Don’t Smoke; Space Blob Mystery; Near Earth Asteroid Watch

Posted September 22nd, 2016 at 4:24 pm (UTC-4)
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It can be tough for long time smokers to refuse a cigarette (U.S. Air Force via Wikimedia Commons)

It can be tough for long time smokers to refuse a cigarette (U.S. Air Force via Wikimedia Commons)

Yet Another Reason Not to Smoke

The American Heart Association released a new study that uncovers yet another reason not to smoke.

The study, published in the journal Circulation: Cardiovascular Genetics, suggests that smoking can have a wide-ranging and long-term effect on our DNA.

The research shows that smoking leaves a “footprint” on the human genome, a complete set of a person’s genetic material, in a process called DNA methylation.

“These results are important because methylation, as one of the mechanisms of the regulation of gene expression, affects what genes are turned on, which has implications for the development of smoking-related diseases,” said Stephanie J. London, M.D., Dr.P.H., the study’s last author and deputy chief of the Epidemiology Branch at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, National Institutes of Health in a press release.

While the research shows this DNA footprint greatly diminishes five years after a smoker quits, it doesn’t completely disappear from the genome even 30 years after quitting.

Computer simulation of a Lyman-alpha Blob - This rendering shows a snapshot from a cosmological simulation of a Lyman-alpha Blob similar to LAB-1. (J.Geach/D.Narayanan/R.Crain)

Computer simulation of a Lyman-alpha Blob – This rendering shows a snapshot from a cosmological simulation of a Lyman-alpha Blob similar to LAB-1. (J.Geach/D.Narayanan/R.Crain)

Astronomers Find Source of Space Blob’s Light

Among the most mysterious objects in the universe are Lyman-alpha blobs, or LAB.

A LAB has been described as a huge cloud of hydrogen gas in distant areas of space.

The object’s name comes from the wavelength of UV light it produces, called Lyman-alpha radiation.

Since its discovery in 2000, scientists have been stumped by what causes an LAB to shine so brightly.

Studying SSA22-Lyman-alpha blob 1 or LAB-1 , one of the largest objects found so far, a team of astronomers say they found two galaxies at the object’s core that are forming stars at a rate over 100 times that of the Milky Way.

Surrounding these two prolific galaxies is a swarm of smaller galaxies, which the team says appears to be an early phase in the formation of a massive galaxy cluster.

It’s thought all the star making activity may be producing the UV light that illuminates the surrounding cloud of hydrogen gas.

The study is set to appear in the Astrophysical Journal.

Introducing the Daily Minor Planet: Delivering the Latest Asteroid News (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics)

Introducing the Daily Minor Planet: Delivering the Latest Asteroid News (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics)

New Email Service Will Deliver Updates on Passing Asteroids

Almost every day, an asteroid passes within a few million miles of Earth.

If the cosmic debris that whizzes past our planet worries you, you may want to check out a new information service from the International Astronomical Union’s Minor Planet Center, along with technology giant Oracle.

Called the Daily Minor Planet, a nod to Superman’s fictional “Daily Planet” newspaper, this free subscription-based service will provide what is described as up-to-the-minute information about near Earth asteroids both big and small.

Representatives from Daily Minor Planet say on days when a piece of space rock is expected to fly by Earth, the news service will list information about the asteroid, along with the time and distance of its closest approach.

Matt Holman, director of the Minor Planet Center says he wants the Daily Minor Planet to educate readers and provide an entertaining way to present facts about near Earth Asteroids.

Châtelperronian body ornaments and bone points from the Grotte du Renne in Arcy-sur-Cure. (Dr. Marian Vanheren)

Châtelperronian body ornaments and bone points from the Grotte du Renne in Arcy-sur-Cure. (Dr. Marian Vanheren)

Evidence: Neanderthals Produced Tools and Body Ornaments

An international research team says their new analysis of 28 previously unidentifiable bone fragments gathered from an archeological site in north central France may have solved a long running dispute.

Some scientists argue that only modern humans have the cognitive ability to produce tools and artifacts, such as body ornaments, also found at the French dig site.

But the researchers claim their studies confirm that the items were actually produced by Neanderthals, a now extinct relative of modern humans.

The analysis indicates that the bone fragments are from the remains of a young and breastfed individual. Radiocarbon dating of the fragments indicates Neanderthal ancestry.

The study was published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Neanderthals were a hominid species that are said to have lived in Europe, northern Africa, and western Asia from about 30,000 to 200,000 years ago.

Several recent studies suggest that some Neanderthals interbred with modern humans.

Alligators Have Not Evolved in 8 Million Years

Most animals from 8 million years ago either evolved into more modern species, or have become extinct.

Among the very few exceptions is the American alligator, which makes its home in freshwater wetlands from Texas to North Carolina.

A new study by scientists at the University of Florida suggests that these dinosaur look-alikes have remained untouched by significant evolutionary change for at least 8 million years.

The study also finds that the alligator may be up to 6 million years older than had been thought.

While it has remained unchanged for millions of years, the study suggests the American alligator evolved from ancestors that go back some 200 or more million years ago.

The researchers call the alligator a survivor, since it has endured many changes to its environment, such as wild fluctuations in the Earth’s climate and sea-level.

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.

Spring at the South Pole

Posted September 20th, 2016 at 11:21 am (UTC-4)
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It is springtime at the South Pole. The sun sits low on the horizon and bathes the landscape in rich hues of yellow and orange. Light bounces off each imperfection in the Polar Plateau, each wrinkle of snow and pinnacle of ice is set aglow. It transforms the ice cap from frozen desert to an endless field of what looks like wild flowers at the height of bloom.

