This is a climate change/permafrost/disease story. Take a trip to one of the northernmost settlements in the world, Longyearbyen in Svalbard, Norway. They walk you through why it seems to be forbidden to be buried in this area because of the (now starting to melt) permafrost. The scientists interviewed up here discuss how during the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic seven minors were buried atop the permafrost and their bodies likely have preserved the flu virus that triggered that epidemic.

Cassini Mission: What’s Next?

It’s Friday, Sept. 15 and our Cassini mission has officially come to a spectacular end. The final signal from the spacecraft was received here on Earth at 7:55 a.m. EDT after a fateful plunge into Saturn’s atmosphere.

After losing contact with Earth, the spacecraft burned up like a meteor, becoming part of the planet itself.

Although bittersweet, Cassini’s triumphant end is the culmination of a nearly 20-year mission that overflowed with discoveries.

But, what happens now?

Mission Team and Data

Now that the spacecraft is gone, most of the team’s engineers are migrating to other planetary missions, where they will continue to contribute to the work we’re doing to explore our solar system and beyond.

Mission scientists will keep working for the coming years to ensure that we fully understand all of the data acquired during the mission’s Grand Finale. They will carefully calibrate and study all of this data so that it can be entered into the Planetary Data System. From there, it will be accessible to future scientists for years to come.

Even beyond that, the science data will continue to be worked on for decades, possibly more, depending on the research grants that are acquired.

Other team members, some who have spent most of their career working on the Cassini mission, will use this as an opportunity to retire.

Future Missions

In revealing that Enceladus has essentially all the ingredients needed for life, the mission energized a pivot to the exploration of “ocean worlds” that has been sweeping planetary science over the past couple of decades.

Jupiter’s moon Europa has been a prime target for future exploration, and many lessons during Cassini’s mission are being applied in planning our Europa Clipper mission, planned for launch in the 2020s.

The mission will orbit the giant planet, Jupiter, using gravitational assists from large moons to maneuver the spacecraft into repeated close encounters, much as Cassini has used the gravity of Titan to continually shape the spacecraft’s course.

In addition, many engineers and scientists from Cassini are serving on the new Europa Clipper mission and helping to shape its science investigations. For example, several members of the Cassini Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer team are developing an extremely sensitive, next-generation version of their instrument for flight on Europa Clipper. What Cassini has learned about flying through the plume of material spraying from Enceladus will be invaluable to Europa Clipper, should plume activity be confirmed on Europa.

In the decades following Cassini, scientists hope to return to the Saturn system to follow up on the mission’s many discoveries. Mission concepts under consideration include robotic explorers to drift on the methane seas of Titan and fly through the Enceladus plume to collect and analyze samples for signs of biology.

Atmospheric probes to all four of the outer planets have long been a priority for the science community, and the most recent recommendations from a group of planetary scientists shows interest in sending such a mission to Saturn. By directly sampling Saturn’s upper atmosphere during its last orbits and final plunge, Cassini is laying the groundwork for an potential Saturn atmospheric probe.

A variety of potential mission concepts are discussed in a recently completed study — including orbiters, flybys and probes that would dive into Uranus’ atmosphere to study its composition. Future missions to the ice giants might explore those worlds using an approach similar to Cassini’s mission.

Learn more about the Cassini mission and its Grand Finale HERE.

Follow the mission on Facebook and Twitter for the latest updates.

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The Genius of Marie Curie

Growing up in Warsaw in Russian-occupied Poland, the young Marie Curie, originally named Maria Sklodowska, was a brilliant student, but she faced some challenging barriers. As a woman, she was barred from pursuing higher education, so in an act of defiance, Marie enrolled in the Floating University, a secret institution that provided clandestine education to Polish youth. By saving money and working as a governess and tutor, she eventually was able to move to Paris to study at the reputed Sorbonne. here, Marie earned both a physics and mathematics degree surviving largely on bread and tea, and sometimes fainting from near starvation. 

