Mars helicopter Ingenuity is ready for its “Wright Brothers” moment

If all goes well, in late July, NASA will do something it’s never done before. The agency will launch a new mission to Mars with the aim of landing a small helicopter on the surface that will perform several test missions to see if we can fly on the surface of the Red Planet.

This is not an easy task, but it will be massively historic.

“This is very analogous to the Wright brothers moment, but on another planet,” MiMi Aung, the project manager of the Mars helicopter told the New York Times.

The helicopter will be aboard the Perseverance, the fifth robotic rover NASA has sent to Mars. The copter and the rover were both designed and built at at at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Canada Flintridge. The project has been in development over the past six years.

Credit: JPL

If successful, the small helicopter will initiate a new era for robotic exploration, with the opportunity to get an aerial view of Mars and possibly other worlds in the solar system.

Flying on Mars is not the same as doing so here on earth. There is little atmosphere on Mars, and so taking off requires more power and larger helicopter blades than here on earth. In fact, the atmosphere on the red planet is just 1/100th as dense as Earth’s. Scientists say that flying on Mars is the same as flying at an altitude of 100,000 feet on Earth. That’s three Mount Everests. No helicopter on earth has ever flown higher than 45,000 feet.

JPL scientists say that the project would have been impossible just 10 years ago, but a revolution in the miniaturization of electronics, high-powered batteries and lightweight materials for rotor blades has made the new mission possible.

It took several iterations and experiments to get the copter to lift off in s straight line inside a specially-designed chamber that simulated the Mars atmosphere.

Over 30 days, the helicopter will make up to five flights. For most of the time, however, the copter will remain still, waiting for solar panels to recharge the batteries.

The first is to go up about a few feet and hover for up to 30 seconds, then land. Subsequent flights will be longer, higher, farther. The plan is to test the copter on several short liftoffs on Mars, reaching perhaps just a few feet above the dusty plain where it will be released from the Perseverance. On the fifth flight, assuming all systems are go, the copter will lift off to 15 feet and fly out about 500 feet and come back. Two cameras will help the copter navigate and the flight will last a minute and a half.

This is an extremely exciting time for JPL’s planetary exploration project. The Juno project has been sending back stunning images of Jupiter, including strange hexagonal cloud formations at the poles of the giant planet.

Credit: JPL

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Saving the California Condor // Seeding the oceans with iron // California science news roundup

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Week of July 26, 2019


Saving the California Condor

National Park Service

The birth of the 1000th chick as part of an extensive breeding and reintroduction program gives hope to many other species in peril.  

The California condor is North America’s largest flying bird. It also one of the ugliest birds in the world. Sorry, in the universe. The bird would, in fact, be right at home in the cantina on Mos Eisley.  But the bird’s ungainly size and ugliness are what make it special, special enough to save.

We live in the Anthropocene, the time of man. There are few species on the planet that have eluded our impact. The condor has fared poorly, though not as poorly as some. Just 37 years ago there were 22 California condors left. They were functionally extinct in the wild: all those remaining birds had been captured and put into an ambitious breeding program to try and revive the species.

Now, nearly four decades later, a consortium of government agencies and nonprofit groups announced a rather astonishing milestone: the birth of the 1,000th California condor chick since the rescue program began. The condor’s plight is far from over. The species remains critically endangered. They live mainly in California, Arizona, southern Utah, and Baja California, Mexico. The ultimate goal of the condor recovery program is a self-sustaining population, meaning the birds mate and multiply on their own in the wild.

“The radical reduction of the world’s biodiversity is something for which future generations will least forgive us.”E.O. Wilson

Condors have died over the years, mostly due to lead poisoning, scientists discovered. The birds are scavengers and dine on carrion, oftentimes animals that have been killed by shotguns with lead shot. That realization led to California’s ban on lead ammunition, which took effect on July 1, and mandates non-lead ammunition in the taking of any wildlife in California. Many hunters objected to the ban because non-lead ammo is more expensive, but it’s better to have less lead in the environment as a whole.

In many ways, California has taken the lead in endangered species protection. One of the most successful breeding and reintroduction programs in history is taking place right off the California coast, in the Channel Islands, where the Island Fox has made an impressive recovery due to extensive (and expensive) efforts to relocate golden eagles, which predated on foxes. That said, other species in the state, like the Delta Smelt, remain in peril.

It’s hard to place a value on saving a species like the California Condor. With a nearly 10-foot wingspan, they are clearly impressive birds. Their ugliness (although, I suppose beauty is in the eye of the beholder) is perhaps one of their most endearing qualities. It’s comforting to know that the bird will be around a lot longer (fingers crossed), rather than meet the fate of so many other avian species like the Dodo or the Passenger Pigeon that we know only as bones and feathers in a museum.

As the great Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson once put it: “The radical reduction of the world’s biodiversity is something for which future generations will least forgive us.”

California Science Weekly

Ocean Science

We may already be seeding the oceans with iron  

An interesting report came out this week from researchers at the University of South Florida, Cornell and the University of Southern California, related to the idea of iron fertilization. Much of the ocean’s biomass depends on quantities of iron to maintain life. Iron is necessary for photosynthesis in plants and is fundamental to phytoplankton growth. Phytoplankton are the quadrillions of tiny plant-like creatures in the ocean that make up the foundation of the ocean’s food chain. Also known as microalgae, they contain chlorophyll and require sunlight to live and grow. When iron is naturally present in the ocean, particularly around areas with a lot of deep-sea upwelling, which brings nutrients to the surface, we experience some of most robust ocean ecosystems on the planet. A lot of so-called bio-mass.

All that biomass is essentially made of carbon. And when the phytoplankton die or are eaten by bigger creatures like whales, shrimp, snails, and jellyfish, they become an integral part of the food chain. The carbon in the phytoplankton becomes carbon in the whale. When animals defecate or die, a lot of that carbon sinks to the bottom of the ocean and can be locked up or sequestered. That is how much of the carbon in the atmosphere ends up locked away beneath the waves, rather than heating the earth.

For long periods, there has been a balance, with enough carbon locked up that temperatures (and climate in general) remained in a kind of stasis. Of course, we’re changing things now by adding so much carbon to the atmosphere that the cycling of carbon can’t quite keep up. This is a problem.

Seeding the ocean with iron to induce phytoplankton blooms and sequester carbon has long been a controversial idea. The oceanographer John Martin gave a lecture at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in 1988 in which he stated, “Give me a half a tanker of iron and I will give you another ice age.”

A lot of research followed, but never truly at the scale needed to know if it would work or not. Of course, one of the reasons iron fertilization has not been tried on a massive scale is that we don’t know what the potential consequences would be. Could we trigger massive algae blooms that result in the death of wildlife in a vast swath of the ocean?

This all brings us to the new study in Nature that says human-emitted iron is accumulating in the ocean in much greater quantities than scientists previously estimated. That is, we may already be seeding the ocean through the growth of industry around the world.

If true, we may once again have to confront the law of unintended consequences, which rarely results in circumstances in our favor.

Scientific American

California science news roundup

New data shows that Thursday is the worst traffic day to drive in Los Angeles. We would have guess Friday. (LAist)

Is it safe to store nuclear waste at San Onofre? Southern California Edison will soon resume storing spent nuclear fuel at San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. The move comes almost a year after a near-miss accident, when one of the canisters that contained the spent nuclear fuel nearly fell 18 feet.

A freak marine heatwave called “The Blob, combined with a strong El Niño, drastically affected the Pacific Ocean ecosystem killing thousands of animals and changing the distribution of species along the coast. Many species suffered in the warm water, but some—such as the market squid—saw their populations boom.

MBARI scientist Jim Barry, who studies deep ocean corals, has also tracked the changes in a famous tide pool near Monterey called Hewatt’s transect, which reflects the slow-moving, but powerful, changes that have been taking place in our coastal ocean due to global warming. “The future is not one of stasis and stability.”

