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How ‘Big Data’ can help scientists focus the search for E.T.

Could far-off aliens be sending out signals telling us they exist? If so, how would we know where to look? Researchers focusing on the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI, have laid out a new strategy for focusing their quest.

The strategy applies simple trigonometry to millions of data points, with the aim of seeking out potential interstellar beacons that are synchronized with hard-to-miss astronomical phenomena such as supernovae.

University of Washington astronomer James Davenport and his colleagues lay out the plan in a research paper submitted to the arXiv pre-print server this month. The idea is also the subject of a talk that Davenport’s giving this week at the Breakthrough Discuss conference in California.

“I think the technique is very straightforward. It’s dealing with triangles and ellipses, things that are like high-school geometry, which is sort of my speed,” Davenport told GeekWire half-jokingly. “I like simple shapes and things I can calculate easily.”

The pre-print paper, which hasn’t yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal, draws upon data from the European Space Agency’s Gaia sky-mapping mission. But Davenport said the technique is tailor-made for the terabytes of astronomical data that will be coming from the Vera C. Rubin Observatory nightly when it goes online, a couple of years from now.

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How using the cloud can rev up the search for asteroids

Astronomers have used a cloud-based technique pioneered at the University of Washington to identify and track asteroids in bunches of a hundred or more. Their achievement could dramatically accelerate the quest to find potentially threatening space rocks.

The technique makes use of an open-source analysis platform known as Asteroid Discovery Analysis and Mapping, or ADAM; plus a recently developed algorithm called Tracklet-less Heliocentric Orbit Recovery, or THOR. The THOR algorithm was created by Joachim Moeyens, an Asteroid Institute Fellow at UW; and Mario Juric, director of UW’s DiRAC Institute.

Teaming up ADAM and THOR may sound like a cross between a Bible story and a Marvel comic, but this dynamic duo’s superpower is strictly scientific: When ADAM runs the THOR algorithm, the software can determine the orbits of asteroids, even previously unidentified asteroids, by sifting through any large database of astronomical observations.

ADAM has been a long-term project for the Asteroid Institute, a program of the California-based B612 Foundation.

“Discovering and tracking asteroids is crucial to understanding our solar system, enabling development of space, and protecting our planet from asteroid impacts,” former NASA astronaut Ed Lu, the Asteroid Institute’s executive director, said today in a news release. “With THOR running on ADAM, any telescope with an archive can now become an asteroid search telescope.”

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Astronomers make an Earth Day plea to rein in satellites

Astronomers have issued an Earth Day call for environmentalism to be extended more fully to the final frontier, and for companies such as SpaceX and Amazon to dial back their plans for mega-constellations.

Among the authors of today’s commentary in the journal Nature Astronomy is Meredith Rawls of the University of Washington.

Astronomers have been raising concerns about the impact of having thousands of satellites in low Earth orbit for years, starting with SpaceX’s launch of the first operational satellites for its Starlink broadband constellation in 2019. Rawls and the other authors of today’s commentary stress that they aren’t just worried about interference with their astronomical observations, but are also concerned about the broader impact on appreciation of the night sky.

“We need all hands on deck to address the rapidly changing satellite situation if we can hope to co-create a future with dark and quiet skies for everyone,” Rawls, a research scientist with the Vera C. Rubin Observatory and UW’s DIRAC Institute, said in a news release.

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New centers will enlist software engineers for science

The University of Washington and three other universities have kicked off an effort to beef up the software engineering resources available to researchers, backed by a $40 million commitment from Schmidt Futures.

The philanthropic organization founded by former Google CEO Eric Schmidt and his wife, Wendy Schmidt, announced the establishment of the Virtual Institute for Scientific Software this week. The institute’s four inaugural centers will be housed at UW, the University of Cambridge, Georgia Tech and Johns Hopkins University.

Each of the centers will be awarded $2 million a year for the next five years to bring on software engineers and computational scientists who can help address the increasingly complex, data-centric challenges that face researchers today.

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Scientists trace the origin of tusks to Triassic creatures

Dental exams conducted on fossils from more than 200 million years ago suggest that the earliest true tusks were sported by breeds of weird-looking creatures known as dicynodonts.

The evidence, laid out today in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, could shed light on how species ranging from elephants and walruses to warthogs and rabbit-like hyraxes came to have tusks.

“Tusks have evolved a number of times, which makes you wonder how — and why?” study co-author Christian Sidor, a biology professor at the University of Washington and a curator at UW’s Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, said in a news release. “We now have good data on the anatomical changes that needed to happen for dicynodonts to evolve tusks. For other groups, like warthogs or walruses, the jury is still out.”

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Burke Museum makes four dinosaur finds in Montana

Theropods and Triceratops and hadrosaurs, oh my! Seattle’s Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture is making significant additions to its dinosaur holdings, thanks to a summer expedition to Montana’s Hell Creek Formation.

Four distinct dinosaurs were dug up, and all of the fossils will be brought back to the Burke Museum on the University of Washington’s campus, where the public can watch paleontologists remove the surrounding rock in the museum’s fossil prep lab.

