Science Images of the Month – October, 2014

Posted October 31st, 2014 at 6:57 pm (UTC+0)
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In this photo does the sun look like a jack-o-lantern to you?  This image showing the active regions of the sun was released by NASA on 10/8/14. Happy Halloween! (NASA)

In this photo does the sun look like a jack-o-lantern to you? This image showing the active regions of the sun was released by NASA on 10/8/14. Happy Halloween! (NASA)

An unmanned Antares rocket that was to send a commercial cargo spacecraft to the International Space Station exploded into a spectacular ball of fire seconds after launch on 10/28/14. (NASA-TV)

An unmanned Antares rocket that was to send a commercial cargo spacecraft to the International Space Station exploded into a spectacular ball of fire seconds after launch on 10/28/14. (NASA-TV)

Russia’s space cargo vehicle Progress 57 is seen approaching the International Space Station on 10/29/14, just hours after a NASA rocket carrying a similar spacecraft exploded. (NASA)

Russia’s space cargo vehicle Progress 57 is seen approaching the International Space Station on 10/29/14, just hours after a NASA rocket carrying a similar spacecraft exploded. (NASA)

Rows of robots are covered in plastic sheets at a Kuka Robotics plant in Shanghai.  China said it wants domestic companies to buy more locally made robots to lift productivity, but industry insiders have warned these policies are over-stimulating the market. (Reuters)

Rows of robots are covered in plastic sheets at a Kuka Robotics plant in Shanghai. China said it wants domestic companies to buy more locally made robots to lift productivity, but industry insiders have warned these policies are over-stimulating the market. (Reuters)

This image, released on 10/30/14, is of a massive galaxy cluster called Abell 2744, which is also nicknamed Pandora's Cluster.  Astronomers, using the Hubble Space Telescope recently found forensic evidence of galaxies torn apart long ago in this area of space. The glow comes from stars scattered into intergalactic space as a result of a galaxy's disintegration. (NASA/ESA)

This image, released on 10/30/14, is of a massive galaxy cluster called Abell 2744, which is also nicknamed Pandora’s Cluster. Astronomers, using the Hubble Space Telescope, recently found forensic evidence of galaxies torn apart long ago in this area of space. The glow comes from stars scattered into intergalactic space as a result of a galaxy’s disintegration. (NASA/ESA)

The sun peeks over the edge of Earth in a photo, taken on 10/29/14, by NASA astronaut Reid Wiseman from the International Space Station. (NASA)

The sun peeks over the edge of Earth in a photo taken on 10/29/14 by NASA astronaut Reid Wiseman from the International Space Station. (NASA)

Two members of the US Department of Defense's Ebola Military Medical Support Team are seen here, on 10/24/14, helping each other with the protective gear they wore during training at San Antonio Military Medical Center in San Antonio. (AP)

Two members of the US Department of Defense’s Ebola Military Medical Support Team help each other with the protective gear during training at San Antonio Military Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas. (AP)

The 10/8/14 lunar eclipse is can be seen behind a statue entitled "Enlightenment Giving Power" by John Gelert.  The statue sits atop the dome of the Bergen County Courthouse in Hackensack, N.J.  (AP)

The 10/8/14 lunar eclipse is can be seen behind a statue entitled “Enlightenment Giving Power” by John Gelert. The statue sits atop the dome of the Bergen County Courthouse in Hackensack, N.J. (AP)

Russian astronauts Maxim Suraev and Alexander Samokutyaev walk in space outside of the International Space Station to inspect and perform maintenance outside the ISS’ Russian Orbital Segment (ROS) on 10/22/14. (NASA)

Russian astronauts Maxim Suraev and Alexander Samokutyaev walk in space outside of the International Space Station to inspect and perform maintenance on the ISS’ Russian Orbital Segment (ROS) on 10/22/14. (NASA)

Teams of robots competed against each other on 10/10/14 in the three day 2014 China Robot Competition and Robocup China Open in Hefei, Anhui province. (Reuters)

Teams of robots competed against each other on 10/10/14 in the three-day 2014 China Robot Competition and Robocup China Open in Hefei, Anhui province. (Reuters)

The bay doors of the space shuttle Endeavour are shown wide open following the installation of a space lab, storage pod, replica robotic arm and docking system on 10/10/14.  After being retired following its final mission on 3/9/11, the Endeavor is now being kept at the California Science Center in Los Angeles. (AP)

The bay doors of the space shuttle Endeavour are shown wide open following the installation of a space lab, storage pod, replica robotic arm and docking system on 10/10/14. After being retired following its final mission on 3/9/11, the Endeavor is now being kept at the California Science Center in Los Angeles. (AP)

Comet C/2013 A1, also known as Siding Spring, which brushed past Mars for a rare flyby on 10/19/14.  The image of the comet was captured by the Hubble Space Telescope. (NASA, ESA, J.-Y. Li)

Comet C/2013 A1, also known as Siding Spring, brushed past Mars for a rare flyby on 10/19/14. The image of the comet was captured by the Hubble Space Telescope. (NASA, ESA, J.-Y. Li)

A boy visiting Tokyo’s “Hikari the Wonder of Light” exhibition on 10/29/14 is seen here looking at a kimono, made from silkworm cocoons, that glow yellow when it’s exposed to blue LEDs. (Reuters)

A boy visiting Tokyo’s “Hikari the Wonder of Light” exhibition on 10/29/14 looks at a kimono, made from silkworm cocoons, that glow yellow when it’s exposed to blue LEDs. (Reuters)

NASA’s Orion spacecraft, shown here in the Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Abort System Facility was finished 10/30/14.  It will be rolled out to Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on 11/10/14 and will be launched for a test flight on 12/4/14. (NASA/Lockheed Martin)

NASA’s Orion spacecraft, shown here in the Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Abort System Facility was finished 10/30/14. It will be rolled out to Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on 11/10/14 and will be launched for a test flight on 12/4/14. (NASA/Lockheed Martin)

