Exoplanet Bonanza; Good Sleep = Less Stress; Help Find Planet 9

Posted February 23rd, 2017 at 4:25 pm (UTC-5)
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This illustration shows the possible surface of TRAPPIST-1f, one of the newly discovered planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

This illustration shows the possible surface of TRAPPIST-1f, one of the newly discovered planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

7 Earth-Like Planets Found Orbiting Single Star

Scientists using NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope have found the largest group of earth-like planets circling a single star.

A total of seven planets were observed orbiting TRAPPIST-1, a star located only about 40 light years from Earth.

The discovery also set a record for the number of planets that were found in a star’s habitable zone.

The habitable zone is an area surrounding a star where any orbiting planets could have liquid water on its surface, something that’s essential to support life.

“The discovery gives us a hint that finding a second Earth is not just a matter of ‘if’, but when,” says NASA’s Thomas Zurbuchen speaking at a press conference announcing the discovery.

The head of the space agency’s Science Mission Directorate also says scientists believe that around every star there could one, seven or more planets that could have a chance at becoming a habitable ecosystem.

Sleeping man (Imogenisla via Creative Commons)

Sleeping man (Imogenisla via Creative Commons)

Good Sleep = Less Stress – Less Stress = Good Sleep

According to the US National Institutes of Health, getting enough quality sleep can help protect your mental and physical health, as well as your safety and quality of life.

Not getting a good night’s sleep on a regular basis can put you at risk for medical conditions such as obesity, heart disease and diabetes.

Penn State researchers have found in two studies that there’s a cycle of how the caliber and amount of sleep is affected by and can affect daily stressors.

Penn State’s Orfeu Buxton, senior author of the two studies, says having a day that’s less stressful and conflict filled day is followed by a night where it’s easier to get to sleep. And in turn having a good night of sleep is more likely to be followed by a day with less stress and conflict.

He suggests that sleep is a powerful source of resilience to help get through difficult times.

Computer monitor displaying the dreaded 'Blue Screen of Death' after malfunction. (Michael Ocampo via Flickr/Creative Commons)

Computer monitor displaying the dreaded ‘Blue Screen of Death’ after malfunction.
(Michael Ocampo via Flickr/Creative Commons)

Cosmic Rays May Crash Your Electronic Gear

You’ve been on your computer for a couple of hours working on an important paper and then boom – your computer crashes leaving you with that dreaded ‘blue screen of death’ on your monitor.

You may think this is due to a poorly written program or some other computer glitch, but new research suggests the problem may originate in deep space.

Bharat Bhuva from Vanderbilt University, says in a press release that in many cases, problems with our electronic devices may be caused by streams of electrically charged particles produced by cosmic rays.

While millions of these particles strike your body every second, they have no known harmful effects on living creatures.

However, Bhuva says a portion of these particles can carry enough energy to affect microelectronic circuitry.

He says fortunately makers of critical electronic devices such those used in aviation and medicine are all aware of this problem and working on measures to address it.

This artistic rendering shows the distant view from Planet Nine back towards the sun. The planet is thought to be gaseous, similar to Uranus and Neptune. Hypothetical lightning lights up the night side. (Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC))

This artistic rendering shows the distant view from Planet Nine back towards the sun. The planet is thought to be gaseous, similar to Uranus and Neptune. Hypothetical lightning lights up the night side. (Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC))

NASA Challenges Citizen Scientists to Find Planet 9

Back in January 2016, two astronomers at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) provided evidence of a giant planet traveling in an odd, drawn-out orbit in the far reaches of the solar system.

The evidence for its existence is based on the gravitational influence Planet 9 seems to have on several minor planet sized objects beyond the orbit of the solar system’s farthest planet Neptune.

Astronomers around the world have been actively scanning the skies since the discovery was announced, hoping to spot the humongous planet.

NASA is now seeking the help of citizen scientists to locate Planet 9 with the launch of a new website – Backyard Worlds: Planet 9.

The website features brief movies made from images captured by NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer or WISE mission.

The address for the new NASA website is www.backyardworlds.org

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.

Olive Oil Key to a Healthy Heart? – Black Holes – Liquid H2O on Mars?

Posted February 13th, 2017 at 4:20 pm (UTC-5)
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Container of olive oil (Lemone via Wikimedia Commons)

Container of olive oil (Lemone via Wikimedia Commons)

Diet Rich in Olive Oil Can Help Keep Heart Healthy

To keep heart healthy doctors recommend that you keep an eye on your cholesterol levels.

But there are two main types of cholesterol – LDL or bad cholesterol and HDL, also known as good cholesterol.

LDL cholesterol is bad because it builds up on artery walls which leads to heart disease, heart attack and stroke.

HDL cholesterol instead is considered good because it helps remove LDL cholesterol from the arteries.

