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6 Little-Known Facts About Ceres

Today we talk about asteroids with such familiarity that it's strange to imagine that the asteroid belt needed to be discovered, but it happened surprisingly recently. The first asteroid found was Ceres in 1801, by Giuseppe Piazzi, during the hunt for a missing planet suspected to exist between Mars and Jupiter. It wasn't called an asteroid at first, of course. For a while there, Ceres was considered a planet. (Note its Roman deity namesake, the goddess of agriculture, which is also where we get the word cereal.)

Then other such "planets" were discovered in Ceres's neighborhood—and with alarming regularity. After 50 years of too many planets, astronomers decided to classify this veritable planetary pestilence at the Martian-Jovian boundary as a new type of body: asteroid. In 2006, astronomers took another stab at the classification of Ceres, promoting it to dwarf planet with the same stroke of the pen that demoted Pluto.

Ceres is more than a big asteroid or small dwarf, however. The NASA spacecraft Dawn has been in orbit around Ceres since 2015, studying every square inch of it. What they've found is the Rosetta Stone for comparative planetology—an intriguing mix of Mars, asteroid, icy moon, and comet. Mental Floss spoke to Hanna Sizemore, a research scientist at the Planetary Science Institute and a guest investigator on the Dawn team. Here are a few things you ought to know about Ceres.

1. CERES BY THE NUMBERS.

Ceres accounts for one-third the mass of the asteroid belt, and is by far the largest object there. It has a radius of 295.9 miles, making it smaller than Earth's moon (whose radius is 1079 miles), and only about 2.8 percent of Earth's gravity. (That's enough, though, for you to walk around on, should you choose to visit.) The days on Ceres would fly by at 9 hours each; the years on Ceres would drag endlessly, at 4.6 Earth years. Relative to Earth, it would be a pretty cold place to live, with temperatures ranging from -225°F to -100°F.

There is no atmosphere on Ceres worth mentioning, so the view above the horizon would be pretty depressing: the infinite black loneliness of space. The view at the horizon and below wouldn't be much better. Picture the sort of asteroid you might land the Millennium Falcon on; that's what the surface looks like.

2. IT HAS SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE.

"Ceres is an interesting hybrid between a planet like Mars, which is a rocky body with a cryosphere [significant ice in the near-surface], and the icy satellites of Saturn," says Sizemore. "The outer surface of the planet has less ice than we expected and more dirt. As you go down, it seems like the ice content increases again, and as you go further in, there may (or may not) be a higher density core."

The chemistry of Ceres is more complex than was expected before Dawn arrived, and there are more nuances to the layered structure; it's not simply rigidly defined layers as you might find on Earth or Europa. Moreover, Dawn has found surface features suggestive of cryovolcanoes (ice volcanoes), as well as unexpected tectonic features. "It's got a little bit of everything. It's a mix between an icy satellite, a rocky body with a cryosphere, an asteroid—it's got things in common with comets, too. It's the hybrid body."

3. IT'S NOT A BAD PLACE TO LIVE …

"A lot of people are excited about Ceres from an astrobiological standpoint," says Sizemore. "You have a lot of water-rock interactions going on there. You have this extensively altered regolith. You have organics at the surface. That's a gold mine from an astrobiological perspective, this intimate mix of rock, water, and organics—the question is what bugs might grow, or what building blocks of life are there."

The data collected by Dawn's Visual and Infrared Spectrometer (VIR) suggest the organics are native to Ceres, formed under processes not yet fully known. (Scientists originally wondered if they were deposited by way of asteroid impacts.) To understand the nature of the compounds and how they formed, members of the planetary science community have begun discussing a prospective lander mission.

4. … BUT NOT SO GOOD THAT ALIENS LIVE THERE.

You might recall NASA's discovery a few years ago of two piercing, bewildering white spots on an exotic world? That was Ceres. The Keck II telescope in 2002 first revealed something unusual up there, but it wasn't until Dawn approached the then-unexplored world that things really got weird. Was it an ice mountain? An ice canyon? Salt? Some giant chunk of shiny metal? Or was it what everyone really hoped: technology from an intelligent alien race—perhaps a solar collector or beacon of some sort. (NASA even posted a poll for the public's guesses.)

I am sorry to report that the spots weren't built by aliens. Rather, according to a paper published last year in Nature, the spots are a type of salt, sodium carbonate, and constitute "the most concentrated known extraterrestrial occurrence of carbonate on kilometer-wide scales in the solar system." The spots are possibly the result of the crystallization of brines and altered material from the Ceres subsurface.

