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In theory, the Universe should be the same, on average, everywhere.

On the largest scales, it shouldn’t matter which direction you observe.

Nor should it matter which location you’re examining.

We expect isotropy and homogeneity, with physical consequences if they’re violated.

Initially, the Big Bang simultaneously occurred everywhere.

All locations possessed equivalent temperatures and densities.

Only tiny, 1-part-in-30,000 imperfections get superimposed atop them.

Those imperfections then evolved gravitationally, limited by our physical laws.

Tremendous cosmological structures formed: stars, galaxies, and the great cosmic web.

We expect a structural size limit: ~1.2 billion light-years.

Anything larger wouldn’t have sufficient time to form.

We’ve discovered many enormous galaxy “walls” in space.

Similarly, great cosmic voids exist between them.

These largest structures approach, but don’t significantly exceed, the expected cosmic limits.

But two classes of structures threaten this picture.

Three separate large quasar groupings are clustered across too-large cosmic scales.

Similarly galaxy groups from gamma-ray burst mapping surpass these limits.

If real, these structures defy our present cosmic understanding.

However, they may be purely phantasmal.

These signals may emerge from underlying random noise, with statistics incorrectly “discovering” non-existent patterns.

Only superior data, sufficiently mapping out our Universe, will decide.

Mostly Mute Monday tells an astronomical story in images, visuals, and no more than 200 words. Talk less; smile more.

Each Monday I pick out the northern hemisphere’s celestial highlights (mid-northern latitudes) for the week ahead, but be sure to check my main feed for more in-depth articles on stargazing, astronomy, eclipses and more. 

What To Watch For In The Night Sky This Week: May 3-9, 2021

It’s time to go stargazing. With the “Super Pink Moon” out of the way our satellite enters its Last Quarter phase and rises late enough at night to leave the evening sky dark and star-filled.

However, the highlight comes not from stars, but from the little planet Mercury, which on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday will appear to be close to the beautiful Pleiades star cluster.

It will be viewable just after sunset in the northwestern sky, so you’ll have to be quick, but it should make a great sight for anyone wanting to tick-off Mercury.  

Monday, May 3, 2021: Last Quarter Moon and Saturn

At 19:50 Universal Time today our satellite will reach its Last Quarter phase. It essentially means that the Moon rises after midnight, clearing the way for 10 successive nights of dark, moonless skies.

However, get up early this morning and you’ll see our satellite in the southeast with Saturn about 6º to its upper left, and brighter Jupiter over twice as farther away in the east. Tomorrow the Moon will be halfway between the two planets. 

Tuesday, May 4, 2021: Mercury in the Pleiades

The smallest, hottest and fastest-moving planet is in for a great month of May. It’s going to get as far from the Sun as it almost ever gets, which makes it the perfect time to tick “the Swift Planet” off your list. Tonight on Star Wars Day (May the Fourth be with you!), right after sunset, it will be about 2° from the Pleiades open cluster of stars—also known as the “Seven Sisters”—low down in the west-northwest.

You can also look on Wednesday and Thursday when Mercury and the Pleiades will still appear to be relatively close. 

Wait until the Sun has gone down and use binoculars. Look to the southwest and you may see Orion’s Belt sinking, and beyond it, Sirius—the brightest star in the night sky. 

Wednesday, May 5, 2021: Eta Aquariid Meteor Shower

Though best viewed from the southern tropics, the Eta Aquariids—which peak in the early hours—usually produce 10 to 30 meteors per hour at their peak for those in southern latitudes of the northern hemisphere.

A waning crescent Moon during the meteor shower’s peak this year will allow for darker skies. It’s active from mid-April to the end of May. 

Constellation of the week: Canes Venatici

This little-known two-star constellation is small, but it will help you find some interesting night sky sights in the vicinity. Find its brightest star—Cor Caroli—by following the curve of the handle of the Big Dipper towards the horizon. It’s a double star about 115 light-years distant whose name means “Heart of Charles.” 

