Jul 5, 2018

Axios Science

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This week we turn to the skies where scientists snapped an extraordinary picture of a planet being born. We also examine attempts to save the most endangered mammal, look at the spread of wildfires, and show (again) why spiders are amazing.

1 big thing: Congrats! It's a baby ... planet

Planet PDS 70b is visible as a bright point to the right of the center of the image. Photo: ESO/A. Müller et al.

Scientists for the first time spotted a new planet being born within the dusty disk surrounding a young dwarf star.

The findings are detailed in two studies (here and here) describing an exoplanet in its early state of formation and include the first-known clear image of a young planet forming.

Why it matters: If confirmed through subsequent research, the discovery could teach researchers about how other planets, including ones in our solar system, formed.

The big picture: Circumstellar disks surrounding young stars are considered to be prime candidates for planetary formation but until now scientists had only detected a few planetary candidates located within these areas.

"The case of PDS 70b gives us the opportunity to observe a planet in its youngest stages of life, and to learn how planets form and evolve on a direct example."
Miriam Keppler and André Müller, two lead authors of the new studies

What they did: Scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg and researchers working with the SPHERE instrument on the Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile observed the nascent planet orbiting the 5-million-year-old star PDS 70 during a 6-year period from 2012 to 2018.

  • They used near-infrared images from the VLT and other instruments to study a previously-identified gap within the circumstellar disk, which is the swirling cloud of gas and dust left over from a star's formation that is thought to be the birthplace of most planets.
  • Such gaps are thought to develop when young planets begin accumulating dust and other material from the disk.
  • Within the gap, the researchers also detected a point source of heat and light, which they designated as PDS 70b.
  • They confirmed the detection of the planet using multiple instruments, each able to see different wavelengths of light, and at varying resolutions.

The details: The findings suggest that the object orbiting PDS 70, within the disk, is a small, extremely young planet.

  • It is likely a gas giant, according to the researchers, with a mass equal to several times that of Jupiter despite its smaller size.
  • According to the European Space Agency, the planet PDS 70b has a surface temperature of around 1,000°C, or 1,832°F, which would be hotter than any planet in our solar system.

Go deeper: Read the full story in the Axios stream.

2. Saving the northern white rhino

The last two known living northern white rhinos at Ol-Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. Photo: Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty Images

Scientists hoping to save the most endangered mammal in the world — the northern white rhinoceros — may have found a way using assisted reproduction technologies (ARTs), Eileen Drage O'Reilly reports.

Researchers announced Wednesday in Nature Communications that they developed the first hybrid rhinoceros embryo that is ready to be implanted into a surrogate rhino.

Why it matters: There are only 2 northern white rhinos left in the world — both female — after poaching, habitat loss and other factors have caused them to virtually disappear from their African home. Scientists are increasingly turning to creative methods like ARTs to try and save them.

"The northern white rhinoceros didn't fade from evolution, it faded because it wasn't bullet-proof."
Thomas Hildebrandt, study author, Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research

What they're doing: The scientists are creating hybrid embryos because Kenyan authorities have not yet allowed them to collect eggs from the 2 remaining northern white rhinos, and these allow them to make advances towards potentially saving the subspecies.

  • Dvůr Králové Zoo's Jan Stejskal, another study author, says they hope to get permission from Kenya within 3 to 4 months so they would be able to create pure northern white rhino embryos.
  • The hybrid embryos combine northern white rhino semen with eggs from southern white rhinos, a closely-related subspecies.
  • They plan to use the hybrids to test implantation techniques before they actually create pure northern white rhino embryos. Plus, Hildebrandt adds, "We think the hybrid will also play a crucial role in the future as a surrogate, because it's much closer to the pure breed."
  • Their long-term plan, though, is to breed pure northern white rhinos.

Go deeper: Read the full story in the Axios stream.

3. U.S. faces new wildfire woes
Expand chart
Data: National Interagency Coordination Center; Note: Cumulative counts are sometimes revised, causing short-lived spikes or dips in the number of acres burned; Chart: Axios Visuals

It's only early July, and already California is baking and burning, with massive wildfires churning through tens of thousands of acres in the central part of the state. In Colorado, the Spring Creek fire has burned more than 100,000 acres, and is now the third-largest fire in state history.

And the heat wave that has roasted the Midwest, Ohio Valley, and the East Coast is shifting west, setting the stage for a blistering weekend from Los Angeles to Sacramento, along with other parts of the interior West.

The big questions:

  • How many new fires will be sparked during this heat wave, since the high temperatures dry out vegetation even further.
  • How significantly the fires already burning across the state will worsen during the period.