5. DAWN AND CERES MAY GIVE US MINING TOWNS ON THE ASTEROID BELT.

Any significant expansion of the human footprint beyond the lunar surface will require a process called in situ resource utilization, which involves the harvesting of resources on another celestial body and producing usable goods. (Expeditions during the Age of Discovery are analogous; explorers didn't fill ships with timber and then sail to the New World; they brought axes and used what they found when they arrived.) Lifting things from the Earth's surface is very expensive. Why launch barges of methane fuel to Mars, for example, when you can instead launch a single machine able to extract those elements from the Martian soil and manufacture the fuel there? With that in mind, Ceres might be the key to finding usable water for asteroid mining.

"An interesting feature we see on Ceres that we've previously seen on Mars and Vesta are little pits on smooth materials in fresh craters. They seem to be caused by the outgassing of ice vaporized during the impacts," says Sizemore. "It's starting to suggest a common indicator of volatile rich material at impact sites on asteroids." If volatiles, such as ice, are easily found and accessed on asteroids, the business case for mining them writes itself.

"At Ceres, there are actually surface exposures of ice, both at polar latitudes and at mid latitudes, and even at low latitudes we believe that ice is only meters deep. As we explore the asteroid belt more in the future, in situ resource utilization is going to be a big thing. Water is a really important resource even for hypothetical robotic missions, and we have a test case at Ceres to learn to quantify it," says Sizemore.

6. MUD OCEANS MEAN NO SHARKS.

It took 34 years from the first notion of an asteroid belt-specific exploration mission to NASA's Dawn spacecraft entering orbit around Ceres. (Notably, Ceres was the second stop on Dawn's journey, after a successful mission around Vesta. This makes Dawn the first and only spacecraft to orbit two bodies beyond Earth.)

Dawn is the only mission at Ceres. The next likely mission there will be a robotic lander or sample return, though such missions are only in the development stage. Unless mynocks start chewing on Dawn's power cables, causing NASA to send an exogorth-sensitive probe, it will likely be some time indeed before a Ceres lander reaches the launch pad.

It's a good thing, then, that Dawn is delivering the goods. Scientific instruments on the spacecraft have provided new insights on the Ceresian interior and talk of a Europa-like subsurface ocean has receded. Scientists now think Ceres has a "kind of a mud ocean, rather than a liquid water ocean comparable to our seas here on Earth, or what's under the ice shell on Europa," says Sizemore. "You have something quite dirty at the very outside shell, and as you go down, the water content increases, but it's probably a salty mud slurry." The thickness of the mud layer is still being determined by modelers.

"No sharks swimming in it," she adds. "No giant squids like on Europa Report."

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Penn Vet Working Dog Center
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

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Medicine
New Cancer-Fighting Nanobots Can Track Down Tumors and Cut Off Their Blood Supply
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iStock

Scientists have developed a new way to cut off the blood flow to cancerous tumors, causing them to eventually shrivel up and die. As Business Insider reports, the new treatment uses a design inspired by origami to infiltrate crucial blood vessels while leaving the rest of the body unharmed.

A team of molecular chemists from Arizona State University and the Chinese Academy of Sciences describe their method in the journal Nature Biotechnology. First, they constructed robots that are 1000 times smaller than a human hair from strands of DNA. These tiny devices contain enzymes called thrombin that encourage blood clotting, and they're rolled up tightly enough to keep the substance contained.

Next, researchers injected the robots into the bloodstreams of mice and small pigs sick with different types of cancer. The DNA sought the tumor in the body while leaving healthy cells alone. The robot knew when it reached the tumor and responded by unfurling and releasing the thrombin into the blood vessel that fed it. A clot started to form, eventually blocking off the tumor's blood supply and causing the cancerous tissues to die.

The treatment has been tested on dozen of animals with breast, lung, skin, and ovarian cancers. In mice, the average life expectancy doubled, and in three of the skin cancer cases tumors regressed completely.

Researchers are optimistic about the therapy's effectiveness on cancers throughout the body. There's not much variation between the blood vessels that supply tumors, whether they're in an ovary in or a prostate. So if triggering a blood clot causes one type of tumor to waste away, the same method holds promise for other cancers.

But before the scientists think too far ahead, they'll need to test the treatments on human patients. Nanobots have been an appealing cancer-fighting option to researchers for years. If effective, the machines can target cancer at the microscopic level without causing harm to healthy cells. But if something goes wrong, the bots could end up attacking the wrong tissue and leave the patient worse off. Study co-author Hao Yan believes this latest method may be the one that gets it right. He said in a statement, "I think we are much closer to real, practical medical applications of the technology."

[h/t Business Insider]

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