So having low LDL levels, but high levels of HDL cholesterol can help keep your heart healthy.

A new study from the American Heart Association suggests that eating a Mediterranean diet enhanced with about 60 milliliters of virgin olive oil every day actually boosts levels of the good HDL cholesterol.

A Mediterranean diet is one that features vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, and fish but is low in carbohydrates and meat, especially red meat.

In this artist's illustration, an intermediate-mass black hole in the foreground distorts light from the globular star cluster in the background. (CfA / M. Weis)

In this artist’s illustration, an intermediate-mass black hole in the foreground distorts light from the globular star cluster in the background. (CfA / M. Weis)

Elusive Medium Mass Black Hole Spotted

Astronomers have long thought that there are two types of black holes.

Smaller sized black holes called Stellar-mass black holes and gigantic supermassive black holes.

Astronomers at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics say they found new evidence of a medium sized or intermediate-mass black hole, with a mass of 2,200 suns, hiding at the center of the globular star cluster 47 Tucanae (the toucan), some 13,000 light years from Earth.

A few intermediate-mass black holes had been spotted in the past. “All the previous claims of finding an intermediate black hole have been inconclusive, and subject to opposition by scientist who have shown the presented findings were equally consistent with other phenomena,” says Bülent Kızıltan, a Harvard astrophysicist in an email to Science World.

Kızıltan says scientists want to find intermediate-mass black holes because they are the missing link between stellar-mass and supermassive black holes.

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

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

How Could Ancient Mars Have Liquid Water?

Past observations made by Mars probes have suggested that the planet once had an abundance of water flowing over its surface.

But scientists have been left scratching their heads wondering how this would be possible considering the ancient sun was about 1/3 as warm as today.

A popular theory proposes that the Martian atmosphere was rich in carbon dioxide, which created a greenhouse effect that would have warmed the surface enough to allow liquid water to flow on the Red Planet.

But many say this couldn’t be possible since other studies suggest that about 4 billion years ago, Mars had lost its atmosphere to solar wind.

And recent findings by the Curiosity Mars Rover show that sedimentary bedrock from an ancient lake does not contain any carbonates.

NASA researchers say this lack of carbonates suggests that the Martian atmosphere could not have held carbon dioxide when water was said to flow on Mars some 3.5 billion years ago.

Artist's impression of AR Scorpii. In this unique double star a rapidly spinning white dwarf star (right) powers electrons up to almost the speed of light. (M. Garlick/University of Warwick, ESA/Hubble)

Artist’s impression of AR Scorpii. In this unique double star a rapidly spinning white dwarf star (right) powers electrons up to almost the speed of light. (M. Garlick/University of Warwick, ESA/Hubble)

Astronomical Oddity Discovered

Astronomers have discovered what is thought to be the first white dwarf pulsar to be found in the universe.

This astronomical oddity is located in a binary or two-star system, identified as AR Scorpii, some 380 light years from Earth.

White dwarfs are the remaining cores of medium mass stars that have used up their nuclear fuel.

Pulsars, known as the lighthouses of the universe because they emit powerful and bright pulsating beams of radiation, are usually associated with rotating neutron stars, remainders of massive stars that exploded in supernovae.

The white dwarf pulsar was found to be blasting its companion star, a red dwarf, with focused powerful beams of electrical particles and radiation.

And that is what, the astronomers say, causes the AR Scorpii system to brighten and dim twice every two minutes.

Artist’s illustration depicts what astronomers call a “tidal disruption event,” or TDE. (Illustration: CXC/M. Weiss; X-ray: NASA/CXC/UNH/D. Lin et al, Optical: CFHT)

Artist’s illustration depicts what astronomers call a “tidal disruption event,” or TDE.
(Illustration: CXC/M. Weiss; X-ray: NASA/CXC/UNH/D. Lin et al, Optical: CFHT)

Black Hole Took Decade to Devour Star

Astronomers find that a supermassive black hole took about a decade to feast on the remains of a star it had ripped apart.

This astronomical incident, called a tidal disruption event or TDE, takes place when a star or other object wanders too close to a black hole’s event horizon, the point where its gravitational pull becomes so intense that nothing, even light, can escape it.

The astronomers say the TDE they discovered lasted more than ten times as long than any other observation of a star’s death by black hole.

The astronomical team thinks the star consumed by the giant black hole had to be either the most massive star to be ripped to shreds by a TDE or was the first observation of the most complete obliteration of a smaller star.

To make their findings the researchers used a trio of x-ray space telescopes – NASA’s Chandra and Swift and the European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton observatories.

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.

