NASA decodes source of strange flashes seen on Earth from space

NASA decodes source of strange flashes seen on Earth from space

Since June 2015 the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) satellite has been floating about a million miles away between the Earth and the Sun. On that satellite, which was developed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the US, NASA’s Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera (EPIC) instrument has been snapping pictures of our planet about once every hour. In some of those shots, strange flashes have been appearing all over the planet. Researchers now think they know what they are.

While radiation from secret labs, glints of gold from lost cities or flashes from freak weather events would certainly make for a more dramatic story, the NASA researchers have come to a different conclusion about the flashes, 866 of which have were found between DSCOVR’s launch and August 2016. They are ice crystals, likely floating horizontally as high as five miles in the air.

Initially, researchers thought the flashes could simply have been sunlight bouncing off bodies of water, above which the flashes were first spotted. Upon closer investigation, however, they found the flashes over land as well – and the size of the flash was too big to be explained by the presence of a lake or other body of water. Ice was the next logical guess.

To test their theory, the researchers reasoned that if the flashes were caused by sunlight bouncing off ice particles, then the shots would have to be occurring when DSCOVR was in such a position that sunlight would be reflected directly at it when it hit the crystals. Sure enough, the data matched, which meant the flashes were definitely reflections, not some type of weather phenomenon.

They then plotted the angles in more detail and came to the conclusion that the particles would have to be floating nearly horizontally to reflect light in the way they were.

Next, the researchers measured the height of the particles by using two channels on the EPIC instruments that can measure the height of clouds. Wherever there were flashes, there were also cirrus clouds that were three to five miles (5-8 km) high.

Interestingly, famed astronomer Carl Sagan also saw the flashes in the atmosphere in 1993 when he was analyzing images from the Galileo spacecraft, which examined the Earth during a gravity-assist swing-by before it headed out to Jupiter. “Large expanses of blue ocean and apparent coastlines are present, and close examination of the images shows a region of [mirror-like] reflection in ocean but not on land,” Sagan and his colleagues wrote of the find in a paper in the journal Nature.

Now that present-day astronomers know about the ice crystals, their next step will be to classify just how common they really are and determine if they could actually be impacting Earth by blocking some of the sunlight that bathes our planet. Alexander Marshak, DSCOVR deputy project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, said that learning more about the ice particles here could also help us in our study of planets beyond our solar system.

What drives a plant root toward water?

What drives a plant root toward water?

Plant roots are industrious, often burrowing in search of water even if it means dislodging things like pavement and sewer lines. But how is it exactly that they sense a source of water and nutrients and alter their path to find it? A new study has revealed more about the mechanisms behind this process – knowledge that could prove useful in crop production in light of global concerns around food and water security.

Which way a plant’s roots grow can be influenced by a number of things, such as gravity, light, nutrients and water. It is this last motivator, known as hydrotropism, that is less understood. So researchers at England’s University of Nottingham, together with scientists from Tohoku University in Japan, set out to fill in some of the blanks by experimenting with Arabidopsis thaliana, a small plant that has become a popular model for plant biology research.

Their starting point was a group of cells called the columella at the tip of the root, which is known to sense gravity. The team wanted to find out whether or not these same cells were used to sense water, so they did the logical thing and blasted them off with a laser beam. This was done through laser ablation, a process where an intense beam is focused on the sample to destroy or remove material with pinpoint accuracy.

Without the cells to worry about, the team took things one step further, looking to explore the role of different tissues within the plant in driving its roots toward water. This meant taking a mutant plant that was missing the key genes behind hydrotropism, one called MIZ1 and the other SnRK2.2, and then making modifications to pinpoint where it is they perform this role.

“We generated DNA sequences consisting of the gene, either MIZ1 or SnRK2.2, with different ‘switches’ to control the activation of the gene in specific layers of the root,” Nottingham’s Daniela Dietrich explains to New Atlas. “Those DNA sequences were put into the mutant; this allows you to test the effect of the gene if it is only switched on in a specific layer.”

This experiment led the team to the cortex, the tissue layer directly beneath the epidermis, as the region responsible for changing root growth directions in response to water.

“Even when most of the root tip was removed by laser or scalpel, roots of the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana still responded to a water gradient in the medium they were growing on,” Dietrich says in a press release. “This showed that hydrotropism – the way in which plant roots respond to the moisture content of soil – depends on perception and response in the elongation zone, a rapidly growing area of the root just behind the tip.”

The researchers conclude that the factors driving the hydrotropism response are different to those driving the gravitropic (gravity-sensing) response, in which a hormone called auxin and the epidermis layer are important. Understanding more about what drives these effects could improve crop yields further down the track.

“The direction in which root tips grow is influenced by many factors – gravity, nutrients, water, touch and even light,” Dietrich tells us. “By understanding how hydrotropism works we can perhaps nudge plants into using their hydrotropic response more and go search for water harder.”

400 year-old mystery of Prince Rupert’s drops finally cracked

400 year-old mystery of Prince Rupert’s drops finally cracked

A Prince Rupert’s drop looks like a glass tadpole from a beginner’s crafts festival, but it’s so strong it can take a hammer hit without breaking. That would be impressive enough, but if you break its tail, which can be done with finger pressure, the drop explodes into powder. The reason for this has mystified scientists for 400 years, but a team from Purdue University, the University of Cambridge, and Tallinn University of Technology in Estonia finally has an answer.

Also called Batavian tears, Prince Rupert’s drops were discovered in the 17th century and became famous when Prince Rupert of Bavaria presented five of the curiosities to Charles II of England. These were turned over to the Royal Society for study in 1661, yet despite four centuries of research, the secret of the drop’s combination of great strength and self-destructive fragility remained elusive.

The drops are made by taking red hot blobs of molten glass with a high thermal expansion coefficient, like soda-lime or flint glass, and dropping them into a jar of cold water. The molten glass instantly solidifies into the characteristic tailed drop shape in a quenching process similar to that used to make the tempered glass for modern smartphone screens, which wasn’t discovered until the 19th century.

