Cuttlefish can put their camouflage abilities on autopilot to save energy

Not only can cuttlefish change the texture of their bodies to blend in with the ocean floor, new research shows that they can put this camouflage power on autopilot to save energy.

Scientists have long known that the cuttlefish — a relative of squid and octopi that lives on the ocean floor — can contract its skin and change its 3D texture into little bumps called papillae. By cutting open the cuttlefish, scientists in today’s study discovered the nerve in the body responsible for regulating these skin contractions and monitoring the creature’s efforts at camouflage. Most interestingly, the nerve can go on autopilot and “lock” the camouflage for an hour without using any energy. The results were published today in iScience, a journal published by Cell Press.

Interestingly, the nerve system that controls this autopilot power is very similar to the system that makes squid iridescent, so the scientists think they might have evolved from the same system. Next, they’re trying to find the link between these two systems and better understand the location of the neurons to figure out more mysteries of these ocean creatures.

Sonic weapons probably didn’t cause mysterious diplomat illnesses in Cuba, doctors say

 

After months of rumors, doctors have published the first detailed report describing the mysterious illness that struck US diplomats stationed in Cuba. While the source of the illness is still a mystery, the doctors say they’re “pretty certain” it wasn’t a sonic weapon.

Doctors examined 21 people associated with the US embassy in Cuba, and found that their symptoms resembled those caused by brain injuries — including headaches, sleep disturbances, and mood changes. But surprisingly, none of the diplomats showed any obvious signs of head trauma, according to a paper published today in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

“This is really concussion without concussion,” says study co-author Douglas Smith, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Brain Injury and Repair, in a podcast interview. Smith and his colleagues speculate that the diplomats’ illness might be an entirely new disorder, caused by some sort of shared environmental exposure in Havana. But other scientists warn against leaping to conclusions, since there’s still a lot we don’t know.

Starting in 2016, US diplomats in Cuba began experiencing an unusual collection of symptoms including vertigo, nausea, and hearing loss. All but one of the diplomats reported that they first felt ill after hearing strange noises or feeling air pressure or vibrations in their homes or hotel rooms. This sparked fears that diplomats were being targeted by “health attacks,” although the FBI couldn’t turn up evidence that these were occurring. (A biologist contacted by the US government identified the strange sounds as insect calls, ProPublica reported today.)

By the fall of 2017, 80 people linked to the embassy had been screened for similar symptoms, and the number of victims climbed to 24 people. Doctors at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Brain Injury and Repair evaluated 21 of the patients, and found that most of them were experiencing headaches and trouble sleeping. Many had trouble thinking, concentrating, and focusing their eyes — symptoms that worsened after exercise. Three patients had severe hearing loss. Brain imaging didn’t turn up anything out of the ordinary. But nearly a year later, only seven of the 21 patients have been able to return to work full time, according to a JAMA news article.

There’s no known way for sound to cause such a serious assortment of symptoms, the study’s authors say. Instead, they suspect that the strange sounds the patients reported were a byproduct of whatever actually harmed them — kind of like the crack of a gunshot. The study’s authors don’t think infections, chemical exposures, or mass hysteria can explain the symptoms, either. “The simpler answer is that there’s something real here,” one of the authors says in a podcast.

Other experts, however, aren’t ready to rule out mass hysteria transmitted by word of mouth. For example, the study doesn’t clarify whether people whose illness started later on knew about the symptoms others had reported, an editorial points out. That could have made them more alert to those symptoms themselves. Also, the researchers evaluating the patients knew who the patients were — which could have biased their evaluations.

Still, today’s report is a step towards developing the diagnostic criteria that will be key to finding others experiencing the same symptoms. “This really is a public health matter and we have to be concerned that there could be other individuals out there who might have been exposed that we don’t know about,” one of the authors says. “People need to be prepared and I would say that our report is really just preliminary.”