Astronaut-diver Julien Bonini is seen training in a swimming pool located in Marseille, France on 10/22/14. Ms. Bonini and her fellow astronauts were being trained underwater to help develop expertise in partial gravity spacewalks. (Reuters)

Astronaut-diver Julien Bonini is seen training in a swimming pool located in Marseille, France on 10/22/14. Ms. Bonini and her fellow astronauts were being trained underwater to help develop expertise in partial gravity spacewalks. (Reuters)

Fossilized fragments from the right tibia of a Tachiraptor admirabilis are seen during a news conference in Caracas

Fossilized fragments from the right tibia of a rare carnivorous dinosaur called Tachiraptor admirabilis are displayed at a news conference in Caracas, Venezuela on 10/17/14. An international team of scientists discovered the remains of the dinosaur in Western Venezuela. (Reuters)

Science Scanner: ISS Resupply Spacecraft Explodes, Tiny Decontamination Devices, Walking Workstations = Health/Happy Workers

Posted October 29th, 2014 at 8:58 pm (UTC+0)
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Rocket With NASA’s Cargo Spacecraft Explodes Shortly After Liftoff/Russian Supply Mission Reaches ISS

Orbital Sciences Corp.'s unmanned rocket blowing up over the launch complex at Wallops Island, Va., just six seconds after liftoff.  (NASA-TV)

Orbital Sciences Corp.’s unmanned rocket blowing up over the launch complex at Wallops Island, Va., just six seconds after liftoff. (NASA-TV)

You probably read about this elsewhere, but we’d be remiss if we were to omit mention of the two ISS resupply missions launched yesterday… one successful while the other crashed and burned, or perhaps more accurately, burned and crashed.

NASA’s resupply mission to the International Space Station ended in disaster after the Orbital Science’s Antares rocket that was to ferry the unmanned Cygnus cargo spacecraft to the space station exploded shortly after its 2022 UTC launch last night from the space agency’s Wallops Island Fight Center in Virginia.

However, a few hours after NASA’s attempted launch, the Russian space agency successfully sent up its resupply cargo ship which, according to NASA’s Space Station blog, docked with the ISS today at 1308 UTC.

“The crew of the International Space Station is in no danger of running out of food or other critical supplies,” said William Gerstenmaier, Associate Administrator of NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Directorate in a prepared statement.

Both the US and Russian resupply missions were planned and scheduled in advance.

 

Microdevices Designed to Neutralize Chemical/Biological Warfare Agents 

Spherical micromotors fueled by water can neutralize dangerous chemical and biological agents. (American Chemical Society)

Spherical micromotors fueled by water can neutralize dangerous chemical and biological agents. (American Chemical Society)

Scientists from the University of California, San Diego said they’ve come up with a unique new approach to handling threats posed by the use of chemical and biological weapons by terrorists or rogue governments.

The California researchers are developing tiny new spherical microrockets that will quickly deliver titanium dioxide, an agent that scientists say neutralizes dangerous biological and chemical agents, into environments that can be difficult to decontaminate.

The scientific team, led by UCSD’s Joseph Wang, outlined their new decontamination process in the journal ‘ACS Nano’.  They created a delivery system by coating the titanium dioxide over tiny spherical cores of magnesium.

When these little orbs, with one tiny hole drilled into its shell, are introduced into watery environment the magnesium reacts to the water and produces hydrogen gas which quickly pushes the neutralizing titanium dioxide through the contaminated fluid.

The researchers tested their new micromotors and found that they were able to successfully neutralize not only nerve agents but also anthrax-like bacteria and were able to do so in much less time than with methods that are currently being used.

 

A 'walking workstation' (Jerry Huddleston via Creative Commons/Flickr)

A ‘walking workstation’ (Jerry Huddleston via Creative Commons/Flickr)

Healthier & Happier Workers Thanks to Walking Workstations

Most of us who work in offices are used to spending a lot of time sitting at our desks, but numerous studies have shown that too much sitting can be bad for our health.

As a result of this research, a number of office workers, including a number of my colleagues here at VOA, have switched from standard sitting workstations to those that allow you to work while standing up.

Some offices have taken the stand-up work station a step further and have introduced something called walking workstations.  Instead of simply standing at your desk on the office floor, with the walking workstation you stand on a treadmill which can be switched on and off throughout the day, allowing workers to do a little walking while they work.

Researchers from the Department of Psychology in the School of Science at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) recently conducted a study that found office workers using walking workstations had a higher level of satisfaction and weren’t as bored or stressed as those working with standing or sitting workstations.

“We found that the walking workstations, regardless of a person’s exercise habits or body mass index (BMI), had significant benefits,” said study co-author Michael Sliter, in a press release. “Even if you don’t exercise or if you are overweight, you’ll experience both short-term physical and psychological benefits.”

The study can be found online in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Occupational Health Psychology and will be published in the print edition of the journal in  this coming January.

NASA’s NuStar Mission Finds Rare Pulsar that Pumps Out the Energy of 10 Million Suns

Posted October 27th, 2014 at 6:49 pm (UTC+0)
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This animation shows a neutron star—the core of a star that exploded in a massive supernova. This particular neutron star is known as a pulsar because it sends out rotating beams of X-rays that sweep past Earth like lighthouse beacons. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

NASA’s Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR) mission recently made a remarkable discovery that could lead to a better understanding of how collapsed remnants like black holes can grow and feed on matter at very high rates, something that scientists think had to be done very early in the history of the universe.

The NuStar team, led by Dr. Fiona Harrison from the California Institute for Technology, was studying a supernova that had exploded in a nearby galaxy called Messier 82, or the Cigar Galaxy.