Along with Purdue professor of industrial engineering Srinivasan Chandrasekar, team leader Hillar Aben of Tallinn University used integrated photoelasticity to investigate the drops. This is a technique where a transparent 3D object is suspended in an immersion bath and polarized light is passed through it. The alterations in the light’s polarization inside the object show up as rainbow bands that correspond to stress lines.

Previous work by Chandrasekar and Cambridge physicist Munawar Chaudhri in 1994 showed that by filming an exploding drop at almost one million frames per second, it could be seen disintegrating as cracks propagated within it at over 4,000 mph (6,437 km/h) when the tail was snipped.

Focusing on the head of the drop instead of the tail, the current study found that the compressive stresses in the glass are about 50 tons per square inch, which gives it the strength of some steels. According to the team, this is because the outside of the drop cools faster than the inside. This turns the outside into a layer of powerful compressive forces pushing inward. These are balanced out by the tensile or pulling forces inside the drop.

So long as these forces remain in balance, the drop remains stable and can withstand tremendous punishment. Normally, because glass is a supercooled liquid rather than a solid, any cracks in the surface propagate at the speed of sound through a glass object, breaking it.

But in a Prince Rupert’s drop, the interface between the inner and outer regions deflects the forces sideways, so the crack can’t propagate. However, if the tail is broken, The shallow cracks in the tail shoot parallel to the axis of the drop, deep into the head, and into the interface. The damage is so great that the balanced forces are released, causing the drop to explode.

“The tensile stress is what usually causes materials to fracture analogous to tearing a sheet of paper in half,” says Purdue postdoctoral associate Koushik Viswanathan. “But if you could change the tensile stress to a compressive stress, then it becomes difficult for cracks to grow, and this is what happens in the head portion of the Prince Rupert’s drops.”

The research was published in Applied Physics Letters and its findings are discussed in the video below.

Colonoscopy performed by magnetically controlled capsule robot

Colonoscopy performed by magnetically controlled capsule robot

A colonoscopy is still the most effective way for a physician to diagnose a variety of colorectal diseases. The procedure, completed under sedation, is a mildly invasive and unpleasant process that many patients tend to delay due to concern over discomfort. But new research has paved the way for a capsule-sized robot to take over these procedures in the future, making the diagnostic and treatment process quicker and easier.

A team of researchers from Vanderbilt University and the University of Leeds have developed an 18 mm magnetized capsule colonoscope that can be guided through the colon by an external magnet attached to a robotic arm.

The capsule robot has been successfully trialled 30 times in the colon of a pig and the research team note it can complete a complex maneuver called retroflexion, whereby the camera can bend backward allowing a reverse-view of the colon wall.

“Not only is the capsule robot able to actively maneuver through the GI tract to perform diagnostics, it is also able to perform therapeutic maneuvers, such as biopsies of tissue or polyp removal, due to the tether – something that other capsule devices are unable to do,” explained one of the study’s authors Dr Keith Obstein.

As Dr Obstein notes, the capsule robot is attached to a tether that is much smaller than a conventional scope. The tether allows for more extensive processes to occur during the procedure.

Over recent years many researchers have been working on different types of capsule-based diagnostic tools. The PillCam is a swallowable camera that records its trip through a patient’s gastrointestinal tract while the Tadpole Endoscope offers a more controllable camera-device that can swim around your stomach.

While these other swallowable capsule cameras do function as compelling new diagnostic tools, none were able to cover off on the other medical outcomes a traditional colonoscopy could achieve. The hope that Dr Obstein and his team have is that their capsule robot could simplify the process of diagnosing and managing colorectal diseases, reducing the need for procedures involving complex sedation or pain medication.

The team is planning on moving their device into human trials by the end of 2018.

Time Travel Is Mathematically Possible With New Mind-Boggling Model

Time Travel Is Mathematically Possible With New Mind-Boggling Model

Many have dreamed of figuring out how to travel in time—and dismissed it as impossible. Now, researchers have proposed a mathematical model that makes time travel possible, using concepts of Einstein’s theory of general relativity coupled with the hypothesis that time is not a separate dimension.

Traditionally, we think of the universe as being made up of three spatial dimensions, and a fourth dimension representing time. But mathematician Ben Tippett at the University of British Columbia, Canada, says this is wrong. He believes time should not be separated from other three spatial dimensions—instead all four run together, simultaneously.

Working with David Tsang, an astrophysicist from the University of Maryland, he has worked out a way to use this principle to make time travel possible. Their findings have now been published in the journal Classical and Quantum Gravity.

“People think of time travel as something fictional,” Tippett said in a statement. “And we tend to think it’s not possible because we don’t actually do it. But, mathematically, it is possible.”

In an email interview with Newsweek , he explained how the time machine—Traversable Acausal Retrograde Domain in Spacetime, or TARDIS—would work. In general relativity, the curvature of spacetime causes gravity by exerting a force on objects passing them. These curves cause planets to orbit stars—if spacetime was not curved, all the planets and stars would travel along straight lines. So if spacetime is curved, and we run time along it simultaneously, then theoretically the bend can be turned into a loop, making time travel possible.

“Since the 1950s, there have been many other proposals for spacetimes which allow people to travel backward in time,” he says. “My work was to model a ‘time machine,’ where passengers inside of a box of limited size could travel along a circle through space and time, returning to their own pasts.

“The shape of spacetime was used to turn the direction of the arrow of time inside of the box in space and time. I then used Einstein’s theory to analyze this strange spacetime, and determine what would be required to build such a thing.”

Tippet and Tsang’s time machine model creates a spacetime curvature that is bent into a circle. Anything—a box with someone inside, for example—moving along this curvature would be anchored to this version of time and would move backward. Someone watching from the outside would be able to see events running in reverse.

