Tomiya, who works at the museum and spends much time taking care of its large collection of fossils.

“In my spare time I like to walk around the aisles in the collections and open up drawers,” he said. “One day I just stumbled on these interesting-looking jaws of a little carnivore.”

The fossil was discovered in Texas in 1946 and 30 years ago was loosely classified as some type of carnivore. But no one knew where it fit into the carnivore family, said Tomiya, who authored the paper with Jack Tseng of the State University of New York at Buffalo.

The teeth stood out to Tomiya. They had flatter surfaces for crushing that suggested their owners ate more than meat — maybe berries and bugs, too, like present-day foxes.

The teeth reminded Tomiya of beardogs he was familiar with, he said. But the types of beardogs he knew were much larger predators that were the size of a bear and once roamed parts of North America, Europe, Asia and Africa.

The researchers also compared the fossil with one written about in an earlier paper at the University of Texas. Tomiya and Tseng concluded both belonged in what had essentially been a blank spot in the branch of the mammalian tree that includes dogs, raccoons, weasels and similar animals. Beardogs evolved alongside the ancient cousins of present-day dogs, cats, bears and other carnivores.

The evolution of beardogs from the small varieties classified by Tomiya and Tseng to the much larger animals that needed more food and habitat seems to match evolutionary paths of other animals that led to extinction, Tomiya said. Beardogs were extinct by 5 million to 10 million years ago, he said.

Studying how the diversity of beardogs waxed and waned over time could tell us about larger patterns in carnivore evolution,” he said.

The two genera of small beardogs also lived at a time of climate transition in North America, from subtropical to cooler and relatively dry. Further study could help answer questions about what kinds of animals adapted well to that change, Tomiya said.

The new research is interesting in part because the fossils were found in North America, said Steven Wallace, a geosciences professor at East Tennessee State University and curator at the East Tennessee Natural History Museum.

Beyond that, Tomiya and Tseng’s work is a reminder to scientists that discoveries don’t just come from fresh digs in far-flung locales.

“It’s almost like they feel that once a specimen’s been described, they’ve learned everything they can from it,” Wallace said. “Sometimes the coolest discoveries come right out of a museum.”

Why mice are nature’s jet engines

File photo

File photo  (REUTERS/Daniel Munoz)

Wondering what animal might have the most in common with a jet engine? Prepare to be surprised. Elena Mahrt, author of a study published Monday inCurrent Biology, says mice sing ultrasonic songs using a method “never found before in any animal,” according to a press release.

It has, however, been found in jet engines. Mice use these high-pitched whistles—inaudible to humans—to defend their territory and find mates, but until now scientists had no idea how they made the noises, especially because mice’s vocal cords stay absolutely still while producing the “ultrasound bleeps,” Live Science reports.

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“Mice seem to be doing something very complicated and clever to make ultrasound,” study coauthor Dr. Anurag Agarwal says in the press release. To produce the high-pitched song, a jet of air originating in the mouse’s windpipe bounces off the inner wall of the larynx and doubles back on itself, making a “feedback loop.” This process—discovered in mice using high-speed cameras—has only ever been seen before in jet engines and their ilk.

Coauthor Coen Elemans says it’s likely many rodents use this same method, possibly even accounting for the echolocation of bats, according to theTelegraph. “Even though mice have been studied so intensely, they still have some cool tricks up their sleeves,” he says.

Researchers are studying the vocalizations of mice to better understand stuttering, autism, and other communication disorders. (Scientists makeshrunken, see-through lab mice.)

This article originally appeared on Newser: Why Mice Are Nature’s Jet Engines

Secret fire station discovered under UK factory

 Image result for Secret fire station discovered under UK factory

Firefighters' uniforms (The Alan Nuttall Partnership).

Firefighters’ uniforms (The Alan Nuttall Partnership).

An incredible underground fire station, untouched for 60 years, has been discovered beneath a U.K. factory.

Workers at the Dudley site recently entered the fire station for the first time in decades, discovering an amazing time capsule.

