Space: This crew is leaving their simulated Martian habitat after 378 days

[These experiments are interesting. I'm curious what the results will be. Jan]

As many of us experienced during lockdowns, it’s not easy to stay sane and productive in an enclosed environment. But four volunteers for a NASA experiment have tested this to its limits by spending more than a year confined to a simulation of a Mars outpost.

In NASA’s Crew Health and Performance Exploration Analog (CHAPEA) mission, four volunteers have spent 378 days in a simulated Mars environment designed to look and feel as much like Mars as is possible here on Earth. They lived in a 3D-printed habitat, performed science jobs, and could only communicate with the outside world via ground control.

“For more than a year, the crew simulated Mars mission operations, including ‘Marswalks,’” grew and harvested several vegetables to supplement their shelf-stable food, maintained their equipment and habitat, and operated under additional stressors a Mars crew will experience, including communication delays with Earth, resource limitations, and isolation,” NASA explained in a statement.

The idea was to test what some of the health implications were for crew members on long-duration missions. With a limited diet and some high exercise demands — such as performing simulated Marswalks using a treadmill where they had to walk for long periods — researchers wanted to check the effects of these conditions on their physical health. Plus, there was also the important issue of group psychology and mental health during such a long period of relative isolation.

Now that this phase of the experiment has come to an end, the crew is getting ready to leave their habitat for the first time in a year. They will be exiting the simulated Mars environment this Saturday, July 6.

CHAPEA Mission 1 Crew Egress
If you’re curious to see what it’s like to leave an enclosed environment after more than a year, NASA will be live-streaming the crew members as they leave their habitat on Saturday, July 6. The coverage will include a ceremony to welcome the crew back to “Earth” life, plus discussions with NASA experts about the experiment and its potential for future Mars missions. Panelists include Kjell Lindgren, a NASA astronaut and deputy director of flight operations, plus several scientists and engineers who worked on the mission.


WEIRD: When will Starliner come home? Boeing and NASA still don’t know

Engineers continue analyzing several issues that have cropped up during Starliner’s first-ever astronaut flight.

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The first crewed mission of Boeing’s Starliner capsule has been in orbit for more than a month now, and it still doesn’t have a return date.

Starliner launched June 5 on Crew Flight Test (CFT), carrying NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams to the International Space Station (ISS) for a planned week-long stay. The capsule experienced helium leaks and thruster problems during the trip, however, and engineers are still looking into what caused them — which means Starliner hasn’t been cleared for departure yet.

"We’re taking our time on the ground to go through all the data before we decide on the return opportunity," Steve Stich, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, said during a press conference on Wednesday (July 10).

NASA, Boeing and the two CFT astronauts still have confidence in Starliner, however. During a separate media event on Wednesday, for example, Wilmore praised the capsule’s on-orbit capabilities during operational checks. "The spacecraft performed unbelievably well," he said.

Wilmore also discussed the issues with Starliner’s reaction control system (RCS) thrusters during its chasedown of the ISS, and how the mission dealt with them.

"We lost an RCS jet, and then another one, and then you could tell the thrust, the control, the capability, was degraded," he explained. "Thankfully, we had practiced, and we had gotten certified for manual control, and so we took over manual control for over an hour."

After arriving at the ISS on June 6, Wilmore and Williams integrated into the station’s Expedition 71 crew, which, according to Williams, is now unofficially being called "Expedition 71+." Wilmore and Williams have taken on daily maintenance responsibilities and science experiments, and they’ve been able to close the gap on a handful of backlogged station tasks. Throughout their mission, the duo have also continued their checkouts of Starliner’s many systems and the anomalies they have encountered, which are also being scrutinized by Boeing engineers back on Earth to determine their cause.

Stich emphasized the meticulous approach taken to analyze data and replicate the spacecraft’s thruster issues during testing at NASA’s White Sands Test Facility in New Mexico. One advantage of the ISS, he said, is its ability to serve as a temporary orbital "hangar," providing a unique opportunity to understand Starliner’s long-term performance in space before undocking.

