NASA / JPL-Caltech / Ken Kremer / Marco Di Lorenzo
A mosaic of images captured by NASA's Mars Curiosity rover on Sol 262 of its mission on Mars (May 2) shows its robotic arm in the foreground and Mount Sharp in the background. Two drill holes can be seen on the surface of the bedrock visible below the robotic arm's turret.
NASA's Curiosity rover is back at work in Yellowknife Bay, a rocky area inside Mars' Gale Crater — and if it takes good care of itself, it just might still be at work when humans hit the Red Planet.
At least that's the sentiment voiced by Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA's Mars Exploration Program, during this week's Humans to Mars Summit in Washington. "I anticipate the first astronaut we send can go and shake Curiosity's hand," he told Monday's audience at George Washington University. If that astronaut is able to come within hand-shaking distance, the gesture would serve as a thank-you for years of service by the nuclear-powered robot, Meyer said.
Images sent back on May 2 show the rover's robotic arm and its instrument-laden turret poised over Yellowknife Bay's bedrock. Scientist-writer Ken Kremer and his Italian colleague, Marco Di Lorenzo, assembled 13 images ("a Martian baker's dozen") into the sepia-toned panorama you see above.
"She's back and flexing!" Kremer wrote in an email.
Within a week or so, the rover will be drilling into Martian bedrock to flesh out its scientific findings about the habitability of ancient Mars. Then it'll start heading toward Mount Sharp (a.k.a. Aeolis Mons), a 3-mile-high (5-kilometer-high) mountain in Gale Crater. Scientists are hoping that the layers of rock on that mountainside have recorded billions of years' worth of geological changes.
Because Curiosity is powered by a plutonium-fueled radioisotope thermoelectric generator, the rover could keep going for decades — assuming that there aren't any mechanical breakdowns, of course. That's what fuels Meyer's hope that there'll be a human-machine handshake someday.
More than 70 percent of Americans are confident that humans will go to Mars by 2033, according to a survey conducted in February by Phillips & Company for the Boeing Co. and Explore Mars, the nonprofit group sponsoring this week's summit. But one of the summit's headliners, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, said that sending astronauts to Mars can't be done without technological innovation and financial support.
"I don’t know about you, but I’m not ready," The Washington Post quoted Bolden as saying. "I don’t have the capability to do it. NASA doesn’t have the capability to do that right now. But we’re on a path to be able to do it in the 2030s."
Will humans ever shake Curiosity's hand? When? Register your opinion in our unscientific survey above, and voice your views in the comment section below.
Backyard bug-watchers are seeing the winged bugs known as cicadas come out of their holes in New Jersey and North Carolina after 17 years of underground slumber — and scientists say a full-scale outbreak may not be far behind.
"There are some pretty convincing reports coming out," John Cooley, an expert on cicadas at the University of Connecticut, told NBC News. "It's fair to say it's starting, but it's still in the very early stages. It certainly isn't going all crazy. ... When it really happens, it's not going to be like this. It's going to be shovel loads of cicadas."
Cooley maintains one of the most closely watched websites for this spring's emergence, Magicicada.org. Little bug logos are popping up on different areas of Magicicada's interactive map, which means a smattering of Internet users are seeing cicadas coming out of the ground. In some cases, they're even seeing the bugs crawling around as adults.
Cooley, however, says that we ain't seen nothing yet. "When it really happens, we expect that website will just light up," he said.
The outlook is similar on other bug-watching sites — such as Radiolab's Cicada Tracker, which is encouraging listeners to put out their own soil-thermometer setups. Those readings are considered key leading indicators for cicada activity, because researchers have found that the bugs emerge en masse when the springtime soil temperature reaches 64 degrees Fahrenheit (18 degrees Celsius). A different temperature tracker set up by the Sutron information network for the Washington area suggests that the nation's capital still has a way to go before the cicadas come out.
Insects are expected to emerge by the billions on the East Coast, across an area stretching from North Carolina to Connecticut. This army of bugs, known as Brood II, spends 17 years feeding on plant roots underground. Sometime between late April and early June, depending on the weather, the insects burrow out of the ground as nymphs. The juveniles shed their outer skins, crawl up trees or buildings, and fly around to find their mates. The females lay their eggs, and then the adults die in droves. All this happens in the course of four to six weeks.
After another few weeks, a new generation of nymphs hatch from the eggs, drop to the ground, burrow into the soil and begin the next 17-year cycle.
An interactive map provided by Magicicada.org shows this spring's cicada sightings.
Ron Edmonds / AP
Red-eyed cicadas cluster on leaves in Annandale, VA., during the Brood X emergence of 2004. Like Brood II, Brood X comes out every 17 years - but the timing of the cycle is different.
Brood II is just one of several broods of 13-year and 17-year periodical cicadas: The last big bug outbreak featured Brood XIX, which created a huge buzz in Southern states in 2011. This year's emergence is expected to begin in the South as well, though that's not guaranteed.
