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NASA // JPL // Cornell University, Maas Digital LLC (Public Domain)

On This Day in 2003, NASA's Spirit Rover Headed to Mars

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NASA // JPL // Cornell University, Maas Digital LLC (Public Domain)

On June 10, 2003, NASA launched the Spirit rover on its mission to Mars. It preceded the twin rover Opportunity, which launched on July 7. Spirit landed on Mars on January 4, 2004.

Spirit was intended to operate for 90 days, but it continued functioning for six years, thanks in part to wind blowing dust off its solar panels. The rover had a flaky front wheel, but its other five were fine—leading mission controllers to drive the rover backwards, dragging the broken wheel for a total of 4.8 miles on the Martian surface.

Spirit became permanently stuck in the soil in 2009 and stopped communicating in 2010. Over its service lifetime, Spirit sent back 128,224 images. (Opportunity is now over 220,000.)

The twin rovers are active on Twitter, with Opportunity nicknamed "Oppy." The twins have now provided nearly a decade and a half of on-the-ground science. To further understand the rovers' success, check out this NASA documentary made five years into their mission:

If you're interested in the current status of Opportunity science, NASA has you covered.

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science
Geological Map Shows the Massive Reservoir Bubbling Beneath Old Faithful
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iStock

Yellowstone National Park is home to rivers, waterfalls, and hot springs, but Old Faithful is easily its most iconic landmark. Every 45 to 125 minutes, visitors gather around the geyser to watch it shoot streams of water reaching up to 100 feet in the air. The punctual show is one of nature’s greatest spectacles, but new research from scientists at the University of Utah suggests that what’s going on at the geyser’s surface is just the tip of the iceberg.

The study, published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, features a map of the geological plumbing system beneath Old Faithful. Geologists have long known that the eruptions are caused by water heated by volcanic rocks beneath the ground reaching the boiling point and bubbling upwards through cracks in the earth. But the place where this water simmers between appearances has remained mysterious to scientists until now.

Using 133 seismometers scattered around Old Faithful and the surrounding area, the researchers were able to record the tiny tremors caused by pressure build-up in the hydrothermal reservoir. Two weeks of gathering data helped them determine just how large the well is. The team found that the web of cracks and fissures beneath Old Faithful is roughly 650 feet in diameter and capable of holding more than 79 million gallons of water. When the geyser erupts, it releases just 8000 gallons. You can get an idea of how the reservoir fits into the surrounding geology from the diagram below.

Geological map of geyser.
Sin-Mei Wu, University of Utah

After making the surprising discovery, the study authors plan to return to the area when park roads close for the winter to conduct further research. Next time, they hope to get even more detailed images of the volatile geology beneath this popular part of Yellowstone.

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Animals
Why Do Female Spotted Hyenas Give Birth Through Their Pseudo-Penises?
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YouTube

At the zoo, you can sometimes tell the difference between male and female animals by noting their physical size, their behavior, and yes, their nether regions. Hyenas, however, flip the script: Not only are lady spotted hyenas bigger and meaner than their male counterparts, ruling the pack with an iron paw, they also sport what appear to be penises—shaft, scrotum, and all.

"Appear" is the key word here: These 7-inch-long phalluses don't produce sperm, so they're technically really long clitorises in disguise. But why do female hyenas have them? And do they actually have to (gulp) give birth through them? Wouldn't that hurt … a lot?

The short answers to these questions are, respectively, "We don't know," "Yes," and "OW." Longer answers can be found in this MinuteEarth video, which provides the full lowdown on hyena sex. Don't say we didn't warn you.

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