Ocean-drilling ship that revolutionized Earth science due to retire
An ocean-drilling research programme that has been the most successful and productive global geosciences collaboration for decades will come to a stark end next year.
The US National Science Foundation (NSF) announced on 6 March that it would retire its flagship JOIDES Resolution drilling vessel rather than extend operations until 2028, as many researchers had hoped. It blamed the US$72 million annual expense of running the 44-year-old vessel.
The landscape of ocean-drilling research was due to change next year no matter what, because the International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP) — a 21-nation alliance that supports global expeditions to collect geological cores from the sea floor — will end on 30 September 2024. But many Earth scientists had been asking the NSF to keep the JOIDES Resolution operating for an extra four years, until its environmental certification runs out.
Critics say that the decision to retire the vessel will damage US leadership and international collaboration in scientific ocean drilling. “It’s a disaster for the ocean sciences in the US,” says Jamie Austin, a geophysicist at the University of Texas at Austin. The decision is “not unanticipated but nevertheless very disappointing — a big blow to the global community,” adds Henk Brinkhuis, a marine geologist at the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research in Texel and chair of the IODP Forum, which coordinates the current ocean-drilling partners. Scientific ocean drilling has contributed to key Earth-science findings, such as the discovery of plate tectonics.
The two other main partners in the IODP — a consortium of 14 European nations and Canada, known as ECORD, plus Japan — have agreed to work together without the United States after 2024, to advance scientific ocean drilling. ECORD hires a variety of vessels to perform specific ocean-drilling tasks, whereas Japan uses a large vessel named Chikyu.
Many researchers worry about the future of early-career scientists in the United States, who will not be able to work aboard the JOIDES Resolution after next year. Even if the NSF ultimately builds another ocean-drilling vessel to replace it, it would take at least a decade for a new vessel to begin working.
“We really can’t afford a gap,” says Mohammed Hashim, a geochemist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, who led 207 other early-career scientists in writing a letter to ask the NSF to keep the JOIDES Resolution operating until 2028. “We cannot do what we do without a ship — we have to sail, we have to drill, we have to get cores so we can study them.”
Announcing the ship’s retirement, the NSF said that it “wants to ensure a sustainable future for the scientific ocean drilling community” and that it would engage with early-career scientists on what that might look like. It said that it intends to keep the funds freed up by retiring the JOIDES Resolution available for work in scientific ocean drilling, including studying existing cores.
But the end of the JOIDES Resolution “is going to be a lot of opportunities lost”, says Anthony Koppers, a marine geologist and senior adviser to the vice-president for research at Oregon State University in Corvallis. He chairs an alliance of leaders from 13 leading US oceanographic institutions that have been asking the NSF to continue operating the JOIDES Resolution. “We’re losing a Hubble-telescope-type capability that we had for five decades,” Koppers says.
Splitting the bill
The NSF says that its decision was based on the cost of running the JOIDES Resolution. One key area of dispute was the amount of funding being put in by ECORD. The JOIDES Resolution costs $72 million annually to run; the NSF pays $48 million each year to Texas A&M University in College Station to operate the vessel, as well as other costs to other institutions associated with scientific ocean drilling. ECORD contributes $7 million annually to JOIDES Resolution operations, and other funding partners contribute smaller amounts.
Last July, after being asked by the NSF, ECORD told the agency that it would not be able to contribute any more cash towards the rising costs of operating the vessel. The NSF cited flat funding from international partners in its 6 March decision, saying: “A new equitable model needs to be developed in partnership with the scientific community.”
“NSF will be engaging with our international partners in the coming months about future collaborative efforts,” says James McManus, the head of the agency’s ocean-sciences division. “NSF and the community need to continue to consider present and future science priorities and how we can best achieve those priorities leveraging available technology.”
One possibility is that after 2024, US researchers could work aboard ocean-drilling vessels hired by groups such as ECORD. “We will welcome collaboration with the US, whatever the level,” says Gilbert Camoin, director of the ECORD Managing Agency in Aix-en-Provence, France. Other nations that currently participate in IODP, such as China, Australia, New Zealand and India, must now decide whether to work with the ECORD–Japan alliance. China is also building its own scientific drilling vessel.
For now, the IODP partners will push through their last six expeditions with the JOIDES Resolution. The vessel recently finished working near the Greek island of Santorini, exploring underwater volcanoes, and will make its final study in September 2024, on a palaeoclimate expedition north of Iceland. After that, it will go through a five-year period of being demobilized.
There could be some upsides to the NSF decision. Retiring the JOIDES Resolution in 2024 instead of 2028 should allow the NSF more time and focus to work out the future of its contributions to scientific ocean drilling, says Rick Murray, the vice-president for science and engineering at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and former head of ocean sciences at the NSF. “While I am saddened that there will be less science for these four years, I think the investment of those years has the potential to lead to a lot of terrific science,” he says.
