Science: 25,000-year-old human DNA discovered on Paleolithic pendant from Siberian cave

Researchers have retrieved human DNA from a Paleolithic pendant and discovered that it belonged to a Siberian woman who lived roughly 25,000 years ago.

This is the first time scientists have successfully isolated DNA from a prehistoric artifact using a newly developed extraction method, according to a study published Wednesday (May 3) in the journal Nature.

In 2019, archaeologists discovered the thumbnail-size pendant buried inside Denisova Cave in the Altai Mountains in southern Siberia. This cave is famous for once housing Neanderthals, the mysterious Denisovans and even modern humans, according to fossil and DNA evidence. The pendant is further evidence of the cave’s human occupation. Measuring roughly 0.79 inch (2 centimeters) long, the pierced deer tooth contained a single hole, which was likely drilled so that the wearer could hang it around their neck.

Because teeth are highly porous, they’re more likely to retain traces of DNA, such as from skin cells or sweat, compared with other materials, making them a good candidate for the team of international scientists to test the new method. To help "preserve the integrity" of the artifact while isolating the DNA, they designed the method to be nondestructive, according to a statement.

This new technique involved using a soft spatula to carefully remove any leftover sediment from the cave before submerging the artifact into a buffer bath of sodium phosphate, which released the ancient DNA gradually beginning at the surface level and then deeper into the tooth. The researchers then increased the temperature of the liquid incrementally, beginning at room temperature, and swapping out the liquid multiple times until the human and deer DNA were released from the artifact, according to the study.

"The amount of human DNA [recovered] from using this method was mind blowing for me," study author Elena Essel, a doctoral candidate at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, told Live Science in an interview. "I expected to only get a bit of human DNA, but we had more than enough to tell the human and animal DNA apart."

A deer tooth with a hole at its top. It sits on a black background next to a ruler.

While Essel said it would take further examinations to know specifically the source of the DNA — be it from sweat, blood or another biological form — the researchers were able to compare it with known human populations and determined that both the woman and the deer, a species of elk (Cervus canadensis) known as wapiti, lived sometime between 19,000 and 25,000 years ago and that the woman was of Siberian heritage.

"Time-wise it fits," Essel said, "and geographically, the location of where the artifact was found fits."

Essel thinks this new method of DNA extraction could potentially be used on a variety of ancient artifacts, including tools, ornaments and other items once touched by humans.

"We think we can extract DNA from all types of artifacts using this method," Essel said. However, it’s important that archaeologists wear proper equipment not just in the lab but during excavations, such as "gloves and masks to avoid cross contamination from their own DNA."


Science: The universe might be younger than we think, galaxies’ motion suggests

The universe could be younger than we think, based on the motions of satellite galaxies that reveal how recently they have fallen into a galaxy grouping.

According to measurements of the cosmic microwave background radiation (CMB) by the European Space Agency’s Planck mission, the universe is about 13.8 billion years old. This calculation is based on what’s known as the Standard Model of cosmology, which describes a flat universe dominated by dark energy and dark matter and which is expanding at an accelerating rate.

The Standard Model is then used as a basis for supercomputer simulations that can depict the growth of large-scale structure in the universe — galaxies, galaxy clusters and huge chains and walls of galaxies.

Canada IMS
However, these models have now run afoul of new measurements of the motions of pairs of galaxies that don’t tally with what the simulations are telling us.

In a new study, astronomers led by Guo Qi from the National Astronomical Observatories of the Chinese Academy of Sciences studied pairs of satellites in galaxy groups.

Galaxy groups are small collections of galaxies, such as our own Local Group, in which a few large galaxies are joined by a swarm of smaller ones. Like larger galaxy clusters, these galaxy groups form where filaments in the cosmic web of matter that spans the universe meet, with smaller galaxies moving along the filaments before falling into a group.

Using observations made by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) of 813 galaxy groups within about 600 million light-years from Earth, Qi’s team focused on the most massive galaxy in each group and measured how pairs of satellites on opposite sides of that galaxy moved.

They found that the fraction of satellite galaxies that were counter-rotating with respect to each other — in other words, orbiting the large galaxy in opposite directions — is higher than predicted by computer simulations of large-scale structure, such as the Millennium Simulation and the Illustris TNG300 model, which are both based on the Standard Model as described by the Planck mission.

This is a natural state of affairs if the satellites have just fallen into orbit around the larger galaxy of the group. But over time, galaxy groups and clusters should reach a dynamically relaxed state, with most satellites co-rotating. If galaxy groups and clusters coalesced when the Standard Model suggests they should have, then the fraction of counter-rotating satellites should be smaller. The fact that they are a greater fraction of satellites is a problem for the Standard Model.

