Calling ET: NASA Expands Search for Alien Life

Posted April 27th, 2015 at 10:48 pm (UTC+0)
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(NASA)

(NASA)

The search for life beyond our own solar system has taken a major step forward with a new interdisciplinary research coalition devoted to the search for life in the cosmos.

Nexus for Exoplanet System Science (NExSS) will be made up of research teams from several NASA facilities, 10 U.S. universities and two research institutions, according to a recent NASA announcement.

Research teams were picked from proposals submitted to the four various divisions that make-up the space agency’s Science Mission Directorate.

NExSS experts will search for life in the cosmos by studying various aspects of a extra solar planet or exoplanet, as well as how the planet’s star and neighboring worlds all act together to support life.

NASA said NExSS researchers will be better equipped to look for life on extrasolar planets if they gain a better understanding of how biology interacts with various components of an exoplanet, such as its interior, atmosphere, geology and ocean, and how its host star affects these interactions.

“This interdisciplinary endeavor connects top research teams and provides a synthesized approach in the search for planets with the greatest potential for signs of life,” said Jim Green, NASA’s Director of Planetary Science in a press release.

Artist rendering of 51 Pegasi by Celestia Français (Kirk39/Wikimedia Commons)

Artist rendering of 51 Pegasi b the first discovered exoplanet.  (Calista Francais/Kirk39/Wikimedia Commons)

He said “the hunt for exoplanets is not only a priority for astronomers, it’s of keen interest to planetary and climate scientists as well.”

As more and more planets are found in solar systems beyond our own, researchers have been working on scientific methods that would not only allow them to confirm whether the alien planets are suitable to host life, but also help them look for specific biosignatures that point to the presence of life on these planets.

Experts from the four divisions of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate will provide NExSS with guidance and knowledge in the areas of Earth Science, Planetary Science, Helieophysics and Astrophysics. And NExSS team members will study and classify newly discovered exoplanets, determine if they are possibly habitable, and develop the needed tools and technologies to find life beyond our own planet.

“NExSS scientists will not only apply a systems science approach to existing exoplanet data, their work will provide a foundation for interpreting observations of exoplanets from future exoplanet missions such as TESS, JWST, and WFIRST,” noted Paul Hertz, director of the Astrophysics Division at NASA Headquarters, Washington.

The TESS or Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite mission is scheduled for a 2017 launch date. The JWST or James Webb Space Telescope – Hubble’s replacement – is set to be launched in 2018.  And NASA is now studying the WFIRST or Wide-field Infrared Survey Telescope which they hope to launch sometime in the 2020s.

The first extrasolar planet was discovered only 20 years ago when 51 Pegasi b was found orbiting 51Pegasi, a main sequence star much like our own Sun, some 50 light years away.

After NASA’s Kepler space telescope went into operation in May 2009, scientists were able to confirm the existence of more than 1,800 exoplanets.

Thousands more await confirmation.

Giant Magma Reservoir Found Beneath Yellowstone Supervolcano

Posted April 23rd, 2015 at 6:00 pm (UTC+0)
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The gorgeous colors of Yellowstone National Park’s Grand Prismatic hot spring are among the park’s many hydrothermal features created by the fact that Yellowstone sits above a supervolcano – the largest type of volcano on Earth. (Robert B. Smith & Lee J. Siegel)

Yellowstone National Park’s Grand Prismatic hot spring are among the park’s many hydrothermal features. (Robert B. Smith & Lee J. Siegel)

Yellowstone National Park’s many geothermal features, including its estimated 10,000 hot springs and geysers, draw millions of visitors each year.

There’s good reason why the approximately 8,983 square km park has such a high level of geothermal activity. You see, the park sits atop one of the world’s largest active volcanic systems.

According to the US Geological Survey, Yellowstone’s supervolcano exploded with three cataclysmic volcanic eruptions over the past 2.1 million years. The most recent took place about 640,000 years ago.

Scientists say those three catastrophic Yellowstone supervolcano eruptions covered much of North America in volcanic ash. A similar eruption today would be equally devastating, according to researchers.

Today, a number of people – possibly inspired by a few conspiracy theories and docudrama television programs – are concerned that a significant and catastrophic eruption of Yellowstone’s supervolcano is imminent.

And seismologists from the University of Utah have made a new discovery that may add to these concerns.

This cross-section illustration - cutting southwest-northeast - under Yelowstone depicts the supervolcano's "plumbing system" as revealed by recent seismic imaging. (Hsin-Hua Huang, University of Utah)

This cross-section illustration – cutting southwest-northeast under Yelowstone – depicts the supervolcano’s “plumbing system” as revealed by recent seismic imaging. (Hsin-Hua Huang, University of Utah)

The scientists said they discovered and made images of a reservoir of hot and partially molten rock located about 19 to 45 km below the Yellowstone supervolcano. The researchers added that this reservoir is about 4.4 times larger than the long-known and shallower magma chamber above.