As they were making their observations the scientists also found some other very bright and incredibly luminous x-ray sources – ultraluminous X-ray sources (ULXs) – which they were quite sure were relatively massive black holes eating material at a very high rate.

Upon further investigation the team noticed that one of the objects was pulsing or flashing light.  They then realized that it wasn’t a black hole they were observing but a pulsating neutron star (a dead star) called a pulsar.

High-energy X-rays streaming from a rare and mighty pulsar (magenta) found in the M82 or Cigar Galaxy this mosaic of images from space and earth based telescopes (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SAO/NOAO)

High-energy X-rays streaming from a rare and mighty pulsar (magenta) found in the M82 or Cigar Galaxy this mosaic of images from space and earth based telescopes (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SAO/NOAO)

And what they found wasn’t just any regular pulsar, but the brightest that had ever been seen, pumping out about 10 million times more energy than our sun and more than ten times brighter than any known object like it.

The team’s finding is challenging theorists to try and understand the physics of how this object, nicknamed the “Mighty Mouse” of pulsars, could be so bright.

Harrison, one of the first women to become a principal investigator of a NASA mission, said that this newly discovered object has so much mass packed into it that it’s equivalent to having the mass of the sun jammed into a region the size of the city of San Francisco.

“If you took a teaspoon of the neutron star it would weigh more than all the humans on Earth,” she said.

NuStar, one of NASA’s small ‘explorer missions’ is the first telescope that can offer finely focused images of the universe in the high energy part of the x-ray band (6 – 79 keV).  Harrison said that since NuStar can focus so well it produces images that are 100 times crisper than any that had been offered in the high-energy part of the spectrum before.

X-ray electromagnetic radiation is emitted by some of the hottest, densest, most energetic regions in the universe.

Artist's concept of NuSTAR spacecraft in orbit. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Artist’s concept of NuSTAR spacecraft in orbit. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Harrison helped create some of the instruments that are aboard the NuStar spacecraft.

One of the first things that Harrison and her colleagues had to do to get the NuStar mission off the ground was to develop x-ray lens that can focus the light as well as new kinds of detectors that work like digital cameras, but can make images in the high-energy x-ray range.

As members of the NuStar mission began their work, they found that the only available types of telescopes that would work in the part of the x-ray spectrum they would be focusing on were those that were based on ‘pinhole cameras’ which she said was a very crude technology.

In order to peer deep into the cosmos, Harrison said that ‘real telescopes’ were needed.  So they worked with available x-ray mirror technology and developed and built telescopes that could be used to make observations at higher energies, as well as detectors that could actually stop the powerful beams of electromagnetic radiation to make images.

So as they prepared the NuStar for its June 13, 2012 launch, mission engineers and technicians packed it with instruments that were designed to collect images at energies beyond those of NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and ESA’s XMM-Newton or X-ray Multi-Mirror Mission space telescope.

Although NuStar completed its two-year primary mission, NASA moved the x-ray space telescope onto a two-year mission extension.

Principal Investigator Dr. Fiona Harrison poses with model of NASA's NuStar spacecraft (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Principal Investigator Dr. Fiona Harrison poses with model of NASA’s NuStar spacecraft (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

NASA officials said they plan continued observations with not only NASA’s NuSTAR, but with its Swift and Chandra spacecraft to see if they can find some kind of an explanation for the behavior of the newly discovered pulsar.

Also, since the discovery of this unique pulsar was a bit of a surprise, members of the NuSTAR team will continue to closely observe other ultraluminous X-ray sources in hopes of finding even more pulsars.

Dr. Fiona Harrison talked about the pulsar discovery, the NuStar mission itself, what it’s like being one of the first female primary investigators of a NASA mission and how she balances her very busy scientific schedule with an active home life as a wife and mother on a recent radio edition of VOA’s Science World.

You can listen to the interview through the audio player below.

Science Scanner: Heart of Space Telescope Survives Deep Freeze, Pain-Free Blood Tests and 3-D Videogames Trigger Player Anger

Posted October 22nd, 2014 at 7:13 pm (UTC+0)
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The view from inside NASA Goddard's Thermal Vacuum Chamber shows the space telescope's ISIM being lifted out by crane, after completing weeks of space environment testing. (NASA/Chris Gunn)

The view from inside NASA Goddard’s Thermal Vacuum Chamber shows the space telescope’s ISIM being lifted out by crane, after completing weeks of space environment testing. (NASA/Chris Gunn)

Key Space Telescope Component Passes Deep Freeze Test

Officials with the James Webb Space Telescope project at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland report success in a crucial test to see if a key component, which  they refer to as the ‘heart’ of the space telescope, can take the incredibly cold conditions of space.

Project team members placed the component, known at the Integrated Science Instrument Module (ISIM), along with the very sensitive instruments it contains, inside a thermal vacuum chamber called the Space Environment Simulator (SES) for 116 days at a temperature of 40° Kelvin, which is -233.15° C. According to NASA, that’s 126.67° C colder than any place on the Earth’s surface.

Members of the Webb team refer to the ISIM as the space telescope’s heart because it houses the four key instruments that will detect light from celestial objects such as distant stars and galaxies, and planets.

Around the clock throughout the 116 day test period, technicians and engineers monitored the module and its instruments to make sure that all was working as it should in conditions that replicated the icy environment it will operate in following its planned 2018 launch.

 

Illustration depicting liposomal OTS964 entering cancer cells where it blocks the enzyme TOPK, preventing the final stage of cell division. (Jae-Hyun Park D.V.M., Ph.D., Research Associate/Assistant Professor, Section of Hematology/Oncology, The University of Chicago)

Illustration depicting liposomal OTS964 entering cancer cells where it blocks the enzyme TOPK, preventing the final stage of cell division. (Jae-Hyun Park D.V.M., Ph.D., Research Associate/Assistant Professor, Section of Hematology/Oncology, The University of Chicago)

New Cancer-Fighting Drug is Effective, Produces Fewer Side Effects

Researchers from the US and Japan, writing in the journal Science Translational Medicine, found that a newly developed drug known as OTS964 is able to destroy aggressive human lung cancers that had been transplanted into mice with fewer side effects than is experienced with other cancer treatments.