“It is because time and space are attached together that the time machine to behave in this way,” Tippet says. “In the simplest way, the orientation of the arrow of time inside the box is not anchored to the orientation of the arrow of time outside the box.

“Initially, they are pointing in the same direction; and then the direction of the arrow of time in the box turns so that ‘forward in time’ inside the box corresponds to the ‘sideways’ spatial direction outside of the box. And then the arrow of time inside the box continues to rotate in space and time until it returns to its original orientation.”

If you were inside the time machine making breakfast, the hands of your wristwatch would be moving forward and you would feel a “persistent acceleration,” Tippet explains. But if you were to look outside, things would get very strange.

“You would see two strange things: First you would see a second version of you standing in an identical copy of your box, but timeshifted (so, at a previous time), and also, time would be running in reverse. Your doppelgänger would be un-frying eggs, and putting them back in their shells; and un-stirring the cream from their coffee. The hands on the clocktower outside would behave erratically, first moving clockwise, then counterclockwise, according to which part of the bubble’s journey you were currently sitting through.

“The fun thing is that the outside viewer would see two version of you: One where time was moving forward in time (cracking and frying eggs) and the other moving backward in time (un-stirring the cream in their coffee).”

But will such a machine ever exist? Tippet says no. “Our paper included a careful analysis of this geometry, and the problems it would have in being built,” he says. “Generally speaking, backward time travel usually causes singularities (places where there are holes in the universe) or instabilities which would cause them to collapse into a black hole if they get poked the wrong way. So unfortunately, I don’t foresee this as being feasible.”

Marika Taylor, professor of theoretical physics at the University of Southampton, commented on the study. She tells Newsweek over email: “Mathematical models for time travel all use the idea of creating shortcuts in a spacetime. In the study the authors explore a version of this idea, bubbles in a spacetime.

“However the main problems in all these models are that quantum effects [effects that cannot be explained by classical physics] often destroy the spacetime shortcuts and that exotic forms of matter are required to create the shortcuts.”

Exotic matter refers to a class of material yet to be discovered. Unlike ordinary matter, exotic matter causes space and time to expand and gravity to be repulsive. In the study, the researchers note that time can only be bent into a circle by using exotic matter.

Taylor continues: “The authors of this study are open about the fact that they have these problems too: their bubbles have to be supported by exotic forms of matter (matter that has never been found in Nature!), and there are ‘singularities’ in their spacetimes (which mean quantum physics effects are very important and may likely cause their bubbles to be unstable and collapse).

“So, in summary, while their work is interesting and adds to the existing literature, it doesn’t really show that time travel is possible in our Universe. It is not clear that such exotic forms of matter actually can exist in our Universe (it’s considered very unlikely).”

Why Morning Glories Could Survive Space Travel | Smart News | Smithsonian

Why Morning Glories Could Survive Space Travel | Smart News | Smithsonian

If humans ever make it to Mars, they may bring a little color along with them. As Katherine Kornei reports for Science, a new study suggests that the seeds of the morning glory flower can withstand radiation levels that would fry other types of seeds.

Back in 2008, the space shuttle Atlantis carried an experiment to the International Space Station called EXPOSE-E—a module full of biological samples including organic molecules, microoraganisms, as well as lichens and fungi. The module also included 2,000 seeds from two plants: tobacco and Arabidopsis thaliana, a weedy European plant used often in research. The samples were secured outside the confines of the space station for 558 days, exposed to extreme temperatures, UV light and cosmic radiation. Astronauts then collected them and returned them to terra firma.

Not surprisingly, most of the seeds fried—but 20 percent germinated and grew into “normal-looking plants,” writes Kornei.

Almost a decade later, researchers decided to look at the seeds that didn’t germinate to figure out why. Analyzing an antibiotic resistance gene in the tobacco plants, the researchers determined that DNA degradation from short wave UV radiation deactivated the seeds by causing some parts of the genetic code to fuse, reports Kornei.

Though the researchers were interested in learning more, sending seeds into space is costly. So they recreated the conditions of space in the lab. According to the study published recently in the journal Astrobiology, they exposed more tobacco and Arabidopsis seeds to UV radiation. But they also included morning glory seeds, which are comparatively large and have been known to last for decades in the soil. While most of the tobacco and Arabidopsis seeds lost their ability to germinate after exposure to some 87 megajoules per square meter of radiation, all of the morning glories survived. They could withstand radiation up to a massive dose of 2420 megajoules.

It’s likely that the heavy seed coat of the morning glory protected it, and Kornei reports that the researchers believe flavonoids—compounds found in wine and tea—in the seed might also act as a cosmic sunscreen. The research means that properly protected seeds could survive on trips to Mars and bolsters the idea of “panspermia” or the hypothesis that life can spread from planet to planet by traveling on comets or asteroids.

The seeds are “model space travelers,” the researchers write in the paper. Much of their genome is redundant, which means they have multiple copies of genetic information if some of it gets damaged. Seeds are also designed to survive long stretches of cold with no water and carry bacteria and fungi that could hitch a ride to a new planet. And even if a seed doesn’t survive a long journey through space, it still brings organic materials like proteins, nucleic acids and ribosomes to wherever it lands, which could help jumpstart primitive forms of life.

“These results add to the fast-growing body of evidence showing that panspermia is not only possible, but absolutely inevitable,” Chandra Wickramasinghe, director of the Buckingham Centre for Astrobiology at the University of Buckingham, tells Kornei.

Whether or not morning glories spread throughout the galaxy, it’s likely researchers will continue to send seeds into space. Scientists first attempted a seed launch in the 1940s, when they put added seeds to the capsules of V2 rockets, reports Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan at Gizmodo. In 1983, the Park Seed company launched 40 different fruit and vegetable seeds into space as part of special collaboration with NASA. (They later launched seeds that they sold for a hefty $27 per packet.)

Cherry trees joined in the fun on another seed launch into space in 2008. Four of those trees bloomed in 2014, much more quickly than the ten years common for the plant.

