How ghostly neutrinos could explain the universe’s matter mystery

The answer to one of the greatest mysteries of the universe may come down to one of the smallest, and spookiest, particles.

Matter is common in the cosmos. Everything around us — from planets to stars to puppies — is made up of matter. But matter has a flip side: antimatter. Protons, electrons and other particles all have antimatter counterparts: antiprotons, positrons, etc. Yet for some reason antimatter is much rarer than matter — and no one knows why.
Physicists believe the universe was born with equal amounts of matter and antimatter. Since matter and antimatter counterparts annihilate on contact, that suggests the universe should have ended up with nothing but energy. Something must have tipped the balance.

Some physicists think lightweight subatomic particles called neutrinos could point to an answer. These particles are exceedingly tiny, with less than a millionth the mass of an electron (SN: 4/21/21). They’re produced in radioactive decays and in the sun and other cosmic environments. Known for their ethereal tendency to evade detection, neutrinos have earned the nickname “ghost particles.” These spooky particles, originally thought to have no mass at all, have a healthy track record of producing scientific surprises (SN: 10/6/15).

Now researchers are building enormous detectors to find out if neutrinos could help solve the mystery of the universe’s matter. The Hyper-Kamiokande experiment in Hida City, Japan, and the Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment in Lead, S.D., will study neutrinos and their antimatter counterparts, antineutrinos. A difference in neutrinos’ and antineutrinos’ behavior might hint at the origins of the matter-antimatter imbalance, scientists suspect.

Watch the video below to find out how neutrinos might reveal why the universe contains, well, anything at all.

This face mask can sense the presence of an airborne virus

Face masks — the unofficial symbol of the COVID-19 pandemic — are leveling up.

A mask outfitted with special electronics can detect SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, and other airborne viruses within 10 minutes of exposure, materials researcher Yin Fang and colleagues report September 19 in Matter.

“The lightness and wearability of this face mask allows users to wear it anytime, anywhere,” says Fang, of Tongji University in Shanghai. “It’s expected to serve as an early warning system to prevent large outbreaks of respiratory infectious diseases.”
Airborne viruses can hitch a ride between hosts in the air droplets that people breathe in and out. People infected with a respiratory illness can expel thousands of virus-containing droplets by talking, coughing and sneezing. Even those with no signs of being sick can sometimes pass on these viruses; people who are infected with SARS-CoV-2 can start infecting others at least two to three days before showing symptoms (SN: 3/13/20). So viruses often have a head start when it comes to infecting new people.

Fang and his colleagues designed a special sensor that reacts to the presence of certain viral proteins in the air and attached it to a face mask. The team then spritzed droplets containing proteins produced by the viruses that cause COVID-19, bird flu or swine flu into a chamber with the mask.

The sensor could detect just a fraction of a microliter of these proteins — a cough might contain 10 to 80 times as much. Once a pathogen was detected, the sensor-mask combo sent a signal to the researchers informing them of the virus’s presence. Ultimately, the researchers plan for such signals to be sent to a wearer’s phone or other devices. By combining this technology with more conventional testing, the team says, health care providers and public health officials might be able to better contain future pandemics.

After eons of isolation, these desert fish flub social cues

Getting out into society after a long isolation gets awkward. Ask the Pahrump poolfish, loners in a desert for some 10,000 years.

This hold-in-your-hand-size fish (Empetrichthys latos) has a chubby, torpedo shape and a mouth that looks as if it’s almost smiling. Until the 1950s, this species had three forms, each evolving in its own spring. Now only one survives, which developed in a spring-fed oasis in the Mojave Desert’s Pahrump Valley, about an hour’s drive west of Las Vegas.

Fish in a desert are not that weird when you take the long view (SN: 1/26/16). In a former life, some desert valleys were ancient lakes. As the region’s lakes dried up, fish got stuck in the remaining puddles. Various stranded species over time adapted to quirks of their private microlakes, and a desert-fish version of the Galapagos Islands’ diverse finches arose.
“We like to say that Darwin, if he had a different travel agent, could have come to the same conclusions just from the desert,” says evolutionary biologist Craig Stockwell of North Dakota State University in Fargo.