High above, long thin wispy clouds crawl across the light blue sky. It is a peaceful scene and if it weren’t for the biting cold, one could almost imagine unfurling a blanket and enjoying an afternoon picnic of expensive cheeses and absinthe.

At 12:30 a.m., an early morning at ARO. When the sun sets, we will remove our solar radiation equipment from the roof. (Photo by Kyle Obrock)

At 12:30 a.m., an early morning at ARO.  (Photo by Kyle Obrock)

But with spring’s beauty also comes destruction. The ozone hole has begun to form—a springtime phenomenon in which the ozone layer over Antarctica is reduced to one-half its normal thickness.

Ozone destruction is not unique to the polar continent; it takes place wherever ozone-depleting substances—such as old refrigerants and aerosols—exist in the atmosphere. This is to say, all over the planet. What makes ozone destruction in Antarctica unique is the extent of the phenomenon, the magnitude and rate at which it occurs.

To better understand the seasonal depletion of ozone over the South Pole, it’s important to understand the general principles behind ozone destruction everywhere else.

Ozone is a molecule made up of three oxygen molecules bound together. It can be found throughout the atmosphere, from the surface of the planet to the top of the stratosphere. The ozone layer is the region of the atmosphere where it is most heavily concentrated, typically at an altitude of 20-to-30 kilometers (12-to-18 miles). It acts as the earth’s sunscreen, protecting us from too much ultraviolet radiation from the sun.

When man-made, ozone-depleting substances come in contact with ozone under the presence of sunlight, ozone is destroyed. A single molecule of an ozone-depleting substance can destroy over 100,000 ozone molecules before it is rendered inactive or removed from the atmosphere.

A composite image of the first few seconds of a ozonesonde balloon launch. The balloon will stay afloat for over two hours. (Photo: C. Krueger)

A composite image of the first few seconds of an ozonesonde balloon launch. The balloon will stay afloat for more than two hours. (Photo: C. Krueger)

Since sunlight is required for the ozone destruction to take place, the ozone layer over Antarctica remains relatively unaffected during the dark winter months. However, when the sun begins to rise in early September, the story changes and we begin seeing ozone destruction in earnest. Of course, if light were the only other part of the equation, why is ozone depletion so much more pronounced here, especially during the months of September and October?

As it turns out, two other phenomena occur during the Antarctic spring that intensify the formation of the ozone hole.

One is the development of polar stratospheric clouds, which can convert man-made chemicals into more destructive forms. PSCs can only form when temperatures are extremely cold, below minus 62 Celsius (-80F). The only place in the world where temperatures get this low is Antarctica, and consequently it’s one of the reasons we don’t see an ozone hole form over the North Pole.

The second phenomena is the springtime polar vortex. The seasonal weather system envelopes the continent and keeps ozone-rich air from the southern hemisphere from flooding in and rebuilding the ozone layer.

At the Atmospheric Research Observatory (ARO), we take ozone measurements using a variety of instruments throughout the year. Over the next eight weeks, however, as the ozone hole forms, our regimen of observations will increase.

It takes close to two weeks to condition an ozonesonde for deployment.  Above, an ozone generating machine is used to test the instrument for accuracy. (Photo: R. Klein)

It takes close to two weeks to condition an ozonesonde for deployment. Above, an ozone generating machine is used to test the instrument for accuracy. (Photo: R. Klein)

Weather balloons carrying a special measuring instrument called an ozonesonde form the cornerstone of our research. The balloons carry the ozonesondes upwards of 40 kilometers (25 miles) into the sky, collecting continuous measurements of ozone, which they transmit back to our computers via a radio signal.

When the balloon pops, after several hours of ascent, a parachute attached the ozonesonde is deployed, and additional readings of the ozone profile are taken during its descent. With both ascent and descent profiles of the ozone distribution, we are able to accurately describe the shape and size of the ozone hole on a day-by-day basis.

Change is hard to witness at the South Pole. The ice cap remains the ice cap; the silence is only punctured by the occasional gust of wind or the insistent drone of the power plant. Springtime is perhaps the one exception, the one time of the year that change can be witnessed on a daily basis. From the ever-brightening skies, to the brighter moods on station, and upwards to the stratosphere, where over the course of a few months, we witness the ozone layer’s annihilation and then rebirth.

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.

NASA Will Have Cassini Working Hard Right Up to Fiery Finish

Posted September 16th, 2016 at 5:00 pm (UTC-4)
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This image shows Saturn's northern hemisphere in 2016, as that part of the planet nears its northern hemisphere summer solstice in May 2017. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)

This image shows Saturn’s northern hemisphere in 2016. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)

As the saying goes all good things must come to an end and the same will go for the Cassini mission to Saturn as it begins its final year of operation.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory has big plans for the orbiter as it makes its year-long swan song.

Dubbed the Grand Finale, the space agency will carry out Cassini’s final observations into two phases.

Narrow jets of gas and icy particles erupt from the south polar region of Enceladus, contributing to the moon's giant plume. (NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute)

Narrow jets of gas and icy particles erupt from the south polar region of Enceladus, contributing to the moon’s giant plume. (NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute)

Phase one begins on November 30, 2016 when the spacecraft’s orbit will send it just past the outer edge of Saturn’s main rings.

In a series of 20 weekly orbits, Cassini will come within 7,800 kilometers of the center of Saturn’s narrow and peculiar F-ring.

“During the F-ring orbits we expect to see the rings, along with the small moons and other structures embedded in them, as never before,” said Cassini project scientist Linda Spilker at JPL in a press release.

Sometime in April 2017, Cassini will kick off the second phase.

The orbiter will fly close to Saturn’s biggest moon Titan, which will alter Cassini’s orbit so it can fly through the roughly 2,400 kilometer wide gap between the planet and its rings.

