Trickles on Mars look like sand, not water

Recurring slope lineae

Recurring slope lineae appear as dark streaks in this picture from the HiRISE camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. (NASA / JPL / Univ. of Arizona / Lujendra Ojha et al. / Geophysical Research Letters)

Scientists have long been intrigued by what seem to be wet streaks that appear on the slopes of Martian craters in warm weather, and disappear in winter. Now a research team reports that the best explanation is that they’re not wet streaks at all, but streaks of dust and sand.

The findings, published today in Nature Geoscience, are likely to disappoint those who hoped that the features known as recurring slope lineae, or RSLs, point to sources of liquid water beneath the Red Planet’s surface.

“This new understanding of RSL supports other evidence that shows that Mars today is very dry,” study lead author Colin Dundas of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Astrogeology Science Center said in a news release.

Some astrobiologists had hoped that the areas around the RSLs just might harbor subsurface life. That’s why NASA has said the thousands of potential RSL sites, including a smattering of prospects near the Curiosity rover, should be off-limits for the time being due to concerns about contamination.

The report in Nature Geoscience is based on an analysis of 151 streaky features at 10 sites. Nearly all of the streaks appear on slopes that are steeper than 27 degrees, which would be consistent with the behavior of tumbling sand. If the streaks were caused by water seeping from the subsurface, they should be seen on slopes that are less steep, the researchers say.

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It’s confirmed: Interstellar asteroid is an oddball

'Oumuamua

An artist’s conception shows what the interstellar asteroid ‘Oumuamua might look like. (ESO Illustration / M. Kornmesser)

Scientists say the interstellar asteroid known as ‘Oumuamua is like nothing that’s been seen in the solar system before, with an “extreme oblong shape” that’s as much as 10 times as long as it is wide. The details are laid out in a paper published today by the journal Nature.

Nature’s authors say ‘Oumuamua is relatively dense, possibly with high metal content, lacks significant amounts of water or ice, and shows no signs of dust. They estimate its length to be at least 1,300 feet (400 meters), which is longer than previous estimates.

The size estimate is based on how the light reflected by the object varied over the course of a roughly 7.3-hour rotation period. No direct observations of ‘Oumuamua’s shape could be made, but one can only imagine what conspiracy theorists might come up with.

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How artists add humanity to virtual reality

Sandy Cioffi

Seattle filmmaker Sandy Cioffi has a laugh over an experimental virtual-reality project that brought participants together in real life as well. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

Virtual reality may have gotten its start with shoot-’em-up video games and porn, but now artists are making VR that puts the emphasis on reality as well as humanity.

And Seattle filmmaker Sandy Cioffi argues that the Pacific Northwest could well blaze the trail on the multimedia frontier.

“If anything is this powerful, you have to do something more with it than design it to make money,” said Cioffi, the founder and executive director of fearless360º, a new media and VR production company. “And Seattle is the place to do it.”

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Pacific Hyperloop keeps chugging along

An artist’s concept shows a Hyperloop pod parked at a transit station. (Hyperloop One Illustration)

Pacific Hyperloop is moving ahead with its concept for tube travel between Seattle and Portland, in hopes of riding in the slipstream of the Pacific Northwest’s growing interest in ultra-high-speed transit.

“If Seattle and Portland were just 20 minutes apart, what could we accomplish together?” Charlie Swan, a University of Washington senior who’s Pacific Hyperloop’s co-founder and regional engagement manager, said on Saturday during the TEDxSeattle 2017 conference.

Swan said sending magnetically levitating pods between the two cities would help knit together the region, resulting in a “type of human interaction like the world has never seen before.”

But turning that vision into reality isn’t totally up to Pacific Hyperloop, which Swan says currently consists of a five-person team. Estimates suggest that it’d take somewhere between $24 billion and $42 billion to create an ultra-high-speed system connecting Seattle and Portland as well as Vancouver, B.C. to the north.

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Next-gen weather satellite goes into orbit

JPSS-1 launch

A United Launch Alliance Delta 2 rocket sends the JPSS-1 satellite into space from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. (ULA Photo)

The first in a series of four next-generation weather satellites, known as the Joint Polar Satellite System-1 or JPSS-1, is in orbit after a twice-delayed liftoff from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

Four small research satellites and an Australian nanosatellite piggybacked on today’s United Launch Alliance Delta 2 launch and were successfully deployed as well.

Two launch attempts had to be scrubbed earlier in the week due to a variety of snags, including boats that strayed into the restricted zone for the launch, a technical glitch and weather concerns. But today’s countdown went smoothly, leading to liftoff at 1:47 a.m. PT today.

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AI-powered microscope goes commercial in China

For years, the Global Good Fund has been working on a malaria-hunting microscope powered by artificial intelligence, and now China-based Motic is taking advantage of the technology to create EasyScan GO. The partnership was announced this week at the Medica 2017 conference in Germany.

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Scientists spot a smallish black hole smashup

Black hole merger

An artist’s conception shows two black holes in the process of merging. (LIGO / Caltech / MIT Illustration)

It took months to figure it out, but the scientists in charge of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory, or LIGO, have confirmed their observations of the most lightweight black hole merger yet.

The latest detection provides further confirmation of Einstein’s general theory of relativity — and will help physicists hone their routine for combining observations from different types of scientific instruments, an approach known as “multi-messenger astronomy.”

Scientists say the spike in gravitational waves known as GW170608, detected on June 8, was set off by the smashup of two black holes weighing seven and 12 times as much as our sun.

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