"Our expectation has been that we would hear from folks in North Carolina first," said Missy Henriksen, vice president of public affairs for the National Pest Management Association. However, the only cicada sighting she's actually been able to confirm was made in New Jersey. Although the insects tend to swarm in rural or suburban areas, there's a chance they could be sighted in urban enclaves such as New York's Central Park or the Bronx Zoo as well.
Cooley said he expected the pace of sightings to accelerate in the days ahead. "Within a week or so, it ought to really be going," he told NBC News. "Spring can't hold off forever."
When it comes, a cicada emergence can fill the skies with flying bugs, and fill the ears with a hum as loud as a jet engine or lawn mower. Those who have been through the full-frontal buzz say the experience can be disconcerting if you're not prepared for it. But cicadas are not considered a threat to humans. In fact, they can be quite delicious.
For true bug fans, the best response to the emergence is to lie back and enjoy it. "I'm looking forward to it," said Cornell University entomologist Cole Gilbert, who's expecting to catch the trailing edge of the Brood II outbreak in upstate New York. "I think it's pretty cool."
Thanks to the rapid rise of crowdsourcing and social media, this year's event is sure to become the most tweeted cicada emergence in history: Cicada Mania suggests using the hashtag #BroodII for the 2013 outbreak, and #Cicadas for general cicada issues. If you want to see the Twitterverse from the cicadas' point of view, just follow @Brood_II. There's a Cicada Mania Facebook page for entomophiles. And if you're an entomophobe, you'll find kindred spirits on the "I Hate Cicadas!!!!!!" Facebook page.
Steve Corniffe looks at dead bees next to a bee box at the J&P Apiary and Gentzel's Bees, Honey and Pollination Company on April 10 in Homestead, Florida. Beekeepers and scientists are trying to figure out what is causing bees to succumb to the colony collapse disorder.
In an email to NBC News, the Environmental Protection Agency says it's speeding up its schedule for reviewing research on neonicotinoids and their potential effects on honeybees. It's also fine-tuning existing regulatory practices and setting up new educational efforts to deal with colony collapse disorder. Here's how the EPA responded to NBC News' questions about the next steps to counter the honeybee die-off:
Are there any specific policy questions under consideration? Anything relating to the next steps in the wake of the report?
"EPA is working collaboratively with beekeepers, growers, pesticide manufacturers, seed manufacturers, equipment manufacturers, USDA and states to apply technologies to reduce pesticide dust drift, to advance best management practices, to improve enforcement guidance and to explore enhancing pesticide labeling in order to protect bees. Specifically, EPA is:
Moving to change pesticide labels which will limit applications to protect bees and be more clear and precise.
Moving to add warning statements to each bag of pesticide-treated seed.
Issuing new enforcement guidance to federal, state and tribal enforcement officials to help them investigate bee kills.
Working with the equipment manufacturer and pesticide and seed industry and USDA to develop and apply technologies to reduce pesticide dust drift during planting seasons.
Working with USDA and other partners to promote Best Management Practices for growers and beekeeping via a new website, education and training modules for professional applicators, video, and other mechanisms
Finally, EPA is working on a range of national and international efforts to develop appropriate tests for evaluating both exposure to and effects of pesticides on insect pollinators. EPA is also requiring new lab and field studies to inform the risk assessment process to better understand pollinator risks."
On the subject of nicotinoids, the EPA has said it's conducting risk assessments on the pesticides' effects, but is there anything more specific that can be said?
"The agency has accelerated the schedule for registration review of the neonicotinoid pesticides due to uncertainties about these pesticides and their potential effects on bees. We have several hundred registrant studies addressing the effects of neonicotinoids to individual bees as well as colonies in field settings. In addition, the EPA has evaluated open-literature derived studies that meet the established standards for use in a regulatory context.
"If at any time the EPA determines there are urgent human and/or environmental risks from pesticide exposures that require prompt attention, the agency will take appropriate regulatory action, regardless of the registration review status of that pesticide."
The U.S. Air Force's sleek, light-colored X-51A Waverider hypersonic vehicle can be seen tucked under the wing of a B-52H Stratofortress for this week's test launch.
By Alan Boyle, Science Editor, NBC News
The U.S. Air Force's $300 million, nine-year test program for a hypersonic plane ended on a high note this week, when the last of its X-51A Waverider vehicles made the longest flight of its kind. The success was made sweeter by the fact that it followed last year's high-profile failure.
"I believe all we have learned from the X-51A Waverider will serve as the bedrock for future hypersonics research and ultimately the practical application of hypersonic flight," Charlie Brink, X-51A program manager for the Air Force Research Laboratory Aerospace Systems Directorate, said in a news release.
The 14-foot-long (4.3-meter-long), scramjet-powered vehicle hit a top speed of Mach 5.1 during just over six minutes of flight on May 1, the Air Force said. That's the longest of the Boeing-built X-51A's four test flights, and the longest air-breathing hypersonic flight ever.