The researchers found that this new medication, which can be administered either as a pill or by injection, reduces the action of a protein called TOPK (T–lymphokine-activated killer cell – originated protein kinase), which tends to be overproduced by a wide range of human cancers, but is rarely expressed in healthy tissues.

Cancer cells that lack this protein aren’t able to complete the cell-division process and as a result, die.

The researchers found that when the drug was administered by pill, the test mice were able to tolerate it with only small degree of toxicity.  Given in an intravenous form, not only was the OTS964 as effective as in pill form, but the test mice experienced fewer side effects.

Both the pill and injection versions of the drug also led to a complete regression of the tumors transplanted into the mice.

The researchers hope to begin a phase-1 clinical trial as soon as the fall of 2015.

 

Young woman expresses her aversion to getting jabbed with a needle as a medical technician draws blood (Photo: US Navy)

Young woman expresses her aversion to getting jabbed with a needle as a medical technician draws blood (Photo: US Navy)

Australian Researchers Develop Less Painful Alternative to Blood Tests

Australian researchers writing in the American Chemical Society’s journal Analytical Chemistry said that they’ve developed a new and less painful method for drawing the blood needed for blood tests.

Rather than drawing blood with a syringe, the Aussie researchers are working on system uses small diagnostic skin patches.  One side of their skin patch is covered with a network of thousands of tiny, hollow needles that can retrieve fluids from skin tissue without the pain and difficulty of the standard blood drawing system.

While researchers have experimented with similar skin patch systems, those developed so far have only been able to test for one biomarker at a time.  For a more accurate and reliable diagnosis, multiple biomarkers are needed.

The Australian team optimized their skin patch so it captures two biomarkers for the malaria parasite, Plasmodium falciparum, which health officials say kills more than 1 million people every year.

To test the effectiveness of their system, the researchers first injected malaria proteins into the bloodstream of live mice and then applied their patch to their skin.  The researchers were able to successfully grab a sample of those injected proteins using their skin patch system.

 

Young woman playing 3D game 'Invincible Tiger' (Deadmanjones/Creative Commons via Flickr)

Young woman playing 3D game ‘Invincible Tiger’ (Deadmanjones/Creative Commons via Flickr)

Immersive 3-D Violent Video Games Increases Players Anger Levels

​Video game producers work continuously to make their games as lifelike as possible, so many have turned to 3-D gaming technology.

But according to a new study from Ohio State University, 3-D technology makes violent video games so realistic that they lead to high anger levels in players.

The researchers found that those who played violent 3-D games displayed more signs of anger than those who played the regular 2-D systems, even if they used large display screens.

Compared to 2-D game system players, the researchers found that those who played the video games on the 3-D systems felt more “immersed in the game”.

“3-D gaming increases anger because the players felt more immersed in the violence when they played violent games,” said study co-author Brad Bushman, a professor of communication and psychology at The Ohio State University in a press release. “As the technology in video games improves, it has the ability to have stronger effects on players.”

Bushman said that combining violent game content with immersive technology like 3-D can be troublesome and that factor should be considered by those involved, from game creators to content rating agencies to consumers.

The Ohio State study has been accepted for publication in the journal Psychology of Popular Media Culture.

Mars Has Close Call With Comet

Posted October 20th, 2014 at 7:47 pm (UTC+0)
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Artist's concept of Comet 2013 A1 Siding Spring and Mars. (NASA)

Artist’s concept of Comet 2013 A1 Siding Spring and Mars. (NASA)

Wow that was close!

NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) are reporting that their Mars Orbiters are safe and doing fine after comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring brushed by and made its closest approach to the Red Planet Sunday, with its nucleus passing by at approximately 1827 UTC.

Scientists said that the comet blew past Mars at a speed of about 56 kilometers per second and got as close as 139,500 kilometers of the planet, that’s about one-third of the distance between Earth and the Moon.

Artist's concept shows the NASA Mars orbiters lining up behind Mars for their “duck and cover” maneuver to shield them from comet dust that may result from the close flyby of Comet 2013 A1 Siding Spring  on Oct. 19, 2014.  (NASA/JPL/Caltech)

Artist’s concept shows the NASA Mars orbiters lining up behind Mars for their “duck and cover” maneuver to shield them from comet dust that may result from the close flyby of Comet 2013 A1 Siding Spring on Oct. 19, 2014. (NASA/JPL/Caltech)

All three space agencies put special measures in place ahead of time to protect their spacecraft from the envelope of gas and high-velocity dust particles that accompanies the comet in its orbital trip around the sun.

NASA moved its Mars Odyssey, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) to the opposite side of the planet from the approaching comet.

Officials with each of the three NASA orbiter missions also took additional steps to protect their spacecraft and its onboard instruments.

ESA put its Mars Express into a special protective mode that would reduce any risk to the spacecraft from from comet particles.

Path of Comet Siding Spring animation (NASA/JPL/Caltech)

Path of Comet Siding Spring animation (NASA/JPL/Caltech)

“This included turning off all instruments and non-essential onboard systems, and turning the spacecraft so as to use the large high-gain antenna as a shield,” said Mars Express Spacecraft Operations Manager Michel Denis in a press release.

ISRO’s Mars Orbiter Mission Tweeted “Phew! Experience of a lifetime. Watched the #MarsComet #SidingSpring whizzing past the planet. I’m in my orbit, safe and sound.”

The fleet of spacecraft also had a ring-side seat to watch the rare celestial event as the comet zipped past Mars.

