MySci Round-Up, August 19: Hurray for the Canine Cosmonauts!

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On this day in 1960, the Soviet Union launched the spacecraft Sputnik 5 into orbit. It contained two dogs, Belka (Russian for “squirrel”) and Strelka (Little Arrow). The canine cosmonauts weren’t the first dogs in space; that honor—or misfortune, depending upon how you look at it—belonged to Laika, the Siberian husky stray who rode Sputnik 2 into space in 1957, and then died in orbit two days later. But Belka and Strelka would become the first space dogs—indeed, the first living creatures—who managed to return from space alive.

As Chris Dubbs recounted in his book, Space Dogs: Pioneers of Space Travel, two-and-a-half-year-old male Belka was a playful, energetic dog, while Strelka, a female who was a year younger, was more calm and reserved. The Soviets had carefully trained both dogs for space flight, repeatedly fitting them into rubberized space suits and regularly subjecting them to g-forces, noise and vibration. Even so, the ride into orbit 185 miles above the Earth must have been stressful for them, especially since neither dog could stick its head out the window. When Soviet scientists turned on the TV camera that transmitted images of the dogs, they were startled to see both of the animals floating motionlessly in their harnesses inches above the floor of the capsule, with nary a wag of the tail or bark. The Soviets were afraid that the dogs had died, but sensors showed that their vital signs were normal. “Apparently, the sensation was so strange and unsettling for the dogs that their bodies just shut down,” Dubbs wrote. But eventually, they perked up and looked more alert.

After a day in space and 18 orbits, the Soviets decided to try to bring the dogs back to Earth—a tricky feat, since technicians had to fire the rockets at precisely the right moment and for the right length of time, or the capsule would burn up in re-entry. But they succeeded, and Belka and Strelka made it back alive, proving that living creatures could withstand the rigors of space travel. Not only did they provide invaluable data to scientists planning the first human space flight, but Strelka even gave birth to six offspring. U.S. first lady Jacqueline Kennedy jokingly asked Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev for one of the  pups, and he surprised her by sending a female named Pushinka to her as a gift. After their deaths, Belka and Strelka were both stuffed and put on display in the Memorial Museum of Space Exploration in Moscow, where they can be seen today. And with that, here are the strange science dispatches of the day.

Japanese space probe to seek origins of life in space.

 Hayabusa 2, to be launched in 2014, will visit the asteroid 

1999 JU3, in search of organic molecules that might have seeded life on Earth.

New, warmer method for creating superconductivity discovered. Scientists unexpectedly have found that they can make electrical resistance disappear in a three-layered bismuth oxide crystal known as Bi2223, at just 215 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, at a higher transition temperature than ever before, by subjecting it to a super-intense pressure of 359,000 atmospheres.

Even slight weight gain can harm blood vessels. That’s what Mayo Clinic researchers have found. So when you order the Egg Lites omelet at Bob Evans, lay off the hollandaise sauce, will ya?

Study shows most people are clueless about how to conserve energy.
 Replacing older appliances and gadgets with more energy-efficient models is more effective than constantly flipping switches or unplugging stuff. And unless you’re going to leave the room for more than 15 minutes, for example, you’re better off leaving those compact fluorescent lights on.

Climate change, not humans, may have killed off the mammoth. 
Ancient global warming reduced the supply of vegetation that the giant mammals depended upon for food, study contends.

Multiple, nearly simultaneous earthquakes triggered deadly 2009 south Pacific Tsunami. 

The catastrophe, which killed 200 people on Tonga, Samoa and American Samoa, was caused by an 8.1 magnitude quake and two 7.8 quakes that occurred about 50 kilometers away, minutes later. How weird is that?