Sharks... in Space?
Aug. 13, 2012 --
Let's be honest. No matter how jazzed you are about great whites and black holes, you probably didn't come to Discovery News Space for your daily Shark Week fix. In fact, you'd be hard pressed to find a corner of Discovery less likely to offer exciting tidbits about blood-frothed waters and gilled horrors. As it turns out, however, there are at least five fascinating links (and one we totally made-up) between these Earth-bound killers of the deep blue and the mysteries of the outer dark. No, the ice-capped oceans of Europa aren't teaming with hammerheads. NASA, so far, has no plans to put a goblin shark on the moon. Still, the connections are fascinating -- and just when you thought it was safe to go back into orbit.
Sharks: Slaves to the Moon What would we do without the lunar cycle? Humans are endlessly tying occurrences in the natural world to the phases of the moon. Sometimes, the connections are scientific, while other times folklore and superstition hold sway. No doubt, you've heard the facts and fiction about the moon's influence over tides, menstrual cycles, criminal activity and werewolves -- but what about sharks? The moon really does exert a great deal of influence over the creatures of Earth, especially those that make their home in the oceans. Not only do the regular cycles of luminosity light the way for various breeding and migratory practices, but the moon also dictates the tides, which can greatly influence animal activity patterns. In tracking shark movements, scientists have observed large congregations of sharks during specific lunar cycles, as well as intensified feeding habits. In some areas, they've also examined shark attack statistics and found that, understandably, attacks on humans increase in frequency during the lunar phases that intensify feeding behavior, as well as when tides bring them in closer contact with humans. It may not be as exciting as, say, a full moon turning partially nibbled surfers into were-sharks, but there you have it; the moon's influence over the Earth's shark population.
NASA Goes Shark Watching Space Age technology has helped shark tracking endeavors in not one, but two major ways. The first method: satellite tracking. This entails attaching two kinds of tracking devices to sharks' fins: Smart Position-Only Tags (SPOTs) and Pop-Up Satellite Archival Tags (PATs). SPOTs attach to a shark's dorsal fins and upload location data to a satellite every time the animal surfaces. PATS, however, record water temperature, water pressure and light levels before detaching from the shark's fin at a set time. The device then floats to the surface and transmits all its data to a satellite. When working in tandem, these two tracking technologies provide scientists a more detailed, global perspective on sharks as they traverse vast stretches of open ocean. The second method is a little more surprising. Just what can NASA offer to help scientists track whale sharks in the wild? Nope, it's not a satellite this time -- it's an algorithm. Whether you're a scientists or a tourist, if you take a dip with a camera and spot a whale shark, you're going to shoot some photos. To the naked eye, however, it's very difficult to tell one whale shark from another. Sure, each one's array of white spots is distinctive, like a fingerprint, but who's going to sit there and decipher the codes on these gentle giants? Luckily, NASA astronomers have faced a similar dilemma for decades as they map the seemingly chaotic scattering of stars in our universe. They developed a complicated algorithm that allows a computer to quickly analyze a snapshot of the heavens and compare it to existing star charts. Now, anyone can submit his or her whale shark photos to the ECOCEAN Whale Shark Photo-identification Library, where star-mapping computers can find the whale's match on a global roster of 1,800.
Cosmic Shark Jaws Compared to the rest of the world, Polynesian mythology is a venerable feeding frenzy of shark deities. From Dakuwanga, Fiji's eater of lost souls to Ukupanipo, the Hawaiian god of sharks, it makes sense that a seafaring people would find a place for such awesome and terrifying creatures in their beliefs. The Kiribati people even spotted one of their shark gods among the stars: the hammer-headed Teanoi, shaped by the Pisces constellation. Modern astronomers have also spotted sharks amid the endless sea of night. Study images of the Great Orion Nebula and you'll find a curious dark area between the Trapezium and M43 star systems. Astronomers call this void the "Shark's Mouth," as it resembles yawning, cosmic jaws. Who knows? We might one day introduce sharks to a distant planet, or perhaps even encounter something comparable on another Earth-like world. Until either event happens, however, we'll have to stick to spotting their iconic shapes through the telescope.
Shark Rockets Are Go! We may not be actively working to send sharks into orbit, but that doesn't mean we can't paint our rockets to look like them. We've been painting shark-mouth nose art on airplanes, rockets and bombs for about as long as we've had airplanes, rockets and bombs. Look back even further in time and you'll find ancient Greek trireme war ships dressed up to look like sea monsters as well. What can you say? We like drawing scary faces, especially on potentially scary bits of technology. As such, it should come as no surprise to see this United States Air Force Delta rocket dressed up with a shark's maw and a fierce pair of eyes. It's one thing to put sharks on your rockets, but might we one day put sharks in our tanks? Yes, scientists continue to comb the globe for potential sources of biofuel, and researchers at Greenland's Arctic Technology Centre (ARTEK) think they may have something in the Greenland shark. The cold-water giant's meat is toxic to humans, but it just might make for a good biogas. The ARTEK team continues to explore the possibility of using various shark meats, mixed with macro-algae and wastewater, to create new carbon-neutral fuels. Might this futuristic shark ichor fill the tanks of tomorrow's rockets?
The Shark Tooth Dunes of Mars David Bowie never asked if there were sharks on Mars, which works out nicely because there most certainly aren't any. Yet while some scientists hold out hope for signs of microscopic life beneath the Martian surface, others continue to see sharks all over the red planet. Much in the same way astronomers see an enormous, gaping jaw in the Great Orion Nebula, scientists surveying the Martian surface have seen telltale shark shapes on the red, wasted world. First, the wind-swept sand dunes of Mars morph into shapes far different from what you find on Earth, including patterns that resemble shark's teeth (or Hershey's Kisses, depending on the viewer's mood). Meanwhile, actually navigating a Mars Rover across the rocky surface turns every little geographic detail into something to catalog and observe. Small piles of rubble become mountains and miniature craters become canyons of mystery. In maneuvering the Opportunity rover, NASA mission controllers on Earth gave various features such whimsical names as "Berry Bowl" and "Shoemaker's Patio." They even dubbed a triangular piece of rock "Shark's Tooth," and the related areas "Shark's Cage" and "Shark Pellets." Sharks on Mars? That's nonsense. Shark Pellets on Mars, however, that's a fact.
Curiosity's Nod to Shark Week "You know, I have one simple request. And that is to have sharks with frickin' laser beams attached to their heads!" Dr. Evil demanded in the 1997 movie Austin Powers (to which he received "ill-tempered sea bass" instead), but don't you think he'd rather have a nuclear-powered Mars robot with a laser beam attached to its head? Well, we do. As Mars rover Curiosity landed on Mars only a week ago, Discovery News thought NASA's newest planetary mission should get in with the Shark Week festivities. So, here's Curiosity, plus a faux shark fin. That is all. Disclaimer: This slide was contributed by space producer Ian O'Neill... because he obviously has way too much time on his hands. Slide show originally published in 2009, updated in 2011 and 2012. It's the slide show that just keeps on giving.
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