In addition to the thruster issues, several helium leaks have been identified in the Starliner capsule. "There were a number of specific actions that were identified from both the helium and the thruster anomalies," Mark Nappi, Boeing’s vice president and Commercial Crew Program manager, said on Wednesday. "It’s just a little bit over 30 [actions], of which more than half of them are closed at the moment."

"On the helium leak, we hope to bring that into the Starliner mission management team for final resolution later this week," Stich said. Despite these problems, agency officials said that the spacecraft is rated to leave the ISS in case of an emergency, with all but one of its 28 RCS thrusters cleared for use during reentry to Earth’s atmosphere.

The decision to extend Starliner’s mission has also provided ground teams with additional time they weren’t expecting. According to Nappi, Amy Decker, of Starliner’s chief engineer’s office, says the extra data they’re getting is "AWESOME, in all caps."

"The more time you have to get more data," Nappi said, "the more excited [the engineers get]."

Boeing’s white and blue Starliner spacecraft docked at the International Space Station in June 2024.

Boeing’s Starliner is seen docked to the International Space Station during Crew Flight Test in June 2024. (Image credit: NASA)
The absolute latest Starliner could return with Wilmore and Williams, according to Stich, would be mid-August.

"The big driver is the handover that we have coming up between Crew-8 and Crew-9, which is in mid-August," Stich said, referring to two SpaceX astronaut missions to the ISS. "So … a few days before that [Crew-9] launch opportunity, we would need to get Butch and Suni home on Starliner."

Ideally, though, they will come home sooner. "We’re really working to try to follow the data and see when’s the earliest that we could target for undock and landing," Stich said. "I think some of the data suggests, optimistically, maybe it’s by the end of July, but we’ll just follow the data each step at a time, and figure out when the right undock opportunity is."

"We do have a lot of confidence in the thrusters as they are today," Nappi said, mentioning an on-orbit thruster test fire that Starliner performed while docked at the ISS.

"What we’re doing is just taking the time to make sure that we have looked under every rock and every stone, and just to make sure that there’s nothing else that would surprise us," Stich added in response.

CFT follows two prior uncrewed Starliner missions to the ISS. The first, in December 2019, failed to reach the orbiting lab after experiencing a number of glitches. The second, in May 2022, successfully docked but also experienced thruster issues.

"We knew there’d be some learning from this flight test," said Nappi. "We’ve learned a great deal from how the hardware works, how our processes work, and how we can improve."

As of now, "there’s one thruster that was producing very low thrust that we would disable for the rest of the flight," Stich explained. The extended stay at the ISS also helps teams get the spacecraft ready for future operational astronaut missions, which are planned to last up to six months, beginning with Starliner-1 sometime in 2025.

Tests at White Sands during CFT have helped planners look ahead to that first operational mission, and how to prevent similar thruster issues from cropping up.

According to Stich, Starliner’s thruster pulses were fired more frequently than engineers had expected this time around.

"What we’re trying to do at White Sands," he said, "is really replicating exactly what those pulses were that the thrusters saw, and then understand the heating effects from those pulses, and just to make sure that there’s no unintended consequences of those pulses."

Stich said he thinks there’s a way to take what the teams have observed with the thrusters during CFT to modify their requirements for future rendezvous and docking maneuvers. "I think that’s the work in front of us for Starliner-1," he said.

As the CFT mission continues, the focus remains on ensuring a safe return for Wilmore and Williams. "Starliner is ‘go’ to return in an emergency," Stich confirmed. The team is working through the process, including a return flight readiness review, to prepare for Starliner’s eventual undocking and landing.


Science: Animal Intelligence: Not just humans: Bees and chimps can also pass on their skills

Bumblebees and chimpanzees can learn skills from their peers so complicated that they could never have mastered them on their own, an ability previously thought to be unique to humans, two studies said on Wednesday.

One of humanity’s crowning talents is called "cumulative culture"—our ability to build up skills, knowledge and technology over time, improving them as they pass down through the generations.

This ability to transfer abilities no individual could learn by themselves is credited with helping driving humanity’s rise and domination of the world.

