NASA Will Send Helicopter To Mars To Test Otherworldly Flight ( 103

NASA is sending a small, autonomous rotorcraft to Mars via the agency's Mars 2020 rover mission, currently scheduled to launch in July 2020. NASA says the goal of the mission is to "demonstrate the viability and potential of heavier-than-air vehicles on the Red Planet." BBC reports: Its design team spent more than four years shrinking a working helicopter to "the size of a softball" and cutting its weight to 1.8kg (4lbs). It is specifically designed to fly in the atmosphere of Mars, which is 100 times thinner than Earth's. NASA describes the helicopter as a "heavier-than-air" aircraft because the other type -- sometimes called an aerostat -- refers to aircraft like balloons and blimps. The helicopter's two blades will spin at close to 3,000 revolutions a minute, which NASA says is about 10 times faster than a standard helicopter on Earth.

Earth's 'Bigger, Older Cousin' Maybe Doesn't Even Exist ( 52

Ever since astronomers started to detect planets beyond our solar system, they've been trying to find another world just like Earth. And few years ago, they announced that they'd found a planet that was the closest match yet -- Kepler-452b. Trouble is, some astronomers now say it's not possible to know for sure that this planet actually exists. From a report: "There's new information that we can now quantify which tells us something that we didn't know before," says Fergal Mullally, who used to be an astronomer on the science team for NASA's Kepler Space Telescope. In 2015, NASA declared that Kepler-452b was the first near-Earth-sized planet orbiting in the "habitable" zone around a star very similar to our sun. The space agency called it Earth's "bigger, older cousin," and scientists were so enthusiastic that one began quoting poetry at a news conference. The original science wasn't shoddy, Mullally says. It's just that, since then, researchers have learned more about the telescope's imperfections.

Large Island Declared Rat-Free in Biggest Removal Success ( 134

An anonymous reader shares a report: A remote, freezing, salt-spray lashed paradise for wildlife has been completely cleared of rats in the largest rodent eradication of all time, the South Georgia Heritage Trust (SGHT) announced this week. Rats are smart, adaptable, and hungry. For all these reasons, they can be incredibly voracious predators when people accidentally introduce them to remote islands, where the local animals lack evolved defenses to rodents. They have flourished even on an island as harsh and cold as South Georgia, which is so far south that it hosts penguins, elephant seals, and fur seals, as well as massive permanent glaciers.

"There are no trees, there are no bushes. All nest on the ground or underground in burrows," says Mike Richardson, Chairman of the SGHT Habitat Restoration Project Steering Committee. Such nests are easy pickings for rats. The rats -- brought to the island by whalers and sealers as early as the late 18th century -- ate the eggs and vulnerable chicks of seabirds, including albatrosses, skua, terns, and petrels. They also threatened two birds with extinction that are found nowhere else in the world: the South Georgia Pipit -- a tiny speckled songbird -- and the South Georgia Pintail, a brown duck.

The rat eradication was a massive, arduous undertaking, costing more than $13 million and taking nearly a decade. More than 300 metric tons of poison bait was dropped on the island by helicopter in three separate trips during the Austral Summers of 2010-2011, 2012-2013, and 2014-2015. Poisoned rats tend to head underground to die, Richardson says, limiting the damage caused to birds like gulls that might have otherwise eaten the poison-tainted carcasses.


'Yes, Pluto Is a Planet' ( 301

schwit1 quotes a Washington Post perspective piece by the authors of a new book about Pluto: The process for redefining planet was deeply flawed and widely criticized even by those who accepted the outcome. At the 2006 IAU conference, which was held in Prague, the few scientists remaining at the very end of the week-long meeting (less than 4 percent of the world's astronomers and even a smaller percentage of the world's planetary scientists) ratified a hastily drawn definition that contains obvious flaws. For one thing, it defines a planet as an object orbiting around our sun -- thereby disqualifying the planets around other stars, ignoring the exoplanet revolution, and decreeing that essentially all the planets in the universe are not, in fact, planets.

Even within our solar system, the IAU scientists defined "planet" in a strange way, declaring that if an orbiting world has "cleared its zone," or thrown its weight around enough to eject all other nearby objects, it is a planet. Otherwise it is not. This criterion is imprecise and leaves many borderline cases, but what's worse is that they chose a definition that discounts the actual physical properties of a potential planet, electing instead to define "planet" in terms of the other objects that are -- or are not -- orbiting nearby. This leads to many bizarre and absurd conclusions. For example, it would mean that Earth was not a planet for its first 500 million years of history, because it orbited among a swarm of debris until that time, and also that if you took Earth today and moved it somewhere else, say out to the asteroid belt, it would cease being a planet.