This year’s finds follow up on the museum’s earlier Hell Creek discoveries, including a magnificent Tyrannosaurus rex skull that’s been one of the centerpieces of the collection since the New Burke’s opening in 2019.

Like that T. rex skull, the newly discovered fossils date back more than 66 million years, to the age just before the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event that wiped out the dinosaurs (except, of course, for the line that led to modern birds).

“Each fossil that we collect helps us sharpen our views of the last dinosaur-dominated ecosystems and the first mammal-dominated ecosystems,” Gregory Wilson Mantilla, the Burke Museum’s curator of vertebrate paleontology and a biology professor at UW, said today in a news release. “With these, we can better understand the processes involved in the loss and origination of biodiversity and the fragility, collapse and assembly of ecosystems.”

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‘Kidney on a chip’ gets another ride to space

SpaceX launched a Dragon cargo capsule to the International Space Station today with more than 7,300 pounds of supplies and science, including an experiment from the University of Washington that takes advantage of zero gravity to study how our kidneys work.

The resupply mission began at 1:29 p.m. ET (10:29 a.m. PT) with liftoff for SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Minutes after launch, the Falcon’s first-stage booster flew itself back to an at-sea touchdown in the Atlantic Ocean, while the Dragon continued its rise to orbit.

Rendezvous with the space station took place on June 5.

SpaceX’s 22nd cargo resupply mission is carrying a wide range of science experiments. One will use glow-in-the dark bobtail squid to study the impact of spaceflight on interactions between microbes and their hosts. Another will study how tardigrades are able to weather the rigors of space. And then there’s UW’s “kidney on a chip.”

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Human genome sequencing rises to the next level

Twenty years after the first human genome sequence was published, an international research team has kicked the sequencing game to the next level with a set of 64 reference genomes that reflect much higher resolution and more genetic diversity.

Since the Human Genome Project completed the first draft of its reference genome in 2001, decoding the human genetic code has been transformed from a multibillion-dollar endeavor into a relatively inexpensive commercial service. However, commercial whole-genome sequencing, or WGS, often misses out on crucial variations that can make all the difference when it comes to an individual’s health.

“As a metric, 75% of structural variants that are present in that person’s genome are missed by WGS, but are captured by our long-read phased genome assembly,” University of Washington genome scientist Evan Eichler told me in an email. “Such variants are about three times more likely to cause disease.”

Eichler, who was a member of the original Human Genome Project, is one of the senior authors of a study laying out the new set of reference genomes, published today by the journal Science.

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Fossils flesh out the tale of the first primates

The shapes of fossilized teeth from 65.9 million-year-old, squirrel-like creatures suggest that the branch of the tree of life that gave rise to us humans and other primates flowered while dinosaurs still walked the earth. That’s the claim coming from a team of 10 researchers across the U.S., including biologists at Seattle’s Burke Museum and the University of Washington.

In a study published by Royal Society Open Science, the team lays out evidence that an ancient group of primates known as plesiadapiforms must have emerged before the mass-extinction event that killed off the dinosaurs. (Technically, modern-day birds are considered the descendants of dinosaurs, but that’s another story.)

The evidence comes from an analysis of tooth fossils that were unearthed in the Hell Creek area of northeastern Montana.

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How the pandemic changed the protocol for Mars

Veteran spacecraft engineer Chris Voorhees has witnessed six Mars landings in the course of his career, and he’s playing a role in the next one as president of a Seattle-based engineering firm called First Mode.

But even though First Mode has been helping NASA ensure that its Perseverance rover will get to the surface of Mars safely on Feb. 18, Voorhees will experience it in the same way millions of others around the world will: from home, watching a live stream via YouTube.

At least he’ll be munching on the traditional good-luck peanuts. “I feel weird if I don’t do it,” Voorhees said.

This Mars mission is already weird enough — and not just because it would be the first mission to store up samples for eventual return to Earth, and the first to try flying a mini-helicopter over Mars.

Because of the yearlong COVID-19 pandemic, the hundreds of scientists and engineers behind the Perseverance rover mission have had to work almost exclusively from home. On the big day, only a minimal crew of ground controllers will be on duty at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

Mallory Lefland, a JPL veteran who’s now a senior systems engineer at First Mode, will be there as part of the mission’s team for entry, descent and landing, or EDL.

“Most people won’t be on lab, working their shift, until 24 hours before landing,” she said last week during a mission preview hosted by Seattle’s Museum of Flight.

Whether they’re working at JPL or working from home, the people in charge of the $2.7 billion mission will serve mostly as spectators during the final minutes of the rover’s seven-month, 300 million-mile journey to Mars.

The capsule containing the rover will be on its own as it goes through a sequence known as the “seven minutes of terror.” Because of the finite speed of light, it takes more than 11 minutes for signals to travel from Mars to Earth. That means the rover will have finished its landing sequence before the team at JPL even knows it started.