Times and dates given apply to mid-northern latitudes. For the most accurate location-specific information consult online planetariums like Stellarium and The Sky Live. Check planet-rise/planet-setsunrise/sunset and moonrise/moonset times for where you are. 

Wishing you clear skies and wide eyes. 

I have always struggled with what to think about Virgin Galactic, the brilliantly marketed space-tourism company founded by Sir Richard Branson in 2004.

Certainly, Branson founded the company with laudable goals. Bringing more people above the planet to see the curvature of the Earth and experience weightlessness should only help humanity better understand the value of our fragile world. And Branson’s infusion of private funding into spaceflight, alongside that of other billionaires, has been an extraordinary boon over the last two decades in terms of pushing humans further into the final frontier.

Yet Virgin Galactic has always felt like it had a little too much sizzle and not quite enough substance. Here’s just one example: months of buildup, the company finally revealed in July what the interior of its VSS Unity spacecraft would look. However, upon the reveal, the views of the cabin weren’t actual photographs. Instead, they were slick renderings.

Then there is the slow pace of development. More than a decade ago, Branson predicted that Virgin Galactic’s first spaceflight—via a rocket-powered spaceplane dropped from a large carrier aircraft—would take place by January 2011. He also spoke of developing of a space hotel and small spaceships to cruise around the Moon in the 2020s. To its credit, Virgin Galactic did finally reach “space” in December 2018, flying above 80 km. The Unity spacecraft returned three months later with a second flight. It has not been back since, and it has not yet carried any space tourists.

So what, exactly has been going on? A new book by Nicholas Schmidle, Test Gods: Virgin Galactic and the Making of a Modern Astronaut, does an admirable job of telling us the rest of this story. Schmidle works for The New Yorker magazine, so naturally this is a beautifully written book. But it is also offers a rich portrait of the company’s chief test pilot, Mark “Forger” Stucky, and a complicated company. Published by Henry Holt and Co., the book will go on sale Tuesday, May 4.

Test Gods grew out of a long article Schmidle wrote for The New Yorker on Forger and Virgin Galactic, which was published in 2018. As Schmidle explains, he enjoyed unparalleled access to Virgin Galactic beginning in 2014, shortly after a fatal crash of the VSS Enterprise spacecraft that killed Virgin Galactic co-pilot Michael Alsbury. The company placed few restrictions on Schmidle, and he was allowed to record phone calls and meetings. This lasted for more than four years.

“After the New Yorker piece appeared, in August 2018, my embedded status was revoked,” Schmidle writes in the book. “(Michael) Moses instructed employees that I was no longer embedded and to cease speaking with me.”

While he was there, Schmidle had a front-row seat to some of the most pivotal years of Virgin Galactic, including the aftermath of the Enterprise crash and the hazard-filled development of Unity. His story focuses mostly on Forger, a compelling but flawed character who is a wizard in flight but struggles in relationships with his children. Forger ultimately served as the pilot of the first Unity flight above 80 km in 2018, and he received his astronaut wings. We share his triumph in Test Gods.

Portraits of other key players at Virgin Galactic also emerge. Branson—in contrast to other space-age billionaires such as Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, who dig into the engineering details of their rocket companies—is somewhat detached and focused solely on marketing.

Michael Moses, who came to Virgin from NASA’s space shuttle program and serves as president of space missions and safety, is portrayed as a pivotal employee diligently trying to move the ball forward. There’s a great detail in the book when Moses and his wife, Beth—Virgin’s chief astronaut instructor, who herself would ride to space on the second flight in February 2019—are discussing the rivalry between Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin. “I’d buy a ticket with Blue,” she says.

Others in the book are less favorably described. George Whitesides, the long-time chief executive who left Virgin Galactic earlier this year, comes across as indecisive. “It’s hard to make decisions around here sometimes,” Michael Moses says at one point in the book in clear reference to Whitesides. “Sorry. It’s hard to get other people to make decisions sometimes. I don’t have too much of a problem.”

