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Amazing images: The best science photos of the week

(Image: © NASA)

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.

Murder most owl

(Image credit: Senckenberg Research Institute and Nature Museum)

A 55 million-year-old owl fossil with "murder feet" has recently been described. 

Based on its preserved foot bones, this ancient avian predator likely hunted like a hawk — killing its prey with piercing talons — unlike its modern-day relatives that use their beaks to kill. The newfound skeleton, which represents a previously unknown owl genus and species, is the oldest near-complete owl fossil (dating to approximately 55 million years ago), according to a new study. 

Though the fossil is missing its skull, nearly all the bones in its body are intact and preserved in three dimensions. And this owl was a big one; at nearly 2 feet (60 centimeters) long, it would have been about the size of a modern snowy owl (Nyctea scandiaca). Hoo could withstand such a predator?

Read more: 55 million-year-old owl with 'murder feet' unearthed

Best stargazing on Earth

(Image credit: Martin Wolf, IceCube/NSF)

Good news: Scientists have found the absolute best place on Earth for romantic stargazing! Bad news: It's literally next-door to the South Pole.

The hotspot (or cold spot, in this case) is called Dome A, and is located on a plateau near central Antarctica, roughly 2.5 miles, (4 kilometers) above sea-level. In a new study published July 29 in the journal Nature, researchers found that the conditions at Dome A are positively perfect for staring at the cosmos with minimal interference from Earth's atmosphere.

In particular, the stars above Dome A actually twinkle less than they do elsewhere around the world, the researchers found. That's because of a phenomenon called atmospheric turbulence. Basically, as wind blows across uneven terrain, like mountains or valleys, it creates turbulent eddies in the atmosphere that can warp the appearance of light reaching Earth from distant stars. But the dead-flat terrain around Dome A mean that's not a problem.

Read more: Here is the best place on Earth to see stars, according to science

The green Red Planet

(Image credit: NASA)

New images of green, pulsing ultraviolet flashes of Mars' "nightglow" are illuminating circulation patterns in the Martian atmosphere.

NASA's Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution mission (MAVEN for short), has been studying Mars since it launched to orbit and study the Red Planet in 2013. Now, new images from MAVEN have revealed the weird and unexpected inner workings of the planet's atmosphere.  

"MAVEN's images offer our first global insights into atmospheric motions in Mars' middle atmosphere, a critical region where air currents carry gases between the lowest and highest layers," Nick Schneider, a professor of astrophysical and planetary sciences at the University of Colorado's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) in Boulder, Colorado, said in a NASA statement. These images revealed that Mars' atmosphere pulses exactly three times every night during spring and fall on the planet. The new observations also showed waves and spirals over the planet's winter polar regions.

Read more: The eerie green 'nightglow' of Mars pulses in ultraviolet light in new NASA views

Massive temples, underground

(Image credit: O'Driscoll, J. et al. Oxford Journal of Archaeology, 2020. CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

The remains of "monumental temples" dating to the Iron Age and medieval buildings may be hidden underground at Navan Fort, an archaeological site in Northern Ireland, a new study finds. 

Exactly what's left of these ruins, however, remains to be seen. Archaeologists discovered the buried structures by using remote-sensing techniques that allowed them to map the hidden landscape and detect anomalies, such as architectural features made by humans. 

These Iron Age and medieval buildings suggest that Navan Fort was "an incredibly important religious center and a place of paramount sacral and cultural authority in later prehistory," study co-researcher Patrick Gleeson, a senior lecturer of archaeology at Queen's University Belfast in Northern Ireland, told Live Science. These huge temples are among the largest and most complex ritual structures dating to later prehistory and pre-Roman times in Northern Europe, Gleeson said.

Read more: Massive ancient temple complex may lurk beneath famous Northern Ireland fort

The ancient ant from hell

(Image credit: From Barden, Perrichot, Wang 2020. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2020.06.106)

Around 99 million years ago, a juvenile cockroach met a hellish fate. It was snapped up by the jaws of a Cretaceous hell ant, a fierce predator with long, curving mandibles that swept up toward the top of the ant's head. Just moments later, the ant and roach were trapped in sticky sap that eventually turned to amber, providing scientists with a first glimpse of how the weird-faced ants trapped prey. 

The profile of a hell ant, with exaggerated upward-facing jaws that arc like the Grim Reaper's scythe, is unlike that of any ant alive today. Researchers had long suspected that hell ants swung their prominent mandibles upward to catch their prey, unlike modern ants that snap their jaws together horizontally. In the piece of Cretaceous amber from Myanmar, scientists found the first confirmation of this hunting technique.

In the amber, the mandibles of the hell ant Ceratomyrmex ellenbergeri hug the roach nymph, Caputoraptor elegans, from below, pinning it against the horn on the ant's head. The amber-trapped hell ant never got to eat the roach — and that's all the better for the roach. According to the study authors, the process involves a paralyzing poison and a blood-sucking finale.