Stressed plants emit airborne sounds that can be detected from more than a meter away
What does a stressed plant sound like? A bit like bubble-wrap being popped. Researchers in Israel report in the journal Cell on March 30 that tomato and tobacco plants that are stressed—from dehydration or having their stems severed—emit sounds that are comparable in volume to normal human conversation. The frequency of these noises is too high for our ears to detect, but they can probably be heard by insects, other mammals, and possibly other plants.
“Even in a quiet field, there are actually sounds that we don’t hear, and those sounds carry information,” says senior author Lilach Hadany, an evolutionary biologist and theoretician at Tel Aviv University. “There are animals that can hear these sounds, so there is the possibility that a lot of acoustic interaction is occurring.”
Although ultrasonic vibrations have been recorded from plants before, this is the first evidence that they are airborne, a fact that makes them more relevant for other organisms in the environment. “Plants interact with insects and other animals all the time, and many of these organisms use sound for communication, so it would be very suboptimal for plants to not use sound at all,” says Hadany.
The researchers used microphones to record healthy and stressed tomato and tobacco plants, first in a soundproofed acoustic chamber and then in a noisier greenhouse environment. They stressed the plants via two methods: by not watering them for several days and by cutting their stems. After recording the plants, the researchers trained a machine-learning algorithm to differentiate between unstressed plants, thirsty plants, and cut plants.
The team found that stressed plants emit more sounds than unstressed plants. The plant sounds resemble pops or clicks, and a single stressed plant emits around 30–50 of these clicks per hour at seemingly random intervals, but unstressed plants emit far fewer sounds. “When tomatoes are not stressed at all, they are very quiet,” says Hadany.
Water-stressed plants began emitting noises before they were visibly dehydrated, and the frequency of sounds peaked after five days with no water before decreasing again as the plants dried up completely. The types of sound emitted differed with the cause of stress. The machine-learning algorithm was able to accurately differentiate between dehydration and stress from cutting and could also discern whether the sounds came from a tomato or tobacco plant.
Although the study focused on tomato and tobacco plants because of their ease to grow and standardize in the laboratory, the research team also recorded a variety of other plant species. “We found that many plants—corn, wheat, grape, and cactus plants, for example—emit sounds when they are stressed,” says Hadany.
The exact mechanism behind these noises is unclear, but the researchers suggest that it might be due to the formation and bursting of air bubbles in the plant’s vascular system, a process called cavitation.
Whether or not the plants are producing these sounds in order to communicate with other organisms is also unclear, but the fact that these sounds exist has big ecological and evolutionary implications. “It’s possible that other organisms could have evolved to hear and respond to these sounds,” says Hadany. “For example, a moth that intends to lay eggs on a plant or an animal that intends to eat a plant could use the sounds to help guide their decision.”
Other plants could also be listening in and benefiting from the sounds. We know from previous research that plants can respond to sounds and vibrations: Hadany and several other members of the team previously showed that plants increase the concentration of sugar in their nectar when they “hear” the sounds made by pollinators, and other studies have shown that plants change their gene expression in response to sounds. “If other plants have information about stress before it actually occurs, they could prepare,” says Hadany.
Sound recordings of plants could be used in agricultural irrigation systems to monitor crop hydration status and help distribute water more efficiently, the authors say.
“We know that there’s a lot of ultrasound out there—every time you use a microphone, you find that a lot of stuff produces sounds that we humans cannot hear—but the fact that plants are making these sounds opens a whole new avenue of opportunities for communication, eavesdropping, and exploitation of these sounds,” says co-senior author Yossi Yovel, a neuro-ecologist at Tel Aviv University.
“So now that we know that plants do emit sounds, the next question is—’who might be listening?'” says Hadany. “We are currently investigating the responses of other organisms, both animals and plants, to these sounds, and we’re also exploring our ability to identify and interpret the sounds in completely natural environments.”
Lilach Hadany, Sounds emitted by plants under stress are airborne and informative, Cell (2023). DOI: 10.1016/j.cell.2023.03.009. www.cell.com/cell/fulltext/S0092-8674(23)00262-3
Stressed plants emit airborne sounds that can be detected from more than a meter away (2023, March 30)
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After sunset, see the 5 planets in the sky or via video
How to see 5 planets
This week (late March 2023), you can see five planets lined up in our evening sky: Venus and Uranus, Jupiter and Mercury and Mars. Gianluca Massi of the Virtual Telescope Project in Rome, Italy, showed them through a telescope earlier today (March 29). To enjoy his presentation, watch the video below. In addition, you can see them in the sky, perhaps, if your sky conditions are very good, and you have a sharp eye.
