Hubble Spots Mysterious Vortex on Neptune

Posted June 24th, 2016 at 4:00 pm (UTC-4)
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This new Hubble Space Telescope image confirms the presence of a dark vortex in the atmosphere of Neptune. (NASA, ESA, and M.H. Wong and J. Tollefson (UC Berkeley))

This new Hubble Space Telescope image confirms the presence of a dark vortex in the atmosphere of Neptune. (NASA, ESA, and M.H. Wong and J. Tollefson (UC Berkeley))

NASA says images gathered by the Hubble Space Telescope, a little over a month ago, confirm the existence of a mysterious dark vortex in Neptune’s atmosphere.

While vortices on Neptune have been spotted several times before, dating back to the 1989 flyby of ‘Voyager 2’, this recent Hubble observation marks the first time the phenomenon has been seen in the 21st century.

The dark vortices, according to NASA, are actually weather related high-pressure systems that travel through Neptune’s atmosphere.

They’re known to travel with what are referred to as bright “companion clouds” that are probably made up of methane ice crystals.

Scientists believe that these clouds are created by gases that freeze when currents of air surrounding the vortices are disturbed and pushed above it.

Mike Wong a research astronomer from the University of California at Berkeley led the group of astronomers that made the discovery after analyzing data from the Hubble.

He said that Neptune’s dark vortices float through its atmosphere like “huge, lens-shaped gaseous mountains.”

Wong compared these companion clouds to flat (orographic) clouds that can form over mountains here on Earth.

Scientists say the size, shape and stability of Neptune’s dark vortices can change, and that they can wander in the atmosphere, traveling at speeds that can vary from slow to fast.

NASA says future observations and investigations could provide scientists with a better understanding of how the vortices are created, what causes them to drift through the atmosphere, their relationship with Neptune’s environment as well as what causes them to eventually disperse.

Astronauts took this photograph of the Hubble Space Telescope during the final space shuttle servicing mission in May 2009. (NASA)

Astronauts took this photograph of the Hubble Space Telescope during the final space shuttle servicing mission in May 2009. (NASA)

Meanwhile, the space agency says it has just extended a contract that makes it possible to continue the science operations of the Hubble Space Telescope for another five years to 2021.

This extension would allow a bit of an overlap in operations between the Hubble and its more sophisticated successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, which is scheduled for launch in 2018.

Rick Pantaleo
Rick Pantaleo maintains the Science World blog and writes stories for VOA’s web and radio on a variety of science, technology and health topics. He also occasionally appears on various VOA programs to talk about the latest scientific news. Rick joined VOA in 1992 after a 20 year career in commercial broadcasting.

Black Hole Awakens; Mozart Lowers B.P.; Baby Planet Found

Posted June 22nd, 2016 at 1:09 pm (UTC-4)
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Artist rendering of a supermassive black hole following the tidal disruption of a star that wandered too close. (NASA/Swift/Aurore Simonnet, Sonoma State U.)

Artist rendering of a supermassive black hole following the tidal disruption of a star that wandered too close. (NASA/Swift/Aurore Simonnet, Sonoma State U.)

Scientists Observe Awakening of Dormant Super Massive Black Hole

Scientists say that, in the known universe, about 90% of the biggest black holes are dormant, which means they aren’t ravenously devouring matter.

Because they’re dormant these black holes aren’t pumping out radiation or any kind of light.

But all it takes is for a star or some other object to amble close by to awaken it and kick start a feeding frenzy scientist’s call a tidal disruption.

Astronomers at the University of Maryland say that, for the first time, they’ve observed X-rays bouncing of the walls of an accretion disk that formed after a tidal disruption event of a previously dormant black hole.

The scientists say this black hole consumed material so fast that it briefly surpassed the Eddington Limit, which is the theoretical maximum speed of how fast a black hole can actually devour matter.

The UMD team says their finding can help astronomers understand how supermassive black holes grow and lead to making reliable measurements of black hole spin.

ABBA Can’t Lower Blood Pressure/Heart Rate Like Mozart and Strauss

A new study by researchers at Germany’s Ruhr University, Bochum has found that listening to the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart or Johann Strauss can lower your blood pressure and heart rate.

On the other hand, the study also indicates that Dancing Queen and other hits by the Swedish pop group ABBA doesn’t seem to do much for the cardiovascular system at all.

The researchers gathered 120 volunteer participants for the study. Half of the group listened to music for 25 minutes. The other half, who rested lying down, sat in silence.

Those in the music listening group were played music by Mozart, Strauss and ABBA.

The blood pressure and heart rate of all participants were measured before and after the 25-minute period.

The researchers found those who listened to Strauss and Mozart had a noticeable drop in blood pressure and heart rate. Those who sat in silence were found to have lower measurements than those who listened to ABBA music.

Artist rendering of young Neptune-like planet K2-33 b (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Artist rendering of young Neptune-like planet K2-33 b (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Astronomers Find Baby Exoplanet

NASA says a team of astronomers has discovered the youngest fully formed exoplanet that has ever been detected.

The scientists say this new planet, called K2-33B, is only 11 million years old. Compared to the 4.5-billion-year-old Earth, this exoplanet is a newborn.

The discovery was made using NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope, as a part of its extended K2 mission, and a ground-based telescope at the Keck Observatory high atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii.