“We found in the SDSS data that satellite galaxies are just accreting/falling into the massive groups, with a stronger signal of ongoing assembly compared to simulations with Planck parameters,” Qi told in an email.

In other words, it seems that the satellite galaxies have only recently fallen into their respective groups.

“This suggests that the universe is younger than that suggested by the Planck observations of the CMB,” said Qi. “Unfortunately, this work cannot estimate the age of the universe in a quantitative manner.”

This is because there is still too much leeway in the motions of the satellite pairs and models of how groups form to be able to place a firm figure on how much younger than 13.8 billion years these results suggest that the universe is.

If correct, then the new findings imply that something is amiss in the Standard Model, and that some of our assumptions about the universe must be wrong. In fact, one cosmic paradox that scientists are currently investigating could be the answer.

The expansion rate of the universe is defined by a number called the Hubble constant. Planck measured the Hubble constant to be 67.8 kilometers per second per megaparsec — in other words, every megaparsec volume of space is expanding by 67.8 kilometers (42.1 miles) every second. (One megaparsec is about (3.26 million light-years.) Based on this expansion rate, cosmologists are able to calculate the universe’s age as 13.8 billion years by rewinding the clock.

However, observations of the redshift of Type Ia supernovae, which are exploding white dwarfs, give the value of the Hubble constant as 73.2 kilometers (45.5 miles) per second per megaparsec. With this expansion rate, rewinding the clock would give a younger age of 12.6 billion years.

Both measurements of the Hubble constant are considered to be unimpeachable, and yet they differ drastically. This paradox has become known as the "Hubble tension."

“This of course could be related to the Hubble tension problem,” said Qi when asked whether the younger age suggested by satellite pairs in galaxy groups is support for the faster rate of expansion from the supernova measurements.

However, there are other hurdles to overcome. If we lower the age of the universe too much, then astronomers will find themselves in the awkward position of having stars that are known to be older than the universe itself.

Perhaps the explanation lies with other aspects of the Standard Model. For example, the model is heavily dependent upon dark matter, but so far scientists do not know what dark matter is. Other researchers argue that dark matter does not exist at all, and that its gravitational effects can be explained by a modification of the laws of gravity at low accelerations, such as those experienced by satellite galaxies orbiting at greater distances. Qi’s team did find that satellite pairs at larger orbital radii are more likely to be counter-rotating.

Right now, more data would be welcome. The same phenomenon should hold for larger galaxy clusters, said Qi, but clusters tend to be farther away and the limited sample size and poorer quality of data currently make any measurement inconclusive.

The universe is ancient, whichever age value is correct, but these new results suggest that it may be able to claw some of its youth back.

The new findings were published on Jan. 22 in the journal Nature Astronomy.


BALLOON TO EDGE OF SPACE: Space Perspective is nearly ready to fly tourists on luxury balloon rides near the edge of space

[This is very cool. Balloons can go much higher than aircraft. You will be exposed to a lot of radiation since you're almost in space. Jan]

Ever wanted to see the cosmos, but not too keen on buckling-up for a rocket’s high-g, explosively-controlled ascent into space? You’re in luck: Space Perspective will bring you there in a balloon.

The Titusville, Florida-based company just completed assembly of their first pressure vessel, a test capsule of their Spaceship Neptune that Space Perspective will use as they begin a series of test flights of their trademarked "SpaceBalloon" ascent system. If everything goes smoothly during the vehicle’s shakedown flights, the company hopes to begin flying people to the edge of space as early as the end of this year.

Space Perspective recently unveiled Spaceship Neptune to the public, posting photos of the capsule to X (formerly Twitter). "Introducing Spaceship Neptune – Excelsior, our finished test capsule!," the company wrote in the post. "With the largest windows ever flown to space and a spherical design that allows for the roomiest interior of any human spaceflight capsule ever made"

Space Perspective was founded by CEOs Taber MacCallum and Jane Poynter, who also co-founded Paragon Space Development Corp. Life support and thermal control systems from Paragon have been included in the designs of every human-rated spacecraft the United States has ever flown, and now the duo are using their over 40 years of experience in the aerospace industry to offer people a more accessible way to see the Earth like never before.

"We definitely have the world’s experts doing this," Poynter said in an interview with "We are completely focused. We’re focused on getting commercial flight as efficiently and completely safely and quickly as we can."

