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Sat 14 December 2019
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A review of the most interesting news about science from around the universe by Byline Times’ science correspondent Adi MacArtney.

Robo-fish Powered by Fluid Battery ‘Blood’.

A 40cm soft robotic fish has been built that has no solid batteries but uses battery fluid like blood. This blood both propels the fish and stores energy. This is a big step towards creating autonomous robots.

“The approach increased the amount of energy stored in the robot by 325%, compared with a machine that has a separate battery and hydraulic-fluid system. The team calculated that the robot would be able to function for 37 hours without requiring recharging.”

Paris Climate goals in Hot Water

Our chances of keeping global temperature beneath 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels just got a lot worse. In a major update to sea surface temperature (SST) by the UK MET office shows the oceans have warmed by 0.1°C

“The revisions to the Hadley SST record would reduce the global carbon budget remaining to limit warming to 1.5°C by between 24% and 33%, depending on how the budget is calculated. A smaller budget would mean humanity has fewer carbon emissions it can still emit before committing the world to 1.5°C of global warming. At the current rate of emissions, this would mean the 1.5°C budget would be used up in 6-10 years, rather than 9-13, potentially making the target even harder to achieve.”

Fingerprinting the Stars

Chemical ‘fingerprints’ on stars may predict if they possess gas giant planets. Such stars have considerable quantities of particular elements. Researchers have now created a machine learning algorithm to predict which stars are most likely to host these exoplanets. Increasingly astronomy researchers are swamped with more data than they can make sense of; such algorithms help identify where best to focus attention. A similar approach on smaller planets might help search for signs of life.

“The team looked at combinations of some of the most common planetary ingredients: light and gaseous volatiles, oxygen-loving lithophiles, iron-loving siderophiles, and iron. By training the program on about 300 planet-hosting stars, the team found that a few elements were consistently good planet predictors.”

Tides of the Sun

Tides of the Sun. A new model correlates the gravitational tidal pull caused when planets align with the Sun’s 11-year and 22-year cycles, with related magnetic anomalies and sunspot behaviour. Such sunspots are associated with solar flares which can disrupt Earth orbit satellites.

“For more than 1,000 years, the number of sunspots hit a minimum within a few years of a major planetary alignment. A recent study showed that tides created by this alignment every 11 years are strong enough to tug on material near the Sun’s surface and synchronize localized changes in its magnetic field.”

Huge methane plume on Mars

NASA’s Curiosity rover has measured 21 parts per billion (ppb) of methane last week, by far the highest ever recorded, the usual amount is in the parts per trillion (ppt). Atmospheric methane on Earth is dominantly created by life, however, for these concentrations on Mars there are many abiotic (non-life) possibilities such as rock-water chemical reactions. The detected levels do seem to fluctuate with the seasons, but this is consistent with meltwater reacting with rock. Still, the media has gone on another Mars aliens campaign.

“Various spacecraft and telescopes have spotted methane on Mars over the past 16 years, but the gas doesn’t appear in any predictable pattern — deepening the mystery of its origin.”

Salty Solar System

Europa! – Table salt discovered. A new study shows that Europa, one of the more likely candidates for life in the solar system, may have a salty ocean beneath the surface ice. This salt is sodium chloride, just like Earth. This suggests the water is in contact with rock, allowing for energy processes that could maintain simple or complex ecosystems, particularly if associated with hydrothermal systems.

“Using spectra obtained with the Hubble Space Telescope, we present the detection of a 450-nm absorption indicative of irradiated sodium chloride on the surface. The feature correlates with geologically disrupted chaos terrain, suggesting an interior source.”

Amazon Methane Mystery Solved

Trees are a surprisingly large source of methane. Although trees are a net benefit in tackling climate change, and their carbon dioxide draw down capabilities still far outweigh their methane emissions, this discovery remains an important step, plugging the methane gap in our understanding of the Amazon.

“There are many mysteries in the Amazon. Until recently, one of the most troubling was the vast methane emissions emerging from the rainforest that were observed by satellites but that nobody could find on the ground. Around 20 million tons was simply unaccounted for. Recent research is showing that trees, especially in tropical wetlands, are a major source of the second most important greenhouse gas in the atmosphere, methane. The knowledge that certain woodlands are high methane emitters should help guide reforestation projects in many parts of the world.”

Death on Wings

Although hospitals do take steps to reduce hospital acquired infections, their efforts pay little attention to insects, especially winged ones. A new study investigates drug resistant flies in UK hospitals.

“Scientists have looked at the problem of insects in hospitals before, but research has mainly focused on bugs that can breed inside a hospital, such as ants and cockroaches. Our research suggests that we should be more worried about flying insects because several flies we trapped at English hospitals carried drug-resistant bacteria.”

Controlled Crazy

Ink free colour printing is coming. By stretching and stressing (crazing) transparent, glassy polymers right up to the point just before fracturing occurs it is possible to dictate their colour. Crazing has always been avoided as a negative occurrence in printing, but our increasing ability to control it might pave the way for highly accurate ink free colour printing.

“Craze control can be used for inkless colour printing at incredibly high resolution (up to 14,000 dots per inch). The resolution of conventional colour-printing methods, such as inkjet printing, is generally just 600–1,200 dots per inch because of limitations associated with the size of the ink droplets that can be generated and the effects of ink spreading.”

Glacier Loss Spied in the Himalayas

 Spies document the retreating cold. Comparing modern satellite data to cold war spy photos has shown that Himalayan glacier loss has doubled over the past 40 years, and particularly increased over the last 2 decades.

“The results show that, from 2000-16, the Himalayas lost an average of 8bn tonnes of ice per year. From 1975-2000, ice loss averaged 4bn tonnes of ice per year. A recent uptick in temperature rise across the Himalayas is the most likely cause of this surge in glacier ice melt.”

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