The baby planet is described as being a bit larger than Neptune and orbits its star once every five days at a distance of about only 7.5-million kilometers, or 10 times closer to its star than Mercury is to our sun.

Caltech’s Erik Petigura, part of the discovery team, says the newborn planet will not only help scientists better understand how planets form, but will also provide fresh insight into the processes that led to the formation of Earth.

In an image released on 1/18/16, a female Aedes aegypti mosquito is seen drawing a blood meal from the arm of a researcher at the Biomedical Sciences Institute in the Sao Paulo's University in Sao Paulo, Brazil. This mosquito species can spread the Zika virus, which is spreading in parts of Latin America and the Caribbean. (AP)

A female Aedes aegypti mosquito is seen drawing a blood meal from the arm of a researcher. (AP)

Mosquito Bite Inflammation Hastens Spread of Virus

After a mosquito bites it leaves an inflamed mark on the skin that can become irritating and itchy.

Scientists in the UK have found that the inflammation caused by a mosquito bite can also worsen the spread of viral infections, such as Zika or dengue.

The new study by researchers at the University of Leeds suggests that bite inflammation can not only help viruses quickly establish themselves in the body, but can also help spread the infection, which can increase the chances of developing a severe illness.

Scientists say that along with a virus, a mosquito also injects a bit of its saliva when it bites.

It’s this saliva that prompts an immune response which quickly sends white blood cells to the site to fight the inflammation.

But instead helping, the researchers found that some of these white blood cells can get infected and accidentally wind up duplicating the virus.

Rick Pantaleo
Rick Pantaleo maintains the Science World blog and writes stories for VOA’s web and radio on a variety of science, technology and health topics. He also occasionally appears on various VOA programs to talk about the latest scientific news. Rick joined VOA in 1992 after a 20 year career in commercial broadcasting.

The Toughest Job at the South Pole is Inside – in the Dish Pit

Posted June 21st, 2016 at 11:03 am (UTC-4)
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Like the sub-zero temperatures at the South Pole, a never ending stream of dirty pots, pans and plates is a fact of life in the Dish Pit.

Like the sub-zero temperatures at the South Pole, a never ending stream of dirty pots, pans and plates is a fact of life in the Dish Pit.

Every job at the South Pole has unique challenges. Utility technicians walk maintenance rounds through every outbuilding and the main facility each day—7 miles (11 kilometers) on foot, most of it outside or in unheated wings of the station. The fuel specialists spend 9 hours a day, in a subterranean minus 50 F (minus 45 C) fuel arch, cleaning out steel fuel tanks the size of small swimming pools with five gallon (18 liter) buckets and scrub brushes. Plumbers come face to face with overflowing sewage lift stations, satellite communications engineers have to listen to the incessant groans and whines of those wanting faster internet, and the cooks have to turn 10- year-old frozen peas, skirt steak and spinach into something edible and tasty.

While on paper, battling the cold while standing in ankle-deep ponds of diesel fuel or preparing a freezer-burned pork shoulder without poisoning the entire station may sound like the most challenging of tasks one could be assigned in Antarctica, they are not. In fact, compared to being the galley’s dishwasher, they are a walk in a park on a sunny afternoon in Seattle, with a sugar cube under your tongue and a vanilla milkshake in your right hand.

Like all the hardest jobs out there, the South Pole Steward tends to be a self-recruited position. Only the baddest of the bad, bare knuckle boxers, bounty hunters and Alaskan barmaids choose to apply. They have the right type of mental strength for the gig, and see a year at the South Pole as a way to take a vacation from an otherwise dangerous, violent, nicotine-fueled life, without losing “street cred” among their peers back home. To work as the dishwasher at the South Pole is to “give zero [expletive deleted]”, and any man, women or kid who can manage to become that unfettered in life can do anything—not the least of which is scraping burnt bacon grease off cookie pans for 40+ hours a week.

Jennah, the South Pole Steward, is no bounty hunter, but she can throw a mean right hook, (or so I’m told), a skill that she may or may not have used in the past while working as a bartender at a dive bar in rural Alaska. She is petite, tattooed and into indie-rock and classical music, which she blasts all day through a pair of black Logitech computer speakers that sit on a high shelf in the back of the dish-pit, her work center.

When the going gets tough, the tough decorate their work station with cats, safety posters in foreign languages and blast Black Lips LPs at level 10.

When the going gets tough, the tough decorate their work station with cats, safety posters in foreign languages and blast Black Lips LPs at level 10.

For five days a week, breakfast and lunch, from 5 in the morning until 4 in the afternoon, she cleans the plates, cutlery and culinary mess of 48 people. It’s a gross, soulless, demanding job—but somehow she manages to get through her weeks without losing it. She is probably the only one on station with the psychological fortitude to do what she does.

During the evenings and weekends, dishes are done by the community. This gives Jennah a break—so she can attend to other janitorial needs around the station.

Stainless steel counters, an industrial sterilizer, and a ton of concentrated soup make cleaning the stations culinary catastrophes easy and efficient. Too bad they can't replace the florescent lights--it’s a harsh continent.

Stainless steel counters, an industrial sterilizer, and a ton of concentrated soap make cleaning the stations culinary catastrophes easy and efficient. Too bad they can’t replace the florescent lights–it’s a harsh continent.

