From a potential ninth planet orbiting the sun to using genetic engineering to resurrect the American Chestnut tree, there’s a lot to get to this week, so let’s dig right in!
The top of the news this week has to be the reported “discovery” of a ninth planet in out solar system. Of course, it hasn’t been discovered yet, so you might want to hold the champagne for the moment. Basically, two astronomers, “Pluto killer” Mike Brown and Konstantin Batygin, applied rigorous mathematical modelling to a question raised a couple of years ago by another pair of astronomers, Chad Trujillo and Scott Sheppard. The question: do the odd orbits of six Kuiper Belt Objects (including Sedna) imply the existence of another planet, keeping those odd orbits stable? The answer, it turns out, might we be yes. After crunching the numbers, Brown and Batygin have — in a paper that passed peer review — decided that there’s at least a strong likelihood that there’s a very distant planet, perhaps about ten times the mass of the Earth, in an orbit that likely never gets closer to the sun than 200AU (that’s 200 times the distance from Earth to the Sun) and at its furthest may get as far as 1200AU away. For comparison, Pluto’s average distance is around 40AU (and it took us nine years to get there with New Horizons). Now a caveat: while reliable sources say the math looks good, this isn’t a done deal until someone sees it (i.e. “discovers” it), and it’s going to be very, very dim in a sky that’s very, very big. So if and when we find it, in five to fifteen years, we’ll all have a big old celebration about how the guy that dropped the number of planets in our solar system to eight has raised it back up to nine. Bad Astronomer Phil Plait has a great explanation of the details, and Brown and Batygin have their own site explaining things as they stand right now (in case you want to look for it yourself): FindPlanetNine.com
This week also marked the first time in years that flowers have grown in orbit — and the most successful time — as astronaut Scott Kelly managed to coax a crop of zinnias into bloom on the International Space Station. The successful experiment follows on from last year’s ISS-grown red lettuce, and is a step toward fruiting plants like tomatoes, which could provide a morale-boosting source of fresh vegetables in between cargo resupply missions. As the ISS blog reports, the zinnias had trouble with excess moisture, and it took direct on-the-fly gardening by Kelly to keep them in good health. As a result, NASA has now developed a program for “autonomous gardening”: a one-page guidelines document that the gardening astronaut will follow, while making day-to-day decisions about the plants themselves. Check out the International Space Station blog for more.
That Old Chestnut
It isn’t likely that many people alive today remember being in a stand of American Chestnut trees. What was once an extremely important tree in North American ecosystems was essentially wiped out in the early parts of the 20th century by a fungus accidentally imported on Asian chestnut trees. The Chestnut Blight fungus enters through wounds and produces a toxic substance — oxalic acid — which drops the pH of the surrounding area and killing the tree’s cells. Eventually the “canker” (which looks like a welt) works its way around the tree’s circumference and kills it. But now a pair of genetic engineers at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry have, after much work, inserted a single tweak to make the American Chestnut resistant to the fungus. The tweak, taken from the genome of ordinary bread wheat, causes the tree to produce a chemical that detoxifies the oxalic acid and prevents harm to the tree. They estimate there’s three to five years left before commercialization is possible, as the regulatory framework for GMOs is so stringent, but within a decade we could start seeing the American Chestnut again playing a part in the ecosystems of North America, all thanks to science. Check out this article over at The Conversation for more.
In case you missed any of this week’s stories, here’s your chance to get caught up!
- On Monday, the weekly crazy (now dubbed the Sweigart Report, after our most valuable contributor of all things crazy) came from a man whose middle name is Avocado and who thinks cacao has sacred properties
- On Tuesday, I kind-of defended giving The Martian the Golden Globe for best comedy or musical
- On Wednesday, I covered the ongoing issues in the Bitcoin sphere
- On Thursday, I explained that “power poses” don’t really have scientific backing, and
- On Friday, Lindsey covered Wyoming’s dismal women’s rights record
Check them out!
Best of the Rest
And here’s your weekly linkspam of interesting things!
- Jupiter-bound spacecraft Juno has broken the distance record for solar-powered spaceflight
- SpaceX has released a video from November of a hover test of its Dragon 2 capsule
- Denmark has announced that it got almost half its electricity from wind last year
- Scientists have come up with a plausible explanation for why there’s so little dark matter
- Firefox founder Brendan Eich has announced a new browser called Brave, and
- Phil Plait has explained that Tabby’s Star (even if it’s not alien megastructures, and it might still be) is still really weird
That’s all for this week. Remember, I only get paid in my own (and your) enthusiasm, so please like This Week In Tomorrow on Facebook, follow me on Twitter @TWITomorrow, and tell your friends about the site! Have a great week.