To add insult to injury, they amended their convoluted definition with the vindictive and linguistically paradoxical statement that "a dwarf planet is not a planet." This seemingly served no purpose but to satisfy those motivated by a desire -- for whatever reason -- to ensure that Pluto was "demoted" by the new definition. By and large, astronomers ignore the new definition of "planet" every time they discuss all of the exciting discoveries of planets orbiting other stars.


Orbits of Jupiter and Venus Affect Earth's Climate, Says Study ( 208

According to a new study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, gravitational tugs from the planets Jupiter and Venus gradually affect Earth's climate and life forms. The phenomenon occurs every 405,000 years and has been going on for at least 215 million years. USA Today reports: Jupiter and Venus are such strong influences because of their size and proximity. Venus is the nearest planet to us -- at its farthest, only about 162 million miles -- and roughly similar in mass. Jupiter is much farther away, but is the Solar System's largest planet. The study says that every 405,000 years, due to wobbles in our orbit caused by the gravitational pulls of the two planets, seasonal differences here on Earth become more intense. Summers are hotter and winters colder; dry times drier, wet times wetter. At the height of the cycle, more rain falls in the tropics, allowing lakes there to fill up. This compares to the other end of the cycle, when seasonal rains in the tropics "are less and lakes have much less of a tendency to become as full," [study lead author Dennis] Kent said. The results showed that the 405,000-year cycle is the most regular astronomical pattern linked to the Earth's annual turn around the sun, he said. Right now, we are in the middle of the cycle, as the most recent peak was around 200,000 years ago.

Ask Slashdot: Do Citizen Science Platforms Exist? ( 105

Loren Chorley writes: After reading about a new surge in the trend for citizen science (also known as community science, civic science or networked science), I was intrigued by the idea and wondered if there are websites that do this in a crowd sourced and open sourced manner. I know sites like YouTube allow people to show off their scientific experiments, but they don't facilitate uploading all their data or linking studies together to draw more advanced conclusions, or making methodologies like you'd see in academia straight forward and available through a simple interface. What about rating of experiments for peer review, revisions and refinement, requirement lists, step-by-step instructions for repeatability, ease of access, and simple language for people who don't find academia accessible? Does something like this exist already? Do you, Slashdot, think this is something useful, or that people are interested in? Or would the potential for fraud and misinformation be too great?

Decade Old Academic Paper on Global Climate Zones Named the Most Cited Source on Wikipedia ( 37

An academic paper on global climate zones written by three Australians more than a decade ago has been named the most cited source on Wikipedia, having being referenced more than 2.8m times. From a report: The authors of the paper, who are still good friends, had no idea about the wider impact of their work until recently. The paper, published in 2007 in the journal Hydrology and Earth System Sciences, used contemporary data to update a widely used model for classifying the world's climates. Known as the Koppen Climate Classification System, the model was first published by climatologist Wladimir Koppen in 1884, but it had not been comprehensively updated for decades.

The lead author of the paper is Dr Murray Peel, a senior lecturer in the department of infrastructure engineering at the University of Melbourne, and he co-authored the updated climate map with geography professor Brian Finlayson and engineering professor Thomas McMahon, both now retired. "We are amazed, absolutely amazed at the number of citations," Finlayson told Guardian Australia from his home in Melbourne. "We are not so much amazed at the fact it's been cited as we are about the number of people who have cited it."


Earth's Carbon Dioxide Levels Reach Highest Point In 800,000 Years ( 433

An anonymous reader quotes a report from The Washington Post: For the first time since humans have been monitoring, atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide have exceeded 410 parts per million averaged across an entire month (Warning: source may be paywalled; alternative source), a threshold that pushes the planet ever closer to warming beyond levels that scientists and the international community have deemed "safe." The reading from the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii finds that concentrations of the climate-warming gas averaged above 410 parts per million throughout April. The first time readings crossed 410 at all occurred on April 18, 2017, or just about a year ago. Carbon dioxide concentrations -- whose "greenhouse gas effect" traps heat and drives climate change -- were around 280 parts per million circa 1880, at the dawn of the industrial revolution. They're now 46 percent higher. According to Scripps Institute of Oceanography, this amount is the highest in at least the past 800,000 years. "We keep burning fossil fuels. Carbon dioxide keeps building up in the air," said Scripps scientist Ralph Keeling, who maintains the longest continuous record of atmospheric carbon dioxide on Earth. "It's essentially as simple as that."