This is truly fabulous. Google used California’s Ivanpah solar facility (see it on the way to Vegas from LA) and some 107,000 of its sun-reflecting mirrors to create a portrait of Apollo 11 pioneer Margaret Hamilton. It used moonlight as its medium. (YouTube)

Are we actually getting too little sun? A rise in Vitamin D deficiency causes scientists to wonder. (New Scientist)

Microsoft is investing $1 billion in OpenAI to create brain-like machines that might someday achieve artificial general intelligence. (Verge)

Eelgrass, a fundamental component of certain California marine ecosystems that almost completely disappeared in some places is making a comeback with help from conservationists and the local community. 

The New Yorker examines how wolf-lovers and ranchers clash in Northern California. (New Yorker)

520 small towns in the West are at massive, Paradise-California-like risk of a catastrophic wildfire says an investigation by the Arizona Republic. (AZ Republic)

California-based vaping colossus Juul hires a well-known expert on children’s nicotine addiction, upsetting some in the health industry. Mark Rubinstein is a pediatrician and scientist with the University of California­ San Francisco’s Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education. (PS Mag)

A personal submarine spotted in Monterey Bay belongs to former child actor Taran Smith from the TV show Home Improvement. (SF Gate)

This is an astonishingly good video from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) about its new rock scaling robot LEMUR. (YouTube)

The U.S. has been pumping its groundwater stores faster than its aquifers can be naturally replenished and many many wells could run dry says a University of California–Santa Barbara study.

Private firms like SpaceX and Bigelow Aerospace, along with a growing number of national space agencies, are eyeing a manned return to the moon, with an emphasis on settlement rather than exploration. (PS Magazine)

What caused the decline of Mexico’s once-lucrative Humboldt squid fishery?  Warmer ocean conditions and shifting weather patterns have caused an “oceanographic drought,” says a new StanfordEarth study. (Stanford Earth)

The New York Times does an amazing job illustrating the swarm of earthquakes that followed two big quakes in early July. (NY Times)

A gondola to the stars? LA officials are exploring the idea of constructing an aerial lift to locations in Griffith Park to alleviate traffic. Maybe not such a bad idea?

Loving a place to death. California’s Daffodil Hill closes “indefinitely” after becoming a victim to the dangers of over-tourism. (WAPO)

The California coast is currently teeming with great white sharks, particularly in the Monterey Bay. (CBS)

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory cosmochemists will analyze the Apollo 17 samples to study the geologic history of the site where the rocks were collected, a cold trap where water may have been able to freeze. This marks the first time such a sample will be studied in detail since the end of the Apollo program. (LLNL)

The University of California Berkeley has a museum dedicated to microscopes. (Golub Collection)

The LA Times gets deeper on California’s “moon trees”.

Another squid story: Climate change could negatively impact the California market squid, the most lucrative fishery along the California coast, says oceanographer Art Miller.

Feel-good story: a retired teacher found some seahorses off Long Beach. Then he built a secret world for them. (LA Times)

Scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have developed printable magnetic liquid droplets that could lead to the development of 3D-printable magnetic liquid devices to make flexible electronics or artificial cells that could deliver targeted drug therapies to diseased cells. (Berkeley Lab)

Cellular service has a number of vulnerabilities that can cause it to falter during an emergency. California officials are seeking to bolster wireless infrastructure to improve wildfire response.

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California’s unheralded role in Apollo 11 // Wildfires, climate change and atmospheric rivers // Marine reserves working even better than thought  // California science news roundup

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Week of July 19, 2019


California’s unheralded role in Apollo 11

Buzz Aldrin on the moon - NASA

When we think about Apollo and attempt to localize it here on earth in our minds, we typically think about Apollo Mission Control Center in Houston, Texas. Who can forget Neil Armstrong’s famous words: “Houston, Tranquillity Base here. The Eagle has landed.”

But there’s more to California’s role in Apollo. In La Canada Flintridge, home of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, one of the most important experiments of the whole mission was developed, and it changed the way we look at the moon and its relationship to our planet.

The Lunar Laser Ranging Experiment consisted of a reflector that was positioned on the moon by Armstrong and Aldrin. It was aimed back at the earth, where lasers fired pulses of laser light that were then reflected and detected by special receivers here on the ground. 

The reflectors are too small to be seen from Earth, and the task of actually hitting them was a major technical challenge. Even though a laser is a highly concentrated light, by the time the light reaches the moon, the beam is roughly four miles wide. Scientists back then likened the effort to using a rifle to hit a moving dime two miles away.

Here’s more of the story. 

California Science Weekly


Wildfires, climate change, and atmospheric rivers

Let’s talk about the weather, water and climate change in California. Lots of stories this week on these subjects. First of all, a big report came out in journal Earth’s Future this week, and it says that the state’s wildfire issues are clearly being driven by climate change. It points to the fact that in the past decade, we have experienced half of the state’s 10 largest wildfires and seven of its 10 most destructive fires. That includes last year’s Camp Fire, the state’s deadliest wildfire ever. The study found that the area burned in California’s forest fires – the annual burned area – has increased in size by 500 percent. The cause, says the paper: more heat, more dryness, more fuel. All of these things can be tied to climate change, it says. 

And then there’s this, which seems a bit contradictory, but here you go: another study from Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego says that we will also be seeing more of those atmospheric-river storms that deluged the state earlier this year. It looked at 16 global climate models focusing on western North America and found that most of the heavy precipitation that the West will get in the future will come from these so-called atmospheric rivers. That is to say, when we have rain, it will be more intense and more deluge-like. So, start building those arks. The point here seems to be that when it’s wet, it’s going to be really wet. And when it’s dry, it’s going to be really dry. Like the American electorate today, everything is going to the extremes. 

Ok, moving on. While this may seem contradictory, our big winter storms dumped so much snow that safety officials in the state are warning people about using the rivers that carry all that snow melt out of the mountains. The rivers are raging. This may be great for kayakers and rafters, it can also be dangerous. At least six people have died on the Kern River already this year. On a similar note, Mammoth Mountain, which is almost always closed by now, will be open until for skiing until July 28. Earlier the mountain had said August, but they changed their minds. That said, there is still 60 feet of snow at the summit. Wha?

Earth’s Future      Scripps Institution of Oceanography

Ocean Science

Marine reserves are working even better than we thought  


California has one of the largest, most robust marine protected area systems in the world, covering about 18 percent of the state’s waters. The system is vast, stretching down the entire coast from Crescent City to San Diego. It has been phased in over the years, but most of the areas are now firmly in place with severe restrictions on fishing and any kind of “taking”, like rocks shells, etc. And while many studies have been done to show that MPAs work to bring back animals life, there has long been a question whether they lead to a so-called “spillover effect”, that is, whether animals breed and multiply and then move out of the areas, enriching other zones.

Well, a new study shows that there is a spill-over effect. Scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Southwest Fisheries Science Center used genetics to track kelp rockfish, a species in California that tends to remain in the same location their entire adult lives. The key word here is “adult,” because the kids move around. By following counting fish and analyzing DNA, the scientists showed that juvenile kelp rockfish actually do move out of marine reserves sometimes as far as about 20 kilometers away. This suggests that there is, in fact, a spillover effect taking place in the reserves. This is very good news for ecologists, but also for fishermen, who could see more fish showing up in non-restricted areas.  


California science news roundup

The cracks left behind by the recent Southern California earthquakes have become tourist attractions. Of course they have. (SF Gate)

There are ten Apollo “moon trees” in California (NatGeo

This very cool video shows what happens when scientists from MBARI shine blue light on the deep-sea squid Histioteuthis. Its green eye glows with fluorescence like something otherworldly. Scientists are not sure why, but think it may have something to do with absorbing light. (YouTube)  

The Mount Wilson Observatory recently opened the doors to its 100-inch telescope to the public for stargazing. Get the kids and go! (Mt. Wilson)

A marine biologist who studies porpoises mating says one of the best places to observe them is…the Golden Gate Bridge. (MEL Magazine)

The U.S. Department of Transportation has selected San Diego as the location for a major drone testing program that will include high-altitude mapping of the U.S.-Mexico border, package deliveries, and first responder operations. (SDNews)

Speaking of cool video, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory released this very impressively produced piece about their new climbing robot LEMUR, designed to work in extreme terrain. It can scale rock walls. Wow, JPL, keep it up. (YouTube)

A coal plant in Utah has been L.A.’s single-largest power source for three decades. The plant is closing in 2025 and the state will move to natural gas. But that has some clean energy folks upset.  (LA Times)

Valley fever, a dangerous fungal disease, may be striking California farmworkers. Rates of new cases rose 10 percent between 2017 and 2018, according to the California Department of Public Health.