But there is much more to be learned from the space faring seeds. And discoveries from the glorious morning glory could lead the way.

How science fares in the U.S. budget deal | Science | AAAS

How science fares in the U.S. budget deal | Science | AAAS

Congress has finally reached a deal on spending bills for the 2017 fiscal year, which ends on 30 September. House of Representatives and Senate leaders announced last night that they expect lawmakers to vote this week on an agreement that wraps together all 12 appropriations bills that fund federal operations. For the past 7 months, the government has been operating under a continuing resolution that froze 2017 spending at most agencies at 2016 levels and generally prevented them from starting new programs. The new deal allows agencies to operate normally within the constraints of the spending plans, assuming that President Donald Trump signs the legislation (as is expected). It also averts a shutdown of the government that would have occurred next weekend if Congress failed to act in time.

Overall, the deal staves off major cuts for federal science agencies that Trump had requested last month. A few, including the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and NASA science programs, actually receive substantial increases.

Below, the Science News staff provides some details:

The big picture: A 5% rise in federal R&D this year could be good omen for 2018
Overall federal spending on research and development (R&D) will grow by 5% under a fiscal 2017 budget deal expected to be approved by Congress this week, according to an analysis by the R&D Budget and Policy Program at AAAS in Washington, D.C. (publisher of ScienceInsider).

Total spending on R&D will rise to $155.8 billion for the fiscal year that ends on 30 September, according to the analysis published yesterday. That number includes everything spent on basic and applied science as well as the development of new technologies and the construction of facilities. The split is $72.9 billion for civilian activities and $82.9 billion for military programs. Parsed another way, spending on basic research would grow by 4.1% to $34.9 billion, while funding for applied research would rise by 6.3% to $40.2 billion.

Federal spending on R&D now amounts to 0.81% percent of the nation’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). That percentage “represent[s] a small uptick on that metric, and the highest it has been since the year prior to sequestration, the across-the-board cuts levied on federal agencies in FY 2013,” note the authors of the analysis, Matthew Hourihan and David Parkes.

The 2017 “funding outcomes are notable for two big reasons,” the authors note. First, mandatory spending caps imposed by a 2011 law left little room for spending increases at most federal agencies in 2017. But “even without much room to work with, legislators were able to overcome this constraint for many agencies. Perhaps more importantly, these [funding] decisions run directly counter to the Trump administration’s spending preferences for the current year. While one should always be cautious, it does provide some additional evidence beyond rhetoric that the current Congress is willing to push back against the Trump administration’s plans.”

The 2017 outcome also “should give science advocates reason for optimism in light of the administration’s much tougher budget for [fiscal year] 2018,” they write. The president unveiled a “skinny” 2018 request in March that calls for deep cuts at many research agencies, and a full proposal is due out this month. “[T]his same Congress will begin writing the next round of spending bills in a matter of weeks,” the authors note. “Time will tell if the administration is able to wield more influence in the next funding cycle, given their lack of [influence] in the late stages of this cycle.” —David Malakoff

Defying Trump, Congress gives NIH $2 billion boost
Flouting the wishes of the Trump administration, Congress last night approved a $2 billion increase for NIH for fiscal year 2017—the second year in a row that the agency has grown by that amount after more than a decade of stagnant budgets. The Trump administration had proposed cutting NIH’s budget by about $1 billion this year, as part of a proposal to pay for defense spending increases by cutting domestic programs.

The 6.2% bump to $34 billion includes $352 million provided under the 21st Century Cures Act, a measure to boost biomedical innovation that became law in December 2016. It created a 10-year pot of money—to be used for specific initiatives at NIH—that has a mandated funding stream that is not subject to the annual appropriations process. The inclusion of the 21st Century Cures funds means NIH’s base budget is only growing by $1.6 billion.

All the same, advocates for biomedical research, who have been deeply worried by Trump’s budget plans for NIH, were thrilled. “It was worth the 7-month wait! We’re extremely grateful” to the leaders of the House and Senate committees that oversee NIH’s budget, says Jennifer Zeitzer, director of legislative relations for the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology in Bethesda, Maryland. A bill approved last summer in the Senate would have boosted NIH by $2 billion and a House bill would have raised the agency’s budget by $1.25 billion.

The final omnibus bill, which funds NIH through 30 September, raises Alzheimer’s disease research by $400 million to $1.4 billion. Research on antibiotic resistance goes up $50 million. The brain-mapping initiative called Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies, launched by former President Barack Obama, receives $120 million, including $10 million from the Cures act. Another $160 million in new funding goes to the Precision Medicine Initiative (including $40 million from Cures for its 1-million person cohort study). And $300 million from Cures tagged for the National Cancer Institute is expected to fund former Vice President Joe Biden’s moonshot initiative.

Biomedical research advocates are now girding for what could be a struggle over NIH’s budget for the 2018 fiscal year, which begins 1 October. The Trump administration wants to slash NIH spending by 18%, or $5.8 billion, in large part by cutting overhead payments to universities. —Jocelyn Kaiser

DOE research flat, future of ITER uncertain, but ARPA-E gains
Trump has proposed a massive budget cut next year for the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) basic research wing, the Office of Science, but the rest of this fiscal year is looking relatively prosperous. In its omnibus bill, Congress holds spending in the Office of Science essentially flat, giving the United States’s single biggest funder of the physical sciences a 0.8% increase to $5.392 billion. That is just $8 million shy of what both the House and Senate had earlier proposed in their markups of the 2017 budget.

The Office of Science supports six research programs, and there were winners and losers among them. On the plus side, advanced scientific computing research, which funds much of DOE’s supercomputing capabilities, gets a 4.2% increase to $647 million. High energy physics gets a boost of 3.8% to $825 million. Basic energy sciences, which funds work in chemistry, material science, and condensed matter physics and runs most of DOE’s large user facilities, gets a bump up of 1.2% to $1.872 billion. Nuclear physics gets a 0.8% raise to $622 million; biological and environmental research inches up 0.5% to $612 million. In contrast, the fusion energy sciences program sees its budget fall a whopping 13.2% to $380 million.