Skywatchers see ‘super blue blood Moon’

The Moon appears red in a lunar eclipse as sunlight is filtered through Earth's atmosphere (c) SPL

The night sky had a display in store on Wednesday 31 January, with a lunar event being called the “Super blue blood moon”.

For Australia, Asia and some parts of the US and Eastern Europe, there was a lunar eclipse, as the Earth passed between the Sun and the Moon.

On the very same night, our only natural satellite entered the closest point to us in its elliptical orbit.

It is also the second full Moon of the month, commonly called a blue moon.

The eclipse began at 10:51 GMT and ended at 16:08 GMT.

The word “blood” has been used to describe the deep red colour of the sunlight that passes through Earth’s atmosphere to illuminate our celestial neighbour.

Supermoon watching

This red glow was produced by the same effect that gave us blue skies and red sunsets, Dr Shannon Schmoll, director of Abrams Planetarium in Michigan, said.

“Some sunlight is skimming through the Earth’s atmosphere on its way to the Moon, and it also gets refracted or bent towards the Moon a little bit,” she said.

“So, we have this process of filtering out the blue light and leaving the red light to see.

“And then having that light bent a little bit toward the Moon.”

Dr Schmoll said the coincidence of these three lunar events was a “good excuse to go out and look at the night sky”.

“I know some people did not like the term supermoon, since it’s not always obvious how much bigger it is,” said Dr Schmoll.

The supermoon should appear about 7% larger than average and about 15% brighter.

But this particular view of our satellite, which remains the only object to which we have sent humans beyond Earth, comes at a time of resurgence for lunar exploration.

Supermoon and Soyuz rocket at Baikonur, 2016 (c) SPL

Back to the Moon?

In December, US President Donald Trump announced his intention to return to the Moon – directing Nasa to plan a crewed mission to the lunar surface for the first time since 1972.

India’s space agency, ISRO, is set to launch and land a rover on the lunar surface later in 2018. This year should also see the launch of China’s Chang’e 5 mission, which aims to return Moon samples to Earth for the first time since 1976.

Dr Katherine Joy, a lunar scientist from the University of Manchester, said we were now seeing a “global revival in lunar exploration” she hoped would lay the foundations for human exploration and a lunar base.

“We’d even like to know if there are spaces in underground chambers that could be used as subsurface locations for underground bases that could be protected from the radiation environment,” she told BBC News.

The key to this new age of lunar science – particularly human exploration – Dr Joy said, was international collaboration, modelled on the approach it had taken to build and operate the International Space Station.

“That’s what makes the Moon ideal – it’s only three days away,” said Dr Joy.

“You can do all of those things and plan ahead for where you would go next, but retaining that infrastructure around the Moon.”

Luxembourg PM watches GovSat-1 space launch

Falcon-9 launch

Luxembourg’s Prime Minister, Xavier Bettel, has just watched one of his country’s satellites go into orbit.

He was at Cape Canaveral, Florida, to see the launch of GovSat-1, which will be providing telecommunications services to the military and institutional customers.

The Luxembourg government has a 50-50 share in the project.

Its partner is SES, the major commercial satellite operator that bases itself in the Grand Duchy.

GovSat-1 is another example of Luxembourg’s burgeoning role in the space sector.

Its deputy prime minister, Etienne Schneider, who was also at the Cape, has recently positioned the country at the forefront of plans to go mine asteroids.

GovSat-1 rode to orbit on a SpaceX Falcon-9 rocket. It will try to forge a new market in satellite communications.

It is a commercial platform and will sell capacity on its transponders – but only to governments and government-approved agencies.

The satellite uses frequencies that are reserved for the military, and deploys the sort of sophisticated anti-jamming features, and encryption you would normally find on national military platforms.

“The novelty here is that we take the capabilities that you find in national programmes and combine them, basically, with the accessibility and innovation you find in commercial programmes,” Patrick Biewer, the CEO of GovSat, the public-private joint venture set up to run the new service, told BBC News.