Dish-pit duty is split evenly among all those working at “Pole” (including scientists), making it approximately five weeks between your turns in the pit. Since the start of winter, the rotation has cycled three times, and I have spent three long evenings cleaning plates, taking out trash and using a paint scraper to excise burnt cheese off of aluminum pans. By the time the floors are mopped, stainless steel sink sterilized, plates re-stacked and silverware sorted, I’m exhausted and disgusted by all things food. It’s in this moment – when all I want to do is sit down on an overstuffed leather couch, light a cigarette and drink a high gravity Trappist beer – that I realize working as a scientists has made me soft, and no number of sub-zero marathons, years at sea or back alley brawls will make me as tough as a South Pole Steward.

Refael Klein
Refael Klein is a Lieutenant Junior Grade in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Commissioned Officer Corps (NOAA Corps). He's contributing to Science World during his year-long assignment working and living in the South Pole.

Ancient Oxygen Found; Biggest Tatooine-Like Planet Spotted; 2nd Gravitational Wave Detected

Posted June 17th, 2016 at 4:00 pm (UTC-4)
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Artist’s impression of the distant galaxy SXDF-NB1006-2 (NAOJ)

Artist’s impression of the distant galaxy SXDF-NB1006-2 (NAOJ)

Astronomers Find Really Really Old Oxygen in Distant Galaxy

Astronomers say they have spotted some of the oldest oxygen in the universe.

Using the European Southern Observatory’s ALMA or Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array of radio telescopes, the scientists say they’ve picked up a strong signal that indicates oxygen in a galaxy about 13.1 billion light-years away.

This means that the oxygen formed no later than about 700 million years after the Big Bang, what is said to have marked the beginning of our universe.

The scientists found the ancient oxygen in the distant galaxy as SXDF-NB1006-2, in the constellation Cetus.

They say their findings provide new insight into the early universe and how its earliest stars were formed.

Keep in mind that immediately after the big bang the only elements in the universe were hydrogen, helium and lithium.  Elements any heavier than those, including oxygen, weren’t formed until after stars had formed.

Children playing violin in a group recital at a Suzuki Institute (Stilfehler via Wikimedia Commons)

Children playing violin in a group recital at a Suzuki Institute (Stilfehler via Wikimedia Commons)

Teach Kids Music and Their Brains Could Develop Faster

California scientists are finding that teaching music to young children can speed up their brain development, especially the areas of the brain that are responsible for processing sound, language development, speech perception and reading skills.

Researchers from the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University Of Southern California have been monitoring the brain development and behavior of thirty-seven children living in underprivileged areas of Los Angeles.

Thirteen of the children receive music instruction from a program sponsored by the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Eleven children are involved in a community soccer program while the remaining thirteen children, in the group, aren’t involved in any particular after-school activities.

Initial study results published in the journal, Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience, shows that the auditory pathway in the brains of children involved with music education is maturing quicker and is more efficient than those who don’t participate in the musical program.

Artist rendition of two tightly orbiting black holes that are about to merge (SXS)

Artist rendition of two tightly orbiting black holes that are about to merge (SXS)

Scientists Detect 2nd Gravitational Wave

Researchers from the LIGO and Virgo Scientific Collaborations say that they’ve received a second gravitational wave signal with LIGO’s (Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory detector sites in Louisiana and Washington State.

This latest ripple in spacetime was detected as it swept over the Earth back on December 26, 2015, three months after the first one was received.

Like the first gravitational wave, this one was also produced in the final moments before two wildly spinning black holes merged as one.

It’s thought that the wave-producing black hole merger took place about 1.4 billion years ago.

LIGO/Virgo scientists say that the second gravitational wave signal was weaker than the first and that the two black holes whose merger produced the new wave had much smaller masses than those that created the first.

The pre-merger black holes are believed to have had masses 8 and 14 times greater than the sun. Once combined the black hole of has 21 solar masses.

The Kepler-1647b planet and secondary star transiting the primary star. (Lynette Cook)

The Kepler-1647b planet and secondary star transiting the primary star. (Lynette Cook)

Astronomers Spot HUGE Tatooine-Like Planet

In the first released Star Wars movie – A New Hope – Luke Skywalker is shown living with his aunt and uncle on the circumbinary planet, Tatooine.

A circumbinary planet is one that orbits two stars rather than only one.

Now astronomers from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and San Diego State University, using the Kepler Space Telescope, say that they have discovered the largest planet, both in size and orbit, to circle a twin star system that has been discovered so far.

The planet, Kepler-1647 b, is located about 3,700 light-years away, in the constellation Cygnus.

The astronomers say the huge planet has a mass similar to Jupiter, is about 4.4 billion years old, which is nearly the same age as Earth, and orbits its sun-like twin stars every three years.

Although the planet orbits its sun in the habitable zone, scientists say that since it is a gas giant it’s doubtful that it can host life.

The astronomers findings have been accepted for publication by the Astrophysical Journal.

Rick Pantaleo
Rick Pantaleo maintains the Science World blog and writes stories for VOA’s web and radio on a variety of science, technology and health topics. He also occasionally appears on various VOA programs to talk about the latest scientific news. Rick joined VOA in 1992 after a 20 year career in commercial broadcasting.

How to Layer Up to Survive Frigid South Pole Temperatures

Posted June 16th, 2016 at 11:44 am (UTC-4)
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It’s trial and error when it comes to learning how to dress at the South Pole. Above, the author illustrates the layering system he employs on the coldest days-- when temperatures drop below minus 90 F.