In 1896, Henri Becquerel discovered that uranium spontaneously emitted a mysterious X-ray-like radiation that could interact with photographic film. Curie soon found that the element thorium emitted similar radiation. Most importantly, the strength of the radiation depended solely on the element’s quantity, and was not affected by physical or chemical changes. This led her to conclude that radiation was coming from something fundamental within the atoms of each element. The idea was radical and helped to disprove the long-standing model of atoms as indivisible objects. Next, by focusing on a super radioactive ore called pitchblende, the Curies realized that uranium alone couldn’t be creating all the radiation. So, were there other radioactive elements that might be responsible?

In 1898, they reported two new elements, polonium, named for Marie’s native Poland, and radium, the Latin word for ray. They also coined the term radioactivity along the way. By 1902, the Curies had extracted a tenth of a gram of pure radium chloride salt from several tons of pitchblende, an incredible feat at the time. Later that year, Pierre Curie and Henri Becquerel were nominated for the Nobel Prize in physics, but Marie was overlooked. Pierre took a stand in support of his wife’s well-earned recognition. And so both of the Curies and Becquerel shared the 1903 Nobel Prize, making Marie Curie the first female Nobel Laureate.

In 1911, she won yet another Nobel, this time in chemistry for her earlier discovery of radium and polonium, and her extraction and analysis of pure radium and its compounds. This made her the first, and to this date, only person to win Nobel Prizes in two different sciences. Professor Curie put her discoveries to work, changing the landscape of medical research and treatments. She opened mobile radiology units during World War I, and investigated radiation’s effects on tumors.

However, these benefits to humanity may have come at a high personal cost. Curie died in 1934 of a bone marrow disease, which many today think was caused by her radiation exposure. Marie Curie’s revolutionary research laid the groundwork for our understanding of physics and chemistry, blazing trails in oncology, technology, medicine, and nuclear physics, to name a few. For good or ill, her discoveries in radiation launched a new era, unearthing some of science’s greatest secrets.

From the TED-Ed Lesson The genius of Marie Curie - Shohini Ghose

Animation by Anna Nowakowska

Some pointers my Prof gave me before I began grad school

Yesterday I visited my university (undergrad) after two years in order to collect documents since I’m moving to grad school. I contacted one of my profs there and asked for advice, as I was nervous about joining research after such a long gap. Here is the advice he gave me:

General tips:

1. Be truthful to your research. Do not copy down somebody else’s work, even if you know you won’t be found out. Trust me on this, being accused of plagiarism is the worst thing to happen to a researcher and if you are exposed later on in career, your entire reputation will go down the drain.

2. Don’t hesitate to ask for help. He screwed up an instrument and waited 6 months before asking one of his subordinate who fixed it in 5 minutes. Imagine the amount of work he could have accomplished in those six months.

3. Manage your time well. Grad school is extremely demanding and some days you may not have time for sleep. Do not put off important work if you have time else you’ll end up doing it all in a hurry and without quality.

4. Every professor/guide/supervisor has her own unique method of teaching. Respect that and try to adapt. Even if you don’t understand most of what they teach, just listen. You might get a fresh perspective on things.

5. Be in touch with your teachers from undergrad etc. and ask them if you get stuck. They might help you out or at least guide you to someone who can.

6. Choose your topic wisely. Study the trends and know what are thrust areas in your field. However, the choice of guide is a major one. Make sure you understand the ways of your supervisor. Ask around, google his papers etc. and make sure he is not someone you’d hate for the entire extent of your school.

Tips related to Science research:

1. Know that there are more than one ways to solve a problem. However you cannot try them all due to time/energy/resources restrictions (or simply because your guide advises you against it). You need to know your limits and try methods that are optimized to your situation.

2. Be like Feynman. He knew his theory but he was a good experimentalist too. Have a balanced approach and know your strengths. If you are experimentalist, interact with theoreticians in order to get an idea of their approach and vice-a-versa. Your goal is to get the result and understand how you got it. 