The desert “island” where E. latos evolved was Manse Spring on a private ranch. From a distance, the spring looked “just like a little clump of trees,” remembers ecologist Shawn Goodchild, who is now based in Lake Park, Minn. The spot of desert greenery surrounded the Pahrump poolfish’s entire native range, about the length of an Olympic swimming pool.

By the 1960s, biologists feared the fish were doomed. The spring’s flow rate had dropped some 70 percent as irrigation for farms in the desert sucked away water. And disastrous predators arrived: a kid’s discarded goldfish. Conservation managers fought back, but neither poison nor dynamite wiped out the newcomers. And then in August of 1975, Manse Spring dried up.

Conservation managers had moved some poolfish to other springs, but the long-isolated species just didn’t seem to get the dangers of living with other kinds of fishes. The poolfish were easily picked off by predators in their new home.

Lab tests of fake fish-murder scenes may help explain why. For instance, researchers tainted aquarium water with pureed fish bits. In an expected reaction, fathead minnows (Pimephales promelas) freaked at traces of dead minnow drifting through the water and huddled low in the tank. The Pahrump poolfish in water tainted with blender-whizzed skin of their kind just kept swimming around the upper waters as if corpse taint were no scarier than tap water. Literally. Stockwell and colleagues can say that because they ran a fear test with nonscary dechlorinated tap water. Poolfish didn’t huddle then either, the team reports in the Aug. 31 Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Then, however, Stockwell and a colleague were musing about some rescued poolfish in cattle tanks when nearby dragonflies caught the researchers’ attention.

Before dragonflies mature into shimmering aerial marvels, the young prowl underwater as violent predators. In moves worthy of scary aliens in a sci-fi movie, many dragonfly nymphs can shoot their jaws out from their head to scoop up prey, including fish eggs and fish larvae. With young dragonflies prowling a pool’s bottom and plants, poolfish moving up the water column “would be a good way to reduce their risk,” Stockwell says. Testing of that idea has begun.

Fish that people thought were foolishly naïve may just be savvy in a different way. Especially after isolation in a desert with dragons.

The discovery of the Kuiper Belt revamped our view of the solar system

On a Hawaiian mountaintop in the summer of 1992, a pair of scientists spotted a pinprick of light inching through the constellation Pisces. That unassuming object — located over a billion kilometers beyond Neptune — would rewrite our understanding of the solar system.

Rather than an expanse of emptiness, there was something, a vast collection of things in fact, lurking beyond the orbits of the known planets.

The scientists had discovered the Kuiper Belt, a doughnut-shaped swath of frozen objects left over from the formation of the solar system.

As researchers learn more about the Kuiper Belt, the origin and evolution of our solar system is coming into clearer focus. Closeup glimpses of the Kuiper Belt’s frozen worlds have shed light on how planets, including our own, might have formed in the first place. And surveys of this region, which have collectively revealed thousands of such bodies, called Kuiper Belt objects, suggest that the early solar system was home to pinballing planets.

The humble object that kick-started it all is a chunk of ice and rock roughly 250 kilometers in diameter. It was first spotted 30 years ago this month.
Staring into space
In the late 1980s, planetary scientist David Jewitt and astronomer Jane Luu, both at MIT at the time, were several years into a curious quest. The duo had been using telescopes in Arizona to take images of patches of the night sky with no particular target in mind. “We were literally just staring off into space looking for something,” says Jewitt, now at UCLA.

An apparent mystery motivated the researchers: The inner solar system is relatively crowded with rocky planets, asteroids and comets, but there was seemingly not much out beyond the gas giant planets, besides small, icy Pluto. “Maybe there were things in the outer solar system,” says Luu, who now works at the University of Oslo and Boston University. “It seemed like a worthwhile thing to check out.”
Poring over glass photographic plates and digital images of the night sky, Jewitt and Luu looked for objects that moved extremely slowly, a telltale sign of their great distance from Earth. But the pair kept coming up empty. “Years went by, and we didn’t see anything,” Luu says. “There was no guarantee this was going to work out.”

