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Here's why whales don't drown when they gulp down food underwater – UBC News

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Ever wondered whether whales can burp, and why they don’t drown when they gulp down gallons of water and krill? New UBC research may just hold the answer.

Researchers found that lunge-feeding whales have an ‘oral plug’, a fleshy bulb in their mouths that moves backwards to seal off the upper airways during feeding, while their larynx closes to block the lower airways.

This plug prevents water from entering their lungs when they feed, according to a paper published today in Current Biology.  “It’s kind of like when a human’s uvula moves backwards to block our nasal passages, and our windpipe closes up while swallowing food,” says lead author Dr. Kelsey Gil, a postdoctoral researcher in the department of zoology.

Lunge-feeding whales eat by, you guessed it, lunging at their prey, accelerating at high speed and opening their mouths to engulf water and krill. Sometimes this amount can be larger than their own bodies, says Dr. Gil, an impressive feat given this group includes the humpback and the blue whale, the largest animal on Earth. Water is then drained via their baleen, leaving the tiny, tasty krill behind to be swallowed.

A group of humpback whales in Alaska, near Sitka. Credit: Ari Friedlaender

Credit: Alex Boersma/Current Biology

The researchers investigated fin whales specifically, a type of lunge-feeding whale and found the ‘oral plug’ needed to move in order to allow food to pass to the esophagus. The only way it could was towards the back of the head, and up, blocking off the nasal passages when the whale swallows. Simultaneously, cartilage closes at the entrance to the larynx, and the laryngeal sac moves upwards to block off the lower airways, says Dr. Gil. “We haven’t seen this protective mechanism in any other animals, or in the literature. A lot of our knowledge about whales and dolphins comes from toothed whales, which have completely separated respiratory tracts, so similar assumptions have been made about lunge-feeding whales.”

It turns out humans have a similar system to swallow food without getting anything in their lungs: we have the epiglottis and soft palate, a ‘lid’ of cartilage and a flap of muscle in our throat and mouth, respectively. Humans could probably eat underwater as well, says Dr. Gil, but it would be rather like swimming at high speed towards a hamburger and opening your mouth wide as you approached – difficult not to flood your lungs.

The whales’ oral plug and closing larynx is central to how lunge-feeding evolved, a key component in the enormous size of these creatures, the researchers say. “Bulk filter-feeding on krill swarms is highly efficient and the only way to provide the massive amount of energy needed to support such large body size. This would not be possible without the special anatomical features we have described,” says senior author Dr. Robert Shadwick, a professor in the UBC department of zoology.

Investigating whale anatomy often involves trying to dissect whales that have died from stranding which comes with such challenges as trying to complete work before the tide rises. However, for this research, Dr. Gil and her colleagues dissected whales in Iceland in 2018, recovering tissue that wasn’t being used for food from a commercial whaling station. Working with whales in real-time would be wonderful, she says, but might require some advancements in technology. “It would be interesting to throw a tiny camera down a whale’s mouth while it was feeding to see what’s happening, but we’d need to make sure it was safe to eat and biodegradable.”

The team will continue to explore the mechanisms related to the pharynx, and of the small esophagus that is responsible for rapidly transporting hundreds of kilograms of krill to the stomach in less than a minute. With the many human impacts that disrupt food chains, and knowing how whales feed and how much they eat, it’s good to know as much as possible about these animals in order to protect them and their eco systems, says Dr. Gil.

And there’s plenty more to find out, including whether whales cough, hiccup, and yes, burp. “Humpback whales blow bubbles out of their mouth, but we aren’t exactly sure where the air is from – it might make more sense, and be safer, for whales to burp out of their blowholes.”

Interview language(s): English (Gil, Shadwick)

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NASA's InSight Mars lander has taken its final selfie. Here it is – ZDNet

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InSight’s Final Selfie.


Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s InSight Mars lander has sent back its last selfie of its dust-covered solar panels and deck, in an image taken on its 1,211th ‘sol’ or Martian day of the mission on April 24. 

Insight has been roaming the red planet for the past 3.5 years, capturing images and data that allowed scientists to approximate its crust and core, and refine models of how planets evolved from dust circling the Sun. 

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Insight’s scientific mission is set to conclude in summer after which it will run out of power. The lander is solar-powered, but dust covering the seven-feet wide solar panels has reduced its production capacity from around 5,000 watt-hours per sol to 500 watt-hours per sol. Once these panels generated power equivalent to running an electric oven for 40 minutes, they now can only power one for 10 minutes. The lander is equipped with two 25 amp-hour lithium-ion rechargeable batteries for energy storage. 