According to Jamie Farrell, a co-author of a study published in the journal Science, the reservoir of hot rock would fill the 4,168 cubic kilometer Grand Canyon 11.2 times. The magma chamber above it was calculated to fill the Grand Canyon 2.5 times.

“For the first time, we have imaged the continuous volcanic plumbing system under Yellowstone,” said the study’s first author Hsin-Hua Huang, a postdoctoral researcher in geology and geophysics, in a press release.

“That includes the upper crustal magma chamber we have seen previously plus a lower crustal magma reservoir that has never been imaged before and that connects the upper chamber to the Yellowstone hotspot plume below,” he added.

To allay any fears that the Yellowstone volcano is about to blow up, the seismologists emphasized that its “plumbing system” is neither larger nor is it any closer to erupting than before.

Robert Smith, a research and emeritus professor of geology and geophysics at the University of Utah, took this a step further, saying the annual chance of the supervolcano erupting is 1 in 700,000.

One of the most popular hydrothermal features at Yellowstone park is the geyser Old Faithful, shown here during one of its regular eruptions. (Jon Sullivan/Wikimedia Commons)

One of the most popular hydrothermal features at Yellowstone park is the geyser Old Faithful, shown here during one of its regular eruptions. (Jon Sullivan/Wikimedia Commons)

The researchers also stressed that contrary to what many people may think, the magma chamber beneath the Yellowstone supervolcano and the magma reservoir beneath that are not bubbling with molten rock. While the rock material is hot, the researchers said it’s mostly solid and spongy, with only pockets of molten rock within it.

The hot rock in the upper magma chamber contains an average of about nine percent molten rock, according to researchers’ calculations. That is pretty much in line with past estimates of between 5-15 percent of molten rock in that chamber. The researchers also found that the contents in the lower magma reservoir are made of about two percent of melted rock.

Study co-author Fan-Chi Lin, assistant professor of geology and geophysics, said that the new research is providing a “better understanding the Yellowstone magmatic system.”

“We can now use these new models to better estimate the potential seismic and volcanic hazards,” he said.

Read My Lips: Researchers Develop New Automated Film Dubbing Technique

Posted April 20th, 2015 at 7:00 pm (UTC+0)
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A series of facial movements that are used when pronouncing phrases listed on the right (Disney Research

A series of facial movements that are used when pronouncing phrases listed on the right (Disney Research)

Sixteen days after its April 3, 2015 release, the new American action film “Furious 7” made a whopping $858.3 million in international markets, compared to a more modest $294.4 million in North America. Movie and television programs companies have taken notice and are aggressively marketing their products to a wide international audience.

But reaching an international audience means the film’s dialog must often be dubbed by actors speaking local languages.

Current methods of dubbing dialogue to match the on screen facial movements of the person talking as closely as possible often come across as terribly disjointed. That makes for an unpleasant movie viewing experience for the audience.

Given such a lucrative international market, filmmakers are taking extraordinary steps to ensure that the translated version’s sound matches the facial movements of onscreen actors as closely to as possible.

Disney Research, Pittsburgh and the United Kingdom’s University of East Anglia have conducted studies that they said will help in the development an automated dialogue re-dubbing system that will make movies more enjoyable for people who speak the languages spoken by international audiences.

This is a movie dubbing studio where dialogue is translated and revoiced into other languages and then dubbed into movies set for international release. (arceus555 via Creative Commons)

This is a movie dubbing studio where dialogue is translated and revoiced into other languages and then dubbed into movies set for international release. (arceus555 via Creative Commons)

The new system, developed by a team led by Sarah Taylor at Disney Research, Pittsburgh, automatically analyzes the on screen actor’s speech. It then allows film producers to reduce or in some cases eliminate even the most subtle differences between words spoken on screen and what the audience hears.

The system is based on something called “dynamic visemes,” which are facial movements that are connected with certain sounds produced in speech.

“The method using dynamic visemes produces many more plausible alternative word sequences that are perceivably better than those produced using a static viseme approaches,” Taylor said in a press release.

The system will provide filmmakers with a wider variety of word sequences that match facial movements.  This will allow producers to write local language dialogue that not only corresponds with the movie’s script, but also ensures that on-screen facial movements are more in synchronization with what the audience hears.

As an example, the researchers found that when an actor says a phrase like “clean swatches,” his facial movements are the same as those for other phrases, such as “likes swats,” “then swine,” or “need no pots.”

Taylor and her research team will present their findings on April 23 at the 40th International Conference on Acoustics, Speech and Signal Processing (ICASSP), that’s being held from April 19-24, 2015, in Brisbane, Australia.

