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XPRIZE Launches $7 Million Ocean Discovery Challenge

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Attention, ocean explorers: the latest XPRIZE is for you. The Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE is a competition designed to speed up the development of ocean exploration technology. The XPRIZE Foundation is offering a combined total of $7 million in prize money for teams that can successfully complete a number of tough challenges.

The Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE is the third event in XPRIZE’s 10-year Ocean Initiative, which aims to address critical ocean issues and make the oceans healthy, valued, and understood. Previous challenges focused on ocean health through oil-spill cleanup and measuring ocean acidification. This new challenge will tackle the understanding element of the mission. 

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is putting up $1 million of the prize. The remaining $6 million comes from Shell Oil, which, it should be noted, is on the hook for huge fines due to its role in multiple oil spills.  

Oceanographer Jyotika Virmani is the senior director of the Ocean Discovery XPRIZE. She’s hopeful that the competition will inspire public and scientific interest in the water that covers more than 70 percent of our planet. “Ninety-five percent of the ocean is unexplored,” she told mental_floss. “We’ve got better maps of the surface of Mars than we’ve got of our own seafloor.”

The competition runs a little longer than three years: nine months for team registration, a year for concept development, and 18 months for two rounds of testing and judging by a panel of experts.

“This is a very audacious but achievable XPRIZE,” Virmani says. Tasks will include making a map of the seafloor; spotting archeological, biological, or geological features; and creating high-resolution images of a specific submerged object. 

There will be two rounds of seafloor mapping: one at 2000 meters (about 1.2 miles down) and one at 4000 meters (about 2.5 miles). Virmani anticipates some technical difficulties. “The pressures that they will face at those depths are crushing,” she told us. “Down at 4000 meters, it’s 400 times our atmospheric pressure that we have on the surface here.”

NOAA's $1 million will go to any team that can prove their technology’s ability to “sniff out” objects via chemical or biological traces. 

“I’m really excited about the discovery aspect of [this competition],” Virmani said. “Every time we go down into the deep ocean we discover something. There are an estimated 3 million shipwrecks on the seafloor right now. There’s a Caribbean sponge that contains a compound used in AIDS treatments. There are treatments for cancers and Alzheimer’s disease. Who knows what else is down there?”

Interested? Get your team together and sign up at oceandiscovery.xprize.org

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This High-Tech Material Can Change Shape Like an Octopus
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Octopuses can do some pretty amazing things with their skin, like “see” light, resist the pull of their own sticky suction cups, and blend in seamlessly with their surroundings. That last part now has the U.S. Army interested, as Co.Design reports. The military branch’s research office has funded the development a new type of morphing material that works like an octopus’s dynamic skin.

The skin of an octopus is covered in small, muscular bumps called papillae that allow them to change textures in a fraction of a second. Using this mechanism, octopuses can mimic coral, rocks, and even other animals. The new government-funded research—conducted by scientists at Cornell University—produced a device that works using a similar principle.

“Technologies that use stretchable materials are increasingly important, yet we are unable to control how they stretch with much more sophistication than inflating balloons,” the scientists write in their study, recently published in the journal Science. “Nature, however, demonstrates remarkable control of stretchable surfaces.”

The membrane of the stretchy, silicone material lays flat most of the time, but when it’s inflated with air, it can morph to form almost any 3D shape. So far, the technology has been used to imitate rocks and plants.

You can see the synthetic skin transform from a two-dimensional pad to 3D models of objects in the video below:

It’s easy to see how this feature could be used in military gear. A soldier’s suit made from material like this could theoretically provide custom camouflage for any environment in an instant. Like a lot of military technology, it could also be useful in civilian life down the road. Co.Design writer Jesus Diaz brings up examples like buttons that appear on a car's dashboard only when you need them, or a mixing bowl that rises from the surface of the kitchen counter while you're cooking.

Even if we can mimic the camouflage capabilities of cephalopods, though, other impressive superpowers, like controlling thousands of powerful suction cups or squeezing through spaces the size of a cherry tomato, are still the sole domain of the octopus. For now.

[h/t Co.Design]

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Watch a School of Humpback Whales 'Fish' Using Nets Made of Bubbles 

Just like humans, humpback whales catch many fish at once by using nets—but instead of being woven from fibers, their nets are made of bubbles.

Unique to humpbacks, the behavior known as bubble-net feeding was recently captured in a dramatic drone video that was created by GoPro and spotted by Smithsonian. The footage features a school of whales swimming off Maskelyne Island in British Columbia, Canada, in pursuit of food. The whales dive down, and a large circle of bubbles forms on the water's surface. Then, the marine mammals burst into the air, like circus animals jumping through a ring, and appear to swallow their meal.

The video offers a phenomenal aerial view of the feeding whales, but it only captures part of the underwater ritual. It begins with the group's leader, who locates schools of fish and krill and homes in on them. Then, it spirals to the water's surface while expelling air from its blowhole. This action creates the bubble ring, which works like a net to contain the prey.

Another whale emits a loud "trumpeting feeding call," which may stun and frighten the fish into forming tighter schools. Then, the rest of the whales herd the fish upwards and burst forth from the water, their mouths open wide to receive the fruits of their labor.

Watch the intricate—and beautiful—feeding process below:

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