Vic Bishop, Staff WriterIt’s not too often that you see the mainstream be honest about what it is that makes themmainstream. Media is big money and has significant influence in our lives, and at present a mere 6 corporations own 90% of all the mediathat makes it into your mediasphere. Voices critical of this power structure are rarely heard on the big networks, however, sometimes the truth gets through.Take this eye-opening cartoon for example.In 1998, cartoonist Robert Sm [...]
A new study that re-analyzed so-called “yeti” hair samples from previous research that had identified them as belonging to an “anomalous ursid” might have disappointing news for those who thought the findings last year meant a “bigfoot” of sorts was still out there. Yet, the author of the original findings stands by his claims.
Research published in the journal ZooKeys found that the hair samples said to be from Central Asia and the Himalayas belong to a known species in those regions.
“We have concluded that there is no reason to believe that the two samples came from anything other than brown bears,” the authors wrote in the study abstract.
After scientists analyzed more than 30 hair samples reportedly left behind by Bigfoot and other related beasts like Yeti, they found all of them came from more mundane animals like bears, wolves, cows and raccoons. Two samples were said to have been from an “anomalous ursid,” but new analysis suggests that the samples were from brown bears. (AP/Channel 4)
These authors used mitochondrial 12S rRNA sequencing on the same samples that Oxford University’s Bryan Sykes and his fellow authors used in their study published last year. The issue Eliecer Guiterrez, a postdoctoral researcher at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, and his colleagues found with Sykes research was that his team used a fragment of DNA.
“We made this discovery that basically that fragment of DNA is not informative to tell apart two species of bears: the brown bear and [modern-day Alaskan] polar bear,” Gutierrez told Live Science.
At the time of his 2014 study, Sykes et al. wrote “[...] it is important to bear in mind that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence and this survey cannot refute the existence of anomalous primates, neither has it found any evidence in support. […] The techniques described here put an end to decades of ambiguity about species identification of anomalous primate samples and set a rigorous standard against which to judge any future claims.”
And Sykes still holds his ground, despite the more recent findings. “What mattered most to us was that these two hairs were definitely not from unknown primates,” Sykes told Live Science in light of the recent research. “The explanation by Gutierrez and [Ronald] Pine might be right, or it might not be.”
To NBC News, Sykes said that Gutierrez’ findings are “entirely statistical.”
“The only way forward, as I have repeatedly said, is to find a living bear that matches the 12S RNA and study fresh material from it,” he continued. “Which involves getting off your butt, not an activity I usually associate with desk-bound molecular taxonomists.”
Daniel Loxton, an editor for Junior Skeptic, which is produced by the Skeptics Society, told Live Science that people will continue to believe in and seek out yetis, bigfoots and the like, because they are”fascinated by monsters, and they’re fascinated by mysteries in general.”
Blake Smith, in a blog post for the Skeptics Society laid out the whole saga involving Sykes research and the more recent analysis by Guiterrez. Smith ultimately concluded that he’s “still convinced that Yeti and Bigfoot are not to be found in the forests and mountains of the Earth, but in the minds of people.”
NASA's Dawn spacecraft is snapping increasingly detailed pictures of the dwarf planet Ceres as it zooms in for next month's rendezvous, but so far the images have only heightened the mystery surrounding bright spots on the surface.
The pictures released Thursday show that Ceres — the largest asteroid as well as the closest and smallest known dwarf planet — is pockmarked by craters. The craters are to be expected: The 590-mile-wide (950-kilometer-wide) mini-world has been pummeled for billions of years by other objects in the asteroid belt. But the white spots? They're a real puzzle.
One spot in particular has shown up prominently in pictures from the Hubble Space Telescope and from Dawn, which was launched back in 2007 to study Ceres and its sister asteroid Vesta. The latest pictures, taken on Wednesday from a distance of about 90,000 miles (145,000 kilometers), appear to show still more bright blips on Ceres. Are they patches of light material or ice at the bottom of craters? Or frost on the top of prominences?