Space Perspective has named their first Spaceship Neptune capsule Excelsior, in a nod to a high-altitude balloon flight program known as Project Excelsior, pioneered by Joe Kittinger in the late 1950s.

Excelsior weighs just over seven tons, and will be lifted to the edge of Earth’s atmosphere by a balloon that stretches more than 600 feet (183 meters) tall.

Unlike other crew-rated spacecraft, designed and shaped for a fiery atmospheric re-entry, Excelsior’s carbon fiber shell was built in the shape of a sphere, measuring 16 feet (4.9 meters) in diameter.

The interior design of the crewed Spaceship Neptune model includes accommodations for eight passengers, or "Explorers," as Space Perspective calls their customers, and a captain to serve as host for the luxurious lift to the top of the world. Inside the capsule, cushioned chairs sit in short rows on opposite sides, facing outward to view the planet through the vessel’s tall windows. The central area of the capsule is mostly empty, allowing passengers some room to stretch their legs, and includes a bar station and even a bathroom, which Space Perspective refers to as a "spa."

The "Spa" will be a refuge of sorts for passengers on Space Perspective’s Spaceship Neptune capsule. (Image credit: Space Perspective)
Excelsior is outfitted with far less luxury, but has been manufactured to pave the way for Space Perspective’s future crewed flights. Nearly every component inside and outside the test capsule has been connected to racks of sensors and strain gauges to capture every detail of data during the vehicle’s first flights.

One of Spaceship Neptune’s most complex features is the radiator system that sits like a cap on top of the capsule and helps mitigate the effects of the high levels of solar radiation the capsule will experience while hanging at high altitudes, exposed to the sun and unshielded by the atmosphere. The spacecraft’s heat regulation is also aided in part by the unique design of the capsule’s windows, which reflect much of the harmful UV wavelengths without compromising the view.

At the bottom of the capsule, a splash cone serves to stabilize and anchor the vessel after landing, which occurs at sea. To prevent the same phenomenon that causes a droplet shooting up from a body of water as an object plunges through its surface, Spaceship Neptune’s splashdown is stabilized by the conical device, which prevents that bounce-back effect and works as an anchor on the capsule as its passengers await retrieval.

Trips aboard one of Space Perspective’s balloon rides begin and end at sea, taking off from the deck of the company’s launch boat, Voyager. The ship is designed to carry up to two Spaceship Neptune capsules, and the company has plans to construct several capsules to offer their services from launch boats harbored across the world.

Full flight duration, including ascent and descent takes about six hours, and can move the capsule several hundred miles downrange from its liftoff point. Because of this, Space Perspective uses separate recovery vessels to retrieve landed capsules within about 15 minutes of splashdown. Amidst Space Perspective’s stacked house of experts, the same engineers who designed the Dragon recovery system for SpaceX’s boats Bob and Doug are responsible for the recovery hardware aboard Space Perspective’s boats for retrieving Spaceship Neptune.

Also like SpaceX’s Dragon, Spaceship Neptune capsules are designed to be reusable and are flown mostly autonomously. Or, the capsule can be operated remotely from Space Perspective’s mission control room, housed in one of the company’s three adjacent facilities in Titusville. Though navigational controls are limited in balloon flights, mission operators are able to monitor flight status conditions and intervene in the vehicle’s ascent and descent when needed. Flight captains are able to access those same systems onboard, and can also take control in the event of some kind of emergency, which the company has gone to great lengths to avoid.

Unlike the reusable capsules, Space Perspective’s SpaceBalloons are one-time-use. Each balloon is stitched together by hand, using load-bearing tape and carbon filaments to prevent tears. Assembly takes place inside a 700-foot (213-meter) long, white soft-top hangar next to the company’s mission control building, where materials are laid down piece by piece, and joined to form Spaceship Neptune’s massive lifting medium.

Right now, Space Perspective’s balloon hangar fits two rows of tables, each with its own balloon under assembly. Once in commercial operation, the company hopes to reach a production point of one balloon per table, per week, amounting to over 100 flights per year.

At launch, the balloon is pumped with buoyant hydrogen, which slowly fills the volume and floats the towering canvas to begin carrying its capsule for flight.

Like the lines on a basketball or beach ball, individual sections known as gores stripe the seams of the SpaceBalloon and reinforce its structural integrity to mitigate risk in the event of an unlikely tear. Should such an emergency arise, the 184 gores ribbed vertically around the balloon work as stops, preventing a tear from spreading. The sheer size of the balloon also means that it is able to maintain some stability in-flight, even if a small tear has formed.