The company’s “chief customer officer,” Stephen Attenborough, is shown to act vindictively. Attenborough has the difficult job of convincing customers, some of whom have been signed up with the company for $250,000 spaceflights for more than a decade, to keep their reservations for uncertain, future flight dates.

Perhaps most importantly, primarily through Stucky’s eyes, we get a sense of the precariousness of Virgin Galactic’s spaceflight technology. Unlike Blue Origin’s automated New Shepard launch system or SpaceX’s Crew Dragon Vehicle—which can take off from Earth and dock to the International Space Station in low Earth orbit without an astronaut ever touching the controls—VSS Unity is very much an analog system.

After its second spaceflight in February 2019, Virgin Galactic said it was pausing space operations for a time to retrofit the vehicle for commercial flights with space tourists. This seems to be only partly true. Schmidle reports that, when members of the flight crew wheeled Unity into the hangar after this second spaceflight, they found a wide gap had opened up in the structure of the space plane. “It looked like someone ripped the caulking out of a bathtub,” Stucky said. Some safety employees at the company were mortified, and felt very fortunate that no one had died on that flight.

Sir Richard Branson takes off his shirt to don a T-shirt that says "Future Astronaut Training Program." The shirt was given to him by Virgin Galactic Test Pilot Mark "Forger" Stucky as Air and Space Museum Director Ellen Stofan looks on.
Enlarge / Sir Richard Branson takes off his shirt to don a T-shirt that says “Future Astronaut Training Program.” The shirt was given to him by Virgin Galactic Test Pilot Mark “Forger” Stucky as Air and Space Museum Director Ellen Stofan looks on.
JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images

All of this is not to say Schmidle found any nefarious goings-on in his deep reporting on Virgin Galactic. It is to the company’s credit, that of Branson, Whitesides, and others, that they allowed a journalist this kind of access. But inevitably in rocket development programs, there are tensions between the willingness of test pilots to take risks and aerospace engineers who want more time to design and test. In Virgin’s case, this is compounded by a marketing team that has been selling tickets to space for 15 years, while the company has yet to fly a paying customer and is desperate to deliver. Recently, too, there has been the need to mollify shareholders of the publicly traded company.

What Schmidle learned makes for high drama. Rarely do outsiders get such an insiders’ perspective on all of this, and in this way Test Gods is revelatory.

Alas, we still do not know whether Virgin Galactic will ultimately succeed in taking thousands of people to space. The sense one gets from Stucky, through Schmidle’s telling, is that every flight of VSS Unity requires an immense amount of focus and that peril is always around the corner. This image of Virgin Galactic is clearly at odds with the slick presentation of the company in its promotional materials and the promises to stockholders of hundreds of flights per year to reach profitability. Time will tell which story has the right of it.

Listing image by Henry Holt and Co.

After a little more than 167 days in space, and zipping through 2,688 orbits around the planet, Crew Dragon Resilience dropped into a darkened Gulf of Mexico early on Sunday morning off the coast of Panama City, Florida.

The flight back from the International Space Station went smoothly, with Dragon entering the atmosphere about 12 minutes before landing under four main parachutes. Shortly after entering the atmosphere, an infrared camera aboard a WB-57 aircraft was able to track the vehicle as it guided down to the surface. Sea states were remarkably calm as the vehicle, which resembled a toasted marshmallow following its rigorous reentry through Earth’s atmosphere, was hoisted aboard the GO Navigator recovery boat.

Inside, NASA astronauts Mike Hopkins, Vic Glover, and Shannon Walker, along with Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi, were healthy and happy after spending nearly six months living aboard the International Space Station, and feeling the effects of Earth’s gravity again.

“I would just like to say, quite frankly, y’all are changing the world,” Hopkins radioed to SpaceX’s mission control center in Hawthorne, Calif. “Congratulations. It’s great to be back.”