Hypersonic scramjet propulsion has been widely touted as eventually opening up the way for flights between London and New York in less than an hour. But in reality, the first application is more likely to come in the form of super-fast cruise missiles.
Scramjet is a short way of saying "supersonic combustion ramjet." There have been manyeffortsthrough the years to perfect hypersonic aircraft — that is, vehicles that travel at speeds beyond Mach 5. But the Air Force says the X-51A is unique primarily because it used hydrocarbon fuel rather than hydrogen fuel. Without any moving parts, the fuel is injected into the scramjet's combustion chamber, where it mixes with the air rushing through the chamber. The fuel is ignited in a process that's been likened to lighting a match in a hurricane.
This week's experiment followed the flight profile used for the X-51A's earlier tests: A B-52H Stratofortress took off from California's Edwards Air Force Base, flew 50,000 feet over a Pacific test range, and then released a solid rocket booster with the plane attached. When the cruiser reached Mach 4.8, the X-51A separated from the booster and lit up its scramjet engine. The scramjet exhausted its fuel in 240 seconds. The sleek vehicle coasted for another couple of minutes and splashed down into the ocean as planned. The X-51 traveled more than 230 nautical miles and yielded 370 seconds of data, the Air Force said.
"This success is the result of a lot of hard work by an incredible team. The contributions of Boeing, Pratt and Whitney Rocketdyne, the 412th Test Wing at Edwards AFB, NASA Dryden and DARPA were all vital," Brink said.
From 2012: ITV's Lawrence McGinty talks about the X-51A Waverider hypersonic vehicle in advance of its third test. That test ended in failure, but this week's test was successful.
All this is a huge improvement over the previous test, which ended in failure last August. During that flight, the X-51A veered off course less than a minute after launch and crashed, due to a problem with one of its control fins. The issue was resolved after a months-long investigation. The first X-51 test was successful in May 2010, resulting in a 200-second flight, but the second test in June 2011 was a disappointment.
There's no immediate successor to the X-51A, but the Air Force has pledged to continue with hypersonic research. It says the lessons learned during the X-51A program "will pay dividends to the High Speed Strike Weapon program" at the Air Force Research Laboratory.
NASA's Curiosity rover is back in business after a weeks-long communication gap caused by solar interference. The proof comes in the form of pictures transmitted back to Earth on Thursday from the 1-ton machine's vantage point at Yellowknife Bay on Mars.
"Can you hear me now? Conjunction is over. I have a clear view of Earth & am back to work!" the rover tweeted (with a little help from her entourage at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory).
Dozens of raw images are on display on NASA's Mars Curiosity website, featuring rocky terrain in the foreground and the 3-mile-high (5-kilometer-high) peak known as Mount Sharp or Aeolis Mons in the background. Other Mars probes, including the Opportunity rover, Mars Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, are back at work as well.
NASA's Red Planet probes were on hiatus for most of April due to an unfavorable alignment of Mars, Earth and the sun. During solar conjunction, the sun gets in the way of the communication lines between the two planets, and mission controllers generally put science operations on hold. Such conjunctions occur every 26 months. Opportunity has gone through several communication breaks during its nine years on Mars, but this is the first one to occur since Curiosity landed last August.
The spacecraft weren't completely idle during the break: Curiosity conducted in-place investigations and sent back limited transmissions via X-band radio to let controllers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory know that it was doing OK. Opportunity autonomously flipped its computer into safe mode during the break, apparently due to a glitch involving a routine camera check. A fresh set of software commands fixed the glitch, and on Wednesday controllers reported that Opportunity was back in working order.
Curiosity is due for its own software upgrade, and then the rover is scheduled to drill out a second sample of ground-up rock for analysis. The first sample, analyzed in March, suggested that the Yellowknife Bay environment was potentially habitable billions of years ago. Scientists want to use the follow-up sample to confirm what they saw in previous chemical analyses.
After Curiosity finishes up its work in Yellowknife Bay and its surroundings in the Glenelg area of Gale Crater, controllers plan to point the rover toward Mount Sharp, 6 miles (10 kilometers) away. The science team suspects that the mountain's many layers of rock will hold further evidence of ancient organic chemistry.
The U.S. government's latest report on the mysterious disappearance of honeybees points to a parasitic mite as the biggest factor behind colony collapse disorder — and downplays the role of controversial pesticides that European officials are planning to ban.
Last month, beekeepers and environmentalists filed a federal lawsuit calling for an immediate ban on two kinds of neonicotinoids — clothianidin and thiamethoxam. One of the attorneys bringing that suit, Peter Jenkins of the Washington-based Center for Food Safety, told NBC News that his group was "very disturbed" by the way the report was presented, but he also said some of the problems cited in the report supported his case.
