Researchers locate world's first known manta ray nursery

June 19 (UPI) — Researchers have discovered the world’s first known manta ray nursery. Scientists found the nursery in the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary located off the coast of Texas in the Gulf of Mexico.

The nursery of juvenile mantra rays was first observed by Joshua Stewart, a marine biology PhD student at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego.

“The juvenile life stage for oceanic mantas has been a bit of a black box for us, since we’re so rarely able to observe them,” Stewart said in a news release. “Identifying this area as a nursery highlights its importance for conservation and management, but it also gives us the opportunity to focus on the juveniles and learn about them.”

Stewart is the executive director of Manta Trust, a conservation program dedicated to protecting manta rays around the globe.

“This discovery is a major advancement in our understanding of the species and the importance of different habitats throughout their lives,” he said.

Stewart worked with researchers at Scripps and NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries to document the nursery.

Oceanic manta rays, or giant oceanic manta rays, Mobula birostris, are found in tropical and subtropical waters. They typically congregate in areas far from the coast, making them difficult to find and study. The plankton-eating rays live in the open ocean. Adults can grow wingspans of up to 23 feet.

Most of scientific literature on manta rays concerns adults. Until now, little was known about juveniles.

After initially spotting the juveniles, scientists regularly monitored the marine reserve, documenting the rays behavior. They found 95 percent of the rays visiting the Flower Garden Banks were juveniles. The young rays had an average wingspan of just over seven feet.

Because each ray has a unique pattern of spots on their underside, divers were able to keep track of the different rays visiting the reserve’s banks.

Scientists described their observation of the manta nursery in the journal Marine Biology.

In the near future, researchers hope to begin tagging and tracking the juvenile rays as they travel to and from the banks. Biologists believe the nursery’s proximity to deep, cold water, where plankton are abundant, may explain the rays’ presence. The young mantas can seek refuge among the warm, shallow water near the banks after foraging.

Scientists say the discovery is a reminder of the importance of marine reserves for vulnerable marine species. Earlier this year, giant manta rays were declared “threatened” under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

“Nowhere else in the world has a manta ray nursery area been recognized — which heightens the importance of the sanctuary for these pelagic species,” said George P. Schmahl, superintendent of Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary. “The discovery of the sanctuary as a nursery area for the species raises many more questions, some of which we can hopefully start studying with Josh Stewart and other partners.”

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New NASA instrument on space station to track plant water use on Earth

June 19 (UPI) — To better track water use by Earth’s plants, NASA is preparing to install a new instrument on the International Space Station.

The instrument is called ECOSTRESS, or ECOsystem Spaceborne Thermal Radiometer Experiment on Space Station, and it will measure the changing temperatures of plants on Earth’s surface.

To avoid overheating, plants transpire, just as humans sweat. Transpiration is the process of taking up water through the root system and released it through the plant’s pores. The process brings down the plant’s temperature.

When there is insufficient water, plants close their pores to avoid drying out. But pores are also essential for the plant’s uptake of CO2, the process of photosynthesis, which plants use to produce fuel for their cells.

If a plant is exposed to prolonged “water stress,” it will eventually starve or overheat, and die.

“When a plant is so stressed that it turns brown, it’s often too late for it to recover,” Simon Hook, ECOSTRESS principal investigator at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a news release. “But measuring the temperature of the plant lets you see that a plant is stressed before it reaches that point.”

Using ECOSTRESS, scientists and agricultural agencies can spot signs of mounting water stress — the beginning of a drought — by watching for rising temperatures among crop fields. Recognizing water stress early could allow farmers and others to develop a solution and plan accordingly. Scientists have previously experimented with the use of electric leaf sensors to monitor a plant’s water intake.

“ECOSTRESS will allow us to monitor rapid changes in crop stress at the field level, enabling earlier and more accurate estimates of how yields will be impacted,” said Martha Anderson, an ECOSTRESS science team member with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “Even short-term moisture stress, if it occurs during a critical stage of crop growth, can significantly impact productivity.”

The new instrument will be carried to the space station by the next resupply mission, scheduled to be launched by SpaceX from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on June 29.

