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An advanced telescope imaging system that started taking data last month is the first of its kind capable of spotting planets orbiting suns outside of our solar system. The collaborative set of high-tech instrumentation and software, called Project 1640, is now operating on the Hale telescope at the Palomar Observatory in California, where it uses a new starlight-suppressing technique to see dim planets and other celestial objects in the star’s neighborhood. A large portion of the imaging system was developed and tested in the Museum’s optics laboratory by Ben R. Oppenheimer, an associate curator in the Department of Astrophysics and principal investigator for the project.
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A new species of feathered dinosaur discovered in southern Germany is further changing the perception of how predatory dinosaurs looked. The fossil of Sciurumimus albersdoerferi,which lived about 150 million years ago, provides the first evidence of feathered theropod dinosaurs that are not closely related to birds. The fossil is described in a paper published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciencesby researchers at the Museum and at the Bayerische Staatssammlung für Paläontologie und Geologie and Ludwig Maximilians University, both in Germany.
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On Sunday, the tree of life lost another member: Lonesome George, the famed last survivor of the Pinta Island tortoises (Chelonoidis abingdoni). Director of the Museum’s Center for Biodiveristy and Conservation Eleanor Sterling has been in the Galápagos for the past few days. She recently answered a few questions about Lonesome George’s passing and legacy.
What are you doing in the Galápagos?
Eleanor Sterling: The Galápagos National Park Service and the Galápagos Conservancy called together a meeting of experts on public participation in monitoring and conservation and I was invited as a specialist.
Who was Lonesome George?
Sterling: Lonesome George was a giant tortoise who was close to a century old and who was quite famous for being the last known representative of his species. And with his death, the whole species that was found on Pinta Island in the Galápagos is now extinct. There are other individuals who have some of the genes of Pinta Island tortoises, but he was last known individual to have the full genome of this species.
What role did humans play in the decline of his species?
Sterling: Seafaring individuals stopped by the Galápagos and collected tens of thousands of tortoises over the years. They packed their hulls with tortoises to use as food as they traveled around rest of world, because tortoises could last a long time without dying. Humans also introduced species such as rats to the islands where tortoises live, and those introduced species compete with tortoises for food or depredate on their young and eggs.
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Underwater photography is always a challenge, but try doing it at night. That’s how David Gruber, a Museum research associate and consultant for the exhibition Creatures of Light: Nature’s Bioluminescence, will be spending the next few weeks in the Solomon Islands as he searches for glowing organisms to photograph. Gruber is writing about his experiences for The New York Times’s “Scientist at Work: Notes From the Field” blog along with fellow Museum research associate Vincent Pieribone.
“The scientific goals of this trip are manifold,” Gruber writes in his first post, “but above all we are after elusive near-infrared fluorescent and bioluminescent molecules to aid in biomedical research.” Both bioluminescent animals—creatures that generate light—and biofluorescent organisms—which absorb light and re-emit it at other wavelengths—have wide applications in medicine by allowing certain cells, such as those within cancerous tumors, to be visually tagged and tracked.
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In 1950, as part of a publicity campaign, the Hayden Planetarium began accepting reservations for what was billed as the first trip into space. After ads appeared in newspapers and the story was picked up by BBC broadcaster Alistair Cooke, letters poured in from as near as Newark and as far as Northumberland, with requests to book trips to the Moon, Mars, and beyond.
Some were accompanied by elaborate drawings of spacecraft, others by offers to serve as crewmembers on the flight. All came from applicants who wrote passionately about becoming the first to experience a trip to outer space, and the result is a treasure trove of letters that capture the public fascination with space exploration, a selection of which are now available for viewing on the Museum’s Beyond Planet Earth: The Future of Space Exploration site.