It’s trial and error when it comes to learning how to dress at the South Pole. Above, the author illustrates the layering system he employs on the coldest days– when temperatures drop below minus 90 F.

There are few places on earth that are as cold, as dry and as uncomfortable as the South Pole. We rarely see temperatures above 0 Fahrenheit (minus 17 Celsius) during the summer, and it’s not uncommon to have a week of minus 90 F (minus 67 C) during the winter. When you factor wind and blowing snow into the equation, things become even chillier.

SOUTH POLE JOURNAL
Refael Klein blogs about his year
working and living at the South Pole. Read his earlier posts here.

Of course, the harsh climate doesn’t preclude the average “Polie” from having to spend time working outside. Even when temperatures are below minus 100 F (minus 73 C), heaters in outbuildings need to be inspected, satellite equipment adjusted, and weather balloons launched. For me, regardless of the weather, I walk to the Atmospheric Research Observatory (ARO) each day—a half-kilometer walk that can leave me frozen to the core if I don’t dress properly.

Good clothing and knowing how to layer are key to survival at the South Pole. Despite the short duration most people spend outside –our most remote facilities are less than a kilometer or so away– your face can be red, burning and blistering with frost-nip within a minute of leaving the station.

Fortunately, for those working at Amundsen-Scott Station, the United States Antarctic Program’s Clothing Distribution Center in Christchurch, New Zealand, provides all of us with ultra-warm, specialized clothing that can handle the continent’s harshest weather.

Even with the proper clothing on hand, though, learning how to dress for an environment that is so removed from one’s daily experiences can take some time. There’s a definite learning curve when you first step off the plane in November, into a world that is close to 100 degrees colder than the coldest temperatures you have ever experienced.

The clothing distributed to those working at Amundsen-Scott station has evolved over the years, as evident in the above photo, taken circa 1960.

The clothing distributed to those working at Amundsen-Scott station has evolved over the years, as evident in the above photo, taken circa 1960.

Everyone is different, but for me, on those ultra-frosty, would-give-my-left-arm-for-a-sunny-August-hour-in-Seattle type days, I find that a three-part layering system that more or less incorporates every piece of clothing I own works well.

I start with a base-layer — thin black, merino wool long underwear; a blue, short sleeve, polypropylene t-shirt with a Robert Motherwell-esque bleach stain; and a pair of calf high, black and grey, merino wool liner socks. Normally, I pull the socks up and over the long underwear because they seem to stay in place better that way when I start moving around.

From the base-layer, I move on to a more bulky mid-layer. I put on an additional pair of long underwear; a heavy pair of grey wool socks that I pull up to the edge of my calf; and a heavy black wool hooded sweatshirt that on its own can keep me comfortable in temperatures down to 0 F (minus 17 C). If I pull the hood up, I look like a Ninja — as black as night, and as nimble as a contemporary dancer.

My final layer begins with a pair of well-worn, black, insulated Carhartt overalls. Once the overalls are on, I begin to really heat up. I don’t want to start sweating inside, because outside it will turn to ice, so at this point I try my best to get the rest of my clothing on quickly and get out the door.

Next, I slip my feet into a pair of green insulated rubber boots. With my pants tucked into the tops, I make a bizarre transformation from Ninja to Antarctic dairy farmer — if only we had fresh whole milk at the pole!

Over my head I pop two fleece neck gators. The first sits between the base of my clavicle and my chin, and the second between my chin and ridge of my nose. A black wind-proof fleece hat is snugged on next and I pull it down across my forehead until it covers my eyebrows. By the time my head is fully encased in warmth, all I have is a tiny slit to look through. This kills my peripheral vision, but on most winter days, when I walk out to ARO, all I care about is walking straight and getting there quickly without getting lost.

Finally, over the entire ensemble, I don a massive red, hooded, 1000 fill down jacket. Everyone is issued the same coat at the clothing distribution center, and colloquially, among those living in Antarctica, it is known as “Big Red”. Big Red cannot be zipped on or off with mittens on, so I hold off on covering my hands until I’m just about to leave the station.

Fully dressed, and heating up, I’m ready to enter the elements. The first few moments outside, with the wind blocked by large snow drifts, are refreshing. Within moments though, my head is buried in front of me, trying to cut through the blowing snow, and protect my face from freezing. My bulky clothing slowly loses its heat capacity. I get colder and colder until my three insulated layers feel no more substantial than a three piece summer suit in a mountain blizzard.

The colder I get, the slower time passes on the flag line to ARO.  The bridge of my nose grows numb, and my eyes, slowly freezing, grow sluggish in their sockets. My legs grow tired, slipping and tripping along the path, lifting and swinging forward a two pound boot on each foot. Hands balled into fists inside my mittens, I continue forward, until, as if sensing my exhaustion, ARO appears at arm’s length in a hazy mist of frozen clouds. I push the entrance door open and smile, feeling my ice-caked eyelashes breathing a sigh of relief.

More South Pole Diaries
At South Pole, a Fine Line Between Frostbite & Asphyxiation
Watching Climate Change in Action at South Pole

In South Pole Darkness, Radiant Moon Shines Like Sun

Refael Klein
Refael Klein is a Lieutenant Junior Grade in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Commissioned Officer Corps (NOAA Corps). He's contributing to Science World during his year-long assignment working and living in the South Pole.