The instrument will produce high-resolution images of small tracts of farmland at different times of the day. ECOSTRESS will image the same small targets every few days, monitoring changes in temperature.

“As water resources become more critical for our growing population, we need to track precisely how much water our crops need,” said Josh Fisher of JPL, lead scientist on the ECOSTRESS project. “We need to know when plants are becoming susceptible to droughts, and we need to know which parts of the ecosystem are more vulnerable because of water stress.”

When combined with data collected by NASA’s other Earth Observatory satellites, including data related to Earth’s water cycles, vegetation changes and precipitation patterns, ECOSTRESS measurements could help scientists better understand how different climate patterns affect regional water stress.

Previous satellite surveys have shown significant shifts in Earth’s vegetation over the last few decades.

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Remains, artifacts from Montana's Clovis burial site are the same age

June 19 (UPI) — New tests confirm the Anzick-1 remains and the artifacts recovered from Montana’s Clovis burial site are the same age.

The remains of a human infant were first discovered at the Anzick site by construction workers in 1968. Some archaeologists argued the infant represented the only known burial of a member of the Clovis people, thought to be the first widespread group to inhabit North America. The Clovis people established settlements across North America some 13,000 years ago.

Researchers found Clovis artifacts, including stone projectiles and antlers, near the infant remains at the Anzick site, but subsequent dating attempts revealed discrepancies between the age of the remains and the Clovis artifacts. Some tests suggested the infant was several thousand years younger than the artifacts.

Scientists with the University of Oxford and Texas A&M University recently returned to question dating at the Anzick site, applying a new radiocarbon dating technique to accurately determine the age of the human remains.

“The human remains yielded a younger age that was not in agreement with the ages from the antler artifacts, which dated older than the human remains,” Michael Waters, director of Texas A&M’s Center for the Study of the First Americans, said in a news release. “If the human remains and Clovis artifacts were contemporaneous, they should be the same age.”

Using a technique called Specific Amino Acid Radiocarbon Dating, scientists were able to treat collagen extracted from the human remains and successfully isolate an amino acid called hydroxyproline for testing.

“This amino acid could only have come from the human skeleton and could not be contaminated,” Waters said.

The new tests confirmed the infant remains, antlers and other Clovis artifacts were contemporaneous. Researchers published the results of the dating efforts in the journal PNAS.

“The human remains and Clovis artifacts can now be confidently shown to be the same age and date between 12,725 to 12,900 years ago,” Waters said. “This is right in the middle to the end of the Clovis time period which ranges from 13,000 to 12,700 years ago.”

The tests confirm the Anzick site as the only known Clovis burial site.

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Ultrasound helmet to help scientists image the brain, tap into neural networks

May 16 (UPI) — Scientists first considered the possibility for a brain-imaging helmet powered by ultrasound technology more than 30 years ago.

“But it’s been mostly ignored for the last decade,” Brett Byram, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Vanderbilt University, told UPI.

It’s not being ignored any longer. This month, Byram and his research partners at Vanderbilt received a $ 550,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to develop a device that combines ultrasound and EEG technologies to image the brain in real time.

“We’re hoping that the grant will get us to the point of having a working helmet that has EEG and ultrasound working together,” Byram said.

Current methods for imaging the brain are imperfect. Electroencephalography, or EEG, the technology that measures electrical activity in the brain, can’t penetrate deep into the brain, offering only surface-level images.

“If you’re looking for deeper or localized info, EEG doesn’t always work,” Byram said.

Functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, on the other hand, relies on big, heavy magnets.

Ultrasound technology works like an optical technology, with a lens that focuses waves on the imaging target. The technology sends and receives sound waves, which can detect blood profusion, or blood flow, in the brain.

Both ultrasound and its predecessor, transcranial doppler, have been traditionally used to measure blood flow in the brain’s largest arteries and assess brain death.

Byram wants to do more than determine whether a brain is dead or not. He wants to use ultrasound and EEG to study the brain’s blood flow and electrical patterns in real time — a combination that could offer researchers a better understanding of the brain’s complex architecture and the neural patterns triggered by thoughts, emotions and actions.

Of course, if ultrasound offered a simple solution to detailed, in-depth brain imaging, researchers would be using it already. While scientists can focus a beam of sound waves with great precision, the waves don’t exactly return in an organized fashion.

