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This week marks 50 years since NASA’s Apollo 16 astronauts trained in Sudbury –



This summer marks 50 years since NASA dispatched the Apollo 16 astronauts to Sudbury for field training ahead of their trip to the moon.

Commander John Young and pilot Charles Duke, whose spacecraft would launch from Cape Canaveral less than a year later on April 16, 1972, teamed up with experts from Inco to study Sudbury’s impact crater and its unique geological structures.

NASA hoped that the field training, which took place from July 7 to 9, 1971, would prepare the astronauts for lunar surface experiments.

It turns out, the excursion didn’t prepare them as much as they’d hoped.

“We were very interested, at the time, in trying to work up the geology of the moon. The great debate in the literature prior to our first moon landing was how much of the moon was formed by volcanic activity and how much of it was formed by impact structures,” said Michael Dence.

“That’s a question that goes back 400 years to Galileo. There was a lot of literature about that. That was the reason, in a sense, for my being employed by the government. There was this question of whether anything on Earth resembles the moon, and if so, how we could identify it.”

Dence, who is now considered an international expert in the subject, was one of the pioneers in the study of asteroid impact craters like the one in Sudbury.

He helped build what was called the Earth Physics branch of the Department of Energy, Mines, and Resources (now Natural Resources Canada) to study impact structures on Earth.

When Dence first immigrated to Canada from Australia, he worked as a field geologist for Falconbridge Nickel Mines (now Glencore) in Sudbury. He was also part of the team of geologists who worked with the Apollo 16 crew.

“One of the biggest things to emphasize is that, regardless of their backgrounds, the astronauts got very little out of this training except for maybe an excursion or a break from their routines,” said Dence.

“Because it turns out that the moon is covered with dust which has been building up for three billion years, so the idea of seeing fresh rock or any sort of rock was never really discovered by any of them.”

By the time of the Apollo excursions in the 1970s, Dence said that it was well-established that the Sudbury structure is “the deeply eroded remnants of an impact” that is roughly 1.84 billion years old.

“The rocks that are displayed on the surface are a good cross-section of many of the details of what an impact structure looks like, and it had the convenience of being easy to get at,” he said.

“You could walk around and see what we were talking about. That never applied on the moon, but nonetheless, it gave them an education in what a large, ancient impact can look like.”

As part of his research, Dence was studying the distinctive features of impacts that left imprints on the rocks that could be mainly identified under a microscope.

When astronauts retrieved lunar samples, these same features, described as very distinctive structures where the crystal structure had been partly obliterated by the shock of the impact, were identifiable.

“The one thing in Sudbury, which led to the recognition of it being an impact structure, was a peculiar thing that could be observed in the rocks. These fractures, which we call shatter cones, are sort of conical-shaped structures which appear on the surface of rocks when they are properly exposed,” he said.

It was the discovery of shatter cones in Sudbury by an oceanographer named Robert Dietz that led to it being declared an impact crater.

“He made a sort of hobby of looking for shatter cone structures around the world, and he had been successful in suggesting to the South Africans that a very large structure known as the Vredefort crater was the result of an impact,” he said.

“A year or two later, he decided to look at Sudbury. He went there and talked to the locals. Rocks that people had walked over for 70 years of geologists working in Sudbury, and they never recognized the existence of shatter cones. Once their eyes were tuned in to what to look for, it took only a week.”

The point of an impact, said Dence, is that it generates an immensely strong pulse of energy. The pressure is comparable to that of the centre of the Earth.

It lasts but a second or two, but it’s enough to melt rock at the highest temperatures and to develop these peculiar structures.

“The thing about the melting aspect of it is you have the outline of the Sudbury structure and in the rock, it has an igneous texture. It has the texture of a lava,” he said.

“That outlines the entire structure of Sudbury. That is entirely caused by the impact pressure being at a melting point, at the time. In other words, the projectile, which in this case was probably 15 km or so across, melted tens of thousands of cubic kilometres of rock in an instant.”

Of his experience working with the Apollo 16 crew, Dence said it was a pleasant experience and the crew members were “real characters.”

“Young was a very straightforward, outspoken sort of guy. He told me he had no liking at all for the official drink of astronauts – Tang,” he said.

“He really didn’t relish the idea of having to drink Tang for a week. He was also a really good astronaut. I certainly enjoyed the time I had with them, and I certainly could see their dedication.”

Dence and the Apollo 16 crew – and later the Apollo 17 crew that came up north a year later – were ultimately lucky to have had the chance to explore the Sudbury impact crater as it was in the 1970s.

