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Cassini’s emotional countdown, Steve the light show, shooting hoops ‘granny style’


By Sarah Tesh

This week has seen the beginning of Cassini’s Grand Finale. The rather dramatically named final mission for the NASA spacecraft involves 22 dives between Saturn and its surrounding rings. Once complete, Cassini will crash into the planet’s atmosphere in what the scientists hope will be a flurry of data gathering. The spacecraft has already sent back stunning images of storms in Saturn’s atmosphere from its first dive on 26 April. After 20 years since its launch, the mission to Saturn’s system has been a masterclass in space exploration, and NASA highlights the best bits in this theatrical video. The short film, reminiscent of Star Trek, could be considered a bit cheesy, but it’s hard not to form an emotional attachment to NASA’s loyal Cassini as you join in the countdown to its final demise.

When naming phenomena, instruments or groups, scientists tend to go for ancient languages, clever acronyms and boring codes. Now, a group of aurora enthusiasts have found a new natural light show and called it Steve. Steve came to the European Space Agency’s (ESA) attention when a Facebook group posted photos of the previously un-catalogued feature. Curious, scientists sent up instruments to investigate and found that Steve is not an aurora as it does not involve solar particles interacting with the Earth’s magnetic field. Instead, the ribbon-like light is a hot stream of fast-flowing gas in the upper atmosphere. It turns out that Steve is remarkably common but had gone un-noticed by scientists. “It is amazing how a beautiful natural phenomenon, seen by observant citizens, can trigger scientists’ curiosity,” says Roger Haagmans of the ESA.

According to science, the best way to score a free throw in basketball is to go “granny style”. This is the unorthodox technique of doing a two-handed, underarm throw. Although NBA player Rick Barry had an extremely high success rate with the underarm throw until his retirement in 1980, it hasn’t taken off. But now Madhusudhan Venkadesan at Yale University has used mathematical analysis to show that the technique has a better chance of success than the more traditional overarm throw, presenting the findings in Royal Society Open Science. Unfortunately that does not mean a higher success rate for those of us who are less talented at ball sports than the professionals, as the underarm throw still requires a huge amount of control.

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