We loved this video about the recovery of the Channel Island fox by SkunkBear. (YouTube) 

Lake Tahoe, the second deepest in the U.S., is 7/10 of an inch away from it’s legally allowed capacity. It’s risen 8 feet in 3 years, all thanks to this year’s big winter storms. (NNBN) 

Elon Musk’s Neuralink made a big announcement about its brain-computer interface system, that will dramatically increase the number of electrodes that can connect to a brain. But one of the most interesting goals is that it may allow paraplegic patients to use their thoughts to type at a rate of 40 words per minute. 

California produces the vast majority of the world’s sunflower seeds, but farmers in one county are asking visitors to stop taking selfies in sunflower fields because they are causing damage. (Guardian)

A potential crisis for stem cell research: since 2004, scientists have benefited from a $3 billion state research agency called the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine. But now the agency says it is no longer funding new projects. (ScienceMag)

In a new 440,000-square-foot fulfillment center in Los Angeles, robots are working furiously to get stuff to you faster. (LA Times)

Not news: People are fishing in the LA River. News: they’re eating lots of them

Remember that great story about the guy who killed the endangered fish in Death Valley? Well here’s a video of that same underwater pond called Devils Hole during the earthquake. (NPS)

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Design by Luis Ramirez

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California’s unheralded role in Apollo 11

Neil Armstrong on the surface of the moon. Credit: NASA

This summer Americans have Apollo fever. July 20, as most everyone knows, is the 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing, when astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to set foot on the moon. Many people, including some of our most eminent historians, have called it the greatest achievement in the history of mankind. 

But when we think about Apollo and attempt to place it here on earth, we typically think about Apollo Mission Control Center in Houston, Texas. Who can forget Neil Armstrong’s famous words: “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”

So what did this experiment accomplish? A great deal, it turns out. 

Or maybe we think of the fiery liftoff of the Saturn V rocket from Kennedy Space Center on Merritt Island, Florida. And in the Northeast, many are also aware of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s huge contribution to the software written for the Apollo mission. A wonderful new book about the Apollo mission by Charles Fishman titled One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission That Flew Us to the Moon, discusses at length the challenges faced by MIT computer programmers in the very early days of software development. 

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But few people probably realize that Southern California can lay claim to a lot of Apollo 11 history. Where, you might ask? First of all, there is Downey.  

North American Aviation factory in Downey, California
North American Aviation factory in Downey, California

Both the New York Times and KCRW have interesting stories about how the Apollo 11 command module and the accompanying service module were actually built on a 160-acre swath of land in Downey called the North American Aviation factory. The site is now home to a strip mall with a Wal-Mart, TJ Maxx and 24-hour Fitness. Turns out, too, that the camera systems that flew on Apollo were also developed in Southern California, as was the second stage of the gigantic Saturn 5 rocket. The backstory of 84-year-old Shelby Jacobs, who helped develop the camera system that captured iconic scenes of the separation of the first and second stages of the Saturn 5 rocket, is heart-breaking. Jacobs, who is black, couldn’t live in Downey, as most black NASA employees lived in Watts. 

But there’s more to California’s role in Apollo. In La Canada Flintridge, home of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, one of the most important experiments of the whole mission was developed.

The Apollo 11 Laser Ranging Retroreflector Experiment was one of several major scientific endeavors that were part of the epic space mission. Developed and monitored at JPL, it consisted of a reflector that was positioned on the moon by Armstrong and Aldrin and aimed back at Earth. Lasers here on Earth fired pulses of concentrated light that were then reflected and detected by special receivers on the ground. The laser reflector consisted of 100 fused silica half-cubes, called corner cubes, mounted in a 46-centimeter (18-inch) square aluminum panel. Later, on Apollo 14 and 15 missions, two additional reflectors were set up on the surface of the moon.  

“It’s very exciting,” says Turyshev. “This is the longest continuing experiment in the history of space science.”

Slava G. Turyshev, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory

The reflectors are too small to be seen from Earth, and the task of actually hitting them was a major technical challenge. Even though a laser is highly concentrated light, by the time the light reaches the moon, the beam is roughly 2.5 kilometers (1.5 miles) wide, and detecting the light that reflected back was very difficult. Scientists back then likened the effort to using a rifle to hit a moving dime two miles away. Like the moon landing itself, it was audacious.

“It was a very clever experiment that changed the way we think about the moon,” Slava G. Turyshev, an astrophysicist at JPL involved with instrument design for the new generation of lunar laser operations, told California Science Weekly.

Laser Ranging Retroreflector - NASA
Laser Ranging Retroreflector – NASA

After the laser beam bounced off a reflector (it takes about 1.3 seconds for light to make the round trip), it came back to earth and was detected by ranging observatories in Texas, Hawaii and France, that use extremely sensitive amplification equipment. Even under the best atmospheric viewing conditions, just one photon hits the observatory every few seconds. But that one photon tells us a lot.

So what did this experiment accomplish? A great deal, it turns out. 

Before the experiment, we had a decent idea how far the Moon is from Earth within a few feet. But based on data gathered from the Lunar Laser Ranging Experiment, we were able to determine that distance with amazing precision, down to under 5mm. The level of accuracy, said Dr. Jean Dickey, who was the Jet Propulsion Laboratory team investigator at the time (and who died in 2018), “represents one of the most precise distance measurements ever made. The degree of accuracy is equivalent to determining the distance between Los Angeles and New York to one-fiftieth of an inch.” 

Lunar laser reflector
Lunar laser reflector on the moon. Credit: NASA

The experiment also verified Einstein’s theory of relativity, which states that all bodies fall with the same acceleration regardless of their mass. It determined that there are small scale variations in the length of an Earth day, changing by about one-thousandth of a second over the course of a year. The changes are caused by the atmosphere, tides, and the Earth’s core. The experiment also discovered that the Moon probably has a liquid and a solid core comprising some 20% of the Moon’s radius.

We all know that the moon causes tides on earth, but it turns out the tides also have a direct influence on the moon’s orbit, and measurements from the Lunar Laser Ranging Experiment showed that the moon is receding from Earth at a rate of about 3.8 centimeters (1.5 inches) per year. “That’s a big number, says Turyshev. “Initially, it puzzled people, but now it’s well understood and its an effect we’d expect.”

The reason that the moon is receding from earth has to do with what’s known as tidal energy dissipation. It takes gravitational energy to hold the moon in place, and over time, some of that energy dissipates, causing the moon to slowly slip away. That’s no cause for alarm in our lifetimes, but over millions of years, it means there will be an impact on the Earth’s tides and more.

Each of the two laser arrays that were left on the moon during later Apollo missions improved on the one that came before it. In fact, the array left behind by Apollo 15 is three times the size of the array left by Apollo 11. The Russians also placed two laser arrays on the moon called Lunokhod 1 and Lunokhod 2 in 1973.

The arrays from those Apollo missions and the Russian landers continue to provide valuable data to scientists here on earth, including tests of general relativity and other theories of gravity. New measurements are taken every year by several countries, all of whom regularly take ranging measurements for different experiments. JPL’s Turyshev estimates that more than 25,000 final range measurements have been taken since 1969.

“It’s very exciting,” says Turyshev. “This is the longest continuing experiment in the history of space science.”

And just in time for this year’s Apollo 11 anniversary, more arrays are being developed at JPL and elsewhere that will fly on upcoming lander missions to the moon as part of NASA’s ambitious Artemis program. The old reflectors are still working, says Turyshev, but they are losing their reflectance, and advances in laser technology and materials science will allow future reflectors to be a thousand times more powerful than the ones they replace.