'Complex problem' The report says that a complex combination of causes is behind colony collapse disorder, or CCD, a term that applies to the difficult-to-explain losses that have hit U.S. honeybee colonies since 2006. In the worst cases, entire colonies have disappeared within a few weeks. That's a big problem, because the government says an estimated one-third of all food and beverages are made possible by pollination, mainly by honeybees. Pollination is said to be worth more than $20 billion in agricultural production annually.
The relatively light bee colony losses during the winter of 2011-2012 gave some experts reason to hope that the CCD situation was getting better, but experts say that last winter's losses look as if they were worse than ever.
"The decline in honeybee health is a complex problem caused by a combination of stressors, and at EPA we are committed to continuing our work with USDA, researchers, beekeepers, growers and the public to address this challenge," acting EPA Administrator Bob Perciasepe said in a statement.
Deputy Agriculture Secretary Kathleen Merrigan promised that "key stakeholders will be engaged in addressing this challenge."
Scott Bauer / USDA via AP
A worker bee carries a Varroa mite, visible in this close-up view.
The report draws upon a gathering of officials and stakeholders that took place in Alexandria, Va., last October. It says that the parasitic Varroa mite is the "major factor" behind CCD in the United States and other countries. Varroa mites latch onto the bees and feed on their fluids, weakening the insects. The mites have developed widespread resistance to the chemicals that have been used to control them. The report says more attention should be given to breeding bees that can weather the mites, and notes that gene-sequencing projects focusing on honeybees as well as Varroa mites may provide fresh insights.
Beekeepers have long known about the mite problem, as well as the other causes listed in the EPA-USDA report: poor nutrition, reduced genetic diversity, the Nosema gut parasite, emerging viruses and a bacterial disease called European foulbrood. But figuring out the role played by pesticides has posed the biggest challenge for researchers as well as policymakers.
Some say the exposure levels used in those studies may not accurately reflect the levels that bees experience in the fields. That's the tack taken in Thursday's report: "The most pressing pesticide research questions lie in determining the actual field-relevant pesticide exposure bees receive, and the effects of pervasive exposure to multiple pesticides on bee health and productivity of whole honeybee colonies," it said.
The report says residues from a different class of pesticides, known as pyrethroids, could pose three times as much risk to bees as neonicotinoids.
The Center for Food Safety's Peter Jenkins complained that the effects of neonicotinoids were being downplayed, but he also called attention to some of the shortcomings mentioned in the federal agencies' report. "They admitted that their labeling is inadequate," Jenkins said. "They admitted that past risk assessments and data requirements were inadequate."
He said some of the proposed policy changes — including, for instance, the introduction of better equipment for coating seed corn with pesticides — would have a positive impact. "What they don't say is that it's going to take years and years to achieve those changes," Jenkins said.
Jenkins called for an immediate tightening of regulations of pesticides. "The one factor that EPA actually has control over is the one that they refuse to regulate," he said.
The EPA is working on a new round of risk assessments for pesticides, but the results of those assessments have not yet been released. Meanwhile, the agency is due to file its response to the environmentalists' lawsuit later this month. Jenkins said Thursday's report would have "no real effect" on the legal action, which could go on for years.
Poets, take note: NASA is looking for a few good haiku to send to the Red Planet aboard its MAVEN orbiter this fall.
If you're not the literary sort, don't worry: You can still submit your name to be included on a DVD that will be attached to the spacecraft. MAVEN is scheduled for launch from Cape Canaveral in Florida sometime after Nov. 18. In 2014, it'll go into Martian orbit to study changes in the planet's atmosphere over the course of at least one Earth year. Mission cost is $670 million. MAVEN is short for Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN.
Send-a-name opportunities come around at least once every year or so, and they tend to be quite popular with the general public. More than 1.2 million names were collected for the Mars Science Laboratory mission: Those names were etched onto two microchips, each the size of a dime, and then the chips were placed in a protected corner of the Curiosity rover.
This time around, you can submit names via the MAVEN mission's "Going to Mars" website. All the names will be digitized and encoded onto a DVD that will be put on the spacecraft. You can also submit a personal message in the form of a haiku — a traditional form of three-line Japanese verse that has five syllables for the first line, seven syllables for the second line, and five syllables for the third line.
The deadline for submissions is July 1. An online public vote will be conducted beginning July 15 to select the top three haiku poems. Those three poems will be included on the spacecraft as well, and will be prominently displayed on the MAVEN website. Check the "Going to Mars" instructions to get the details and to register your name and message.
"The Going to Mars campaign offers people worldwide a way to make a personal connection to space, space exploration, and science in general, and share in our excitement about the MAVEN mission," Stephanie Renfrow, lead for the MAVEN Education and Public Outreach program at the University of Colorado's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, said in a NASA news release announcing the campaign. To put it another way:
Space exploration blends science and poetry, blends heaven and earth.