The tide changed in 1992. On the night of August 30, Jewitt and Luu were using a University of Hawaii telescope on the Big Island. They were employing their usual technique for searching for distant objects: Take an image of the night sky, wait an hour or so, take another image of the same patch of sky, and repeat. An object in the outer reaches of the solar system would shift position ever so slightly from one image to the next, primarily because of the movement of Earth in its orbit. “If it’s a real object, it would move systematically at some predicted rate,” Luu says.

By 9:14 p.m. that evening, Jewitt and Luu had collected two images of the same bit of the constellation Pisces. The researchers displayed the images on the bulbous cathode-ray tube monitor of their computer, one after the other, and looked for anything that had moved. One object immediately stood out: A speck of light had shifted just a touch to the west.

But it was too early to celebrate. Spurious signals from high-energy particles zipping through space — cosmic rays — appear in images of the night sky all of the time. The real test would be whether this speck showed up in more than two images, the researchers knew.

Jewitt and Luu nervously waited until 11 p.m. for the telescope’s camera to finish taking a third image. The same object was there, and it had moved a bit farther west. A fourth image, collected just after midnight, revealed the object had shifted position yet again. This is something real, Jewitt remembers thinking. “We were just blown away.”
Based on the object’s brightness and its leisurely pace — it would take nearly a month for it to march across the width of the full moon as seen from Earth — Jewitt and Luu did some quick calculations. This thing, whatever it was, was probably about 250 kilometers in diameter. That’s sizable, about one-tenth the width of Pluto. It was orbiting far beyond Neptune. And in all likelihood, it wasn’t alone.

Although Jewitt and Luu had been diligently combing the night sky for years, they had observed only a tiny fraction of it. There were possibly thousands more objects out there like this one just waiting to be found, the two concluded.

The realization that the outer solar system was probably teeming with undiscovered bodies was mind-blowing, Jewitt says. “We expanded the known volume of the solar system enormously.” The object that Jewitt and Luu had found, 1992 QB1 (SN: 9/26/92, p. 196), introduced a whole new realm.

Just a few months later, Jewitt and Luu spotted a second object also orbiting far beyond Neptune (SN: 4/10/93, p. 231). The floodgates opened soon after. “We found 40 or 50 in the next few years,” Jewitt says. As the digital detectors that astronomers used to capture images grew in size and sensitivity, researchers began uncovering droves of additional objects. “So many interesting worlds with interesting stories,” says Mike Brown, an astronomer at Caltech who studies Kuiper Belt objects.

Finding all of these frozen worlds, some orbiting even beyond Pluto, made sense in some ways, Jewitt and Luu realized. Pluto had always been an oddball; it’s a cosmic runt (smaller than Earth’s moon) and looks nothing like its gas giant neighbors. What’s more, its orbit takes it sweeping far above and below the orbits of the other planets. Maybe Pluto belonged not to the world of the planets but to the realm of whatever lay beyond, Jewitt and Luu hypothesized. “We suddenly understood why Pluto was such a weird planet,” Jewitt says. “It’s just one object, maybe the biggest, in a set of bodies that we just stumbled across.” Pluto probably wouldn’t be a member of the planet club much longer, the two predicted. Indeed, by 2006, it was out (SN: 9/2/06, p. 149).

Up-close look
The discovery of 1992 QB1 opened the world’s eyes to the Kuiper Belt, named after Dutch-American astronomer Gerard Kuiper. In a twist of history, however, Kuiper predicted that this region of space would be empty. In the 1950s, he proposed that any occupants that might have once existed there would have been banished by gravity to even more distant reaches of the solar system.

In other words, Kuiper anti-predicted the existence of the Kuiper Belt. He turned out to be wrong.

