May 10, 2018

Axios Science

By Alison Snyder
Alison Snyder

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1 big thing: Mars-Moon crossover tech

Mars' Mount Sharp taken by the Mars Curiosity rover in January 2018. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

The Trump administration has set its near-term sights on returning humans to the moon and, by the 2030s, to orbit or land on Mars.

Between the lines: NASA funding is key to human exploration of Mars, and some worry a mission to the moon could divert resources needed to reach the Red Planet. The agency is looking for the commercial space industry to take on more low-Earth orbit and lunar activities. When it comes to NASA resources for an eventual Mars mission, the moon is “the elephant in the room,” Artemis Westenberg, president of Explore Mars, said at the Humans to Mars Summit this week.

“We’re doing both the moon and Mars, in tandem, and the missions are supportive of each other.”
NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine

Establishing infrastructure at a "gateway" in cislunar space — the region between Earth and the moon — has long been proposed as a way to get to Mars.

  • It could be used to develop propulsion systems that can take humans further out to Mars or study the effects of radiation on human health, Boeing's Peter McGrath said.

The sticking point is the renewed focus on landing humans on the moon. Bridenstine said that will help the development of precision landing systems, habitats on the surface or in orbit, surface mobility technologies, and methane engines for Mars. Some moon-related technologies could be relevant to Mars exploration, but others may not be, raising the question of how much should be invested in developing those technologies.

Go further: Read the whole story.

2. Axios stories worthy of your time

Fluorescent-labeled cells used to train the models. Image: Allen Institute

  • Inside a cell: A new tool can predict the interior structure of cells from simple microscope images. It could eventually allow researchers to better understand how a cell's structure changes due to disease or through development and, by eliminating the need for what can be expensive techniques, "democratize science," says one of the tool's developers, the Allen Institute's Greg Johnson.
  • Warning: Public health officials say the U.S. isn't ready for a flu pandemic. Top priority: a universal vaccine, per Eileen Drage O'Reilly.
  • Good AI: Ina Fried outlines the tech industry's efforts to make AI explain how it reaches decisions. "Explainability is a necessary ingredient for ethical AI, but it's really just a start."
3. World’s deadliest amphibian fungus came from East Asia

An Oriental fire-bellied toad (Bombina orientalis) imported into Europe from South Korea. Photo: Frank Pasmans/Ghent University

Eileen writes: Scientists may have finally traced the origin of a deadly fungus that is decimating the global amphibian population. In a study published in Science Thursday, researchers report the fungus likely originated in East Asia, possibly Korea.

Why it matters: The researchers say this provides strong evidence there should be a ban on trade in amphibians from East Asia before irrevocable damage is done to global amphibian biodiversity.

Background: The chytrid fungus (Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, or Bd) caused a global decline in amphibians that started twenty years earlier, but the timing of the expansion and the geographic origin of the pathogen was unknown. Bd is highly infectious between animals, attacking their skin and causing catastrophic mortality.

  • Out of around 7,800 species, Bd has already wiped out more than 200 amphibian species, said James Collins, an evolutionary ecologist at Arizona State University. It has also precipitated sharp declines in others, from Australia to the Iberian Peninsula.

Different theories of its origin:

  • One, as detailed in this 2006 study, is that the fungus is endemic and events like large-scale climate change can trigger its emergence.
  • Others — as seen in the study out today, one from earlier this week on American bullfrogs and in earlier research — say the fungus originated somewhere else, was transported, and eventually grew to become a global pandemic.
"Something was moving these strains around," Collins says, describing the study. "They're not just popping out because of climate change."

Go deeper: Read the rest of Eileen's story here.

4. What we're reading elsewhere
5. Something wondrous
Kim, a regal jumping spider (Phidippus regius), makes a leap. Video: Nabawy et al. Scientific Reports 2018

Researchers at the University of Manchester trained a regal jumping spider — named Kim — to jump between platforms in order to study its biomechanics. They then used high-speed cameras to capture footage of the predatory spider's jumps and CT scans to model its structure.

  • From a standing position, the spider could jump more than six times her body length — a feat they calculated she could achieve using her leg muscles alone and without tapping the hydraulic systems she possesses.
  • The spider "fine-tunes her jumping performance so it matches the task we presented her with," study author Mostafa Nabawy says. When challenged to jump a long distance or height, Kim jumped in the most efficient way to minimize the energy required.
  • But for shorter distances, more consistent with those in nature — like those involved in capturing prey — "she will follow her instincts." Those jumps were faster but required more energy.
  • Kim was very precise — a skill that could be useful for developing micro-robots. "We believe this is something we can transfer from the natural world to the engineering world," Nabawy says.
Alison Snyder