However, in the event of a catastrophic emergency and complete failure of the balloon, supports connected to the capsule are equipped with parachutes to facilitate a slow, safe return to the surface.

An orange-haired woman and grey-bearded man stand peering through the open panel of a window port on a orbulous white capsule with tall, silver-trimmed windows.

Space Perspective Founders and CEOs Jane Poynter and Taber MacCullum peer through the window or Spaceship Neptune’s first completed test vehicle. (Image credit: Space Perspective)
On the other side of mission control, another building houses the hanger for Spaceship Neptune, which recently completed assembly ahead of its first test flights. In a social media post on X, formerly known as Twitter, the company shared photos of the newly-polished Excelsior, including an image with company founders Poynter and MacCullum leaning through one of the capsule’s open window ports.

Why balloons?
"We’re going to be taking unprecedented numbers of people to space. Instead of using rockets, we use space balloons. Balloons, and space balloons are … they just afford this incredibly gentle flight. Right? There’s no high gs. There’s no zero-g, which for a lot of people is really disorienting. There’s no training, none of that.

So, if you can get on a commercial airplane, you can get on Spaceship Neptune. That actually opens up the market enormously to people who otherwise don’t feel comfortable going on a rocket, or just simply can’t go on a rocket, but still want that extraordinary experience of seeing our Earth from space."

What’s it take to run a flight like this?
The Space Perspective mission control room features several stations for monitoring flight status, weather and atmospheric conditions, and communication between Spaceship Neptune, its launch vessel and the recovery boat.

"We are about to enter a rigorous set of test flights. You see so many stations here [in mission control], because it’s engineers that are sitting in a lot of these because they’re monitoring their own systems during the flights … Part of the protocol is to have the spaceship [experience] faults, so that we can test all the backup systems. So, we have seats filled with a lot of engineers. When we get to commercial flight, there’ll be a lot fewer people. You don’t need it, because remember this spacecraft can fly itself. Of course we have complete control of it from mission control as well. And there’s also a mission control on the ship Voyager."

When do you expect to fly the first crewed tests of Spaceship Neptune, and when do you plan to fly aboard?

"My entire career has been in spaceflight and almost exclusively in human spaceflight, which is an incredible privilege to be able to be on that journey. I am undoubtedly going to be on one of the first, if not the first human flight that we do. You’ve got to believe it. If for no other reason than I actually do need to know that we have dialed-in this experience for our customers. I mean, our customers have high expectations of this flight, and we want to have not only that incredible view of the Earth be mind blowing, but the entire experience be that for our customers.

"We’re planning to have crewed flights this year. We’re going to go through a whole series of uncrewed test flights. We have to get through safety gates before we ever put a person in it. However, the current plan is that we do roughly 10 flights uncrewed, and then we have a series of flights that are crewed, and then we get into commercial operations around the end of ’24, early ’25."

According to a recent Space Perspective release, the company currently has more than 1,750 ticket holders who have reserved seats aboard Spaceship Neptune, and the expects that number to reach 4,000 by the end of the year.

What can Space Perspective "Explorers" expect from the experience?
A typical flight lasts six hours – two hours to ascend, two hours hovering at apogee, and then a two-hour descent.

"We launch from a ship, and we splash in the ocean.

So, imagine this, you get up early in the morning, maybe you slept overnight on the ship. You get up, it’s dark out, you step into this beautifully appointed, very comfortable capsule. You’re handed your beverage of choice as you sit down and strap yourself in for about the first 15 minutes of flight. So, when the spaceship is released from the deck, there’s a 600-foot tall balloon standing up above you. The entire vehicle very gently lifts off the deck. It’s going to space at 12 miles an hour. This is literally the opposite of rocket flight. It’s very slow, so it’s takes you two hours to get up there, but that’s also part of the beauty of this – it’s that you can take it all in and you’re not having to withstand all [physical exertions associated with rocket launches], which some people love, but not everybody.

So it takes you a couple of hours to get up there, then you’ll start to see the sunrise over the horizon, the curved horizon of our planet. And then you’ll see the thin blue line of atmosphere against that stark blackness of space, and the sun in the black sky and it’s just going to be mind blowing for people. If you’ve talked to astronauts, you hear about what’s often called the ‘overview effect,’ it is transformational for a lot of people. So we are giving people a lot of time to be up there – a couple of hours – so they can really absorb this experience, celebrate with a drink from our bar of whatever beverage you would like to have. Of course there will also be food along the way, and we have a loo and Wi-Fi so you can be telling everybody back home what’s going on during your flight.