This artist's concept puts solar system distances in perspective.  (NASA Goddard)

This artist’s concept puts solar system distances in perspective. (NASA Goddard)

The space agencies said that their orbiters are sending images and observational data back to Earth where it’s being downloaded.  NASA said that it could take days for it to retrieve a full download of data from its spacecraft.

To get a wide range of observations of the Comet’s close encounter with Mars, NASA used other resources, such as its Mars rovers Curiosity and Opportunity, as well as other spacecraft and facilities like the Hubble, Swift and Kepler Space Telescopes to watch the flyby from their unique perspectives.

If Mars were Earth, comet Siding Spring would pass by at about 1/3 the distance of Earth to the Moon.  (NASA/JPL/Caltech)

If Mars were Earth, comet Siding Spring would pass by at about 1/3 the distance of Earth to the Moon. (NASA/JPL/Caltech)

Comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring was discovered by astronomer Robert McNaught at Australia’s Siding Spring Observatory on January 3, 2013.  At the time of its discovery the comet was about 1,078,260,480 km from the sun.

Scientists said that the celestial object originated in the ‘Oort Cloud’ and probably has been making its orbital trip toward the sun for millions of years.

The comet is expected to reach its perihelion – closest encounter with the Sun – on October 25, 2014 getting within a distance of 1.39875 AU or 209,250,022 km.

After rendezvousing with the sun, Comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring will make its long return trip back into the depths of the solar system way beyond Pluto.

Saturn Moon’s Wobble Could Be Clue to What’s Inside

Posted October 17th, 2014 at 8:59 pm (UTC+0)
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This mosaic of Saturn's moon Mimas was created from images taken by NASA's Cassini spacecraft during its closest flyby of the moon on Feb. 13, 2010. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)

This mosaic of Saturn’s moon Mimas was created from images taken by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft during its closest flyby of the moon on Feb. 13, 2010. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)

Scientists with NASA’s Cassini Mission, which has been studying Saturn since 2004, were trying to figure out just how much one of its moons, Mimas, wobbled as it orbits the ringed planet.

After reviewing and analyzing copious images snapped by the robotic probe and running several models, the scientists think the moon’s wobble could be caused by either a frozen core shaped like an American football, or an ocean of liquid water.

The study outlining the scientist’s research was published in a recent issue of the journal Science.

“The data suggest that something is not right, so to speak, inside Mimas,” said study lead author Radwan Tajeddine, a Cassini research associate from Cornell University in a press release. “The amount of wobble we measured is double what was predicted.”

Tajeddine thinks that either possibility suggested by their models would be interesting, especially since the appearance of Mimas’s heavily cratered surface alone doesn’t indicate that something unusual might be lying deep inside.

Artist's concept of Saturn's rings and major icy moons. (NASA)

Artist’s concept of Saturn’s rings and major icy moons. (NASA)

The scientists pointed out that since Mimas, which many think resembles the ‘Death Star’ from the Star Wars movie, formed over 4 billion years ago, its core should have settled down and relaxed into pretty much a spherical configuration by now.  So, if the core does turn out to be frozen and oblong shaped, as some of the models suggest, the researchers think it could provide a ‘frozen in time’ glance at the early history of the moon’s formation.

But, if the moon instead does have a liquid ocean inside, as other models demonstrated, Mimas would become a member of an elite group of “ocean worlds” that includes two of its siblings the Saturn moons, Enceladus and Titan as well as several of the moons that orbit Jupiter.

Like how our own moon always shows its same side to those of us on Earth, as well as others throughout the solar system, Mimas’ own axis rotation is in sync with its orbit around Saturn, which is something called a spin-orbit resonance.  Just like Earth’s moon, Mimas also takes the same time to completely turn around on its own axis as it does to orbit its parent planet.

Many people think that Mimas, one of Saturn's moons, totally looks like the Death Star! (Paul T via Flickr/Creative Commons)

Many people think that Mimas, one of Saturn’s moons, totally looks like the Death Star! (Paul T via Flickr/Creative Commons)

Mimas’ doesn’t orbit around Saturn in an exact circle; instead it extends out a little into more of an elliptical orbit.

Because of this type of orbit if you were to observe Mimas from the surface of Saturn you’d notice that moon would look like it had a little bit of a wobble as it orbits around the planet.  This little wobble or variation effect is called libration and believe it or not our own moon does the same thing.

“Observing libration can provide useful insights about what is going on inside a body,” said Tajeddine. “In this case, it is telling us that this cratered little moon may be more complex than we thought.”

If Mimas does have a liquid water ocean, models developed by the researchers show that it would sit about 24 to 31 kilometers beneath its surface.

Since it’s only about 396 kilometers wide, scientists figure that Mimas is probably too small to have been able to keep and store internal heat that was generated from its formation.  So, in order to for the underground liquid ocean concept to work another source of energy would be from its formation, so some other source of energy would be required to maintain an underground ocean.

Artist's concept of the Cassini spacecraft during Saturn orbit insertion.  (NASA/JPL/Caltech)

Artist’s concept of the Cassini spacecraft during Saturn orbit insertion. (NASA/JPL/Caltech)

The researchers found enough evidence to suggest that Mimas’ elliptical orbit may have extended over a wider area in the past, something they said could have generated enough orbital and rotational energy to create tidal heating that could produce an ocean.

Working with the model that suggested an oblong frozen core, the scientists thought that if it did contain such an object of that size, Mimas should also have a different shape than what they observed.

The researchers recommended that Cassini take more measurements of Mimas so that additional models could be developed that could better explain the libration that they observed.

