Just what has set the boffins talking this year?
1. Whale earwax shows stress levels
Over their long lives, whales accumulate earwax plugs that can get as long as ten inches in large species.
The plugs show bands that correspond with their age – every year, they have heavy feeding times and migration times that change the color of the wax.
In a report published in the journal Nature Communications in November, researchers described how they studied the chemical make-up of the bands and discovered that the whales produced significantly more of the stress hormone cortisol during years when the most whales were being hunted (the early 20th century and the 1960s), as well as during World War II, when whaling was low but submarines, battleships, and depth charges were common.
Cortisol levels have been steadily rising in recent decades too, despite the fact that whaling has been uncommon since the 1970s hunting moratoriums were put in place.
Warming sea temperatures appear to be creating stress for the marine mammals, scientists told the Atlantic.
Feeling stressed? Don’t go digging in your ears – here’s 17 steps you can take to lower your blood pressure.
2. It looks like there’s a lake on Mars
This past summer, a report in Science revealed that radar scans from the Mars Express spacecraft had detected an underground lake on the red planet, below the southern ice cap. (The Mars Express is a project of the European Space Agency.)
Although ice and gaseous water have been found on Mars, its surface clearly shows that at some point in the past the planet had plenty of liquid water that had somehow gone missing, according to National Geographic.
If the Martian seas somehow ended up as underground reservoirs, they could provide resources for future human missions to the planet.
Even more intriguingly, astrobiologists say the lake could be conducive to life: Elena Pettinelli of Italy’s Roma Tre University—one of the paper’s authors—points out that the similar environment of the Antarctic hosts living bacteria.
If you believe the news, a human mission to Mars is no longer a sci-fi fantasy. But what problems would we need to overcome? And should we even try?
3. NASA landed the InSight on Mars
The InSight lander made a flawless descent to the red planet’s surface in November.
Its mission is to study Mars’s seismic activity, which will allow scientists to gain a better understanding of the thickness of its crust and the size and temperature of its molten core, according to the New York Times.
The InSight joins two NASA Mars rovers on the planet: Curiosity, which is searching for signs of microbial life, and Opportunity, which went silent this past summer during a dust storm that probably disabled its solar panels (the agency is hoping that wind will blow the dust off and allow Opportunity to restart).
Keen to know more about space probes? These little spacecraft are revolutionising our understanding of the Solar System.