NASA says it hopes to put a man on the moon by 2024 and have a sustained presence there by 2028, but several lander missions are planned sooner than that, and NASA expects each one may carry a laser ranging device designed to bring a flood of new science back to earth.

“We’re in a renaissance [of ranging technology],” says Turyshev.

Redwood poachers ruin majestic giants // LA’s air quality is deteriorating // Inhaled: new podcast series  // California science news roundup

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Week of July 5, 2019


Redwood poachers ruin majestic giants

Credit: National Park Service

Probably our favorite thing we read all week was this story from Bloomberg about the illegal theft of so-called Redwood burls from California’s Redwood National Park. Burls are the massive, swollen, misshapen growths that naturally occur on trees. Basically, the grain has grown from the tree in a deformed manner, a form of cellular misdirection. They look a little bit like tumors or additional appendages. But because of the strange patterns they exhibit when the fresh wood is exposed, burls are extremely valuable around the world. They are used to make tables and countertops and footstools, etc. A quick search online came up with numerous sites selling redwood burl tables for tens of thousands of dollars. Certain raw burl pieces are also extremely valuable. No wonder thieves go after them. 

The problem is that choice redwood burls are very rare. They take many years, often hundreds of years, to grow and become large and complex. And if there’s one place large, ancient redwoods grow in abundance, it’s Redwood National Park in Northern California. 

Poachers have been entering Redwood National Park in the night with saws and cutting off the burls to sell for big bucks. The trees usually survive, but they are permanently scarred. Burl removal is legal if the trees are in private hands and the owner gives the ok. But burl cutting is illegal in the national park, as you can imagine. And since we’re talking Redwoods National Park, we’re talking some of the tallest, finest, rarest, most beautiful trees on the planet, so the thought that criminals are burl poaching in these parks gets pretty infuriating. 

Luckily, as the story explains, park rangers like Branden Pero are tasked with catching the burl poachers and they’ve brought some high technology to bear (including hidden cameras) to nab Derek Alwin Hughes, a 35-year old meth user who was charged with six crimes, including Grand Theft.



LA’s air quality is deteriorating

If you lived in Los Angeles in the 70s, then you remember the days when schools closed due to poor air quality. With few Federal laws in place mandating controls on car exhaust, the city was often blanketed under a disgusting layer of brown smog. 

We’ve come a long way since then. The 1970 Clean Air Act and the EPA’s strict regulation of exhaust emissions, improved LA’s air and made it breathable again. It’s been called one of the greatest successes in US environmental history. But according to a study published this year by scientists at New York University and the American Thoracic Society, we’ve been taken several steps backward, especially where ozone is concerned. Ozone can damage lungs, trigger asthma attacks and lead to other life-threatening problems.

The problem is particularly bad in Southern California, where researchers found a 10% increase in deaths attributable to ozone pollution from 2010 to 2017. While downtown and the westside have fared somewhat better, inland regions around Riverside and San Bernadino are experiencing the most dangerous levels of pollution. California regulators have been tasked with devising a plan by the end of the year to reduce ozone, and they say it’s going to be expensive, perhaps costing as much as $14 billion.  

Los Angeles Times

Public Health

Inhaled: a new podcast series  

Let’s stick with air quality and health for a moment. A powerful new 5-part podcast series by the Chico Enterprise Record called Inhaled looks at the health impacts of last year’s wildfires, with a particular focus on the Camp Fire, the deadliest, most destructive wildfire in California history. It turns out that the smoke from the Camp Fire, and numerous other fires around the state, has led to lingering health problems for many people. Smoke contains toxic particles that can lodge themselves into lungs and cause permanent health problems. Those health effects are now being felt by many people, many of whom are finding it difficult to get the health care they need. It’s an important story because we tend to think of the impact of wildfires as something immediate, with death and property damage occurring quickly, when the reality is the damage to personal health can linger for years.     


California science news roundup

An interesting update on the Mars InSight lander, which has been experiencing lingering problems with its heat probe, an autonomous hammer that’s supposed to penetrate five meters down into the Martian soil to get all sorts of never-before-made measurements.  The bad news: they haven’t fixed it. The good news: they HAVE been able to measure small Mars quakes, providing scientists with new data and clues about the planet’s interior. (Planetary Society

A look at the problem of feral horses in California. Wild mustang populations are out of control, competing with cattle and native wildlife for resources. If the federal government doesn’t rein them in, ranchers may take matters into their own hands. (Alta Magazine)

California’s illegal pot farms are killing wild fish. Run-off, water diversion, and pollution from illegal cannabis farms are polluting streams where fish like steelhead and salmon thrive, killing many. (Bitterroot Magazine)  

The tragically failed plan in Modesto to plant 5,000 trees. (Modesto Bee)

Hawthrone-based SpaceX faces challenges in launching thousands of satellites to provide space-based internet service. But the payoff could help finance the company’s bigger space ambitions. (LA Times)

Mothers in California are leading efforts to ban harmful pesticides. (Grist)

Another serial-rape suspect is nabbed (this time in Sacramento) with DNA testing technology. (SacBee)

A compelling argument that the iPhone may be reducing resource consumption rather than increasing it. Think of all the things you no longer own because smartphones have replaced them: calculator, camcorder, clock radio, mobile telephone, and tape recorder. (Wired)

Jupiter‘s moon Io is the most volcanically active body in the solar system. Caltech scientist Katherine de Kleer has been capturing the moon’s volcanic landscape in incredible detail. (New York Times)

Caltech scientists at the Owens Valley Radio Observatory have been able to pinpoint the location of so-called fast radio bursts to a distant galaxy almost 8 billion light-years away. (CalTech)

Some dude went snorkeling in Sausal Creek in Oakland. He saw some fish. Interesting, but kind of gross. (SF Gate)

There’s a new book out about how California’s longstanding role as a center for health, wellness, nutritional fads, and sunshine changed its architecture. (LA Curbed)

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California leading in desalination plants // Using AI to stop wildfire // Two happy salmon stories // Health dangers at Aliso plant // P-75: California’s newest mountain lion // California science news roundup

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Week of June 28, 2019


California leading in desalination plants

Credit: Poseidon Water

California’s water woes seem to be improving after a very wet winter and record-setting snowpack. There’s so much water, in fact, that Lake Powell rose 16 feet in the last month and is experiencing an inflow of 128% above average. Reservoir levels across the state are all mostly at or above capacity. However, everyone knows how temporary these conditions are likely to be, and how easy it will be to return to drought conditions in the state.   

Yale360 takes a look at the state of desalination plants in Southern California, focusing on the Claude “Bud” Lewis Carlsbad Desalination Plant north of San Diego. It is the largest effort to turn salt water into fresh in North America, processing 100 million gallons of seawater a day (and making 50 million gallons). De-sal is on the rise. California water officials approved $34.4 million in grants to eight desalination projects across the state. Another huge plant the side of the Carlsbad plant is being built in Huntington, California.

But desalination has huge downsides. It is incredibly energy-intensive, it has high carbon emissions, and the waste from the plants (after removing salt from saltwater), is put back into the ocean, threatening sea life. The intake pipes that pull water from the ocean can also be hazardous to fish. That said, numerous countries threatened by global warming and increasing drought are building plants at warp speed, including Australia and Israel. Israeli companies, in fact, are at the forefront of de-sal technology.

As significant as the downsides are, it does seem like de-sal is here to stay. The oceans simply contain so much water, and as populations rise, temperatures soar, and fresh water becomes more scarce, de-sal is the obvious solution.  



Using artificial intelligence to stop wildfires


It’s impossible to forget the damage wrought by last year’s terrible wildfire season. It seems clear that the fires are yet another sign of a warming planet and the growing unpredictability in weather conditions. California public officials are bringing many new technologies to bear to try and better predict when fires may erupt in order to put them out more quickly and to save property and lives. 

The New York Times has a story about an effort by fire departments in Southern California to use big data and artificial intelligence to improve how they respond to these disasters. The fire department is testing a program developed by the WiFire Lab at the San Diego Supercomputer Center that makes predictions about fire behavior and where fire will spread next. It’s called FireMap. Using giant government data sets and on-the-ground sensors, it assembles real-time information about the presence of flammable materials, weather conditions, and the topology of a burning area. 