“Most of that area has now been overgrown very considerably. It is now woods, and it’s very difficult to work out exactly where we went with the astronauts,” he said.

“The rehabilitation of the Sudbury landscape has gone that far – after 50 years, most of it is lost in the woods.”

Colleen Romaniuk is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter at The Sudbury Star. The initiative is made possible through funding from the federal government.

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NASA’s Europa Clipper will fly on SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy – The Verge



NASA’s Europa Clipper will start its journey to Jupiter’s icy moon aboard a Falcon Heavy rocket built by SpaceX. NASA will pay SpaceX $178 million to launch the vehicle in October 2024.

The Europa Clipper got the green light from NASA in 2015. It will fly by the moon 45 times, providing researchers with a tantalizing look at the icy world, believed to have an ocean lurking under its icy crust. The Clipper is equipped with instruments that will help scientists figure out if the moon could support life.

For years, the Clipper was legally obligated to launch on NASA’s long-delayed Space Launch System (SLS). But with the SLS perpetually delayed and over budget, NASA has urged Congress to consider allowing the Europa Clipper to fly commercial. Switching to another vehicle could save up to $1 billion, NASA’s inspector general said in 2019.

NASA got permission to consider commercial alternatives to the SLS in the 2021 budget, and started officially looking for a commercial alternative soon after.

The SLS has powerful allies in Congress, who have kept the costly program alive for years, even as it blew past budgets and deadlines. The first flight of the SLS was originally supposed to happen in 2017. That mission — launching an uncrewed trip around the Moon — has since been pushed to November 2021, and keeping to that new schedule remains “highly unlikely” according to NASA’s Office of Inspector General, a watchdog agency.

SpaceX first launched its Falcon Heavy rocket in 2018, and started flying satellites in 2019. Earlier this year, NASA selected the rocket as the ride to space for two parts of a planned space station orbiting the Moon.

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Researchers Develop Genome Techniques to Analyze Adaptation of Cattle – AZoCleantech



Jared Decker, a fourth-generation cattle farmer, has been aware of cattle suffering from health and productivity problems when they are moved from one location to another. The shift is from a region where they had spent generations to another place with a different climate, grass, or elevation.

Jared Decker is on a mission to help farmers learn more about what their cattle need to thrive. Image Credit: University of Missouri.

Decker, as a researcher at the University of Missouri, looks at the chances of using science to resolve this issue, thereby serving a dual purpose to enhance the cattle’s welfare and sealing the leak in an almost $50 billion industry in the United States.

When I joined MU in 2013, I moved cattle from a family farm in New Mexico to my farm here in Missouri. New Mexico is hot and dry, and Missouri is also hot but has much more humidity. The cattle certainly didn’t do as well as they did in New Mexico, and that spurred me to think about how we could give farmers more information about what their animals need to thrive.

Jared Decker, Associate Professor and Wurdack Chair, Animal Genetics, College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources 

The study was published in the journal PLOS Genetics on July 23rd, 2021.

Decker and his research team have revealed the proof exposing the fact that cattle are losing their key environmental adaptations. The researchers regard this as a loss due to the lack of genetic information available to farmers.

After assessing the genetic materials dating back to the 1960s, the team determined particular DNA variations linked with adaptations that could someday be used to develop DNA tests for cattle. These tests could help educate the farmers regarding the adaptability of cattle from one environment or another.

We can see that, for example, historically cows in Colorado are likely to have adaptations that ease the stress on their hearts at high altitudes. But if you bring in bulls or semen from a different environment, the frequency of those beneficial adaptations is going to decrease. Over generations, that cow herd will lose advantages that would have been very useful to a farmer in Colorado.

Jared Decker, Associate Professor and Wurdack Chair, Animal Genetics, College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources, University of Missouri

The research team included then-doctoral student Troy Rowan who had examined 60 years’ worth of bovine DNA data from tests of cryo-preserved semen produced by cattle breed associations. They observed that, as time runs, the genes related to higher fertility and productivity increased as a result of careful selection by farmers. Also, many genes relating to environmental adaptations have decreased.

According to Decker, the farmers are not to be blamed as there are no affordable methods available at present to identify the suitability of cattle for a specific environment. The study also proposes easy-to-use cattle DNA tests that focus on the particular adaptations identified in the study.