SEE: NASA’s Mars helicopter just took these remarkable photos of the rover’s landing gear

With those constraints, even taking a selfie requires some calculation to stay within the spacecraft’s power budget. The selfie arm will now go into the “retirement pose”, according to NASA.    

“The arm needs to move several times in order to capture a full selfie. Because InSight’s dusty solar panels are producing less power, the team will soon put the lander’s robotic arm in its resting position (called the “retirement pose”) for the last time in May of 2022,” NASA JPL said

InSight launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on May 5, 2018 and landed on Mars on November 26, 2018, six minutes after hitting the the Martian atmosphere at 12,300 mph (19,800 kilometers per hour), according to NASA. It was the eighth landing on Mars in human history. 

Dust has played a significant role in the InSight lander’s capability to continue the mission. An epic dust storm on Mars in 2018 is believed to have been behind the demise of NASA’s Opportunity rover. A similar storm could have threatened InSight’s mission, too. The threat from dust is two-fold: dust storms obscure available sunlight, while dust directly on the solar panels reduce their capacity to absorb sunlight.   

In September, 2021, on its 1,000th sol of the mission, InSight measured a “marsquake” with a magnitude of 4.2, which helped scientists see what’s happening beneath Mars’ surface. 

Located on the dark side of Mars at the time, dust on the solar panels was already restricting their power output. NASA used Insight’s robotic arm to sprinkle sand near one solar panel, hoping wind gusts would make the granules sweep off some of the dust. The plan worked.

SEE: NASA’s Mars lander is running out of power. Here’s what happens next

Then on January 7, 2022, InSight went into safe mode after a major dust storm obscured sunlight from its solar panels. But by that stage, performing the ‘sand sweep’ technique had become difficult because of reduced available energy. InSight’s engineers were hoping a whirlwind would clear dust from the panels and had restricted the use of science instruments. By February 15, the solar panels’ output levels had returned to pre-storm levels. 

InSight’s onboard computers for command and data handling are derived from NASA’s 2014 Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) and its 2011 Moon Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) missions. The system has two redundant computers. Its core is a radiation-hardened 115.5 MHz CPU with a PowerPC 750 architecture called RAD 750 that was made by BAE Systems.

Its flight software is written in C and C++ on the VxWorks real-time operating system, which monitors the spacecraft’s health, checks for commands to execute, and handles communications and controls. It also checks commands for faults and handles corrective steps when it detects irregularities. 

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An animation of the last selfie.


Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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Boeing Starliner capsule nears completion of pivotal test flight to orbit – Financial Post

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The new Boeing Starliner capsule was due to descend back to Earth on Wednesday from its first uncrewed journey to the International Space Station (ISS), completing a high-stakes test flight as NASA’s next vehicle for carrying humans to orbit.

Less than a week after its launch from the Cape Canaveral U.S. Space Force Base in Florida, the CST-100 Starliner was scheduled to autonomously undock from the space station at 2:36 p.m. EDT (1836 GMT) to embark on a five-hour-plus return flight.

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If all goes as planned, the mission finale will come with the gumdrop-shaped craft making a fiery atmospheric re-entry followed by an airbag-cushioned parachute landing on the desert floor near White Sands, New Mexico at 6:49 p.m. PDT (2249 GMT).

Starliner was lofted to orbit last Thursday atop an Atlas V rocket furnished by the Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture United Launch Alliance and achieved its main objective, a rendezvous with the ISS, despite four of its multiple onboard thrusters malfunctioning along the way.

Boeing engineers also had to improvise a workaround for a thermal control defect during the final approach of the capsule to the space station, orbiting some 270 miles (430 kilometers) above Earth.

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But NASA and Boeing officials said none of the problems encountered so far should preclude Starliner from safely returning, and they chalked up such snafus to the learning process of developing a new spacecraft.

A successful mission would move the Starliner, beset by repeated delays and costly engineering setbacks, a major step closer to providing NASA with a second reliable avenue for ferrying astronauts to and from the space station.

Since resuming crewed flights to orbit from American soil in 2020, nine years after the space shuttle program ended, the U.S. space agency has had to rely solely on Falcon 9 rockets and Crew Dragon capsules from billionaire Elon Musk’s private company SpaceX.

Previously the only other option for reaching the orbiting laboratory was by hitching rides aboard Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft, an alternative currently less attractive in light of heightened U.S.-Russian tensions over the war in Ukraine.