Nevertheless, the brontosaur serves as a totem for Switek, a prolific science writer whose work has appeared in Wired, Smithsonian, Slate, Scientific American and now most frequently on National Geographic's Phenomena blog network (as Laelaps). His earlier book, "Written in Stone," laid out the broad sweep of stories told by the fossil record — and in "My Beloved Brontosaurus," he focuses in on the what, where and when of the dinosaurs' heyday in the Mesozoic Era.
As you page through the book, you'll learn that not all dinosaurs have gone extinct. (Birds are dinosaurs.) You'll find out that the dinosaurs didn't start out as the rulers of the reptiles. (Crocodilians came first.) You'll delve into the back-and-forth debates that have occupied paleontologists for decades. (Was T. rex a hunter or a scavenger? Almost certainly both.) And you'll also get some great tips for future road trips in the American West.
Listen to an excerpt from the audiobook edition of "My Beloved Brontosaurus: On the Road with Old Bones, New Science, and Our Favorite Dinosaurs" by author Brian Switek, read by the author.
Misconceptions and marvels Switek talked about dinosaurs and tour directions during an interview last week. Here's an edited version of the Q&A that will whet your appetite for "My Beloved Brontosaurus":
Q: So many myths about dinosaurs are exploded in your book, but is there one big misconception that you want to set people straight about?
A: There’s one misconception that has a flip side to it, and that’s that dinosaurs are totally extinct. Birds are living dinosaurs. We figured that out about 20 years ago. So whenever we talk about the age of dinosaurs millions of years ago, and how all the dinosaurs are gone, that’s demonstrably not true. At least one lineage is still with us today.
The flip side of that is that dinosaurs became dominant as soon as they appeared — that the dawn of the dinosaurs sparked an immediate rise to ascendancy. The fact is that dinosaurs started out relatively small. They were relatively marginal. They really weren’t all that important until the extinction at the end of the Triassic period, about 200 million years ago, wiped away all the weird crocodile relatives that were the dominant land animals at the time. So the dinosaurian reign was made possible by, and then winnowed back by, extinction. It’s these wonderful extinction bookends that explain not only their origin, but their ultimate destination, bringing us to the birds that live today.
Q: Another issue is the appeal of dinosaurs: For some kids, dino-mania is almost a rite of passage. I love the idea that the book jacket for “My Beloved Brontosaurus” is also a fold-out dinosaur poster — what dinosaur fan wouldn’t love that? What is it about dinosaurs that makes them so appealing, particularly to kids?
A: I think they’re appealing because they demand answers of us. People have been wondering about dinosaurs, pondering what they were and what they were like, even before there was a name for them. I don’t just mean European naturalists. I mean Native Americans, people in ancient Greece and Rome, people in ancient China and India. People in all those cultures found dinosaur bones. They knew that these were the remains of once-living animals, and they created stories of monsters and heroes, myths and legends about creatures from distant times. So we were wondering about the dinosaurs before we even knew what they were.
That continues now, because there’s nothing quite like the dinosaurs. Yes, birds are living dinosaurs – but there’s so much more. There’s nothing like Apatosaurus, or Triceratops, or Tyrannosaurus rex around right now. When you look at their bones, questions immediately come to mind: What did they look like? What did they sound like? How quickly did they move? What did their environment look like? To me, it’s impossible to hear the dinosaur story without wondering about these questions.
Answering these questions puts our own existence in context. You can say all this happened 66 million years ago – but wait a second: What was America like back then? How did it all change? That brings up some very powerful truths about extinction, evolution and survival. It’s these clues from our own distant past and our planet’s distant past that act as milestones by which we can understand our own existence.
J. Brougham / AMNH file
Experts say Tyrannosaurus rex may have had a downy layer of feathers, and probably had a coloration that was more varied than the stereotypical green.
Q: Another way that the book could be read is as a travelogue. It’s almost structured as a series of road trips that you’ve taken to explore all these fantastic fossils. And in fact, that’s what you’re doing along with your book tour. If there’s one dream trip that dinosaur fanatics should take, where would you tell them to go?
A: This is sort of a plug for my home state of Utah: There’s a byway system called the Dinosaur Diamond that runs through a good part of the state and includes the Dinosaur National Monument, where 150 million-year-old fossils are preserved in place; and the Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry, a place where over 46 individual allosaurs and other dinosaurs have been found. You can head up to Salt Lake City, where the Natural History Museum of Utah opened this last year. As you drive along those highways, there are various dinosaur trackways, lots of attractions, lots of dinosaur celebrities. So if anyone’s looking for a weeklong trip in the American West, that’s the best pre-planned tour there is for a dino fan.
Q: in terms of the frontiers for dinosaur research, there’s been talk about Jack Horner’s "Chickenosaurus" project, and there are always new perspectives on how dinosaurs lived and died. What do you see as the next big thing for dinosaur research?