Can We Live Without Concrete? ( 407

A combination of cement, water and ground rock or sand, on the surface concrete might seem crushingly mundane. Yet it has defined construction in recent centuries and with it, in part, modernity. From a report: But do we need to re-evaluate our concrete habit for our sakes and the planet's? Production of cement is disastrous for our biosphere, while the degradation of many concrete buildings has some construction experts predicting a colossal headache in the future. There are myriad proposed solutions, such as changing the way we make concrete, creating sustainable alternatives or doing away with it altogether. But would we want to live in a world without concrete? And what would that world look like?

"We make more concrete than anything else, any other product, apart from clean water," says Paul Fennell, professor of clean energy at Imperial College London. One 2015 report estimates that each year approximately three tons of concrete are used for every person on Earth -- roughly, 22 billion tons. To put that in context, a recent study estimated that 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic have been produced, ever. Manufacturing cement, concrete's binding agent, is energy-intensive, Fennell says. Ordinary Portland cement -- the most common form in concrete -- is produced by baking lime in a kiln and emits approximately one ton of carbon dioxide for every ton of cement. Concrete production is responsible for approximately 5% of global man-made CO2 emissions, according to the World Business Council for Sustainable Development.


Hawaii's Kilauea Volcano Erupts, Prompting Evacuation Orders ( 69

"Hawaii's Kilauea volcano erupted Thursday, releasing lava into a residential neighborhood and prompting mandatory evacuation orders for nearby homes," reports Chicago Tribune. The eruption comes after officials had been warning residents all week that an eruption was possible and that they should be prepared to evacuate. From the report: Hawaii County said steam and lava poured out of a crack in Leilani Estates, which is near the town of Pahoa on the Big Island. Leilani Estates has a population of about 1,500, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. But the evacuation order only covers a portion of the neighborhood. Nearby community centers have opened for shelter. The Puu Oo crater floor began to collapse Monday, triggering a series of earthquakes and pushing the lava into new underground chambers. The collapse caused magma to push more than 10 miles downslope toward the populated southeast coastline of the island.

Forty Years of Spam Email ( 95

An anonymous reader writes: The BBC has a video celebrating the 40th birthday of spam email. Here's a transcript of the video: "It is 40 years since the first spam email was sent. Marketer Gary Thuerk composed an email selling his company's newest computers and sent it to 400 users on ARPANET, which was the network that become the basis for the internet. Why is it called spam? It has been suggested that it was called spam after a song in a Monty Python sketch. Where patrons of a cafe were repeatedly offered something they didn't want. The concept of spam is nothing new. Unsolicited telegrams were sent over 100 years ago and we've come to accept junk mail as part of everyday life. Now [nearly 60%] of all email is spam. Like most rubbish, it can be found everywhere on earth."

Facebook May Have Secret Plans To Build a Satellite-Based Internet ( 75

Public filings suggest the social media giant is quietly developing orbital tech to rival efforts by SpaceX and OneWeb to deliver Internet by satellite. From a report: A filing with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) last week revealed details of a multi-million dollar experimental satellite from a stealthy company called PointView Tech LLC. The satellite, named Athena, will deliver data 10 times faster than SpaceX's Starlink Internet satellites, the first of which launched in February. However, PointView appears to exist only on paper. In fact, the tiny company seems to be a new subsidiary of Facebook, formed last year to keep secret the social media giant's plans to storm space.

Many technology companies believe the future of the Internet is orbital. Around half the people on the planet lack a broadband Internet connection, particularly those who live in rural areas and developing nations. SpaceX aims to put nearly 12,000 Starlinks into low Earth orbit (LEO), to deliver gigabit-speed Internet to most of the Earth's surface. Rival OneWeb, funded by Japan's SoftBank, chipmaker Qualcomm, and Richard Branson's Virgin Group, plans similar global coverage using perhaps 2,500 LEO satellites.
Further reading: Facebook's free walled-garden internet program ended quietly in Myanmar, several other places last year.

The Longest Straight Path You Could Travel On Water Without Hitting Land ( 141

An anonymous reader quotes a report from Gizmodo: Back in 2012, a Reddit user posted a map claiming to show the longest straight line that could be traversed across the ocean without hitting land. Intrigued, a pair of computer scientists have developed an algorithm that corroborates the route, while also demonstrating the longest straight line that can be taken on land. The researchers, Rohan Chabukswar from United Technologies Research Center Ireland, and Kushal Mukherjee from IBM Research India, created the algorithm in response to a map posted by reddit user user kepleronlyknows, who goes by Patrick Anderson in real life. His map showed a long, 20,000 mile route extending from Pakistan through the southern tips of Africa and South America and finally ending in an epic trans-Pacific journey to Siberia. On a traditional 2D map, the path looks nothing like a straight line; but remember, the Earth is a sphere.

