TIME space

Precursors of Life Found on a Comet

Anyone home? Philae's landing site on Comet P67
ESA Anyone home? Philae's landing site on Comet P67

The Philae lander offers new clues to cosmic biology

The universe is the greatest organic chemistry experiment that’s ever been run. There isn’t a hydrocarbon anywhere that wasn’t born in the Big Bang, cooked up in the stars and blasted back into space where it combined and recombined into the stuff of biology. Living things—as far as we know—may exist only on Earth, but the complex, biotic, raw materials are everywhere. Now, a new paper in Science reports findings from the Philae spacecraft—which bounced down on Comet P67 on Nov. 12—adding a new dimension to that growing body of knowledge.

Comets have always been a good place to go looking for the origins of life in the universe. They are considered the most pristine artifacts of the early solar system—condensing out of the cosmic cloud that formed the sun and the planets, but remaining in the deep freeze of deep space for most of their very long lives, meaning that their chemistry has not changed much over time.

Ground-based telescopes have detected more than 20 species of organic molecules in the coronae—or glowing heads—of comets. Samples of meteorites that have landed on Earth have also shown them to have organic compounds including amino acids. But meteorites are agglomerations of rock that have been altered many times over the eons—not to mention that have been superheated during their plunge through Earth’s atmosphere—meaning that their molecular cargo has been altered and perhaps even contaminated by earth’s biology. Comets have been largely untouched.

The Science paper—one of several from Philae’s various research teams released this week—reports findings from the Cometary Sampling and Composition (COSAC) instrument, which was designed both to sniff the immediate environment of the comet for ambient organics and to drill into the surface to collect and analyze samples. The first half of the experiment went well, but the second half almost came to ruin.

Multiple sniff readings were taken as Philae flew by and approached the comet. According to the plan, once the lander touched down on the comet, an upward-pointing rocket exhaust was supposed to ignite, pressing Philae down onto the surface, and a pair of downward pointing harpoons were supposed to fire, anchoring it in place. Neither system worked.

Instead, Philae landed, bounced, and settled back down in an untargeted area with too little sunlight to keep its solar power system running consistently, making the drilling impossible. Fortuitously, however, the impact did cause small clumps of surface material to be drawn into Philae’s pair of .8 in. (2 cm) sample-intake pipes. The temperature inside the pipes was 54° to 59° F (12° to 15° C)—which was plenty warm enough to allow COSAC to do its work.

The instrument detected 16 separate organic compounds of various complexity and with various possible biological uses—four of which had never been seen in a comet before. In earthly organisms, those same molecules play roles in the formation of sugars, amino acids, peptides and nucleotides. Given the right opportunity, they could do the same elsewhere in the cosmos. “The complexity of cometary nucleus chemistry,” the authors of the paper wrote, “impl[ies] that early solar system chemistry fosters the formation of prebiotic material in noticeable concentrations.”

The mission planners hope for more from Philae in the coming months—but whether the little lander can deliver is another matter. The shadowy region in which Philae landed has not brightened up in any lasting way, though a passing slash of sunlight did allow it to stir to life briefly in June. In mid-August, however, P67 will arrive at its closest approach to the sun, and the shadows will surely lift, at least temporarily. If Philae opens its eyes again, it will do so at a very scientifically opportune moment because it is during a comet’s brush with the solar fires that it lights up and becomes most chemically active.

But even if Philae speaks no more, it will have already done its job. It made an improbable journey, landed in an improbable place and has sent home at least some of the scientific knowledge it was built to collect. No matter what it does next, it is destined to remain not just a visitor to a comet, but a permanent part of it.

TIME energy

The Renewable Energy Source That’s About to Boom Again

generator Hoover Dam hydropower electricity
Bloomberg—Getty Images Turbines spin inside hydroelectric generators at the Hoover Dam in Boulder City, Nevada on March 24, 2014.

'Whether we like it or not, over the next 20 years roughly the world will double its hydropower capacity'

Ten years ago hydropower might have been taken for dead in the United States. Environmentalists didn’t want hydropower dams because of the destruction they wreaked on nearby ecosystems. Energy companies had lost interest because hydropower wouldn’t produce enough energy to make the investment worthwhile. Indeed, in every decade since the 1970s, the U.S. has added less hydropower capacity than the decade prior.

But now energy experts say that new ways of thinking about hydropower has placed the energy source on the verge of a resurgence in the U.S. Hydropower production is anticipated to grow by more than 5% in 2016 alone, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

“There has been more interest in the last few years. There are a lot of projects being considered,” said Rocío Uria-Martinez, an energy researcher at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. “Hydropower is, or it can be, a very viable complement for the other renewables.” The U.S. has some 80,000 dams, and only 2,000 are being used to harness electricity, according to Uria-Martinez. Adaptations to existing dams could drive a 15 to 20% increase in total hydropower capacity in the U.S. At the same time, adapting dams saves the cost of building new ones from the ground up.