One Third of the World’s Population Unable to See Milky Way

Posted June 13th, 2016 at 4:00 pm (UTC-4)
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The Milky Way illuminates night sky over Crater Lake, Oregon. (NPS/Jeremy M. White)

The Milky Way illuminates night sky over Crater Lake, Oregon. (NPS/Jeremy M. White)

Among my fondest memories of being a kid back in the 1960’s was taking a week or so of summer vacation to visit relatives at my grandfather’s farm in Herman, PA (about 65 km northeast of Pittsburgh).

During my stay I would spend evenings lying on the freshly cut grass of my grandpa’s back yard, just looking up into the glorious night sky.

For hours I was able to soak in the breathtaking beauty and majesty of the sparkling Milky Way.

I remember the entire sky glowing with millions and millions of stars as far as the eye could see. Every now and then I’d also spot a number of meteors (we called them shooting stars) streaking across this glittering palette of stars.

Sadly if I were to go back to what was grandpa’s farm I most likely wouldn’t be able to see what I saw in the night sky so many years ago.

Scientists now have found that for about a third of the world’s population and 80 percent of Americans, it’s impossible, or is at least very difficult, to capture those magnificent views in such vivid detail due to a problem that continues to worsen each year.

Light pollution now blots out the Milky Way for eight in 10 Americans. (Falchi et al, Science Advances; Jakob Grothe/National Park Service, Matthew Price/CIRES/CU-Boulder)

Light pollution now blots out the Milky Way for eight in 10 Americans. (Falchi et al, Science Advances; Jakob Grothe/National Park Service, Matthew Price/CIRES/CU-Boulder)

I’m talking about something that’s commonly referred to as light pollution.

According to oxforddictionaries.com, light pollution is defined as the brightening of the night sky caused by street lights and other man-made sources, which has a disruptive effect on natural cycles and inhibits the observation of stars and planets.

Today the glow of lights from cities and towns shine so strongly on the horizon that our eyes become overwhelmed to a point where it mutes our view of the night sky.

To enjoy the view of the Milky Way as close to what delighted and amazed our ancestors you must look for and visit ‘dark sky’ places where light pollution is at a minimum.

An international team of conducted a study of the impact of light pollution throughout the world, which led them to develop a new global atlas that points out where in the world light pollution is at its strongest and weakest.

That study has now been published in the journal Science Advances.

The researchers were able to build their new light pollution atlas from high-resolution satellite data along with very accurate sky brightness measurements.

“I hope that this atlas will finally open the eyes of people to light pollution,” said the study’s lead author Fabio Falchi from the Light Pollution Science and Technology Institute in Italy.

Light pollution over Kent, England (Chris Isherwood via Flickr/Creative Commons)

Light pollution over Kent, England (Chris Isherwood via Flickr/Creative Commons)

The study finds that countries such as Singapore, Italy and South Korea have the most extensive light pollution.

Western Europe was found to have only small areas where light pollution is at a minimum and that’s mostly in Scotland, Sweden and Norway.

Although the American west has a vast amounts of wide open space, the study found that nearly half of the United States experiences light pollution.

Canada and Australia are two countries that have the most ‘dark sky’, noted the researchers.

Study co-author Dan Duriscoe from the U.S. National Park Service says that U.S. national parks are just about the last havens of darkness. He pointed out locations such as Yellowstone and the desert southwest as having the darkest night skies. “We’re lucky to have a lot of public land that provides a buffer from large cities,” said Duriscoe.

Along with muting our view of the Milky Way, research into the buildup of artificial light over the years has been shown to have a big impact human health and on wildlife, too. Scientists have found that it can confuse insects, birds and sea turtles or expose them to situations that can often be fatal.

Rick Pantaleo
Rick Pantaleo maintains the Science World blog and writes stories for VOA’s web and radio on a variety of science, technology and health topics. He also occasionally appears on various VOA programs to talk about the latest scientific news. Rick joined VOA in 1992 after a 20 year career in commercial broadcasting.

Our Expanding Universe; LISA Pathfinder is a Success; Drugs in Waterways

Posted June 9th, 2016 at 12:37 pm (UTC-4)
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How Fast is the Universe Expanding?

The universe is a big place. And it’s getting even bigger, and at a faster rate than scientists had predicted.  That’s according to a new study at Johns Hopkins University, led by Professor Adam Reiss.

The study is based on an analysis of data gathered by the Hubble Space Telescope.

Adam Reiss was one of three scientists who shared the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics for their 1998 discovery that the universe is expanding at a rapid rate.

Scientists have been stumped as to what might be causing such an accelerated expansion. Dark matter, dark energy, dark radiation and perhaps a new subatomic particle are among the suspected causes.

Reiss and his colleagues are working on ways to more accurately measure the rate of the expansion of the universe. Reiss says that making these measurements more precisely could provide clues to what’s behind the rapid expansion.

This is an example of an early therian mammal, Purgatorius Union. (© Nobu Tamura)

This is an example of an early therian mammal, Purgatorius Union. (© Nobu Tamura)

Mammal Species Prospered Before Dinosaurs Became Extinct

Common wisdom has long held that mammal species really didn’t expand until after the land-roaming dinosaurs became extinct some 66 million years ago.