Beginning on April 27, 2017, Cassini will be begin to make a series of 22 dives through this so-far unexplored gap.

This image was returned Jan. 14, 2005, by the European Space Agency's Huygens probe after its successful descent to land on Titan. (ESA/NASA/JPL/University of Arizona)

This image was returned Jan. 14, 2005, by the European Space Agency’s Huygens probe after its successful descent to land on Titan. (ESA/NASA/JPL/University of Arizona)

NASA says that this Grand Finale will allow Cassini to make the closest-ever observations of Saturn, take some ultra-close images of its atmosphere, directly analyze dust-sized particles in its main rings, and sample the outer limits of its atmosphere.

The space agency says it hopes the final months and days of Cassini’s mission will provide scientists with information and insight about Saturn’s interior structure, the exact length of a Saturn day, and the total mass of the rings, something that could finally determine their age.

“It’s like getting a whole new mission,” said Spilker. “The scientific value of the F-ring and Grand Finale orbits is so compelling that you could imagine a whole mission to Saturn designed around what we’re about to do.”

20-year mission

The mission to Saturn began on October 15, 1997 when the unmanned Cassini-Huygens spacecraft, atop a Titan IVB/Centaur rocket, was launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

After a nearly seven year voyage, Cassini-Huygens entered orbit around the giant ringed planet on July 1, 2004.

The mission has been a combination of efforts between NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency and a total of seventeen nations.

The spacecraft that went to Saturn were NASA/JPL’s Cassini Orbiter with ESA/ATI’s (Agenzia Spaziale Italiana) Huygens lander attached.

The orbiter/lander combination circled Saturn together for just over five months.

Then on December 24, 2004 the Huygens lander was detached from the orbiter, allowing it to land on Saturn’s moon Titan on January 14, 2005.

As the lander headed through the moon’s thick nitrogen-rich atmosphere to its surface, Cassini continued its orbit around the planet.

(NASA/ Jet Propulsion Laboratory-Caltech)

(NASA/ Jet Propulsion Laboratory-Caltech)

According to NASA, the Huygens lander showed Titan to be a lot like early Earth before life began to emerge and evolve. The moon had methane rain, showed signs of erosion and drainage channels, as well as dry lake beds.  In its atmosphere was a mix of complex hydrocarbons, including benzene.

Over the last twelve years the Cassini orbiter has provided scientists with numerous unique insights and close-up views of Saturn, as well as its rings and moons.

With Cassini, scientists were able to discover and study plumes of icy water that periodically blasts from Saturn’s moon Enceladus. The orbiter made it possible to observe changes in Saturn’s famous rings and possibly the birth of a new moon.

Going out with a bang

The orbiter’s mission will come to a dramatic conclusion on Sept. 15, 2017 when it will be sent diving through Saturn’s atmosphere toward the planet itself.

As Cassini makes its final plunge the space agency says that the intrepid spacecraft will continue to gather and send back data about Saturn’s chemical composition until its signal is finally lost.

NASA says friction with the atmosphere will build during its descent and will cause the spacecraft to burn up like a meteor soon after signal loss.

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.

Light Not Shock Restarts Heart; Bees Nest in Sandstone; 5 Second Rule

Posted September 14th, 2016 at 4:21 pm (UTC-4)
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(Graphic by Patrick M. Boyle/Johns Hopkins University)

(Graphic by Patrick M. Boyle/Johns Hopkins University)

Using Light Instead of Electric Shock to Restart a Heart

A defibrillator is a device used to restore the normal operation of a heart after a life-threatening cardiac episode such as dysrhythmias and ventricular fibrillation.

The machine delivers a powerful electric shock that stops the heart and allows it to reset itself to function normally again.

While defibrillation has a long history of saving lives, it can be extremely painful and it’s possible the electrical shock can damage heart tissue.

After experimenting on mice, a joint team of researchers from Johns Hopkins University in the US and Germany’s University of Bonn have successfully demonstrated a system that uses gentle beams of light instead of electric shocks to revive patients with deadly heart rhythm disorders.

To see if their system, called optogenetic defibrillation, can work on people, the researchers will continue their experimentation on a computer model of a human heart they created.

A close-up of a bee of the species Anthophora pueblo in its sandstone nest. (Michael Orr, Utah State University)

A close-up of a bee of the species Anthophora pueblo in its sandstone nest. (Michael Orr, Utah State University)

New Desert Bee Species Builds Nest in Sandstone

Entomologists – scientists who study insects – at Utah State University have confirmed the discovery of a rare species of bee that builds its nest in hard sandstone rather than in softer soils and environments.

A new study outlining the findings also examines why these little bees put in so much effort to dig through rocks to create their home structures.

Called the Anthophora pueblo, this species of bees make their homes in the harsh desert environment of the US Southwest.

Michael Orr, lead author of the study says that sandstone is more durable than most other nesting options and that these tough, elevated shelters protect bees from erosion and sudden flash floods.

He also points out that since sandstone doesn’t have as much organic material as regular soil, parasite build-up over the years is naturally controlled, preventing the growth of life threatening microbes inside the bee’s living quarters.

Scanning electron micrograph of the superbug Staphylococcus aureus or MRSA. (CDC)

Scanning electron micrograph of the superbug Staphylococcus aureus or MRSA. (CDC)

A New Way to Fight Superbugs

Scientists in Australia may have come up with a unique solution to fight antimicrobial resistant infections or superbugs, a growing worldwide health concern.

The researchers found that star-shaped objects they created with short chains of proteins called ‘peptide polymers might be able to replace traditional antibiotics.

Doctors have long prescribed antibiotics to fight various bacteria borne ailments from acne to pneumonia.