A: Researchers are finding ways to draw out clues about how dinosaurs actually lived, through new technologies that can be applied to a variety of animals. So we’re looking at the development of better CT scanning technology. Improved CT technology is helping paleontologists get down to a degree of resolution they’ve never had before — and they’re finding clues about bone structure to a degree that was just not possible before.
What’s really exciting to me is the study of dinosaur color. It’s a field that’s moving forward by comparing fossil feathers to modern ones. Paleontologists are starting to reconstruct what colors the dinosaurs actually were. They might be able to identify the evolutionary advantages of colors, degrees of coloration, and maybe some aspects of sexual dimorphism. Everything we’re learning about dinosaur biology is filling in the picture of how they lived in a much more meaningful way.
Q: You mentioned that dinosaurs are appealing to us in part because they tell us how extinction works, and how our own distant past might have unfolded. That suggests that the study of dinosaurs can hold lessons for the 21st century. How can the dinosaur experience best be applied to our own human experience?
A: Dinosaurs shaped our evolution. People often say that the rise of mammals was made possible by the disappearance of all those non-avian dinosaurs. That's true, but it's not just that. Mammals lived alongside the dinosaurs — things like Stegosaurus and Allosaurus and Tyrannosaurus. By keeping our furry little ancestors in the shadows, the dinosaurs set the stage for the later evolution of primates.
Yes, those dinosaurs disappeared. But beyond that, we know that we’re changing the global climate in drastic ways. We know we’re distributing invasive species around the world. By looking back at the fossil record, and seeing how dinosaurs reacted to drastic changes, we can begin to outline how organisms today and in the future are going to react to the same sorts of changes. Dinosaurs might hold clues about our future. The past isn't just a static monument to what once was. The fossil record also carries lessons about what will be.
Experts have provided the grisly goods to back up 17th-century accounts of cannibalism during the Jamestown colony's "starving time" — including a skull that shows signs of being chopped at and pried apart.
"Our team has discovered partial human remains before, but the location of the discovery, visible damage to the skull and marks on the bones immediately made us realize this finding was unusual," Bill Kelso, chief archaeologist of the Jamestown Rediscovery Project in Virginia, said in a news release issued Wednesday. Specimens from the Jamestown site were laid out during a Washington news conference.
Written accounts described acts of cannibalism during the winter of 1609-1610, when sickness, starvation and attacks from native tribes in the area put the two-year-old Virginia settlement to its sternest test. Scores of the colonists who crowded inside James Fort died that winter. One of the accounts described a husband who killed his pregnant wife and salted her flesh for storage and consumption. (The husband was executed for the crime.)
There was no reason to doubt the accounts, but in the course of their decades-long excavation, archaeologists were on the lookout for remains that might tell more of the story behind Jamestown's hardships. They found the evidence in the form of a partial human skull and other bones lying in a 17th-century trash deposit. Kelso enlisted the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History to sort out the clues. Colonial Williamsburg and Preservation Virginia helped provide historical context.
'Jane of Jamestown' Based on an analysis of the bones — including the skull and its teeth, as well as the size of a tibia and bone growth in a knee joint — experts determined that the remains came from a 14-year-old female, nicknamed "Jane." The isotopic distribution of elements in the bones suggested that she consumed a European diet of wheat and meat.
Carolyn Kaster / AP
Doug Owsley, division head for physical anthropology at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, displays the skull and a facial reconstruction for "Jane of Jamestown" during a news conference at the museum in Washington on Wednesday.
Carolyn Kaster / AP
Strike marks are seen on the skull of "Jane of Jamestown" at the National Museum of Natural History.
The grisliest findings were reflected in the wounds to the head: The chief of the museum's division of physical anthropology, Douglas Owsley, identified chops to the forehead and the back of the cranium to open the head. Knife cuts on the jaw and the cheekbone could have been made during removal of the flesh. Other markings suggest that the head's left side was punctured and pried apart.
The scientists' conclusion: Jane was butchered for her meat.
"She was almost certainly dead when she was cannibalized," Jim Horn, Colonial Williamsburg's vice president of research and historical interpretation, told NBC News. "The way the cuts are configured on the skull points to the fact that she was dead. if she was not, there would have been more signs of a struggle, and the marks would have been more irregular."
Based on the bone analysis and the disposition of the remains at the site, researchers believe Jane arrived in Jamestown in August 1609, just months before the crisis. She might have been a maidservant, or the daughter of a colonist. Chances are that she died in January or February of 1610, from either sickness or starvation, Horn said.
"The 'starving time' was brought about by a trifecta of disasters: disease, a serious shortage of provisions, and a full-scale siege by the Powhatans that cut off Jamestown from outside relief," he said in Wednesday's news release. "Survival cannibalism was a last resort; a desperate means of prolonging life at a time when the settlement teetered on the brink of extinction."
When Lord De La Warr and his relief party arrived in Jamestown in the spring of 1610, he ordered the "cleansing" of the ruined settlement. "It must have looked like a charnel house when he arrived," Horn said. That's probably how Jane's remains came to be deposited amid a trash heap in an abandoned cellar, he said.