New York Times


Two positive salmon stories  

Source: Jessica Christian / The Chronicle

The news for California salmon over the years has not been great. Many of the species that were once abundant are either gone entirely or threatened. California Coho Salmon have been in serious decline since the mid-20th century. The California Coastal Chinook Salmon was federally listed as threatened in 1999. Some reports have suggested that many of the salmon populations in the state are unlikely to survive the century.

But according to news reports out this week, some California king salmon populations are experiencing a rebound in coastal waters off Northern California. Fishermen are reporting the biggest salmon season in a decade, and are hauling in kings by the hundreds. That’s good news for the fish and for those who plan to fire up the grill this summer. However, it does raise concerns about over-fishing the species just as it seems on the brink of a fragile recovery.  

Another hopeful salmon story over at the California Academy of Sciences amazing BioGraphic site looks at an effort to restore endangered populations of wild-spawning Chinook near Sacramento using flooded rice plains as a habitat surrogate during fallow months. The flooded rice fields essentially serve as winter nurseries for young salmon migrating from their natal streams to the ocean. A novel idea, and by no means a panacea, but a step in the right direction.  

San Francisco Chronicle          BioGraphic

Public Health

Aliso Canyon blowout could have more serious health risks than reported

The Aliso Canyon gas blowout (also called Porter Ranch gas leak) was the largest-known human-caused release of methane in U.S. history. The long-term health impacts around the blowout have yet to be determined, but researchers from UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health released a report this week showing that air quality samples collected near the natural gas storage facility during the 2015 blowout were even worse than suspected. The samples showed elevated levels of pollutants known or suspected to be associated with serious health problems. The study suggests that the health risks to people living in the nearby residential community of Porter Ranch were higher than initially stated. 
“Our findings demonstrate that uncontrolled leaks or blowout events at natural gas storage facilities can release pollutants with the potential to cause not only environmental harm, but also adverse health consequences in surrounding communities,” said study first author Diane A. Garcia-Gonzales.  

Fielding School of Public Health


California welcomes its newest mountain lion: P-75

Credit: National Park Service

A new mountain lion (AKA cougar) was discovered by California wildlife officials this week. The 50-pound female was found at a trailer park in the Pacific Palisades, and it became the newest addition to an ongoing study on mountain lions in the Santa Monica Mountains. They have named it P-75.  State wildlife officials and biologists tranquilized the lion and outfitted it with a GPS tracking collar. They then released it into the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. 

More than half of California is mountain lion habitat, and while they’ve been known to attack people, it is extremely rare for them to do so. (That said, one poor chap was attacked by a mountain lion in Colorado earlier this year, and he choked it to death with his bare hands).

The fact is, however, the animals are facing serious threats to their existence. Habitat loss, highway strikes and accidental poisonings have killed several lions in recent years. One study suggests the lions, the Southern California group, specifically, are actually far more threatened than previously believed. The study claims that the lions are in the midst of a so-called “extinction vortex,” and face a 25 percent chance of extinction within 50 years. But that’s the bad news. The good news is Southern California has a new addition to its mountain lion family. We welcome you P-75! 

LA Times

California science news roundup

An op-ed by scientists at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) and NOAA looks at the unusual loss of grey whales this year off the California coast. 167 North Pacific gray whales have washed ashore dead from Mexico to Alaska since January. Scientists are not sure what’s going on. (NY Times)

lovely illustration on the value of pollinators in the city by visual storyteller Ariel Aberg-Riger.  Pollinating insects are hugely important in California. An estimated 1,200–1,500 native bee species call California home, and they are critical to the state’s agricultural industry. (CityLab)

One of the largest nurseries in the world, in California’s Central Valley, is experimenting with a technique to stress agricultural plants to prepare for declining water and escalating salt in an effort to confront climate change. (Bay Nature/KQED)  

Hog Island Oyster Co. and the University of California, Davis team upto breed acidification-resistant oysters. (Christian Science Monitor)

Shipping giant Maersk is introducing driverless cargo carriers at its terminal in the Port of Los Angeles, angering dockworkers. The carriers would operate 24 hours a day, as opposed to the 16 hours of shifts manned by dockworkers now. (LA Times)

Scientists at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California have identified a previously unknown species of damselfish called the Corazon’s Damsel. It lives in Madagascar, and its Latin name Pomacentrus vatosoa means “beautiful stone.” (Times of San Diego)

profile of Caltech chemist Kimberly See, whose lab at Caltech is inventing new batteries to help reduce CO2 emissions and slow climate change. (CalTech Magazine)

Arnold Schwarzenegger stars in a funny…no, really, it’s good…new ad touting electric cars. (YouTube)

Monterey Bay Aquarium goes crazy for cuttlefish for Cephalopod Week. The aquarium is one of the few places that raise flamboyant cuttlefish. (Monterey Bay Aquarium / SciFri)

Taking a road trip from LA to Vegas and back to test the viability of electric cars. The problem: not enough range and not enough charging stations. (NY Times)

Drone maker DJI plans to manufacture drones for the US market in Cerritos, California. 

Great deep dive on the issue of relicensing dams in the West. Some are in need of huge and expensive repairs. What’s the cost to fix them and should some be pulled down? (Stanford’s Center for the American West)

Huntington Park has a new robot cop equipped with a 360-degree high-definition camera. But it looks more like a Weeble than Robocop. 

Trump Administration hopes to dredge San Francisco Bay to help ship oil.

Saving Sunset Magazine, one of the state’s oldest publications.

For cephalopod week, we posted several short videos from our recent diving/filming expedition in Indonesia. Here’s our favorite of the amazing and beautiful flamboyant cuttlefish. 

That’s it! Have a great week, and please send your friends an invitation to sign up for the California Science Weekly newsletter. 

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Blocking offshore drilling // Finding clear skies for stargazing in California // Amazing moon shots // Black abalone recovery // California’s Central Valley as art

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Week of June 21, 2019


House approves a measure to block offshore drilling for a year

Credit: Erik Olsen

The House passed a spending bill late Thursday that would block offshore drilling along most U.S. shores, including a ban on seismic testing used to find oil and gas reserves. Unfortunately, it only lasts a year. Many groups, particularly in California, have long sought an end to drilling, and there was immense hope that would be the case in 2016 when President Obama permanently ended oil and gas leasing in parts of the Atlantic and Arctic oceans. However, President Trump issued an executive order in April 2017 that would roll back these protections, and in January 2018, now former U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke proposing opening up nearly all federal waters to oil and gas extraction. The new measure potentially restores the safeguard that protected California’s coast for more than a quarter century.  



Finding clear star-gazing skies in California

Light Pollution Map

It’s not easy to find great places to gaze up into the night sky and take in the grandeur and awe of the universe. Light pollution from cities has obscured the skies in so many places around the state, that you are often lucky, even on a clear night, to see more than a dozen or so points of light. Of course, this is a problem everywhere, not just California. In June 2016, it was estimated that one-third of the world’s population could no longer see the Milky Way. 

For California residents seeking dark spaces to escape with their telescopes or just a blanket to lie on, there is some hope. Many municipalities are installing less light polluting LEDs or passing ordinances to turn off certain lights during the night to reduce light pollution.

There are a few places where you can still go to find clear night skies. The light pollution map offers a very handy resource to find California’s best star viewing opportunities. Not surprisingly, desert areas and sections of Northern California offer some of the best locations. For example, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in southern California was made a dark park in 2018. Also, two weeks ago, the Grand Canyonwas named an International Dark Sky Park by the International Dark-Sky Association. 