"Imagine that you dropped some children on a deserted island," said Lars Chittka, a behavioral ecologist at the Queen Mary University of London and co-author of the bee study.

"They might—with a bit of luck—survive, but they would never know how to read or to write because this requires learning from previous generations," he said in a video published with the study in the journal Nature.

Previous experiments have demonstrated that some animals are capable of what is known as social learning—working out how to do something by observing others of their kind.

Some of these behaviors seem to have been perfected over time, such as the incredible navigational talent of homing pigeons or chimpanzees’ ability to crack nuts, suggesting they could be examples of cumulative culture.

But it is difficult for scientists to rule out that an individual pigeon or chimp could not have worked out how to do achieve these feats by themselves.

So a UK-led team of researchers turned to the humble bumblebee.

‘So surprised’
The first step was training a crack squad of "demonstrators" to do a complex skill that they could later teach to others.

In the lab, some bees were given a two-step puzzle box. They were tasked with first pushing a blue tab, then a red tab to release the sugary prize at the end.

Alice Bridges, a study co-author also from Queen Mary University, told AFP: "This task is really difficult for bees because we are essentially asking them to learn to do something in exchange for nothing" during the first step.

Initially, the baffled bees just tried to push the red tab—without first moving the blue one—and simply gave up.

To motivate the bees, the researchers put a sugary treat at the end of this first step which was gradually withdrawn as they mastered the process.

See and bee seen: the humble bumblebee could also be capable of what is called "cumulative culture," research says.
The demonstrators were then paired up with some new "naive" bees, which watched the demonstrators solve the puzzle before having a go themselves.

Five of the 15 naive bees swiftly completed the puzzle—without needing a reward after the first stage.

"We were so surprised," Bridges said. "We were all just going crazy" when it first happened, she said.

Alex Thornton, a professor of cognitive evolution at the UK’s University of Exeter not involved in the research, acknowledged that it was a small sample size.

"But the point is clear—the task was exceptionally hard to learn alone, yet some bees could solve it through social learning," he wrote in a comment piece in Nature.

The authors of the research said it was the first demonstration of cumulative culture in an invertebrate.

Chimp off the old block
Chimpanzees—our closest living relatives—also seem to possess this talent, according to a separate study in Nature Human Behaviour.

The puzzle box for a troupe of semi-wild chimpanzees at the Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage in Zambia was a little more difficult.

It involved retrieving a wooden ball, holding open a drawer, slotting in the ball then closing it to release the peanut prize.

Over three months, 66 chimps tried and failed to solve the puzzle.

Then the Dutch-led team of researchers trained two demonstrator chimpanzees to show the others how it was done.

After two months, 14 "naive" chimps had mastered it.

And the more the chimps watched the demonstrators, the quicker they learned to solve the problem.

Bridges said the studies "can’t help but fundamentally challenge the idea that cumulative culture is this extremely complex, rare ability that only the very ‘smartest’ species—e.g. humans—are capable of".

Thornton said the research again showed how "people habitually overestimate their abilities relative to those of other animals".

More information: Alice D. Bridges et al, Bumblebees socially learn behaviour too complex to innovate alone, Nature (2024). DOI: 10.1038/s41586-024-07126-4

Edwin J. C. van Leeuwen et al, Chimpanzees use social information to acquire a skill they fail to innovate, Nature Human Behaviour (2024). DOI: 10.1038/s41562-024-01836-5

Journal information: Nature , Nature Human Behaviour


Science: Largest-ever genetic family tree reconstructed for Neolithic people in France using ancient DNA

Using ancient DNA, archaeologists in France have pieced together two elaborate Neolithic family trees that span multiple generations, making them the largest ancestral human record ever reconstructed.

The family trees are based on a 6,700-year-old funerary site known as Gurgy, which is located in the Paris Basin region of northern France. Researchers excavated the site in the mid-2000s but, due to advancements in obtaining and analyzing ancient DNA data, recently began studying the genomes of 94 of the 128 individuals, which included children and adults, whose remains were recovered from the site, according to a study published July 26 in the journal Nature.