While experts anticipate dramatic growth in hydropower in the coming years, don’t expect to see another Hoover Dam anytime soon. “Building large dams is almost out of the question in the U.S. and in Europe because of environmental constraints,” said Uria-Martinez. Energy policymakers have focused instead on developing sustainable hydropower dams, which are typically on a small scale. In some communities this means installing hydropower capabilities to existing dams that have never produced electricity.

In some areas, increasing dam efficiency has meant eliminating dams that harm the environment and replacing them with more sustainable ones. The Penobscot River in Maine, for instance, had several dams over hundreds of miles of river, many of which were operated inefficiently. Seven conservation groups teamed up and employed scientists to consider how to increase energy production and, at the same time, eliminate some dams. In the end, the group ended up dismantling two dams while achieving the same energy output with the remaining ones.

“We got the river to produce exactly the same amount of hydropower as before but with 1,000 km of connected river,” said Giulio Boccaletti, who runs the water program at the Nature Conservancy. He argues that similar results can be reached in other places around the world.

“Whether we like it or not, over the next 20 years, roughly, the world will double its hydropower capacity,” he said. “How do you intervene in a world where saying no to that development is simply not an option? I think there’s appetite for a more sustainable outcome.”

In the early stages of electricity production in the U.S., hydropower played an important role. Communities first used free-flowing water to harness electricity in the late 19th century. In need of electricity, communities across the country built dams to harness the power of free-flowing water during the first half of the 20th century. In the 1960s, heightened environmental consciousness piqued American interest in conservation, and hydropower quickly fell out of favor. The timing worked well as few good sites for hydropower dams remained.

TIME animals

Petition to Extradite Cecil the Lion’s Killer Signed By 100,000

Petition to White House urges Obama administration to send Walter Palmer to Zimbabwe to face justice

A petition to the White House calling for the American dentist who killed Zimbabwe’s beloved lion Cecil has attracted over 100,000 signatures in just one day.

The petition urges Secretary of State John Kerry and Attorney General Loretta Lynch to extradite U.S. citizen Walter Palmer to Zimbabwe for him to “face justice” for illegally killing the country’s “national icon.”

According to Whitehouse.gov, any petition that reaches over 100,000 signatures within 30 days requires a response from the government. The Cecil petition had 137,648 signatures at the time of publication.

Palmer, a dentist from the Minnesota area, has become a figure of global outrage when it was revealed he killed a beloved, 13-year-old lion in Zimbabwe. Palmer has since apologized and said he will cooperate with authorities, and said he did not know the hunt was illegal.

“To my knowledge, everything about this trip was legal and properly handled and conducted,” he wrote in an apology letter to his dental patients. “I had no idea that the lion I took was a known, local favorite, was collared and part of a study until the end of the hunt.”

TIME Research

Watch NASA Crash a Perfectly Good Plane In the Name of Science

The organization's Langley facility is developing next-generation search-and-rescue technology

On Wednesday, researchers at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia raised a Cessna 172 aircraft 100 feet in the air, suspended by cables, and then dropped it right down into an enormous pile of dirt. It smashed into the ground nose-first, flipping onto its back and delivering tremendous force to the pair of crash-test dummies within. The scientists, by all accounts, were happy.

“This will provide very good data collection for us,” said Lisa Mazzuca, NASA’s Search and Rescue mission manager. “This is exactly what we wanted. The nose hit the ground first.”

The goal, according to NASA’s team, is to improve aviation emergency response times:

Wednesday’s test, the second of three being conducted at Langley, is part of a push to bolster the reliability of emergency locator transmitters. The systems automatically alert rescue personnel in the event of an airplane crash.

But the systems, called ELTs for short, are often so damaged in crashes they fail to transmit as designed. That means it’s harder for rescue teams to reach a crash site quickly.

The first test was conducted on July 1, with the plane crashing into concrete rather than soil. Researchers hope the series of experiments will improve systems designed to help emergency responders locate downed planes by keeping those systems functional after a crash.

[NASA]

TIME animals

This 18-Foot Python Was Captured in the Florida Everglades

It weighed 133 pounds

University of Florida researchers recently captured what may be the second-longest python ever caught in Florida.

Captured along a popular wildlife-watching trail on July 9, the python was a female who measured 18 feet 3 inches and weighed 133 pounds, CBS Miami reports. The longest ever captured in the park measured 18 feet 7 inches long.

The snake was removed from the park and euthanized to protect other wildlife. Pythons are not native to Florida, but were introduced to the region as exotic pets. They now live in the wild by the thousands.