The biggest question in the budget remains the United States’s contribution to ITER, the massive fusion experiment under construction near Cadarache in France. Congress has allotted $50 million for ITER, down from $125 million last year. That cut would come halfway through the fiscal year, which ends 30 September. As researchers have likely already spent that much, the cut would zero out the program for the rest of the year. However, the budget also allows DOE to “reprogram” up to an additional $50 million for the fusion project.

“Basically, Congress has given the administration a dial and it can dial in any number between $50 million and $100 million,” says Thom Mason, director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. DOE officials will turn the dial one way or the other once the Trump administration decides whether to stay in or abandon ITER, Mason says.

That should become clear when the Trump administration releases the details of its proposed budget for fiscal year 2018, expected later this month. In its outline “skinny budget,” released on 16 March, the administration said that it plans to cut the Office of Science budget by $900 million. But given the current budget, Mason says he hopeful that Congress may not agree to that. “The fact that you see in Congress solid bipartisan support [for the Office of Science] does suggest that when the fiscal year 2018 budget gets resolved it will look significantly different from the [White House] proposal,” Mason says.

Congress also appears to think more fondly of DOE’s Advance Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), whose goal is to take the promising ideas from basic research and quickly develop them into fledgling technologies. The Trump administration has signaled that it wants to eliminate ARPA-E next year, and last week, DOE put a freeze on ARPA-E grants. However, for this year Congress would give ARPA-E a healthy 5.2% increase to $306 million. —Adrian Cho

Correction: This item originally noted DOE’s budget as $5.392 million instead of $5.392 billion.

NSF ordered to build three ships
Congress has told the National Science Foundation (NSF) to build three research ships—but hasn’t given it enough to money to pay for them all.

The 2017 spending bill basically holds NSF’s funding steady—a $9 million bump to $7.472 billion. It keeps both the six research directorates and NSF’s education directorate at their combined 2016 totals, of $6.033 billion and $880 million, rejecting small hikes in each account requested by Obama. And it ignores NSF’s request for $43 million more in operating funds to build and move into a new headquarters building in northern Virginia, leaving officials in a quandary.

The research funding marks a retreat from levels in a bill approved last summer by appropriators in the House, and holds to the figure in an earlier Senate bill. But House appropriators prevailed over their Senate counterparts in ordering NSF to launch a $15 million program for Hispanic college students, something that NSF says it’s already doing as part of a broader outreach to underrepresented minorities.

The only NSF account that grows is for new large facilities. NSF had requested $193 million for three projects. Two are telescopes already under construction (the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope in Hawaii and the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope in Chile). The third project is two regional-class research vessels that NSF hopes to start building next year to upgrade its academic fleet.

NSF had requested $106 million in 2017 to start building the two vessels, estimated to cost $127 million apiece. (NSF had originally planned on building three ships, but changed its mind after a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine panel said two were sufficient.) House appropriators balked, zeroing out the project. But the Senate spending panel called for the original trio of vessels, and it won out in the end.

The only problem is that congressional appropriators allocated only $15 million more than the $106 million NSF had requested for continued planning and the start of construction of two ships. That leaves NSF $38 million short, based on a per capita request of $53 million for each ship.

Clare Reimers of Oregon State University in Corvallis, which is managing the construction project, says “The plan is for a staggered build with hulls two and three starting 1 and 2 years after hull one, respectively.” NSF officials declined to comment on how the new spending levels would affect those plans. “It is possible tough choices will need to be made,” says geophysicist Maria Zuber, the chair of the National Science Board, NSF’s oversight body.

But Zuber, who is vice president for research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, adds that the board is keeping its fingers crossed. “We appreciate the support for NSF in this challenging budgetary time. And we hope Congress will follow up with a [fiscal year] 2018 budget that continues commitments of these important activities without incurring additional delays and costs.” —Jeffrey Mervis

NASA gets 1.9% boost as appropriators ignore Trump’s requested cuts
NASA fares relatively well in the spending deal, with a budget of $19.653 billion, up 1.9% from $19.285 billion last year. The agency’s Office of Science receives $5.764 billion, up 3.1% from $5.589 billion in 2016.

Defying Trump administration proposals for 2017, the deal continues funding for earth science at 2016 levels: $1.921 billion. That includes $90 million for the Pre-Aerosol, Clouds, and Ocean Ecosystem satellite, which the White House has proposed eliminating in 2018; none of the three other missions singled out by the administration for cancellation next year are mentioned in the deal. The law also maintains financing for NASA’s Office of Education, which the administration has also sought to close in 2018, at its existing level of $100 million.

Bolstered by the support of Representative John Culberson (R–TX), who oversees House science appropriations, planetary science saw its budget balloon by 13%, from $1.519 billion to $1.846 billion. NASA’s planned missions to Europa, Jupiter’s icy ocean moon, including a flyby and eventual lander, get fully into swing with $275 million. The deal also includes $408 million for the Mars 2020 rover, which will collect samples on the planet for eventual return to Earth for analysis, including support for a prototype helicopter to hitch along on the rover—provided adding that craft doesn’t delay launch. —Paul Voosen

Small increase for Census Bureau hampers plans for 2020 count
The spending bill gives the U.S. Census Bureau three options to prepare for the next national census—and lobbyists say none of them is attractive.

On paper, the bureau’s $100 million increase, to $1.47 billion, looks generous. But the Obama administration had requested $1.63 billion because the decennial head count in 2020 requires a huge spending ramp-up starting this year. And what congressional leaders have agreed on falls far short of what’s needed to do the job right and hold down costs, says Phil Sparks, a former Census official who is now co-director of The Census Project in Washington, D.C.