No Worries – Scientists Say Earth’s Poles Won’t Flip for 4,000 Years

Posted February 9th, 2017 at 3:55 pm (UTC-5)
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Illustration of Earth as its bombarded with high-energy particles from the Sun's coronal mass ejection. Our planet's magnetic field acts like a shield protecting the planet against harmful radiation. (NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center)

Illustration of Earth as its bombarded with high-energy particles from the Sun’s coronal mass ejection. Our planet’s magnetic field acts like a shield protecting the planet against harmful radiation. (NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center)

The Earth’s magnetic fields helps create a shield that protects us from the continuous onslaught of highly charged space particles and radiation, which are dangerous to creatures living on the Earth’s surface.

Without these protective fields, scientists say that the solar wind also would simply blow away our atmosphere in way similar to what scientists suspect happened to Mars billions of years ago.

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)

So it’s natural that some people would get quite concerned over any news of a weakening or shifting of the magnetic fields.

Over the last several years there have been studies that suggest Earth’s magnetic field has been weakening at a rate around 10 times faster than originally thought or approximately 5 percent of its strength every decade.

Some scientists argue that the weakening of Earth’s magnetic fields is due to an upcoming flip in polarity.

In other words, the magnetic North Pole would become the South Pole and vice versa.

Earth’s magnetic fields have flipped seveal times throughout its 4.5 billion year history.

A study conducted in 2014 by an international team of scientists found that planet Earth is on the verge of magnetic field reversal.  They said the last time this happened was about 786,000 years ago, taking about 100 years to do so — a relatively short time.

Schematic representation of Earth's magnetic field lines after a polarization reversal (Zureks/Wikimedia Commons)

Schematic representation of Earth’s magnetic field lines after a polarization reversal (Zureks/Wikimedia Commons)

Scientists say, on average, the reversal of Earth’s magnetic fields take place roughly every 250,000 years, although the periods between periods field flips can vary.

Usually the magnetic fields remain 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 thousand years.

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

Now, calculations made in a new study led by mathematician Matthias Morzfeld at the University of Arizona, suggests “with high confidence,” that we can relax for 4,000 years, which is when Morzfeld’s team predicts the next magnetic flip will take place.

The study, published in the journal Physics of Earth and Planetary Interiors, drew upon paleomagnetic data recorded in rocks over the past 2 million years, as well as other sources, such as several centuries’ worth of measurements taken by ships.

With the data, Morzfield and his colleagues created a mathematical framework and computer models that precisely forecast all the magnetic field reversals over that 2-million-year period.  Doing this, the researchers say, they were able to make accurate predictions of future reversals.

Illustration of Earth including its mantle and inner/outer core. (Kelvinsong/Wikimedia Commons)

Illustration of Earth including its mantle and inner/outer core. (Kelvinsong/Wikimedia Commons)

If we could be around in 4,000 years when the predicted magnetic field reversal occurs, Morzfield expects we’d see the field become very weak.

“But nobody knows what would happen next. It’s possible that the field just changes shape and goes from the dipole [two poles] into the quadrupole [four pole] configuration, said Morzfield in a University of Arizona press release.

He also warned that the magnetic fields could completely collapse, which would be really bad, since our planet would be exposed to the things the fields currently protect us from.

“On the other hand, field reversals have happened, and life on Earth has survived,” said Morzfield.

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.

January 2017 Science Images

Posted February 1st, 2017 at 9:12 am (UTC-5)
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In this animated GIF released January 30, three solar flares are seen in extreme ultraviolet light by NASA's STEREO satellites. NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope detected high-energy gamma rays from all of them.

In this animated GIF released January 30, three solar flares are seen in extreme ultraviolet light by NASA’s STEREO satellites. NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope detected high-energy gamma rays from all of them.

Japan's H-IIA rocket carrying the Kirameki-2 satellite was launched from Tanegashima Space Centre in southern Tanegashima Island, Kagoshima prefecture, on January 24, 2017. Along with modernizing Japanese military communications, the satellite reportedly will be used to better monitor North Korean missile launches. (AFP Photo/JIJI Press)

Japan’s H-IIA rocket carrying the Kirameki-2 satellite was launched from Tanegashima Space Centre in southern Tanegashima Island, Kagoshima prefecture, on January 24, 2017. Along with modernizing Japanese military communications, the satellite reportedly will be used to better monitor North Korean missile launches. (AFP Photo/JIJI Press)

On Monday, NASA’s Cassini Mission released this photo of Saturn’s outer B ring, which shows a never-before-seen level of detail. Cassini made a series of dives through the outer edge of the main ring system as it wraps up its mission, scheduled to end in September 2017. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)

On Monday, NASA’s Cassini Mission released this photo of Saturn’s outer B ring, which shows a never-before-seen level of detail. Cassini made a series of dives through the outer edge of the main ring system as it wraps up its mission, scheduled to end in September 2017. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)