Science Scanner: All Systems ‘Go’ for Comet Touchdown, Cigarette Ash Removes Arsenic from Water, Is Earth’s Magnetic Field Ready to Flip?, Building the World’s Biggest Cosmic Ray Detector

Posted October 15th, 2014 at 8:17 pm (UTC+0)
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Rosetta mission selfie a distance of about 16 km from the surface of 67P/C-G. (ESA/Rosetta/Philae/CIVA)

Rosetta mission selfie a distance of about 16 km from the surface of 67P/C-G. (ESA/Rosetta/Philae/CIVA)

Rosetta’s Philae Lander Given Green Light for Comet Touchdown in November

The European Space Agency announced that all systems are ‘go’ for the Rosetta Mission to send its Philae lander to the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko on November 12, 2014.

This will the first-ever attempt of a soft touchdown landing on a comet.

A month ago Rosetta mission officials selected, after much study and discussion, what is now being called ‘Site J’ as the primary landing site for Philae.  ESA confirmed that selection on October 14, 2014.

In preparation for the November landing, Philae’s mother-ship Rosetta is inching its way closer and closer the comet 67P.  When the Rosetta arrived at the comet in early August the Rosetta was about 100km away.  The unmanned space probe is now within 10 km of comet 67P.

ESA officials said that, as of now, the Rosetta spacecraft, which has been carrying the Philae with it on it 10 year trip to the comet, will release the air conditioner sized lander at 0835 UTC on November 12th.  Landing, according to ESA, is expected to take place around 1530 UTC.

After it lands on the comet, the Philae lander will use its package of instruments to learn about the physical properties of 67P’s surface and subsurface.  It will also run tests to determine the comet’s chemical, mineralogical and isotopic composition.

Yesterday (October 14, 2014), the Rosetta mission released a “selfie” it took with comet 67P in the background – see photo on left.

 

Scientists Develop Simple and Inexpensive Way to Remove Arsenic from Drinking Water

(Andrew Magill via Flickr/Creative Commons)

(Andrew Magill via Flickr/Creative Commons)

A team of Chinese scientists took the byproduct of one health issue and turned it into a solution to another.

Writing the American Chemical Society’s journal ‘Industrial and Engineering Chemistry Research’, the researchers outlined their unique, simple and inexpensive way to remove the poison arsenic from drinking water.

Water can be contaminated by arsenic either through natural means or from industrial related pollution.  The researchers said the problem of arsenic-contaminated groundwater is high in developing nations.

While the poison can be successfully removed from water, it usually takes a sophisticated and expensive treatment system to do this.

The key behind the newly developed arsenic removal system is the end result of the unhealthy habit of cigarette smoking: ashes.

After other scientists tried using natural waste products to remove the toxic substance from water, the Chinese group realized that, since the structure of cigarette ash is porous and better suited for the job than something like banana peels, they’d go ahead and investigate its possible use in this application.

 

Artist's illustration of the shape and function of the Earth's magnetic field that protects us from harmful cosmic radiation (NASA)

Artist’s illustration of the shape and function of the Earth’s magnetic field that protects us from harmful cosmic radiation (NASA)

Is Earth’s Magnetic Field About to Reverse Its Polarity?

Earth’s magnetic field has flipped a number of times throughout its 4.5 billion year history.  The magnetic north pole became the magnetic south pole and vice versa.

A study conducted by an international team of scientists found that planet Earth is again on the verge of magnetic field reversal.  They said the last time this happened was about 786,000 years ago, taking about 100 years, a relatively short time to do so.

Usually the magnetic field remains steady and at the same intensity for thousands or millions of years but for reasons that scientists can’t explain, the field weakens and then flips direction over a period of about a couple of thousand  years.

Increasingly new evidence has led scientists to determine that Earth’s magnetic field intensity is dropping by a rate of 10 times as fast that it normally would.

Scientists believe that magnetic field reversals are driven by changes in the Earth’s iron core.

To make their findings, the scientists writing in the November issue of Geophysical Journal International took measurements of the magnetic field alignment in layers of ancient Italian lake sediments that are now exposed.

Researchers expressed concern that if a reversal in the magnetic field does occur, we could experience all sorts of calamity. It could cause our electrical grid to shut down.

And, since the magnetic field helps shield Earth’s life forms from the dangers of powerful streams of solar particles and cosmic rays, any temporary loss or weakening of the field that usually takes place before it permanently reverses polarity could pose a serious danger to our health.

The danger to life could even be greater if the magnetic field goes through long periods of instability before the flip, said the researchers.

 

Physicists Develop Smartphone App to Form the World’s Biggest Cosmic Ray Detector

(UC Irvine)

(UC Irvine)

According to a paper published at the physics website arXiv, two California physicists have designed a new smartphone app that they hope, with your help, would create an Earth-sized cosmic ray detector.

The app is called CRAYFIS (Cosmic Rays Found in Smartphones) and it works on both Android and iOS devices.

Daniel Whiteson from the University of California, Irvine and Michael Mulhearn from the University of California Davis are looking for volunteers with smartphones to form a global network that collectively would serve as a way to detect these ultra-high-energy particles from space that collide with Earth.

Scientists say that these cosmic rays are a billion times more energetic than the particles produced by CERN’s Large Hadron Collider.

Whiteson and Mulhearn said that their app uses a smartphone or tablet to collect data when connected to a source of power and has been inactive for a couple of minutes so that it doesn’t interfere with normal usage or drain batteries.

“Whole square kilometers can be drenched in these particles for a few milliseconds,” said Whiteson in a press release. “The mystery is nobody knows where these crazy, high-energy particles are coming from or what’s making them so energetic. But they can be captured by technology in smartphones’ cameras.”

The physicists note that if you sign up for the program and your phone happens to gather data that is used in a scientific paper, you will be offered authorship. They also said that their CRAYFIS app can run in anonymous mode.

Obesity Found to Age the Liver Faster

Posted October 13th, 2014 at 6:59 pm (UTC+0)
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The patterns of the figures provides a microscopic view of liver cells from lean (left  and obese subjects (right), respectively. (UCLA)

The patterns of the figures provides a microscopic view of liver cells from lean (left and obese subjects (right), respectively. (UCLA)

U.S. and German scientists have found, for the first time, that obesity significantly quickens the aging process of the liver and have revealed that carrying excessive weight can negatively impact certain human tissues.

