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Meet a robot that could explore caves on other planets


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These twisting, subterranean caverns can be home to mysteries and tall tales and lead to pirate’s treasure or a nest of vampires — if you ever watched 1980s movies such as “The Goonies” or “The Lost Boys.”

In reality, caves have sheltered our ancestors, who left examples of their artwork and stories along shadowy walls. But early humans weren’t alone in these dwellings. A diverse range of microorganisms live inside caves around the world.

Many of these hidden, natural networks and the wonders within them remain unexplored, however, because they are dangerous and sometimes inaccessible.

Technological advances could help scientists overcome the challenges of investigating these underground systems — and beyond. In our quest to search for life outside Earth, extraterrestrial caves may just hold the evidence we’re hoping to find.

Other worlds

An artist's concept shows ReachBot exploring a Martian cave.

A robot named ReachBot may become the first explorer to crawl inside Martian caves to search for microbes.

ReachBot is a concept for a machine about the size of a toaster oven with multiple extendable arms that could help it crawl through treacherous Martian caves the way Spider-Man swings through a city.

The bot would connect to a surface rover that could provide power, analyze cave samples and relay photos back to Earth.

The ReachBot team has received funding to build and test a prototype in caves on Earth similar to what might be encountered on Mars.

Ocean secrets

The Mesoamerican Reef, the second-largest barrier reef in the world, is a bit of a superhighway for sharks, turtles and rays living in the Caribbean.

The reef, which spans more than 600 miles (965.6 kilometers) from Mexico to Honduras, provides food and a rich habitat for marine life. But the endangered creatures that use this reef to navigate north and south can swim right into danger and fall prey to illegal fishing practices.

Now, sharks using this route have new unlikely allies in the local communities along the reef — fishers who are determined to protect the vital ecosystem.

Meanwhile, researchers recently stumbled on a different threat to great white sharks living off the coast of South Africa: a pair of shark-killing orcas.

We are family

These are four different Australopithecus skulls found in the Sterkfontein Caves in South Africa.

Fossils of early human ancestors found inside South Africa’s Sterkfontein Caves are 1 million years older than previously suspected.

The fossils belong to the genus Australopithecus, an ancient hominin initially thought to have lived 2 million to 2.6 million years ago. Now, researchers believe these ancient ancestors were around 3.4 million to 3.6 million years ago.

This new date makes the cave fossils older than the famed fossil Lucy, a member of the species Australopithecus afarensis who was found in Ethiopia and lived 3.2 million years ago.
Initially, it was thought that Australopiths from South Africa evolved from those living in East Africa, like Lucy — but the new dates turn that theory on its head. Now, researchers hope to discover who the older common ancestor was for these two ancient populations.

Across the universe

Soon, we’ll be able to see the universe in an entirely new way.

On July 12, astronomers will share the first high-resolution, full-color images taken by the James Webb Space Telescope. One of those “is the deepest image of our universe that has ever been taken,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said.

The images are expected to show how galaxies interact and grow, provide a glimpse inside the violent life cycle of stars and even a colorful peek inside the spectrum of an exoplanet — or how light wavelengths reveal characteristics of other worlds.

Fantastic creatures

Pandas have six digits to help them grasp bamboo.

Giant pandas have a taste for bamboo, but it hasn’t always been the case. Ancestors of the rare bears had a much more diverse diet that even included meat.

If you’ve ever looked closely at a panda’s paw, you’ll notice it has an extra finger. Analysis of a fossilized panda ancestor’s “false thumb” from 6 million years ago, found in Yunnan province in China, pinpointed when this bamboo preference began, according to a new study.

Pandas evolved the digit to help them hold on to the plant’s woody stems.

The fossil also revealed a mystery about the thumb, which turned out to be an evolutionary compromise for the giant pandas.


You’ve got to see these:

— A carnivorous plant that captures subterranean creatures has been found on Borneo. It’s the first pitcher plant known to go underground in search of prey.
— Miners were digging for gold in Canada’s Klondike when they unearthed a “near complete” mummified baby woolly mammoth that died more than 30,000 years ago.
— A NASA orbiter has spotted a surprising new double crater on the moon. The cavity formed when a mystery rocket crashed into the lunar surface on March 4.
Like what you’ve read? Oh, but there’s more. Sign up here to receive in your inbox the next edition of Wonder Theory, brought to you by CNN Space and Science writer Ashley Strickland, who finds wonder in planets beyond our solar system and discoveries from the ancient world.

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