But using these drugs repeatedly over time can cause many of these microbes to mutate and build a resistance against medications made to fight them.

After testing their star-shaped peptide polymers on animal models, the researchers found them to be effective in killing superbugs.

They also discovered that antibiotic resistant microbes showed no signs of fighting this new treatment method, suggesting that it might be more difficult for microbes to mutate like they have to antibiotics.

Cartoon illustrating the five-second rule (Greg Williams via Wikimedia)

Cartoon illustrating the five-second rule (Greg Williams via Wikimedia)

Sorry, 5 Second Rule Doesn’t Work

Did you ever drop a tasty or expensive food item on the ground and then quickly retrieve and eat it, justifying consumption with what is called the ‘five second rule’?

According to the ‘five second rule’, food dropped on the ground will not be contaminated with bacteria if it is picked up within five seconds of being dropped, making it OK to eat.

While this notion has been debunked in the past, researchers at New Jersey’s Rutgers University are the latest to discover that it is not a good idea to scoop up dropped food and eat it within a five-second window.

The study shows that factors such as moisture, type of surface the food is dropped on, along with contact time all play a role in contamination.

The researchers found, in some instances, it took less than a second for food to be tainted after being dropped.

But the research also finds that the longer food touches an unclean surface, the greater the chance for contamination.

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.

Signs of summer at the South Pole

Posted September 12th, 2016 at 1:20 pm (UTC-4)
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The sun has started to spiral upwards.  It now sits less than six degrees below the horizon—civil twilight on the Antarctic plateau.  Earth meets sky, in a rapture of orange, yellow and red, a chorus of bright hues that fades into what remains of the polar night.

A few stars and planets are still visible and occasionally faint aurora can be seen. More grey then green, they flicker in and out of existence –ghostly premonitions of the changing season.

Ten months of blowing snow mean monumental drifts. The author stands on top of one of the larger ones and admires the rugged landscape. (Photo: Hamish Wright)

Ten months of blowing snow mean monumental drifts. The author stands on top of one of the larger ones and admires the rugged landscape. (Photo: Hamish Wright)

It is light out now, bright enough to see the Atmospheric Research Observatory from the main station and to follow my footprints from yesterday while I walk to work. Clouds are visible on the horizon and exhaust from the power plant wafts upwards like a wood fire through a stone chimney at dawn. Despite the brightness, it is still cold—minus 70 Celsius (-95F) today with a wind-chill of minus ninety (-130F). Unfortunately, it won’t begin to warm until the sun breaches the horizon, an event that is still several weeks away.

As darkness continues to recede, more and more of the frozen landscape becomes visible.  Shadows give way to monumental drifts—3, 6, 9 meters tall, and three times as wide.  They have formed proportional in size to the objects they lie against—with the largest sitting on the south and west sides of the main station.  It will take months to remove the snow, an activity that will begin in earnest when the station opens for the summer.

Meanwhile, climbing on and exploring the drifts has become my preferred pastime. As the largest natural structures within hundreds of miles, they are a welcome diversion from the otherwise flat world that I have called home for the past 10 months.  An hour of walking between them, kicking steps up them, standing on their cat-walk summits, and running, rolling and sliding down them leaves my cheeks and nose frost-nipped, and my eyelashes and mustache covered in my frozen breath.

In celebration of the rising sun, a tent similar to the ones used on the original Scott expedition has been erected near the geographic pole. It is a good place to escape the wind and observe the receding night sky. (Photo: Max Peters)

In celebration of the rising sun, a tent similar to the ones used on the original Scott expedition has been erected near the geographic pole. It is a good place to escape the wind and observe the receding night sky. (Photo: Max Peters)

Beyond the drifts and the station, lies the ice cap. When the winds are calm, I’ll walk towards the brightest spot on the horizon—where the sun sits just out of sight, and the colors are most vivid.  The impenetrable grayness that dominated the plateau during the height of night is dissolving rapidly and for the first time in five months, I can see the effects of a ceaseless winter wind on an otherwise undisturbed world.  Sastrugi abound—wind-swept structures of snow and ice, shin-deep canyons of perfectly graded snow and snow sculptures that extend outwards like cresting waves just about to break.  What light is available reflects off them in incandescent blues and purples, which seem to pulse in the cold, glowing and dimming with a heart-like rhythm.

Our three-week sunrise is well underway.  Our six month night is nearly over, and our six month day is about to begin.  With the gradual transition from winter to summer, the station begins to wake from its frozen slumber. The plateau reveals its beauty in fine details, and the mind is set ablaze with inspiration.

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.

August 2016 Science Images

Posted August 31st, 2016 at 4:00 pm (UTC-4)
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NASA astronauts Jeff Williams, who is shown here, along with crewmate Kate Rubins (who can be seen reflected in William’s visor) successfully installed a new international docking adapter 8/19/16 during a five hour and 58-minute spacewalk. (NASA)

NASA astronauts Jeff Williams, shown here along with crewmate Kate Rubins (who can be seen reflected in William’s visor) successfully installed a new international docking adapter 8/19/16 during a six-hour spacewalk. (NASA)

This is a small 3D printed robot called Octobot. On 8/24/16, a team of researchers from Harvard University announced that they had demonstrated the first autonomous, untethered, entirely soft robot. (Lori Sanders)

This is a small 3D printed robot called Octobot. On 8/24/16, a team of researchers from Harvard University announced that they had demonstrated the first autonomous, untethered, entirely soft robot. (Lori Sanders)

Here is a time time-lapse photo of 41 meteors that were captured in around 2 hours on 8/12/16 from Anglesey, UK at the peak of the annual Perseid Meteor Shower. (Kev Lewis via Flickr/Creative Commons)