Neolithic communities first emerged roughly 12,000 years ago in the Near East, a region that encompasses West Asia, Southeastern Europe and North Africa. During this time period, many human groups transitioned from hunting and gathering to farming. This lifestyle change enabled people to put down roots and settle into communities that spread across generations, leading to the extensive burial plot.

"The size of a family tree that huge for that time period" was mind boggling, lead study author Maïté Rivollat, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Archaeology at Ghent University in Belgium, told Live Science. "We realized that we could explore social aspects of this community."

The site was composed of a single graveyard with no monument or grave goods, and many of the bones were "not well preserved and corroded," Rivollat said.

Still, "the bones were good enough [to extract] DNA," she said, "and we were able to get DNA from 94 of the individuals."

Researchers discovered that the family’s descendants stemmed from a single "founding father." His skeleton was unique, since it was initially buried at an unknown site and was later moved near his kin at Gurgy, according to a statement. (The archaeologists also found the remains of a woman buried next to him but were unable to extract any DNA.)

By analyzing the mitochondrial DNA (maternal lineages) and Y-chromosome (paternal lineages) data, as well as each individual’s age at death and genetic sex, the researchers constructed two family trees. The first tree connected 64 individuals across seven generations and is the largest to date, and the second contained 12 people from five generations, according to the study.

Soon, a "patrilineal pattern" emerged in which generations were linked through the male line of descendants. Researchers also noticed that while the men stayed within the community in which they were born, the women left, according to the statement.

"The women who were buried there weren’t related and came from somewhere else," Rivollat said. "We also noticed that inbreeding wasn’t occurring and think that this system of female movements avoided that from happening."

Another interesting aspect of the community was that it lacked half-siblings and that sons and daughters shared the same parents, suggesting that members of this family group weren’t polygamous but rather were monogamous, according to the statement.

"It became apparent that the descendants knew who was buried there," Rivollat said. "The closer they were buried together, the closer they were related."


Science: The only Rivers & Seas on another planet – Study: Titan’s lakes may be shaped by waves MIT researcher s find wave activity on Saturn’s largest moon may be strong enough to erode the coastlines of lakes and seas.

[This bizarre world may be the only one in the solar system with moving liquids in the form of rivers, lakes and seas. Though this is not water. It is an alien world, with extreme cold. But it is exceptionally fascinating. Jan]

Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, is the only planetary body in the solar system besides our own that currently hosts active rivers, lakes, and seas. Titan’s otherworldly river systems are thought to be filled with liquid methane and ethane that flows into wide lakes and seas, some as large as the Great Lakes on Earth.

The existence of Titan’s large seas and smaller lakes was confirmed in 2007, with images taken by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. Since then, scientists have pored over those and other images for clues to the moon’s mysterious liquid environment.

Now, MIT geologists have studied Titan’s shorelines and shown through simulations that the moon’s large seas have likely been shaped by waves. Until now, scientists have found indirect and conflicting signs of wave activity, based on remote images of Titan’s surface.

The MIT team took a different approach to investigate the presence of waves on Titan, by first modeling the ways in which a lake can erode on Earth. They then applied their modeling to Titan’s seas to determine what form of erosion could have produced the shorelines in Cassini’s images. Waves, they found, were the most likely explanation.

The researchers emphasize that their results are not definitive; to confirm that there are waves on Titan will require direct observations of wave activity on the moon’s surface.

“We can say, based on our results, that if the coastlines of Titan’s seas have eroded, waves are the most likely culprit,” says Taylor Perron, the Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences at MIT. “If we could stand at the edge of one of Titan’s seas, we might see waves of liquid methane and ethane lapping on the shore and crashing on the coasts during storms. And they would be capable of eroding the material that the coast is made of.”

Perron and his colleagues, including first author Rose Palermo PhD ’22, a former MIT-WHOI Joint Program graduate student and current research geologist at the U.S. Geological Survey, have published their study today in Science Advances. Their co-authors include MIT Research Scientist Jason Soderblom; former MIT postdoc Sam Birch, now an assistant professor at Brown University; Andrew Ashton at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution; and Alexander Hayes of Cornell University.

