Below are some of the top stories in astronomy, cosmology and evolutionary biology from the last couple of weeks:
Curiosity Finds Lots of Water on Mars. From The Guardian: Water has been discovered in the fine-grained soil on the surface of Mars, which could be a useful resource for future human missions to the red planet, according to measurements made by NASA’s Curiosity rover. Each cubic foot of Martian soil contains around two pints of liquid water, though the molecules are not freely accessible, but rather bound to other minerals in the soil. The Curiosity rover has been on Mars since August 2012, landing in an area near the equator of the planet known as Gale Crater. Its target is to circle and climb Mount Sharp, which lies at the center of the crater, a five-kilometer-high mountain of layered rock that will help scientists unravel the history of the planet.
Early Hominoids Saw Black Hole Light in the Sky. From New Scientist: Some 2 million years ago, around the time our ancestors were learning to walk upright, a light appeared in the night sky, rivalling the moon for brightness and size. But it was more fuzzball than orb. The glow came from the supermassive black hole at our galaxy’s heart suddenly exploding into life. This novel picture emerges from work announced this week at a conference in Sydney, Australia, which ingeniously pieces together two seemingly unrelated, outstanding galactic puzzles.
Scientists Create Never Before Seen Form of Matter. From Science Daily: Harvard and MIT scientists are challenging the conventional wisdom about light, and they didn’t need to go to a galaxy far, far away to do it. Working with colleagues at the Harvard-MIT Center for Ultracold Atoms, a group led by Harvard Professor of Physics Mikhail Lukin and MIT Professor of Physics Vladan Vuletic have managed to coax photons into binding together to form molecules — a state of matter that, until recently, had been purely theoretical. The work is described in a September 25 paper in Nature. The discovery, Lukin said, runs contrary to decades of accepted wisdom about the nature of light. Photons have long been described as massless particles which don’t interact with each other — shine two laser beams at each other, he said, and they simply pass through one another.
Ancient Soils Reveal Clues About Early Life on Earth. From Science Daily: Oxygen appeared in the atmosphere up to 700 million years earlier than we previously thought, according to research published today in the journal Nature, raising new questions about the evolution of early life. Researchers from the University of Copenhagen and University of British Columbia examined the chemical composition of three-billion-year-old soils from South Africa — the oldest soils on Earth — and found evidence for low concentrations of atmospheric oxygen. Previous research indicated that oxygen began accumulating in the atmosphere only about 2.3 billion years ago during a dynamic period in Earth’s history referred to as the Great Oxygenation Event.
Lunar Orbiters Discover Source of Space Weather Near Earth. From Science Daily: Solar storms — powerful eruptions of solar material and magnetic fields into interplanetary space — can cause what is known as “space weather” near Earth, resulting in hazards that range from interference with communications systems and GPS errors to extensive power blackouts and the complete failure of critical satellites. New research published today increases our understanding of Earth’s space environment and how space weather develops. Some of the energy emitted by the sun during solar storms is temporarily stored in Earth’s stretched and compressed magnetic field. Eventually, that solar energy is explosively released, powering Earth’s radiation belts and lighting up the polar skies with brilliant auroras. And while it is possible to observe solar storms from afar with cameras, the invisible process that unleashes the stored magnetic energy near Earth had defied observation for decades.
Massive Dinosaur Fossil Unearthed in Canada. From the CBC: A massive dinosaur fossil has been found by a pipeline crew near Spirit River, Alta. The 30-metre-long fossilized skeleton was found Tuesday when a backhoe operator working on the Tourmaline Oil Corp. pipeline installation moved some earth, inadvertently breaking off a piece of the fossil. Thinking he had simply chipped off a section of rock, the backhoe operator laid the piece to the side and turned to resume excavation work. That’s when he saw the exposed fossil in the embankment in front of him. As soon as he saw the fossil, the operator stopped digging and work on the site was shut down until experts could be brought in. Palaeontologists from the Tyrell Museum and National Geographic arrived at the site Wednesday and will soon be joined by Pipestone Creek Dinosaur Initiative head palaeontologist, Dr. Matthew Vavrek.