Today, researchers know that the Kuiper Belt stretches from a distance of roughly 30 astronomical units from the sun — around the orbit of Neptune — to roughly 55 astronomical units. It resembles a puffed-up disk, Jewitt says. “Superficially, it looks like a fat doughnut.”

The frozen bodies that populate the Kuiper Belt are the remnants of the swirling maelstrom of gas and dust that birthed the sun and the planets. There’s “a bunch of stuff that’s left over that didn’t quite get built up into planets,” says astronomer Meredith MacGregor of the University of Colorado Boulder. When one of those cosmic leftovers gets kicked into the inner solar system by a gravitational shove from a planet like Neptune and approaches the sun, it turns into an object we recognize as a comet (SN: 9/12/20, p. 14). Comets that circle the sun once only every 200 years or more typically derive from the solar system’s even more distant repository of icy bodies known as the Oort cloud.
In scientific parlance, the Kuiper Belt is a debris disk (SN Online: 7/28/21). Distant solar systems contain debris disks, too, scientists have discovered. “They’re absolutely directly analogous to our Kuiper Belt,” MacGregor says.

In 2015, scientists got their first close look at a Kuiper Belt object when NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft flew by Pluto (SN Online: 7/15/15). The pictures that New Horizons returned in the following years were thousands of times more detailed than previous observations of Pluto and its moons. No longer just a few fuzzy pixels, the worlds were revealed as rich landscapes of ice-spewing volcanoes and deep, jagged canyons (SN: 6/22/19, p. 12; SN Online: 7/13/18). “I’m just absolutely ecstatic with what we accomplished at Pluto,” says Marc Buie, an astronomer at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo., and a member of the New Horizons team. “It could not possibly have gone any better.”

But New Horizons wasn’t finished with the Kuiper Belt. On New Year’s Day of 2019, when the spacecraft was almost 1.5 billion kilometers beyond Pluto’s orbit, it flew past another Kuiper Belt object. And what a surprise it was. Arrokoth — its name refers to “sky” in the Powhatan/Algonquian language — looks like a pair of pancakes joined at the hip (SN: 12/21/19 & 1/4/20, p. 5; SN: 3/16/19, p. 15). Roughly 35 kilometers long from end to end, it was probably once two separate bodies that gently collided and stuck. Arrokoth’s bizarre structure sheds light on a fundamental question in astronomy: How do gas and dust clump together and grow into larger bodies?

One long-standing theory, called planetesimal accretion, says that a series of collisions is responsible. Tiny bits of material collide and stick together on repeat to build up larger and larger objects, says JJ Kavelaars, an astronomer at the University of Victoria and the National Research Council of Canada. But there’s a problem, Kavelaars says.
As objects get large enough to exert a significant gravitational pull, they accelerate as they approach one another. “They hit each other too fast, and they don’t stick together,” he says. It would be unusual for a large object like Arrokoth, particularly with its two-lobed structure, to have formed from a sequence of collisions.

More likely, Arrokoth was born from a process known as gravitational instability, researchers now believe. In that scenario, a clump of material that happens to be denser than its surroundings grows by pulling in gas and dust. This process can form planets on timescales of thousands of years, rather than the millions of years required for planetesimal accretion. “The timescale for planet formation completely changes,” Kavelaars says.

If Arrokoth formed this way, other bodies in the solar system probably did too. That may mean that parts of the solar system formed much more rapidly than previously believed, says Buie, who discovered Arrokoth in 2014. “Already Arrokoth has rewritten the textbooks on how solar system formation works.”

What they’ve seen so far makes scientists even more eager to study another Kuiper Belt object up close. New Horizons is still making its way through the Kuiper Belt, but time is running out to identify a new object and orchestrate a rendezvous. The spacecraft, which is currently 53 astronomical units from the sun, is approaching the Kuiper Belt’s outer edge. Several teams of astronomers are using telescopes around the world to search for new Kuiper Belt objects that would make a close pass to New Horizons. “We are definitely looking,” Buie says. “We would like nothing better than to fly by another object.”