Then there’ll be a two hour journey back down – splashdown in the ocean, a super safe way to do this. So you go up under the balloon and down under the balloon. No transfer to another kind of flight vehicle, which makes it a seamless experience and super safe. Another ship is right there, picks the capsule up out of the water, puts it on the deck. Everybody disembarks within about 15 minutes of splash."

Tickets for a ride to the edge of space aboard Space Perspective’s Spaceship Neptune currently cost $125k, but Poynter says the company has plans to make that price more accessible.

"In the future, we have plans to build a larger capsule for more people so that we can offer both a more exclusive experience with a smaller group of people, and then for larger groups of people at probably a reduced price. Somewhere well below $100,000."


Julian Assange to be EXTRADITED to U.S. after 10 years of TORTURE

It is official: WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange will be extradited to the United States to face espionage charges after spending a decade in the United Kingdom being tortured.

BitChute policy officer Amy Peikoff joined Alex Jones of Infowars to discuss Assange’s mistreatment, as well as talk about ways to help secure journalistic freedom for all moving forward – watch the interview below:

Assange is trying to appeal his extradition, but U.S. lawyers are petitioning a London court to block the appeal and send Assange back to America immediately.

"What you would hope is that if there were any court proceeding and he were allowed to appear and actually speak for himself that he could explain to people the truth about what is going on," Peikoff told Jones.

"This is a case of journalism versus authoritarian power, and we need to preserve the cause of the First Amendment and free speech of journalism against the powers that be."

What Jones wants to know is why Assange is not allowed to appear and speak for himself but Charles Manson, a mass murderer was, to which Peikoff offered the following explanation:

"I think they are afraid that if Assange is allowed to speak for himself and people can actually see the principle at stake that they would support him. Basically there’s [sic] two alternatives: you can deal with people through persuasion or you can deal with people through force. And what they are revealing is that they do not have arguments on their side, that all they have is force and they are applying it mercilessly in the face of true principles – principles on which our country was founded uniquely. They are relinquishing it to the extent that they do not let this man free."

The Julian Assange saga has been going on for ages after the powers that be punished the WikiLeaks founder for releasing vast quantities of confidential U.S. military records and diplomatic cable, which allegedly put the lives of government agents in danger.

Supporters of Assange say he is a hero who is undergoing classic persecution for exposing the wicked and often illegal behavior of the U.S. deep state. They hail him as a true journalist, which as we know is hard to come by in modern times.

Assange’s lawyers say the case against him is politically motivated, arguing that Assange is being targeted for exposing "state-level crimes." They also claim Donald Trump requested "detailed options" on how to kill Assange for trying to do the right thing.

Lawyers for the U.S., arguing contrary to this, say Assange’s prosecution is merely "based on the rule of law and evidence," with attorney Clair Dobbin stating that he "indiscriminately and knowingly published to the world the names of individuals who acted as sources of information to the U.S."

"It is these core facts which distinguish the position of the appellant from the New York Times and other media outlets," Dobbin added. "It is this which forms the objective basis for his prosecution. It is these facts which distinguish him, not his political opinions."

Assange faces 17 charges of espionage and one charge of computer misuse for publishing classified U.S. documents on his WikiLeaks platform some 15 years ago. It is now up to the High Court in London to decide whether Assange will be allowed to further argue his case before a U.K. court or face extradition back to the U.S.


Science: 500 million-year-old, bug-like fossils have stunningly preserved nervous systems

[There are pretty amazing images at the source link below. This means that scientists can study these ancient bugs in tremendous detail! Jan]

Two tiny fossils, each smaller than an aspirin pill, contain fossilized nerve tissue from 508 million years ago. The bug-like Cambrian creatures could help scientists piece together the evolutionary history of modern-day spiders and scorpions.

Still, it’s not clear exactly where these fossils — both specimens of the species Mollisonia symmetrica — fit on the arthropod evolutionary tree, said Nicholas Strausfeld, a regents professor in the Department of Neuroscience at the University of Arizona, who was not involved in the study.

That’s because some features, like the animals’ eyes and nerve cords, can be clearly identified in the fossils, but other parts of the nervous system cannot be so easily spotted. In particular, it’s unclear whether or not the animals carry a brain-like bundle of nerves called a synganglion, and without this key piece of evidence, their relation to other animals remains fuzzy, Strausfeld said.