Anderson didn't provide any evidence for the map, or an explanation for how the route was calculated. In light of this, Chabukswar and Mukherjee embarked upon a project to figure out if the straight line route was indeed the longest, and to see if it was possible for a computer algorithm to solve the problem, both for straight line passages on water without hitting land or an ice sheet, and for a continuous straight line passage on land without hitting a major body of water. Their ensuing analysis was posted to the pre-print arXiv server earlier this month, and has yet to go through peer review.
"There would be 233,280,000 great circles to consider to find the global optimum, and each great circle would have 21,600 individual points to process -- a staggering 5,038,848,000,000 points to verify," the researchers wrote in their study.

NASA To Send 1 Million People's Names To the Sun ( 76

An anonymous reader shares a report: This summer, a NASA spacecraft will launch into space from the coast of Florida, headed for the sun. After making several flybys of Venus to slow itself down, the Parker Solar Probe will come within 4 million miles of the sun's scorching surface, closer than any spacecraft in history.

NASA is never one to miss an opportunity to drum up publicity for upcoming space missions, especially the less flashy ones. Sending something to study the star we see every day may sound less thrilling, for example, than launching a mission to find exoplanets around 200,000 stars. So in March, the space agency announced a little campaign to promote the Parker Solar Probe: Send us your names and we'll put them on a microchip inside a spacecraft bound for the sun. (They even got Star Trek actor William Shatner to help promote it.)

The call for names, which closed at the end of last week, received more than 1.1 million submissions, according to a spokesperson at Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory, which designed and built the Parker Solar Probe. On the surface, the campaign was little more than a quirky act to get the public interested in space exploration. But considered more deeply, it represents the human desire to find ways to outlive ourselves and our bodies, to be remembered once our time here on Earth is up.


Russia Launches Floating Nuclear Power Plant That's Head To the Arctic ( 163

Russia's state nuclear corporation Rosatom launched a massive floating nuclear power plant over the weekend. It's the first nuclear power plant of its kind and it's headed to an Arctic port, reports NPR. From the report: Called the Akademik Lomonosov, the floating power plant is being towed at a creeping pace out of St. Petersburg, where it was built over the last nine years. It will eventually be brought northward, to Murmansk -- where its two nuclear reactors will be loaded with nuclear fuel and started up this fall. From there, the power plant will be pulled to a mooring berth in the Arctic port of Pevek, in far northeast Russia. There, it will be wired into the infrastructure so it can replace an existing nuclear power installment on land. Russian officials say the mandate of the Akademik Lomonoso is to supply energy to remote industrial plants and port cities, and to offshore gas and oil platforms.

It will take more than a year for the power plant to reach its new home port. The original plan had called for fueling the floating plant before it began that journey, at the shipyard in central St. Petersburg -- but that was scuttled last summer, after concerns were raised both in Russia and in countries along the power plant's route through the Baltic Sea and north to the Arctic. "The nuclear power plant has two KLT-40S reactor units that can generate up to 70 MW of electric energy and 50 Gcal/hr of heat energy during its normal operation," Rosatom said. "This is enough to keep the activity of the town populated with 100,000 people."


Pristine Lakes Are Filled With Toxins ( 100

Much of the focus on plastic pollution centres on our oceans. Emerging evidence shows it's also a problem in freshwater, which may even be the source. From a report: "Freshwater systems are increasingly studied but still at a much smaller scale than oceans," says Filella. This may simple be due to the fact that initial studies focused on the ocean -- and so research proposals and grants followed suit. It didn't take long for the Geneva team to find what they were looking for. Filella and colleagues collected over 3,000 samples. They went on to analyse 670 of these, revealing some worrying results. Many of these samples contained hazardous and toxic elements including cadmium, mercury and lead -- in some cases in "very high concentrations", as outlined in a 2018 paper in the journal Frontiers of Environmental Science.

A large proportion of these toxic elements are now banned or restricted. This "reflected the age and residence time of the plastic stock in the lake," says Filella: the plastic waste has been building up over several decades. And as we know, plastic can take hundreds of years to degrade. [...] Lake Geneva is not an outlier. Other lakes show similar levels of pollution. Italy's Lake Garda, for example, also has high levels of plastic waste. A sample from the northern part of the lake contained 1,000 large plastic particles and 450 smaller particles (microplastics) per square metre. [...] It is now becoming clearer that much of the plastic that ends up in the ocean starts off in freshwater bodies in the first place -- estimates suggest it could be as much as 70-80%.