Read more: Scythelike jaws of Cretaceous 'hell ant' clutch a baby cockroach in an amber tomb

A dead star's epic eruption

(Image credit: ESA)

Thirty thousand years ago, a dead star on the other side of the Milky Way belched out a powerful mixture of radio and X-ray energy. On April 28, 2020, that belch swept over Earth, triggering alarms at observatories around the world.The signal was there and gone in half a second, but that's all scientists needed to confirm they had detected something remarkable: the first ever "fast radio burst" (FRB) to emanate from a known star within the Milky Way, according to a study published July 27 in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Since their discovery in 2007, FRBs have puzzled scientists. The bursts of powerful radio waves last only a few milliseconds at most, but generate more energy in that time than Earth's sun does in a century. Scientists have yet to pin down what causes these blasts, but they've proposed everything from colliding black holes to the pulse of alien starships as possible explanations.  So far, every known FRB has originated from another galaxy, hundreds of millions of light-years away.

This FRB is different. Telescope observations suggest that the burst came from a known neutron star — the fast-spinning, compact core of a dead star, which packs a sun's-worth of mass into a city-sized ball — about 30,000 light-years from Earth in the constellation Vulpecula. The stellar remnant fits into an even stranger class of star called a magnetar, named for its incredibly powerful magnetic field, which is capable of spitting out intense amounts of energy long after the star itself has died. It now seems that magnetars are almost certainly the source of at least some of the universe's many mysterious FRBs, the study authors wrote.

Read more: Mysterious 'fast radio burst' detected closer to Earth than ever before

Underwater Incan offerings

(Image credit: Teddy Seguin, Université libre de Bruxelles/Antiquity Publications Ltd.)

For the first time, archaeologists have described an intact underwater offering made by the Inca people, deposited into Lake Titicaca in the Andes about 500 years ago. 

The discovery hints that evidence of other important Incan rituals, such as human sacrifices, may also lurk underwater.

The Spanish recorded the Incan practice of placing offerings in water in the 16th century, and this offering — a stone box — is the first such object to be discovered in one piece. It holds a small gold bracelet and a shell carved to resemble an alpaca or llama. The box may have also contained human blood, according to a new study. 

These types of offerings have also been associated with human sacrifices to appease or glorify the gods, according to the study.

Read more: 1st intact evidence of Incas' underwater ritual offerings found in a lake in the Andes

Dead blobs and broomsticks

(Image credit: Illustration by Emma Finley-Jacob)

A Triassic-aged sea monster with "a very long broomstick for a neck," sharp curved teeth and a crocodile-like snout wasn't a prima donna; rather, this reptile shared Pangaea's coastal waters with another long- and stiff-necked beast — one that was so similar-looking, scientists used to think the two predators were the same species. 

Now that it's clear that these giraffe-like reptiles are two distinct species, scientists chose to name the larger of the two Tanystropheus hydroides, a nod to the hydra, the long-necked mythical sea monster of Greek antiquity. The smaller one kept the preexisting name, Tanystropheus longobardicus.

It's rare for two animals with such peculiar necks — which were not just long but also fairly inflexible — to live in the same place simultaneously, the researchers said. But T. hydroides and T. longobardicus somehow found a way to coexist when they were alive about 242 million years ago, mainly by hunting different animals so they didn't have to compete for food, according to an analysis of their teeth and earlier analyses of T. hydroides' stomach contents.

Read more: Weird 'broomstick' necked Triassic reptile named after mythical Greek sea monster

Drops of Jupiter

(Image credit: NASA/ JUNO)

Thunderstorms on Jupiter are so strong that they create ammonia-rich hail known as "mushballs" that may fall from the sky. New observations of Jupiter from NASA's Juno spacecraft could not only drastically change our understanding of the gas giant, but also of giant planet atmospheres in general, which are largely made of gas and are subject to much higher pressures than what we are familiar with on Earth.

Thunderstorms on Jupiter and Earth do have one thing in common: these natural phenomena move water about in the atmospheres of both planets. On Jupiter, the thunderstorms are thought to form about 31 miles (50 km) below the visible bands and storms on the planet, where temperatures are close to the freezing point of water. Some of these storms are so powerful that they whisk crystal water-ice into the planet's upper atmosphere.

Read more: Violent thunderstorms on Jupiter may form 'mushballs' that fall from the sky

In one end…

(Image credit: Courtesy of Shinji Sugiura)

Being swallowed alive by a frog is a death sentence for most insects, but one beetle species shrugs off being digested and instead finds freedom by sneaking out through its captor's anus. 

When the pond frog Pelophylax nigromaculatus was presented with the aquatic beetle Regimbartia attenuata, it quickly snapped up the beetle, swallowing it whole and alive. But the meals ended with a strange twist, researchers recently discovered.

In most of the experiments, the beetles reappeared within six hours, slipping out of a frog's anus, or vent. Though muscles typically hold the vent tightly shut, those muscles loosen up when the frog poops; the beetles could be stimulating the frogs' defecation reflex in order to temporarily open this unusual emergency exit, according to the new study.

Life takes you to unexpected places, eh?

Read more: After being swallowed alive, water beetle stages 'backdoor' escape from frog's gut

Originally published on Live Science.

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