NASA wants to visit Mars in the 2030s. In pursuit of that goal it first plans to launch a space tug with a daunting mission: catch an asteroid and relocate it to orbit the moon. Astronauts would then travel to the asteroid as a test run for missions of longer distances, but controversy surrounds the program and its fate may be sealed before it can begin.

For those staying on Earth, geologists reconstructed the ancient topography of the American West from an unexpected resource: the signatures of rain that fell millions of years ago. Experts had thought that the region (now Nevada) was a plateau 25 million years ago rising to an elevation no higher than the Sierra Nevada, but the rainwater markers reveal that it was mountainous and the highest peak rose higher than the Sierras do today.

A recently discovered snail may not stand the test of time either. Its sole home, a hillside in Malaysia, is under threat from French cement manufacturer Lafarge, which plans to dig up the land for a quarry. To bring attention to the ill-fated snail, conservationists are relying on a form of nomenclatural activism. Will the clever strategy work?

Cow dung encourages antibiotic-resistant bacteria to grow, even if it comes from drug-free cows, according to a study by Jo Handelsman, associate director for science at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. How antibiotic-resistant bacteria appear in manure is a hot topic because some crops fertilized with manure end up on grocery store shelves.

Also in January’s Advances section: