Tag Archives: dragon

Credit: Pixabay.

Genome study reveals why the Komodo dragon is such a formidable predator

Credit: Pixabay.

Credit: Pixabay.

The Komodo dragon (Varanus komodoensis) is an awesome reptile that has dominated several Indonesian islands — including its namesake Komodo island — for millions of years. Out of over 3,000 species of reptiles, the Komodo dragon is the largest as well as one of the quirkiest. For instance, the cold-blooded predator is known for being capable of raising its metabolism to mammal-like levels, enabling it to chase down prey with remarkable speed and endurance. So, what’s its secret? In a new study, researchers sequenced the reptile’s genome, revealing genes that may underpin its phenomenal prowess when hunting prey.

A dragon’s genes

Full-grown Komodo adults can reach 10 feet (3 meters) long and weigh more than 300 pounds (140 kilograms). The first thing you’ll notice about them is their frightening appearance, with their wide, flat heads; bowed legs; huge, muscular tails; curved and serrated teeth; and sharp claws. To top it off, Komodos have a clumsy, yet menacing walk during which they constantly flick their long, yellow tongues in and out.

Komodos will basically eat anything they can find, from long-dead carcasses to water buffalo, smaller Komodo dragons, and sometimes even humans. To hunt, Komodos rely on their camouflage and patience, waiting for the right time to strike an unsuspecting prey lying in the bushes or tall grasses.

When they pounce, Komodo dragons do so at breakneck speeds, despite their large size. Speed and large size are a bizarre, unheard off combination elsewhere in the animal kingdom; especially reptiles which typically lack high aerobic capacity and have slow metabolisms. In a new study published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution, researchers at the Gladstone Institute of Cardiovascular Disease at the University of California, San Francisco, sequenced the genome of the dragon and discovered genetic adaptations involving mitochondria. Since mitochondria are the powerhouses of cells and are critical to the proper function of cardiac muscles, this may explain the lizard’s enhanced aerobic capacity.

“This is an apex predator living on isolated islands, and it’s absolutely gigantic. It’s just an awesome animal,” Benoit Bruneau, the director of the Gladstone Institute of Cardiovascular Disease, told Reuters.

“Reptiles are kind of like a playground for evolution. There is so much diversity in size and form and behavior and their physiology,” Bruneau added.

Credit: Pixabay.

Credit: Pixabay.

The researchers also found genes that are involved in the control of the lizard’s sensory system, which allows the Komodo dragon to detect the hormones and pheromones emanated by prey from long distances away.

Even if a detected prey somehow escapes the dragon’s clutches, its chances of survival are pretty slim. The dragon’s saliva contains highly septic bacteria which kills victims within 24 hours. The dragon calmly follows their bitten prey for miles until it finds the corpse. One important factor that contributes to the dragon’s high kill rate is a compound found in its saliva that prevents the blood of bitten pretty from clotting. The new study found that the dragons have genes involved in coagulation that make them immune to their own venom. Komodos often battle each other in epic fights, but this feature prevents members of their own species from dying from their own venom.

First Crew Dragon launch and docking a success for SpaceX

It’s only a matter of time before a manned launch of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spaceship. The capsule made its initial test flight out of Kennedy Space Center atop a Falcon 9 rocket a success as it launched to the International Space Station (ISS) with 400 pounds of supplies. This was the first launch of a commercially-developed capsule intended to carry astronauts into space.

Image credits: SpaceX.

After a careful launch on March 2, the shuttle has now successfully docked itself to the International Space Station, latching onto the station.

Also inside the capsule was the Crew Dragon’s sole passenger, a dummy named Ripley, who will measure forces and acceleration which would be experienced by human passengers, as well as their environment, during the trip.

“We instrumented the crap out of this vehicle; it’s got data, sensors everywhere,” said Kathy Lueders, manager for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, during a news conference. “Actually having a re-entry, with Ripley in the seat, in the position, is critical.”

“The goal is to get an idea of how humans would feel in (Ripply’s) place, basically,” SpaceX vice president of Build and Flight Reliability Hans Koenigsmann said of the dummy. “I don’t expect, actually, a lot of surprises there, but it’s better to verify, make sure that it’s safe and everything’s comfortable for our astronauts going on the next flight of the capsule.”

SpaceX controlled the launch of the Falcon 9 from Kennedy’s Launch Control Center Firing Room 4, the former space shuttle control room, which SpaceX has leased as its primary launch control center. As Crew Dragon ascended into space, SpaceX commanded the Crew Dragon spacecraft from its mission control center in Hawthorne, CA. NASA teams will monitor space station operations throughout the flight from Mission Control Center at the agency’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

But the hardest part is only now beginning for SpaceX. After the successful docking, the shuttle will detach and begin its hypersonic journey back to Earth. NASA and SpaceX will be keeping a close eye on this descent, monitoring its ability to safely re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere.

After the shuttle will parachute itself into the ocean, SpaceX’s recovery ship, Go Searcher, will retrieve the capsule and transport it back to port.

The next trip for the Crew Dragon will tentatively carry astronauts Douglas Hurley and Robert Behnken, who are scheduled to be the first American astronauts launched from United States soil since the shuttle program concluded eight years ago.

“I can’t begin to explain to you how exciting it is for a test pilot to be on a first flight of a vehicle,” Hurley, a shuttle veteran and former Marine Corps F/A-18 test pilot, told reporters before launch. “We’ll be ready when SpaceX and NASA are ready for us to fly it.”

For operational missions, Crew Dragon will be able to launch as many as four crew members and carry more than 220 pounds of cargo.

This is a guest contribution by Jordan Strickler. Find out how you can contribute to ZME Science.


Elon Musk shares full-body pic of SpaceX’s sleek astronaut suit


Credit: SpaceX.

Last month, Elon Musk teased fans with a new space suit his company had been working on. It’s sleek, all white and black, really SciFi-looking , unlike the space suits NASA hasn’t been able to revamp for decades. Now, Musk shared a full-body picture of the space suit next to Crew Dragon, the next-generation spacecraft designed to carry astronauts into space.

Who wore it better?

Along with Boeing, SpaceX has been awarded a $2.6 billion contract to design and develop technology capable of carrying humans into space. The plan is expected to loosen the nation’s dependency on Russian logistics and things are shaping up nicely. Already, the Crew Dragon capable of carrying four people has passed the initial design reviews and certifications to proceed to the next level of testing.

Dragon made history in 2012 when it became the first commercial spacecraft to deliver cargo to the space station, a feat previously achieved only by governments.


If everything goes according to plan, a manned flight to the International Space Station on board a Dragon spacecraft should launch in late 2018 after an initial unmanned launch. The astronauts might travel to the space station wearing these new suits that seem taken right out of The Martian.

Looks can be deceiving, though. This is merely a pressurized suit, which isn’t suitable for space walks, let alone a trip outside Mars. Rather, these suits are designed to protect astronauts on route to the ISS in the unlikely event that their cabin becomes depressurized.


This new full-length press photo reveals some interesting details. The boots look very light-weight, giving the impression of enhanced mobility. Quite fashionable, too. The pants feature flex zones in the knee area for mobility when bending. Similarly, padded areas in the back colored in black also seem to be meant to enhance comfort while seated in the Dragon capsule.

Earlier this year, Boeing unveiled its own space suit — a bulkier blue version meant for astronauts riding Boeing’s Starliner space taxi. At less than 20 pounds, the suit weighs about 10 pounds less than the traditional orange launch-and-entry suit used during the shuttle era.

It’s thus quite exciting to follow how both of these private enterprises are making huge progress. Now, which of the two is your favorite?

Federal investigators find persistent cracks in SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets

After launching ten satellites into orbit last week and successfully landing a Falcon 9 first stage, Elon Musk’s SpaceX seemed on a roll. But things didn’t go so well when federal investigators had a look at the rockets. Reports from a Government Accountability Office (GAO) mention a dangerous defect that could compromise the safety of astronauts — namely, “persistent cracking of vital propulsion-system components.”

Image credits: NASA.

According to The Wall Street Journal (WSJ), the GAO is a federal agency that does audits on behalf of Congress and the remarks about the cracks in the rockets are part of a preliminary report. The information has not yet been officially confirmed.

“We do have work underway and it is due out later this month,” Charles Young, the managing director of GAO’s public affairs, told The Verge. “I can’t comment on the contents of the report until it is issued. It is still in draft form and we have not provided copies to any reporters.”

While the final report has not been published yet and it has not been released to the press, the WSJ gained access to a leaked version which raises troubling concerns. WSJ reports that the turbopump cracks could “pose an unacceptable risk for manned flights.”

This is not good news for SpaceX. The company’s appeal and potential are without a doubt exhilarating, yet the company’s evolution has had major ups and downs. Now, SpaceX is preparing for its most ambitious (and dangerous) project: manned spaceflight. They’re currently modifying the Dragon capsules to support transporting astronauts, and the earliest such mission is scheduled for 2018.

But things will be patched as soon as possible. SpaceX claims the rockets were built to withstand such cracks, and NASA’s acting director Robert Lightfoot says they’re working together with the company to fix the issues.

“We have qualified our engines to be robust to turbine wheel cracks,” John Taylor, a SpaceX representative, tells The Verge. “However, we are modifying the design to avoid them altogether. This will be part of the final design iteration on Falcon 9. SpaceX has established a plan in partnership with NASA to qualify engines for [crewed] spaceflight.”

Mr. Lightfoot said “we’re talking to [SpaceX] about turbo machinery,” adding that he thinks “we know how to fix them.” In the interview, Mr. Lightfoot said he didn’t know if the solution would require a potentially time-consuming switch to bigger turbopumps.

As the old saying goes, space is tough — and SpaceX is learning that first hand.

SpaceX begins first cargo mission to International Space Station

We’re entering a new era in terms of low orbit space flight, ladies and gents. SpaceX successfully launched the first in a dozen planned missions to supply the International Space Station, after it successfully tested its Dragon capsule and Falcon rocket earlier this year.

Thirty years ago, a private company launching shuttles to the ISS would have been a comic book subject and nothing more. But SpaceX, the company owned by the brilliantly ambitious Elon Musk, managed to do just that, managing to begin its first true operation after the test in May. This is becomes even more important when put into perspective: the US shut down its space shuttle program so it now has to rely on private enterprises to carry cargo to and from the inhabited satellite.

“We are right where we need to be at this stage in the mission,” SpaceX chief Elon Musk, the PayPal and Tesla Motors founder, said in a statement. “We still have a lot of work to do, of course, as we guide Dragon’s approach to the space station. But the launch was an unqualified success.”

After some initial hassle in the first test, SpaceX seems to be doing just great. Dragon will attach itself to the ISS on Wednesday, where it will hang around for two weeks before unzipping and returning to Earth. It is currently the only shuttle on Earth capable of shipping such big amounts of supplies, which include station hardware and scientific materials. It is estimated that the cargo is worth about $1.6 billion, and hopefully, the shuttle will be able to carry humans in the near future.

International Space Station astronauts thrilled to have first private visit

Life on the ISS has its ups and downs, its perks and downsides; but in February, something which seemed a fantasy two decades ago is about to happen: the first private spaceship will ‘visit’ the International Space Station, marking the start of a new era in spaceflight.

The private spaceflight company SpaceX plans to launch its unmanned Dragon capsule to orbit Feb. 7 atop the firm’s Falcon 9 booster from Cape Canaveral Air Force Base in Florida. The capsule will carry food, clothes, and other basic supplies for the station.

We’re excited about that,” NASA astronaut Don Pettit told SPACE.com in an interview Wednesday (Jan. 4) from the station. “Anytime you have a visiting vehicle coming by, that’s an exciting day.”

Dragon’s flight, which is partially funded by NASA will be the first in a series of many planned for the upcoming years. After remaining docked for about a year, it will separate itself and start its journey back to Earth, where it will be picked up after landing in the Pacific ocean.

“While our first missions to the ISS will be to transport cargo, both Falcon 9 and Dragon were designed to ultimately transport astronauts,” SpaceX officials wrote in a Dec. 15 update. “Every trip we make to the ISS from this point forward gets us closer to that goal.”

Via Space.com

Private SpaceX Dragon Capsule could go drill for ice on Mars

The privately built SpaceX shuttle is only a few weeks away from its first space flight towards the International Space Station, but NASA already has big dreams for the Dragon; in a presentation held last week, SpaceX and space agency officials discussed sending Dragon to Mars in a revolutionary mission astronomers have called the ‘Red Dragon’.

The mission would be relatively cheap, at only $500 million, or at least this is the estimated cost at the moment, and it could be launched in 2018. It would include a robotic drill that would sample Martian permafrost and examine them with onboard lab equipment.

Aside from the good performance and cheap cost, the Dragon has yet another benefit: it is equipped with retrorockets that can ensure an easy, calm descent on to the red planet’s surface. This means it wouldn’t require any bouncing parachutes or hoverdrop capability, like NASA’s own rover missions.

Researchers at NASA’s Ames Research Center first revealed this revolutionary concept last year, and there is significant evidence pointing towards NASA wanting to explore and expand private space flights, given the significant financial problems they are facing at the moment. However, not everyone is convinced the SpaceX Dragon will be successful, and important members at NASA are concerned a private-transport proposal could jeopardize other planned rover missions.

Via Nature News