“One option is to revert to the pen and pencil census” used in 2010 instead of the increased reliance on electronic data gathering, Sparks says. But that will cost an additional $5 billion, he notes—all the savings that Census officials have promised to deliver. “The second option is to cut back on other surveys that the Census Bureau conducts, including the ongoing American Community Survey and this year’s National Economic Census [conducted every 5 years]. The third option is to cut the end-to-end test planned for next year” to make sure all of the many elements are working smoothly.

The Census Bureau could limp along on a tight 2017 budget if it were assured a big increase in 2018, Sparks says, but Trump’s preliminary budget for 2018 has proposed flat funding. “That’s more than disappointing,” Sparks says. “It’s totally inadequate. And if it comes to pass, we’re headed toward the possibility of a 2020 census that is not fair and not accurate.” —Jeffrey Mervis

NOAA research office receives 3.5% increase as agency gets overall 1% cut
The deal funds the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) at $5.7 billion, a decrease of 1% from 2016.

This cut does not, however, target the agency’s Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research, which supports critical climate change research across the country. Indeed, the office’s budget will increase, by 3.5%, from $462 million to $478 million.

The deal funds NOAA’s Sea Grant program, which supports research at colleges across the country, at $63 million, along with a separate $9.5 million line item for marine aquaculture, which is managed by Sea Grant; taken together, these come close to matching the $73 million appropriated in 2016. The office, which is a target for elimination in the Trump administration’s 2018 budget, would also see its support for stock assessments of red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico, funded at $10 million, moved to the National Marine Fisheries Service, the law notes, making the funding to Sea Grant “effectively above the fiscal year 2016 level.”

Taking a large hit is NOAA’s National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service, which sees its budget drop by 6%, from $2.3 billion to $2.2 billion. Targeted in particular is COSMIC-2, a proposed constellation of 12 satellites developed in conjunction with Taiwan, which would use GPS radio occultation, a technique that harvests GPS signals deflected by Earth’s atmosphere to infer temperature, pressure, and humidity. The first six satellites are set for launch later this year, but the deal does not include financing for sensors for the second round of satellites, and orders NASA to evaluate within 90 days the potential to acquire similar data from commercial startups like Spire Global and GeoOptics, who have pioneered using small satellites to acquire similar data, and began providing such data to NOAA for evaluation last year.

The law, meanwhile, maintains full support for NOAA’s troubled $11.3 billion Joint Polar Satellite System, a series of two advanced weather satellites, the first of which is set for launch late this summer, and its $11.3 billion line of four new geostationary satellites, the first of which, GOES-16, launched late last year. —Paul Voosen

Smithsonian strikes out on biodiversity and telescope projects, but sees modest increases elsewhere
The bill would provide the Smithsonian Institution, which receives about two-thirds of its support from the federal government, with $863 million. That represents a $23 million, 2.7% increase for this collection of 19 museums, nine research institutions, and the National Zoo, but is $59 million below what Obama requested for 2017.

Obama’s request included a call to almost triple support for a biodiversity initiative, to about $4.2 million, including funds for genomics, global Earth observatories, and microbial and conservation research. But the new bill provides just a modest $77,000 increase, to $1.53 million. And the bill does not include funding for a proposed $2 million Greenland Telescope.

However, the new bill does give the SmithsonianTropical Research Institute, the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, the National Museum of Natural History, and the National Zoo the modest 1% to 5% increases that Obama asked for: to $14.344 million, $4.171 million, $24.393 million, $49.205 million, and $27.252 million, respectively. —Elizabeth Pennisi

For FDA, modest support on precision medicine effort, and a prod on lab test regulation
The $2.76 billion included for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is roughly in line with Obama’s $2.74 billion request, which kept the agency’s funding roughly flat over 2016. The numbers don’t include anticipated user fees, collected from companies submitting products for FDA review.

All told, the bill means the agency gets a nearly $70 million increase over 2016, when new budget authority, previously approved funding to implement the 21st Century Cures Act passed in December 2016, and an extra $10 million to combat Zika and other emerging threats is included, Steven Grossman, deputy executive director at the Alliance for a Stronger FDA in Washington, D.C., noted in a statement.

The bill directs $2.5 million to Obama’s Precision Medicine Initiative, which falls short of the requested $4.4 million intended to establish a clinical data collection system to better match medical devices with patients that would benefit from them.And it makes no mention of $75 million in proposed FDA support for Biden’s cancer moonshot effort. In January, the agency launched an Oncology Center of Excellence, as proposed in the President’s request, to advise the National Cancer Institute on the development of new cancer treatments.

The bill “strongly urges” the agency to continue its work on plans to regulate laboratory-developed tests. These diagnostics, designed and used within individual clinical labs, haven’t so far been subject to the agency’s premarket approval process. They are regulated by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services through the 1988 Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments (CLIA), but FDA has argued that this oversight only makes sure tests are performed properly, and doesn’t review the underlying validity of the answers the tests give. The agency notified Congress in 2014 that it plans to exercise its authority to regulate lab-developed tests, but announced just before the November 2016 presidential election that it would hold off on finalizing its new standards and leave them to the next administration. FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, confirmed by the Senate last week, argued in a speech last year that with FDA resources scarce, “there’s no reason that the CLIA can’t be resourced to regulate more aspects of laboratory-developed tests, including more of the clinical considerations that FDA proposes to take on.” —Kelly Servick

NIST stays level thanks to Senate boosters
Senate appropriators largely prevailed in setting this year’s final budget for the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)—and that’s good news for researchers and advocates of advanced manufacturing.

NIST is scheduled to receive $954 million in 2017, including $690 million for its research activities. That’s a $10 million dip from 2016 levels but some $89 million more than appropriators in the House had wanted to spend. However, neither body came close to meeting Obama’s request for $1.019 billion and $730 million, respectively.

The Senate also had its way on supporting the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation, an Obama-era priority in which individual agencies fund large centers that attract significant amounts of private sector money as well. NIST’s final spending bill includes $20 million for its own contribution to the network and up to $5 million to coordinate the effort across the federal government. House appropriators had voted only for the coordination activities.