While scientists have suspected that obesity does play a significant role in aging a person faster the American/German team said that their research marked the first time they were able to prove the concept.

The international team’s findings have been published today by the journal, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The researchers used an ‘epigenetic clock’, which is a unique age prediction method developed in 2013 by Steve Horvath, a professor of human genetics at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).   Horvath is also first author of the PNAS study.

“This is the first study that evaluated the effect of body weight on the biological ages of a variety of human tissues,” Horvath said in a press release.  “Given the obesity epidemic in the Western world, the results of this study are highly relevant for public health.”

The aging clock has been shown to precisely measure the age of a variety of human tissues, organs and cell types, by employing a time-keeping device that had been previously unknown.

In developing his ‘epigenetic clock’ Horvath and his colleagues focused on a naturally occurring process called methylation, which is a chemical modification of the DNA molecule.

Body Mass Index - BMI Chart (National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute)

Body Mass Index – BMI Chart (National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute)

To reach their findings in this study and examine the connection between increased body weight and epigenetic acceleration, the US and German scientists worked with and used Horvath’s aging clock method on almost 1,200 human tissue samples, 140 of which were liver samples.

The researchers found that the aging clock was quite accurate and was able to match the biological age with the chronological age of liver tissue samples taken from subjects with little body fat.

On the other hand, the scientists found that liver tissues taken from subjects who were obese had a tendency of having a higher biological age than their chronological age than they had expected.

While they found that obesity has no affect the epigenetic age of human tissues such as fat, muscle or blood, Horvath and his colleagues found that the epigenetic age of the liver, on average, increased by 3.3 years for every 10 units of Body Mass Index (BMI).

In their published study the researchers gave an example by comparing the biogenetic age of the liver of a 1.65 meter tall woman who weighs 63.5 kg, with a BMI of 23.3 with another woman who of the same height, but instead weighs 27.1 additional kg and a body mass index of 33.3.

This figure overlays aging clocks on the Vitruvian man created by Leonardo da Vinci circa 1490. This diagram illustrates the epigenetic clock (also known as biological aging clock), which can be used to measure the age of different parts of the human body. (Steve Horvath via Wikimedia Commons)

This figure overlays aging clocks on the Vitruvian man created by Leonardo da Vinci circa 1490. This diagram illustrates the epigenetic clock (also known as biological aging clock), which can be used to measure the age of different parts of the human body. (Steve Horvath via Wikimedia Commons)

Horvath and his team found that the heavier woman’s liver would be about three years older than the woman who weighed less.

“This does not sound like a lot, but it is actually a very strong effect,” Horvath said. “For some people, the age acceleration due to obesity will be much more severe, even up to 10 years older.”

The researchers also found that overweight or obese people who had rapidly lost weight with measures such as bariatric surgery were unable, at least in the short term, to reverse the accelerated aging process in the liver.

Horvath said that he and his colleagues will continue their work to find if this obesity driven early-onset aging of the liver could be prevented and if the risk of diabetes and liver cancer could also be avoided.

The researchers said that their findings not only support previously held theories that obesity plays a role with the accelerated aging effects of the human body and is yet another important reason for people to maintain a healthy weight.

New Treatment in Fight Against Antibiotic-Resistant Infections Shows Promise

Posted October 6th, 2014 at 7:43 pm (UTC+0)
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Antibiotics (PublicDomainPictures)

Antibiotics (PublicDomainPictures)

Researchers in New York say their new ‘programmable antibiotic’ treatment that fights dangerous bacterial infections without harming other more benign or even helpful microbes shows promise.

The technique could also some day prove to be a useful tool in the fight against the growing global health threat of antimicrobial resistance

In a study published in the journal Nature Biotechnology, the scientists outlined a new treatment technique that will allow antibiotics to be customized and specially programmed to go after bad germs without harming the good bacteria that help our bodies function properly.

“In experiments, we succeeded in instructing a bacterial enzyme, known as Cas9, to target a particular DNA sequence and cut it up,” said lead researcher Luciano Marraffini, head of Rockefeller University’s Laboratory of Bacteriology in a press release.

“This selective approach leaves the healthy microbial community intact, and our experiments suggest that by doing so you can keep resistance in check and so prevent certain types of secondary infections, eliminating two serious hazards associated with treatment by classical antibiotics,” said Marrafini.

Traditional antibiotics go after harmful bacteria with such force that they often take out many of the “good microbes” while attacking the “bad microbes”.

Bacteria can mutate in a way that lets them develop an immunity to standard antibiotic treatments.  As a result, medical science has been developing stronger and stronger medications to fight these mutating microbes.

To seek out and destroy certain DNA sequences in harmful bacteria, but leave others alone, the researchers adopted an immunity system, called CRISPR – Clustered Regularly Interspace Short Palindromic Repeats – that bacteria use to protect themselves.

Rockefeller University researchers colonized mouse skin with a mix of bacterial cells, some resistant to the antibiotic kanamycin. They made the resistant cells glow (left) and treated the mix with an enzyme that targeted and killed off most resistant cells (right). (Marraffini Lab and Fischetti Lab/Nature Biotechnology)

Rockefeller University researchers colonized mouse skin with a mix of bacterial cells, some resistant to the antibiotic kanamycin. They made the resistant cells glow (left) and treated the mix with an enzyme that targeted and killed off most resistant cells (right). (Marraffini Lab and Fischetti Lab/Nature Biotechnology)

Contained within these CRISPR systems are some unique genetic sequences called spacers that match up with the sequences found in intruding viruses.

Among the enzymes that are linked with the system is the CRISPR associated protein 9 or Cas9 enzyme.

