Science & Nature
Update Saturday, Oct. 21 - Oct. 27, 2017
Spacewalkers install new hand on station’s robot arm
In this frame from NASA TV, Astronauts Mark
Vande Hei and Randy Bresnik, bottom, work on the International Space
Station on Thursday, Oct. 5, 2017. The astronauts went out on a
spacewalk to give the International Space Station’s big robot arm a new
hand. (NASA TV via AP)
Cape Canaveral, Fla. (AP) - Spacewalking
astronauts gave the International Space Station’s big robot arm a new
hand earlier this month.
Commander Randy Bresnik and Mark Vande Hei
accomplished the job on the first of three NASA spacewalks planned in
“One down, two to go,” Bresnik said as the
seven-hour spacewalk came to a close. The pair was scheduled to go back
out Tuesday, Oct. 10 to lubricate the new arm attachment.
The latching mechanism on one end of the 58-foot
robot arm malfunctioned in August. It needed to be replaced before the
arrival of an Orbital ATK supply ship in November.
Hustling through their work, the spacewalkers
unbolted the old mechanism and promptly installed the spare. Initial
testing by ground controllers indicated success.
“All right, gentlemen, we show a good arm,” Mission
“That is great news, Houston,” Bresnik said. “Much
This bulky bundle of latches - more than 3 feet (a
meter) long - is used to grab visiting spacecraft, and provides power
and data. The arm can also move like an inchworm across the space
station by grabbing onto special fixtures.
The Canadian-built arm has been in orbit for 16
years. Engineers attribute the recent trouble to wear and tear. The
original latching mechanisms, one on each end of the arm, have been used
nearly 400 times.
The latching mechanism on the opposite end will be
replaced early next year.
It was the first spacewalk for Vande Hei, a rookie
astronaut who arrived at the orbiting outpost a few weeks ago.
“Congratulations, my friend, on becoming the 221st
human to exit in your own personal spacecraft into the void of space,”
said Bresnik, a veteran spacewalker.
“That’s it for all of the tender moments you’ll get
from me,” Bresnik joked. “Now back to work.”
As the duo worked, they marveled over the views of
Earth below and the full moon above. They also cranked out some extra
chores. As he packed up an insulating cover from outdoor electronic
equipment, Bresnik noted how his son, a new Boy Scout, was working on
rolling up sleeping bags back home.
Mission Control assured Bresnik he wouldn’t have to
camp outside the space station.
“It would be worth it,” Bresnik replied.
Six men currently live at the 250-mile-high
outpost: three Americans, two Russians and an Italian.
On Wednesday, they marked the 60th anniversary of
the Soviet launch of Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite,
and the beginning of the Space Age.
Researchers shed light on
Neanderthals’ legacy in humans
Berlin (AP) - Some human
traits that are linked to sunlight - including mood and sleep patterns -
may be influenced by a person’s Neanderthal forefathers, according to a
study published Thursday, Oct. 5.
Researchers examined the genome of
more than 100,000 Britons who inherited DNA from Neanderthal ancestors
and found they reported higher rates of listlessness, loneliness,
staying up late and smoking.
The study by scientists at the Max
Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, also
confirmed that some Neanderthal DNA found in people of non-African
descent affects their skin and hair color, though not in any single
The findings suggest Neanderthals
were already well-adapted to low and variable levels of sunlight in
Europe when modern humans first arrived there from Africa some 50,000
years ago, said Michael Dannemann, who co-authored the study published
in the American Journal of Human Genetics.
Scientists have known for years
that Neanderthals and modern humans interbred. About 2 percent of the
DNA of people of non-African descent comes from Neanderthals, a species
that became extinct about 40,000 years ago.
Previous studies have examined the
link between diseases and Neanderthal DNA, concluding that the ancient
DNA can influence illnesses such as diabetes.