Related: From dino brains to thought control — 10 fascinating brain findings

Where the synganglion would sit, instead there’s "this mess in the middle of the head," said first author Javier Ortega-Hernández, an invertebrate paleobiologist at Harvard University and curator of the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology. The researchers can tell that this mess is nerve tissue, but they can’t discern its exact organization.

"It is … true that we do not have every single characteristic of the nervous system of this animal mapped out, because the fossils only tell us so much," Ortega-Hernández said. The researchers acknowledge this uncertainty in their new report, published Jan. 20 in the journal Nature Communications, and present a few different ideas as to how these fossils relate to ancient and modern-day critters. If more fossilized M. symmetrica are uncovered in the future, the species’ place on the tree of life may eventually be resolved.

‘A stroke of luck’
Finding fossilized nerve tissue from the Cambrian period, which took place between about 543 million and 490 million years ago, is a "rarity," Ortega-Hernández said. "It’s really a stroke of luck."

Scientists uncovered the first evidence of a fossilized arthropod brain from the Cambrian period about a decade ago, according to a 2012 report in the journal Nature Communications; arthropods are invertebrate animals in the phylum Arthropoda, a group that includes modern insects, crustaceans and arachnids, like spiders. Since that initial discovery 10 years ago, preserved nerve tissue has been found in more than a dozen Cambrian fossils, most of them arthropods, Ortega-Hernández said.

The fossils featured in the new study were found not at a field site, but in the depths of the museum collections at the Harvard University Museum of Comparative Zoology in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Both specimens were discovered in mid-Cambrian Burgess Shale deposits from British Columbia.

The Harvard fossil measures about 0.5 inches (13 millimeters) long and 0.1 inches (3.5 mm) wide at its widest point; the fossil is oriented such that you’re looking down at the arthropod from above. The Smithsonian fossil, on the other hand, offers a side-view of M. symmetrica; this specimen measures only 0.3 inches (7.5 mm) long and 0.06 inches (1.7 mm) tall.

The fossil from the Smithsonian shows a lateral view of M. symmetrica. (Image credit: Nature Communications, Ortega-Hernández et al. 2022)
To the naked eye, neither fossil looks particularly exciting, Ortega-Hernández said. Regarding the miniscule Smithsonian fossil, in particular, "superficially, it is extremely unremarkable," he said. M. symmetrica has a simple exoskeleton, consisting of a head shield, segmented trunk and posterior shield — somewhat like the exoskeleton of a pillbug, but long and skinny.

The researchers suspect that the arthropod also had seven pairs of tiny appendages, two fangs and six pairs of little limbs; that’s based on a 2019 study, published in the journal Nature, that described a fossil from a different species in the Mollisonia genus that bore such appendages. However, it’s highly unusual to find Mollisonia fossils with intact limbs, and both fossils used in the new study lack appendages, Ortega-Hernández noted.

Despite the fossils’ lack-luster appearance, when he placed the Smithsonian M. symmetrica fossil under a microscope, he spotted something intriguing, Ortega-Hernández said. "I realized, ‘Ooh, there’s something funky inside of this animal, inside of this fossil,’" he said. He found that locked inside both of these inconspicuous arthropods were well-preserved nervous systems. The fossilized nerves look like inky black splotches, because the fossilization process transformed the tissue into organic carbon films.

In the Smithsonian fossil, a bulbous eye can be seen in the arthropod’s head and a nerve cord can be clearly seen running down the length of its belly, with some nerves jutting out from its underside. In the Harvard specimen, one can see two huge, orb-like eyes on the head, and a bit of the nerve cord peeking out from beneath the animal’s digestive tract, which obscures the rest of the cord.

In both fossils, the study authors reported seeing optic nerves that run from the arthropods’ eyes into the main body, but Strausfeld said the evidence for these nerves is "ambiguous," and ideally, these features would be clearer. And in both specimens, the authors noted that there’s some sort of nerve tissue present in the head, but it’s unclear whether this structure is a brain-like synganglion or something else entirely.

"We can see there’s something in there, but we don’t have enough resolution to be able to say, ‘Oh, it’s definitely organized in this way or that way,’" Ortega-Hernández said.

Uncertainty in the data
fossil shows a top-down view of M. symmetrica

The Harvard fossil shows a top-down view of M. symmetrica. (Image credit: Nature Communications, Ortega-Hernández et al. 2022)
This uncertainty in the fossil record means the precise relationship of M. symmetrica to other animals also remains murky, Ortega-Hernández said. But based on the features present in the arthropods, the team constructed two evolutionary trees.