3. You are in research not only to understand a theory/idea but also to apply it. It is not enough to know your books, you need to be able to solve the problem you are tackling. You won’t find a complete solution because nobody has solved it (thats why YOU are working on it, aren’t you?). You need to create/discover the solution.

4. Every problem in science completes a picture/theory. However not all of them receive the limelight. Find a topic you are interested in and know something about rather than chasing a “popular” one that everyone is talking about.

5. The biggest one: Do not feel inadequate for not knowing everything.

Nobody knows everything. You are in grad school to learn too. When you get stuck, get help/ask around; do not let the fear of being inferior get in the way of learning. You have got brains enough to understand things and you can.

6. Do not rely only on teachers/guides. Often your guide/supervisor will not know anything about the problem you are struggling with and will not be able to help you. In those times, find an expert (if there is) or consult books/papers. You should be able to study on your own, without somebody pushing you or deadlines.

Well, this is all I can remember. I hope it is helpful to those of you who are in a similar situation.

Curiosity Rover: Five Years on Mars

The evening of August 5, 2012…five years ago…our Mars Curiosity rover landed on the Red Planet. 

Arriving at Mars at 10:32 p.m. PDT (morning of Aug 6 EDT), this rover would prove to be the most technologically advanced rover ever built.

Curiosity used a series of complicated landing maneuvers never before attempted. 

The specialized landing sequence, which employed a giant parachute, a jet-controlled descent vehicle and a daring “sky crane” maneuver similar to rappelling was devised because testing and landing techniques used during previous rover missions could not safely accommodate the much larger and heavier rover.

Curiosity’s mission: To determine whether the Red Planet ever was, or is, habitable to microbial life.

The car-size rover is equipped with 17 cameras, a robotic arm, specialized instruments and an on-board laboratory.

Let’s explore Curiosity’s top 5 discoveries since she landed on Mars five years ago…

1. Gale Crater had conditions suitable for life about 3.5 billion years ago

In 2013, Curiosity’s analysis of a rock sample showed that ancient Mars could have supported living microbes. Scientists identified sulfur, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and carbon – some of the key chemical ingredients for life – in the powder Curiosity drilled out of a sedimentary rock near an ancient stream bed in Gale Crater.

Later, in 2014, Curiosity discovered that these conditions lasted for millions of years, perhaps much longer. This interpretation of Curiosity’s findings in Gale Crater suggests ancient Mars maintained a climate that could have produced long-lasting lakes at many locations on the Red Planet.

2. Organic molecules detected at several locations

In 2014, our Curiosity rover drilled into the Martian surface and detected different organic chemicals in the rock powder. This was the first definitive detection of organics in surface materials of Mars. These Martian organics could either have formed on Mars or been delivered to Mars by meteorites. 

Curiosity’s findings from analyzing samples of atmosphere and rock powder do not reveal whether Mars has ever harbored living microbes, but the findings do shed light on a chemically active modern Mars and on favorable conditions for life on ancient Mars.

3. Present and active methane in Mars’ atmosphere

Also in 2014, our Curiosity rover measured a tenfold spike in methane, an organic chemical, in the atmosphere around the planet. This temporary increase in methane tells us there must be some relatively localized source.

Researchers used Curiosity’s onboard Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) laboratory a dozen times in a 20-month period to sniff methane in the atmosphere. During two of those months, in late 2013 and early 2014, four measurements averaged seven parts per billion.

4. Radiation could pose health risks for humans

Measurements taken by our Curiosity rover since launch have provided us with the information needed to design systems to protect human explorers from radiation exposure on deep-space expeditions in the future. Curiosity’s Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD) was the first instrument to measure the radiation environment during a Mars cruise mission from inside a spacecraft that is similar to potential human exploration spacecraft.