Such adaptations include resistance to vasoconstriction, which is a process of blood vessel narrowing that takes place at high elevation and puts excessive stress on the heart. Also creating resistance to the toxin in the grass can result in vasoconstriction and tolerance for increased temperature or humidity. All these factors tend to decline over generations when the cattle are shifted from the associated surroundings.

Sometimes, natural and artificial selection are moving in the same direction, and other times there is a tug of war between them. Efficiency and productivity have vastly improved in the last 60 years, but environmental stressors are never going to go away. Farmers need to know more about the genetic makeup of their herd, not only for the short-term success of their farm, but for the success of future generations.

Jared Decker, Associate Professor and Wurdack Chair, Animal Genetics, College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources

The first widely adopted genetic test for cattle was developed at the University of Missouri in 2007. Decker and Rowan are looking forward to giving further details of the development. Both the researchers grew up on farms with a desire to use research to help farmers to balance farm traditions of America with the requirement for eco-friendly business practices.

As a society, we must produce food more sustainably and be good environmental stewards. Making sure a cow’s genetics match their environment makes life better for cattle and helps farmers run efficient and productive operations. It’s a win-win,” concluded Decker.

Journal Reference:

Rowan, T. N., et al. (2021) Powerful detection of polygenic selection and evidence of environmental adaptation in US beef cattle. PLOS Genetics.


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'Eye of Sauron' volcano and other deep-sea structures discovered in underwater 'Mordor' –



Researchers exploring the Indian Ocean have discovered the remains of a collapsed underwater volcano with an uncanny resemblance to the all-seeing “Eye of Sauron” from J.R.R. Tolkien’s famous fantasy series “The Lord of the Rings,” as well as two other seafloor structures named after places in Tolkien’s Middle-earth. 

The eye is actually an oval-shaped depression measuring 3.9 miles (6.2 kilometers) long by 3 miles (4.8 km) wide. Called a caldera, this giant divot is left over from the ancient collapse of a deep-sea volcano. The caldera is surrounded by a 984-foot-tall (300 meters) rim, giving the impression of eyelids, and an equally tall cone-shaped peak at the center, which looks like a pupil, according to The Conversation. The unusual structure is located 174 miles (280 km) southeast of Christmas Island ― an Australian external territory off mainland Australia ― at a depth of 10,170 feet (3,100 m).

A team of researchers discovered the structure while onboard the ocean research vessel Investigator, owned by Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), on the 12th day of an expedition to Australia’s Indian Ocean Territories. The researchers used multibeam sonar to create 3D maps of the caldera and the surrounding seafloor.

Related: 5 colossal cones: Biggest volcanoes on Earth 

Like other calderas, this one formed when the peak of the original volcano collapsed, according to the researchers.

“The molten magma at the base of the volcano shifts upwards, leaving empty chambers [below],” chief scientist Tim O’Hara, senior curator at Museums Victoria in Australia, wrote in The Conversation. “The thin, solid crust on the surface of the dome then collapses, creating a large, crater-like structure.”

The area surrounding the volcanic crater is also home to two other noteworthy structures.

“Our volcanic ‘eye’ was not alone,” O’Hara wrote. “Further mapping to the south revealed a smaller sea mountain covered in numerous volcanic cones, and further still to the south was a larger, flat-topped seamount.”

Continuing the connection to Tolkien’s fantasy epic, the researchers named the cone-covered mountain Barad-dûr, after Sauron’s main stronghold, and the seamount Ered Lithui, after the Ash Mountains, both of which are found alongside the Eye of Sauron in the evil realm of Mordor. 

A map showing off the locations of all three features named after places in Mordor. (Image credit: 3D imagery courtesy of CSIRO/MNF, GSM)

The Ered Lithui seamount is part of a cluster of seamounts thought to date back about 100 million years, O’Hara wrote. The Ered Lithui seamount was once above the water’s surface, giving it its flat top, and it has gradually sunk to around 1.6 miles (2.6 km) below sea level.

Over millions of years, sand and sinking detritus — particulate matter, including plankton, excrement and other organic matter — have coated the seamount in a thick layer of sediment around 328 feet (100 m) deep. However, the caldera remains relatively uncovered, suggesting it may be significantly younger, O’Hara said. 

“This sedimentation rate should have smothered and partially hidden the caldera,” O’Hara wrote. It also “looks surprisingly intact for a structure that should be 100 million years old.”

This freshness suggests that the volcano was created, and subsequently collapsed, after the seamount began sinking into the ocean.

“It is possible that volcanoes have continued to sprout long after the original foundation,” O’Hara wrote. “Our restless Earth is never still.”

Originally published on Live Science.

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