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10 Mind-Blowing Discoveries This Week

Ever wonder what space smells like? That and nine other discoveries this week to rock the cocktail parties.

We’re watching the Parade of Nations part of the 2012 Olympic opening ceremonies (cultural crack for an Anglophile like myself) and with each passing band of athletes it’s hard not to be struck by the fabulous height of the basketball players. My friend Marcy, smoking an electronic cigarette, blows out electronic smoke and says, “Look at that guy! Imagine the size of his feet.”

“Yes,” I say, cutting my eyes at her quickly. “His feet.”

1. Divas of diving

Even if you’re not normally a sports watcher, you’ve got to love the Olympics, and thus far my favorites have been gymnastics and synchronized diving. Though they haven’t been mentioned in any if-animals-were-Olympic-athletes stories, like this one in Australian Geographic, the imperial cormorant of Argentina may well be a contender in the diving competition.

According to Science Daily, researchers from the Wildlife Conservation Society and National Research Council of Argentina recently fitted one of the sea birds with a camera -- the WCS tracking of the birds is helping to design areas for their protection and to understand the effect of environmental conditions on them. The researchers were “stunned” to see the cormorant dive 150 feet under the ocean in 40 seconds, search for food for 80 seconds, and catch a snake-like fish and wiz up to the surface in another 40 seconds, becoming, SD writes, “superbird.”

Just imagine what the bird could do without a camera on its back.

2. Edge-of-your-seat space drama

The cormorants and the Olympic divers are making amazingly graceful descents. Cross your fingers the same thing happens for the Mars rover.

What Red Orbit’s Lee Rannals calls, "The most complicated landing in NASA’s history” will take place Monday, August 6 at 1:31am EDT when Curiosity, the 1-ton Mars rover, lands on the red planet.

This is big. Being-broadcast-in-Times-Square big. It’s even got a catchphrase (cue horror movie music): seven minutes of TERROR!

That’s not a joke: those seven minutes are the window wherein NASA has to bring Curiosity from its 13,000 mph traveling speed down to 1.7 mph for a safe landing from 300 million miles away, Rannals reports. At 180 mph,  Curiosity will be released via “sky crane” method with a “backpack fitted with retrorockets controlling the descent speed” lowering the rover by three nylon cords. Probably one of the most nerve-wracking parts is the uncertainty: because of Mars’ distance it takes 14 minutes for signals from the craft to come to NASA engineers here on earth. Check out this excellent video on Space.com for all the edge-of-your-seat details.

Bonus: Shatner and Wheaton.

No, they’re not going, but William Shatner and Wil Wheaton ( Captain Kirk and Wesley Crusher in case you have been on Mars for the last few years) both narrate another great little video that details the stages of the landing and the amazing work  Curiosity will do once it gets there. The rover will land in Gale Crater, whose layers were likely eroded by water. This geology will show “a cross-section of Mars history” the narration says, and Curiosity will examine rocks and analyze soil samples to see if there has ever been any life on Mars.

3. Exploding termites

When we imagine life on other planets we tend to envision it as being more bizarre than anything you can find on Earth…and yet we make daily discoveries of things right here that are mind-blowingly weird. Or in the case of the exploding termites, back-blowingly weird.

Ed Yong of Discover Magazine reports that a pair of researchers from Brussels and the Czech Republic have found that the fate of elderly termite workers of the species Neocapritermes taracua is to be a kind of suicide bomber in defense of their colony. Some workers have blue crystals on their backs that get bigger as their mandibles get too worn down for the work of youth. The crystals contain a protein that works like our hemoglobin (carrying oxygen through their bodies) and is toxic to other termites. These crystals mix with saliva from a gland in the termites' back (yes, that’s where they keep it). When the colony is attacked by other termites the blue workers bite the interlopers and their backs release a sticky substance that kills invaders (video on the link). When researchers “dabbed the fluid on a competing termite species, 28 percent were paralysed and 65 percent died.”

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