With this mission, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon system completed its second overall flight to space, bringing to six the total number of astronauts brought to orbit and back safely. During this flight Crew Dragon very nearly doubled the record for mission duration flown by a U.S. crew spacecraft, previously held by the Apollo capsule that flew an 84-day mission in 1974 to facilitate the final crew increment on the Skylab space station.

This landing was also the first nighttime splashdown for a spacecraft since the Apollo 8 landing, in December, 1968. That landing occurred in the Pacific Ocean, at 5:51 am local time, before sunrise. Mission managers said the favorable forecast for Sunday morning, with virtually no waves and very light winds, played into the decision to land Dragon after dark.

The nearly flawless nighttime recovery—just 54 minutes from landing to the exit of all four astronauts from inside the vehicle—was all the more impressive as this was just the second time SpaceX and NASA have brought back a crew from space inside Dragon.

“The recovery operations tonight were phenomenal,” said Steve Stich, NASA’s manager of the commercial crew program, which oversees Crew Dragon flights for the space agency.

Unlike the first Crew Dragon mission that returned to Earth in August 2020, named Demo-2, there were no traces of hypergolic propellant on the exterior of the spacecraft this time, Stich said. The U.S. Coast Guard also helped keep any leisure boats out of the recovery area. (It probably also helped that, unlike the sunny afternoon return of Demo-2 mission, it was 3 a.m. local time when Resilience splashed down.)

SpaceX was eager to get Resilience back, and to start the refurbishment process. In the coming weeks, the company will remove this spacecraft’s docking adapter, which is used to connect with the International Space Station, and replace it with a dome window. Then, the vehicle will be used to launch a private customer mission, Inspiration4, that will take four civilians into orbit for three days. This launch could occur as soon as mid-September.

A senior advisor for flight reliability at SpaceX, Hans Koenigsmann, said the company’s recovery teams have worked hard to get Dragon out of the ocean quickly. “It’s basically practice, practice, practice,” he said. “This was an awesome operation. I noticed the professionalism and how smooth it was. It looked like a professional race car pit stop. Everyone was in their right place.”

Early on Sunday morning everyone was indeed in the right place, including four astronauts, in the arms of loved ones back on Earth.

Listing image by NASA

Astronomers have discovered a “super-Earth” planet orbiting the star GJ 740, a red dwarf star about 36 light years from the Earth.

A “super-Earth” planet sounds like an exciting place, right? Bigger than our own planet, but otherwise Earth-like, is what most people presume it means.

Not quite.

What is a ‘super-Earth?’

It’s a loose, rather misleading term for a kind of planet that doesn’t exist in our own Solar System. That in itself is puzzling, because we find super-Earths in a very many star systems.

At least twice as massive than Earth and as big as 10 times as massive, super-Earths are lighter than ice giant planets (like Neptune and Uranus). They can be made of gas and/or rock.

What is a ‘red dwarf’ star?

By far the most common type of star in our region of the Milky Way, red dwarf stars are cooler, smaller and less massive than our Sun. Officially they have effective surface temperatures between 2,400-3,700 K—way cooler than the Sun—and are anywhere between 0.08 and 0.45 its mass.

GJ 740, which is 36 light-years in the Serpens constellation in the night sky, is such a star.

What we know about GJ 740 b

Here’s what we know about GJ 740 b, as published in Astronomy & Astrophysics by a team of researchers at the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias (IAC) in the Canary Islands, Spain.

  • Its mass is 2.96 Earths.
  • It’s probably a rocky planet.
  • It takes 2.4 days to complete one orbit of its star.
  • It orbits 0.029 AU from its star—a tiny fraction of the distance between the Earth and the Sun.