Here is a time time-lapse photo of 41 meteors captured in about two hours on 8/12/16 from Anglesey, UK at the peak of the annual Perseid Meteor Shower. (Kev Lewis via Flickr/Creative Commons)

In this artist impression, the small, flying reptiles known as azhdarchoid pterosaurs are not surrounded not by other pterosaurs, but by birds. Some researchers have argued that pterosaurs were ecologically replaced by birds by the Late Cretaceous epoch. However, the discovery of small-bodied pterosaur remains from British Columbia, announced 8/30/16, shows that at least some smaller flying reptiles lived alongside ancient birds. (Dr. Mark Witton)

In this artist’s impression, the small, flying reptiles known as azhdarchoid pterosaurs are not surrounded not by other pterosaurs, but by birds. Some researchers have argued that pterosaurs were ecologically replaced by birds by the Late Cretaceous epoch. However, the discovery of small-bodied pterosaur remains from British Columbia, announced 8/30/16, shows that at least some smaller flying reptiles lived alongside ancient birds. (Dr. Mark Witton)

A mockup of NASA's Orion spacecraft hits the water in a simulated ocean splashdown test at NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, VA on 8/25/16. The spacecraft is designed for deep space travel and will someday ferry astronauts to Mars. An unmanned test flight is scheduled for 2018 with the first crewed flight is slated for 2023. (NASA)

A mockup of NASA’s Orion spacecraft hits the water in a simulated splashdown test at NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, VA on 8/25/16. The spacecraft is designed for deep space travel and will some day ferry astronauts to Mars. An unmanned test flight is scheduled for 2018 with the first crewed flight slated for 2023. (NASA)

A model of an innovative street-straddling bus called Transit Elevated Bus is seen after a test run in Hebei Province, China, 8/3/16. According to local media this test is capable of carrying 300 people (Reuters)

A model of an innovative street-straddling bus called Transit Elevated Bus is seen after a test run in Hebei Province, China, 8/3/16. According to local media, this test is capable of carrying 300 people (Reuters)

Artist’s impression of the surface of the exoplanet Proxima Centauri b orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri, the closest star to our solar system. You can also see the better known double star Alpha Centauri AB in the image. Astronomers at the European Southern Observatory announced the discovery of the exoplanet, which is only 4.2 light years away from Earth on 8/24/16. The planet orbits its star within the habitable zone, where the temperature is said to be suitable for liquid water to exist on its surface. (ESO/M. Kornmesser)

This is an artist’s impression of the surface of the exoplanet Proxima Centauri b orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri, the closest star to our solar system. You can also see the double star Alpha Centauri AB in the image. Astronomers at the European Southern Observatory announced the discovery of the exoplanet, which is only 4.2 light years away from Earth on 8/24/16. The planet orbits its star within the habitable zone, where the temperature is said to be suitable for liquid water to exist on its surface. (ESO/M. Kornmesser)

Geoffrey Hargreaves, curator of the National Ice Core Laboratory, is shown in this 8/8/16 photo, gently placing an arctic ice core on a table inside the deep freeze work area at the lab, in Lakewood, Colo. Scientists are able to look back at past cosmic event such as solar flares or other cosmic by the distinctive radioactive atoms left in the snow. Also dust blown in from distant continents can offer clues about atmospheric circulation. (AP)

Geoffrey Hargreaves, curator of the National Ice Core Laboratory, is shown in this 8/8/16 photo, gently placing an arctic ice core on a table inside the deep freeze work area at the lab, in Lakewood, Colo. Scientists are able to look at past cosmic events such as solar flares or other cosmic by the distinctive radioactive atoms left in the snow. Also, dust blown in from distant continents can offer clues about atmospheric circulation. (AP)

On 8/30/16 it was announced that scientists using various NASA, ESA and ground-based telescopes have found the most distant galaxy cluster so far. At 11.1 billion light years from Earth this is Galaxy Cluster CL J1001+0220 or CLJ1001 for short. (NASA/CXC/CEA/T. Wang et al; Infrared: ESO/UltraVISTA; Radio: ESO/NAOJ/NRAO/ALMA)

On 8/30/16 it was announced that scientists using various NASA, ESA and ground-based telescopes have found the most distant galaxy cluster so far. At 11.1 billion light years from Earth this is Galaxy Cluster CL J1001+0220 or CLJ1001 for short. (NASA/CXC/CEA/T. Wang et al; Infrared: ESO/UltraVISTA; Radio: ESO/NAOJ/NRAO/ALMA)

Another step towards driverless cars. Here Uber employees test the self-driving Ford Fusion hybrid cars in Pittsburgh, Pa on 8/18/16. (AP)

In another step toward driverless cars, Uber employees test the self-driving Ford Fusion hybrid cars in Pittsburgh, Pa on 8/18/16. (AP)

Here’s another uniquely designed robot in a photo taken on 8/3/16. This stingray-shaped robot, designed in a laboratory at Harvard University, can paddle through water in water after being exposed to blue light. Scientists have constructed the robot from rat heart muscle, gold and silicone. (AP)

Here’s another uniquely designed robot in a photo taken on 8/3/16. This stingray-shaped robot, designed in a laboratory at Harvard University, can paddle through water in water after being exposed to blue light. Scientists have constructed the robot from rat heart muscle, gold and silicone. (AP)

NASA's Juno spacecraft successfully completed the first of 36 scheduled orbital flybys of Jupiter recently. In this view, Jupiter's north polar region is coming into view as the spacecraft approaches the giant planet. This view of the Jovian planet was taken on 8/27/16, when Juno was 703,000 kilometers away. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS)

NASA’s Juno spacecraft successfully completed the first of 36 scheduled orbital flybys of Jupiter recently. In this view, Jupiter’s north polar region is coming into view as the spacecraft approaches the giant planet. This view of the Jovian planet was taken on 8/27/16, when Juno was 703,000 kilometers away. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS)

 

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.

