from the world's big
Help future Mars rovers better navigate the red planet's treacherous terrain.
- NASA just announced its AI4Mars project, which lets you can take a virtually simulated tour around Mars via the Curiosity rover.
- The simulation project is calling on users to help the rover better classify the planet's sometimes dangerous terrain by labeling images taken by Curiosity.
- This project gives you a chance to participate in enhancing the new machine learning approaches for exploring Mars and unveiling its secrets.
Improving future rovers<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="152ec3e534f89608151837f90ad46b21"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/8W-KMiqKAFw?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>Designed by a team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the simulation project is calling on users to help the rover better classify the planet's sometimes dangerous terrain. Your task is to identify and label images taken by Curiosity from Mars' surface for scientists to use. The crowdsourced data will help train a future rover to more safely navigate obstacles like bedrocks or sand.</p><p>Mars rovers have an unfortunate habit of getting stuck in sand traps, and sometimes never getting out, as was the tragic fate of NASA's <a href="https://www.space.com/18766-spirit-rover.html" target="_blank">Spirit Rover</a>. The project hopes to make future rovers similar to self-driving vehicles that know "where it's safe to drive, land, sleep and hibernate," <a href="https://www.zooniverse.org/projects/hiro-ono/ai4mars/about/research" target="_blank">according to the website</a>. </p>
How it works<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="36e003afeadd9aab9186ad3cf6b05521"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/LJXQ0-a9IJE?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>When you open the classification tool on the website, you're instructed to select different surface types — sand, soil, bedrock, and big rocks — using a polygon drawing tool designated for the type of terrain you are labeling. After you've identified everything in the image, you click "Done" to move on to the next photo and do it again. If you aren't sure about an object, the website asks you to leave it unlabeled. It also asks you not to overlap the polygons. If you get confused, click "Tutorial" to open a popover and a discussion board where you can ask questions.</p><p>You won't get to virtually control Curiosity around the surface of Mars like a video game. But this project does give you a chance to get an intimate look at the planet's surface and enhance the new machine learning approaches for exploring mars and unveiling its secrets. </p><p>Similar projects calling on volunteers to help with scientific research can be found at <a href="https://www.zooniverse.org/projects" target="_blank">Zooniverse's project page</a>. For example, you can help researchers find asteroids in images from the Hubble Space Telescope, or help Seismologists by listening for Earthquakes using technology that makes seismic waves audible. </p>
Scientists think an insect similar to the modern millipede crawled around Scotland 425 million years ago, making it the first-ever land-dweller.
- An ancient millipede-like creature living in Scotland may have been the first creature to live on land.
- A fossil representing Kampecaris obanensis was first discovered in 1899 on the Scottish isle of Kerrera. It's now been radiometrically dated to 425 million years ago.
- If the new research is correct about the age of the fossil, then scientists have been greatly underestimating how rapidly bugs and plants evolved to transition to life on land.
A pioneering insect<p>One idea about how life began on Earth theorizes that it began in bodies of water. The cocktail of gases in the atmosphere mixed with lightning strikes is thought to have allowed monomers such as amino acids to spontaneously form in the oceans. This is known as the "primordial soup" theory. Out of this life-creating stew, bugs known as <a href="https://www.britannica.com/animal/arthropod" target="_blank">arthropods</a> (which includes insects, spiders, crustaceans, and centipedes) are thought to have been some of the very first animals to venture onto land. </p><p>There's indirect soil-based evidence that other insects like soil worms crawled on land before the myriapods. However, the evidence may only indicate fleeting trips to the land above water. Myriapods, we know, made land their permanent home. The fossil of the ancient millipede-like creature, <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kampecaris" target="_blank"><em>Kampecaris</em></a><em> obanensis</em>, <a href="http://fossilworks.org/bridge.pl?a=taxonInfo&taxon_no=374000" target="_blank">was first discovered</a> in 1899 on the Scottish isle of Kerrera. Now, it's been radiometrically dated to 425 million years ago. That would make these multi-legged critters the oldest land animal ever to have lived out of water. (At least, that we know of.) Their pioneering journey out of the sea set forth an explosive multiplication of new terrestrial life forms. Just 20 million years after <em>Kampecaris</em> made the move to land, the fossil record shows a plethora of bug deposits. Fast-forward another 20 million years and there is evidence that spiders, insects, and tall trees were thriving in ancient forest communities. </p><p>"It's a big jump from these tiny guys to very complex forest communities, and in the scheme of things, it didn't take that long," <a href="https://news.utexas.edu/2020/05/27/worlds-oldest-bug-is-fossil-millipede-from-scotland/" target="_blank">said geoscientist Michael Brookfield</a> from the University of Texas and the University of Massachusetts in Boston, in a press release. "It seems to be a rapid radiation of evolution from these mountain valleys, down to the lowlands, and then worldwide after that."</p>