The New York research team was able to send the Cas9 enzyme to locate and destroy a target within a particular strain of a harmful bacteria by engineering the CRISPR spacer sequences so that it matched the “bad microbe’s” genes.

These engineered sequences, along with Cas9 enzyme, were inserted into a cell of a “bad microbe”.  Once inside, the combination causes the cell to turn on its own immunity system.  Depending on where its target was located within the cell, the Cas9 could wipe out the target gene or destroy the cell itself.

The researchers also found that in some instances, this type of treatment could prevent a harmful microbe from developing any resistance at all.

“We previously showed that if Cas9 is programmed with a target from a bacterial genome, it will kill the bacteria. Building on that work, we selected guide sequences that enabled us to selectively kill a particular strain of microbe from within a mixed population,” says first author David Bikard, a former Rockefeller postdoctoral research who is now at the Pasteur Institute in Paris.

To help reach their findings, the researchers conducted three sets of experiments.

The first involved a common skin and respiratory microbe that can resist the antibiotic kanamycin.  In this situation, the Cas9 targeted and killed the antibiotic resistant portion of the bacteria, leaving the rest to be destroyed by the kanamycin antibiotic.

Scanning electron micrograph of Staphylococcus. aureus; false color added. (CDC)

Scanning electron micrograph of Staphylococcus. aureus; false color added. (CDC)

In the second set of experiments the researchers sent the Cas9 after some tetracycline-resistant elements in a strain of potentially deadly bacteria known as Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus or MRSA.  The Cas9 treatment in this case not only allowed the bacteria to again be vulnerable to tetracycline again, but it also set up other staph cells to act as a form of immunization that prevented the bacteria from adopting elements that made it resistant to antibiotics.

In the third and final set of tests the researchers used the Cas9 to selectively destroy antibiotic resistant staph infections from the shaved backs of mice.

The researchers said that although their work produced promising results, the delivery method used to carry out this new treatment needs further improvement.

Unique Carbon-Based Molecule Found in Deep Space May Indicate Origins of Life

Posted October 3rd, 2014 at 8:02 pm (UTC+0)
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Milky Way above the antennas at the ALMA Observatory in Chile ((c) Y. Beletsky (LCO)/ESO

Milky Way above the antennas at the ALMA Observatory in Chile ((c) Y. Beletsky (LCO)/ESO

Astronomers from Cornell University in Ithaca, NY, Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy, and the University of Cologne found an unusual carbon-based molecule called isopropyl cyanide in a gas cloud some 27,000 light years away.

Those involved with the discovery say the finding suggests the type of complex molecules needed for life may have their origins deep in interstellar space.

“We think that detecting this molecule in particular will serve as a new frontier in the degree of complexity that we can find from molecules in space,” said research team member Dr. Rob Garrod from Cornell University’s Center for Radiophysics and Space Research.

While a large majority of molecules detected in space so far have carbon in them, what makes this new interstellar molecule discovery unique, according to the researchers, is its structure and size.

The astronomers say it’s the largest molecule ever found in similar star-forming areas of space.

Also, other carbon-based molecules found in similar environments tend to have their carbon atoms arranged in a single straight chain. The bit of isopropyl cyanide found in this discovery has its carbon atoms arranged in a more complex branched structure.

Milky Way's Galactic Center and Sagittarius B2 as seen by the ATLASGAL survey ((c) ESO/APEX & MSX/IPAC/NASA)

Milky Way’s Galactic Center and Sagittarius B2 as seen by the ATLASGAL survey ((c) ESO/APEX & MSX/IPAC/NASA)

Scientists say that molecules that contain branched carbon structures, such as those contained within isopropyl cyanide, are quite common in materials like amino acids, which are key ingredients that are needed for life.

The researchers believe their new discovery backs up a theory that molecules crucial for the existence of life may have been delivered to planets in objects such as meteorites.  These celestial objects are thought to have been produced in the early stages of a star’s formation, before the creation of other solar system bodies such as planets.

Using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, or ALMA radio-telescope, located high in the mountains of northern Chile, the U.S. and German astronomers discovered the molecule by picking up on the radio waves it transmits from deep space.

Garrod explained that he and his colleagues aimed the radio antenna dishes of ALMA toward areas of space where stars are forming and were able to detect radio signals produced by various molecules.

Each type of molecule produces radio signals at very specific frequencies.

It’s not uncommon for radio astronomers to detect dozens or even hundreds of emissions, all at different frequencies, said Garrod.

He pointed out that scientists sometimes have a bit of trouble zeroing in on the radio emission of one particular molecule. With so many different kinds of molecules in the star-forming regions of space, there’s a virtual cacophony of varied radio signals being produced.

Rob Garrod, Cornell senior research associate at the Center for Radiophysics and Space Research (Lindsay France/Cornell University)

Rob Garrod, Cornell senior research associate at the Center for Radiophysics and Space Research (Lindsay France/Cornell University)

These numerous and different signals tend to overlap each other, which often distorts and sometimes cancels out the reception of a particular molecule’s radio emission.

The astronomers found the isopropyl cyanide molecule in a huge cloud of gas and dust called Sagittarius B2, located in the constellation Sagittarius, close to the galactic center of our galaxy, the Milky Way.

Garrod said this region of space is known for being particularly rich in complex organic or carbon-bearing molecules, which is why he and his colleagues are so interested in looking for these types of molecules in space.

“We think that, eventually, these molecules that are formed in space, will eventually be incorporated into new planetary systems and may ultimately be delivered to the surfaces of planets which presumably could impact the ultimate emergence of life on those planets,” said Garrod.

The researchers described their findings in a recent edition of the journal Science.

Dr. Rob Garrod talks about his team’s discovery on this weekend’s radio edition of Science World.  You can hear the interview in the player below or you can check out the entire Science World radio program.  Program air-times and an audio feed can be found in the right hand column.

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