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Keep outer space beautiful

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Unfortunately, it might be too late. According to Federal and private aerospace experts (and today's Times), the junk we've been rocketing into orbit around the Earth since the space age began may be reaching a critical mass, greatly increasing chances that a speeding piece of debris will "smash a large spacecraft into hundreds of pieces and start a chain reaction, a slow cascade of collisions that would expand for centuries, spreading chaos through the heavens."

What kind of debris? Not just dead satellites of old and rocket boosters from long-ago launches, but a growing cloud of bits and pieces left over from years of Soviet and U.S. anti-satellite weapons testing from 1968 to 1986. (Recently, China got into the act, blowing one of its old satellites into at least 647 detectable pieces, and sparking an international diplomatic crisis.) Click here for a scary full-motion version of the graphic above, which is a representation of all currently trackable items in orbit around Earth.

If nothing is done, a kind of orbital crisis might ensue that is known as the Kessler Syndrome, after a former NASA official who hypothesized the scenario -- a staple of science fiction -- in which the space around Earth becomes so riddled with junk that launchings are almost impossible. Vehicles that entered space would quickly be destroyed. Is there a solution -- some cosmic vacuum that could wipe the space around Earth clean and allow us a fresh start? Not quite. Proposals include "robots that install rocket engines to send dead spacecraft careering back into the atmosphere, or ground-based lasers that could be used to zap debris." (Both sound prohibitively expensive, and a little silly. And do we really want millions of tons of space junk raining down on us, anyway?)

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FRED TANNEAU/AFP/Getty Images
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Animals
Fisherman Catches Rare Blue Lobster, Donates It to Science
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FRED TANNEAU/AFP/Getty Images

Live lobsters caught off the New England coast are typically brown, olive-green, or gray—which is why one New Hampshire fisherman was stunned when he snagged a blue one in mid-July.

As The Independent reports, Greg Ward, from Rye, New Hampshire, discovered the unusual lobster while examining his catch near the New Hampshire-Maine border. Ward initially thought the pale crustacean was an albino lobster, which some experts estimate to be a one-in-100-million discovery. However, a closer inspection revealed that the lobster's hard shell was blue and cream.

"This one was not all the way white and not all the way blue," Ward told The Portsmouth Herald. "I've never seen anything like it."

While not as rare as an albino lobster, blue lobsters are still a famously elusive catch: It's said that the odds of their occurrence are an estimated one in two million, although nobody knows the exact numbers.

Instead of eating the blue lobster, Ward decided to donate it to the Seacoast Science Center in Rye. There, it will be studied and displayed in a lobster tank with other unusually colored critters, including a second blue lobster, a bright orange lobster, and a calico-spotted lobster.

[h/t The Telegraph]

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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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