“Taking a different tack”

The presence of waves on Titan has been a somewhat controversial topic ever since Cassini spotted bodies of liquid on the moon’s surface.

“Some people who tried to see evidence for waves didn’t see any, and said, ‘These seas are mirror-smooth,’” Palermo says. “Others said they did see some roughness on the liquid surface but weren’t sure if waves caused it.”

Knowing whether Titan’s seas host wave activity could give scientists information about the moon’s climate, such as the strength of the winds that could whip up such waves. Wave information could also help scientists predict how the shape of Titan’s seas might evolve over time.

Rather than look for direct signs of wave-like features in images of Titan, Perron says the team had to “take a different tack, and see, just by looking at the shape of the shoreline, if we could tell what’s been eroding the coasts.”

Titan’s seas are thought to have formed as rising levels of liquid flooded a landscape crisscrossed by river valleys. The researchers zeroed in on three scenarios for what could have happened next: no coastal erosion; erosion driven by waves; and “uniform erosion,” driven either by “dissolution,” in which liquid passively dissolves a coast’s material, or a mechanism in which the coast gradually sloughs off under its own weight.

The researchers simulated how various shoreline shapes would evolve under each of the three scenarios. To simulate wave-driven erosion, they took into account a variable known as “fetch,” which describes the physical distance from one point on a shoreline to the opposite side of a lake or sea.

“Wave erosion is driven by the height and angle of the wave,” Palermo explains. “We used fetch to approximate wave height because the bigger the fetch, the longer the distance over which wind can blow and waves can grow.”

To test how shoreline shapes would differ between the three scenarios, the researchers started with a simulated sea with flooded river valleys around its edges. For wave-driven erosion, they calculated the fetch distance from every single point along the shoreline to every other point, and converted these distances to wave heights. Then, they ran their simulation to see how waves would erode the starting shoreline over time. They compared this to how the same shoreline would evolve under erosion driven by uniform erosion. The team repeated this comparative modeling for hundreds of different starting shoreline shapes.

They found that the end shapes were very different depending on the underlying mechanism. Most notably, uniform erosion produced inflated shorelines that widened evenly all around, even in the flooded river valleys, whereas wave erosion mainly smoothed the parts of the shorelines exposed to long fetch distances, leaving the flooded valleys narrow and rough.

“We had the same starting shorelines, and we saw that you get a really different final shape under uniform erosion versus wave erosion,” Perron says. “They all kind of look like the Flying Spaghetti Monster because of the flooded river valleys, but the two types of erosion produce very different endpoints.”

The team checked their results by comparing their simulations to actual lakes on Earth. They found the same difference in shape between Earth lakes known to have been eroded by waves and lakes affected by uniform erosion, such as dissolving limestone.

A shore’s shape

Their modeling revealed clear, characteristic shoreline shapes, depending on the mechanism by which they evolved. The team then wondered: Where would Titan’s shorelines fit, within these characteristic shapes?

In particular, they focused on four of Titan’s largest, most well-mapped seas: Kraken Mare, which is comparable in size to the Caspian Sea; Ligeia Mare, which is larger than Lake Superior; Punga Mare, which is longer than Lake Victoria; and Ontario Lacus, which is about 20 percent the size of its terrestrial namesake.

The team mapped the shorelines of each Titan sea using Cassini’s radar images, and then applied their modeling to each of the sea’s shorelines to see which erosion mechanism best explained their shape. They found that all four seas fit solidly in the wave-driven erosion model, meaning that waves produced shorelines that most closely resembled Titan’s four seas.

“We found that if the coastlines have eroded, their shapes are more consistent with erosion by waves than by uniform erosion or no erosion at all,” Perron says.

Juan Felipe Paniagua-Arroyave, associate professor in the School of Applied Sciences and Engineering at EAFIT University in Colombia, says the team’s results are “unlocking new avenues of understanding.”

“Waves are ubiquitous on Earth’s oceans. If Titan has waves, they would likely dominate the surface of lakes,” says Paniagua-Arroyave, who was not involved in the study. ”It would be fascinating to see how Titan’s winds create waves, not of water, but of exotic liquid hydrocarbons.”The researchers are working to determine how strong Titan’s winds must be in order to stir up waves that could repeatedly chip away at the coasts. They also hope to decipher, from the shape of Titan’s shorelines, from which directions the wind is predominantly blowing.

