Texas has long fostered a scientific community that is at the forefront of breakthrough research and discovery. Below are just five of the more interesting projects to come out of our research universities in 2013.  

Aggies and Longhorns (Perhaps) Overcame Past by Peering Far Into the Cosmos

Despite the ugly 2011 football conference breakup, the bond between UT and A&M is written in the stars. Researchers at both top-tier research universities discovered the most distant galaxy in the universe, affectionately titled z8_GND_5296.

The joint study, published in Nature in October, stated that the cluster of stars and dust is thirty billion light years from Earth and scientists observed it as it appeared 700 million years after the dawn of the universe, distinguishing it as the most senior galaxy recorded to date. Researchers were pleased with their findings, conducted at the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii, but had assumed they would find more galaxies in the same epoch.  Cosmic fog could be to blame, possibly obscuring similar galaxies from current telescopes.

The Texan researchers are determined to travel even farther back in time by using the Giant Magellan Telescope, with a projected opening of 2018, suggesting the star-crossed love affair won’t end any time soon.

UT Scientists Performed a Disappearing Act

Fantasies involving Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak are closer to reality than ever. UT scientists in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering created a material just micrometers thick—an important characteristic to consider in quality stealth gear.

The researchers attached thin strips of copper to a polycarbonate film and placed the material over an eighteen centimeter cylindrical rod (roughly the average length of a pencil) which promptly disappeared when microwaves reached it. From all possible viewpoints, the rod was hidden from microwaves because they were cancelled out by the metascreen instead of simply bending around the object, an improvement from previous studies. With this new creation, scientists feel they are much closer to a material that would conceal objects in visible light.

Save the Whales’s … Earwax

Inside whales’s cavernous ears, there are secrets only the wax can share. Baylor University researchers analyzed the earwax of a blue whale after the mammal unfortunately perished following a run-in with a ship off the coast of Santa Barbara, California.

Examining earwax has long been a method of determining a whale’s age, much like a tree’s rings, but the Baylor scientists have gone a step further. The study, however seemingly unpleasant, proved extremely valuable in determining what pollutants and other environmental factors marine animals are exposed to during their lives. The earplugs physically record time, contaminants, and hormones within their waxy layers.

Scientists determined that at its earliest stages of development, the blue whale was exposed to high amounts of DDT, a chemical that takes multiple decades to break down. Researchers also found that life for the blue whale became more stressful following its sexual maturity, according to the recorded sex and stress hormones. The Baylor scientists opened a new door in marine science by using earplugs to determine levels of human and environmental impact over a whale’s lifetime, but now the researchers are up to their ears in wax, receiving earplug specimen offerings from around the world. Further analysis will hopefully paint an even more detailed picture of the world’s oceans and the creatures in the deep blue.

Texas A&M-Pacific Ocean Campus?

A University of Houston researcher led a team of scientists in the discovery of a massive volcano beneath the waters of the Pacific Ocean. Approximately 120,000 square miles in area, Tamu Massif is staggeringly larger than the previous title-holder for biggest volcano on Earth, Mauna Loa, which is a mere 2,000 square miles in area. If the new volcano’s name looks a little familiar, it’s because Dr. William Sager named the New Mexico-sized volcano after Texas A&M University, where he spent 29 years as a professor before moving to the University of Houston. The volcano is the most recent in a long line of A&M nods, like Tamu Basin and Tamu Bank in the Gulf of Mexico.

The underwater formation, which lies dormant about 1,000 miles east of Japan, is not very tall but rather extremely wide, ranking among the solar system’s largest volcanoes. Fear not, however. The super volcano went dormant millions of years ago, something that might prove valuable for geologists seeking to understand the inner anatomy of Earth.

UT Students Took the High Seas

In a stunning display of engineering, students in the UT Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics hacked a superyacht’s GPS system in the Mediterranean Sea. They veered the $80 million vessel off course, proving that such a feat could be performed using cutting-edge technology. In fact, the students not only sent false GPS signals to the yacht’s navigation system, they actually created the device that originated the misdirection.

Using a process called spoofing, the students subtly gained control of the 213-foot yacht and veered it off course a few degrees at a time. When the system attempted to correct the location, the ship’s crew unknowingly adjusted their position by pointing the ship toward the new—and incorrect—path. The tech-savvy pirates gained permission for the project, but proved that security should be strengthened for such vessels, including aircraft, that use similar systems on a daily basis all over the world. Next time, hackers might not ask for consent.

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