However, a new study published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B suggests that 10 to 20 million years before dinosaurs disappeared from Earth, ancestors of today’s mammals had already begun to greatly branch out.

The study also points out that the diversity of prehistoric mammals also suffered greatly as the result of the same extinction event that wiped out the dinosaurs.

The researchers suggest one of the reasons why so many believe that these warm-blooded animals were repressed during the age of the dinosaurs may be that many of the early mammalian fossils found up until recently didn’t really reflect a variation in species.

But over recent years’ fossils of more mammal species have been found.  These have included various dog sized and hooved animals that had a variety of teeth.

An upland stream (oatsy40 via Flickr/Creative Commons)

An upland stream (oatsy40 via Flickr/Creative Commons)

Pharmaceutical Compounds Found in U.S. Waterways

Pharmaceutical medications – they are meant to make life better, but ironically, these compounds, when improperly disposed, can be dangerous for other life forms.  The drugs are finding their way into lakes and streams, posing serious health concerns for aquatic life.

Researchers have pointed to treated wastewater as the culprit – the main source of water that contains medicinal compounds and is released into the environment.

But a new study published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology Letters finds that a number of chemical compounds, such as the diabetes drug metformin and the anti-seizure medication carbamazepine, have also been found in lakes and streams that don’t take on wastewater from treatment plants.

Scientists from the United State Geological Survey suggest that run-off from urban areas and sub-surface water movement may be behind the flow of drugs into these waterways.

Research shows that metformin, which has also been found naturally occurring water bodies and even tap water can cause genetic changes in fish.

Artist’s impression of LISA Pathfinder, ESA’s mission to test technology for future gravitational-wave observatories in space. ((c) ESA-C. Carreau)

Artist’s impression of LISA Pathfinder, ESA’s mission to test technology for future gravitational-wave observatories in space. ((c) ESA-C. Carreau)

LISA Pathfinder Sets Course for Space Gravitational Wave Observatory

The European Space Agency, or ESA, says they are now very confident of their plans to build a space observatory to detect and observe gravitational waves.

Their enthusiasm is based on what they say is the extraordinary performance of its LISA Pathfinder mission, which was designed to test some of the most important technologies that have been developed for such a mission.

ESA’s proposed Evolved Laser Interferometer Space Antenna or eLISA mission to measure gravitational waves in space would be made up of one “mother” and two “daughter” spacecraft that will orbit the Sun in a triangular configuration.

Each spacecraft would be separated by a distance of a million kilometers and will be connected to each other by laser beams, to form the arms of a highly precise laser interferometer.

Any incoming gravitational waves would be detected by this interferometer by monitoring for any changes in the distance between its lengthy laser arms.

Rick Pantaleo
Rick Pantaleo maintains the Science World blog and writes stories for VOA’s web and radio on a variety of science, technology and health topics. He also occasionally appears on various VOA programs to talk about the latest scientific news. Rick joined VOA in 1992 after a 20 year career in commercial broadcasting.

Hot, Humid and Green at the South Pole

Posted June 8th, 2016 at 11:16 am (UTC-4)
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On a good week, the greenhouse can produce upwards of 10 pounds of fresh produce—enough for two to three fresh salads a week for the entire station. (Refael W. Klein)

On a good week, the greenhouse can produce upwards of 10 pounds of fresh produce—enough for two to three fresh salads a week for the entire station. (Refael W. Klein)

The temperature has increased—thank goodness.  Negative 100F (-73C) tends to lose its novelty after a few days—especially when you have to walk through it on your way to and from work.  There are only so many times someone can tell you, “wow, it’s still minus 100F” over burnt morning coffee, over-steeped afternoon tea, or a 10 pm night-cap of cheap cognac, before the exciting climatic phenomena sloughs off its diamond-encrusted aura, and your frost-nipped ear is no longer a badge of honor, just a painful reminder of warmer climates.

Negative 60, more or less, is what it has been all week.  Warm for winter at the South Pole.  It seems odd to apply the word “warm” to a temperature 92 degrees Fahrenheit below freezing, but a 40 degree, positive temperature swing is hard not to notice–refreshingly pleasant, like an Indian summer New Year after a White Christmas.

Of course, minus 60F (-51C) is by no means warm, even for us ice-hardened Antarctic explorers.  Like I said, it’s really just the massive temperature change in the last 48 hours that has lent me the illusion of sweat building up beneath my green, polypropylene shirt during my afternoon walk to the Atmospheric Research Observatory.  In another day, when minus 60 is the new normal and my body’s metabolism has dropped from warp-speed to mach-3, I’ll be as cold as ever.  When all is said in done, minus 60 is as unnatural as minus 100, and like a Yakuza crime boss or an ounce of fresh ground nutmeg, it will kill you or make you extremely uncomfortable if you don’t treat it with respect.

Humid, warm, and smelling of earth, the greenhouse is a great place to kick back, relax and enjoy an out-of-date issue of your favorite magazine. (Refael W. Klein)

Humid, warm, and smelling of earth, the greenhouse is a great place to kick back, relax and enjoy an out-of-date issue of your favorite magazine. (Refael W. Klein)

When my patience wears thin with the cold, the darkness and the dry air, (in other words, winter at the South Pole) and I’m tired of not being able to feel my nose or toes or fingers, I escape to the station’s most perfect sanctuary, the greenhouse, with a good book or some degenerate gonzo journalism.

The name “greenhouse” is a bit of a misnomer, a South Pole colloquialism, if you will.  In reality, it’s a completely enclosed hydroponics facility, not the light-filled glass building that probably comes to mind.  As the story goes, the greenhouse was never part of the original Amundsen-Scott station design.  The space it occupies was an accessory lab/storage room.  As chance would have it, one of the first National Science Foundation (NSF) research grants at the new, elevated South Pole Station was given to a university group interested in a proof of concept for a hydroponic food system they had designed for theoretical deployment to outer space.

To the joy of those living at the South Pole that winter, the hydroponics facility worked superbly.  “Greenhouse salads” were enjoyed on a weekly basis, and fresh herbs—basil, cilantro, dill—were given to the kitchen each week to be incorporated into sauces and soups.

Tim Ager, a greenhouse volunteer, spends a late evening mixing nutrients for the hydroponics system. (Refael W. Klein)

Tim Ager, a greenhouse volunteer, spends a late evening mixing nutrients for the hydroponics system. (Refael W. Klein)

Morale was the highest it had been in seasons, and when the university was done testing its system, the NSF worked with the research group to keep the greenhouse in place (I suppose it was cheaper to keep it here than fly it back to the United States!) and to train station volunteers in its operation.

Today, the greenhouse is humid and verdant.  Tall cucumber vines and tomato plants climb towards the ceiling, where full spectrum sodium-lights shine down with enough intensity to give one a sunburn.   A green couch has been placed in an anteroom that is used for seed propagation and equipment storage, and a coffee table has been improvised out of an old, metal shipping trunk—probably one of the original ones used to send down supplies when the greenhouse project began.

The smell of foliage and humidity are instantly soothing—like seeing land after months adrift on a raft in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.  It only takes a few moments of exposure to this artificial environment before you lose yourself.  The icecap–something foreign and forgotten—melts away, and it’s easier to imagine you’re sitting in the National Botanic Garden reading a book, rather than in the middle of a barren, frozen continent.  Or, perhaps it’s just the additional oxygen playing tricks on my mind.

Refael Klein
Refael Klein is a Lieutenant Junior Grade in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Commissioned Officer Corps (NOAA Corps). He's contributing to Science World during his year-long assignment working and living in the South Pole.

Did our Sun Snatch Planet 9 from Another Solar System?

Posted June 3rd, 2016 at 4:00 pm (UTC-4)
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Planet 9 captured by Sun from another star system (Lund University)

Planet 9 captured by Sun from another star system (Lund University)

Is it possible that the new-found theoretical Planet 9 is actually an exoplanet, a planet from another solar system?

According to astronomers at Sweden’s Lund University, it’s “highly likely” that Planet 9 was actually “snatched” from another solar system by our young sun some 4.5 billion years ago, or within 100 million years after its formation.

In January, astronomers Konstantin Batygin and Mike Brown from the California Institute of Technology – Caltech – got the science community buzzing when they revealed evidence of a big planet wildly and broadly circling the Sun in the outskirts of the solar system.

Researcher Alexander Mustill (Lund University)

Researcher Alexander Mustill (Lund University)

Findings related to its discovery are based on factors such as the gravitational behavior of a group of objects that are mostly orbiting beyond the Kuiper belt.

While Batygin and Brown have been searching the skies to directly image Planet 9, so far it hasn’t been seen.

The Swedish researchers have conducted a new computer model based study that has been published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society Letters.

Scientists have long thought that stars are formed in tight clusters.

Since they tend to be close to each other while in their cluster, the astronomers figured this is a perfect opportunity for one star to ‘steal’ a planet or planets from another as they brush by each other.

This led them to realize that Planet 9 was probably taken by our sun as it passed close to another star inside its cluster.

So if Planet 9 was stolen from another star system does its system still exist?

“Probably yes,” says Alexander Mustill, an astronomer at Lund University and the study’s lead author.

“The system would have about the same age as our own, since it would have formed in the same star cluster, so the star would still be burning its nuclear fuel like the Sun, said Mustill in an email to VOA’s Science World.

“There is a chance though that the original star was more massive than the Sun. If that were the case, it wouldn’t live as long, and it could now be a “dead” white dwarf,” he said.

Mustill said that the name and location of Planet 9’s original home solar system, unfortunately, is pretty much impossible to determine, since our Sun and the other star have been traveling through the Milky Way for many billions of years. He says that star orbits cannot be traced back so long ago.

Other scientists are studying the skies to look for so called “solar siblings” of stars that might have formed in the same cluster as the Sun.

This artistic rendering shows the distant view from Planet Nine back towards the sun. (Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC))

This artistic rendering shows the distant view from Planet Nine back towards the sun. (Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC))

According to Mustill, in order to determine whether or not a star was born in the same star cluster as the Sun, scientists need to find similarities in the abundances of trace elements in the Sun and in other stars.

While getting an exact identification is impossible, Mustill says that some scientists contend that star cluster M67 may have been the original home of the Sun. If so, it could have also been the original home of Planet 9 and its host star.

Since it’s also possible Planet 9’s original star may have already died, Mustill says that perhaps some of the events that led to our Sun’s capture of the planet may have impacted the system’s remaining planets.

“Stealing another planet from its star is easier if the planet is already quite far away from its star, in our model a few hundred times the distance between the Earth and the Sun,” said Mustill.

So how did Planet 9 develop the wide orbit around our sun theorized by Batygin, Brown and others?

“In our paper we argue that this could have happened as a result of ‘planet – planet scattering’, where planets in a system kick each other around due to their gravitational forces,” explained Mustill.

He says that because of this, it’s possible the star system’s other planets – Planet 9’s siblings – may have been either kicked into interstellar space, smashed into each other or into their star.

“So Planet 9’s original system could well have ended up more chaotic and less ordered than our own,” said Mustill.

Lund University interview with Alexander Mustill

Rick Pantaleo
Rick Pantaleo maintains the Science World blog and writes stories for VOA’s web and radio on a variety of science, technology and health topics. He also occasionally appears on various VOA programs to talk about the latest scientific news. Rick joined VOA in 1992 after a 20 year career in commercial broadcasting.

At South Pole, a Fine Line Between Frostbite & Asphyxiation

Posted June 1st, 2016 at 2:03 pm (UTC-4)
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At the South Pole, ultra-cold temperatures mean ultra-clear night skies, and ample opportunity to capture images of Auroras. (Photo by Hamish Wright)

At the South Pole, ultra-cold temperatures mean ultra-clear night skies, and ample opportunity to capture images of Auroras. (Photo by Hamish Wright)

Today it hit minus 100F (minus 73 Celsius) — a 30-degree drop from where temperatures were last night. The wind has picked up as well and, if you factor that into the equation, it’s a bone-chilling minus 140F (minus 95 Celsius).

SOUTH POLE JOURNAL
Refael Klein blogs about his year
working and living at the South Pole. Read his earlier posts here.

In 2012, a record low of minus 117F (minus 82 Celsius)was reached at the South Pole, so I guess in the scheme of things, it isn’t that unbearably frigid outside. At least that’s what I’m telling myself as I zip up my 1000-fill, red goose down jacket, open the station’s 3-inch thick refrigerator doors, and step outside into the dark, flat, frozen wasteland that has been my home for the past 7 months.

The truth of the matter, and what you will hear from most people who have spent any meaningful time in Antarctica’s interior, is that the “real” temperature doesn’t matter, it’s the wind or lack thereof that makes one day feel cold and another “warm”. A calm day at minus 90 (minus 67 Celsius) feels no different than a calm day at minus 60 (minus 51 Celsius), and a windy 40 below zero (minus 40 Celsius) can be nauseously uncomfortable.

My walk to work this morning was on the nauseously uncomfortable side of the temperature spectrum. The first 100 yards weren’t too bad. The wind was on my side and thick, green Auroras stretched from one horizon to the other, oscillating in and out across the sky like a sidewinder in pursuit of prey.

At 100 yards from the station, the flag line to the Atmospheric Research Observatory (ARO) dog legs to the right. It’s not a big turn, maybe 15 degrees, but it’s enough to move the wind from a point or two on your side to head on. This is when it begins to get cold. Whatever warmth you brought with you from the station has long since disappeared, and the heat your body generates as it struggles forward is stripped away before it can do you any good. You get colder and colder, and all you can do about it is walk faster, get to your destination quicker.

The South Pole sauna is popular among those trying to remember what it means to be warm. When the heater is on full blast, temperatures can reach as high as 230F. (Photo by Refael Klein)

The South Pole sauna is popular among those trying to remember what it means to be warm. When the heater is on full blast, temperatures can reach as high as 230F. (Photo by Refael Klein)

Of course, what suffers the worst are your extremities, especially your face. There are only so many neck gators and balaclavas you can wear before you diminish your ability to breathe, and at 10,000 feet, you need to be able to breathe as deeply as you can. It’s a fine line between a frost-bitten nose and asphyxiation — a fine line I don’t always get right.

A numb nose and frozen fingers aren’t the worst part of the cold. It’s when your numb nose and frozen fingers begin to warm up that things become painful. Blood slowly makes its way back into frigid tissue, expanding shut capillaries, and warming up hibernating nerve cells. All in all, it feels like dipping an open wound into a bucket of high-proof alcoholic moonshine and then rubbing it in a bowl of coarse kosher salt—it hurts like hell!

Eventually though, you do warm up. Your nose stops shouting expletives at you, and enough dexterity returns to your fingers so you can unzip the zipper on your jacket and take it off. It’s a 170F temperature change between the outside world and inside ARO. Like walking into a sauna: you strip off your clothes, find a seat and sip on some water until you adjust to the heat.

Back at the main station, we actually have a real sauna. It’s what I’m looking forward to as I don layer after layer of fleece and begin to make my way back for lunch through the unholy cold: a 10-foot-by-10-foot hardwood box with an electric heater covered in river rocks. Humid air and so much heat that sometimes you have to cool off by stepping outside. A little bit of bliss. An unexpected extravagance at the bottom of the world.

More South Pole Diaries
At South Pole, a Fine Line Between Frostbite & Asphyxiation
Watching Climate Change in Action at South Pole

In South Pole Darkness, Radiant Moon Shines Like Sun
Shimmering Auroras Offset South Pole Boredom

Refael Klein
Refael Klein is a Lieutenant Junior Grade in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Commissioned Officer Corps (NOAA Corps). He's contributing to Science World during his year-long assignment working and living in the South Pole.