Remaining questions<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="12ce877e7e1d97ea8cb8294a8f73bad5"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/SjNQUOYtZC0?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>We can't be sure that <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kampecaris" target="_blank"><em>Kampecaris</em></a> is actually the very first creature to have lived on land, as it's possible that there are older undiscovered fossils of both plants and bugs. However, no earlier findings have been made despite the fact that researchers have been investigating some of the most well-preserved fossils from this era. The team thinks this may indicate that they have reached the end of the land fossil record and that this ancient millipede represents the vital turning point at which life moved onto land.</p><p>According to this new study, <em>Kampecaris</em> is about 75 million years younger than the age other scientists have estimated the oldest millipede to be using a technique known as molecular clock dating, which is based on DNA's mutation rate. Similarly, fossils of stemmed plants in Scotland have also been evaluated as being roughly 75 million years younger than researchers once thought. So, if this ancient critter really was the first bug to blaze the trail onto Earth, then scientists have been greatly underestimating how rapidly bugs and plants evolved to transition to life on land. </p><p>"Who is right, us or them?" study co-author Elizabeth <a href="https://news.utexas.edu/2020/05/27/worlds-oldest-bug-is-fossil-millipede-from-scotland/" target="_blank">Catlos said</a>. "We're setting up testable hypotheses – and this is where we are at in the research right now."</p>
Mastering zircons<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzM4MzI2Ni9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzNjUxMzQzOH0.pnxG9fxIx8eMJxbj18j4sMkZerjoniCAvmMVQazkemc/img.png?width=980" id="7f6ec" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="37946233816f7957836612f030d92ace" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="modern millepede" />
Javier Fernández Sánchez / Getty Images<p>Despite the potentially huge evolutionary significance of <em>Kampecaris</em>, this was the first study to address the fossil's age. One reason for that could be the challenge of extracting zircons (a microscopic mineral necessary to accurately date fossils) from the ashy rock sediment in which the fossil was preserved. Extraction requires impeccable vision and a flawlessly steady hand, as the zircons can easily be flushed away by accident. There's almost no room to err.</p><p>One of the co-authors of the study, geoscientist Stephanie Suarez, has been mastering the technique for separating the zircon grain from sediment since her time as an undergraduate student. </p><p>"That kind of work trained me for the work that I do here in Houston," Suarez said. "It's delicate work."</p><p>As an undergrad, Suarez used the technique to find that a different millipede specimen that was once thought to be the oldest bug specimen was <a href="https://www.jsg.utexas.edu/news/2017/07/ancient-animal-thought-to-be-first-air-breather-on-land-loses-claim-to-fame/" target="_blank">actually 14 million years younger</a> than estimated. Her technique now passes the Oldest Bug To Walk The Earth title onto a new species; <em>Kampecaris</em>.</p>The study was published in <a href="https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/08912963.2020.1761351" target="_blank" style="">Historical Biology</a>.
An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.
- A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
- A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
- Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.
The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.
Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .
The Barry Arm Fjord
Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach
Image source: Matt Zimmerman
The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.
Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest
Image source: whrc.org
There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.
The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.
"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."
Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.
What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord
Moving slowly at first...
Image source: whrc.org
"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."
The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.
Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.
Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.
While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.
Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."
How do you prepare for something like this?
Image source: whrc.org
The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:
"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."
In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.
Researchers think they know how a group of ancient sloths, who died thousands of years ago in Ecuador, met their untimely end.
- Evidence collected from an ancient boneyard in Ecuador suggests that a group of 22 ancient giant sloths died in a wallow of their own feces.
- Other mammals, such as a deer, a horse, an elephant-like creature called a gomphothere, and another species of ground sloth were identified at the site.
- The fate of the sloths parallels that of modern hippos who can become lethally poisoned in times of drought when the feces to water ratio shifts in their watering holes.
