New source of global nitrogen could help soil store more CO2

April 6 (UPI) — Until now, scientists thought plants got all their nitrogen from the atmosphere, but new research suggests Earth’s bedrock supplies as much as a quarter of the planet’s nitrogen.

The discovery, detailed this week in the journal Science, could change researchers’ understanding of the carbon cycle.

“Our study shows that nitrogen weathering is a globally significant source of nutrition to soils and ecosystems worldwide,” Ben Houlton, director of the Muir Institute at the University of California, Davis, said in a news release. “This runs counter [to] the centuries-long paradigm that has laid the foundation for the environmental sciences. We think that this nitrogen may allow forests and grasslands to sequester more fossil fuel CO2 emissions than previously thought.”

Nitrogen is essential to the carbon sequestration process, but until now, scientists thought ecosystems were limited to the small amount of nitrogen plants and soil pull from the atmosphere.

In order for nitrogen to leach out of bedrock and into the ecosystem, weathering must occur. Tectonic activity could free up nitrogen, researchers suggest, as could chemical weathering, which occurs when rainwater reacts with a rock’s minerals.

Mountains like the Himalayas and Andes are likely home to large amounts of nitrogen weathering, as are grasslands, tundra, deserts and woodlands.

Places with high levels of nitrogen weathering may warrant extra environmental protections.

“Geology might have a huge control over which systems can take up carbon dioxide and which ones don’t,” Houlton said. “When thinking about carbon sequestration, the geology of the planet can help guide our decisions about what we’re conserving.”

Scientists knew there was a missing nitrogen input somewhere because the atmosphere couldn’t account for the levels researchers were measuring in soils. But scientists couldn’t find it — until now.

“We show that the paradox of nitrogen is written in stone,” said researcher Scott Morford, a UC Davis grad student at the time of the study. “There’s enough nitrogen in the rocks, and it breaks down fast enough to explain the cases where there has been this mysterious gap.”

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You'll soon be able to sleep in space for just $792,000 a night

April 6 (UPI) — Space is scheduled to get its first luxury hotel thanks to Houston-based aerospace startup Orion Span. The company aims to launch its Aurora Station in late 2021.

“By early 2022, we will be hosting tourists, astronauts, space research, and manufacturing on board Aurora Station,” the company announced in a blog post.

A stay on the Aurora Station will run guests an estimated $ 792,000 a night. Staying just one night, however, likely won’t be an option.

“We’re not selling a hey-let’s-go-to-the-beach equivalent in space,” Frank Bunger, Orion Span’s founder and chief executive officer, told Bloomberg. “We’re selling the experience of being an astronaut. You reckon that there are people who are willing to pay to have that experience.”

Twelve-day stays will cost about $ 9.5 million per person, the company predicts.

The hotel will orbit Earth at a distance of 200 miles, circling the globe once every 90 minutes.

As of now, the company has a business model and basic plans for the construction of its luxury space hotel. But to make their plans a reality, they need to raise money.

According to Bloomberg, the startup has yet to team up with a launch provider. But Orion Span isn’t the only commercial space outfit with bold plans.

Another Texas-based company, Axiom Space, plans to put a commercial space station into orbit by 2024. Virgin Galactic wants to take tourists on shorter but slightly more affordable — at $ 250,000 a pop — trips through space. SpaceX has also said it plans to carry a pair of space tourists around the moon.

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Watch live: SpaceX to launch space station resupply mission

April 2 (UPI) — SpaceX is set to send another Dragon spaceship to the International Space Station on Monday afternoon. The cargo vessel will be launched into space by a Falcon 9 rocket.

The blastoff from South Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station is scheduled for 4:30 p.m. ET.

Monday’s launch will be SpaceX’s 14th space station resupply mission.

“Dragon will separate from Falcon 9’s second stage about 10 minutes after liftoff and attach to the space station on Wednesday, April 4,” SpaceX announced in an update. “Both Falcon 9 and the Dragon spacecraft for the CRS-14 mission are flight-proven.”

SpaceX will broadcast a live stream of the mission beginning 20 minutes before launch.

As usual, the cargo vessel will carry a combination of supplies, equipment and science experiments to the space station. Included among the science-related cargo is an experiment designed to study severe thunderstorms on Earth. Also included are a range of materials, coatings and components that will be exposed to the harsh space environment and monitored for damage.

Another experiment making its way to space is the Comparative Real-time Metabolic Activity Tracking for Improved Therapeutic Assessment Screening Panels. The study is designed to test the effects of microgravity on the synthesis and deployment of five different therapeutic compounds.

“This investigation determines the feasibility of developing improved pharmaceuticals in microgravity using a new method to test the metabolic impacts of drug compounds,” NASA said in an update. “This could lead to more effective, less expensive drugs.”

The Dragon cargo ship and its 5,800 pounds of supplies, hardware and science experiments will be received by the space station’s Canadarm2 robotic arm. The astronauts aboard ISS have been cleaning up to make room for the cargo and practicing for the vessel’s reception.

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Food insecurity risk to rise as a result of global warming

April 2 (UPI) — According to a new study, rising global temperatures will threaten many populations’ access to affordable, nutritious food.

Global warming, or climate change, is expected to increase the frequency of extreme weather events, including droughts and floods.

“Such weather extremes can increase vulnerability to food insecurity,” Richard Betts, a professor of climate science at the University of Exeter, said in a news release.

