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Pigs, Sharks, And Snowmobiles: Kari Byron Talks Hosting Large Dangerous Rocket Ships

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Science Channel

As co-host of MythBusters, Kari Byron deals with explosions, rocket sleds and general chaos all the time. But not even that experience could prepare her for the spectacle that is Large Dangerous Rocket Ships (LDRS), an annual competition-turned-Science Channel special that Byron began hosting 3 years ago. “The first year I went I felt like I was in a warzone because there are rockets going off constantly,” she says. “Every minute, there’s another one launching off. 3-2-1, pew! 3-2-1, pew! I was shell shocked. But now I’ve gotten used to it.”

Each year, LDRS moves to a different, very remote location. “We have to be somewhere far out, because generally they have to close off airspace when we’re doing extra-wild things,” Byron says. This year, rocket enthusiasts converged on Potter in upstate New York. “We’re basically out in a large field,” she says. “Some people have rockets taller than they are, and some have small model rockets, but everybody’s having a good time. There are rockets going up all around you, and you just have to be on your toes and make sure they don’t come down near you.”

The Main Events

This year’s LDRS special focuses on two events: Fastest to 10,000 Feet (that’s what they close off airspace for) and Odd Rockets, where competitors try to turn any object they can think of into a successful rocket—and land it safely. This part of LDRS is particularly fun. “People are always trying to top what happened the year before,” Byron says. “I’ve seen these guys launch port-a-potties and coffins. And this year, there’s everything from pigs to sharks. It's pretty wild.” But the craziest thing she saw get launched into the air was, hands down, a 400 pound snowmobile. “That was pretty weird, because that’s not one of those things I would have looked at and thought Hmm, I wonder if I could make a rocket out of that? But that’s why these guys are out there. They’re geniuses.”

While some competitors launch existing objects—like that snowmobile and a vintage television set—there are others who build their quirky rockets from scratch, an involved process that calls for lots of design, pre-LDRS tests, and troubleshooting. “I really like the challenge of the aerodynamics of the weird things they get into the air,” Byron says. “Anything that’s shaped like a rocket, it’s like, yeah, yeah, of course that’s going to go up! But when you see people fly things like a pig, you’re like, Wait a minute. How do you even go about modeling a pig to try to get over the drag factor from the legs and the ears? They spend so much time just coming up with the perfect skin—maybe they’re just shaping it in this minute way that nobody would notice but them—but it could make all the difference to the rocket.”

Often, the Odd Rockets crash and burn, and that's all part of the fun (at least for people watching on TV). “[These competitors] know they’re trying to launch things that were never meant for the sky,” Byron says. “It’s a gamble. They get disappointed because they do put all that time, effort and love into it, but when it goes wrong, it’s all part of rocketry.” But when those rockets built to go to 10,000 feet fail to launch, that’s a different story. “When those really expensive, beautiful rockets don’t go into the sky,” Byron says, “that’s when I feel bad.”

The More, The Merrier

This was the 31st year of the LDRS competition, and it doesn’t surprise Byron at all that people keep coming back—or that more people want to join in on the fun. “I think everybody’s got a real fascination with space and flight, and being able to create these rockets is this amazing way to touch the sky for a minute,” she says. “A lot of people who are competing are engineers or they’re in aerospace, and [LDRS is] something that’s natural to them. But there are also a lot of kids out there, getting involved and learning how to make these things work." This mission, in particular, is one Byron is passionate about. "I always love looking for new and interesting ways to get kids—and people in general—interested in science, and I think rockets is a great way to do that, because it’s such a flashy thing to be able to explain science with," she says. "The sound of these rockets going up is beautiful—it’s this shoo! It’s fascinating to watch, and being able to create something that goes up that high is amazing.”

And don't forget the sheer fun in creating those increasingly wacky Odd Rockets. Take note, next year's competitors: There's one object Byron really wants you to make into a rocket. “I’d like to see a full-sized car!” she laughs. “I wonder if they could get a car up in the air?”

Large Dangerous Rocket Ships airs Sunday, October 28 at 10 pm on The Science Channel.