All eyes on the Kuiper Belt
Astronomers are also getting a wide-angle view of the Kuiper Belt by surveying it with some of Earth’s largest telescopes. At the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope on Mauna Kea — the same mountaintop where Jewitt and Luu spotted 1992 QB1 — astronomers recently wrapped up the Outer Solar System Origins Survey. It recorded more than 800 previously unknown Kuiper Belt objects, bringing the total number known to roughly 3,000.
This cataloging work is revealing tantalizing patterns in how these bodies move around the sun, MacGregor says. Rather than being uniformly distributed, the orbits of Kuiper Belt objects tend to be clustered in space. That’s a telltale sign that these bodies got a gravitational shove in the past, she says.

The cosmic bullies that did that shoving, most astronomers believe, were none other than the solar system’s gas giants. In the mid-2000s, scientists first proposed that planets like Neptune and Saturn probably pinballed toward and away from the sun early in the solar system’s history (SN: 5/5/12, p. 24). That movement explains the strikingly similar orbits of many Kuiper Belt objects, MacGregor says. “The giant planets stirred up all of the stuff in the outer part of the solar system.”

Refining the solar system’s early history requires observations of even more Kuiper Belt objects, says Meg Schwamb, an astronomer at Queen’s University Belfast in Northern Ireland. Researchers expect that a new astronomical survey, slated to begin next year, will find roughly 40,000 more Kuiper Belt objects. The Vera C. Rubin Observatory, being built in north-central Chile, will use its 3,200-megapixel camera to repeatedly photograph the entire Southern Hemisphere sky every few nights for 10 years. That undertaking, the Legacy Survey of Space and Time, or LSST, will revolutionize our understanding of how the early solar system evolved, says Schwamb, a cochair of the LSST Solar System Science Collaboration.
It’s exciting to think about what we might learn next from the Kuiper Belt, Jewitt says. The discoveries that lay ahead will be possible, in large part, because of advances in technology, he says. “One picture with one of the modern survey cameras is roughly a thousand pictures with our setup back in 1992.”

But even as we uncover more about this distant realm of the solar system, a bit of awe should always remain, Jewitt says. “It’s the largest piece of the solar system that we’ve yet observed.”

News stories have caught spiders in a web of misinformation

Even spiders, it seems, have fallen victim to misinformation.

Media reports about people’s encounters with spiders tend to be full of falsehoods with a distinctly negative spin. An analysis of a decade’s worth of newspaper stories from dozens of countries finds that nearly half of the reports contain errors, arachnologist Catherine Scott and colleagues report August 22 in Current Biology.

“The vast majority of the spider content out there is about them being scary and hurting people,” says Scott, of McGill University in Montreal. In reality, they note, “spiders almost never bite people.”
Of the roughly 50,000 known spider species, vanishingly few are dangerous. Instead, many spiders benefit us by eating insects like mosquitoes that are harmful to people. Even with the rare exceptions like brown recluse and black widow spiders, bites are extremely uncommon, Scott says. Some stories about bites blamed spiders that don’t occur in the area, and others reported symptoms that don’t match symptoms of actual bites. “So many stories about spider bites included no evidence whatsoever that there was any spider involved,” they say.

To conduct the study, Scott and their colleagues analyzed over 5,000 online newspaper stories about humans and spiders from 2010 to 2020 across 81 countries. In addition to errors, the team determined that 43 percent of the stories were sensationalized, often using words like nasty, killer, agony and nightmare. International and national newspapers were more likely to sensationalize spiders than regional outlets. Stories that included a spider expert were less sensationalistic, though there was no such effect from other experts, including doctors.

If people knew the truth about spiders, they could spend less time blaming them for bites and killing them with pesticides that are toxic to many other species, including humans, Scott says. Clearing up the misinformation would be good for spiders, too — especially the one in your house that doesn’t get squashed out of fear. Spiders in general stand to benefit, the researchers conclude, because news helps shape public opinion, which can influence decisions about wildlife conservation.

