Next-Generation Satellite Dissects Storms From Top To Bottom_

The GPM satellite and a constellation of other weather-observing spacecraft scan the entire globe every three hours.

This March weather system over the eastern U.S. included snow, water and ice. A flyby by the U.S. and Japanese GPM instrument revealed cloud composition at different altitudes.

Meteorologists are getting a whole new view of the weather systems that bring rain, snow and ice thanks to an instrument launched into orbit earlier this year. The next-generation Global Precipitation Measurement satellite and a constellation of other observatories and relays scan the entire globe every three hours to send back an avalanche of data.

GPM’s active radar system dissects clouds from top to bottom by measuring how its signal is reflected off of precipitation particles within the clouds. The observatory also has a microwave instrument that measures the amount of energy a cloud radiates. This information is then beamed through a network of satellites to a ground station in New Mexico and then on to NASA computers in Maryland. There, complicated algorithms decipher from the data stream the type of precipitation particles—water, snow or ice—held within clouds and tally the total precipitation within the weather system.

Officials say GPM’s capabilities are improving weather, natural disaster and crop forecasting while also giving researchers new insights into global water cycles and the physics of how these systems operate.

The gifs above and video below show what GPM sensed when it flew over a storm in the eastern U.S. in March. The satellite, built by NASA and the Japanese space agency, discerned the full range of precipitation types and the weather system’s three-dimensional structure.

“With this GPM mission data, we can now see snow in a way we could not before,” said NASA’s Gail Skofronick-Jackson, a GPM project scientist and chief of the agency’s mesoscale atmospheric processes lab. “Cloud tops high in the atmosphere have ice in them. If the Earth’s surface is above freezing, it melts into rain as it falls. But in some parts of the world, it’s cold enough that the ice and snow falls all the way to the ground.”

She continued: “What’s really clear in these images is the melting layer, the place in the atmosphere where ice turns into rain. The melting layer is one part of the precipitation process that scientists don’t know well because it is in such a narrow part of the cloud and changes quickly. Understanding the small scale details within the melting layer helps us better understand the precipitation process.”


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NASA’s Atmosphere-Monitoring Probe Joins the Party of Orbiters Around Mars_

NASA’s new atmosphere-monitoring spacecraft is now successfully orbiting Mars after a 10-month journey through space, adding to the steadily increasing collection of active orbiters helping to pave the galactic way for a manned mission to Mars.

The space agency announced that the MAVEN orbiter (which stands for Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution) started circling the Red Planet late on Sunday. So at least this time no metric system mix-ups got in the way of the Mars orbiter making its destination.

Unlike Martian rovers like Curiosity and Opportunity, MAVEN won’t be getting too close to the intriguingly dusty and once watery surface. Its focus is instead the planet’s upper atmosphere: MAVEN is the first spacecraft dedicated to investigating the climate from this position.

But as Motherboard’s Amy Teitel explained ahead of the spacecraft’s launch, these investigations are closely tied to our interest in water on Mars. The planet’s atmosphere once supported water on its surface, but that changed. Exactly how or why, we’re not sure—hence this new mission.

MAVEN will study the gas in Mars’ upper atmosphere to find out more about its composition, and the rate at which gas—like carbon dioxide—is escaping, changing the atmosphere as it leaves. It’s thought that over time the loss of these gases resulted in a thinner atmosphere around Mars, making for a drier, cooler climate. Understanding what went on in the past and what’s happening now will have obvious relevance to the potential habitability of the planet.

“As the first orbiter dedicated to studying Mars’ upper atmosphere,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in a statement, “MAVEN will greatly improve our understanding of the history of the Martian atmosphere, how the climate has changed over time, and how that has influenced the evolution of the surface and the potential habitability of the planet. It also will better inform a future mission to send humans to the Red Planet in the 2030s.”

That 2030s deadline was set out by President Obama in 2010, when he gave a space policy speech forecasting a manned mission to orbit Mars by 2030s, and adding that “a landing on Mars will follow.” NASA’s unprecedentedly huge Space Launch System (SLS) rocket is a recent practical step toward that goal.

But before we go in person, we could use a lot more knowledge about our Solar System neighbour. MAVEN has eight science instruments onboard to check out the atmospheric climate, and throughout its year-long mission it will dip down from its upper atmosphere orbit at around 150km to 125km from the planet’s surface, in order to sample the entirety of the upper atmosphere down to where it meets the lower atmosphere.


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Shape-Shifting Liquid Metal Alloys_

A team of researchers report that they understand a property of a liquid metal that allows them to manipulate it like the T-1000 from Terminator 2 and even build “scale models” of the violent automaton.