Discoveries from an ancient boneyard<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="0745aba719f914d2113ab181ef8201b8"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/vDCk0Uma2m4?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>An assemblage of 677 bones, 575 of which belonged to <em>E. laurillardi</em>, were found on this site in the Santa Elena peninsula in Ecuador. Other mammals, such as a deer, a horse, an elephant-like creature called a gomphothere, and another species of ground sloth were identified. Analysis of <em>E. laurillardi</em>'s bones reveal that the sloths likely died around the same time, evidenced by the lack of sediment separating them. They were also part of a multigenerational group, including at least 15 adults, one teen, and six children. This arrangement of remains and the range of ages indicates a mass mortality event, according to the researchers.</p><p>Giant ground sloths were once one of the most common large vertebrates living in the Americas. <a href="https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/5/2/eaau1200?rss=1" target="_blank">Prior research</a> indicates that the species, which can reach lengths of 19 feet, were widely distributed across the region ranging from southern Brazil to North America's Gulf and Atlantic coasts. We also know that they died out 11,000 years ago. But little has been known about their behavior and social structure, which is why this latest find is so exciting.</p><p>While modern sloths are solitary creatures, the paper suggests <em>E. laurillardi</em> were rather gregarious creatures who congregated near water. Tanque Loma was probably once a marshy watering hole where the sloths cooled off, bathed, and quenched themselves similar to warthogs and hippopotamus populations today. </p>
Clues point to a crappy death<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzI4MzE2My9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyODU1NzY3OX0.91lo89Xr_jBdsvWSkKTbHwNOJWv7jBnd7YuA4q6Z1_U/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C326%2C0%2C0&height=700" id="78782" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="daf9283b05bad90707373531acf5a906" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="pod of hippos" />
Photo Credit: Jeff Griffith / Unsplash<p>Prior analysis suggested that the asphalt on the site seeped into the sloths' gravesite after the bones had already been deposited, thus ruling out death by asphalt poisoning. Death by volcano or other natural disaster is also unlikely because the sediments do not contain ash or charcoal. And because the sloths across a full range of age groups are present, their death probably wasn't caused by disease or a predatory attack, either. In those cases, there would be an overrepresentation of old and young.</p><p>Rather, the researchers believe the sloths died another way.</p><p>"Taking observations from modern megafaunal ecosystems as an analogue, we suggest that this death event could have resulted from drought and/or disease stemming from the contamination of the wallow, paralleling situations observed among hippopotamus populations in watering holes on the present-day African savannah," write the researchers in the paper.</p><p>The scientists suspect that the fate of some hippopotamus groups may point to what happened to these 22 ancient giant sloths. Hippos are apparently <a href="https://www.sciencealert.com/hippopotamus-faeces-causes-water-hypoxia-kills-fish" target="_blank">prolific poopers</a>. So much so that the amount of their waste can change the chemistry of water they spend their days in to the point of sometimes killing all the fish. It can even, sometimes, kill the hippos in times of drought when the feces to water ratio shifts.</p><p>"Based on the data from this study, a modern analogue to the Tanque Loma <em>E. laurillardi</em> assemblage may be hippopotami, which congregate in large numbers at water sources where they spend most of their time submerged to protect themselves against heat, sun and insects," <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S003101821930447X" target="_blank">the researchers wrote</a>. "In times of drought, as these water sources begin to dry up, surrounding vegetation disappears and the wallows become increasingly polluted with hippopotamus faecal material, causing significant detrimental impacts on the watershed ecosystem." </p><p>Besides bones, the team found plant material in <em>E. laurillardi</em>'s fossil bed. Interestingly, this was not living plant material—it had been digested and excreted. This supports the theory that the ancient sloths met their unfortunate demise in a slop of their own feces.</p>
New analysis of Apollo 17 sample reveals clues to the Moon's violent history.
- Researchers make new discovery in an Apollo 17 rock from 1972.
- The 4.33-billion-year-old sample reveals clues to the Moon's violent history.
- The Moon was likely bombarded by giant meteorites in its early days.
Moon mission 2.0: What humanity will learn by going back<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="4H6l2xhL" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="fd2eb2a69a1aed4b82241b02ed13feb5"> <div id="botr_4H6l2xhL_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/4H6l2xhL-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/4H6l2xhL-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/4H6l2xhL-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div>
Apollo 17 commander Eugene A. Cernan stands by the American flag during his second space walk. He was the last man to walk on the Moon on December 12, 1972.
Photo by NASA/Donaldson Collection/Getty Images.