Similarly, the Senate’s wishes prevailed for the Hollings Manufacturing Extension Partnership, giving NIST $130 million rather than the House level of $120 million. And congressional negotiators came down on the side of the Senate in providing $109 million for upgrading in-house research facilities, rather than the House’s proposal for only $50 million. The total includes $60 million for safety and technical improvements on a building doing radiation physics, some $20 million more than the Obama administration had requested. –Jeffrey Mervis

At USDA, competitive grants program for basic science grows again
Lawmakers appear to be developing a soft spot for competitive grants for agricultural research. For the second year in a row, they have beefed up the budget of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), one of the department’s main sources of funding for basic science in academia. The omnibus bill provides $375 million for AFRI, a 7.1% increase over the 2016 level.

That means “there has been a 15% increase for AFRI over the past 2 years,” says Thomas Grumbly, president of the Supporters of Agricultural Research (SoAR) Foundation in Arlington, Virginia, which advocates for farm science funding. “Slowly but surely, people are recognizing the importance of this research program, even in a budget environment that is very tough.”

At the same time, USDA’s Agricultural Research Service got a 2.3% increase, to $1.17 billion. Much of that funding is consumed by the department’s own extensive system of research laboratories, which often lean toward more applied research, or distributed to states based on a funding formula.

Grumbly and other farm science advocates are now looking to build on the momentum as Congress begins to consider Trump’s 2018 budget request, and works to update the massive so-called farm bill that governs U.S. agricultural policy. An outline of Trump’s budget request released this past March was relatively kind to AFRI; although the plan called for slashing many other research budgets—or didn’t mention them at all—AFRI was highlighted in a single line that requested $350 million for the program. “We took that as a victory. … It’s one of the few things in the R&D area that they called out in a positive way,” Grumbly says. “Now, we can see if [Congress] can spruce that up a little.”

SoAR is also working to insert “a serious science title in the next farm bill” that calls for doubling, to more than $700 million, the amount of money that USDA spends on competitively awarded research, Grumbly says. —David Malakoff

EPA avoids major cuts
Appropriators trimmed the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) budget by $81 million, or about 1%, to $8.06 billion. But they essentially rejected Trump administration requests for deeper cuts to select research and ecosystem protection programs, and removed many policy riders that Democrats in Congress had opposed.

The agency’s science and technology programs, however, did take a $28 million, 3.8% cut, to $707 million.

The Trump White House had identified some $230 million in EPA cuts it wanted Congress to make this year, including a $48 million cut to climate-related research, a $49 million cut to EPA’s Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, and $30 million cut to efforts to clean up contaminated superfund sites. Instead, Congress rejected those requests, keeping air and climate research flat at about $117 million, and the Great Lakes program flat at $300 million, while adding $7.5 million to superfund cleanups.

Lawmakers stripped out many controversial policy riders, but kept several directing EPA to re-examine its greenhouse gas and wetlands protections policies. The bill also includes a controversial directive instructing EPA, together with the energy and agriculture departments, to “establish clear policies that reflect the carbon neutrality of biomass.” Declaring biomass—typically wood chips or other plant material—to be a fuel that does not add to net emissions of planet-warming carbon dioxide has been a controversial idea. Critics argue that favoring biomass as a fuel for producing electricity and heat could boost carbon emissions, not curb them, at least in the short run. And environmentalists fear promoting wood fuels could end up harming forests and other ecosystems. —David Malakoff

Giant octopus wears jellyfish cape after it devours its owner | New Scientist

Giant octopus wears jellyfish cape after it devours its owner | New Scientist

An elusive deep-sea giant has been filmed with its prey for the first time. It turns out it eats jellyfish and other gelatinous animals.

The octopus, Haliphron atlanticus, was filmed swimming docked on top of a medusa jellyfish, with its beak devouring its innards, while the medusa’s sticky tentacles were still hanging out of its mouth. The researchers think it might even be using the jellyfish tentacles as a handy feeding implement.

Little is known about H. atlanticus, and the researchers who filmed it using remotely operated vehicles have only seen it three times in as many decades. Most other octopuses eat more substantial prey such as fish and crustaceans, so it is a surprise to see this large species eating jellyfish.

What’s on the menu?
Most of what we know about the seven-armed octopus comes from specimens caught in trawl nets. It lives in deep open waters, growing up to 4 metres long and a weight of 75 kilograms. It is known to be eaten by sperm whales, swordfish and blue sharks. Males of the species have one of their eight arms permanently folded away, giving them the common name of seven-armed octopus.

Steven Haddock from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in California and his colleagues have now filmed three of these octopuses in the wild. The team saw them feeding on jellyfish and also analysed the stomachs of five previously caught specimens, all of which contained gelatinous zooplankton and three of them contained jellyfish. This makes sense, because the open ocean is rich in such creatures, so the octopus makes use of what’s on the menu.

Haddock says that the discovery shows us just how complex the ocean food web is. It is a rare example of a marine animal that can grow large feeding primarily on gelatinous fauna, such as jellyfish, others being sea turtles and ocean sunfish, for example.

The way the octopus had the jellyfish arms freely hanging out, while keeping the bell in its mouth provides evidence for the idea that the octopus uses jellyfish as living tools, says the team.

The theory is that they use the jellyfish tentacles to ensnare more prey and then feed off whatever makes its way to the body of the medusa, with octopus beak docked inside it.

Plastic not fantastic
Haddock thinks the importance of jellyfish in marine food webs has been unappreciated and underestimated. Given that top predators feed on giant octopuses, this may be an important way of channelling energy from the bottom to the top of the oceanic food chain, his team argues.

A diet that relies on jellyfish might put the octopuses at risk from our plastic rubbish, says Ken Collins of the University of Southampton, UK. Plastic pollution is a massive problem on the sea surface where sea birds and turtles mistake plastic bags for jellyfish.