How the new technique will affect international revenues remains unclear. While Furious 7 has performed well at the international box office so far, it still needs to earn at least another $1.17 to beat out James Cameron’s 2009 blockbuster Avatar – the all-time international money-making film that has earned nearly $2.03 in international receipts.

Video demonstrates new dubbing method developed by Disney Research (Disney Research)

Scientists Find Evidence of Liquid Water on Mars

Posted April 14th, 2015 at 2:27 pm (UTC+0)
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An artist’s impression shows how Mars may have looked about four billion years ago. (ESO/M. Kornmesser/N. Risinger/skysurvey.org)

An artist’s impression shows how Mars may have looked about four billion years ago. (ESO/M. Kornmesser/N. Risinger/skysurvey.org)

Previous studies have indicated that liquid water once flowed on the Red Planet. Some even suggested that at one time, Mars held great quantities of H2O. But scientists now believe that most of the Planet’s current water supply exists solely in ice or vapor form.

In a recent analysis of data produced by NASA’s Mars Rover Curiosity, researchers at the University of Copenhagen’s Niels Bohr Institute found evidence that there may be salty but liquid water closer to the surface of Mars than previously thought.

Writing in the journal Nature, the researchers said they found the presence of the salt calcium perchlorate in the Martian soil. Salt can lower the freezing point of water so it doesn’t freeze into ice so easily, which is why it’s often used to melt ice on sidewalks and roadways.

Morten Bo Madsen, associate professor and head of the Mars Group at the Niels Bohr Institute, said that under the right conditions the calcium perchlorate can absorb water vapor from the atmosphere.

Measurements he and his colleagues made from Curiosity’s weather monitoring station have indicated that these ‘right conditions’ just happen to occur at night and right after sunrise during winter on Mars.

The researchers believe that Gale Crater was a large lake between 3.5 and 2.7 billion years ago. (NASA/JPL/Caltech/ESA/DLR/MSSS)

The researchers believe that Gale Crater was a large lake between 3.5 and 2.7 billion years ago. (NASA/JPL/Caltech/ESA/DLR/MSSS)

At night, some of Mars’ atmospheric moisture is concentrated into frost on the planet’s surface, much like it does here on Earth.

But when the calcium perchlorate within the Martian soil absorbs the moisture, Madsen said it forms a brine that lowers the freezing point and turns it into a liquid. That liquid water then seeps through and down the porous soil.

“Over time, other salts may also dissolve in the soil. And now that they are liquid, they can move and precipitate elsewhere under the surface,” explained Madsen in a Neil Bohr Institute press release.

Past observations made with Curiosity’s stereo camera showed areas of Mars that had the attributes of an ancient riverbed, indicating that plenty of running water once flowed on the Red Planet.

Some new close-up photos taken by the rover while traveling across Gale Crater on its way to Mount Sharp have revealed swaths of sedimentary deposits that were found lying as ‘plates’ piled atop one another and leaning toward the Martian mountain.

Very fine-grained sediments, which slowly fell down through the water, were deposited right at the bottom of the crater lake. The sediment plates at the bottom are level, which indicates the entire Gale Crater may have once held a large lake. (NASA/JPL, MSSS)

Very fine-grained sediments, which slowly fell down through the water, were deposited right at the bottom of the crater lake. The sediment plates at the bottom are level, which indicates the entire Gale Crater may have once held a large lake. (NASA/JPL, MSSS)

“These kind of deposits are formed when large amounts of water flow down the slopes of the crater and these streams of water meet the stagnant water in the form of a lake. When the stream meets the surface, the solid material carried by the stream falls down and is deposited in the lake just at the lake shore,” said Madsen.

While the sediment layers that the Curiosity observed were found leaning toward Mt. Sharp, the same type of deposits located on the bottom of the crater are level –  something that Madsen said indicates that at one time, the entire Gale Crater may have been a large lake.

While Madsen and his colleagues may have found signs of liquid water on Mars, a key ingredient for life, as we know it, to emerge and survive, they also assert that any potential life forms that might be able to endure the planet’s harsh conditions would probably be wiped out by the Red Planet’s powerful cosmic radiation. Based on that, Madsen and his team said it’s unlikely that life will be found on a planet so cold and dry.

Brain Activity May Hasten Death in Cardiac Arrest Patients

Posted April 6th, 2015 at 7:00 pm (UTC+0)
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(Photo: photos.com)

(Photo: photos.com)

A multidisciplinary team of researchers at the University of Michigan has found that when death induced by cardiac arrest is near, the brain bursts into a flurry of activity that may actually play a role in hastening the patient’s death.

It is generally thought that the sudden eruption of signals between the brain and heart may be part of the brain’s efforts to help save the cardiac arrest patient. But in a new study, the research team uncovered surprising evidence that this brain activity, in fact, disrupts heart function.