The findings indicate radiation exposure for human explorers could exceed our career limit for astronauts if current propulsion systems are used. These measurements are being used to better understand how radiation travels through deep space and how it is affected and changed by the spacecraft structure itself. This, along with research on the International Space Station are helping us develop countermeasures to the impacts of radiation on the human body.

5. A thicker atmosphere and more water in Mars past

In 2015, Curiosity discovered evidence that has led scientists to conclude that ancient Mars was once a warmer, wetter place than it is today. 

To produce this more temperate climate, several researchers have suggested that the planet was once shrouded in a much thicker carbon dioxide atmosphere. You may be asking…Where did all the carbon go?

The solar wind stripped away much of Mars’ ancient atmosphere and is still removing tons of it every day. That said, 3.8 billion years ago, Mars might have had a moderately dense atmosphere, with a surface pressure equal to or less than that found on Earth.

Our Curiosity rover continues to explore the Red Planet today. On average, the rover travels about 30 meters per hour and is currently on the lower slope of Mount Sharp.

Get regular updates on the Curiosity mission by following @MarsCuriosity on Twitter.

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Observing the Ozone Hole from Space: A Science Success Story

Using our unique ability to view Earth from space, we are working together with NOAA to monitor an emerging success story – the shrinking ozone hole over Antarctica.

Thirty years ago, the nations of the world agreed to the landmark ‘Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer.’ The Protocol limited the release of ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) into the atmosphere.

Since the 1960s our scientists have worked with NOAA researchers to study the ozone layer. 

We use a combination of satellite, aircraft and balloon measurements of the atmosphere.

The ozone layer acts like a sunscreen for Earth, blocking harmful ultraviolet, or UV, rays emitted by the Sun.

In 1985, scientists first reported a hole forming in the ozone layer over Antarctica. It formed over Antarctica because the Earth’s atmospheric circulation traps air over Antarctica.  This air contains chlorine released from the CFCs and thus it rapidly depletes the ozone.

Because colder temperatures speed up the process of CFCs breaking up and releasing chlorine more quickly, the ozone hole fluctuates with temperature. The hole shrinks during the warmer summer months and grows larger during the southern winter. In September 2006, the ozone hole reached a record large extent.

But things have been improving in the 30 years since the Montreal Protocol. Thanks to the agreement, the concentration of CFCs in the atmosphere has been decreasing, and the ozone hole maximum has been smaller since 2006’s record.

That being said, the ozone hole still exists and fluctuates depending on temperature because CFCs have very long lifetimes. So, they still exist in our atmosphere and continue to deplete the ozone layer.

To get a view of what the ozone hole would have looked like if the world had not come to the agreement to limit CFCs, our scientists developed computer models. These show that by 2065, much of Earth would have had almost no ozone layer at all.

Luckily, the Montreal Protocol exists, and we’ve managed to save our protective ozone layer. Looking into the future, our scientists project that by 2065, the ozone hole will have returned to the same size it was thirty years ago.

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It’s not just what you say that matters. It’s how you say it.

Take the phrase, “Here’s Johnny.” When Ed McMahon used it to introduce Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show, the words were an enthusiastic greeting. But in The Shining, Jack Nicholson used the same two words to convey murderous intent.

Now scientists are reporting in the journal Science that they have identified specialized brain cells that help us understand what a speaker really means. These cells do this by keeping track of changes in the pitch of the voice.

“We found that there were groups of neurons that were specialized and dedicated just for the processing of pitch,” says Dr. Eddie Chang, a professor of neurological surgery at the University of California, San Francisco.

Really? Really. How Our Brains Figure Out What Words Mean Based On How They’re Said

Illustration: Lizzie Roberts/Ikon Images/Getty Images

Webb 101: 10 Facts about the James Webb Space Telescope

Did you know…?

1. Our upcoming James Webb Space Telescope will act like a powerful time machine – because it will capture light that’s been traveling across space for as long as 13.5 billion years, when the first stars and galaxies were formed out of the darkness of the early universe.

