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Amazing images: The best science photos of the week

Tiny larval sunfish look nothing like the adults.
(Image: © Photo by Kerryn Parkinson)

Each week at Live Science we find the most interesting and informative articles we can. Along the way, we uncover some amazing and cool images. Here you'll discover the most incredible photos we found this week, and the remarkable stories behind them.

Here comes the sunfish

(Image credit: Photo by Amy Coghlan)

Scientists have identified the babies of one of the world's biggest fishes — the mola, or sunfish — and the youngster is so small that you could easily fit a dozen of them on your fingertip.

Adult sunfish are the heaviest bony fish in the world, measuring up to 10 feet (3 meters) long and weighing more than 4,400 lbs. (2,000 kilograms). They are also bizarrely shaped; adults resemble enormous, flattened pancakes topped by a massive dorsal fin like a shark's.

But mola babies are a different story. As larvae, they measure just a few millimeters in length and their bodies look nothing like those of adults. Because of that, scientists struggle to match larvae with the correct species of mola. But for the first time, DNA sequencing identified the larvae of the bump-head sunfish (Mola alexandrini). Having identified this wee baby — a youngster that is about 600 times smaller than a full-grown sunfish — scientists can now compare the larva to unidentified Mola larvae in museum collections.

Read more: Adorable, bug-size sunfish babies grow up to be giant 'swimming heads'

MARVEL-ous Australian flies

(Image credit: CSIRO/ Marvel)

Researchers at Australia's federal science agency, CSIRO, have described five previously unknown species of "assassin flies" and named them after some beloved Marvel superheroes. One fly with red and black markings on its abdomen, for example, was named after Marvel's Deadpool, whose red-and-black mask looks virtually identical to the fly's midsection.

"We chose the name Humorolethalis sergius," CSIRO entomologist Bryan Lessard said in a statement. "It sounds like lethal humor and is derived from the Latin words humorosus, meaning wet or moist, and lethalis meaning dead."

Other newly-named flies include the Stan Lee fly, the Black Widow fly, the Thor fly and the Loki fly. See the whole crew at the link below.

Read more: Ruthless Australian 'assassin flies' named for Thor, Deadpool — and Stan Lee

What're ewe looking at?

(Image credit: Copyright Lukasweb.be/Art in Flanders VZW)

Restoration of a 15th-century painting of a sheep representing the sacrifice of Jesus had the internet freaking out earlier this year over the Jesus lamb's uncannily human expression, which had been covered up by conservation work dating to centuries ago. New analysis of the painting reveals how and why that unnerving face was hidden from view.

The sheep — which is also bleeding from a chest wound into a golden chalice — appears in the centerpiece of an 18-panel religious painting called "The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb," painted by brothers Jan and Hubert Eyck in 1432. The Mystic Lamb's newly revealed face is eerily human and far creepier than the previous face, with forward-facing eyes and an expression that looks appalled with your terrible life choices.

However, the sheep's face now looks more like it did when it was first painted, art experts conducting the restoration said in a statement. Non-invasive imaging analysis of the painting revealed how overpainting had changed the original. The Lamb's new face, framed by ears that are positioned lower on its head, replaces a more naturalistic expression that was added during restoration work in the 16th century, according to the statement.

Read more: Spooky, soul-piercing 'Jesus Lamb' face is exactly what its original artists intended

The spellbinding swimming sperm

(Image credit: polymaths-lab.com)

Under a microscope, human sperm seem to swim like wiggling eels, tails gyrating to and fro as they seek an egg to fertilize. 

But now, new 3D microscopy and high-speed video reveal that sperm don't swim in this simple, symmetrical motion at all. Instead, they move with a rollicking spin that compensates for the fact that their tails actually beat only to one side. 

"It's almost like if you're a swimmer, but you could only wiggle your leg to one side," said study author Hermes Gadêlha, a mathematician at the University of Bristol in the U.K. "The sperm is not even swimming, the sperm is drilling into the fluid."

Sperm motility, or ability to move, is one of the key metrics fertility doctors look at when assessing male fertility, Gadêlha said. The rolling of the sperm's head isn't currently considered in any of these metrics, but it's possible that further study could reveal certain defects that disrupt this rotation, and thus stymy the sperm's movement. 

Read more: Sperm don't swim anything like we thought they did, new study finds

The zombie cicada switcheroo

(Image credit: Angie Macias)

Male cicadas infected by a particularly gruesome parasitic fungus become zombies with an undercover mission: They broadcast a female's sexy come-hither message to other male cicadas, luring their unsuspecting victims to join the zombie cicada horde.

Researchers recently discovered this unusual twist to the cicada's already horrific zombification story. As the parasitic fungus called Massospora eats away at a cicada's abdomen, replacing it with a mass of yellow spores, the fungus also compels males to flick their wings in movements that are typically performed by females to attract mates.

Healthy males that hurry over for female company, then try to mate with the infected male, which passes along the Massospora infection. This and other new discoveries are helping scientists to piece together how Massospora turns cicadas into mind-controlled zombies, according to a new study published online June 18 in the journal PLOS Pathogens

Read more: Mind-controlling fungus makes zombie cicadas lure other cicadas to a zombie fate

Space horse (of course, of course).

(Image credit: U.S. Space Force)

The United States Space Force has a new recruit in their mission to keep planet Earth safe. His name is Ghost, and he likes to go clip-clop on the beach.