Light Pollution Map


Amazing moon shots

Speaking of dark skies, let’s talk astrophotography. Take a look at Sacramento photographer Andrew McCarthy‘s images of the moon.McCarthy has spent many hours transforming some 50,000 individual images of the night sky into one very large and detailed photo of the moon. It’s breathtakingly beautiful and exquisitely detailed. Each crater and lunar sea on the side facing us looks like it was shot up close, when actually they were taken with McCarthy’s two camera setup 239,000 miles away. His process involves shooting photos and then stacking them at different exposures. He switches between an astronomy camera and a Sony A7II with a 300mm lens. Using Photoshop and special software, he aligns and adjusts the images to create the final product. You can see his marvelous Instagram feed here. 

Andrew McCarthy

Marine Science

California black abalone making a comeback

Credit: Michael Ready

Back in 2017, ride-sharing company Uber held its second Uber Elevate Summit in Los Angeles to push the idea of flying taxis. To most Los Angelenos, the thought of soaring over traffic is almost too good to be true, a Jetsons cartoon fantasy. But it may not be as far fetched as it seems. Numerous companies are working on the idea, and the technology is getting closer and closer to reality. One of the big obstacles at the moment is battery power, since most flying cars will have to be electric and the systems will need to carry a lot of redundancy (flying cars will not be able to glide much), which adds tremendous weight. 

Another obstacle is infrastructure. Where are all these flying cars going to take off and land? Well, Uber has been thinking a lot about this subject and just released plans for various “skyports” that will be built around Los Angeles.  Uber says that both LA and Dallas will be the pilot cities for the new service it calls Uber Air. Uber also unveiled renderings of the vehicles themselves, which include four passenger seats and a small storage space for baggage. The company says we may be riding in flying taxis, perhaps starting with service from LAX to downtown, by 2023. 

Santa Barbara Independent


California’s Central Valley as art

Mitchell Rouse

Aerial Photographer Mitchell Rouse takes aerial photos of agricultural lands in the Central Valley, making works of fine art that are not only lovely, but highlight the incredible diversity of forms and patterns that only an eye in the sky can see. Interestingly, he doesn’t use drones, but rather small planes and helicopters. In particular, he favors the Bell 407 helicopter and shoots with a Shot Over F1 Gimbal housing a Phase 1 Industrial 15oMP pixel camera. His portfolio of the central valley is called Agricultural Project #1.   

Mitchell Rouse

California science news roundup

California officials and seismologists are saying the swarm of small quakes they’ve measured are probably not anything to be worried about. Probably.

California officials are investigating an Oakland-based “biohacker”, accusing him of practicing medicine without a license.  

ABC News did a nice feature on California’s Channel Islands, sometimes called “North America’s Galapagos.”   

NASA has made available a library of 140,000 high definition files filled with photos, videos, and sound clips, all free and available for download. 

Blue states are adopting aggressive climate policies. Red states, not so much.

Research oceanographer Jules Jaffe at Scripps Institute of Oceanography talks about how underwater drones (some of which his lab builds) are changing our understanding of the oceans.

Surfer Kevin Cunningham makes surfboard skags out of plastic trash. 

A new California wildfire fund would put aside $21 billion for damage claims to help those whose property was destroyed.

A Stanford team is developing a privacy-minded alternative to Alexa and Siri. They call it almond.

California based CEO Elon Musk says his company has designed a submarine car like the one from the 1977 James Bond movie, “The Spy Who Loved Me.”

Nestlé, the world’s largest bottled water company, has been accused of taking millions of gallons of free water from the San Bernardino National Forest 17 months after California regulators told them they had no right to much of what they’d taken in the past.

century-old cypress that may have inspired some of the imagery in Dr. Seuss’ Lorax story has collapsed. Geisel lived in La Jolla from 1948 until his death in 1991 and the tree lies close to his old home.

DOLA has a nice feature on the best opportunities to see exotic animals in California.

Scientists sequenced the almond genome, perhaps opening up a way for growers to cultivate varieties that lack cyanide, a potent poison.

California mental health officials are working with Mountain View-based Mindstrong to test apps for people getting care in CA’s mental health system. The idea is to create an early-warning system to flag the user when an emotional crisis seemed imminent.

Stanford Earth system science professor Kate Maher on how reactive transport modeling is used to better understand the chemical reactions in Earth’s subsurface that impact water supplies, energy waste storage, and climate change.

The heavy snows and deep snowpack have been great for skiers, and will benefit farmers who were coping with a seven-year drought. But researchers are warning that the ample rains and snows might lead to a very serious increase in wildfires. 

That’s it! Have a great week, and please send your friends an invitation to sign up for the California Science Weekly newsletter. 

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Towing icebergs // California’s amazing seamounts // New surprises from Saturn’s rings // Meet Cassie, Cal Berkeley’s rollerskating robot // Flying cars coming to LA sooner than you think // Big Macs by drone // California science news roundup

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Week of June 14, 2019


That time we almost towed an iceberg from Antarctica to California

Credit: Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Bloomberg has a wonderful story this week about Nicholas Sloane, a 56-year-old South African marine-salvage expert who is developing a plan to tow an iceberg from Antarctica to Cape Town, where it would be moored off-shore, hacked and “mined” for fresh water.

However, as we report, the idea is not new, and, in fact, it was proposed as a way to deal with droughts in California as far back as the 1940s. Back then, a brilliant iconoclast named John Isaacs proposed transporting a massive iceberg to San Diego to deal with a particularly bad series of dry years. Isaacs was working with the Scripps Oceanographic Institute in San Diego. The idea was to capture “an eight-billion ton iceberg, 20 miles long, 3000 feet wide, and 1000 feet deep in the Antarctic and towing it up to San Clemente Island off San Diego in a matter of 200 days.” That’s thinking outside the box. It never happened, but for a whle, many took the idea seriously. 

In fact, as recent as 1978, California’s legislature endorsed the idea of towing two icebergs to southern California for drought relief. 

California Science Weekly


California’s amazing, beautiful, biodiverse seamounts

Credit: NOAA

Seamounts are underwater mountains that dot the seafloor around the globe. Some are small hills, while others can be as large as mountains. Most of us have no idea that these underwater structures exist, but the fact is there are thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of them under the sea, and several are right off the coast of California. 

British Columbia-based coastal science magazine Hakai has got a fabulous feature on California seamounts. One of them is called Bishop Rock, and it nearly reaches the surface some 11 miles off the coast of San Diego. Seamounts are popular among surfers because they cause water to lift and that makes for great waves. Fisherfolk love them too because they attract lots of sea life. Sadly, mining companies also see great bounty in the mineral riches contained within some seamount systems. 

Of course, scientists find the biodiversity that lives around seamounts an untapped treasure for discovery. Legendary ocean scientist Sylvia Earle, who has made it her mission in the twilight of her amazing life to bring attention to the wonders of the sea, has also been deeply focussed on ocean conservation. Through her organization Mission Blue, Earle has advocated for creating marine protected areas around the world. Last month, Mission Blue designated all of these seamounts as Hope Spots, places worthy of our protection, preservation and awe. 

Hakai Magazine


New surprises from Saturn’s rings 

Credit: NASA

New details of Saturn’s distinctive rings were revealed in the journal Science, providing deeper insight into the mysteries of one of our most iconic planets. During the final stages of the Cassini mission, (it ended in September 2017) which was run out of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in La Canada Flintridge, the spacecraft flew between the planet and its rings, providing a new view on the ringed behemoth. Cassini observed that the rings have different textures – smooth, clumpy or streaky – depending on their composition. The spacecraft was able to get data at close range, and found complex features sculpted by the gravitational interactions between moons and ring particles. JPL says that Saturn’s rings are substantially younger than the planet itself and may have formed when a moon was torn to pieces in orbit around the planet.   

JPL   Science


Flying cars perhaps coming to LA sooner than you think


Back in 2017, ride-sharing company Uber held its second Uber Elevate Summit in Los Angeles to push the idea of flying taxis. To most Los Angelenos, the thought of soaring over traffic is almost too good to be true, a Jetsons cartoon fantasy. But it may not be as far fetched as it seems. Numerous companies are working on the idea, and the technology is getting closer and closer to reality. One of the big obstacles at the moment is battery power, since most flying cars will have to be electric and the systems will need to carry a lot of redundancy (flying cars will not be able to glide much), which adds tremendous weight. 