Artistry Under the Ice

Posted August 29th, 2016 at 12:04 pm (UTC-4)
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Deep within Amundsen-Scott South Pole station lies the entrance to the ice tunnels– a serpentine network of narrow passages and catacombs carved deep beneath the frozen polar plateau.

The ice tunnels meander underground for nearly a kilometer. The lighting is dim, the floor slick and the artwork outstanding. (Photo: R. Klein)

The ice tunnels meander underground for nearly a kilometer. The lighting is dim, the floor slick and the artwork outstanding. (Photo: R. Klein)

Starting from just outside the station’s power plant, they run for nearly a kilometer at a gently descending grade until they reach their terminus 24 meters below ground–the entrance of the Rodwell, the station’s fresh water drinking supply.

Through these tunnels run heavily insulated pipes that carry fresh water to the station, waste heat to the Rodwell and sewage to the outfall.  They are also home to the world’s oldest permanent installation of South Pole artwork.  Along their shear vertical walls, one encounters rectangular shelves of varying dimensions that have been cut into the ice using chainsaws and primitive hand tools.  They range in volume from that of a tissue box to a twin-size mattress.  Each acts as a pedestal, frame or diorama box for a single piece of artistry.

 

From found object and Dada, to Surrealism and pop, the installations that adorn the ice tunnels cover a wide range of expression and theme.  The Last Tub of Vanilla Ice Cream from 2012 (Artist Unknown) sits with its lid askew, tempting the viewer to look inside.

The Last Tub of Vanilla Ice Cream from 2012-- a perplexing piece. (Photo: R. Klein)

The Last Tub of Vanilla Ice Cream from 2012– a perplexing piece. (Photo: R. Klein)

Is The Last Tub a story of hardship–a winter endured with a limited supply of frozen custards–or does it symbolize polar gluttony, asking the viewer to reflect on the quantity of sugary treats the modern Antarctic explorer consumes? It is the first piece one encounters in the ice tunnels, and perhaps the most enigmatic and controversial from a curatorial perspective.

Acting as a foil to The Last Tub is the Tomb of the Unknown Carpenter (Artist and date Unknown). It is a 25 centimeter mixed-media sculpture depicting a humanoid figure in front of a headstone twice its size.

A visitor to the Ice Tunnels takes a moment to admire the craftsmanship of The Tomb of the Unknown Carpenter. (Photo: R. Klein)

A visitor to the Ice Tunnels takes a moment to admire the craftsmanship of The Tomb of the Unknown Carpenter. (Photo: R. Klein)

Built from broken saws, battery brackets and chains, the totem stands erect, arms outstretched, challenging the observer with its presence.  It is the physicality of man in the face of adversity, in the face of a cold death.  It is a piece purpose-built for its icy surroundings—the relational aesthetics exact—forcing viewers to contemplate the immediate dangers that surround them, and the high probability of losing an ear, toe or finger to frostbite by the time they leave the exhibit.

Werner Herzog's Greatest Hits--one of the most popular pieces in the Ice Tunnel's permanent collection. How a whole intact sturgeon was smuggled into the South Pole is a question that keeps many "Winter Overs" up at night. (Photo: R. Klein)

Werner Herzog’s Greatest Hits–one of the most popular pieces in the Ice Tunnel’s permanent collection. How a whole intact sturgeon was smuggled into the South Pole is a question that keeps many “Winter Overs” up at night. (Photo: R. Klein)

Moving onwards, the creativity and vision continue to pump like the music at an Ibiza night club: a one-meter long sturgeon titled Werner Herzog’s Greatest Hits, a hyper-realistic bust of polar explorer Roald Amundsen carved from a block of ice, a surreal scene of multi-colored, plastic toy ponies and horses grazing and frolicking in a golden world.

By the time visitors complete their underground tour of MOMA Antarctica, they will have viewed nearly a dozen pieces, each one exceptional and singularly unique—a purposefully and perfectly dysfunctional collection of the South Pole’s most profound thoughts and questions, and the creativity inspired by cold, dark months at the bottom of the world.

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.

Dark Matter Galaxy; Making Bland Tasty; Ouchless Insulin

Posted August 26th, 2016 at 4:15 pm (UTC-4)
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The dark galaxy Dragonfly 44. The image on the left is a wide view of the galaxy and a close-up on the right. The massive galaxy consists almost entirely of Dark Matter. (Pieter Van Dokkum, Roberto Abraham, Gemini, Sloan Digital Sky Survey)

The dark galaxy Dragonfly 44. The image on the left is a wide view of the galaxy and a close-up on the right. The massive galaxy consists almost entirely of Dark Matter. (Pieter Van Dokkum, Roberto Abraham, Gemini, Sloan Digital Sky Survey)

Galaxy Made-Up of Mostly Dark Matter Discovered

A team of astronomers, using two of the world’s most powerful ground based telescopes, have discovered an enormous galaxy that’s only .01 percent visible.

The remaining 99.9 percent, according to the astronomers, is made up of dark matter.

The faint galaxy is called Dragonfly 44.

It’s located within the Coma cluster, about 321 million light-years from Earth, and is nearly 70 thousand light-years across.

To make their discovery, the astronomers used the W. M. Keck Observatory and the Gemini North telescope, which are both on Maunakea, Hawaii.

A spectrograph, a device that splits light into separate wavelengths, called DEIMOS was installed on the Keck Observatory’s Keck II telescope to help astronomers calculate the amount of dark matter in the galaxy.