TIME policy

Obama Calls for the U.S. to Make the World’s Fastest Computer

And he wants it done by 2025

President Obama has issued an executive order calling for the United States to build the world’s fastest computer.

The order, announced on Wednesday, establishes the National Strategic Computing Initiative, which is “designed to advance core technologies to solve difficult computational problems and foster increased use of the new capabilities in the public and private sectors,” according to the Office of Science and Technology Policy.

One of the goals of the NSCI will be to build the world’s fastest supercomputer over the next ten years. The computer is planned to be capable of working at one exaflop, or one billion billion calculations per second. The office says a supercomputer able to work at this speed could more accurately measure galaxies, weather, molecular interactions or aircraft in flight, as well as help detect cancer from x-ray images.

“Over the past 60 years, the United States has been a leader in the development and deployment of cutting-edge computing systems,” the office notes. The purpose of the NSCI is “to ensure the United States continues leading in this field over the coming decades.”

 

TIME geology

Washington D.C. Is Sinking Into the Ocean

Not just metaphorically

All the political gridlock in Congress and name-calling during election season may not matter as much when Washington, D.C. sinks into the ocean.

According to new research conducted by geologists at the University of Vermont and the U.S. Geological Survey, the land in the Chesapeake Bay region, including the nation’s capital, is sinking rapidly. The sea level in the Chesapeake is rising at twice the global average and faster than anywhere else on the East Coast, the researchers say, which means D.C. will sink 6 or more inches in the next 100 years.

The sinking is caused by melting ice sheets which caused underlying rock to bulge upward. As the ice melts, the rock bulge drops. Scientists say this will cause more flooding in the region, which is already getting worse from global warming.

“Right now is the time to start making preparations,” said Ben DeJong, lead author of the study, in a University of Vermont press release. “Six extra inches of water really matters in this part of the world.”

 

TIME Television

Bill Clinton to Appear on StarTalk Season 2 Premiere

Former President Bill Clinton and Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson attend the 65th Anniversary Artists & Writers Celebrity Softball Game at Herrick Park on Aug. 17, 2013 in East Hampton, New York.
Steven A Henry—Getty Images Former President Bill Clinton and Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson attend the 65th Anniversary Artists & Writers Celebrity Softball Game at Herrick Park on Aug. 17, 2013 in East Hampton, New York.

The former president will appear alongside show host Neil DeGrasse Tyson

Neil DeGrasse Tyson will sit down with President Bill Clinton for the season 2 premiere of StarTalk, NatGeo announced at the Television Critics Association’s semi-annual press tour.

“I couldn’t think of a more appropriate guest to kick off our second season,” said Tyson. “President Bill Clinton is a public figure whose impact and influence spans politics, pop culture and science—with an occasional dose of humor. That’s exactly the mission statement for StarTalk, and I look forward to sharing our conversation with viewers.”

Other season 2 guests include Susan Sarandon, David Byrne, Larry Wilmore, Mars One CEO Bas Lansdorp and Penn and Teller.

StarTalk returns Sunday, Oct. 25 at 11 p.m. ET on NatGeo.

This article originally appeared on EW.com

TIME A Year In Space

Mysterious Red Lines Spotted on Saturn’s Moon

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute Tethys, one of Saturn's moons

Scientists aren't sure what they are

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has discovered strange red lines stretching across the surface of Saturn’s icy moon Tethys.

What are they? Scientists aren’t sure. They could be areas of exposed ice with chemical impurities, according to NASA, or the result of gas being released from within the moon.

“The red arcs must be geologically young because they cut across older features like impact craters, but we don’t know their age in years,” said Cassini imaging scientist Paul Helfenstein. “If the stain is only a thin, colored veneer on the icy soil, exposure to the space environment at Tethys’ surface might erase …

Read more from our partners at NBC News

TIME animals

Researchers Have Discovered What Made T. Rex Teeth So Deadly

The jagged teeth of Theropods, a classification of mostly flesh-eating dinosaurs, were useful for grasping and tearing at prey

Though notoriously short-armed, the T. Rex had other genetic advantages: namely, its teeth.

Researchers have found that the saw-like internal tooth structure of carnivorous dinosaurs like the Tyrannosaurus Rex may have played an important role in their success as predators.

In the study published in Scientific Reports, researchers discovered that the teeth of meat-eating Theropod dinosaurs featured specially layered arrangements of dentine, a hardened tissue which helped not only strengthen the tooth, but also to enlarge the tooth’s jagged edges. This tooth structure allowed them to develop a “hypercarnivorous feeding style,” the study says, with the ability to crush bones and feed on other large animals.

When teeth were worn out or lost, these dinosaurs were able to grow new teeth to replace them. Growing new teeth could take up to two years, however, which is why these dinosaurs needed a tooth structure strong enough to last – and to keep up that meaty diet.

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