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Courtesy Murdoch University
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Animals
Australian Scientists Discover First New Species of Sunfish in 125 Years
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Courtesy Murdoch University

Scientists have pinpointed a whole new species of the largest bony fish in the world, the massive sunfish, as we learned from Smithsonian magazine. It's the first new species of sunfish proposed in more than 125 years.

As the researchers report in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, the genetic differences between the newly named hoodwinker sunfish (Mola tecta) and its other sunfish brethren was confirmed by data on 27 different samples of the species collected over the course of three years. Since sunfish are so massive—the biggest can weigh as much as 5000 pounds—they pose a challenge to preserve and store, even for museums with large research collections. Lead author Marianne Nyegaard of Murdoch University in Australia traveled thousands of miles to find and collected genetic data on sunfish stranded on beaches. At one point, she was asked if she would be bringing her own crane to collect one.

Nyegaard also went back through scientific literature dating back to the 1500s, sorting through descriptions of sea monsters and mermen to see if any of the documentation sounded like observations of the hoodwinker. "We retraced the steps of early naturalists and taxonomists to understand how such a large fish could have evaded discovery all this time," she said in a press statement. "Overall, we felt science had been repeatedly tricked by this cheeky species, which is why we named it the 'hoodwinker.'"

Japanese researchers first detected genetic differences between previously known sunfish and a new, unknown species 10 years ago, and this confirms the existence of a whole different type from species like the Mola mola or Mola ramsayi.

Mola tecta looks a little different from other sunfish, with a more slender body. As it grows, it doesn't develop the protruding snout or bumps that other sunfish exhibit. Similarly to the others, though, it can reach a length of 8 feet or more. 

Based on the stomach contents of some of the specimens studied, the hoodwinker likely feeds on salps, a jellyfish-like creature that it probably chomps on (yes, sunfish have teeth) during deep dives. The species has been found near New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, and southern Chile.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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Gregory H. Revera, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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Space
Study Suggests There's Water Beneath the Moon's Surface
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Gregory H. Revera, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Astronauts may not need to go far to find water outside Earth. As CNN reports, Brown University scientists Ralph E. Milliken and Shuai Li suspect there are significant amounts of water churning within the Moon’s interior.

Their findings, published in the journal Nature Geoscience, lean on the discovery of glass beads encased in the Moon’s volcanic rock deposits. As recently as 100 million years ago, the Earth’s moon was a hotbed of volcanic activity. Evidence of that volatile time can still be found in the ancient ash and volcanic rock that’s scattered across the surface.

Using satellite imagery, the researchers identified tiny water droplets preserved inside glass beads that formed in the volcanic deposits. While water makes up a small fraction of each bead, its presence suggests there’s significantly more of it making up the Moon’s mantle.

Milliken and Li aren't the first scientists to notice water in lunar rocks. In 2008, volcanic materials collected from the Moon during the Apollo missions of 1971 and 1972 were revealed to contain the same water-flecked glass beads that the Brown scientists made the basis of their recent study. They took their research further by analyzing images captured across the face of the Moon and quickly saw the Apollo rocks represented a larger trend. "The distribution of these water-rich deposits is the key thing," Milliken said in a press statement. "They're spread across the surface, which tells us that the water found in the Apollo samples isn't a one-off. Lunar pyroclastics seem to be universally water-rich, which suggests the same may be true of the mantle."

The study challenges what we know about the Moon's formation, which scientists think occurred when a planet-sized object slammed into the Earth 4.5 billion years ago. "The growing evidence for water inside the Moon suggests that water did somehow survive, or that it was brought in shortly after the impact by asteroids or comets before the Moon had completely solidified," Li said. "The exact origin of water in the lunar interior is still a big question."

The findings also hold exciting possibilities for the future of space travel. NASA scientists have already considered turning the Moon into a water station for astronauts on their way to Mars. If water on the celestial body is really as abundant as the evidence may suggest, figuring out how to access that resource will definitely be on NASA's agenda.

[h/t CNN]

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