As of Thursday morning, fires in Yolo and Napa counties had burned 86,000 acres, and was 30% contained, according to CalFire.

  • About 3,500 personnel have been deployed to this blaze, and CalFire warns that the fire weather conditions will deteriorate this weekend.
  • "The weather will become hotter and drier into the weekend and fire growth potential remains high," the agency states on its website.  
  • In California, through July 1, more than twice as many acres had gone up in smoke in California compared to the same period in 2017.

The big picture: As the summer continues, it's likely that more large wildfires will develop across the West, sparked by lightning and human activities, including arson. While these fire triggers have long been around and show little trend, there are other factors that scientists and policymakers are increasingly concerned about.

Go deeper: Read the full story on the Axios stream.

4. Axios stories worth your time

1. Pruitt resigns: The Environmental Protection Agency is likely to see smoother processes, less ethical controversy and a small number of potential policy shifts with Administrator Scott Pruitt gone, per Amy Harder. But don’t expect the overall direction of the agency to change.

2. Heat records: Check the list of broken heat records from around the world this week, pointing to the influence of a warming world, given that science studies show the link between heat waves and climate change is robust.

3. HPV: A large study finds testing for the human papillomavirus offers women twice the chance of catching indicators of cervical cancer than traditional Pap tests do — and requires less frequent testing too, Eileen reports.

4. U.S.-China battle: The U.S. took the top spot in the TOP500, a ranking of the world's fastest computing systems, for the first time since 2012. But America continues to lose ground to China overall, Henrietta Reily writes.

5. AI: A power shift in artificial intelligence funding could hobble the U.S. in the global race for AI supremacy. More tech companies are refusing to work on military and police surveillance projects, a sign of the brewing rift between tech players and the government, per Kaveh Waddell.

5. Stories we're reading elsewhere

A noctilucent, or "night-shining," cloud. Photo: NASA

1. Flu vaccine and narcolepsy: Did the vaccine to protect against a 2009 pandemic flu also trigger narcolepsy in some people who received it? STAT's Helen Branswell reports on an intriguing mystery that could have implications for vaccines used during future flu seasons.

2. NY's ancient ocean: New York State was once covered by a vast ocean, with abundant sea life. Now, the remains of such a biological bounty can be seen in the the state's geology, Peter Brannen writes for The New Yorker.

3. Global warming: Actual warming will vary widely in different parts of the globe, making the average global temperature targets we often hear somewhat misleading, per Carbon Brief's Zeke Hausfather. Worth reading for the innovative graphics alone.

4. Noctilucent clouds: A new study shows climate change may be making nighttime high altitude clouds more visible in the Northern Hemisphere, according to Pam Wright of weather.com.

6. Something wondrous

A ballooning spider tiptoes around. Photo: Michael Hutchinson

Spiders can set sails of silk that they ride for hundreds of kilometers. This so-called “ballooning” behavior, which can take them 2.5 miles up in the air, opens the world to these wingless arthropods, Alison Snyder writes.

From the decks of the HMS Beagle more than 180 years ago, Charles Darwin described spiders ballooning on and off the ship as it sat off the coast of Argentina waiting for the wind.

What's new: We've long known light winds enable spiders to perform such physical feats. It turns out, though, that another hypothesis is also likely true: Spiders can ride Earth's own subtle ever-present electrical fields.

What they did: Erica Morley and Daniel Robert from the University of Bristol in the U.K. put adult Linyphiid spiders in a box within a Faraday cage, in which all electric fields are isolated and there is no wind. A metal plate at the bottom of the box served as the ground and on top Morley applied different voltages corresponding to those in the atmosphere. She filmed the spiders’ behavior.

As she increased the strength of the electric field, the spiders lofted. They would raft — in which they drop a line of silk and dangle while releasing silk to balloon on. Or, they stood on their tiptoes while sticking their abdomen in the air and releasing silk. This is an act done exclusively for ballooning.

As she turned the electric field on and off, the ballooning spiders would rise and fall.

They also measured how the trichobothria — a hair on each of the front pair of legs — moved in response to the electric field. “They are probably the electroreceptors but we can’t say that definitively,” Morley says.

What it means: The electric field in Earth's atmosphere and how it varies as the weather changes from fair to stormy have been observed and described. “But it is not widely known or thought about in terms of biology,” Morley says. Bees, and now spiders, seem to be sensitive to it. Morley and her co-author suggest studying Earth’s atmospheric electricity could help to predict the migration of spiders and potentially other organisms.

Peter Gorham, a physicist at the University of Hawaii who was not involved in the research but has modeled how spiders might use electrostatic forces to balloon, says: “If Darwin could see this paper, he would be thrilled.”