“You get waves bouncing around the brain coming back from all different locations,” Byram said. “It’s very hard to keep the signals in their respective categories.”

The research team at Vanderbilt, however, has developed machine learning algorithms to sort the waves and isolate the signals returning from the imaging target. When combined with EEG, the technology could offer the most detailed and comprehensive images of the brain yet.

In addition to imaging and studying brain activity, Byram hopes his helmet can eventually replicate brain signals. The technology could be integrated with software, artificial limbs and other types of robotics, turning thoughts into actions.

So far, Byram and his colleagues have been working on the basic functionality of the different technological components, mostly using a liver instead of a brain as a test bed.

“We have a lot of the pieces,” he said. “The thing that we’re starting work on now is integrating those things for the functional task of brain imaging. Then we’re going to actually start designing and constructing the helmet.”

“I think it will be first prototype in two or three years, and a decent working helmet in four or five years,” Bryam said.

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Laser gives away double star system hiding in the Ant Nebula

May 16 (UPI) — The core of the famed Ant Nebula is home to a double star system, according to new research by an international team of astronomers. The presence of the binary star system was revealed by a rare space laser.

When stars similar to our sun die, they expel their outer layers and form an interstellar cloud of gas and dust known as a planetary nebula. The Ant Nebula is named for its two lobes, which resemble the segments of an ant’s body.

Recent observations of the nebula by the European Space Agency’s Herschel Space Observatory revealed an infrared laser emission. Only a few such laser beams have been previously identified.

“Such emission has only been identified in a handful of objects before,” Toshiya Ueta, principal investigator of the Herschel Planetary Nebula Survey, said in a news release. “This was a remarkable discovery that we did not anticipate. There is certainly more to stellar nebulae than meets the eye!”

Donald Menzel first observed the Ant Nebula in the 1920s. The planetary nebula’s official name is Menzel 3, in honor of the late astrophysicist. Menzel also surmised that a gaseous nebula, under certain conditions, could produce “light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation” — a laser.

“When we observe Menzel 3, we see an amazingly intricate structure made up of ionized gas, but we cannot see the object in its center producing this pattern,” said Isabel Aleman, an astronomer with the Leiden Observatory. “Thanks to the sensitivity and wide wavelength range of the Herschel Observatory, we detected a very rare type of emission called hydrogen recombination line laser emission, which provided a way to reveal the nebula’s structure and physical conditions.”

Models designed to produce a similar emission suggest the presence of extremely dense gas surrounding the stellar core at the center of the Ant Nebula — some ten thousand times higher than the density of gas in the outer regions of the nebula’s lobes.

Typically, during the explosive transition from living star to dying white dwarf, most of the gas is pushed away from the star, leaving a void.

“The only way to keep gas close to the star is if it is orbiting around it in a disc,” said researcher Albert Zijlstra. “In this case, we have actually observed a dense disc in the very center that is seen approximately edge-on. This orientation helps to amplify the laser signal. The disc suggests the white dwarf has a binary companion, because it is hard to get the ejected gas to go into orbit unless a companion star deflects it in the right direction.”

Scientists have not yet directly detected the companion star, but their observations and models — detailed in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society — suggests the presence of a pair of stars.

“This study suggests that the distinctive Ant Nebula as we see it today was created by the complex nature of a binary star system, which influences the shape, chemical properties, and evolution in these final stages of a star’s life,” said Göran Pilbratt, ESA’s Herschel project scientist.

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InSight probe to survey Mars for secrets inside the planet

May 4 (UPI) — As NASA’s Insight probe begins its trip to Mars on Saturday, the spacecraft is tasked with studying Mars’ insides. But the probe’s observations could offer insights into the formation and evolution of all rocky planets, including Earth.

“As a smaller planet, Mars’ interior convection has slowed dramatically or stopped entirely,” Elizabeth Barrett, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told UPI this week. “Thus, Mars’ frozen interior preserves a snapshot of the past of the core, mantle and crust.”

Barrett is coordinating surface operations for the mission’s science and instrument teams.

