BRITTANY STEFF | Science Writer

Signatures of the Space Age: Spacecraft metals left in the wake of humanity’s path to the stars

The Space Age is leaving fingerprints on one of the most remote parts of the planet — the stratosphere — which has potential implications for climate, the ozone layer and the continued habitability of Earth. Using tools hitched to the nose cone of their research planes and sampling more than 11 miles above the planet’s surface, researchers have discovered significant amounts of metals in aerosols in the atmosphere, likely from increasingly frequent launches and returns of spacecraft and satellites. That mass of metal is changing atmospheric chemistry in ways that may impact Earth’s atmosphere and ozone layer. Airplane

Bringing home asteroids: Purdue scientist will be among the first to examine asteroid pieces from NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission

To study the planets, someone has to go there: Either a human or a bot launches into space to physically explore other worlds. Scientists who study extraterrestrial materials can’t usually bring their work home. That’s exactly what’s happening this month, though, as NASA’s OSIRIS-REx project brings home pieces of the asteroid Bennu.

Buzzing down the primrose path: Specialist bee species prefer abundant host plants

How do bees choose which flowers to visit? Some bees will visit almost any bloom, while others are more discerning. How, and whether, bees choose to specialize in one kind of flower or pollen is a question entomologists and ecologists have puzzled over for years. Now, a team of scientists is deciphering why some species of bees specialize in visiting one type of plant over others. They concluded that bees who specialize tend to focus on the most abundant species in an ecosystem – at least in the eastern United States.

Where there’s smoke, there’s fire – and normal numbers of national park visitors

More Americans than ever are heeding the call of the outdoors – spending time recreating outside and enjoying national parks. Simultaneously, smoky skies are worsening as the size and severity of wildfires increase and adversely affect air quality across the country. Wildfire smoke threatens human health and welfare, especially if humans are exposed to smoke for long periods or while exercising – such as during a hiking trip to one of America’s beloved national parks.

Sociogenomics: The intricate science of how genetics influences sociology

Humans contain multitudes. Each person on the planet contains enough DNA to stretch to Pluto – several times. Studying how all this genetic material works, and especially how genes influence human behavior, is an enormously complicated undertaking – one that’s being made easier by the emergence of massive banks of genetic data and complex data science analysis techniques to parse that data.

Uncovering a star’s demise: Supermassive black hole tears apart a giant star in a display brighter, more energetic and longer lasting than any observed before

A distant star, dying a fiery and dramatic death, torn apart by a supermassive black hole in a forgotten corner of the sky. One of the most luminous, energetic, long-lasting transient objects didn’t blaze through the night sky inspiring legends and launching civilizations. Instead, astronomers, acting as celestial supersleuths, uncovered evidence of the star’s death throes where it had hidden undetected for years in a mass of computer-gathered telescope data.

New JWST image reveals wonders, beauty, secrets of star structure and building blocks of life

To gaze at the stars is human. To be able to see them in three-dimensional detail is very nearly divine. Divine vision is what the James Webb Space Telescope has granted earthbound scientists in a new near-infrared, detailed image of Cassiopeia A (Cas A), a stellar remnant – the clouds of gas, dust and other material left behind when a star dies. Danny Milisavljevic, assistant professor of physics and astronomy in Purdue University, studies supernova remnants and leads a year one research team on the JWST examining Cas A.

You’ve got to have heart: Computer scientist works to help AI comprehend human emotions

Bring up robot-human relations, and you’re bound to conjure images of famous futuristic robots, from the Terminator to C-3PO. But, in fact, the robot invasion has already begun. Devices and programs, including digital voice assistants, predictive text and household appliances, are smart, and getting smarter. It doesn’t do, though, for computers to be all brain and no heart. Computer scientist Aniket Bera is working to make sure the future is a little more “Big Hero 6” and a little less Skynet.

Into the unknown: Geochemist leads an all-woman team onto the ice in Antarctica to study the Earth’s ancient history

The standard image of Antarctica is vast, featureless sheets of ice and blowing blizzards. But soaring rocky mountains with deep valleys cut like a knife into the continent of Antarctica, evoking the lavish landscapes of the American Southwest’s Monument Valley. Here, ancient rocks reach for the cold blue sky, and here is where Marissa Tremblay, assistant professor of earth, atmospheric, and planetary sciences at Purdue University, led her team of science experts – all of whom happen to be women.

Man’s best friend leads the way to early cancer detection

Cancer strikes without warning. Genetics can explain some of it, as well as environmental and lifestyle conditions. But there is no surefire way to predict who will develop cancer. That tragedy holds true for both humans and their closest domestic companions: dogs. A canine cancer scientist at Purdue University’s College of Veterinary Medicine is working to take the first steps to make a serious form of cancer in dogs — one with analogues to human health — easier to detect.

Something’s in the air: It’s nanoplastic pollution

The tiny bits of plastic that wear off bottles, plastic bags, automotive parts and even cosmetics get into the soil and the water supply. They disrupt chemical cycles, throw off ecosystem health and pollute environments both marine and terrestrial. They eventually also get into the air, where they can damage lungs much more effectively. But for that to happen, they have to be worn away by water or earth and then be launched into the sky by winds. A new study published in Nature Nanotechnology has discovered that a process that happens all over the developed world every day accelerates the airborne dispersal of these micro- and nanoplastic particles, posing a risk to human and environmental health.
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Spe·cies rich·ness  (noun)

  1. A technical term from the field of ecology. The number of different species present in an ecological community, landscape, or region.
  2. More philosophically, a lovely and poetic phrase that conveys the value and wonder inherent in the range of species on the planet and in all the amazing detail of the living world.
  3. A freelance science writer's call sign (see above).

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