2. Webb will be able to see infrared light. This is light that is just outside the visible spectrum, and just outside of what we can see with our human eyes.

3. Webb’s unprecedented sensitivity to infrared light will help astronomers to compare the faintest, earliest galaxies to today’s grand spirals and ellipticals, helping us to understand how galaxies assemble over billions of years.

Hubble’s infrared look at the Horsehead Nebula. Credit: NASA/ESA/Hubble Heritage Team

4. Webb will be able to see right through and into massive clouds of dust that are opaque to visible-light observatories like the Hubble Space Telescope. Inside those clouds are where stars and planetary systems are born.

5. In addition to seeing things inside our own solar system, Webb will tell us more about the atmospheres of planets orbiting other stars, and perhaps even find the building blocks of life elsewhere in the universe.

Credit: Northrop Grumman

6. Webb will orbit the Sun a million miles away from Earth, at the place called the second Lagrange point. (L2 is four times further away than the moon!)

7. To preserve Webb’s heat sensitive vision, it has a ‘sunshield’ that’s the size of a tennis court; it gives the telescope the equivalent of SPF protection of 1 million! The sunshield also reduces the temperature between the hot and cold side of the spacecraft by almost 600 degrees Fahrenheit.

8.  Webb’s 18-segment primary mirror is over 6 times bigger in area than Hubble’s and will be ~100x more powerful. (How big is it? 6.5 meters in diameter.)

9.  Webb’s 18 primary mirror segments can each be individually adjusted to work as one massive mirror. They’re covered with a golf ball’s worth of gold, which optimizes them for reflecting infrared light (the coating is so thin that a human hair is 1,000 times thicker!).

10. Webb will be so sensitive, it could detect the heat signature of a bumblebee at the distance of the moon, and can see details the size of a US penny at the distance of about 40 km.

BONUS!  Over 1,200 scientists, engineers and technicians from 14 countries (and more than 27 U.S. states) have taken part in designing and building Webb. The entire project is a joint mission between NASA and the European and Canadian Space Agencies. The telescope part of the observatory was assembled in the world’s largest cleanroom at our Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.

Webb is currently being tested at our Johnson Space Flight Center in Houston, TX.

Afterwards, the telescope will travel to Northrop Grumman to be mated with the spacecraft and undergo final testing. Once complete, Webb will be packed up and be transported via boat to its launch site in French Guiana, where a European Space Agency Ariane 5 rocket will take it into space.

Learn more about the James Webb Space Telescope HERE, or follow the mission on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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Telling if a Culture is Dead or Not

@dorotheian asked: 

What’s the best method for finding out if an ancient culture is still alive? Google results can be squirrelly, and most sources will give an overview of the ancient history and neglect to mention that the cultural group still exists in modern day, or mention it in an easily missed two sentences or a footnote or something. :/

Census records are a good place to start. You want to look for a source that’s numbers heavy and has a certain amount of objectivity in what it counts (so, you’ll have to look to see what the census gathers). Census records allow you to see the counted population with the markers they used to identify.

If you discover the census records are corrupted— like they don’t actually count the Indigenous population— then you’ll have to look a little deeper into the history. You have to work with the assumption Indigenous populations have been covered up, just because that is the general majority ruling around the globe.

You can take a look at various linguistics programs, because usually linguists want to at least preserve a pre-existing language if there are still speakers for it. Cultural studies at least let you know a population still exists, at least with enough interest to be studied. This can be pretty specialized and locked up behind paywalls, but news articles for major discoveries can exist.

Also, check out if there’s an activism group for the population in question. Googling things like “[group] activism” can get you at least some hints (for example, I found an article about an Aztec activist via this method), as can “modern day.”

There really isn’t a hard and fast rule, unfortunately. Push comes to shove, you immerse yourself in Indigenous communities and start to trace back a collection of sources that can give you a solid answer. It will take lots of time to build up reputable sources, but they do exist.

~ Mod Lesya