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Sample from speeding asteroid shows its made of stuff similar to that which formed the Sun

ScientiFix, our weekly feature, offers you a summary of the top global science stories of the week, with links to their sources.

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New Delhi: Analysis of samples collected from a speeding asteroid has revealed that the objects is made of the same stuff that merged into our Sun four-and-a-half billion years ago.

In late 2020, Japanese space agency JAXA’s Hayabusa2 returned to Earth after a six-year journey. The space craft brought a handful of rock dirt that researchers have been studying since.

Now, the first results from the analysis of the sample have begun to come in.

Previously meteorites samples were those that fell to Earth. Many of these had been stored in museums for decades, or even centuries, which changed their compositions.

According to the researchers, it is thus incredible to have pristine samples as they allow us to study parts of the solar system that have not been otherwise explored.

In 2018, Hayabusa2 landed atop a moving asteroid named Ryugu and collected particles from above and below its surface.

The rock is similar to a class of meteorites known as Ivuna-type carbonaceous chondrites. These rocks have a similar chemical composition to what we measure from the Sun and are thought to date back to the very beginnings of the solar system, approximately four-and-a-half billion years ago, before the formation of the Sun, the Moon and Earth.

The fragments show signs of having been soaked in water at some point. Read more.

Also read: 3 Chinese astronauts begin 6-month mission to complete Beijing’s first permanent space station

Antarctic glaciers losing ice at fastest rate in 5,500 years

The rate at which the Antarctic is currently losing ice is the fastest in over 5,500 years, which could contribute to as much as 3.4 meters to global sea level rise over the next several centuries.

Antarctica is covered by two huge ice masses — the East and West Antarctic Ice Sheets (EAIS & WAIS) — which feed many individual glaciers. Because of the warming climate, the WAIS has been thinning at accelerated rates over the past few decades.

Within the ice sheet, the Thwaites and Pine Island glaciers are particularly vulnerable to global warming and are already contributing to rises in sea level.

Researchers from the University of Maine, British Antarctic Survey and Imperial College London have measured the rate of local sea level change — an indirect way to measure ice loss — around these glaciers.

They found that the glaciers have begun retreating at a rate not seen in the last 5,500 years. With areas of 192,000 square kilometre and 162,300 square kilometre respectively, the Thwaites and Pine Island glaciers have the potential to cause large rises in global sea level.

During the mid-Holocene period, over 5,000 years ago, the climate was warmer than it is today and thus sea levels were higher and glaciers smaller. To study fluctuations in sea level since the mid-Holocene, the researchers examined seashells and penguin bones. Read more.

New maps of Earth’s tectonic plates

Researchers from the University of Adelaide have created new models that show how the Earth’s continents were assembled, providing fresh insights into the history of the planet.

The research will help provide a better understanding of natural hazards like earthquakes and volcanoes.

The team looked at the current knowledge of the configuration of plate boundary zones and the past construction of the continental crust to solve the puzzle.

The study found that plate boundary zones account for nearly 16 per cent of the Earth’s crust and 27 continents. The team produced three new geological models — a plate model, a province model and an orogeny model.

There are 26 orogenies — the process of mountain formation — that have left an imprint on the present-day architecture of the crust. Many of these are related to the formation of supercontinents, according to the team.

The new plate model includes several new microplates including the Macquarie microplate, which sits south of Tasmania, and the Capricorn microplate, which separates the Indian and Australian plates. Read more.

An inventory of microbes living in coldest & oldest parts of Earth

Scientists from EPFL, Switzerland, have created an inventory of microorganisms living in cryospheric ecosystems — frozen parts of the ocean, such as waters surrounding Antarctica and the Arctic.

Cryospheric ecosystems, which are some of the oldest on Earth, have a unique genetic signature, according to the team.

The team has complied the information into a database, which will be a useful resource for future studies on climate change microbiology.

Cryospheric ecosystems cover nearly 20 per cent of the Earth’s surface and include polar ice caps, mountain glaciers, glacial lakes, permafrost soils and coastal areas fed by glacier streams.

The microbiome of these ecosystems is still poorly understood by the scientific community. Meanwhile, many of the microorganisms are under threat from climate change.

The research team’s database contains information from no less than 695 samples collected from diverse cryospheric ecosystems around the world. It will serve as a useful reference for further research on cryosphere microbiology and the effects of climate change, according to the team. Read more.

‘Superworm’ that can eat through plastic

Scientists at the University of Queensland have discovered that the common Zophobas morio ‘superworm’ can eat through polystyrene, thanks to a bacterial enzyme in their gut.

The team fed superworms different diets over a three week period, with some given polystyrene foam, some bran and others put on a fasting diet.

The worms fed a diet of just polystyrene not only survived, but had marginal weight gains, suggesting that they can derive energy from the polystyrene.

The researchers used a technique called metagenomics to find the enzymes that helped degrade polystyrene and styrene. The long-term goal is to engineer enzymes to degrade plastic waste in recycling plants through mechanical shredding, followed by enzymatic biodegradation.

The team hopes to then try and upscale this process to a level required for an entire recycling plant. Read more.

(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)

Also read: Cancer ‘disappears’, every patient in remission — New York drug trial shows astonishing results


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