The Luxembourg government will obviously be using GovSat-1, and indeed some of this capacity will be offered to other Nato countries. Luxembourg sees GovSat-1 as part of its contribution to Nato members’ commitment to all try to spend at least 2% of GDP on defence.

Beyond the military, GovSat hopes to serve agencies working in activities such as border control and civil defence.

GovSat-1

The spacecraft will sit 36,000km above the equator at 21.5 degrees East. Its Ka-band and X-band frequencies will be concentrated over Europe, parts of Africa, the Middle East, as well as maritime regions in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans.

Govsat should not be confused with the Govsatcom initiative being pursued by the European Commission.

Govsatcom is the next big space project for the EU after its sat-nav (Galileo) and Earth observation (Copernicus/Sentinel) programmes.

It would see member states pool their satellite communications resources.

On one level, Luxembourg’s GovSat venture shares some DNA with Brussels’ ambitions but it is a separate entity. “You could say we’re slightly ahead of the game,” a GovSat spokesman said.

Separation

SpaceX used one of its “recycled” Falcon 9s to loft GovSat-1.

The rocket had previously launched – and landed – after putting a US national security payload in orbit in May last year.

SpaceX did not opt this time for a controlled return of the Falcon booster to a landing pad or a ship.

With this flight out of the way, the launcher company can now concentrate on preparations at the Cape for the lift-off of its Falcon Heavy vehicle.

This rocket is scheduled to make its maiden flight next Tuesday. The Heavy is essentially three Falcon 9s strapped together.

The configuration would make it by far the most powerful launcher in the world, capable of putting up to 64 tonnes in low-Earth orbit.

US offshore drilling: Florida wins exemption from Trump plan

 

An oil rig is seen off the Pacific Ocean coastline after the Trump administration announced plans to dramatically expand offshore drilling, at Seal Beach, California, USA, 4 January 2018

The administration of US President Donald Trump has exempted the state of Florida from controversial plans for offshore drilling for oil and gas.

The reversal comes after vocal opposition from the state’s Republican Governor Rick Scott when the plans were announced last week.

It is set to trigger further demands for exemptions from other states.

The five-year plan was to open 90% of the nation’s offshore reserves to leasing from drilling companies.

US Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said it would boost the economy and ensure US “energy dominance”, but environmentalists decried it as a “shameful giveaway” to the oil industry.

Why has Secretary Zinke made this U-turn?

“The governor,” he said simply.

In a statement posted on Twitter, he explained that he agreed with Gov Scott’s position that “Florida is unique and its coasts are heavily reliant on tourism as an economic driver.

“As a result… I am removing Florida from consideration from any new oil and gas platforms.”

He said President Trump had directed him to “take into consideration the local and state voice” in deciding policy.

Gov Scott cheered the decision, saying he would “never stop fighting for Florida’s environment and our pristine coastline”.

But Florida’s Democratic Senator Bill Nelson smelled a rat.

Gov Scott is reportedly planning to run for an open US Senate seat.

What does the decision mean?

It means some of the Gulf of Mexico on Florida’s western coast will be exempt from drilling, but not all of it.

Florida state waters extend three nautical miles from the shore on the Atlantic, and nine nautical miles on the Gulf side, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

What happens now?

“Such a quick reversal begs the question: Will the Trump administration give equal consideration to all the other coastal governors from both parties who overwhelmingly reject this radical offshore drilling plan?” asked Diane Hoskins, director of the Oceana campaign group, according to Reuters news agency.

Maryland, South Carolina and Massachusetts are among states with Republican governors also known to oppose the Draft Five Year Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Programme (2019-2024).

California’s attorney general was among several public figures who demanded similar exemptions for their states:

What’s so controversial about the plan?

Both the scale and the nature of the plan have attracted criticism – including from a coalition of 60 environmental groups, nearly a dozen attorneys general and more than 100 US lawmakers.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Memories are still fresh of the huge Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010

It opens up more than 90% of the national outer continental shelf (OCS) for development – making more than 98% of undiscovered, technically recoverable oil and gas resources in federal offshore areas available to private companies.