Great Barrier Reef Gets $379 Million Boost After Coral Dies Off ( 104

The Great Barrier Reef is being given a $379 million boost by Australia in the battle to save the world's largest living structure as it faces mounting challenges such as climate change, agricultural runoff and a coral-eating starfish. From a report: "Like reefs all over the world, the Great Barrier Reef is under pressure," Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said in a statement on Sunday, calling the funding the largest granted to the famous tourist icon. "A big challenge demands a big investment -- and this investment gives our reef the best chance." [...] The new funding comes after Deloitte Access Economics valued the reef last year at A$56 billion, based on an asset supporting tens of thousands of jobs and which contributes A$6.4 billion a year to the economy. Still, that was before a study released this month in Nature showed about 30 percent of the reef, which is bigger than Japan, died off in 2016 during an extended marine heatwave.

Blue Origin Launches Its First Test Flight of 2018 ( 57

After several delays on Sunday morning, a Blue Origin New Shepard rocket blasted off from the west Texas desert just after noon Central Daylight Time, sending a crew capsule carrying a dummy named "Mannequin Skywalker" on a brief trip to space. For the eighth time, Jeff Bezos' commercial space company successfully tested the system it hopes to use to send paying passengers on suborbital flights in the coming months. From a report: The rocket reached a maximum altitude of 350,000 feet during the test flight, which took roughly 10 minutes from liftoff to the rocket and capsule touchdowns. This test marks the first test flight of the New Shepard system in 2018. The launch of the capsule and rocket was the eighth overall test flight of New Shepard, and the second time this rocket and capsule have flown to suborbital space together. The capsule also carried "Mannequin Skywalker," the test dummy outfitted with sensors used by Blue Origin to give flight engineers a sense of what a person might experience during a flight to space aboard the New Shepard.

Eventually, Bezos hopes that New Shepard will take paying customers up about 100 kilometers into the air, where they will experience weightlessness and be able to see the Earth against the blackness of space before the capsule falls back to the ground under parachutes. But Bezos' ambition stretches far beyond sending tourists to suborbital space. Blue Origin also has plans to build larger rockets that will be able to send big payloads and crews of people to orbit and beyond.


Can We Fight Climate Change With Carbon-Absorbing Rocks? ( 167

The New York Times reports on rocks in the country of Oman that react naturally with carbon dioxide, turning it into stone. Scientists say that if this natural process, called carbon mineralization, could be harnessed, accelerated and applied inexpensively on a huge scale -- admittedly some very big "ifs" -- it could help fight climate change. Rocks could remove some of the billions of tons of heat-trapping carbon dioxide that humans have pumped into the air since the beginning of the Industrial Age. And by turning that CO2 into stone, the rocks in Oman -- or in a number of other places around the world that have similar geological formations -- would ensure that the gas stayed out of the atmosphere forever...

Capturing and storing carbon dioxide, is drawing increased interest. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says that deploying such technology is essential to efforts to rein in global warming... At a geothermal power plant in Iceland, after several years of experimentation, an energy company is injecting modest amounts of carbon dioxide into volcanic rock, where it becomes mineralized. Dutch researchers have suggested spreading a kind of crushed rock along coastlines to capture CO2. And scientists in Canada and South Africa are studying ways to use mine wastes, called tailings, to do the same thing.

Meanwhile, the Guardian reports an alternate perspective from 86-year-old social scientist Mayer Hillman: "We're doomed." He's predicting the end of most life on the planet, citing the lack of any way to reverse the process that's already melting the polar ice caps.

"Optimism about the future is wishful thinking, says Hillman. He believes that accepting that our civilization is doomed could make humanity rather like an individual who recognizes he is terminally ill. Such people rarely go on a disastrous binge; instead, they do all they can to prolong their lives."

EU Votes To Ban Bee-Harming Pesticides ( 130

An anonymous reader quotes a report from The Guardian: The European Union will ban the world's most widely used insecticides from all fields due to the serious danger they pose to bees. The ban on neonicotinoids, approved by member nations on Friday, is expected to come into force by the end of 2018 and will mean they can only be used in closed greenhouses.

Bees and other insects are vital for global food production as they pollinate three-quarters of all crops. The plummeting numbers of pollinators in recent years has been blamed, in part, on the widespread use of pesticides. The EU banned the use of neonicotinoids on flowering crops that attract bees, such as oil seed rape, in 2013. fBut in February, a major report from the European Union's scientific risk assessors (Efsa) concluded that the high risk to both honeybees and wild bees resulted from any outdoor use, because the pesticides contaminate soil and water. This leads to the pesticides appearing in wildflowers or succeeding crops. A recent study of honey samples revealed global contamination by neonicotinoids. The ban on the three main neonicotinoids has widespread public support, with almost 5 million people signing a petition from campaign group Avaaz.

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