Another obstacle is infrastructure. Where are all these flying cars going to take off and land? Well, Uber has been thinking a lot about this subject and just released plans for various “skyports” that will be built around Los Angeles.  Uber says that both LA and Dallas will be the pilot cities for the new service it calls Uber Air. Uber also unveiled renderings of the vehicles themselves, which include four passenger seats and a small storage space for baggage. The company says we may be riding in flying taxis, perhaps starting with service from LAX to downtown, by 2023. 



Meet Cassie, Cal Berkeley’s rollerskating robot

University of California at Berkeley

Her name is Cassie, and while she is perfectly comfortable meandering about the University of California at Berkeley campus on “foot”, researchers at Cal’s Hybrid Robotics Lab, have given her a new way of getting around: removable hovershoes! That means the walking robot can walk when it needs to, but also to glide around on wheels with much greater speed when the situation calls for it. Hovershoes are basically hoverboards that have been cut in half, resulting in a pair of motorized skates. A video at the Berkeley shows how they work, and it’s pretty neat. 

Hybrid Robotics Lab

California science news roundup

Gov. Jerry Brown is leaving his (very short) retirement to become the director of a new climate change institute at the University of California at Berkeley. The new organization will help California and China collaborate on technology and research in the battle against global warming.

There are some lovely shots from California in this National Geographic’s 2019 Travel Photo Contest. We especially like the slackliners at Yosemite. This is the best 5 minutes you will spend today. 

Speaking of photos, there is a wonderful shot going around of a breaching California humpback whale behind a boat that is worth checking out. It was taken by photographer Douglas Croft near a fishing boat in Monterey, California. 

The New York Times got an exclusive interview with Glenn Kile, a former equipment operator who owns a ranch in NoCal and started California’s worst fire…by accident.

China may hold the best hand when it comes to rare earth elements, the raw ingredients used to produce high-tech products such as smartphones, wind turbines, electric vehicles and fighter jets. But don’t count out California. It turns out that the only rare earth elements mine in the United States is in Mountain Pass, California, and it could be our best hope for mining these critical elements here at home. 

Let’s get back to hamburgers. Hold the pickles, hold the lettuce, and, oh, hold the meat, too. Over 100 Burger Kings in the Bay Area are now offering the Impossible Whopper, a burger made from plants by California-based Impossible Foods

If you and/or your kids have never spent time over at California-based Rion Nakaya’s The Kid Should See this video aggregation site, you should bookmark it. There’s some fabulously educational videos here; a fine alternative to most YouTube stuff.

Part of a major trend in fighting drought, desalination is expensive and polluting. Turns out the largest desalination plant in North America sits near the Pacific Ocean in San Diego. Yale360 discusses the need for desalination in our dry future, and the difficulties and drawbacks of building enough of them.

A new book called Ocean Outbreak by Cornell ecologist Drew Harvell looks at deadly ocean viruses and the environmental havoc they cause. Part of the book looks at starfish wasting disease, which has dramatically affected California coastal ecosystems. 

That’s it! Have a great week, and please send your friends an invitation to sign up for the California Science Weekly newsletter. 

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Using California reservoirs like a battery // NASA’s Mars Helicopter // A gazillion ladybugs fill the sky // The fish with Dragonglass teeth // Lighter than air metal

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Week of June 7, 2019


California uses reservoirs and pumps to tackle climate change

PG&E Corp.

California has some of the most aggressive renewable energy goals in the country. The state is required to obtain at least 33% of its electricity from renewable resources by 2020, and 100% from carbon-free sources by 2045. That’s going to take a lot of energy storage, and the fact is that Lithium-ion batteries, like Elon Musk’s Powerwall, produce a few hundred megawatts of electricity at most and will not be up to the task.

Up in the Sierras, 50 miles east of Fresno, there is a natural battery of sorts that harnesses the power of gravity and has been around for over 20 years. Bloomberg writes about PG&E Corp.’s Helms Pumped Storage plant, which delivers over 1,200 megawatts every day, enough to power 900,000 homes, and it does so cleanly. It is kind of an amazing project.

The facility uses so-called “pumped-hydro storage”, basically turning existing reservoirs at different altitudes into a kind of battery. The idea is simple. Take two reservoirs at different elevations, connected by pipes or tunnels. When electricity is abundant, pump water from the lower reservoir to the one uphill. When the grid needs power, let the water flow back down through turbines.

Helms relies on energy from Diablo Canyon to power the pumps during the reverse cycle at night, but the amount of power generated when the water flows down during the day more than compensates for the power used at night, making the plant both environmentally friendly and economical. 

It’s century-old technology, but it works. There are seven in California alone. Unfortunately, they are very expensive (the projects can cost more than $1 billion to build), and there aren’t that many reservoirs around that meet the specifications to make pumped hydro work. That said, Nine projects are proposed in California. One proposed project by NextEra Energy Inc. would go near Joshua Tree National Park, but construction hasn’t started yet. 



NASA’s Mars Helicopter getting ready for its close-up 

The next big mission to Mars will carry more than the landers and rovers that we all know and love. In fact, the Mars 2020 mission will carry an actual helicopter. The advantages of a flying vehicle are obvious: you can go much farther and cross terrain that would be impossible for a ground-based system to traverse. But there’s a hitch: 

“Nobody’s built a Mars Helicopter before, so we are continuously entering new territory,” said MiMi Aung, project manager for the Mars Helicopter at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

It’s not like building a copter for Earth. The tenuous Martian atmosphere has 1% the density of Earth, so all the flight systems have to be engineered differently. And what about controlling the vehicle from Earth over large interplanetary distances? The dynamics are significantly more complicated than when driving a rover over the surface.

None of that is deterring the folks at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Canada Flintridge, who have been testing the Mars Helicopter for the Mars 2020 launch.  It may be hovering above the red Martian landscape in 2021. However, the craft will carry no instruments. Its purpose is to prove that powered flight on Mars is possible.   



It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s a gazillion ladybugs!

There were no clouds in the sky the other day over San Bernardino County when a weather satellite picked up a large blob hovering in the air. Instead, the 80-mile by 80-mile mass was a massive cloud of ladybugs flying at between 5,000 and 9,000 feet. That’s a crazy amount of ladybugs. 

California is home to about 200 species of ladybugs, but scientists have not yet identified which species were seen in the radar image, but they say it’s likely they are Hippodamia convergens, known as the convergent lady beetle.

Los Angeles Times    NPR


The fish with Dragonglass teeth

Credit: Scripps Institution of Oceanography

The Dragonfish is a crazy-looking animal. Part of its allure is a set of dagger pointed teeth that happen to be transparent and amazingly strong. 

In fact, the teeth of the species Aristostomias scintillans are made of nanoscale-size crystal particles that make them much stronger than the teeth of other sea animals like sharks and other fish. The fish’s teeth caught the attention of scientists at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, and led them to consider how new materials might be developed to take advantage of the crystal structures. Perhaps, like Dragonglass, they can be forged into objects with magical properties.  

New York Times

Materials Science

Lighter than air metal

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

Scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory have developed a type of metal foam that is strong, but so light it can ride on a mosquito’s back. 

It’s not really foam, though. It’s called “porous metal monolith” or ultra-low density metal, and is really a spaghetti-like web of randomly connected nanometer-sized wires made of gold, silver and copper. They take the shape of miniature marshmallows and contain the same or fewer number of atoms as air. Exactly what the material might be used for is still an open question. Perhaps Patagonia will someday use the material to make backpacks for mosquitos. 

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory


The ocean microplastics problem is even worse than we thought. Way worse, say scientists at MBARI. 

Three South Koreans were nabbed poaching $600,000 worth of succulent plants. The Dudleya plants are hugely popular in Asia. 

How might California use recent winter storm to replenish aquifers? It’s harder than it might seem

Can empathy be cultivated? One Stanford scientist thinks so. 

Cal Berkeley has its own experimental forest, and it may help us better understand wildfires. 

Could California seaweed become the biofuel of the future? 

150 lakes in the Tahoe Basin are still frozen, and it’s June.