Both trees indicate that M. symmetrica and modern chelicerates share a common ancestor, suggesting that the ancient animal’s relatively simple nervous system gave rise to the highly condensed brain seen in modern-day members of this group, such as scorpions, spiders, horseshoe crabs and ticks. However, the trees differ in where they position other important arthropod groups from the Cambrian, including one known as the megacheirans; these groups have similar nervous systems to modern chelicerates.

Depending on where these various groups sit on their evolutionary tree, their placement either shows that chelicerate-like brains evolved in a stepwise manner through time, or it hints that such nervous systems evolved independently and at different times in some Cambrian arthropods and modern chelicerates, through convergent evolution, Ortega-Hernández said.

With the data at hand, Strausfeld said he would be "cautious" about attempting to place M. symmetrica anywhere on an evolutionary tree. In order to do so, he said he’d need clearer evidence of how the arthropods’ optic nerves and synganglion (or lack thereof) are structured, as well as evidence of nerves extending out to the roots of the animal’s limbs.

"I think one needs a better preparation, a better specimen" than the ones examined so far, Strausfeld said. "Maybe there’s another specimen lying around somewhere in a museum."

Originally published on Live Science.


Science: Underwater Santorini volcano eruption 520,000 years ago was 15 times bigger than record-breaking Tonga eruption

[Incredibly large and nasty things have happened on earth very many times in the past on a scale you can't imagine. Jan]

Deep beneath the Mediterranean seabed circling the Greek island of Santorini, scientists have discovered the remnants of one of the most explosive volcanic eruptions Europe has ever seen.

A giant layer of pumice and ash, which is up to 500 feet (150 meters) thick, revealed that around half a million years ago, the Santorini volcano erupted so explosively it was 15 times more violent than the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai eruption of 2022. The Tonga eruption shattered several records, triggering the fastest atmospheric waves ever seen and the first known mega-tsunami since antiquity.

"We know that this volcano’s had many big, explosive eruptions — sort of Krakatoa style," study lead author Tim Druitt, a professor of volcanology at the University of Clermont Auvergne in France, told Live Science. But the newly discovered deposits point to a cataclysmic blast "that we didn’t even know had existed."

Extensive land-based research has previously painted a relatively detailed picture of past volcanism across the Hellenic Island Arc — a string of volcanic islands stretching from Greece to Turkey along a curved line where the African tectonic plate plunges beneath Europe. For instance, geologists knew that Santorini emerged from the sea about 400,000 years ago, as successive eruptions piled volcanic debris onto the seafloor. The present-day Santorini archipelago formed during the Late Bronze Age (1600 to 1200 B.C.), when the explosive Minoan eruption blasted the top off what was then one island. A magma chamber beneath the Kameni islands, in the center of the Santorini caldera, still feeds the volcano today.

The JOIDES Resolution drilling ship used for the study on the Mediterranean Sea at sunset.

But there’s only so much scientists can learn on land, Druitt said, because erosion from rain and wind wipes away some geological evidence. "That’s why we moved to the marine realm, because in the sea it’s calmer," he said.

To find out more about the region’s volcanic activity, Druitt and his colleagues drilled into marine sediments around Santorini in late 2022 and early 2023. With help from the International Ocean Discovery Program, the researchers extracted sediment cores from up to 3,000 feet (900 m) below the seafloor at 12 drilling sites.

The team could then read the different layers of sediment "like a book," Druitt said.

"What you see is volcanic layers from all the eruptions that we knew on land," he said. "But then we go down to deeper levels before the volcano became emergent, when it was still submarine."

It’s in these deeper levels that researchers discovered the remnants of a 520,000-year-old eruption that was "bigger than anything else Santorini’s produced and probably one of the two biggest eruptions that the whole Hellenic volcanic arc has ever had," Druitt said.

Scientists examine sediment cores drilled up from the seabed in Santorini aboard the research ship.

The eruption ejected at least 21.6 cubic miles (90 cubic kilometers) of volcanic rock and ash, according to the study, published Jan. 15 in the journal Communications Earth & Environment. The Tonga eruption of 2022, by comparison, produced 1.4 cubic miles (6 cubic km) of debris.

"It’s a lot bigger — 15 times bigger — there, in the heart of Europe," Druitt said.

The discovery is big because it shows that the Hellenic volcanic arc is capable of producing tremendous underwater eruptions. "It gives us an example to study in detail of a very large version of Hunga-Tonga," Druitt said.

Santorini probably won’t see an eruption on this scale for another several hundred thousand years, Druitt said. The volcano last erupted in 1950, emitting lava that didn’t pose a significant threat.