“Despite the loss of consciousness and absence of signs of life, internally the brain exhibits sustained, organized activity and increased communication with the heart, which one may guess is an effort to save the heart,” said neurologist and senior author Jimo Borjigin, associate professor of molecular and integrative physiology in a University press release.

The research team included investigators with a wide-ranging backgrounds, from engineering, neuroscience, physiology, cardiology, chemistry, to pharmacology. The team examined the biological processes that can lead a healthy heart to stop beating after being deprived of oxygen for a few minutes.

The researchers simultaneously examined the hearts and brains of lab rats who were in cardiac arrest after experimental asphyxiation.

Along with asphyxiation, medical conditions such as cardiac arrhythmias, ischemic stroke, traumatic brain injury, brain hemorrhage and epilepsy can also induce cardiac arrest.

While monitoring the brain and heart activity of rats in cardiac arrest, the researchers noticed an immediate release of a number of neurochemicals from the brain as well as the initiation of heightened brain-heart communication.

An EMS technician performs CPR on a cardiac arrest patient.  Behind patient is an automated external defibrillator (AED) which is also used to help stop ventricular fibrillation (David Bruce Jr./Creative Commons)

An EMS technician performs CPR on a cardiac arrest patient. Behind patient is an automated external defibrillator (AED) which is also used to help stop ventricular fibrillation (David Bruce Jr./Creative Commons)

Using a new device called the electrocardiomatrix, which was developed in Borjigin’s laboratory, researchers noticed that signals from the brain synchronized with the heart rhythm following a steep drop in the heart rate of the lab animals.

But by blocking the flow of the brain’s neurochemicals and communication with the heart, the researchers said that they were able to greatly delay ventricular fibrillation, the most serious cardiac rhythm disturbance.

The lower chambers of the heart simply quiver and are unable to pump any blood during ventricular fibrillation.

“The study suggests that a pharmacological blockade of the brain’s electrical connections to the heart during cardiac arrest may improve the chances of survival in cardiac arrest patients,” said Borjigin.

According to the American Heart Association, brain death and permanent death can begin in just 4-6 minutes after cardiac arrest. A cardiac victim’s chances of survival drop by 7-10 percent with each passing minute without CPR and defibrillation assistance. Few attempts at resuscitation succeed after 10 minutes, according to the American Heart Association.

The study by Borjigin and her team will be published in this week’s PNAS Early Edition.

The Best Science Images – March 2015

Posted April 1st, 2015 at 6:41 pm (UTC+0)
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A robot installation is pictured at the booth of Deutsche Telekom at the CeBIT technology on 3/15/15.  The German technology exposition was held in Hanover from 3/16/15-3/20/15 (AFP)

A robot installation is pictured at the booth of Deutsche Telekom at the CeBIT technology fair on March 15, 2015. The German technology exposition was held in Hanover March 16-20, 20/15 (AFP)

A total solar eclipse is visible through the clouds as seen from Vagar on the Faeroe Islands on 3/30/15.  The Faeroe Islands is an archipelago located halfway between Norway and Iceland. (AP)

A total solar eclipse is seen through the clouds from Vagar on the Faeroe Islands on March 30, 2015. The Faeroe Islands is an archipelago located halfway between Norway and Iceland. (AP)

The United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket with NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) spacecraft onboard launches from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Complex 41, 3/12/15.  (NASA)

The United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket with NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) spacecraft onboard launches from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Complex 41, March 12, 2015. (NASA)

Here’s an aerial photo, taken on 3/31/15, of some of the solar panels that make up a photovoltaic park in southern France.  Considered to be the biggest solar farm in France, this facility consists of 112,780 solar modules covering an area of 200 hectares of land and representing 100 MW of power.  (Reuters)

An aerial photo, taken on March 31, 2015, shows some of the solar panels that make up a photovoltaic park in southern France. Considered to be the country’s biggest solar farm, this facility consists of 112,780 solar modules covering an area of 200 hectares of land and representing 100 MW of power. (Reuters)

The Solar Impulse-2 takes off from Ahmadabad, India on 3/18/15 as it begins the third leg of its’ historic round-the-world trip. The sun-powered aircraft began its voyage on 3/9/15 in Abu Dhabi, UAE where it is scheduled to return in 8/15 (AP/Press Trust of India)

The Solar Impulse-2 takes off from Ahmadabad, India on March 18, 2015, beginning the third leg of its’ historic round-the-world trip. The sun-powered aircraft began its voyage on March 9, 2015 in Abu Dhabi, UAE, where it is scheduled to return in August of this year. (AP/Press Trust of India)