Apple’s new “Spaceship” HQ is surprisingly earthquake ready.

There’s a town in California that was built to survive wildfires.

California says coffee may not be so bad for you after all.

A huge graveyard of strange fossilized worms was discovered off the coast of California.

Astronomers aren’t happy with SpaceX’s new array of Starlink satellites.   

Drones will replace fireworks at the California state fair. 

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California companies lead the effort to save the world with microbes, California connection: meet 2018 Nobel Prize winner in chemistry Frances Arnold, Carnegie Observatories and the GMT, Questioning “Disaster tourism” in California, Feeling the Force in Anaheim and more

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Week of May 31, 2019


California companies are leading the effort to save the world with microbes


Overfishing is arguably one of the most significant threats to the human food supply on the planet. Approximately three billion people in the world rely on both wild and farmed seafood as their primary source of protein, and ten percent of the world’s population depends on fisheries to make a living.

One the of dirty little secrets of the global commercial fish industry is that it takes fish to make fish. While many people see farmed fish as an ideal solution to meeting our protein needs in the future, the reality is that feeding farmed fish right now requires massive inputs of so-called forage fish, namely small fish like anchovies, herring, menhaden, capelin, anchovy, pilchard, sardines, and mackerel that occur in large numbers in the ocean, particularly the cold Southern and Northern latitudes. A multi-billion dollar industry is dedicated to using large ships that ply the ocean with nets to bring up millions of tons of forage fish every year.

So is there a way to feed farmed fish that reduces the need to trawl the seas for forage fish? It turns out that one California company is working on a solution, and it involves one of the most abundant organisms on earth: bacteria.

NovoNutrients is a Mountain View, California, startup, whose offices lie close to both Facebook and Google. The company is harnessing the new technology of synthetic biology or synbio to get bacteria to do our bidding, creating proteins using the same tiny organisms that curdle milk into yogurt and cause innumerable diseases.

California Science Weekly

Chemistry / Nobel Prizes

California connection: meet Frances Arnold, the 2018 Nobel Prize winner in chemistry


The 2018 Nobel Prizes, announced in October, included a very special California name: Frances Arnold. Dr. Arnold is a professor of chemical engineering at the California Institute of Technology, an institution that has seen its share of Nobel winners: 39.  She calls La Canada Flintridge home, adding brain power to a city already loaded with brilliant minds (JPL is headquartered there).  

A wonderful profile of Dr. Arnold can be found in this week’s New York Times, written by the always witty and fun Natalie Angier. The piece does an admirable job of explaining directed evolution, the process she developed that is now widely used to generate novel enzymes and other biomolecules by harnessing cellular machinery. Her process is being used to develop biofuels, medicines, agricultural prodiucts and even in laundry detergent to remove stains. 

It is only the 52nd time in history that the Nobel prize was awarded to a female scientist. That’s out of a total of 892 awards (17%) given since the prize was created by Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, who established the prize in 1895. It should be noted that the brilliant French chemist Marie Curie won it twice. 

The Nobel site also has a wonderful series on women in science that’s worth reading in its entirety. It’s very well illustrated and put together. The piece on Dr. Arnold is particularly good. 

The New York Times   Nobel Prize

Astronomy / Space

Carnegie Observatories and the Giant Magellan Telescope 

Carnegie Observatories

While many science institutions in California are extremely well-known (we cover many of them here), one Pasadena organization gets little media attention, but is arguably one of the most important places in the world in astronomy.  

The Carnegie Observatories, located in Pasadena, is playing a leading role in humanity’s grasp of the origins of the cosmos. Scientists at the Carnegie are working at the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile’s Atacama desert, home to the twin Magellan telescopes, and site of the future Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT).  

The Giant Magellan Telescope is arguably one of the most important astronomic scientific instruments ever constructed. When completed in 2025, it stands to revolutionize our view and understanding of the universe. The GMT is a segmented mirror telescope using seven incredibly precise reflecting surfaces that have been shaped and polished to within a wavelength of light, approximately one-millionth of an inch. It will have a resolving power of almost 25 meters, dwarfing that of most other terrestrial-based telescopes. In fact, it will have ten times the resolution of the Hubble Space Telescope, NASA’s current workhorse for mirror-based astronomical observation. That means it will resolve points of light 10 times sharper than Hubble.

Construction of the Magellan is underway and you can follow its progress here.   

Carnegie Observatories


Questioning “Disaster tourism” in California

San Francisco Chronicle

The 2018 Camp Fire in Paradise, California fire wiped out a small community of mostly retired homeowners who sought out the quiet, forested glens in Northern California as a place to spend the waning years of their lives. The fire is considered the deadliest in California history and resulted in the death of 88 people and the destruction of 13,696 homes.  

The San Francisco Chronicle delves into the idea of “disaster tourism”, following several people who made a special effort to visit the destroyed town to see the damage for themselves, take pictures and video. They were not alone. Apparently, three cleanup workers were fired after posting insensitive images of the devastation on social media. And one artist spray-painted chilling images around Paradise.  

For the people who once called Paradise home, let alone for the relatives of the ones who lost their lives in the tragic fire, the idea of people poking around to gaze, paint and take selfies in the ruins might have distasteful quality. 

San Francisco Chronicle

Space / Companies

Feel the Force in Anaheim

Disney Theme Parks

It was 53 years ago this month that Disneyland delighted (or annoyed, depending on your tolerance for earworms) visitors with the opening of the It’s a Small World ride. Perhaps it’s fitting, or a sign of how much more commercialized the world has become, that this week (Friday, May 31, in fact) saw the opening of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, a new 14-acre addition to the theme park that capitalizes on Disney’s $4 billion, 2012 purchase of the Star Wars franchise from Lucasfilm. The centerpiece of the new addition is a 100-foot long Millennium Falcon.   

The New York Times gets a personalized tour of the new addition, and seemed to think it was both “jaw-dropping” and incomplete, since several of the marquee attractions still aren’t open. In the Los Angeles Times, the reporter both appreciated and questioned how interactive it is, as it forces people who don’t know each other to work together to achieve various goals. 

We can’t help pity the parents who will not only pay nearly $120 per person to enter the park, but will then have to shell out an additional $200 for a hand-built lightsaber. 

New York Times     Los Angeles Times


Could a drought in California be linked to a drought in the Midwest? A recent Stanford-led study looks at so-called “Domino droughts”. (Stanford Water in the West)

Some lovely shots, recently discovered, of California’s desert landscapes from the 1920s, all shot by two women.  (Atlas Obscura)

A bill making its way through the California legislature will allow “harvesting” of roadkill. With a permit. Didn’t know it was illegal, but apparently, it is.  (CalMatters)

Elephant seals speak in dialects, but they may be losing them. Wow, this is so interesting. Who knew? There are numerous rookeries of elephant seals around California.  (The Atlantic)

The Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach has a new wing called Pacific Visions that just opened. (Aquarium of the Pacific)

Hawthorne, California-based SpaceX’s internet-beaming Starlink satellites are totally bumming out astronomers. (Axios)

Saving pets is apparently a big – and expensive – thing near San Francisco. (Alta Online)

Spotting wildfires around California may get easier with an array of new cameras. (NY Times)

The Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles has a new exhibit: ‘Hollywood Dream Machines’ with over 40 vehicles from cinema history, including Blade Runner, A Clockwork Orange, Mad Max: Fury Road, Back to the Future, and RoboCop. (Smith Journal)

Speaking of the Carnegie Observatories (see above) NASA’s Transiting Exoplanets Survey Satellite discovered that a nearby system hosts the first Earth-sized planet. Carnegie scientists were involved in the discovery. (Carnegie Observatories)

A rare (and very smelly) corpse lily is set to bloom in Long Beach. (LA Times)

Excellent story on the decline of the vaquita porpoise, a marine mammal that is almost extinct in the Gulf of California. (Undark)

You may soon get a sandwich delivered to you by drone in San Diego.  (Freight Waves)

That’s it! Have a great week, and please send your friends an invitation to sign up for the California Science Weekly newsletter. 

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Design by Luis Ramirez