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Much is also on the line for Boeing, as the Chicago-based company scrambles to climb out of successive crises in its jetliner business and space-defense unit. The Starliner program alone has cost the company nearly $600 million over the past 2 1/2 years.

An ill-fated first orbital test flight of Starliner in late 2019 nearly ended with the vehicle’s loss following a software glitch that effectively foiled the spacecraft’s ability to reach the space station.

Subsequent problems with Starliner’s propulsion system, supplied by Aerojet Rocketdyne, led Boeing to scrub a second attempt to launch the capsule last summer.

Starliner remained grounded for nine more months while the two companies sparred over what caused fuel valves to stick shut and which firm was responsible for fixing them.

The do-over test mission winding up on Wednesday could pave the way for Starliner to fly its first astronaut crew to the space station as early as the fall, NASA has said.

The orbiting outpost is currently home to a crew of three U.S. NASA astronauts, an Italian astronaut from the European Space Agency and three Russian cosmonauts. (Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Bradley Perrett)

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To Counter China, US, Japan Launch Bid to Put First Japanese Astronaut on Moon – HT Tech

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The US and Japan agreed to work to put the first Japanese astronaut on the moon, accompanied by an American astronaut, as the longtime allies develop a partnership aimed at countering China.

The US and Japan agreed to work to put the first Japanese astronaut on the moon, accompanied by an American astronaut, as the longtime allies develop a partnership aimed at countering China.

The two countries said in a joint statement they’d collaborate on human and robotic moon missions “including a shared ambition to see a future Japanese astronaut on the lunar surface,” with a goal of signing an implementation agreement this year. 

Also read: Looking for a smartphone? To check mobile finder click here.

Following a meeting Monday in Tokyo between President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, the countries also said they “are committed to a Japanese astronaut opportunity on the Gateway, a human outpost in the lunar vicinity, as part of expanding Artemis collaboration.” 

The joint lunar exploration development ties into the Artemis project, a US-led effort to return astronauts to the moon and eventually send humans to Mars.

US-Japanese space cooperation “is taking off, looking toward the moon and to Mars,” Biden said Monday at a press conference with Kishida.

“I’m excited about the work we will do together on the Gateway Station around the moon and look forward to the first Japanese astronaut joining us in the mission to the lunar surface, under the Artemis program,” he added.

The US and Japan are seeking to work more closely on space exploration after NASA officials warned of growing tensions between Washington and Beijing.

Monday’s news comes amid the race to start extracting potentially hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of resources on the moon and elsewhere.

The moon may contain large amounts of helium-3, an isotope potentially useful as an alternative to uranium for nuclear power plants because it’s not radioactive. Experts believe 5,000 tons of coal could be replaced by about three tablespoons of helium-3. 

The geopolitics of space mirrors the competition between the US and its allies against China and Russia. The world’s top superpowers have been struggling to agree upon a common set of rules to govern the next generation of space activity. 

Japan and South Korea are among 19 countries that have agreed to support the Artemis Accords, a non-legally binding set of principles for exploration of the moon, Mars and beyond.

But China and Russia have led opposition to the accords. They are jointly promoting an alternative project on the moon they say is open to all other countries: the International Lunar Research Station. 

Japan itself has one of the world’s most advanced space programs, and in 2020 the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency succeeded in bringing back material from an asteroid using the unmanned Hayabusa2 probe. 

About a dozen Japanese nationals have experienced space travel, putting the country roughly even with China, Germany and France, but far behind the US and Russia in the global rankings. The country’s space budget jumped by more than 20% to about 450 billion yen ($3.5 billion) last year. 

The lack of cooperation between the US and China on space exploration is particularly dangerous in an era where the cosmos are becoming more crowded, and billionaires like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are increasingly launching satellites to delve into commercial opportunities.

Japanese e-commerce billionaire Yusaku Maezawa spent time on the International Space Station last year in preparation for becoming the first private passenger on a planned trip around the moon on Musk’s SpaceX in 2023. No Japanese citizens have actually landed on the moon. 

NASA in April conducted tests for the launch of Artemis I, a fully robotic mission to the moon — the first since Apollo 17 in 1972. China is swiftly moving toward a goal of matching US capabilities. China is the only country to operate its own space station, and last year became only the second nation after the US to land a rover on Mars.

US legislation first passed in 2011 prevents NASA from most interactions with its Chinese counterpart, and the US has blocked China from taking part in the International Space Station — a move that simply prompted Beijing to build its own. 

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