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Chinese scientists are breeding mutant space mangoes, the Sun blasts out three unexpected solar flares in two days, and NASA previews Cassini's Grand Finale at Saturn. It's What's Up In Space!
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China's mutant space mangoes promise new breakthroughs

Scott Sutherland
Meteorologist/Science Writer

Wednesday, April 5, 2017, 1:11 PM - Chinese scientists are breeding mutant space mangoes, the Sun blasts out three unexpected solar flares in two days, and NASA previews Cassini's Grand Finale at Saturn. It's What's Up In Space!

China's mutant space mangoes

This sounds a bit like a bad sci-fi horror movie, but it's quite real, and it could prove to be quite good!

Last October, when two Chinese astronauts flew up to the Tiangong-2 space station and returned to Earth aboard the Shenzhou 11, they brought several plant samples along for the trip. The purpose was to see if any of these plants would be affected by their trip to space, specifically to see if any of them would develop beneficial mutations - due to exposure to space radiation, the stresses of launch and landing, or the low-g environment.

Well, according to the China Central Television (CCTV) English website, one of of these plant samples did mutate - the mango seeds they brought with them.

This is the first time that they have taken mango seeds to space, and had them survive the trip. In the past, according to scientists with the Space Mango Breeding Program (yes, that's a thing), the seeds would simply dry out and lose vitality a few days after being extracted from the fruit.

They found a way to take the seeds into space and not have that happen, though, and as of now, these scientists are working with these mutant space mangoes, to see what benefits they can bring.

"We have bred over 1,000 jars of mango seeds after they returned from Shenzhou-11. Once the test is successful, it will be the first of its kind in the world," Peng Longrong, with Space Mango Breeding Program, told CCTV. "These space mangoes can prevent pests. This is very important. They also help improve quality and yields so that people around China can eat mangoes without any safety concerns."

China has been experimenting with exposing seeds to space radiation since 1987, in an attempt to produce beneficial mutations to help with food production. There have apparently been some successes, with seeds from wheat, triticale, barley, maize, cotton, sunflower, soybean, cucumber and tomato plants all showing greater performance. That is, more of the seeds germinated when planted and the seeds showed greater performance (vigor), compared to untreated plants and even plants that were irradiated here on Earth. Other plants, including rice, peas, lettuce and tobacco, have shown little to no effect from a trip to space, while others, such as sorghum, watermelon and eggplant, have been adversely affected by exposure to the space environment.

There is still no solid evidence to show which aspect of the journey is responsible for the mutations, apparently, but at least with some species of plant, the benefits of the trip are unmistakable.

A trio of unexpected solar flares

The Sun has been very quiet for months now, but on Sunday and Monday, one particular sunspot complex - called Active Region 2644 - unexpectedly blasted out three mid-strength solar flares, 12 to 18 hours apart from one another.

This animation shows the three solar flares, in sequence. The three images show a subset of extreme ultraviolet light that highlights the extremely hot material in flares. In the first two filter for the 355 Angstrom wavelength of light, and are colourized in blue, and the third filters for the 131 Angstrom wavelength, and is colourized in teal. Credit: NASA SDO/S. Sutherland

The flares caused some radio blackouts here on Earth, however they - along with any associated coronal mass ejection(s) - were facing away from Earth, so they are not expected to cause any aurora disturbances.

Despite this, the auroras that were seen across Canada over the past week ramped down over the weekend, and then suddenly burst to life on the night of April 3-4, revealing some stunning colours and pillars in the night sky.

A preview of Cassini's Grand Finale at Saturn

The story of the Cassini spacecraft is becoming a bitter sweet one, as it continues to return amazing imagery, it is expected to show us even more incredible things over the next five months, but after that, the mission will be ending, for good.

On Tuesday, April 4, NASA presented a preview of what Cassini's final months at the ringed planet would be like, and how the mission was going to end on September 15, 2017.

For more about what's in store for Cassini over the next 5+ months, check out NASA's website.

I'm just going to leave this here...

Okay, I can't just leave it, it seems, because this is tremendous!

Back on March 30, SpaceX performed something amazing. They relaunched one of their "flight-proven" Falcon 9 booster rockets - meaning that the rocket was previously launched into orbit and brought back to land on the company's droneship (back on April 8, 2016), and then it was launched and landed again.

This is proof of SpaceX's "reusable launch system", which promises to bring down costs of orbital launches, simply by being able to reuse the most expensive components of the booster. As Elon Musk has said, repeatedly, rocket launches up until now have been like flying a jumbo jet filled with people across the country once, allowing those people to disembark at their destination, and then throwing the jet away to use a fresh one for the return flight. This would make flying VERY expensive. By reusing the jet again and again, though, it really comes down to just the fuel and maintenance costs, as the cost of the jet, itself, is eventually paid off. Now, with the success of the Falcon 9, launches can start reusing rockets on a regular basis.

It isn't just about orbital launches, either. Indirectly, this is a proof of concept that humanity can become an interplanetary species, since it shows that we can launch rockets that can fly to other planets, land and then take off again to return home. So, with this landing, we just got one step closer to a human colony on Mars!

Sources: CCTV | NASA | NASA | SpaceX

Watch Below: SpaceX is offering the trip of a lifetime, to the Moon and back, in 2018

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