This is typhoon Maysak as seen from the International Space Station on 3/31/15.  The photo was taken by astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti.  The Pacific Daily News newspaper in Guam reported that the storm has been upgraded to a super typhoon with winds of 241 kph. Officials say super Typhoon Maysak is expected to significantly weaken before reaching the Philippines around Sunday. (NASA/Samantha Cristoforetti)

Typhoon Maysak, as seen from the International Space Station on March 31, 2015, in a photo taken by astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti. The Pacific Daily News newspaper in Guam reported that the storm has been upgraded to a super typhoon with winds of 241 kph. Officials say super Typhoon Maysak is expected to significantly weaken before reaching the Philippines around Sunday. (NASA/Samantha Cristoforetti)

Sunset falls over antennae at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory's Very Large Array, on 3/3/15.  The radio astronomy antenna array is located in Socorro County, New Mexico. (AP)

Sunset falls over antennae at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s Very Large Array, on March 3, 2015. The radio astronomy antenna array is located in Socorro County, New Mexico. (AP)

This is a mosaic of images taken by the panoramic camera aboard NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity shows part of the Red Planet’s "Marathon Valley".  The images that make up this mosaic were taken on 3/13/15, during the 3,958th Martian day, or sol, of Opportunity's work on Mars.  (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell University/Arizona State University)

A mosaic of images taken by the panoramic camera aboard NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity shows part of the Red Planet’s “Marathon Valley.” The images that make up this mosaic were taken on March 13, 2015 during the 3,958th Martian day, or sol, of Opportunity’s work on Mars. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell University/Arizona State University)

A photo of Ceres that was taken by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft on 3/1/15, just a few days before the mission achieved orbit around the previously unexplored dwarf planet to begin a 16-month exploration.  The Dawn spacecraft was about 48,000 kilometers away from Ceres when this photo was taken. (NASA)

This photo of Ceres was taken by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft on March 1, 2015, a few days before the mission achieved orbit around the previously unexplored dwarf planet to begin a 16-month exploration. The Dawn spacecraft was about 48,000 kilometers away from Ceres when this photo was taken. (NASA)

This 3/11/15 file photo shows an array of some of the 2,000 pressure vessels used to convert seawater into fresh water in the Carlsbad Desalination Project’s plant, Carlsbad, Calif.  Considered to be the largest desalination facility in the western hemisphere, it is scheduled to start operations some time later this year and is expected to provide 50 million gallons of fresh drinking water a day.  (AP)

This 3/11/15 file photo shows an array of some of the 2,000 pressure vessels used to convert seawater into fresh water in the Carlsbad (California) Desalination Project’s plant. Considered to be the largest desalination facility in the western hemisphere, it is scheduled to start operations some time later this year and is expected to provide 50 million gallons of fresh drinking water a day. (AP)

Researchers in a study released on 3/13/15 have successfully identified what they are calling a "treasure chest" of ancient galaxy clusters. This map of the entire sky was captured by the European Space Agency's Planck mission. The band running through the middle corresponds to dust in our Milky Way galaxy. The black dots indicate the location of galaxy cluster candidates identified by Planck and subsequently observed by the European Space Agency's Herschel mission.  (ESA/Planck Collaboration/ H. Dole, D. Guéry & G. Hurier, IAS/University Paris-Sud/CNRS/CNES)

In a study released on March 13, 2015, researchers successfully identified what they call a “treasure chest” of ancient galaxy clusters. This map of the entire sky was captured by the European Space Agency’s Planck mission. The band running through the middle corresponds to dust in our Milky Way galaxy. The black dots indicate the location of galaxy cluster candidates identified by Planck and subsequently observed by the European Space Agency’s Herschel mission. (ESA/Planck Collaboration/ H. Dole, D. Guéry & G. Hurier, IAS/University Paris-Sud/CNRS/CNES)

A Soyuz spacecraft carrying a new crew to the International Space Station, blasts off from Baikonur cosmodrome, Kazakhstan on 3/28/15.  The Russian rocket carries U.S. astronaut Scott Kelly, Russian cosmonauts Gennady Padalka, and Mikhail Korniyenko. (AP)

A Soyuz spacecraft carrying a new crew to the International Space Station, blasts off from Baikonur cosmodrome, Kazakhstan on March 28, 2015. The Russian rocket carries U.S. astronaut Scott Kelly, Russian cosmonauts Gennady Padalka, and Mikhail Korniyenko. (AP)

Mercury’s Surface ‘Painted’ With Carbon from Comets

Posted March 30th, 2015 at 2:39 pm (UTC+0)
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Planet Mercury from image data by NASA's MESSENGER spacecraft. (NASA/JHU Applied Physics Lab/Carnegie Inst)

Mercury from image data by NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft. (NASA/JHU Applied Physics Lab/Carnegie Inst)

A first glance, the planet Mercury looks a lot like our Moon, both gray and pockmarked with craters after being bombarded with meteorites and blasted by the solar wind over the millennia.  Some take the similarity further, referring to them as “twins.”