As soon as the sun sets, the planets are positioned in a gentle arc across the evening sky, following the sun’s path across our sky. Likewise, the Moon and the planets also follow the eclipse.
How can we see the planets? Go out around sunset and look west. Among them you can easily spot the bright planet Venus.
Then use binoculars to scan the planet Uranus next to Venus.
Then aim your binoculars low in the sky, near the point where the sun is setting. That is where you will find Jupiter and Mercury.
Then look high in the sky — still see the eclipse or the path of the Sun — to Mars.
Guide to Planetary Viewing
Venus and Uranus. Of these five planets, Venus is the brightest and Uranus is the dim. These two are close together in the sky. Venus is easily visible to the eye. It is the first “star” (actually, planet) to come into view. Uranus shines at +5.8 magnitudes. This is theoretically obvious. But, in practice, you need a dark sky and a telescope to find it. It was roughly 1.5 degrees or three moon widths from Venus earlier this week. Uranus will be closest to Venus on Thursday, March 30.
Thursday and Wednesday. Jupiter is the 2nd brightest planet. But it is now near sunset and visible only in bright twilight. Bright twilight skies make Jupiter more difficult to find. But Jupiter is still visible to the naked eye very close to sunset. And Wednesday? It is fainter than Jupiter (though still brighter than most stars). But it is near sunset. Shortly after sunset, start looking for the pair on the western horizon. You need clear skies and an unobstructed western view to catch them. A telescope should help. They disappear only 30 minutes after sunset. So, when the sun sets, the clock chimes.
tuesday, now the 5th planet in the evening sky, was easy to spot earlier this week because it’s not far from the Moon in our sky’s dome. A bright red light near the moon on Tuesday evening, March 28, 2023. Mars is bright. It is brighter than most stars. And it is clearly red. Even after the sun goes away, you can still spot Mars by its color and by the fact that it doesn’t shine like stars.
Some inventor charts
Bottom line: You have a chance to see five planets tonight and throughout this week. Here are illustrations and information, including where to look in the video.
For more celestial events, visit EarthSky’s Night Sky Guide.
Boeing’s first-ever crewed mission in Starliner ISS spacecraft delayed to late July
Boeing’s debut Starliner spacecraft launch carrying its first-ever crew of astronauts to the International Space Station is being postponed again, and is not expected to fly until 21 July at the earliest.
A Boeing Starliner landing system is tested for reliability in White Sands Space Harbor in New Mexico. Photo credit: NASA/Boeing
Steve Stich, manager of Commercial Crew Program at NASA, confirmed the delay in a media teleconference on Wednesday. Officials from the space agency and Boeing need more time to assess the capsule, and to avoid conflicts with upcoming flights scheduled to the ISS.
Boeing’s Crew Flight Test (CFT) mission has suffered repeated setbacks, and was originally slated to fly in April. “We’ve deliberated and decided that the best launch attempt is no earlier than July 21st,” Stitch said.
“Where we’re at right now is really getting through the certification work… it is a large amount of work which has been going on for well over a year. There’s 600 components that have to be qualified on the Starliner for NASA and Boeing to review jointly [and] over 70 hazard reports. And then a total of what we call 370 verifications,” he added.
They are both paying close attention to the parachute system on the Starliner deployed to land the spacecraft safely back on Earth. Ground tests will examine the parachute’s ability to launch properly and slow the Starliner to splash down safely for the return of astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams, who will fly and spend eight days docked to the ISS in the CFT.
Joel Montalbano, manager of NASA’s International Space Station Program, said that activities onboard the ISS are jam packed over the next few months. The Soyuz MS-23 currently docked to the space station will be relocated to another module. Russian cosmonauts and American astronauts will also be performing separate spacewalks to adjust for incoming solar arrays and retrieve hardware.
There are also upcoming cargo deliveries as well as the Axiom-2 mission, the second private crewed mission to the ISS, which will send the first Saudi Arabian woman, Rayyanah Barnawi, to space. Barnawi’s crewmates include Ali Alqarni, a second Saudi representative, Peggy Whitson, a NASA veteran, and John Shoffner, an investor and pilot.
All that means is Boeing will have to find a flight slot after these events.
“We’re very close,” said Mark Nappi, vice president and program manager of the CST Starliner at Boeing. He said the company was working hard to inspect the spacecraft’s hardware, build the service module, refurbish the crew module, and verify its flight software.
“Most of the areas that needed to be completed are going to be completed by the end of April. In the one area that Steve talked about, which is the parachute, the verification closure notice and the hazard report will poke out into May,” he said.
The next major milestone will be loading the propellant into the spacecraft about 40 days prior to its launch. ®
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