However, the magma chamber "will continue to feed eruptions of lava and small explosive eruptions for the coming decades and maybe even centuries," Druitt said.


Astronomy: NASA’s exoplanet-hunting telescope spies 8 ‘super-Earths’

Almost everyday, the number of confirmed exoplanet discoveries grows.

The majority of those planets, which sit just above 5,500 in total, have been identified by the Kepler space telescope. But for the last few years, NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) has been steadily adding new alien worlds to our growing planetary catalog of the cosmos.

Using a statistical method to comb through TESS’s large quantities of data on the night sky, a group of scientists led by Priyashkumar Mistry, a Ph.D. student at the University of New South Wales, have reported on the potential discovery of eight new exoplanets. What’s more, each one of these planets is considered to be a "super-Earth," a class of exoplanet that is larger than Earth but smaller than Neptune, according to NASA.

To date, TESS has confirmed almost 400 exoplanets, and yet another 6,977 await confirmation. The satellite observes nearby stars, waiting for dips, or fluctuations in the brightness of the stars. Such dips indicate to astronomers that something likely passed in between us and the star — and that something could be a new exoplanet.

"If this orbital motion ever comes between us and the star we will observe a dip in the brightness of that observed star. This is what we call a transit," Mistry told

Mistry and his team used the Validation of Transiting Exoplanets using Statistical Tools (VaTEST) project to identify anomalies, which could indicate the presence of exoplanets, in TESS’s data.

Why do we need statistical tools?
It’s not only the case that these dips are caused by transiting exoplanets. Such false positives, which could include a star orbiting another star (binary system), or a background source, could generate a transit-like signal.

Mistry explains that the transit method can only provide the radius of an orbiting body. What if a planet sized star, such as a brown or red dwarf is in orbit? Astronomers would usually work out the mass of a transiting object using a method called radial velocity (RV), which is where an orbiting body exerts a gravitational pull on its home star. This results in the star doing a little dance, or ‘wobble’.

To detect the RV signal, though, it can take a lot of time observing just one star, especially if the exoplanet has a long orbital period — time and resources that the researchers didn’t have.

However, the VaTEST provided Mistry and his team with another means of confirming whether these transiting events were actually the result of orbiting exoplanets.

"The tool takes in the transit data and some inputs such as transit depth, period, TESS identifier, etc. Then based on that it starts fitting different models on the data and performs some probability calculations. And then finally it calculates False Positive Probability (FPP), if it turns out to be < 1% then we can validate that transit signal as a planetary transit," Mistry says.

The statistical tool calculated that eight such transiting events were likely caused by a class of exoplanet that astronomers call ‘super-Earths’ — and that six of them fall into the region known as ‘keystone planets,’ which have characteristics that help astronomers better understand the overall exoplanet population. This makes them highly attractive for further study.

What is a keystone planet?
To understand what astronomers mean by ‘keystone planet’, we first have to understand the radius valley concept. The radius valley reveals a scarcity of planets between 1.5 and 2 Earth radii, with orbital periods less than 100 days in the known population of exoplanets that orbit low-mass and sun-like stars. This radius range covers super-Earths, and another class of planet — sub-Neptunes, which are exoplanets with a smaller radius than Neptune.

Why does this scarcity exist? Some theories suggest this may be due to photoevaporation mass loss, where intense radiation from a home star could gradually strip away a planet’s atmosphere over time. This suggests that planets within this keystone region should be predominantly rocky, but observations are yet to confirm whether this is in fact the case.

"To understand this contradiction we need more and more keystone region planets. And that’s the reason why our validated exoplanets are interesting to study," explains Mistry. Adding more keystone planets to our exoplanet catalog, with the potential to do follow up observations with the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), should help astronomers resolve what explanation best fits this mystery in the exoplanet data.

While super-Earth’s do have the name ‘Earth’ in their title, this doesn’t necessarily refer to their life-giving potential. Rather, life would likely find it hard to establish itself on any of the super-Earths discovered by Mistry and his team. The reason being the close proximity these planets have to their home stars.

"They are closer to their host star than Mercury is from the sun," says Mistry. This usually means they are tidally locked, where one side of the planet is forever facing the star, with the other side cloaked in eternal darkness. In this sense, it’s either scorching or freezing temperatures, neither of which are particularly life-friendly.

"But who knows. The cosmos is filled with so many surprises," Mistry quips.

A study of the eight super-Earths can be found on the preprint server arXiv, with the paper currently under review at the Publications of the Astronomical Society of Australia.