The color of Mercury’s surface though is much darker than the moon, so much so that scientists consider it to be the least reflective of all the planets in our solar system.   It’s nearest neighboring planet, Venus, on the other hand, is considered the brightest and most reflective of our planetary neighbors.

Now a group of scientists say that new research they’ve conducted may have solved the long-standing mystery of Mercury’s dark, dull finish.

Writing in the latest edition of the journal, Nature Geoscience, the scientists said their studies suggest that a steady dusting of carbon released by passing comets over billions of years has slowly painted Mercury’s surface black.

“Our study answers a longstanding mystery about why Mercury’s surface is darker than the moon’s surface, by implicating carbon as a “stealth” darkening agent, which is difficult to detect with available remote sensing methods,” said lead author Megan Bruck Syal, a postdoctoral researcher at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in a press release. “Mercury is effectively painted black by the constant influx of carbon-rich micrometeorites.”

Impact material generated without the presence of carbon from complex organics, top left, is lighter than material generated with carbon, top right. Scanning electron microscope images, bottom row, show finer-scale structure and texture variations. Images: (NASA/Ames/Brown University)

Impact material generated without the presence of carbon from complex organics, top left, is lighter than material generated with carbon, top right. Scanning electron microscope images, bottom row, show finer-scale structure and texture variations. Images: (NASA/Ames/Brown University)

Since comets often break apart as they get close to the sun, Mercury a mere 57,910,000 km away, receives a steady barrage of cometary dust, which is about 25 percent carbon by weight, from these crumbling celestial bodies.

So, the researchers developed and used a computer model to estimate just how much of the cometary dust that hit Mercury actually stuck to the planet’s surface versus the amount that bounced back into space.

Calculations made from the model suggested that Mercury’s surface should be between 3 to 6 percent carbon after billions of years collecting cometary dust.

The researchers then needed to determine just how dark Mercury’s surface would be after being coated by so much cometary carbon over such a long period of time.

Using a 4 meter cannon at NASA’s Ames Vertical Gun Range the researchers shot projectiles that were surrounded by sugar, which mimicked the organic material found in comets, into a target substance that simulated lunar basalt.

“We used the lunar basalt model because we wanted to start with something dark already and see if we could darken it further,” said Peter Schultz, professor emeritus of geological sciences at Brown University and a co-author of the new research.

The heat produced by the cannon blast burned up the sugar and released carbon which became deeply embedded into the target material that melted from the impact of the projectile.

The researchers found that amount of light reflected by the target material, after the cannon shot, was decreased to a level of less than five percent, which is also about the same amount of light reflected by the darkest areas of Mercury.

After conducting a spectroscopic analysis of impact material samples from the cannon shots the researchers didn’t find any distinctive spectral fingerprints just like the spectral signatures from Mercury.

“We show that carbon acts like a stealth darkening agent,” Schultz said. “From the standpoint of spectral analysis, it’s like an invisible paint.”

Short Circuit Snags Giant Atom Smasher Restart

Posted March 25th, 2015 at 5:29 pm (UTC+0)
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The Large Hadron Collider/ATLAS at CERN (Photo: CERN)

The Large Hadron Collider/ATLAS at CERN ((c) CERN)

CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, has run into a bit of a snag in its plans to have its upgraded Large Hadron Collider (LHC) — the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator — up and running by this week for its second three-year run.

Officials are suggesting that the delay in getting the machine fully operational could be from a few days to several weeks, but the impact on LHC operation should be minimal.

On March 21, 2015, LHC operators spotted an intermittent short circuit to ground within one of the atom smasher’s eight sectors and are currently investigating the problem. The other seven sectors of the LHC, according to CERN, have already been successfully readied for operation.

Although the engineers and technicians working to get the LHC back online after a two-year shutdown understand the problem, CERN officials said it still might take a bit of time get the machine back online.

A technician works on CERN's Large Hadron Collider, which has been upgraded for its upcoming 2nd 3 year run. ((C) CERN)

A technician works on CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, which has been upgraded for its upcoming 2nd 3 year run. ((C) CERN)

Even when the necessary repairs are made, the malfunctioning LHC sector may need to be warmed up first, and then cooled down before operators can resume the lengthy process of bringing the large particle accelerator online.

“Any cryogenic machine is a time amplifier,” said CERN’s Director for Accelerators, Frédérick Bordry in a press release. “So what would have taken hours in a warm machine could end up taking us weeks.”

Once the machine is up and running, CERN said LHC operators will take the rest of 2015 to learn more about the upgraded machine and how it performs.

Full-scale physics experiments with the Large Hadron Collider are expected to resume and run from 2016-2018.

“All the signs are good for a great run 2,” said CERN Director General Rolf Heuer. “In the grand scheme of things, a few weeks delay in humankind’s quest to understand our universe is little more than the blink of an eye.”

Since its first beam was fired in 2008, work conducted with CERN’s Large Hadron Collider has attracted a lot of attention from physicists around the world.

In a simulated data model, a Higgs boson is produced which decays into two jets of hadrons and two electrons. (Photo: CERN)

In a simulated data model, a Higgs boson is produced which decays into two jets of hadrons and two electrons. ((c) CERN)

Scientists searching for the mysterious and elusive Higgs boson announced on July 4, 2012 that they had discovered a new particle that could be just what they are looking for.

The Higgs boson is a theoretical elementary particle that has been put forward by the Standard Model of Particle Physics.

The Standard Model details just how the rudimentary building blocks of matter interact with the four fundamental forces of nature (gravitational, electromagnetic, strong nuclear, and weak nuclear).

During its downtime, the giant particle accelerator was upgraded by CERN to run with almost double the energy of its first run.

“With this new energy level, the LHC will open new horizons for physics and for future discoveries,” said Heuer. “I’m looking forward to seeing what nature has in store for us”.

Fishing in Outer Space for Bigger Junk

Posted March 23rd, 2015 at 6:06 pm (UTC+0)
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One capture concept being explored through ESA's e.Deorbit system study for Active Debris Removal - capturing the satellite in a net attached to either a flexible tether - as seen here - or a rigid connection. ((c) ESA)

One capture concept being explored through ESA’s e.Deorbit system study for Active Debris Removal – capturing the satellite in a net attached to either a flexible tether – as seen here – or a rigid connection. ((c) ESA)

Going back in time to tackle 21st century problems, the European Space Agency (ESA) has been testing the effectiveness of some old fishing net technology as a way to grab and retrieve larger pieces of debris in space such as inactive satellites or spent rocket boosters.

The space agency tested the old fishing net technology, which has been dated to 8,300 BC, aboard a Falcon 20 aircraft that produced 20 seconds of weightlessness by flying in parabolic arcs.

“We shot nets out of a compressed air ejector at a scale-model satellite,” explained ESA engineer Kjetil Wormnes in a press release.

The ESA researchers used the compressed air ejector to shoot 20 nets traveling at different speeds toward the satellite model over a two-day period.

Delta 2nd Stage Stainless Steel Cylindrical Propellant Tank; landed in Georgetown, TX (Photo: NASA Orbital Debris Program Office)

Delta 2nd Stage Stainless Steel Cylindrical Propellant Tank; landed in Georgetown, Texas ( NASA Orbital Debris Program Office)

The nets were colored in rainbow shades so that the experiment’s four high-speed HD cameras could easily and accurately track them. And they were weighted at each corner to allow them to better entangle the model satellite.

“The good news is they worked extremely well –- so much so that the nets usually had to be cut away with a knife before we could shoot again,” said Wormnes.

The researchers used two different types of nets in their experiments — one that was described as a thinner-spun version, and the other was thicker with a woven design. Of the two, the researchers said they found the thinner-spun type to be more effective in snagging the model satellite.

The net technology tests were done to help ESA determine the best way to snatch uncontrolled, tumbling and potentially dangerous large chunks of space debris.

ESA’s Clean Space initiative hopes to cut back on space technology threats for both space and terrestrial environments. Part of that effort is the e.Deorbit mission, set for 2021 and intended to help control the amount of large debris in busy orbits around Earth.

But, just how the space junk will be retrieved in this mission is still being determined. So far, ESA is considering the use of a robotic arm, a harpoon, an ion beam, and now perhaps this newly tested fishing net method.

Computer generated image of space debris from a distant vantage point to provide a good view of the object population in the geosynchronous region (NASA)

Computer generated image of space debris from a distant vantage point to provide a good view of the object population in the geosynchronous region (NASA)

Wormnes said the main advantage for using the “fishing net” method, whether it’s for e.Deorbit or perhaps other future space debris removal missions, is that the nets can grab onto a wide range of target shapes that spin at varying rotation rates.

The Earth is surrounded with thousands of pieces of debris. They range from tiny paint flecks that have chipped from old spacecraft to discarded astronaut tools to inactive satellites and used rocket boosters that have accumulated in space since the beginning of the space race in the late 1950’s.

The US Military’s Space Surveillance Network, which has been using various technologies since the 1957, keeps an eye on more than 22,000 softball-sized or larger pieces of space debris.

NASA’s Orbital Debris Program (ODP) at the Johnson Space Center in Texas, is also keeping an eye on the ever-expanding junkyard of space.