The fire house is beneath a manufacturing facility owned by The Alan Nuttall Partnership, which makes interiors and displays for stores. “It was notionally known about, but nobody had opened it up to take a look,” Anna Bamford, Nuttalls’ marketing manager, told FoxNews.com.

After locating the key, staff opened the mysterious basement door and were stunned to find a fully-equipped fire station complete with dust-covered pump, hoses, and firefighters’ uniforms hanging on the wall. “We came across all of these fascinating finds – there’s a set of seven or eight uniforms – they have got the original hats and jackets, still with the silver buttons,” said Bamford. “There’s a lot of hoses, I think there’s about 10 or 12 down there, there’s even an old gas mask.”

Other items found include a half-drunk bottle of Pepsi and a certificate awarded to one of the firefighters in a competition against other stations. Firefighters’ names also appear to be chalked on the wall above their uniforms.


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Bamford explained that documents in the fire station are dated from 50s and 60s, which provide a hint as to when it was last in use.

The pump, however, may be more than 80 years old. “We have had some feedback about the pump – people are saying that it’s from the 30s,” Bamford said. “It has a towbar on it, so it would have hooked to some sort of vehicle – it’s a really special piece.”

The fire station dates back to the site’s earliest days – the factory was built in 1915 to manufacture munitions during World War I. “It has a heavily structured feeling – we don’t know if it was an air-raid shelter or maybe an explosives storage area from when it was a munitions factory,” said Bamford.

After about 15 or 16 years making munitions, the factory was used for car manufacturing. Later, in the mid-20th century, the site used to build store interiors and displays and was taken over by the Alan Nuttall Partnership in 1986.

The company, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary, wants to find out more about the underground fire station and hear from firefighters that worked there. “Part of what we are looking to do is see if we can get hold of someone who worked in that room,” said Bamford.

Ancient teeth lead researchers to prehistoric shark discovery

Megalolamna paradoxodon had grasping-type front teeth and cutting-type rear teeth likely used to seize and slice medium-sized fish and it lived in the same ancient oceans megatoothed sharks inhabited.

Megalolamna paradoxodon had grasping-type front teeth and cutting-type rear teeth likely used to seize and slice medium-sized fish and it lived in the same ancient oceans megatoothed sharks inhabited.  (Kenshu Shimada)

Researchers have discovered a new species of prehistoric shark, and at about 13 feet long, it was comparable to the size of the great white sharks of today.

The new predator, called Megalolamna paradoxodon, lived about 20 million years ago and is now extinct. The scientists based their discovery on just a handful of teeth from the shark, describing five of the prehistoric chompers (which originated from three different countries) in a new study in the journal Historical Biology. Like great whites, the shark is a member of the lamniformes group, and it lived during the Miocene epoch, which spans about 23 million to five million years in the past.

Kenshu Shimada, the lead author of the new paper and a professor at DePaul University, described the species as “exceptionally rare.”


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“The fact that such a large lamniform shark with such a wide geographic distribution had evaded recognition until now indicates just how little we still know about the Earth’s ancient marine ecosystem,” he told FoxNews.com in an email.

He said that their newly-discovered ancient shark was “distantly related” to great white sharks.

The new shark had teeth in the front meant for grasping, and teeth in the back for cutting, and likely ate “medium-sized fish” according to a statement from DePaul University announcing the discovery. Its teeth measured as much as 1.8 inches long.

Sharks attack 2 different surfers in Florida beach area

new smyrna beach 103

 (Google Street View)

Two surfers are recovering from shark bites off the beaches in central Florida over the weekend.

Authorities say a 32-year-old surfer was bitten on his side in New Smyrna Beach on Saturday evening. The next day, a shark nipped a 21-year-old surfer on the left foot.

Volusia County Beach Safety Ocean Rescue Capt. Andrew Ethridge says neither surfer wanted to be transported to a hospital for treatment.

The Daytona Beach News-Journal reports there have been 14 shark bites in the county so far this year. Officials say that’s an increase from previous years. In 2014 there were 10 unprovoked shark attacks in Volusia County and seven in 2015.

One day last month, officials say three people were bitten by sharks in one day.