"We are at a phase in the mission where the curtain is slowly being pulled back on the nature of the surface," UCLA planetary scientist Chris Russell, the principal investigator for the $466 million mission, told NBC News in an email. "But the surface is different from that of other planets, and at this stage the increasing resolution presents more mysteries rather than answers them."
Russell said the science team was particularly interested in the big bright spot and the region surrounding it.
"Naively we expect a bright region to be fresh and a dark region to be old. So the surface of Ceres seems to have a number of circular features of varying freshness on a predominantly dark, presumably old surface," Russell wrote. "The one type of feature that clearly came into view this time were examples of central peak craters with overall similarity to large lunar craters."
The mysteries will be cleared up by the time Dawn enters orbit around Ceres in March. OR WILL THEY?
This was a great year for dinosaurs. Dreadnoughtus, "Jar Jar Binks," and a swimming Spinosaurus all made headlines — and 2015 could hold even more surprises.
It wasn't always like this. From 1984 to 1994, there were about 15 new dinosaur species named per year. This year, nearly one species was discovered every week.
"We're absolutely in a golden age of dinosaur discovery," David Evans, who oversees dinosaur research at the Royal Ontario Museum, told NBC News. "It is probably a better time to be a dinosaur paleontologist now than any other time in the last century."
The 'Jurassic Park' effect
When it comes to finding dinosaurs in the dirt, paleontologists are using the same tools that they were 30 years ago. Satellite images might give them a better view of dig sites, but for the most part the process has not changed much.
So why are there so many dinosaur discoveries these days? More people are looking for them. Evans estimates that the number of dinosaur paleontologists has more than quadrupled in the last 30 years.
Every paleontologist interviewed for this story pointed to one catalyst for the paleontology boom: Steven Spielberg's 1993 blockbuster "Jurassic Park."
"It put the most lifelike, scientifically accurate dinosaurs ever on the big screen," Evans said. "That helped the public moved beyond the classical view of dinosaurs as slow, dim-twitted creatures."
Famed Montana State University paleontologist Jack Horner admits he has a special affection for the film. He served as scientific adviser for the original "Jurassic Park" and was the inspiration for Dr. Alan Grant, the movie's protagonist. He also consulted on the upcoming "Jurassic World" starring Chris Pratt.
"'Jurassic Park' attracted an incredible number of people to the field," Horner told NBC News. "I'm hoping that we put together something cool with 'Jurassic World' that people will really like and get more children interested in paleontology."
Increased interest led to increased paleontology budgets for museums and universities, Evans said. That has made a big difference in places like China and Argentina, relatively unexplored areas where a new generation of paleontologists has unearthed most of the recent headline-grabbing discoveries.
"The number of dinosaur researchers is much higher now than in the '90s," Thomas Holtz, a vertebrate paleontologist at the University of Maryland, told NBC News. "Anytime you are exploring a region and a slice of time that hasn't been sampled before, chances are that everything you are finding is new."
2014 and beyond
Some of the biggest discoveries of the year were not new species. Instead, they were more complete fossils of dinosaurs the scientific community knew very little about.
Take Spinosaurus, a massive carnivore that was even bigger than Tyrannosaurus rex. While its teeth indicated it ate fish, scientists were divided on whether it roamed the land and water looking for prey.
This year, the matter was settled. A new paper showed that the dinosaur's unique body structure — tiny hind limbs, dense bones, crocodile-like receptors in its snout — was best suited for the water and caused it to waddle on land.
"That was probably the most significant find of the year," Horner said.
There were other big discoveries in 2014. Dreadnoughtus fossils discovered in Argentina belonged to a creature that measured 85 feet (26 meters) long and weighed about 65 tons (59 metric tons), or about as much as a dozen elephants.
Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane exploded and crashed during a test flight on Friday, killing one crew member and seriously injuring another, authorities said.
The explosion came after the plane dropped away from its WhiteKnightTwo carrier airplane and fired up its hybrid rocket engine, said Stuart Witt, CEO and general manager of the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. The blast scattered debris across a two-mile swath of the desert floor north of Mojave, which is about 95 miles (150 kilometers) outside Los Angeles.