Science Scanner: MAVEN Finds Surprises, Iron Rain, Exercise Boosts Cancer Treatment

Posted March 18th, 2015 at 8:18 pm (UTC+0)
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Artist’s conception of MAVEN’s Imaging UltraViolet Spectrograph (IUVS) observing the “Christmas Lights Aurora" on Mars. (University of Colorado)

Artist’s conception of MAVEN’s Imaging UltraViolet Spectrograph (IUVS) observing the “Christmas Lights Aurora” on Mars. (University of Colorado)

NASA’S MAVEN Gives Scientists Double Surprise

Scientists studying data transmitted by NASA’s ‘Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution’ or MAVEN spacecraft were surprised when they spotted unforeseen dust clouds that formed in an area about 150-300 kilometers above the surface of Mars and an aurora that glowed across the planet’s northern hemisphere.

“If the dust originates from the atmosphere, this suggests we are missing some fundamental process in the Martian atmosphere,” said Laila Andersson of the University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospherics and Space Physics (CU LASP) in Boulder in a university release.

Scientists reviewing data collected by MAVEN’s Langmuir Probe and Waves (LPW) instrument said while the mysterious dust cloud has been around for as long as the spacecraft has been in operation, they still don’t know if it’s a temporary or long-lasting occurrence.

Meanwhile, MAVEN’s Imaging Ultraviolet Spectrograph (IUVS) detected a bright auroral glow reaching deep into the Martian atmosphere. Observed over a five-day period just before 12/25/14, scientists called it the aurora “Christmas lights.”

“What’s especially surprising about the aurora we saw is how deep in the atmosphere it occurs — much deeper than at Earth or elsewhere on Mars,” said Arnaud Stiepen, IUVS team member at the University of Colorado. “The electrons producing it must be really energetic.”

Auroras on Earth are created by the collision between high energy particles, mostly electrons and protons from the Sun, and deep space and gassy particles as they enter Earth’s atmosphere. These spectacular light shows are normally seen in areas near the Earth’s poles.  Auroras near the North Pole are also called the northern lights, while those near the South Pole are called the southern lights.

 

Sandia National Laboratories Z machine is the most powerful producer of pulses of electrical energy on Earth. (Randy Montoya/Sandia National Laboratories)

Sandia National Laboratories Z machine is the most powerful producer of pulses of electrical energy on Earth. (Randy Montoya/Sandia National Laboratories)

Iron Rain Once Fell On Earth

Why does the Earth’s mantle contain a good amount of iron while the moon, by comparison, doesn’t have as much of the element in its mantle?

These mysteries have puzzled astrophysicists for years. Now, a group of scientists working with Sandia National Laboratory’s “Z-Machine” — a device that produces the most powerful pulses of electrical energy on Earth — may have some answers.

Scientists have long thought that iron found within Earth’s mantle, a layer located between the Earth’s crust and core, may have arrived as a result of bombardment by a great number of plantesimals – small-to-large objects left over from the creation of the solar system’s planets that hit Earth during the later stages of its formation.

Then again, the moon was also was subjected to the same bombardment. So why doesn’t it have as much iron in its mantle as Earth?

The scientist’s research provided evidence that iron contained within the colliding objects vaporized upon impact, creating clouds of iron droplets that then rained on the early Earth. This iron-rich rain then made its way through layers of Earth, creating pockets of the element in the mantle.

It is also thought that because of its comparatively weaker gravity, the moon’s mantle wasn’t as able to absorb as much iron content in this way as Earth.

The research team outlined its findings in a paper published in a recent edition of the journal “Nature Geosciences.”

 

Nurse administers chemotherapy to patient (National Cancer Institute)

Nurse administers chemotherapy to patient (National Cancer Institute)

Study: Exercise Could Improve Cancer Treatment

Researchers, led by the Duke Cancer Institute, have learned that exercise helps slow the growth of tumors and improves the effectiveness of chemotherapy treatments.

While studying models of breast cancer in mice, the researchers found that the tumors of those who exercised shrank more significantly when treated with chemotherapy than those of more sedentary mice.

Cancerous tumors can diminish the effectiveness of cancer treatments by reducing the amount of oxygen they receive. This in turn allows the tumor to develop a kind of a cloaking device that protects it from the toxic elements of chemotherapy drugs and radiation.

Exercise, according to the researchers, helped improve the flow of oxygen to areas affected by cancer by stimulating the growth and performance of blood vessels surrounding the tumors.

“There is a growing body of work showing that exercise is a safe and tolerable therapy associated with improvements in many outcomes such as fitness, quality of life, and reductions in symptoms such as fatigue in a number of cancer types, including breast cancer,” said study co-lead author Lee Jones, Ph.D., from New York’s Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Institute in a press release.

The scientists detailed their findings in a study that was recently published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

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