The importance of GJ 740 b

“This is the planet with the second shortest orbital period around this type of star,” said first author Borja Toledo Padrón, a Severo Ochoa-La Caixa doctoral student. “The mass and the period suggest a rocky planet, with a radius of around 1.4 Earth radii.” He thinks it could be a prime target for very large telescopes planned for “first light” the end of the 2020s, such as:

The team’s data also indicates the presence of a second planet with an orbital period of nine years. It appears to be about the same mass as planet Saturn—about 100 times the mass of Earth—but it’s not a confirmed detection.

How GJ 740 b was found

While many exoplanets are found when they transit their star and caused their light to dip, that restricts astronomers to only discovering them around star systems aligned with our own. GJ 740 b was found using the radial velocity method; a very slight “wobble” of a star caused by the gravitational attraction of a planet in orbit around it.

Wishing you clear skies and wide eyes.

In a prior article, I shared the story of Dr. Hengst, who grew up in Washington, Illinois, a population of roughly 16,000 people. From the rural countryside of Illinois, he went to a small, liberal arts college, Eureka College, and ultimately became a PhD. and multi-millionaire by co-founding, building, and selling a successful biotech firm.

In the first article, I shared the path that this small-town boy, with limited resources followed, to become an inspiration to many. One of the most fascinating things I learned in my conversations with Hengst is that, although a scientist by training, he sounds like a marketer. Below, I share his insight regarding what he learned about marketing over the course of his career.

Kimberly Whitler: I know you are a scientist, but what did you learn about marketing along the way?

Dr. Jim Hengst: There are several lessons.

Lesson #1. Listen to the Customer: I received formal training in my Boehringer days. I created a rule there anytime anybody traveled (including myself), we’d spend an extra day and visit customers with the local sales reps.

Lesson #2. You Must Spend Time Selling your Products: Also, anytime I hired a new hot shot scientist, I’d take them to a trade show and they’d work the booth – yes, I would make them sell. I used to tell them when you stand toe to toe with a customer and try and sell them something you created, that’s when you learn what this business is all about.

Lesson #3. The Most Innovative Inventions Come from … the Customer: People ask me where I get ideas for new products and I tell them they aren’t my ideas they are my customer’s ideas. By observing, listening, and trying to sell products, I would learn about the problems that customers faced. My most innovative inventions came from customers having problems.

Lesson #4. Inventors Focused on their Product and not the Customer are Doomed to Fail: I’ve dealt with a lot of people who have said “look what I’ve invented”. I’d ask them who was going to buy something like this and rather than answering the question, they’d say something like “it’s so cool, who wouldn’t buy it”. I knew they were in trouble. They were in love with their product and not solving customers’ problems.

Lesson #5. You Have to be Willing to “Let Go”. I’ve dealt with other inventors who had amazing, breakthrough technologies and couldn’t let go. They never became a success because they couldn’t let go of a bad idea.

Join the Discussion: @KimWhitler

Episodes of nausea, sweating, fainting and a handful of other symptoms in individuals after having the Johnson & Johnson/Janssen Covid-19 vaccine prompted an investigation by the CDC last month. The clusters, which occurred at mass vaccination sites in California, Colorado, Georgia, Iowa, and North Carolina were apparently alarming enough that four of the five sites closed temporarily while the analysis took place. But yesterday, the CDC released a report confirming that the episodes were not the result of the vaccine itself, but rather people’s anxiety about it. The reactions are still “real” physiological reactions, but luckily, have nothing to do with any component of the vaccine.

According to the research, there were 64 cases of anxiety-related events out of 8,624 people who received the vaccination in the five sites from April 7-9, but none met the definition of “serious”: they included light-headedness or dizziness (56%), pallor or excessive sweating (31%), fainting (27%), nausea or vomiting (25%), and low blood pressure (16%). The median age of the individuals who experienced the events was 36 years and 61% were women. Interestingly, the cases in four of the five sites occurred on the sites’ first day of administering vaccines.