Dark matter, a so-far unknown type of matter that we can’t see, is thought to make up about 27% of the observable universe.

Diabetic patient prepares a dose of insulin for injection (Silva via Flickr/Creative Commons)

Diabetic patient prepares a dose of insulin for injection (JonathanSilva via Flickr/Creative Commons)

Ouchless Insulin for Diabetics

The International Diabetes Foundation predicts that one in ten people will have diabetes by 2040.

Treatment for diabetes can include one or two painful injections of the hormone insulin every day.

Now, scientists at Niagara University in New York say they’ve developed an ideal transport system that can withstand some of the harsh environments of the human body and effectively deliver insulin where it needs to go without the need for those painful shots.

The insulin is contained in a small capsule, called Cholestosome™, which is made of naturally produced lipid molecules or fatty acids.

After testing in rodents, the researchers found the capsules can travel undamaged through the digestive system and then cells in the bloodstream take them in, break them apart, and release the insulin.

The researchers presented their findings at the 252nd National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society in Philadelphia.

Aliens? (Interdimensional Guardians/Creative Commons)

Aliens? (Interdimensional Guardians/Creative Commons)

Search for ET Shifts to Lower Frequency Range

For years, professional and amateur astronomers have been examining the skies with radio telescopes, searching any signs of extraterrestrial intelligence, or ETI.

Scanning UHF radio frequencies, mostly between 1.4–1.7 GHz, scientists carefully listen for any distinctive signal that might emerge from the background noise.

Lately scientists are focusing on a lower frequency range, between 80 to 300 MHz, to look for ETI.

The Murchison Widefield Array or MWA radio telescope, located in Western Australia, has been built by an international group of universities to specifically hunt for ETI signals in this frequency range.

Initial observations of a small piece of the sky and a limited range of frequencies yielded no ETI signals.

But the scientists at the MWA are planning future observations that will cover the full sky at the full frequency range. What if anything will they hear? We will stay tuned, so to speak!

Enjoying a sweet dessert (typexnick via Flickr/Creative Commons)

Enjoying a sweet dessert (typexnick via Flickr/Creative Commons)

Device Helps Bland Food Taste Good

A diet containing less fat, sugar or salt is often recommended to many to ensure good health.

But the downside of those diets might mean having to eat foods that really don’t taste that good.

Now French scientists say they are working on a device that could help diners on restrictive diets enjoy the full flavor of their favorite foods and still eat healthfully.

The device, they call the Gas Chromatograph-Olfactometry Associated Taste (GC-OAT) allows scientists to isolate specific aroma molecules associated with the full flavored food.

When you eat, your taste buds allow you to sense sweet, sour, salty, bitter and savory tastes.  But it’s the smell of the food that completes your perception of its taste.

The scientists say that by applying the proper amount of these aroma molecules in food, the brain can be fooled into thinking there is more salt, sugar or fat than what may actually be present in that very healthful food you are having for lunch.

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.

Oh! No Flowing H2O on The Red Planet?

Posted August 24th, 2016 at 4:15 pm (UTC-4)
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(Blue dots on this map indicate sites of recurring slope lineae (RSL) in part of the Valles Marineris canyon network on Mars. RSL are seasonal dark streaks that may be indicators of liquid water. The area mapped here has the highest density of known RSL on Mars. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona)

(Blue dots on this map indicate sites of recurring slope lineae (RSL) in part of the Valles Marineris canyon network on Mars. RSL are seasonal dark streaks that may be indicators of liquid water. The area mapped here has the highest density of known RSL on Mars. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona)

Last September, with much hoopla, NASA confirmed evidence of liquid water flowing on present-day Mars.

But a new study using data from the space agency’s Mars Odyssey mission throws some cold water on those findings.

About a year ago, the space agency’s Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM) onboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter identified the chemical signature of hydrated salts and minerals in the mysterious dark streaks, called “recurring slope lineae” or RSL.

These streaks can be seen flowing down the slopes of a number of Martian hills and mountains and craters.

These dark, narrow, 100 meter-long streaks called recurring slope lineae flowing downhill on Mars are inferred to have been formed by contemporary flowing water. Recently, planetary scientists detected hydrated salts on these slopes at Hale crater, corroborating their original hypothesis that the streaks are indeed formed by liquid water. (NASA/JPL/University of Arizona)

These dark, narrow, 100 meter-long streaks called recurring slope lineae flowing downhill on Mars are inferred to have been formed by contemporary flowing water. Recently, planetary scientists detected hydrated salts on these slopes at Hale crater, corroborating their original hypothesis that the streaks are indeed formed by liquid water. (NASA/JPL/University of Arizona)

NASA said that these dark streaks form in late spring, grow through the summer and then disappear by fall.

Scientists believe that these hydrated salts and minerals, called perchlorates, found in the Martian RSLs, lower the freezing point of water just like salt make snow and ice melt at cooler temperatures here on Earth. The salts were thought to help normally frozen water on Mars to flow.

But based on data gathered by the Thermal Emission Imaging Systems (THEMIS) aboard the Mars Odyssey spacecraft, which takes surface temperature measurements by infrared imaging, NASA scientists now believe the RSLs contain about “as much as in the driest desert sands on Earth.”

The space agency says these new findings really don’t contradict the September 2015 findings, since they did identify hydrated salt at these flows, something that has long been considered to be possible indicators for the presence of liquid water on modern Mars.

“Our findings are consistent with the presence of hydrated salts, because you can have hydrated salt without having enough for the water to start filling pore spaces between particles,” explained Christopher Edwards of Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff.

He said that the RSL salts can still absorb water from vapor in the Martian atmosphere without the need for any underground water source.

