Snooze (this week in science news): September 29

    Science, science and more science takes the mainstage this week. The headlines include NASA, SpaceX’s planned Mars mission, Google Translate and a newborn child with DNA from three different parents.

    NASA says one of Jupiter's moons may be expelling water plumes

    Courtesy of Mark Van Norden

    Wait, what is Europa?

    Europa is the sixth-closest moon of Jupiter, discovered way back when in the days of Galileo. Lately its been in science news because scientists have detected evidence that may indicate that the planet has a subsurface ocean holding almost twice as much water as Earth.

    Why are these plumes important?

    Europa’s oceans lie under miles of thick ice, which makes analysis extremely difficult. Previously, scientists believed a lander would need to be sent to the surface in order to perform tests on the water. However, the plumes (water vapors erupting off the moon's surface), which were discovered this week by the Hubble Space Telescope, could change that. According to NPR, the plumes can shoot as high as 125 miles, making it possible to collect water samples with an orbiter. This makes testing the water both quicker and easier. In fact, NASA says they plan to send an orbital craft to Europa by 2020. Although the plumes are unconfirmed, there is strong evidence to suggest they exist, and a similar mission that flew over Saturn’s Enceladus moon discovered plumes of ice and dust.

    What are they hoping to find with this craft?

    Right now, NASA is primarily interested in determining Europa’s habitability. “The Europa flyby is not a life-finding mission. [It] is focused on finding the habitability of Europa,” NASA scientist Kurt Neibur said in an interview with The Guardian. Although it is hypothesized that there may be life on Europa, NASA is presently unconcerned with looking for it. “When it comes to finding life we don’t have as much experience,” adds Neibur. Sadly, if there is life in our own solar system, we may have to wait a little longer to find it.

    A new three-parent technique has produced a child


    The first baby conceived as a result of a new technique known as spindle nuclear transfer, in which two embryos are used, has been born. Technically, the child was born in April, but the technique is just now being detailed in a new research paper. According to New Scientist, a doctor “removed the nucleus from one of the mother’s eggs and inserted it into a donor egg that had had its own nucleus removed. The resulting egg – with nuclear DNA from the mother and mitochondrial DNA from a donor – was then fertilised with the father’s sperm.” The procedure produced five embryos, only one of which survived. The family elected to pursue the procedure because the mother was a carrier for a fatal disease called Leigh Syndrome, which affects roughly 1 in 40,000 newborns. The disease had already caused the mother to miscarry four times and lead to the death of two of her children. The three-parent technique prevents this disease from being passed on to the child.

    So this is the first ever three-parent baby?

    No. In fact, a different three-parent procedure was developed over two decades ago. The difference between that technique and this new one is that the new one doesn’t involve the destruction of embryos, which the family demanded for faith-based reasons. Moreover, whereas previous three-parent procedures were used to address infertility, this is the first time in which one was used to address a genetic disease. The procedure is highly experimental, and so far has only been approved in the U.K. Other countries, including the U.S., cracked down on three-parent procedures in the 90s and early 2000s, after success in cloning provoked widespread panic about genetic manipulation.

    SpaceX unveils its plan to send humans to Mars

    Courtesy of NASA Kennedy

    How is SpaceX going to do it?

    SpaceX plans to construct a single-core spacecraft which it’s dubbing the “Mars Vehicle.” The craft will stand over 400 feet tall and travel to Mars at over 5000 miles per hour. According to The Verge, the craft is equipped to haul around 450 tons of passengers and cargo. The ship would be driven by 42 Raptor engines, which SpaceX began testing this week. SpaceX founder Elon Musk also hinted at super-cooled methane mixed with liquid oxygen as a propellant during his press conference this week, although any such fuel is far from ready at this point. Finally, Musk says that he would like to reuse the rockets by sending them back to Earth.

    When can I go to Mars?

    SpaceX claims they are 10 years away from sending an unmanned mission to Mars, and 40 to 100 years from developing a permanent settlement. Musk said he ultimately aims to put a million people on Mars. Moreover, the trip will only take 80 to 150 days and cost $200,000. However, it’s important to keep in mind that predictions of the distant future almost always overestimate the rate of technological advancement, and the actual timeframe for Mars colonization could be much longer. Finally, without a centuries-long terraforming effort, Mars would still be substantially less hospitable than the Earth. Don’t pack your things just yet.

    Google Translate rolls out new algorithm

    So does this mean Google Translate is going to suck less?

    Yeah. According to WIRED, who spoke with Google AI researcher Mike Schuster, “the same sentence that once took ten seconds to translate via [the old] model now takes 300 milliseconds.” According to Google’s research paper on the change, the new algorithm also reduces errors by around 60 percent. That’s good. But, as of right now, the translation only works from Chinese to English. It is going to take some time for Google to roll out additional languages using this new algorithm, so high school Spanish students are going to have to suffer through the dictionary just a little longer.

    How did they do it?

    Google has begun using a neural-network pattern known as LTSM, which mimics the human brain by allowing the algorithm to record information into long term and short term “memory.” The algorithm can remember the beginning of a sentence, and use that information to inform its translation of words at the end of the sentence. Previously, Google was using something called Phrase-Based Machine Translation, which breaks sentences into individual phrases and translates them separately, but this method was prone to errors. Along with their new algorithm, Google has begun using new chips called Tensor Processing Units, which have been specifically designed for AI computation. To train their Chinese translation algorithm, Google used around 100 processing units, each containing several hundred individual processors, and trained the algorithm for about a week.


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