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Science news digest – 18th June 2013

In the science news this week, blocks of dry ice could be the cause of Martian grooves, honeybees are hit by bad winter weather, and finally… the Prime Minister launches the Longitude Prize.

Dry ice blocks may be cause of mysterious Martian grooves

More than a decade ago, astronomers first spotted long narrow grooves in the sand dunes on the surface of Mars. Known as linear gullies, their cause has remained a mystery since they were first discovered.

However, a team led by Serina Diniega at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory have proposed that the grooves – most of them several hundred metres long and around 10m wide – are caused during the Martian spring as the surface of the planet warms up, reported the Guardian.

The vast majority of the seasonal frost seen on Mars is made up of carbon dioxide – solid dry ice. The team have suggested that as the temperatures rise in spring, the solid CO2 sublimates (vaporises without first becoming liquid) and blocks of the dry ice break off, sliding down the slopes and leaving the grooves seen by astronomers.

"As the blocks slide, they erode a shallow groove by pushing unconsolidated material forward and to the sides, forming levees. This displacement may be enhanced by sublimation throwing material to the sides of the block, perhaps accounting for dark halos seen around grooves that recently formed and/or they temporarily contain a frost block," wrote Diniega in the recent paper.

The team have also tested their theory by sending blocks of dry ice down some sand dunes on Earth. Although the conditions would have been slightly different to what you would find on the surface of Mars – the gravity and pressure are higher here on Earth – the experiments showed similar gullies being created in the dunes.

"The model demonstrates that CO2 blocks can be expected to move via our proposed mechanism on the Earth and Mars," wrote Diniega. "And the experiments show that the motion of these blocks will naturally create the main morphological features of linear gullies seen on Mars."

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Honeybee numbers drop caused by wet winter

The British Beekeepers Association have said that a third of all the hives in the UK were lost this winter – more than twice the number lost in the previous one.

The loss in bee population has been blamed on the wet weather and a pollen shortage in the UK, caused by the late arrival of spring in 2013, reported New Scientist.

This is yet another setback for honeybee species, which have previously been hit by mystery viruses, fungi and pesticides, making numbers plummet across the globe.

However, there was some good news for the bees recently. A study published last month showed that the loss of bumblebee species diversity had slowed down in the UK, and the range of solitary bee species rose.

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And finally…

Prime Minister launches new prize for scientific innovation

A prize of £1 million is being offered by the Government to help find the “next penicillin”, according to the Prime Minister David Cameron.

The Longitude Prize, named after a prize of the same name that was famously won in 1714 by clockmaker John Harrison, will be given to the person or team that can solve “the biggest problem of our time”, reported the BBC.

What that problem is, is still to be determined, but should be identified by the public, and the hope is that the prize will stimulate global innovation in a range of areas.

In 1714, the problem that was solved was finding a way to keep accurate time when aboard a ship at sea.

"There are so many problems in our world that need that amazing solution, whether it is a cure for dementia, solving the problem of diabetes, having a flight from Britain to New York that's carbon free. Let's challenge the public and challenge the scientists for which is the great problem we want to crack," said the Prime Minister.

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