Monthly News Roundup – November, 2016 in Science


It’s November 30 already, and that means Earthly Universe is now one month old today. However, while it’s certainly not easy starting a blog from nothing, particularly in addition to my regular, full-time writing work, it has already proven an extremely rewarding journey. Anyway, here I present the first of my monthly news roundups highlighting some of the most fascinating events to make the headlines in the world of science in November, 2016. Enjoy!

Although the last month was dominated by the ridiculously overhyped supermoon, there’s a lot more that has happened than the moon appearing 14% larger in the night sky than that. In fact, we’ve discovered new dinosaurs and other prehistoric species, space exploration has continued to unveil many spectacular new finds, and the exoplanet catalogue now stands at 3,544 planets in 2,659 systems. Here are my picks for some of the most important events of the past month.

#1. New Species of Mosasaur Discovered in Antarctica

An artist’s recreation of tylosaurus pembinensis, a close relative of the Antarctic mosasaur kaikaifilu hervei.

While pterosaurs ruled the skies and dinosaurs roamed the land throughout the Late Cretaceous period, mosasaurs were among the most successful aquatic species. The larger ones were also the apex predators in their environmental niches. Named after a reptilian deity of the native South American Mapuche people, kaikaifilu hervei was formally described by palaeontologists on November 2. This gigantic monster may have been up to 46 feet (14 m) long when it hunted in the seas of Antarctica.

#2. New Feathered Dinosaur Discovered in China

TongtianlongZhao Chuang

An artist’s representation of the tongtianlong trying to break free from a muddy morass 72-million years ago.

Earlier this year, workers in China made a remarkable find; an extremely well-preserved oviraptorid dinosaur. After being formally described by palaeontologists, it was revealed to the world on November 10, and the Late Cretaceous dinosaur was named Tongtianlong limosus, or ‘muddy dragon on the road to heaven’. Judging by its pose, with its feathered wings outstretched and beaked head raised, the unlucky creature died while trying to free itself from a muddy swamp 72-million years ago.

#3. 7.8-Magnitude Earthquake Builds a Wall in New Zealand

A map showing the extent of the 2016 New Zealand earthquake.

A couple of minutes after midnight, on November 14, an earthquake measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale struck the South Island of New Zealand. Sadly, two people died, and the nearby tourist town of Kaikoura was left cut off from rail and road access for a time. The earthquake left behind a 2-mile (3 km) trench where it fractured the land, creating walls of earth up to 15 feet (4.57 metres) in height and dramatically reshaping the local countryside.

#4. Discovery of the Roundest Celestial Object Ever Observed

Kepler 11145123Laurent Gizon et al. and the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research/Mark A. Garlick

An illustration showing Kepler 11145123, a star with twice the radius of the Sun and the roundest object ever found in space.

All stars, planets and other objects massive enough to reach hydrostatic equilibrium appear to be round. However, due to centrifugal forces resulting from rotation, they are always relatively flat around their equatorial regions. That’s not so much the case with KIC 11145123, however, a star some 5,000 light-years from Earth that was revealed on November 16 to have a difference of only 2 miles (3 km) between its polar and equatorial radii, compared to the Sun’s 930,000 miles (1.5 million km).

#5. New Evidence Claims Dinosaur-Killing Impactor Punctured Earth’s Crust

Chicxulub AnimationDavid Fuchs

An animation showing the creation of the Chicxulub Crater during the dinosaur-destroying impact that ended the Cretaceous Period.

66-million years ago, a devastating impact event involving an asteroid or comet 6 miles (10 km) wide wiped out pretty much every living thing larger than a dog, famously including all of the non-avian dinosaurs, pterosaurs and countless other species. On November 17, Live Science revealed evidence that the impact had actually been powerful enough to puncture the Earth’s crust, thus giving fascinating new insights into how such events can dramatically reshape our world’s geology.

#6. Faintest Ever Milky Way Satellite Galaxy Found

Virgo ITohoku University/National Astronomical Observation of Japan

An illustration showing the position of the Virgo I satellite galaxy alongside a zoomed in portion of the sky in the form of a density map.

Just like planets have moons and stars have planets, entire galaxies have satellite galaxies that are gravitationally bound to them. Our own Milky Way has at least 50 satellite galaxies and, on November 21, a new one dubbed Virgo I was revealed. The faintest of all the satellite galaxies so far discovered, this relatively tiny region of space lies around 280,000 light years away and is a small collection of primordial stars that have accreted after being ejected from the Milky Way billions of years ago.

#7. Enormous Underground Ice Deposit Found on Mars

A vertically exaggerated view of the region where subsurface ice was discovered in Utopia Planitia.

Although it has long been known that water exists in great abundance in the form of ice on the surface of Mars, evidence that the Red Planet was once home to vast oceans continues to mount. On November 22, NASA reported the discovery of an underground ice deposit beneath Utopia Planitia with enough volume to fill Lake Superior. These findings also prove promising for future colonisation of Mars, where easy access to water would be essential.

#8. Fossil Beetle Discovered in Antarctic Glacier

Beardmore GlacierCommander Jim Waldron, National Science Foundation

An aerial photo of Beardmore Glacier taken in the summer of 1957. Millions of years ago, this region was probably home to a greener tundra environment.

The vast snowy valley of Beardmore Glacier in southern Antarctica is a perpetually freezing place, and an inhospitable environment for the overwhelming majority of the world’s insects. However, the discovery of a fossil beetle, revealed on November 23, demonstrates that Antarctica was once much warmer than it is today. Named Ball’s Antarctic tundra beetle (Antarctotrechus balli), it lived between 14- and 20-million years ago during the Miocene epoch when much of Antarctica was still green.

#9. Cassini Completes Its Last Flyby of Titan

An artist’s representation of the Cassini probe entering Saturn’s orbit, just after the main engine started firing.

The Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn and its largest moon Titan has been enormously successful ever since it arrived at the distant world back in 2004. Most notably, it sent the first ever landing module to a body in the outer solar system, revealing unprecedented insights into the mysterious hazy orange world of Titan. On November 29, Cassini made its last flyby of the Saturnian moon to map the surface before it begins its gradual orbital decay and crashes into Saturn next year.

#10. Construction of Chernobyl’s Safe Containment Arch Finishes

New Safe ConfinementTim Porter

Final construction phase of the €1.5 billion New Safe Confinement structure to replace the ailing concrete sarcophagus built in 1986.

Chernobyl is the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster and, having been there myself, I can testify that it’s an extremely sobering place to visit and the perfect testament to the horrors of what happens when nuclear power goes wrong. On November 29, the largest land-based moving structure ever built was finally moved into place over the destroyed reactor. It now covers the ailing concrete sarcophagus constructed following the disaster in 1986 to prevent further leakage of radiation.


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