Monthly News Roundup – April, 2017 in Science

From the first direct observation of negative mass to the possibility that humans may have arrived in the Americas 100,000 years earlier than previously thought, the last month has revealed some fascinating revelations. On the other hand, it has been a rather quiet one in terms of exoplanet discovery, with the total count now being 3608 planets in 2702 systems, which is only one more than last month! Nonetheless, let’s look at some the most important headlines of April.

#1. New Graphene-Based Sieve Takes Salt Out of Seawater

GrapheneJynto

A graphene lattice like the one portrayed here consists of a single layer of carbon atoms arranged in a hexagonal formation.

Clean drinking water remains a rare commodity in many parts of the world, but a new invention could soon make that a thing of the past. On April 3, a British team of researchers built a graphene-based sieve that filters out salt from seawater. The holes are less than a nanometre wide, and the graphene structure is composed of a single layer of carbon atoms arranged in a hexagonal grid. The sieve will now be tested alongside existing (and currently very slow) desalination methods.

#2. Four Candidates for Planet 9 Proposed

planet Nine compared to Neptune and EarthPlanetUser

Planet Nine is expected to be around the same size as Neptune, as depicted here.

The evidence for the existence of a Neptune-sized planet in the dark outer reaches of the solar system continues to mount with the discovery of four possible candidates revealed on April 4. Some 60,000 people from around the world joined in the search organized by the Zooniverse citizen science project to find the proposed planet. Aside from finding possible candidates for the ninth planet, the project also helped to classify another four million objects in our solar system.

#3. Atmosphere around Earth-Size Planet Detected

Exoplanet Comparison GJ 1132 bAldaron

Planet Gliese 1132 b is the first Earth-size planet to have its atmosphere detected, although its constituents remain unknown.

Gliese 1132 b orbits a red dwarf star some 39 light years away, and it’s one of the relatively few terrestrial worlds so far discovered. Since April 6, it now bears the distinction of the first Earth-sized exoplanet to have its atmosphere detected, which bodes well for determining the habitability of other planets. However, Gliese 1132 b itself is a hostile planet that probably has a surface temperature hotter than Venus owing to the small distance between it and its host star.

#4. Negative Mass Observed for First Time

Warp fieldAllenMcC

If negative mass truly exists, it could mean that warp drives facilitating apparent faster than light travel are theoretically possible.

Until scientists first confirmed observing effective negative mass on April 10, the mind-bending concept belonged purely to the realms of speculation and science fiction. A key ingredient in the proposed Alcubierre warp drive, an object with negative mass accelerates towards you when you push it away. The discovery will initially help researchers better understand some of the more unusual conditions that occur in black holes, neutron stars and other strange objects.

#5. Molecular Hydrogen Found in Enceladus Plumes

Enceladus geysersNASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

These images, taken by Cassini in 2005, show geysers ripping through the icy surface of Enceladus from the subsurface ocean beneath.

Saturn’s moon Enceladus is one of the most likely places in the solar system for being home to extraterrestrial life. On April 13, NASA’s enormously successful Cassini mission, still going strong in its final months, detected molecular hydrogen in the icy geysers breaking through the surface. What this means is that the moon has a source of chemical energy of its own, which would be an essential habitability factor and a strong indicator that there may be life in the subsurface ocean.

#6. New Super-Earth Discovered 39 Light Years Away

The newly discovered planet might just be new most promising planet for finding life beyond the solar system.

On April 19, astronomers confirmed the discovery of a new terrestrial planet LHS 1140b orbiting within the habitable zone of its host star, a red dwarf about 39 light years away in the constellation Cetus. The planet is about seven times more massive than Earth and about 1.4 times larger, and it is expected to have an atmosphere and temperate surface temperatures. This remarkable new discovery brings the total of these so-called ‘Goldilocks’ habitable zone terrestrial planets up to 52.

#7. Discovery of Fungus-Like Fossil Poses New Questions of Evolution

Prototaxites was one of the earliest known fungi, as well as the largest living thing during its era, but the new discovery may just change everything.

The earliest known fungi appeared during the Devonian Period around 400 million years ago. However, this is also because fungi tend to leave few traces behind in the fossil record. However, on April 25, scientists revealed 2.4-billion-year-old fossils of fungal filaments which, if confirmed, could necessitate a complete rewrite of early evolutionary history. If fungi did indeed exist that long ago, then all other eukaryotes including all plants and animals, may have descended from them.

#8. Humans May Have Arrived 130,000 Years Ago in the Americas

Did early humans hunt the mastodon 130,000 years ago in the Americas? Controversial new evidence claims this might have been the case.

Consensus suggests that humans first arrived in the Americas over the Bering Strait no more than about 25,000 years ago. However, a remarkable discovery in southern California revealed on April 26 challenges this assumption with evidence that humans first appeared there 130,000 years ago. The evidence hinges on the remains of an American mastodon whose bones appear to have been smashed using stone tools, which only humans are known to make.

#9. Cassini Completes Its First Dive Between Saturn’s Clouds and Rings

Cassini's Grand FinaleNASA

Cassini will form a total of 22 dives between the rings and atmosphere of Saturn before finally plunging to its destruction beneath the clouds.

After 20 years of service, the Cassini mission has just begun its five-month decommissioning, which will see it take 22 daredevil dives between the rings and clouds of Saturn. At the end of its life, it will plunge into the planet to prevent it from contaminating any potential ecosystems on Enceladus or Titan. On April 27, NASA confirmed the success of the first dive when Cassini started sending back data having gone closer to the cloud tops of Saturn than any probe before it.

#10. Tokamak Energy’s New Fusion Reactor Turns On

The SunNASA

Like all main-sequence stars, the Sun is a natural fusion reactor that binds hydrogen atoms into helium under the intense temperatures and pressures of its core.

UK-based Tokamak Energy made a substantial step forward in the progress of nuclear fusion power when it fired up its brand new ST40 reactor on April 28. By heating plasma in the reactor core to a staggering 100 million °C (almost seven times hotter than the centre of the Sun), it can fuse hydrogen into helium, unleashing enormous amounts of clean energy in the process. The company hopes to make it an economically viable way to generate electricity by as early as 2030.

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