“By studying Mars we can learn about the formation of Earth itself,” she said. “Eventually Earth’s convection will slow, so the InSight mission can help us predict what the future for Earth’s interior looks like.”

Detecting marsquakes

NASA’s newest Mars lander will study the Red Planet’s insides using two main instruments. The craft’s seismometer will be deployed shortly after landing — the first seismometer to be placed directly on the surface of Mars. For two years, InSight will stay perfectly still while the domed instrument listens to the seismic waves traveling through Mars.

“The seismometer is so sensitive it can detect vibrations as small as a hydrogen atom,” Barrett said.

Mars no longer hosts tectonic or volcanic activity, but it is still cooling and shrinking, a process scientist believe causes quakes. In addition to marsquakes, Insight’s SEIS instrument will listen for the seismic reverberations triggered by meteorite impacts.

The patterns of different seismic waves can reveal details about Mars’ insides. Scientists hope these patterns will help them better understand Mars’ inner structures and composition, as well as offer insights into the Red Planet’s origins and evolution.

Because the seismometer is so sensitive, scientists installed a weather station of sorts on the Insight lander. The bevy of weather instruments will help scientists properly calibrate the SEIS sensors — pressure and temperature effect seismic readings — and filter out the noise created by wind and other outside vibrations.

Tracking planetary heat

The lander’s second instrument, a heat probe, will be hammered into Mars’ crust. Measuring almost 16 feet, the probe will help scientists track the flow of heat through Mars’ interior.

Combined with the seismometer’s observations, the probe’s data could help scientists understand where Mars sits on the evolutionary timeline of rocky planets.

Because Earth is bigger and hotter, its core heat still drives convection, powering tectonic and magmatic activity. Mars is smaller and cooler, and its convection is slowed or stopped. Thus, scientists will be looking backward in time when they study Mars’ frozen innards.

The question is how far back?

“We’re hoping measurements of how fast is heat being lost and how quickly Mars is shrinking can help us answer that,” Barrett said.

New uses for old technology

The InSight mission combines a unique combination of scientific innovation and legacy technology. The spacecraft’s body looks a lot like the Phoenix lander, which touched down on Mars in 2008. Though InSight is new, it features one piece of vintage hardware: the robotic arm that will deploy the domed seismometer and the ground-piercing heat probe.

In addition to being outfitted with next-generation instrumentation, InSight also features a larger solar array, updated electronics and better — color, not black-and-white — cameras.

InSight will also rely on legacy methodology, using a combination of a heat shield, parachute and thrusters to land safely on Mars, the same combination that has helped its predecessors execute smooth, safe landings.

Like the Mars landers that came before, including the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, InSight will be launched by a United Launch Alliance rocket. But unlike its predecessors, the spacecraft will blast off from the West Coast, California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base. It’s the first planetary mission to launch from the edge of the Pacific.

“During the original 2016 launch window, it was a very busy time in the schedule for ULA,” Scott Messer, the ULA program manager for NASA missions, told UPI.

For planetary missions, NASA needs the orbits of Earth and its target to line up just right. For Mars missions, an ideal launch window happens only once every two years, so some flexibility is needed.

The launch pattern from the West Coast requires the rocket to burn a bit more fuel to deliver the craft on its proper trajectory. Luckily, InSight is a bit smaller than other landers, so ULA was able to use the four-meter Atlas V rocket, the 401 version, instead of the larger five-meter rocket.

“You get a lighter spacecraft and lighter vehicle, you can go faster and farther,” Messer said.

CubeSats deployed to Mars

The InSight mission will also mark the first time NASA sends miniature satellites called CubeSats on a planetary mission. Mars Cube One, a pair of toaster oven-size spacecraft, will follow the lander to Mars and use experimental communications technologies to relay data about InSight’s descent.

As space exploration and satellite communications companies increasingly experiment with miniature craft, ULA is expanding its ability to accommodate a variety of payload configurations.

“We have a do-no-harm philosophy for secondary payloads,” Messer said. “We have a process we go through to ensure they don’t cause any problems for the primary spacecraft.”

InSight is scheduled to blast off from Vandenberg at 4:05 a.m. PT Saturday (7:05 a.m. ET). The launch will be broadcast live on NASA TV and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s live feed.

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