At the moment, 94% of the OCS is protected.

Industry regulation was tightened by Barack Obama in the aftermath of BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 – a disaster still fresh in many minds.

‘Serious gap’ in cosmic expansion rate hints at new physics

Artwork: Big Bang to now

A mathematical discrepancy in the expansion rate of the Universe is now “pretty serious”, and could point the way to a major discovery in physics, says a Nobel laureate.

The most recent results suggest the inconsistency is not going away.

Prof Adam Riess told BBC News that an unknown phenomenon, such as a new particle, might explain the deviation.

The difference is found when comparing precise measurements of the rate obtained in different ways.

However, the statistics are not yet at the threshold for claiming a discovery,

Prof Riess, who is based at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, was one of three scientists who shared the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics for discovering that the expansion rate of the Universe is accelerating.

This phenomenon was widely attributed to a mysterious, unexplained “dark energy” filling the cosmos.

Values holding

The unit of measurement used to describe the expansion is called the Hubble Constant, after 20th Century astronomer Edwin Hubble – after whom the orbiting space observatory is named.

Appropriately, Prof Riess has been using the Wide Field Camera 3 instrument on the Hubble telescope (installed during the last servicing mission to the iconic observatory) to help refine his measurements of the constant.

“The answer we get is 73.24. This is not very different to what people have gotten before measuring the Hubble constant. What is different is that the uncertainty has gotten quite a bit smaller,” he said here at the 231st American Astronomical Society meeting in National Harbor, just outside Washington DC.

“The uncertainty has been dropping progressively over time, while the value has not been changing very much.”

 

To calculate the Hubble Constant, Prof Riess and others use the “cosmic ladder” approach, which relies on known quantities – so-called “standard candles” – such as the brightness of certain types of supernova to calibrate distances across space.

However, a different approach uses a combination of the afterglow of the Big Bang, known as the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB), as measured by the Planck spacecraft and a cosmological model known as Lambda-CDM.

The Hubble Constant obtained using these data is 66.9 kilometres per second per megaparsec. (A megaparsec is 3.26 million light-years, so it follows that cosmic expansion increases by 66.9km/second for every 3.26 million light-years we look further out into space).

The gap between the two is now at a confidence level of about 3.4 sigma. The sigma level describes the probability that a particular finding is not down to chance. For example, three sigma is often described as the equivalent of repeatedly tossing a coin and getting nine heads in a row.

A level of five sigma is usually considered the threshold for claiming a discovery.

However, Prof Riess said that at the three sigma level “this starts to get pretty serious I would say”.

“In fact, in both cases of measurements, these are very mature measurements… both projects have done their utmost to reduce systematic errors,” he added.

Indeed, a recent measurement of time delays in quasars that is completely independent of the cosmic distance ladder data gets very similar results to Prof Riess’s late Universe Hubble Constant. For the early Universe, a 2017 analysis using the density of baryonic (normal) matter in the cosmos yields a very similar value as the one obtained by the Planck team.

  Cepheid

What this all suggested, he said, was that the Universe is now expanding 9% faster than expected based on the data – a result he described as “remarkable”.

One way to bridge the divide is to invoke new phenomena in physics.

There are various ways to account for it, including the addition of a new particle, called a sterile neutrino, to the Standard Model – the best tested theory of particle physics.

The sterile neutrino would represent the fourth type – or flavour – of neutrino; but while the other three are well known to physicists, attempts to detect a fourth with experiments have not come up with much.

Another possibility is that dark energy behaves in a different way now compared with how it did in the early history of the cosmos.

“One promising way is if we don’t have dark matter be so perfectly ‘collision-less’ but it could interact with radiation in the early Universe,” Prof Riess said.

He has submitted a paper with his latest analysis of the Hubble Constant for publication in a journal.