Chemists at North Carolina State University have observed that when they apply an electric charge to a gallium alloy (which is naturally liquid at room temperature) in water, they are able to manipulate its shape. After three years of studying the unusual reaction they figured out how it works: an oxide coating on the surface forms when the voltage is applied, then disappears without a trace when the voltage is removed. This coating changes the surface tension of the metal where it meets the water.

“Scientifically this is one of the most exciting projects I’ve ever worked on because nothing in the literature explained it,” Dr. Michael Dickey, an investigator on the study, tells Popular Science.

“On a fluid droplet two primary sources dominate shape and behavior,” Dr. Dickey says: “Gravity and surface tension. If you can control surface tension you can control the shape of the liquid.”

Dr. Dickey says modifying the shape of liquid metals could have broad practical applications. Circuits could transform in real time to do different tasks. Mirrors in cameras and telescopes could change shape to refine focus. And, in the long run, similar techniques might be discovered in other materials.


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No sedative necessary: Scientists discover new ‘sleep node’ in the brain_

A sleep-promoting circuit located deep in the primitive brainstem has revealed how we fall into deep sleep. Discovered by researchers at Harvard School of Medicine and the University at Buffalo School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, this is only the second “sleep node” identified in the mammalian brain whose activity appears to be both necessary and sufficient to produce deep sleep.

Published online in August in Nature Neuroscience, the study demonstrates that fully half of all of the brain’s sleep-promoting activity originates from the parafacial zone (PZ) in the brainstem. The brainstem is a primordial part of the brain that regulates basic functions necessary for survival, such as breathing, blood pressure, heart rate and body temperature.

“The close association of a sleep center with other regions that are critical for life highlights the evolutionary importance of sleep in the brain,” says Caroline E. Bass, assistant professor of Pharmacology and Toxicology in the UB School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences and a co-author on the paper.

The researchers found that a specific type of neuron in the PZ that makes the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is responsible for deep sleep. They used a set of innovative tools to precisely control these neurons remotely, in essence giving them the ability to turn the neurons on and off at will.

“These new molecular approaches allow unprecedented control over brain function at the cellular level,” says Christelle Ancelet, postdoctoral fellow at Harvard School of Medicine. “Before these tools were developed, we often used ‘electrical stimulation’ to activate a region, but the problem is that doing so stimulates everything the electrode touches and even surrounding areas it didn’t. It was a sledgehammer approach, when what we needed was a scalpel.”


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How Drug Cartels Counterfeit Pills_

The two people charged by the FBI last week with drug counterfeiting and smuggling weren’t part of a well-known cartel. They weren’t selling methamphetamine or cocaine. The pair, named Marla Ahlgrimm and Balbir Bhogal, were a pharmacist and a pharmacologist, indicted for “conspiring to supply at least four million misbranded and counterfeit pharmaceuticals” to American customers of a Costa Rica-based pharmaceutical company.

Drugs are considered counterfeit when the product itself is made using illegitimate ingredients, or a drug is passed off as a legitimate when it wasn’t produced by a pharmaceutical company, Roger Bate, a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC, who has published extensively on the topic, told me.

Counterfeit drugs are becoming an increasingly large problem worldwide. True numbers are hard to nail down, but the Centers for Disease Control estimates that 10 to 30 percent of all drugs are counterfeit in developing countries where manufacturing laws are difficult to enforce. In the US this number is reported to be only 1 to 2 percent. These drugs can contain too much, too little, or none of the active ingredient in the medication. For people unlucky enough to take one, the effects can range from nothing (if a drug is just a dud) to an allergic reaction to poisoning and even death.

The Ahlgrimm and Bhogal case sheds some light into where these drugs are coming from and how they’re getting into the hands of American consumers: Per the Bureau:

…From June 2007 through May 2010, Ahlgrimm and Bhogal, who is a dual U.S. and Indian citizen, allegedly arranged for the manufacture in India of millions of tablets of controlled substances, including alprazolam and phentermine, and prescription drugs, including carisoprodol and counterfeit Viagra.

When someone in the US would place an order with the Costa Rican pharmaceutical company, the FBI statement continues, the pair would fill the orders themselves with the smuggled meds and send them to the customers. From production to sale, it was probably a pretty small operation. “It can be like a mom-and-pop operation,” Bate said. “But a lot are huge entities.”

The operations producing illegal meds can be small, run out of basements and garages in India, or enormous and professional, operating under conditions that are nearly identical to those of the pharmaceutical companies. The small operations certainly outnumber the large professional ones, Bate added, “but if you consider the volume [of medications], of pills that get into the market, the number could be much closer.” That’s because the big operations have the capacity to make millions of pills per month in some cases, often with low-quality ingredients.

Counterfeit drugs are proliferating for a few different reasons. One is that regulators actually started looking, so they’re finding more and more producers, Bate said. But a scarier reason is that the drug cartels previously making cocaine and heroin have switched to legal drugs.

