Monthly News Roundup – March, 2017 in Science

The Exoplanet Catalogue now lists 3,607 exoplanets in 2,701 systems, and we can be pretty sure that these numbers will increase exponentially over the next few years given the continuing success of NASA’s Kepler mission and next year’s launch of the James Webb Space Telescope. However, it’s not just space that’s been making the headlines, as you’ll see from my top-ten picks of some of the most important science news of the last month.

#1. Researchers Find Evidence of the Oldest Lifeforms on Earth

Ancient microscopic lifeMatthew Dodd

These tubular structures may be fossils of extremely ancient microscopic life.

Life on Earth has an incredibly lengthy history which might extend even further back than previously believed. On March 1, researchers revealed tiny structures embedded in crystals that appear to be microscopic fossils. The rocks, which were found in northern Quebec, are among the oldest ever found. If the existence of ancient life is confirmed, it will put the current estimation for life first appearing on Earth back to an extraordinary 4.28 billion years.

#2. IBM Announces Its Intention to Build the First Viable Quantum Computer

D-Wave Systems

The DWave quantum computing core is one of the few experimental quantum computers ever built.

Although people have already been talking about quantum computing for years, it is now well and truly out of the realms of science fiction. On March 6, IBM announced its intention to build the first commercially available quantum computer. Dubbed IBM Q, the machine will be targeted towards business and science users. If successful, it could yield the greatest breakthrough in the world of computing since the invention of the digital computer in the thirties.

#3. Astronomers Discover Bizarre Binary System

Black hole devouring a white dwarfNASA/CXC/M.Weiss

A black hole tearing away the outer layer of a white dwarf star.

Binary star systems have proven to be very common in the Universe, but a team of researchers announced on March 13 the discovery of a record-breaking system consisting of a white dwarf and a black hole some 15,300 light years away. Using data collected from three observatories, the astronomers discovered that the two stellar remnants are orbiting one another at an extraordinarily close distance of only 2.5 times greater than the distance between the Earth and Moon.

#4. Glowing Frog Discovered in Argentina

Hypsiboas punctatusAndreas Schlüter

Although a very common forest-dwelling species, it was only just discovered that hypsiboas punctatus could glow in the dark.

Until March 13, fluorescence in land-dwelling animals had only ever been found in insects. However, the discovery of a glow-in-the-dark frog in Argentina represents the first example of fluorescence among the 5,000 frog species known. The bizarre creature glows cyan in either twilight and moonlight, possibly for the purposes of visual communication or identification by other frogs. The polka-dot tree frog has been known for over 200 years, and is found in forests all over South America.

#5. Geologists Discover 4.2 Billion-year-old Hadean Rocks

Hadean landscapeTim Berelink

The Hadean landscape was likely extremely geologically active.

Little is known about the Hadean Aeon 4.6 to 4 billion years ago, during most of which the Earth was likely enveloped in a magmatic ocean. Towards the end of the aeon, the crust started to solidify. However, global geological activity sent most of the original material back into the interior, making it difficult to learn much about these far-off times. However, on March 17, an analysis of rock samples collected in Canada revealed incredibly ancient basalts dating back 4.3 billion years.

#6. Research Reveals Recently Active Martian Volcano

Arsia Mons volcanoNASA

Arsia Mons volcano on Mars was spewing out lava flows as recently as 50 million years ago.

Mars has long been assumed to be geologically dead, but recent discoveries suggest that the Red Planet might not be so inert after all. On March 21, new research revealed that the Martian shield volcano Arsia Mons was active just 50 million years ago, which is a mere drop in the bucket in geological terms. So far, 29 volcanic vents have been discovered around the 68-mile-wide (110 km) caldera, and scientists have also managed to map the ancient lava flows.

#7. Palaeontologists Redefine the Dinosaur Family Tree

T-RexConnie Ma

The recent shakeup in the dinosaur family tree places T-rex in the same taxonomic order as the triceratops.

Dinosaurs have been known for almost 200 years, and new species are discovered every year. However, a team of palaeontologists in Cambridge University revealed on March 22 that it might be time to re-evaluate their history. The reworked dinosaur family tree moves the famous tyrannosaurus rex and its relatives to the ornithischia (bird-hipped) order alongside the triceratops and stegosaurus. Additionally, the new research puts the appearance of the first dinosaurs back another 15 million years.

#8. World’s Largest Dinosaur Footprint Discovered in Australia

World's largest dinosaur footprintDamian Kelly, University of Queensland

The largest dinosaur footprint ever discovered was found among 24 tracks dating from the Cretaceous Period.

On March 24, a team of palaeontologists published their research detailing the world’s most diverse collection of dinosaur footprints. Found in what has been dubbed Australia’s ‘Jurassic Park’, the footprints include the largest ever found. Measuring 3”9’ (1.15 metres), the footprint belongs to an enormous sauropod which, in life, was probably around 17”9’ (5.4 metres) high at the hips. In total, some 24 dinosaur tracks were identified, with some of them dating back 140 million years.

#9. Record-Breaking Brown Dwarf Discovered

Brown DwarfNASA

An artist’s illustration of a brown dwarf, a sub-stellar remnant with a mass somewhere between that of a star and a gas giant planet.

Sometimes dubbed ‘failed stars’, brown dwarfs are sub-stellar objects that are not massive or hot enough for nuclear fusion to take place in their cores. On March 25, astronomers identified a record-breaking brown dwarf, giving it the poetic name of SDSS J010448.46+153501.8. The object in incredibly unusual in that it’s one of the ‘purest’ objects in the known Universe, being composed of 99.99% hydrogen and helium making it 250 times purer than the Sun.

#10. ESO Discovers New Type of Stellar Nursery

Galactic OutflowsESO/M. Kornmesser.

The galactic outflows emanating from the galactic core are filled with young stars.

On March 27, an international team of astronomers using ESO’s Very Large Telescope revealed a new type of stellar nursery some 600 million light years from Earth. A massive galactic outflow, caused by the ongoing collision of two galaxies collectively referred to as LEDA 70861, is abundant with newly forming stars. The centre of the enormous structure contains a supermassive black hole, which the young stars are moving away from at extremely high velocities.

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