Betts and his colleagues designed a model to measure the impact of global warming of 1.5 and 2 degrees Celsius on extreme weather patterns and food insecurity in 122 developing nations, mostly in Asia, Africa and South America.

While an increased risk of flooding could curb agricultural yields in some parts of the world, prolonged droughts are the more threatening of the two weather extremes.

Drought risks are likely to be most pronounced in southern Africa and South America, while Asia could be at greater risk of flooding. If global temperatures rise by 2 degrees Celsius, the flow of the River Ganges could more than double.

Both extreme flooding and prolonged droughts could curb populations’ access to clean drinking water, as well as food.

The new analysis, published this week in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A, suggests food security risks can be minimized by curbing greenhouses gas emissions and slowing global warming.

“Some change is already unavoidable, but if global warming is limited to 1.5 degree Celsius, this vulnerability is projected to remain smaller than at 2 degrees Celsius in approximately 76 percent of developing countries,” Betts said.

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Sea turtles use their flippers to play with their food, researchers say

March 28 (UPI) — Though the flippers of sea turtles evolved to aid locomotion, new research shows the reptiles use them to play with their food, too. In fact, the survey of marine tetrapods suggests food manipulation with flippers is common.

“Sea turtles don’t have a developed frontal cortex, independent articulating digits or any social learning,” Kyle Van Houtan, director of science at Monterey Bay Aquarium, said in a news release. “And yet here we have them ‘licking their fingers’ just like a kid who does have all those tools. It shows an important aspect of evolution — that opportunities can shape adaptations.”

Inspired by her studies of sea otters and their tool usage, aquarium research Jessica Fujii wanted to find out whether sea turtles use their flippers in similar ways. Fujii and her colleagues crowdsourced images and video of sea turtles all over the globe using their flippers to manipulate food.

One clip featured a loggerhead rolling a scallop on ocean floor, while another showed a hawksbill pressing against a reef for support while it pulled an anemone loose.

Food manipulation with flippers has been documented in otters, seals, walruses and manatees, but the study — published this week in the journal PeerJ — is the first to highlight the behavior in sea turtles.

“Sea turtles’ limbs have evolved mostly for locomotion, not for manipulating prey,” Fujii said. “But that they’re doing it anyway suggests that, even if it’s not the most efficient or effective way, it’s better than not using them at all.”

Researchers were surprised to find the behavior so prevalent among sea turtles. Not only do they rely on relatively small and simple brains, they also spend no time with their parents. Unlike marine mammals, newborn turtles aren’t taught to forage by their parents.

“It’s amazing that they’re figuring out how to do this without any apprenticing, and with flippers that aren’t well adapted for these tasks,” Van Houtan said.

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Scientists stunned by discovery of galaxy without dark matter

March 28 (UPI) — Most galaxies are defined by their dark matter. To study dark matter — and affirm its existence — astronomers study galaxies.

Now, for the first time, scientists have found a galaxy without dark matter — NGC1052-DF2’s dark matter is missing. When astronomers first found the dark matter-less galaxy, they were stunned.

“For decades, we thought that galaxies start their lives as blobs of dark matter,” Pieter van Dokkum of Yale University said in a news release. “After that everything else happens: gas falls into the dark matter halos, the gas turns into stars, they slowly build up, then you end up with galaxies like the Milky Way. NGC1052-DF2 challenges the standard ideas of how we think galaxies form.”

The galaxy is an ultra-diffuse galaxy, it’s large and faint, and is located 65 million light-years away. Though ultra-diffuse galaxies were only recently discovered, they are relatively common. But NGC1052-DF2 is the first to be found without dark matter.

“NGC1052-DF2 is an oddity, even among this unusual class of galaxy,” said Yale grad student Shany Danieli.

Astronomers were first alerted to the galaxy’s strange composition when they noticed discrepancies in the observations made by the Dragonfly Telephoto Array and the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. The Dragonfly images revealed a faint, blob-like object, while SDSS renderings showed a collection of bright point-like sources.

To further explore the discrepancy and study the unusual internal structure of NGC1052-DF2, astronomers observed the galaxy using the Gemini Multi Object Spectrograph, Keck’s Deep Imaging Multi-Object Spectrograph and Low-Resolution Imaging Spectrometer.

“Without the Gemini images dissecting the galaxy’s morphology we would have lacked context for the rest of the data,” said Danieli. “Also, Gemini’s confirmation that NGC1052-DF2 is not currently interacting with another galaxy will help us answer questions about the conditions surrounding its birth.”

The Keck data showed the point-like sources, the globules, were moving much slower than astronomers expected. The movement and speed of a galaxy’s components allow scientists to measure the galaxy’s mass. Astronomers determined the galaxy’s stars accounted for all of NGC1052-DF2’s estimated mass. There was no dark matter to be found.

Researchers described their discovery in the journal Nature.

“If there is any dark matter at all, it’s very little,” van Dokkum said. “The stars in the galaxy can account for all of the mass, and there doesn’t seem to be any room for dark matter.”

No one is really sure how the galaxy formed without dark matter.

The presence of the nearby giant elliptical galaxy NGC 1052, home to violent galactic formation and evolution, could explain NGC1052-DF2’s lack of dark matter. It’s also possible a sudden burst of stellar formation swept away the galaxy’s gas and dark matter, stunting its development.

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