Ghost, a 5-year-old mustang, is the newest addition to the Conservation Military Working Horse program, which the Space Force recently inherited from the U.S. Air Force. According to a video tweeted by the Space Force, Ghost just joined a stable of four Military Working Horses at Vandenberg Air Force Base — a 99,600-acre (40,306 hectares) chunk of land on the California coast. (That's roughly 100 times the size of Central Park in New York.)

Let's just get this out of the way: No, Ghost is not going into space. His real mission? Ghost and his equine colleagues help the human members of the Working Horse program traverse the vast hills and beaches of Vandenburg, keeping an eye on the area's many protected species and any intruders that might pose a threat to them. According to the Vandenburg website, 15 endangered or threatened species live within the base's borders. When patrolling the base's far corners with motor vehicles proves too difficult, program members turn to the horses instead.

Read more: US Space Force hires a horse to boldly go where rockets can't. (The beach)

The face of God?

(Image credit: Clara Amit/Israel Antiquities Authority)

A clay head that dates back almost 3,000 years may be a rare depiction of Yahweh, — God — whose image the Israelites were forbidden from creating according to the Ten Commandments, an archaeologist reports.

Archaeologists discovered the 2-inch-tall (5 centimeters) head in the ruins of a large building that may have been a palace at the site of Khirbet Qeiyafa in Israel. Because the object was found in what was likely a temple, some researchers suspect that head may have once belonged to a statue of God riding a horse (similar sculptures have been discovered in Hebrew holy places dating to approximately the same time).

Not all experts are convinced, however. "Although we cannot rule out the possibility that the human heads from Moẓa and Qeiyafa depicted gods, they have no markings, symbols or attributes — such as horns, crescents, bulls — found on figures and visual representations throughout the ancient Near East, that would identify them as divine figures," wrote Oded Lipschits, an archaeologist at Tel Aviv University, and Shua Kisilevitz, an archaeologist with the Israel Antiquities Authority, in a jointly written response. "Furthermore, when gods were depicted on animals, they did not sit on them — they do not need the transport — they stood on them." 

Read more: 3,000-year-old head may be face of God

Asleep beneath the sea

(Image credit: JAMSTEC)

Microbes found themselves buried in the dirt 101.5 million years ago, back when Earth’s biggest meat-eating dinosaur, called Spinosaurus roamed the planet. Time passed, continents shifted, oceans rose and fell, great apes emerged, and eventually human beings evolved with the curiosity and skills to dig up those ancient cells. And now, in a Japanese lab, researchers have brought the single-celled organisms back to life.

Researchers aboard the drill ship JOIDES Resolution collected sediment samples from the bottom of the ocean 10 years ago. The samples came from 328 feet (100 meters) below the 20,000-foot-deep (6,000 m) bottom of the South Pacific Gyre. That's a region of the Pacific Ocean with very few nutrients and little oxygen available for life to survive on, and the researchers were looking for data on how microbes get along in such a remote part of the world.

Their results indicate that even cells found in 101.5 million-year-old sediment samples are capable of waking up when oxygen and nutrients become available. In the lab, the cells quickly gobbled up nitrogen and carbon. Within 68 days, the total cell count had quadrupled from the original 6,986. You can see them under the microscope in the image above.

Read more: Sleeping microbes wake up after 100 million years buried under the seafloor

Super space sunblock

(Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

For astronauts preparing to spend a long summer vacation on Mars, hats and umbrellas might not be enough to protect them from the sun’s harsh rays. And just like beachgoers slathering on sunscreen, explorers on the moon or Mars may one day shield themselves using creams containing a new bioengineered material called selenomelanin, created by enriching the natural pigment melanin with the metal selenium.

During lab experiments, skin cells treated with selenomelanin were able to shrug off doses of X-ray radiation that would be lethal to a human being. The selenomelanin was absorbed into the cells and formed what scientists called “microparasols,” or tiny shields around the cells’ nuclei, where DNA is stored. The cells took on a naturally brown or tanned color when they absorbed selenomelanin.

Additional tests demonstrated that engineered bacteria fed selenium could produce selenomelanin, meaning the substance could be manufactured in space. The results were published July 8 in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

Read more: Super space sunblock made from skin pigment could shield astronauts from radiation

Mars or bust

(Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

NASA's Mars Perseverance rover left Earth's atmosphere and began the long journey to Mars this morning under clear skies. The launch went off successfully at 7:50 a.m. EDT (4:50 a.m. PDT) on Thursday, when the rover rode skyward atop Atlas V-541 rocket from Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

Perseverance will now be in transit until Feb. 18, 2021, when it will land at Jezero crater and begin analyzing Martian geology and climatology. 

Part of NASA's Moon to Mars exploration program, Mars Perseverance is exploring a region of the Red Planet that periodically hosted water during the ancient past. The rover will drill soil and sediment samples and cache them for a future return to Earth. It will also conduct geological analyses and climate monitoring, with an eye toward figuring out how to keep astronauts alive in the harsh Martian environment. Jezero crater's temperatures can drop to minus 130 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 90 degrees Celsius) at night. Perseverance is carrying samples of spacesuit fabric that NASA engineers hope will help humans withstand this perilous environment. 

Read more: Liftoff! NASA's Perseverance rover is headed to Mars

Originally published on Live Science.

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