Everyone recovered quickly—within 15 minutes at the vaccination site or, for the 13 people who were moved to the hospital, the same day. About a quarter of the total number affected reported also having had similar events after vaccination in the past.

In addition to looking into these smaller clusters, the CDC also looked at instances of fainting in all 7.98 million people who received the Janssen Covid-19 vaccine from early March to early April, and found a rate of 8.2 per 100,000 doses. By contrast, for flu vaccines over the course of a full year, the rate was 0.05 per 100,000, which makes the reaction about 164 times more common for the Janssen Covid-19 vaccine than for the flu vaccine. For both, the reaction was more common in people aged 18-29.

So, perhaps not surprisingly, there seems to be something about the Covid-19 vaccine that engenders anxiety. The CDC report points out that people receiving the Janssen vaccine may have sought it out because it only involves one shot, so may be a self-selecting group of people more prone to having an anxiety response.

They write, “it is possible that some persons seeking Janssen COVID-19 vaccination could be more highly predisposed to anxiety-related events after being vaccinated. The stress of an ongoing pandemic might also increase anxiety surrounding COVID-19 vaccination. In addition, in mass vaccination situations, an anxiety-related event witnessed by others on-site or reported through media coverage might provoke additional anxiety-induced episodes.”

In other words, observing a fainting episode either in person or vicariously through stories or social media, may trigger a chain reaction. The physiological reaction itself is known as the vasovagal response, which occurs when an emotionally charged event (like the sight of blood or an approaching needle) triggers the vagus nerve to set off a chain of events, including a drop in blood pressure and fainting or near-fainting. The cluster part is trickier to explain, but such psychogenic group events have been recorded fairly regularly in the past, and probably involve a combination of conscious, subconscious, and neurophysiological mechanisms.

It’s important to point out that the recent clusters of anxiety-triggered reactions occurred before the reports of the rare blood clotting side effect (thrombosis with thrombocytopenia syndrome) that briefly paused the Janssen vaccine last month. It will be interesting to monitor the rate of anxiety-based reactions over time—and see whether similar reactions are tied to the other available Covid-19 vaccines.

In the meantime, the CDC asks healthcare professionals to be aware of the risk of anxiety-based reactions in their patients, and recommends that, like the watch-period for serious allergic reactions to the vaccines, patients be watched for 15 minutes after receiving the shot. If nothing else, the CDC investigation and report is another sign of the close attention given to patient safety during this vaccine rollout—and should be a reassurance that events, even innocuous ones, are being taken seriously and handled swiftly.

It was only several days ago that we as a global society celebrated Earth Day, which is an important holiday that brings to light challenges and opportunities as we hope to preserve our planet for future generations. In recent years the issue of plastics have played a pivot role in Earth preservation initiatives and we have seen how the use of plastics has been detrimental to the environment as well as marine life. Many of us have seen heartbreaking pictures of various animals and marine species ingesting pieces of plastic. However, those pieces of plastic have been visible to the naked eye. Although, we can see and find ways to deal with plastics of macro-scale size, what about nanoscale sized particles that are hard to detect with the naked eye? This is the question researchers have been tacking with in recent years as they found that the average person potentially ingests 5g of plastics every week, while the health effects of this consumption is not yet well understood. It is estimated that 90% of drinking water in the US has micro-sized plastics. The problem with plastics is that they are not biodegradable, meaning they do not break down like carbon matter, and therefore as we continue to use plastics, they will continue to accumulate in our environment. Plastic particles that have been accumulating for years since we started to use plastics in the 1950s. A natural question comes to mind how much of these plastics exist in the environment and how do we deal with them?