Dannemann and his colleague Janet
Kelso decided to look at the impact of Neanderthal DNA on non-disease
traits in modern humans. They compared DNA patterns from 112,338 people
of British ancestry stored in a databased called the U.K. Biobank with
the genome of a Neanderthal found in southern Siberia, near the
They were able to link 15 physical
traits to Neanderthal DNA, including several traits for hair and skin
color but also behavior, such as a person’s ‘chronotype’ - that is,
whether they are a morning or an evening person. Those with specific
sections of Neanderthal DNA were noticeably more likely to describe
themselves as an evening person.
“What we could see is that most of
them correlate to how much exposure to sunlight you have,” said
In a separate study, published
Thursday in the journal Science, researchers examined the DNA of
a Neanderthal genome found in a cave in Croatia.
The paper, also co-authored by
scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology
in Leipzig, describes Neanderthal DNA found in modern humans that has
been linked to eating disorders, rheumatoid arthritis and schizophrenia.
“This adds to mounting evidence
that Neanderthal ancestry influences disease risk in present-day humans,
particularly with respect to neurological, psychiatric, immunological,
and dermatological phenotypes,” the authors conclude.
Update Saturday October 14 - October 20, 2017
Dubai dreams of flying taxis darting
among its skyscrapers
In this Sept. 26, 2017 photo, a Volocopter
prototype flies in front of the city skyline during a test flight in
Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Dubai is hoping to one day have flying,
pilotless taxis darting among its skyscrapers. (AP Photo/Kamran
Dubai, United Arab Emirates (AP)
- With a whirling buzz from 18 rotors, the pilotless helicopter
gently lifted off the ground and soared up into the afternoon sky, the
spire of the world’s tallest building visible behind it.
The recent unmanned flight by the
German-made electric Volocopter represents the latest step in Dubai’s
pursuit of flying taxis, which would not seem out of place among the
Gulf city’s already futuristic skyline - imagine “Blade Runner,” with
Dubai already has invested in
another model of a flying, autonomous taxi, and is working to design
regulations for their use. Putting more passengers in the air could free
its already clogged highways and burnish the city’s cutting-edge image
“It’s public transportation for
everybody, so you can use, you can order it, you can pay for the trip
and the trip is not much more expensive than with a car,” said Alexander
Zosel, Volocopter’s co-founder. “If you build roads, you build bridges,
it’s a huge amount and it’s always much more cheaper to have a system
where you don’t need that infrastructure.”
Driving in Dubai already makes one
yearn for the open skies. Rush hour on Sheikh Zayed Road, a dozen-lane
artery running down the length of the city, alternates between dense
gridlock and sports-car slalom. Over 1.5 million Dubai-registered
vehicles ply its roads, not counting those crowding in from the United
Arab Emirates’ six other sheikhdoms.
The Volocopter’s designers envision
the electric, battery-powered two-seat helicopters taking off and
landing from pads set up across the city. The prototype used in Dubai
has a maximum flying time of 30 minutes at 50 kph (31 mph), with a
maximum airspeed of 100 kph (62 mph). Batteries charged in
climate-controlled areas near the pads would be swapped in as needed.
“I believe (the) urban air taxi
will contribute an interesting addition to the existing transportation
modes,” Volocopter CEO Florian Reuter said. “There are certain routes
that are just extremely beneficial if you can go to the third
In practice, however, there’s a
long way to go. Convincing white-knuckled flyers to get into a buzzing,
pilotless helicopter is just the beginning. Unpiloted passenger flights
represent a new frontier for regulators. Dubai’s Road and Transportation
Authority, which has invested an undisclosed sum in Volocopter, says it
will work the next five years to come up with laws and develop safety
That’s a longer time frame than
initially offered by Dubai. Mattar al-Tayer, the head of the RTA, told a
conference in February that the Chinese-made EHang 184, a Volocopter
competitor, would be regularly flying through the city’s skies by July,
though that deadline came and went. The RTA did not respond to a request
Still, Dubai remains at the front
of the pack when it comes to embracing new technology.
Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin
Rashid Al Maktoum, says he wants 25 percent of all passenger trips in
the city to be done by driverless vehicles by 2030. The city has a deal
in place with Los Angeles-based Hyperloop One to study the potential for
building a hyperloop line between it and Abu Dhabi, the Emirati capital.
