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Living in the Future: July 15, 2013

This week: Electrically charged spider webs, NASA supported polar rovers, and discovery of a blue exo-planet!

When we see insects caught in a spider’s web, we tend to think the insect simply blundered into the strands as it was flying along. But new research from UC Berkeley suggests that spider webs pick up a negative charge from blowing in the wind – whereas most insects end up positively charged by actively flapping wings. As opposites attract – in terms of electrical charges, at least – insects may actually attract the spider web to themselves as they fly by, which also serves to alert the spider that dinner’s on the table – or web, anyway. Interestingly, bees use this same property to attract pollen to themselves, helping to reduce the energy they need to spend searching for pollen.

NASA is supporting research into rover designs, including the GROVER – meaning Goddard Remote Operated Vehicle for Exploration and Research. GROVER was designed by engineering students at Goddard Flight Center’s boot camp in 2010 and 2011. It was designed for use in cold and treacherous arctic regions of Greenland, to assist glaciologists in studying glacial conditions. Because GROVER requires no fuel other than sunlight, it’s perfect for navigating in the sunny Arctic summers. It may serve as a model for future exploration rovers, but there are bugs to work out first – though it was designed for 24-hour operation, the students were only able to get about 12 hours of work out of it per day.

Exoplanets, or planets outside of our solar system, have been often in the news lately, as the Hubble and other deep space telescopes are finding new ways of tracking them. But for the first time, we know the COLOR of one of those exoplanets. The planet HD189733B, a “hot Jupiter” circling a star 63 light years from Earth, has been determined to be a blue gas giant, similar to Neptune in color. Unlike Neptune, HD189733B circles close to its sun, and has an atmosphere temp of around 1000 degrees Centigrade. The color was measured by measuring the amount of light reflected from its surface as it eclipsed its host star!