One resent research study has tried to illuminate the answer to these two pervasive questions. The study, done by an international of team of researchers from University of Toronto, Loyola University Chicago and the Field Museum of Natural history used a creative way to measure the accumulation of plastics in the environment by looking at fish gut’s found in the museum’s collection. One of the authors of the study, Tim Hoellein, a Professor of Biology at Loyola University Chicago says that ”looking at museum specimens is essentially a way we can go back in time.” The museum’s collection caries 2 million fish specimen, which allow researcher’s an incredibly creative opportunity to rummage through time and study the impact of plastics. As the researchers looked at data before and after the use of plastics, they have found that the quantity of micro-plastics in the gut’s went up as plastic production went up, confirming the fact that these hard to detect particles have accumulated in our world. Another interesting thing that the researchers have found was that these micro-plastics also come from items like clothing, which turns our idea of plastic usage on its head. Usually we think of plastics as coming from plastic bags, but in fact the pervasive nature of micro-plastics has permeated all aspects of our society, including materials such as polyester, among others.

Now that we know that micro-scale and hard to detect plastic particles exist in our environment, we need to find ways with dealing with them. A group of researchers at the Washington State University have been interested in this topic and specifically how these tiny particles permeate our drinking water system. One alarming factor accruing to the lead author of the study, Indranil Chowdhury, Assistant Professor in the Department of Engineering said that“based on these findings, it indicates that nanoscale polyethylene plastics may escape from our drinking water treatment processes, particularly filtration.” In resent research Dr Chowdhury and the team have looked at the way tases particles behave in a variety of water environments, such as an acidic environment or one with salts, hoping to find ways to eliminate these tiny particles. However, what they found was that while these environments play a role as to how these particles move, the water filtration system is not removing these micro and nano-scale sized plastics and there is still no answer as to why these nano-particles exist in water systems. Dr Chowdhury concludes that “we don’t know the health effects, and the toxicity is still unknown, but we continue to drink these plastics every day.” His team is working to develop better water filtration methods in hopes of removing these plastics from our environment. 

In summary, the message of these two studies is clear, as we continue to use plastics, they will continue to accumulate while we don’t have a way of battling with this accumulation.

After a false start featuring a failed takeoff, NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter completed its fourth successful flight on April 30th, flitting about above the surface of the dusty volcanic orb it now calls home.

It wasn’t entirely clear what the venerable space agency was planning for the copter beyond this point. Far from being a full-blown exploration contraption, this was an experimental stowaway that hid inside the underbelly of the Perseverance Rover. That nuclear-powered rover is the real star of the show, the start of an eleven-year plan to return pristine Martian rocks to Earth. Ingenuity is a prototype drone, one that aimed to demonstrate that powered flight on Mars was possible, despite the very thin atmosphere making levitation far more difficult than it is in our beautiful, azure skies.

The general idea with each successive flight was to push the copter to its limits, trying out more complex aerial manoeuvres and travelling further from Perseverance. Ultimately, Ingenuity was (reasonably) expected to crash into the ground after being pushed too far. But it now seems that the first machine capable of controlled powered fight on another world is being repurposed, giving it something more cooperative and constructive to do before it ends up as mechanical debris in the dust.

“The Ingenuity technology demonstration has been a resounding success,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, in a statement following the fourth flight. “Since Ingenuity remains in excellent health, we plan to use it to benefit future aerial platforms while prioritising and moving forward with the Perseverance rover team’s near-term science goals.”

Two more test flights will be entered into the logbooks over the next two weeks, with Ingenuity engaging in some more of its aerial photography. After that, presuming the solar-powered drone remains healthy, Ingenuity will stop being a mere demonstration of prototypical technology and start helping out with Perseverance’s operations. It will scout ahead of Perseverance, giving scientists back home a sneak preview of what the rover’s future sites of geological investigation will look like, perhaps even helping the rover navigate the forthcoming terrain. Its camera systems will allow it to take multiple shots of the same object from different angles, permitting the development of 3D digital elevation maps.

None of this will significantly bolster Perseverance’s rock-poking work, but it’s a good way to test out features that will one day become a prominent feature of scientific exploration on Mars. But if you can’t wait for the future to arrive, head on over to Iceland. There, over the next couple of years, scientists will be testing out the next generation of off-world rover and drone technology.