“We have leatherback turtles migrating from the Caribbean to the Irish Sea to feed on massive barrel jellyfish off the Welsh coast,” he says. “One of the sad consequences of turtles’ love of jellyfish is that they mistakenly eat plastic litter – plastic bags, balloons from mass publicity releases, which quite simply block their gut and they eventually die.”

When the bags eventually sink, it is supposedly the end of the story – but Collins wonders if the same could be happening to this octopus away from our sight.

Mike Webster from the University of St Andrews, UK, says that this study provides information about the basic biology and ecology of an underexplored ecosystem and will hopefully allow us to monitor and perhaps slow the impacts we have on this ecosystem.

“These trips have a real feeling of exploring the frontier in a way that research expeditions on land perhaps no longer provide, in part because the terrain and the animals that are encountered are so often unfamiliar and surprising,” says Webster.

Backwards asteroid shares an orbit with Jupiter without crashing | New Scientist

Backwards asteroid shares an orbit with Jupiter without crashing | New Scientist

There’s an asteroid in Jupiter’s lane that orbits the sun in the wrong direction – and it may have been doing so for more than a million years.

The asteroid 2015 BZ509 was discovered in 2015, orbiting near Jupiter but in the opposite direction. Like Jupiter and the other asteroids tied to its orbit, which are called Trojans, it takes 12 Earth years to orbit the sun.

It is the only asteroid we know of that shares a planet’s orbital space while moving in the opposite, or retrograde, direction. Paul Wiegert at the University of Western Ontario and his colleagues examined this strange orbit to figure out why BZ509 doesn’t crash head-on into Jupiter.

There are only 95 known asteroids that orbit in retrograde, most of them far from larger planets. “This makes sense: if a clown car is going to survive going the wrong way around the track, best to stay away from the big trucks,” Wiegert wrote on his website.

BZ509, on the other hand, comes within 176 million kilometers of Jupiter at its nearest, close enough for Jupiter to shift the asteroid’s orbit. Wiegert and his colleagues found that this shift actually keeps the asteroid safe.

The asteroid passes Jupiter twice per orbit: once when it slips between the planet and the sun, and once on the planet’s far side. Each pass provides a small gravitational tug, which keeps BZ509’s path just to one side of Jupiter’s so they don’t collide.

Stable and safe
Wiegert and his colleagues calculated that, despite the orbit’s apparent delicacy, it is actually fairly stable and safe for the asteroid. They showed that it has been stable for at least million years and ought to remain so for a million more.

“Finding such a long-lived object in this unusual configuration is certainly a surprise,” says Wiegert. What’s still not clear is how BZ509 got on its backward path.

“We have to understand which mechanisms put this asteroid in this kind of orbit,” says Mattia Galiazzo at the University of Vienna. “It’s very peculiar, so we need to know how it got there.”

It could be the captured core of an icy comet. Many more comets have retrograde orbits than asteroids, so it could be easier for the sun and Jupiter to pull one of them into this peculiar orbit than a rocky asteroid.

“This is a common process for comets, but not for asteroids,” says Rudolf Dvorak at the University of Vienna. It could have been captured on a single orbit, but more likely it was caught gradually after a series of encounters, Dvorak says.

The discovery of one object with such a strange orbit, whether it turns out to be an asteroid or a comet, suggests that we could find other bodies orbiting in ways we haven’t considered.

“It’s exciting that, of all the possible and unusual niches for asteroids to live in in our solar system, they all seem to be occupied,” says Wiegert. “They’re not just theoretically possible, but they’re real objects.”

US bill restricts use of science in environmental policymaking | New Scientist

US bill restricts use of science in environmental policymaking | New Scientist

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is facing a future in which its hands will be tied on making many policies if a new bill becomes law.

Last week the US House of Representatives passed a bill, the HONEST Act, that would prevent the EPA from basing any of its regulations on science that is not publicly accessible – not just journal articles themselves, but all of the underlying data, models and computer code.

“The HONEST Act requires EPA to base new regulations on sound science that is publicly available, and not hidden from the American people,” said Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican and chair of the House science committee, who sponsored the bill, in a statement. “The days of ‘trust me’ science are over.”

“Allowing EPA’s data to be independently reviewed promotes sound science that will restore confidence in the EPA decision-making process,” said Smith.

While this may sound like a laudable move towards increased transparency, it would actually hobble the agency’s ability to develop good, science-based public health regulations, says Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Center for Science and Democracy.

“It’s couched in terms of transparency, but is actually one of several actions intended to bring regulations to a halt,” he says.

Confidentiality crucial
While the EPA does make background data available when possible, there are situations where it is impractical or impossible to release that information. Many epidemiological studies must remain confidential because of their use of human subjects, and computer models and code are often protected by intellectual property rules.

The bill allows such data to be kept secret, but would also allow anyone who had signed a confidentiality agreement to access that data if protected information, such as subjects’ names, is redacted. Rosenberg says the amount of time and effort it would take to redact the information would be unnecessarily burdensome.

Also, for research on humans it’s often not that difficult to reidentify people even after data has been anonymised. And in most cases, the EPA does not own the data, so it’s not theirs to give out. Many researchers and companies would likely refuse to hand it over if asked, so it becomes impossible for the EPA to use this data.

Sound science
In any case, the current system of peer-reviewed research should be sufficient to ensure that the agency is using sound science in its regulations, says Rosenberg.

“I review around 30 studies a year for academic journals, and I never review the raw data,” he says. “That doesn’t tell you whether the study was well-conducted. What tells you that is the methodology, how it was applied, the sampling scheme – the things that reviewers look at on a regular basis.”

The bill is the latest move in Smith’s long-running feud with the EPA. He previously sponsored a similar bill, the Secret Science Reform Act, which made many of the same demands.

That fizzled out after President Obama threatened to veto it, but Rosenberg fears that with the Republicans in control of both the House and Senate, and with President Trump in the White House, there is now a danger that the HONEST Act could become law.