“Spiders are kind of unique in that they seem to be really good at capturing people’s attention,” says arachnologist Lisa Taylor at the University of Florida in Gainesville, who was not involved in the study. “If that attention is paired with real information about how fascinating they are, rather than sensationalistic misinformation, then I think spiders are well-suited to serve as tiny ambassadors for wildlife in general.”

Not one, but two asteroids might have slain the dinosaurs

Chicxulub, the asteroid that wiped out most dinosaurs, might have had a little sibling.

Off the coast of West Africa, hundreds of meters beneath the seafloor, scientists have identified what appears to be the remains of an 8.5-kilometer-wide impact crater, which they’ve named Nadir. The team estimates that the crater formed roughly around the same time that another asteroid — Chicxulub, the dinosaur killer — slammed into modern day Mexico (SN: 1/25/17). If confirmed, it could mean that nonbird dinosaurs met their demise by a one-two punch of asteroids, researchers report in the Aug. 17 Science Advances.
“The idea that [Chicxulub] had help — for want of a better phrase — would have really added insult to serious injury,” says study coauthor Veronica Bray, a planetary scientist at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

Nearly 200 impact craters have been discovered on Earth (SN: 12/18/18), the vast majority of which are on land. That’s because impact craters at sea gradually become buried under sediment, Bray says, which makes the Nadir structure a valuable scientific find, regardless of its birthdate.

Geologist Uisdean Nicholson of Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh happened upon the structure while analyzing data collected by seismic waves transmitted underground to detect physical structures offshore of Guinea. Lurking beneath the seafloor — and under nearly 1 kilometer of water — he discerned a bowl-shaped structure with a broken-up, terraced floor and a pronounced central peak — features expected of a large impact.

Based on the structure’s dimensions, Bray, Nicholson and their colleagues calculate that, if an asteroid was responsible for the terrain, it would probably have been over 400 meters wide. What’s more, the researchers estimate that the impact would have rocked the ground like a magnitude 7 earthquake and stirred tsunamis hundreds of meters high.

Despite that fallout, the Nadir impact would have been far less devastating than the one from the roughly 10-kilometer-wide Chicxulub asteroid, says Michael Rampino, a geologist from New York University who was not involved in the study. “It certainly wouldn’t have had global effects,” he says.

Using geologic layers adjacent to Nadir, some with ages obtained by past studies, the team estimated the structure to have formed around the end of the Cretaceous period — 66 million years ago. The Nadir asteroid may even have formed a pair with the Chicxulub asteroid, the two having been ripped apart by gravitational forces during a previous Earth flyby, the researchers speculate.
But the study’s conclusions have some experts wary. “It looks like an impact crater, but it could also be something else,” says geologist Philippe Claeys of Vrije Universiteit Brussel in Belgium, who was not involved in the research. Confirming that the structure is an impact crater will require drilling for solid evidence, such as shocked quartz, he says. Alternative explanations for the structure’s identity include a collapsed volcanic caldera or a squeezed body of salt called a salt diapir.

The Nadir structure’s age is another uncertainty. The seismic data shows it appears to have formed sometime near the end the Cretaceous period or maybe a little later, Claeys says. “But that’s around the best they can say.” Drilling in the crater for minerals that contain radioactive elements could provide a more precise date of formation, Rampino says.

It’s not the first time that scientists have investigated whether Chicxulub had an accomplice. Some studies have suggested that the Boltysh crater in Ukraine may have formed at the same time as Chicxulub, though researchers have since determined that Boltysh formed 650,000 years later.

Bray and her colleagues are currently negotiating for funding to collect samples from the crater, with aspirations to drill in 2024. That will hopefully settle some of the debate surrounding Nadir’s origins, Bray says, though new questions will probably arise too. “If we do prove that this is the sister of the dinosaur killer, then how many other siblings are there?”