However, the new surface temperature measurements did provide Edwards and his colleague, Sylvain Piqueux of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, with an indication of just how much water is present within the RSL streaks.

Thermal Emission Imaging System - THEMIS, One of the scientific intruments aboard the Mars Odyssey. (NASA/JPL)

Thermal Emission Imaging System – THEMIS, One of the scientific intruments aboard the Mars Odyssey. (NASA/JPL)

The study authors say that by measuring just how quickly the surface temperature of small patch of ground heats up during the day and then cools off at night can provide evidence of just how much water, if any, can be found in the spaces between particles of soil or grains of sand.

They also pointed out other factors that can affect just how fast the Martian surface can lose heat. These include determining just how deep moisture reaches into the ground and how much water might present atop the surface.

If the thickness of RSL soil that might contain water is only wafer-thin, then according to the study’s calculations there is only about 3 grams of water for each kilogram of soil, which they say is about the same as some of the driest places on Earth.

But, if layer of RSL soil is thicker, the findings show that the quantity of water per kilogram of soil must be even less, according to the temperature measurements.

Edwards and Piqueux say that while there is a margin of error in gathering temperature data with THEMIS – as much a 1 degree Celsius – this difference was considered in determining the greatest possible amount of either frozen or liquid water in the ground material.

“Some type of water-related activity at the uphill end still might be a factor in triggering RSL, but the darkness of the ground is not associated with large amounts of water, either liquid or frozen,” Edwards said. “Totally dry mechanisms for explaining RSL should not be ruled out.”

A report detailing the findings by Edwards and Piqueux has been accepted for publication by the journal Geophysical Research Letters and is currently available online.

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 air down there

Posted August 23rd, 2016 at 9:19 am (UTC-4)
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To keep an eye on our changing climate, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Global Monitoring Division (GMD) operates six atmospheric baseline observatories around the world. They stretch from high in the Arctic Circle to the South Pole. Each facility collects similar data, and uses near-identical instruments and operating procedures to do so. By standardizing research at each site, GMD is able to paint an accurate picture of the chemical constituents that impact Earth’s climate. All of GMD’s data is available for free online, so if you are interested in seeing how the abundance and distribution of Aerosol Particles have changed over the past 10 years take a look at our website.

Many of the stations continuously operating, in vitro instruments, sample air from intakes on ARO's meteorological tower. It takes over 200 feet of tubing to connect an instrument in the building to an inlet at the top of the tower. (Photo: Hunter Davis)

Many of the stations continuously operating, in vitro instruments, sample air from intakes on ARO’s meteorological tower. It takes over 200 feet of tubing to connect an instrument in the building to an inlet at the top of the tower. (Photo: Hunter Davis)

At the South Pole’s Atmospheric Research Observatory (ARO), we operate and maintain instruments that are used for studying solar radiation, aerosols, ozone, ozone-depleting substances and carbon dioxide (CO2). Most of the instruments run continuously, processing steady streams of air that are pumped in from atop our 30 meter meteorological tower or from a 6 meter mast attached to the top of our building. This continuous, on-location data collection is known as “in situ” or onsite sampling. It allows us to collect an abundance of data, often by-the-minute averages that are useful for studying high resolution, day-to-day trends.

Of course, there is a limit to what our in situ instruments can measure, and the accuracy and precision with which they do so. The carbon dioxide analyzer we use cannot measure the presence of CO2 isotopes, which are important in understanding whether the CO2 we see is coming from burning fossil fuels or from forest fires. Similarly, our gas chromatograph can measures tens of different compounds with part-per-trillion accuracy, but a slight leak in any of its hundreds of delicate parts can destroy our data’s robustness and be nearly impossible to detect.

We address the shortcomings of our in situ measurements by collecting physical in vitro or glass flask samples of the same South Pole air our instruments analyze. Every week, air is collected in a variety of flasks and each summer, they are sent back to various laboratories around the world for detailed studies of the air they contain. In the proper setting, the in vitro samples allow for more precise and accurate measurements than our in situ systems, and can often reveal chemical compounds such as CO2 isotopes that would otherwise pass through our instruments undetected.

Furthermore, in vitro sampling allows us to identify and troubleshoot problems that may arise with our in situ experiments. For example, if a series of flask samples taken from the Gas Chromatograph air lines show a higher or lower detection rate of a Halon (an ozone-depleting substance found in old fire suppression systems), then we know there may be an issue with the instrument, and in turn, the data it’s collecting.

At ARO, glass flasks are filled for a number of research groups operating outside of NOAA. Above, samples are prepared for the The Commonwealth Industrial and Scientific Research Organization of Australia. (Photo: R. Klein)

At ARO, glass flasks are filled for a number of research groups operating outside of NOAA. Above, samples are prepared for the The Commonwealth Industrial and Scientific Research Organization of Australia. (Photo: R. Klein)

Over the course of a year, I’ll collect more than 300 flask samples for five distinct research projects. Flask sampling days are perhaps my longest, with some individual flasks taking more than an hour to flush, fill and package.

The samples can only be collected when the winds are blowing at high speed through our clean air sector; in other words, not over the power plant. This means flask sampling days often coincide with some of the South Pole’s worst weather—whiteouts, blowing snow and wind chills below minus 73 Celsius (minus 100F).

The most challenging flasks to fill are those that require me to collect air from deep within the clean air sector, using heavy portable sampling units that must be hand-carried through the night, across snow drifts and ankle-breaking sastrugi, to designated sampling locations.

Walking into the wind, my goggles removed to better see and avoid the more hazardous topography, my eyelashes will collect snow and ice, and mini drifts will form against my eyelids. When this happens, I’m careful not to blink too slowly, because if I do, my eyes will freeze shut and I’ll have to work in an even greater darkness.

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.