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Mars Perseverance rover loses its trusty scout

Mars Perseverance rover loses its trusty scout

Editor’s note: A version of this story appeared in CNN’s Wonder Theory science newsletter. To get it in your inbox, sign up for free here.

As humans, we like to “dare mighty things.”

That’s the motto of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, that borrows from a Theodore Roosevelt quote.

As a species born to live and walk on Earth, humankind has found ingenious ways to adapt to the absence of gravity as we set our sights on deep space, including building robotic explorers that can venture across the cosmos in our stead.

This week, the first photo arrived from Japan’s “Moon Sniper,” showcasing intriguing lunar rocks at its landing site, even though the lander didn’t touch down as planned.

Meanwhile, the European Space Agency has selected two new missions: one that will “surf” through gravitational waves to unravel the mysteries of the universe and another to uncover why Venus didn’t turn out like Earth.

And it’s time to bid farewell to one of the most delightfully plucky robots ever to explore Mars.

Other worlds

The Ingenuity helicopter, seen here on Mars in an image taken by the Perseverance rover on August 2, 2023, has flown for the last time. - NASA/JPL-Caltech
The Ingenuity helicopter, seen here on Mars in an image taken by the Perseverance rover on August 2, 2023, has flown for the last time. - NASA/JPL-Caltech

After 72 flights in the Martian skies, NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter has flown for the last time.

Ingenuity served as the Perseverance rover’s faithful companion and aerial scout for nearly three years since its maiden flight on April 19, 2021. The historic chopper was the first aircraft to operate and fly on another world.

While coming in for a landing on January 18, the rover lost contact with the helicopter. When communication was reestablished, the mission team saw a photo capturing the shadow of Ingenuity’s damaged rotor blade. The blade likely struck the ground, which ended the helicopter’s mission.

The intrepid chopper outlasted its initial 30-day mission, flying higher, farther and faster than its NASA team ever expected and paving the way for the future of aerial space exploration.

“We couldn’t be prouder of our little tough trailblazer,” said Teddy Tzanetos, Ingenuity’s project manager at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Take note

During the frigid days of winter, it’s easy to hope that spring will arrive quickly. But in addition to blooming flowers and warmer temperatures, spring will bring about another force of nature: cicadas.

Scientists predict that billions of cicadas will surface as two different broods that typically appear every 13 years and every 17 years emerge simultaneously.

The rare event hasn’t been seen in the United States since Thomas Jefferson was president, and it’s not expected to occur again until 2245.

A long time ago

Aiming to trace syphilis' origins, researchers used paleopathology techniques to study ancient human bones at the site Jabuticabeira II in Brazil's Santa Catarina state. - Jose Filippini
Aiming to trace syphilis' origins, researchers used paleopathology techniques to study ancient human bones at the site Jabuticabeira II in Brazil's Santa Catarina state. - Jose Filippini

Scientists are teasing information from the ancient DNA trapped inside bones, mummified bodies and dental plaque to solve the mysteries of pathogens that have affected humans for centuries — including syphilis.

The sexually transmitted disease, still prevalent today, first made its mark in the 15th century, devastating European populations. Different nations blamed it on their neighboring countries, and its origin has been murky.

Researchers studied 2,000-year-old remains in Brazil and found the earliest known evidence of the bacterium that causes syphilis and other related diseases. The disease has a much longer and more complicated history than scientists previously believed, the finding revealed.

Ocean secrets

It turns out that the megalodon, a fearsome shark that terrorized the ancient seas, wasn’t so mega after all.

The extinct megalodon has often been depicted as a massive great white shark. But the creature’s cartilage wouldn’t have had the strength to support such a hulking body shape, new research has suggested.

Instead, the marine predator was likely skinnier than a great white, based on a study of a fossil belonging to an Otodus megalodon that lived more than 23 million years ago.

The revelation is one more piece in the puzzle that is megalodon biology, which has largely been difficult for researchers to figure out. That’s because fossilized teeth have been much easier to find than actual fossils.

Consequences

A bumblebee visits a field pansy flower during an experiment from a recent study conducted by researchers at the University of Montpellier in France. - Samson Acoca-Pidolle
A bumblebee visits a field pansy flower during an experiment from a recent study conducted by researchers at the University of Montpellier in France. - Samson Acoca-Pidolle

Butterflies and bees have helped flowers reproduce for thousands of years, but as pollinator populations decline, some flowers are “selfing,” or self-pollinating.

While this shift may sound like a positive survival tactic, scientists studying wild field pansies in France determined that some modern flowers are smaller and produce less nectar because of self-pollination.

“This may increase the pollinator decline and cause a vicious feedback cycle,” said study coauthor Pierre-Olivier Cheptou, a professor at the University of Montpellier. The evidence indicates an “evolutionary breakdown of plant pollinators in the wild,” he said.

Meanwhile, scientists have traced a rapid depletion of subterranean water reserves around the world that are used for drinking and irrigation — with a few notable exceptions.

Explorations

Journey through these fascinating reads:

— There are only two female northern white rhinos on the planet, but the world’s first in vitro fertilization rhino pregnancy could save the species from extinction.

— Superbug infections have the potential to kill 10 million people per year by 2050, but scientists have turned to one of nature’s oldest predators to attack bacteria as a possible solution.

— Astronomers used the Hubble Space Telescope to observe the smallest exoplanet found to have water vapor in its atmosphere, and it’s a world that swirls with inhospitable steam.

— Officials at a British wildlife park are hoping to rehabilitate a group of potty-mouthed African gray parrots that say “proper expletives” — but the team’s risky approach could create even more foulmouthed birds if it backfires.

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