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Why focus on Jupiter?

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By Victoria Jaggard, SCIENCE Executive Editor

Jupiter is my favorite planet. Yeah, Mars has blue sunsets and Earth is our home, but I’ve yet to be dissuaded of my Jovian appreciation. If I’m being entirely honest, though, I love Jupiter because it hosts a moon called Europa. This large icy ball is visible through a backyard telescope as one of the four Galilean moons, named for their famous Italian discoverer.

That means anyone with a clear night sky could go outside and look at what I think is the most likely place something could be living right now beyond the confines of Earth. Europa, after all, hosts a global ocean of liquid water sitting on top of a rocky seabed, and evidence points toward those buried seas having the right ingredients to give rise to some kind of complex life. Astrobiologists would seem to agree with me, since they are funding multiple missions to investigate sea life locked under Earth’s permanent ice as a way of testing what we might find when we finally go visit Europa.

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Today in a minute

Arctic passage. The melting of sea ice may be hastening the spread of a deadly virus to sea mammals. Scientists were puzzled in 2004 when Alaskan sea otters came down with phocine distemper virus, previously found in northern Europe in seals. But over the next decade they saw the virus spread through the Arctic. The ice melt, they surmised, likely allowed infected animals to move west, into new territories.

Untouched moon rocks. Until now, that is. NASA opened a rock and soil sample from the 1972 Apollo 17 mission that had been kept sealed for analysis by much more advanced scientific instruments decades after being gathered. NASA also wants to prepare analytic techniques ahead of the Artemis mission to put the first woman and another man on the moon, CNN reports. That mission is currently scheduled for 2024.

Woolly mammoth traps? Yep, built by humans, too. That’s what Mexican archaeological authorities say after the discovery of at least 14 mammoth skeletons in traps built about 15,000 years ago north of modern-day Mexico City, the BBC reports. The discovery "represents a watershed, a turning point in what we until now imagined to be the interaction between hunter-gatherers with these huge herbivores," said Diego Prieto Hernández, director of the National Institute of Anthropology and History.

Forever home. In trying to save a species that is endangered in its current habitat, why not figure out where the species came from and try that place? That’s the thinking in trying to save the mountain pygmy possum, so rare it was only known by fossils until one scampered away from an Australian ski lodge in 1966. Because the remaining 2,000-3,000 pygmy possums are limited to a few mountains, the plan is to breed some of them and release them into select wetlands, where their predecessors once lived.

Climate change class. Italy will become the first nation to require all schoolchildren to study climate change and sustainable development, Reuters reports. "The entire ministry is being changed to make sustainability and climate the center of the education model," said Education Minister Lorenzo Fioramonti. The minister also is behind popular proposals for taxes on plastics and sugary foods to help pay for education.

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Pillars of wonder. Large stalagmites at the foot of a giant ramp seem like a gateway to another cave level in China's San Wang Dong. They create a magical spectacle along a passage called Crusty Duvets. The jagged, uneven floor surrounding the three isolated formations is as delicate and untouched as the stalagmites themselves.

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This week in the night sky

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Moon buzzes Beehive. Late Sunday night, look for the waning gibbous moon rising in the east to point toward the Beehive open star cluster in the constellation Cancer. These stars lie 610 light-years from Earth and are visible as a faint, fuzzy patch to the naked eye under dark skies. You can hunt it down easily using binoculars or small telescopes. The Leonid meteor shower also peaks that night into pre-dawn Monday. This year, the moon’s glare will put a damper on visible shooting stars. Expect rates to peak at about 10 to 20 meteors an hour from dark locations.—Andrew Fazekas

The big takeaway

Hurricane detectives. If comprehensive Atlantic hurricane records go back only to 1851, how do you find traces of hurricanes from 1,500 years ago? Researchers off the Bahamas have gone underwater to take core samples from ethereal submarine sinkholes, called blue holes, writes Robin George Andrews. One surprise so far from the capture of stirred-up sediment from the storms: From 1204 to 1273, there were no major hurricanes at all, likely due to greater volcanic activity. The sample only records Category 3 or higher hurricanes, but scientists are optimistic even with the limited data so far. "Hunting down the submerged ghosts of hurricanes takes time," writes Andrews, "and scientists are only just getting started."

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One last glimpse

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Price break. The cost for a utility of generating solar or onshore wind energy has dropped to about $40 per megawatt hour, which is lower than the cost of building new power plants that burn natural gas or coal, writes Peter Orzag for Bloomberg. “It’s even close to being competitive with the marginal costs of running the coal and nuclear plants we already have,” he says. What that means, says Orzag, is that we may be able to cut carbon emissions without painful economic consequences. (Pictured: A wind farm in Palm Springs, California).

This newsletter has been curated and edited by David Beard. Have an idea or a link? I’d love to hear from you at david.beard@natgeo.com . Thanks for reading!