Vol. 1 / No. 26 — SpaceX to Sue, Cats Don’t Care, and the Riddle(s) of Life

Photo Credit: Steve Jurvetson, flikr user jurvetson, CC-BY-2.0
Photo Credit: Steve Jurvetson, flikr user jurvetson, CC-BY-2.0

SpaceX to Sue

The big news in rocketry this week is that SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk has announced his intention to sue the United States Air Force to allow it to compete for launches that were awarded to the Boeing and Lockheed-Martin space conglomerate ULA in a massive block of 36 launches to take place over the next five or six years. Musk’s arguing that the USAF’s anti-competitive contract awarding will cost US taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars needlessly, as well as, of course, denying his company the ability to make some of that money. In another interview he added that the fact that some of the major components for the ULA launches come from Russia is rubbing salt in the wound, because “the person who heads up Russian space activities is Dmitry Rogozin, who is on the (Ukraine) sanctions list,” essentially sending money to a country that’s in the middle of invading Ukraine. The full court filing can be found at the newly-setup freedomtolaunch.com at noon Eastern Time on Monday.

In other SpaceX news, SpaceNews has an interesting and useful comparison of SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corp, it’s leading competitor for private launches to the ISS.


Cats (and Babies) Make Bad Test Subjects

But we’re pretty sure they’re smart anyway. In an article out this week on Slate Science, writer David Grimm interviews two scientists — Drs. Ádám Miklósi and Christian Agrillo — about their work on the feline mind. The results may be familiar to cat owners, and may explain why there are so few data on cat cognition: cats seem pretty smart, as smart as dogs in one test, but they also don’t seem to care what we think (which makes testing them as hard as, well, herding cats). Smithsonian.com adds a little to the story, especially this link to science writer Ed Yong’s National Geographic piece about the ways we study the development of the animal mind (it’s well worth a read!)

And speaking of bad test subjects, evolutionary biologist David Haig has recently suggested that the reason babies cry at night may be to prevent mommy and daddy from having another (which might qualify as the most banal evil I’ve ever heard of). The full article can be found in the journal Evolution, Medicine and Public Health.

El Nino

Remember back in the 90s when you didn’t know or care what El Nino was, and then suddenly you had to because it was everywhere on every channel all the time? Well, it’s back. We think. Scientists are suggesting that this year’s El Nino could be as bad as the one in 1997-98, changing weather patterns and generally making people talk about El Nino a lot. Of course they don’t know how it will happen, where, or even if, but they do know that there’s a lot of heat built up in the water of the Pacific, which has the potential to make things uncomfortable for a lot of people. If it does happen, I can guarantee one thing: we’ll be as sick of the words “El Nino” by the time it’s done as we are of the words “Polar Vortex” now.

Where Is Everybody?

With the latest discovery of a potentially habitable exoplanet right in our own backyard (Kepler 186f, if you’re interested, is only 500 years away travelling at the speed of light), Andrew Snyder-Beattie explores a pretty interesting question: with all these possibly habitable planets around, why haven’t we met anyone yet? The problem is something called the Great Filter, and it’s been around since the Drake Equation was formalized. If the conditions for life are plentiful, but we haven’t met any of it yet, then the question arises: is there something preventing intelligent, spacefaring life from developing? Personally, I’m hoping they’re all around but aren’t visiting because we’re terrifying creatures, but perhaps they have a prime directive and are waiting until we have FTL to say hello.

In related news, the Marshall Islands are suing nine nuclear powers for not disarming according to their own agreements. I wish them the best of luck, given that nuking ourselves into a radioactive cinder is one possible explanation for the Great Filter.

Old Blood

Scientists studying the blood of recently-deceased supercentenarian 115-year-old Hendrikje van Andel-Schipper have discovered that our lifespans may be limited to our stem cells’ ability to continue producing new cells. The study, published in the current issue of Genome Research, found that van Andel-Schipper’s blood cells had a great deal of cellular mutation. When they looked into it, they discovered that all of her blood had basically come from two stem cells, suggesting that “stem cell fatigue” may be a leading factor in determining the length of life of the oldest and otherwise still healthy among us. It also suggests that if we can keep transplanting “young” stem cells, we might be able to fight the ageing process. io9 has more on the study.

Metabolism Before Cells

In recent news out of the University of Cambridge, scientists have shown that metabolic processes vital to life as we know it on Earth may have developed in advance of the cells they power. The reactions that produce the cellular power source ATP, as well as the molecules necessary to build RNA and DNA, took place in a simple solution heated to 50-70°C — about the same temperatures seen around underwater thermal vents. Very little is currently known about the origins of life on Earth, such that both abiogenesis and panspermia have been (and continue to be) explored. The full article can be found at the journal Molecular Systems Biology.

The Rest of the Best

Other things seen this week include the discovery of a mineral unlike any other seen before on Earth; NASA’s Morpheus lander prototype jumping 1300 feet in the air and safely landing again; determining the layout of exoplanets from a star’s peculiar wobble; a gorgeous set of LED-lit blue skies for those who can’t afford windows; and exogenic mountains on Jupiter’s moon Iapetus. And I leave you today with a video of all the nuclear-level asteroid impacts that have hit the Earth since the year 2000, courtesy of the B612 Foundation (whose motto should now, I think, be “trying to stop us getting nuked from orbit, please help”):

Have a great week!