One of the two test pilots aboard the plane was killed, said Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood, who was among the officials dealing with the crash's aftermath.
The other parachuted to the ground and was injured. That pilot was transferred to Antelope Valley Hospital in Lancaster, California, according to Kern County Deputy Fire Chief Michael Cody.
"We hope that the survivor will be just fine," Youngblood said during a news briefing.
The pilots have not yet been identified, but both of them worked for Mojave-based Scaled Composites, according to Scaled's president, Kevin Mickey. Scaled has played a key role in developing and testing SpaceShipTwo for Virgin Galactic.
Virgin Galactic had planned to use this SpaceShipTwo to fly passengers on suborbital trips to the edge of space, beginning as early as next year. A nearly identical rocket plane is already under construction inside a Mojave hangar. More than 700 customers, including celebrities such as Ashton Kutcher and Justin Bieber, have paid as much as $250,000 to take a ride.
George T. Whitesides, Virgin Galactic's CEO, said the company would press on despite the setback.
"Space is hard, and today was a tough day," Whitesides told reporters. "We are going to be supporting the investigation as we figure out what happened today, and we're going to get through it. The future rests in many ways on hard, hard days like this. But we believe we owe it to the folks who were flying these vehicles as well as the folks who are working so hard on them to understand this and to move forward."
Witt said Mojave's close-knit aviation community was hit hard by the tragedy.
"When we have a mishap from the test community, we find that the test community is very small," he said. "We are human, and it hurts."
First powered flight in months
SpaceShipTwo's crew was testing the rocket engine in flight for the first time in more than nine months. The plane was slung beneath WhiteKnightTwo for takeoff from the Mojave Air and Space Port at about 9:20 a.m. PT (12:20 p.m. ET). When the paired planes reached a height of about 50,000 feet, about 40 minutes later, SpaceShipTwo was released for the test.
Witt said the anomaly occurred about two minutes after SpaceShipTwo dropped away and fired the rocket engine, but he didn't see any explosion. "It wasn't because something did happen. It was what I was not hearing and not seeing," Witt said.
Photographer Ken Brown, who was covering the test flight, told NBC News that he saw an explosion high in the air and later came upon SpaceShipTwo debris scattered across a small area of the desert. The WhiteKnightTwo plane and its pilots, meanwhile, landed safely.
Authorities cordoned off the crash site pending an investigation. A National Transportation Safety Board team was expected to get to the crash site Saturday morning. The Federal Aviation Administration said it was also investigating the incident.
New kind of fuel tested
During the nine months since the previous rocket-powered test in January, Virgin Galactic switched SpaceShipTwo's fuel mixture from a rubber-based compound to a plastic-based mix — in hopes that the new formulation would boost the hybrid rocket engine's performance.
Mickey said engines using the new type of fuel had been thoroughly tested on the ground. The final pre-flight qualification engine firing took place earlier this month. Friday's test marked the first time the new fuel was used in flight, but Mickey said "we expected no anomalies with the motor today."
Before Friday's flight, the most recent aerial outing was on Oct. 7, when SpaceShipTwo took an unpowered, gliding flight back to the Mojave runway.
The fatal flight was part of SpaceShipTwo's years-long test program, following up on the successful suborbital spaceflights of the smaller SpaceShipOne rocket plane in 2004. Virgin Galactic had said SpaceShipTwo's first test flight to an outer-space altitude — usually defined as 100 kilometers, or 62 miles — could have taken place before the end of the year.
The company's billionaire founder, Richard Branson, was hoping to ride on the first commercial flight next year. Over the past decade, he and his investment partners have put hundreds of millions of dollars into the Virgin Galactic venture. After Friday's crash, Branson said in a Twitter update that he was "flying to Mojave immediately to be with the team."
NBC News' Julianne Pepitone and James Eng contributed to this report. NBCUniversal has established a multi-platform partnership with Virgin Galactic to track the development of SpaceShipTwo and televise Branson's spaceflight.
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