The prototype rover, already capable of full autonomy, will be not just accompanied by drones, but led by them. Said drones will fly across the frigid volcanic Icelandic landscape (one fairly comparable to Mars’), snap photographs of the soil below, build 3D maps of the terrain ahead, and send driving instructions back to the rover. They will also land at sites of scientific interest and use claws and drills to sample the sites themselves, bringing those samples back to the rover for a more detailed scientific analysis. If things look promising, the rover will then head to the site to conduct a more thorough investigation. Perhaps one day, there will be no rover; instead, astronauts will be scouting out the Martian realm themselves using their very own smart drones.

That work in Iceland is one of several technological previews of what may come to pass on the crimson orb next door, and it’ll be a fair few years before we see any of it working on Mars for real. For now, let’s be content with the remarkable work of the Ingenuity team, its engineers and pilots alike, and applaud them for marking the start of a bold new chapter in planetary science.

Hermit crabs are best known for using snail shells to protect their fleshy, shell-less bodies. But one group of hermit crabs uses a cozier type of protection: a sea anemone.

These anemone-wearing hermit crabs are collectively known as “blanket hermit crabs” for the adorable way in which they snuggle into their anemone homes. But these anemones are more than just an adorable accessory – they offer serious protection.

The Discovery Of The Blanket Hermit Crab

The first known blanket crab discovery occurred aboard the HMS Challenger in 1874 during a 4-year oceanographic expedition. The voyage collected two blanket crabs while exploring in the Philippines – a male and female of the same species. The crabs were so different from any other crab species known to the scientists on board that their discoverer, J.R. Henderson, assigned the crabs a brand-new genus and species: Paguropsis typicus. The name was changed to P. typica in 1905.

Why Use An Anemone?

While it may seem strange to switch out a hard shell for a soft, gelatinous anemone, these hermit crabs may be more protected than it appears. What the anemone lacks in hardness it makes up for in its stings.

Like the anemone featured in Disney’s Finding Nemo, sea anemones are equipped with the ability to zap other animals. In fact, anemones dish out stings using special anatomy similar to that of a jellyfish, a close relative of the sea anemone.

How Does The Blanket Hermit Crab Acquire An Anemone?

According to A. Alcock, the scientist who discovered the second species of blanket crab in 1899, “the sea-anemone settles upon the hinder part of the young hermit-crab’s tail, and the two animals grow up together, in such a way that the spreading zoophytes form a blanket which the hermit crab can either draw completely forwards over its head or throw half back, as it pleases.” Rather than acquiring a full-grow adult anemone, blanket hermit crabs acquire their gelatinous protection when a larval anemone lands on the hermit crab’s back.

Blanket hermits crabs have evolved specialized anatomy to hold and stretch the anemone as needed. The crab’s fourth legs, known as their chelate legs, allow blanket hermit crabs to stretch the anemone over their body as if to wrap themselves in a blanket. The anemone species providing the “blankets” for these blanket hermit crabs remain unknown.

How Many Species Of Blanket Crab Are There?

In 2018, research published in ZooKeys found blanket hermit crabs to be much more common than previously thought. The research team, led by Dr. Rafael Lemaitre of the Smithsonian Institute, reviewing hermit crab specimens collected in the Indo-Pacific by various biodiversity campaigns and by assessing historical specimens stored at museums around the world, the scientists were able to describe five new species of blanket hermit crab.

Using each blanket hermit crabs’ anatomy, color, and genetic information, the researchers advanced our understanding of the evolutionary relationship between various species of blanket hermit crab.

There are now a total of seven known species of blanket hermit crab. The largest blanket hermit crab to be described is Paguropsis gigas, which has been reported to nearly 6 inches (15 cm) long when fully stretched out. In their 2018 study, scientists suggest other species of blanket hermit crab remain to be discovered from deep-sea habitats in the Indo-Pacific.