Jane's legacy Jamestown went on to become the Virginia Colony's capital from 1619 to 1699. In the late 17th century, the settlement was devastated by a series of fires. At the dawn of the 18th century, Virginia's capital was moved to Williamsburg, and old Jamestown faded away. Decades later, the descendants of Jamestown's settlers played their part in the creation of the United States of America.
Researchers have not matched up Jane's bones with a specific member of the Jamestown colony, and although DNA samples have been saved for future analysis, they say there's little hope of identifying modern relatives for comparative genetic testing. But the excavation continues, and Jane's remains provide graphic evidence of Jamestown's desperation.
Horn acknowledges that the story of Jane has a grisly fascination to it, but he says there's a broader significance as well. "It revolves around what it took to successfully establish European colonies in the New World," he told NBC News. "In the early phase of European colonization of the Americas, most colonies actually failed. They failed for the kinds of reasons that we discovered at Jamestown. ... Most colonies lasted no more than six to 12 months. What we're looking in the case of Jamestown is a remarkable story of survival and endurance."
Researchers discuss the forensic evidence to back up accounts of cannibalism at the Jamestown Colony during the "starving time" of 1609-1610.
An exhibition that tells the story of Jane and the survival of Jamestown, England's first permanent settlement in America, is due to open May 3 at Historic Jamestowne in Virginia. Jane's bones will be put on exhibit temporarily, and eventually they will be "respectfully reinterred," Horn said. The facility has also produced a book and DVD on the subject, titled "Jane." However, details of the discovery have not yet been published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal.
The 71-year-old Hawking has been living with neurogenerative disease for decades, but his illness hasn't kept him from taking on adventures that might tax younger, fitter humans. On Tuesday, during a London talk sponsored by the charity Breathe On UK, Hawking noted that he has required assistance with his breathing since his tracheotomy in 1985.
"Being on a ventilator has not curbed my lifestyle," he told the audience, using his instantly recognizable computer-generated voice. "I have been to Brussels, the Isle of Man, Geneva, Canada, California ... and I hope to go into space with Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic. It is possible to have quality of life on a ventilator."
That's music to the ears of Breathe On UK, which was created to help kids who need long-term breathing assistance. It's also a compliment to Virgin Galactic, which put SpaceShipTwo through its supersonic paces for the first time this week. If all the tests go right, SpaceShipTwo could be taking passengers on suborbital space trips as early as next year.
Richard Branson, Virgin Galactic's billionaire founder, promised to consider Hawking for one of those trips even before the good doctor took his ride into weightlessness in 2007. The invitation still stands, according to George Whitesides, the company's president and CEO.
"Richard and the team would love to welcome him on board," Whitesides told NBC News on Tuesday.
If Hawking were to fly into space sometime in the next few years, he'd take the No. 2 spot on the list of the world's oldest astronauts. The only person older would be senator-astronaut John Glenn, who flew on the space shuttle Discovery at the age of 77 and is now 91 years old.
Six years ago, Hawking declared, "Space, here I come!" Should he keep that dream alive, or should he focus on earthly adventures instead? Feel free to register your opinion in our informal survey, and weigh in with your comments below.
Canada's new printed-polymer $5 bill has received the country's highest sendoff, altitude-wise, from International Space Station commander Chris Hadfield. Tuesday's currency-unveiling ceremony in space was just the latest in a series of achievements that have drawn attention to Canada's best-known spaceflier.
Hadfield already has made his mark as a photographer, a musician and composer, and an explainer of outer-space phenomena ranging from crying to vomiting in zero-G. There's a reason why the Bank of Canada turned to him to introduce one of the last currency notes to be converted to counterfeit-resistant polymer: One side of the $5 bill celebrates Canada's contributions to space exploration, including the space station's Canadarm2 and DEXTRE robot.
"I just want to tell you how proud I am to be able to see Canada's achievements in space highlighted on our money," Hadfield told Canadian officials via a space-to-Earth video link. Hadfield said the pictures played to Canada's strength in space robotics.
As Hadfield spoke, he plucked a bill from the wall of the station's Destiny laboratory and set it spinning in zero gravity in front of the camera. The other side of the bill has a less spacey theme: It features a portrait of Sir Wilfrid Laurier, who was Canada's prime minister from 1896 to 1911.
Bank of Canada spokeswoman Julie Girard said the outer-space ceremony was "quite a few months in the making." The polymer note was flown up to the space station with Hadfield back in December, and held in reserve for Tuesday's ceremony. "We wanted to be the first to unveil a bank note in space," she told NBC News.
Bank of Canada
This rendition of the Canadian $5 bill shows Canadarm2 and DEXTRE in more detail. The bank note is to be issued in November.