“It’s getting worse [in part because of] the war on drugs, meaning narcotics,” Bate said. “If you’re the Cali Cartel, it makes sense to get into pharmaceuticals,” because the penalties for producing legal drugs are much lighter than those for narcotics. Plus, Bate adds, you have a new, larger market of people who will buy your product.

Making the drugs themselves isn’t very hard. To get the chemical recipe for Viagra, one of the most widely counterfeited medications, anyone can see the patent that Pfizer initially filed in a document called a monograph, held at the US patent office. The steps for synthesizing the drug are even on Wikipedia. Pharmaceutical companies reveal this information, Bate said, because it guarantees that the government will protect this patent and won’t allow any other companies to do exactly the same thing.

Then the manufacturers get their hands on the basic chemical ingredients, which vary in quality from true pharmaceutical grade to cheaper or even falsified versions. For the people mixing these chemicals, “there is the possibility that they will inhale things they shouldn’t,” Bate said. “If they’re using some real [chemicals] and mixing them, it could blow up in their faces—like in Breaking Bad. But it’s not very common.”

The final mixture is then pressed into a pill, sometimes using real pill-pressing machines purchased easily on the international market, no registration required. But Bate, who has been on raids of counterfeit drug rings in the Middle East, has seen much more rudimentary machinery used for this purpose, including an Austrian printing press from the 1970s.

These groups operate like terrorist cells.

Some ingredients, though, can’t be faked, and it’s mostly those that affect a pill’s appearance. Viagra’s distinctive blue color is from titanium dioxide, and anyone who has ever taken Viagra knows this. If the pill’s not blue, Bate said, no one would take it. “It’s incumbent on counterfeiters to make a pill look right,” Bate said.


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Cat escapes hotel collapse during inferno_

The Dauphin hotel is a complete loss after suspected arson. All residents escaped before the collapse, but a cat trapped inside made its escape after the building fell.


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A Russian Beverage Company Buys Pabst Brewing_

A Russian beverage company said on Thursday that it was acquiring the Pabst Brewing Company, which makes the Pabst Blue Ribbon beer popular with barflies and hipsters alike and other brands like Colt 45 and Old Milwaukee.

The company did not disclose terms of the transaction, but people briefed on the matter said the price was more than $700 million in cash.

The buyer is Oasis Beverages, a Russian brewer and beverages distributor. Backing Oasis is TSG Consumer Partners, an American private equity firm focused on consumer goods, which will take a minority stake.


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The Parasitic Worm That Turns Snails Into Disco Zombies_

Those are parasitic worms dancing in the snail’s eyes.

Mother Nature has cooked up a sadistic punishment for the humble snail. It’s called Leucochloridium, and it’s a parasitic worm that invades a snail’s eyestalks, where it pulsates to imitate a caterpillar (in biology circles this is known as aggressive mimicry—an organism pretending to be another to lure prey or get itself eaten). The worm then mind-controls its host out into the open for hungry birds to pluck out its eyes. The worm breeds in the bird’s guts, releasing its eggs in the bird’s feces, which are happily eaten up by another snail to complete the whole bizarre life cycle.

It’s an existence that’s as brilliant as it is strange. But while science has known about Leucochloridium for more than a century, it was only in 2013 that biologist Tomasz Wesołowski of Poland’s Wrocław University confirmed the worm is indeed capable of manipulating its snail hosts. (Specifically, amber snails—like many other mind-controlling parasites, it’s highly species-specific, that is, it’s unable to manipulate the behavior of more than one species.)


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We are not going in circles_

“We are not going in circles, we are going upwards. The path is a spiral; we have already climbed many steps.” ― Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha_

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Robots Just Got Fingertips_

Robots are already running like humans, galloping like animals, and even opening doors (kind of), but researchers from MIT and Northeastern University have outfitted a robot hand with “a novel tactile sensor” giving it the ability to grasp and manipulate a USB plug.

What does that mean? Well, ostensibly, the researchers have given robots the ability to have almost human fingertips and dexterity to grab objects. The Baxter robot, above, uses its own vision system to identify the USB socket, computing the position and lightly guiding the plug into the console, with the light touch of a human being.

“The sensor is an adaptation of a technology called GelSight,” said Larry Hardesty in an MIT news release, and unlike an earlier version of the sensor this iteration comes in a smaller (fingerprint) size.

“The new sensor isn’t as sensitive as the original GelSight sensor, which could resolve details on the micrometer scale. But it’s smaller—small enough to fit on a robot’s gripper—and its processing algorithm is faster,” he said.

According to the researchers, this is an unprecedented robotic capability. While industrial grade robots can perform similar tasks “when the objects they’re manipulating are perfectly positioned in advance,” they write, this version self identifies the socket, then gracefully completes inserting the USB plug, all on its own, using advanced optics and computer-vision algorithms.

First they’re plugging in USBs. What next?


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