That technology has levitating pods powered by electricity and magnetism
hurtle through low-friction pipes at a top speed of 1,220 kph (760 mph).
For now, the Volocopter’s brief
flights in Dubai drew VIP crowds and film crews making advertisements.
But its executives say after rules are in place, they will be ready for
mass production. Already, Volocopter has drawn the interest of
automobile manufacturer Daimler AG, which was part of a consortium that
put up $30 million in capital for Volocopter. Even Airbus, a major
airplane manufacturer, is looking at building its own flying taxis.
“We’ve proven that it works,” Zosel
said. “At the end of this five years, Dubai will be ready.”
Dubai’s Road and Transportation
Researchers want to know why beluga whales haven’t recovered
New research aims to find out why highly
endangered beluga whales in Alaska’s Cook Inlet have failed to recover
despite protective measures.
(AP) - New research aims to find out why highly
endangered beluga whales in Alaska’s Cook Inlet have failed to recover
despite protective measures.
The National Oceanic
and Atmospheric Administration has awarded more than $1.3 million to the
state for three years of research involving the white whales.
“While we know what we
believe caused the initial decline, we’re not sure what’s causing the
population to remain suppressed,” said Mandy Keogh, a wildlife physiologist
with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
A population of 1,300
belugas dwindled steadily through the 1980s and early ’90s.
The decline accelerated
when Alaska Natives harvested nearly half the remaining 650 whales between
1994 and 1998. Subsistence hunting ended in 1999 but the population remains
at only about 340 animals.
Cook Inlet belugas are
one of five beluga populations in U.S. waters. Cook Inlet, named for British
explorer Capt. James Cook, stretches 180 miles (290 kilometers) from
Anchorage to the Gulf of Alaska.
Belugas feed on salmon,
smaller fish, crab, shrimp, squid and clams.
Dubbed “sea canaries,”
the whales make a wide range of whistles, grunts and clicks, and use
echolocation to navigate under ice and find prey in murky water.
declared Cook Inlet belugas endangered in 2008.
The new research will
supplement ongoing NOAA Fisheries research and review feeding patterns,
social structure of whale pods and the effects of noise.
One new study will
focus on beluga prey and habitat. Researcher will analyze teeth collected
over the years from hunted or stranded belugas and measure stable isotopes
to determine how feeding patterns may have changed during their lives.
“Like tree rings, teeth
have annual growth layers,” Mat Wooller, chemical oceanography professor at
the University of Alaska Fairbanks, said in a statement. “Measuring isotopes
in these growth layers can reveal how whales’ feeding habits have changed
over the life of an animal.”
Chemical signatures in
teeth, Keogh said, can reveal whether belugas ate fish in the water column
or prey along the ocean floor.
Streams within Cook
Inlet have unique strontium signatures that carry over to the fish that
hatch in them, such as salmon and eulachon, a kind of smelt also known as
NOAA researchers last
week deployed acoustic equipment to record belugas feeding. The whales emit
a specific buzz sound after successfully foraging.
“Right now we don’t
know what they’re feeding on in winter,” Keogh said.
Researchers also will
listen for sounds of transient killer whales, a possible predator, along
with industrial noises that could displace belugas from feeding areas.
Researchers also will
study pod social structures and compare it to a growing population of
belugas in Alaska’s Bristol Bay, which has been studied for the past decade
by researchers from Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium and Atlanta’s Georgia Aquarium
in partnership with state, federal and university scientists.
Segments needed for a
growing population may be missing in Cook Inlet, Keogh said.
“For example, we don’t
know if belugas need one male for every female, or whether they’re more
similar to something like a wolf pack, where not all individuals in the
group are reproducing,” she said.
NOAA Fisheries manages
the animals, but the state has a strong interest in their recovery. Belugas
are a tourist draw as they swim in waters along Alaska highways.
Cook Inlet petroleum
helps keep the lights on in Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city, and the state
wants to lift development restrictions if the measures are not helping
“If you don’t know the
factors that are preventing them from recovering, it’s really hard to
appropriately manage them, or to know what factors to try to alleviate,”