Canada's new $10 note, which commemorates the country's rail system, was unveiled at the same time in Ottawa. The $5 and $10 bills will complete Canada's conversion to polymer-based currency, tricked up with transparent areas and hologram markings to make them harder to counterfeit. The Bank of Canada says these notes should last two to three times longer than the country's cotton-based paper bank notes — and when they wear out, they can be traded in and recycled.
The new notes won't be rolled out to the Canadian public until November. That'll provide enough lead time for training clerks and law enforcement officials to get familiar with the bills. Hadfield will be back on Earth long before November: He's due to get on board the next Soyuz capsule leaving the station on May 14, alongside NASA's Tom Marshburn and Russia's Roman Romanenko.
So what happens to Hadfield's $5 bill? Girard said the astronaut will bring the note down with him, and it will eventually be put on exhibit at the Bank of Canada's currency museum.
Several of Hadfield's priceless photographs of Earth from space are already on exhibit in our latest Month in Space Pictures slideshow. Check out the pictures, plus this bonus 3-D picture of Mars from NASA's Curiosity rover. The 3-D photo was featured in our "Where in the Cosmos" contest on Facebook. Cosmic Log fan Ryan Meader was the first to report that the mountain featured in the picture is referred to as Mount Sharp (by Curiosity's science team) and Aeolis Mons (by the International Astronomical Union).
Meader says he's a long-time reader: "I think it's fair to say that I'm on the hard-core passionate end of the spectrum — so it was to my great delight that I got the jump on this little contest," he wrote.
We're delighted to send Meader a free pair of red-blue 3-D glasses, compliments of Microsoft Research's WorldWide Telescope project — and we'll have a few more spectacles to give away in the weeks to come. So click on the "like" button for the Cosmic Log Facebook page and get ready for the next "Where in the Cosmos" contest.
A stereo image from NASA's Mars Curiosity rover shows the terrain between the robot and Mount Sharp (a.k.a. Aeolis Mons) inside Gale Crater. Wear red-blue glasses to get the 3-D effect, and don't dwell too much on the hardware in the foreground. Trying to focus in on that part of the picture can make you go cross-eyed.
The spinning vortex of Saturn's north polar storm resembles a deep red rose in this false-color image from NASA's Cassini spacecraft. Measurements have sized the eye at a staggering 1,250 miles (2,000 kilometers) across with cloud speeds as fast as 330 miles per hour (150 meters per second). This image was taken from a distance of 261,000 miles (419,000 kilometers) on Nov. 27, 2012, with filters sensitive to near-infrared light.
The eye of a super-hurricane at Saturn's north pole looks like a peaceful red rose in a fresh bouquet of pictures from NASA's Cassini orbiter. But don't be fooled: That rosy appearance is merely due to the false colors ascribed to infrared wavelengths.
This storm's eye measures 1,250 miles (2,000 kilometers) in diameter, about 20 times wider than the average hurricane's eye on Earth. The outer clouds at the hurricane's edge are traveling at 330 mph (530 kilometers per hour), which would be off the scale on our planet. The vortex whirls inside Saturn's mysterious hexagonal cloud pattern, and it's not going anywhere.
"We did a double take when we saw this vortex, because it looks so much like a hurricane on Earth," Caltech's Andrew Ingersoll, a member of the Cassini imaging team, said in a NASA news release on Monday. "But there it is at Saturn, on a much larger scale, and it is somehow getting by on the small amounts of water vapor in Saturn's hydrogen atmosphere."
On Earth, hurricanes are fed by warm ocean water. But there are no oceans on Saturn — so what source drives this super-hurricane? Cassini's scientists want to find out, and whatever they find might add to our understanding of storm dynamics on Earth as well.
The Cassini team suspects that this storm has been active for years, but Cassini has only recently been able to watch it in visible light. When the bus-sized spacecraft arrived in 2004 to begin its $3.5 billion mission to study Saturn and its moons, the north pole was shrouded in winter darkness. Now spring is coming to the north, and Cassini has shifted to an orbit that makes it easier to see the increasingly sunlit storm.
In an email, Cassini imaging team leader Carolyn Porco of the Colorado-based Space Science Institute said the hexagon-ringed vortex is "one of the most gorgeous sights we have been privileged to see at Saturn." But such sights won't last forever: Cassini's extended mission to Saturn is due to end in 2017 with a controlled plunge into Saturn's clouds.
A false-color image from Cassini highlights the storms at Saturn's north pole. The angry eye of a hurricane-like storm appears dark red, while the fast-moving hexagonal jet stream framing it is a yellowish green. Low-lying clouds circling inside the hexagonal feature appear in a muted orange color. A second, smaller vortex pops out in teal at the lower right of the image. The rings of Saturn appear in vivid blue at the top right. The colors are coded to show different near-infrared wavelengths, which are associated with different altitudes.
Andy Ingersoll, a member of the Cassini orbiter's imaging team, narrates a NASA video about a hurricane-like storm seen at Saturn's north pole.