“Titan presents this case of a completely untouched system,” Palermo says. “It could help us learn more fundamental things about how coasts erode without the influence of people, and maybe that can help us better manage our coastlines on Earth in the future.”

This work was supported, in part, by NASA, the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the Heising-Simons Foundation.


Excellent New Astronomy: James Webb Space Telescope finds water in super-hot exoplanet’s atmosphere

[This telescope is finding amazing stuff in space. Jan]

The atmosphere of the exoplanet WASP-18 b reaches nearly 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit (2,700 degrees Celsius).

The James Webb Space Telescope has found traces of water vapor in the atmosphere of a super-hot gas giant exoplanet that orbits its star in less than one Earth day.

The exoplanet in question, WASP-18 b, is a gas giant 10 times more massive than the solar system’s largest planet, Jupiter. The planet is quite extreme, as it orbits the sun-like star WASP-18, which is located some 400 light-years away from Earth, at an average distance of just 1.9 million miles (3.1 million kilometers). For comparison, the solar system’s innermost planet, Mercury, circles the sun at a distance of 39.4 million miles (63.4 million km).

Due to such close proximity to the parent star, the temperatures in WASP-18 b’s atmosphere are so high that most water molecules break apart, NASA said in a statement. The fact that Webb managed to resolve signatures of the residual water is a testament to the telescope’s observing powers.

"The spectrum of the planet’s atmosphere clearly shows multiple small but precisely measured water features, present despite the extreme temperatures of almost 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit (2,700 degrees Celsius)," NASA wrote in the statement. "It’s so hot that it would tear most water molecules apart, so still seeing its presence speaks to Webb’s extraordinary sensitivity to detect remaining water."

WASP-18 b, discovered in 2008, has been studied by other telescopes, including the Hubble Space Telescope, NASA’s X-ray space telescope Chandra, the exoplanet hunter TESS and the now-retired infrared Spitzer Space Telescope. None of these space telescopes, however, was sensitive enough to see the signatures of water in the planet’s atmosphere.

"Because the water features in this spectrum are so subtle, they were difficult to identify in previous observations," Anjali Piette, a postdoctoral fellow at the Carnegie Institution for Science and one of the authors of the new research, said in the statement. "That made it really exciting to finally see water features with these JWST observations."

In addition to being so massive, hot and close to its parent star, WASP-18 b is also tidally locked. That means one side of the planet constantly faces the star, just like the moon’s near side always faces Earth. As a result of this tidal locking, considerable differences in temperature exist across the planet’s surface. The Webb measurements, for the first time, enabled scientists to map these differences in detail.

The James Webb Space Telescope detected traces of water in the super hot atmosphere of exoplanet WASP-18 b

The measurements found that the most intensely illuminated parts of the planet can be up to 2,000 degrees F (1,100 degrees C) hotter than those in the twilight zone. The scientists didn’t expect such significant temperature differences and now think that there must be some not yet understood mechanism in action that prevents the distribution of heat around the planet’s globe.

"The brightness map of WASP-18 b shows a lack of east-west winds that is best matched by models with atmospheric drag," co-author Ryan Challener, of the University of Michigan, said in the statement. "One possible explanation is that this planet has a strong magnetic field, which would be an exciting discovery!"

To create the temperature map, the researchers calculated the planet’s infrared glow by measuring the difference in the glow of the parent star during the time the planet transited in front of the star’s disk and then when it disappeared behind it.

"JWST is giving us the sensitivity to make much more detailed maps of hot giant planets like WASP-18 b than ever before," Megan Mansfield, a Sagan Fellow at the University of Arizona and one of the authors of the paper describing the results. said in the statement. "This is the first time a planet has been mapped with JWST, and it’s really exciting to see that some of what our models predicted, such as a sharp drop in temperature away from the point on the planet directly facing the star, is actually seen in the data."

The new study was published online Wednesday (May 31) in the journal Nature.