New $7 Million XPrize Competition Aims To Explore Oceans

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On Monday, the XPrize Foundation announced its latest competition: the $7 Million Shell Ocean Discovery XPrize, which aims to map the ocean floor in high resolution, and find sources of pollution autonomously. Teams will test their technologies in two rounds at two separate undisclosed locations, mapping a 500 square kilometer area of ocean floor in high resolution at depths of 2, and 4 kilometers; winners will receive a grand prize of $4 million.

An additional $1 million will be awarded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to teams that have technology capable of “sniffing out” specified objects through biological and chemical signals. Xprize claims that such technology could also help us learn about our own history, and find medical advancements to currently fatal diseases.

The competition was designed to create better maps, and expand our present knowledge of the oceans, as they are currently 95% unexplored, and remain as one of Earth’s last mysteries. We have mapped the moon, Venus, and Mars, all in much higher resolution than our own oceans. It is also estimated that two thirds of species in the ocean remain to be discovered.

Each of the 25 teams will try to create new, relatively low cost technology that can map the ocean floor, and identify archaeological, Biological, and geological features. Each team must prove their robotics can function efficiently at a depth of 2 and 4 kilometers, where there is no sunlight, high pressure, and temperatures below freezing. A bonus $1 million will go to any team that can make technology that can track chemical and biological signatures to find objects. Such technology could lead to many other discoveries and inventions, as well as helping to find sources of human-caused pollution and slow global warming.

Unlike land, the sea floor can’t be mapped in high resolution by satellite, since radar waves don’t pass through water. Satellites rely on precisely measuring the height of the ocean, and when enough data is collected, scientists can calculate the differences in the ocean surface caused by the landscape below the surface. This technology has given us a full map of the ocean to a resolution of 5 kilometers, which allows us to see the largest features, such as ocean trenches; leaving us with plenty of room for discovery under the water that covers two-thirds of our planet. We’ve mapped the entire surface of the moon at a resolution of 7 meters, and most of Mars and Venus at 100 meters.

XPrize is hopeful that the competition will usher a new era of ocean exploration, and help to better humanity through future innovation from it. The competition is the third of five multi-million dollar ocean based challenges to be created by 2020. The 10 year XPrize Ocean Initiative was created to address critical challenges in ocean exploration and technology; with the goal to make the oceans “healthy, valued, and understood”.

By Tony Simpson

Sources: The VergeOcean Discovery Overview

Mars Will Develop Rings Like Saturn, Study Predicts

Mars with ring
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The red planet’s future rings

Mars will most likely develop rings similar to Saturn’s, when its largest moon, Phobos, gets close enough to break apart, according to a recently published study in Nature Geoscience. Mars would be the only inner planet with rings if this took place. Scientists predict it will happen in about 20 – 40 million years.

Unlike Earth’s moon, which is slowly moving away from us, Mars’s largest and inner most moon, Phobos, has been slowly moving towards its parent planet, and once close enough, will be torn into bits by Mars’s gravity. The aftermath of Phobos being torn apart may result in a large ring orbiting Mars, as well as bombarding Mars with meteors for years afterwards. The study concludes that it is far more likely that Phobos will break apart before making contact with Mars, creating rings around the red planet.

Phobos is the larger of Mars’s two moons, and is thought to be a “rubble planet” that is comprised of numerous rocks held together by gravity, to form a large clump with a crust only 100 meters thick, compared to Earth’s average 30 kilometer crust. Every 100 years Phobos orbits 2 metres closer to Mars, and is thought to break apart into thousands of small pieces over 20 million years from now, creating dense rings similar to Saturn’s.

Phobos is Mars’s largest moon, and is made up of thousands of boulders held together by gravity

All planets in our solar system have had rings at one point in time, including Earth, though most rings were too unstable to last very long, and either rained down as meteors, or flew out of orbit. Only the outer gas giant planets: Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune have retained their rings, which will make Mars the only inner planet to have rings again, and will probably be the last time any terrestrial planet gains new rings.

The researchers also said that several missions to Phobos have been proposed, and could help us learn more about asteroids, plate tectonics, and make measurements to test their theories.

By: Tony Simpson


NASA Puzzled By 8,000 Year Old Earthworks In Kazakhstan

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NASA Satellite imagery of a barren and treeless steppe in northern Kazakhstan has revealed enormous earthworks that can only be seen from the air. Some of the formations date back 8000 years and are thought to have been built by the neolithic groups of the area.

Known as the Steppe Geoglyphs, these formations are as large as several football fields. The largest structure consists of 101 raised mounds, each 3 feet high and 30 feet across, creating a square with an X or cross intersecting it. There are at least 260 mounds, trenches, and ramparts in 5 different shapes found across the steppe.

The mounds were first discovered on Google Earth by a Kazakh economist and archaeology enthusiast Dimitry Dey in 2007. Since then, the Steppe Glyphs had gained little public attention until they were shown last year at an archaeology conference in Istanbul in which they were described as “unique” and “unstudied.”

The geoglyphs remained unstudied and virtually unknown until two weeks ago when NASA released high-definition satellite images, sparking public and archaeological interest. Archaeologists are trying to figure out what the importance of such massive arrays were to the neolithic people who created them, and why they can only be seen from above. Such a feat defies our current understanding of the capabilities of neolithic peoples to organize, build, and communicate.

“The idea that foragers could amass the numbers of people necessary to undertake large-scale projects — like creating the Kazakhstan geoglyphs — has caused archaeologists to deeply rethink the nature and timing of sophisticated large-scale human organization as one that predates settled and civilized societies,” Persis B. Clarkson, an archaeologist at the University of Winnipeg told the New York Times.

Archaeologists are hopeful that the Steppe Glyphs will provide further insight into just how the stone-age tribes functioned, and what kind of knowledge they had acquired. Many theories have been posed about the reason behind the glyphs, including aliens, relations to Hitler (even though the Swastika was used much earlier than the 20th century), and constellation mapping. Theories of the glyphs’ purpose range from the ridiculous to the entirely possible.

In March of 2007, Mr. Dey, 44, was at home watching “Pyramids, Mummies, and Tombs” on The Discovery Channel. “There are pyramids all over the Earth,” he remembered thinking. “In Kazakhstan there should be pyramids too.” Mr. Dey then searched through the landscape of Kazakhstan on Google Earth, and instead came across what he thought were old Soviet installations until finding more than 15 different formations.

Kazakhstan has also called for urgent protection by UNESCO as an important cultural heritage site — so far without reply. Earlier this year a formation called The Koga Cross was destroyed by road builders, even after Mr. Dey notified officials.

Tony Simpson