In this image made from a video, astronaut Peggy Whitson is seen taking a spacewalk outside the International Space Station on January 16. Both she and Commander Shane Kimbrough worked outside of the space station to connect new batteries on its sprawling power grid. (NASA via AP)

In this image made from a video, astronaut Peggy Whitson is seen taking a spacewalk outside the International Space Station on January 16. Both she and Commander Shane Kimbrough worked outside of the space station to connect new batteries on its sprawling power grid. (NASA via AP)

On January 19, a team of four men and two women moved into their new simulated space home on Hawaii’s dormant Mauna Loa volcano to begin where they will live for the next 8 months. The team is conducting a human-behavior study that could help NASA as it develops plans for sending astronauts on deep space destinations such as Mars. (University of Hawaii via AP)

On January 19, a team of four men and two women moved into their new simulated space home on Hawaii’s dormant Mauna Loa volcano to begin where they will live for the next 8 months. The team is conducting a human-behavior study that could help NASA as it develops plans for sending astronauts on deep space destinations such as Mars. (University of Hawaii via AP)

This NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image released January 16 shows part of the constellation Sagittarius (The Archer) in stunning detail. (ESA/Hubble & NASA)

This NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image released January 16 shows part of the constellation Sagittarius (The Archer) in stunning detail. (ESA/Hubble & NASA)

Engineers at NASA’s Johnson Space Center on January 24 simulated the extreme vibrating conditions spacesuit-clad astronauts would experience as an Orion spacecraft is launched atop the powerful Space Launch System rocket on its way to deep space destinations. (NASA)

Engineers at NASA’s Johnson Space Center on January 24 simulated the extreme vibrating conditions spacesuit-clad astronauts would experience as an Orion spacecraft is launched atop the powerful Space Launch System rocket on its way to deep space destinations. (NASA)

NASA launched a sounding rocket into the Alaskan night sky on January 27. The rocket, launched from the Poker Flat Research Ranger in Alaska, carried an experiment to measure nitric oxide in the polar sky. (NASA)

NASA launched a sounding rocket into the Alaskan night sky on January 27. The rocket, launched from the Poker Flat Research Range in Alaska, carried an experiment to measure nitric oxide in the polar sky. (NASA)

No, it’s not the Death Star from Star Wars. This is an image, taken by the Cassini spacecraft and released January 23, of Tethys, one of Saturn's larger icy moons. The resemblance to the fictional space station is due to the enormous crater, Odysseus. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)

No, it’s not the Death Star from Star Wars. This is an image, taken by the Cassini spacecraft and released January 23, of Tethys, one of Saturn’s larger icy moons. The resemblance to the fictional space station is due to the enormous crater, Odysseus. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)

Hector Rodriguez, senior mechanical technician, works on the Keck Cosmic Web Imager in a clean room at Caltech. The device was shipped from California to the Keck Observatory on Hawaii's Mauna Loa on January 12. (Caltech)

Hector Rodriguez, senior mechanical technician, works on the Keck Cosmic Web Imager in a clean room at Caltech. The device was shipped from California to the Keck Observatory on Hawaii’s Mauna Loa on January 12. (Caltech)

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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.

Is the Universe Connected By a Cosmic Web?

Posted January 26th, 2017 at 4:02 pm (UTC-5)
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Some people think that the universe is just a hodge-podge of various celestial objects, such as planets, stars and galaxies.

But over the years, scientists have found more evidence that the universe may be anything but random, and is actually more organized and interconnected—like an enormous spider web.

Our place in the web

A simulated view of the entire observable universe, approximately 93 billion light years or 28 billion parsecs in diameter. (Azcolvin429 via Creative Commons)

A simulated view of the entire observable universe, approximately 93 billion light years or 28 billion parsecs in diameter. (Azcolvin429 via Creative Commons)

Let’s start with our home planet.

Earth is part of a solar system, and our solar system is one of many planetary systems and stars that make up the Milky Way galaxy.

The Milky Way galaxy, its numerous satellite galaxies as well as other galaxies such as the Andromeda Galaxy, the Triangulum Galaxy and all of their satellites belong to a collection of galaxies called the Local Galactic Group.

The Local Galactic Group is part of the Virgo Supercluster of galaxies, which scientists say is one of about 10 million such galactic superclusters.

Research conducted by an international team of astronomers in 2014 suggest that this Virgo supercluster is a part of an even larger collection of some 100,000 galaxies called the Laniakea Supercluster.

The website atlaoftheuniverse.com puts the number of these superclusters in the known universe at 10 million.

According to an April 2016 article in Scientific American, all of the galaxies (groups, clusters and superclusters) in the universe form an immense network called the cosmic web.

Measuring the web’s threads

Hector Rodriguez, senior mechanical technician, works on the Keck Cosmic Web Imager in a clean room at Caltech. (Caltech)

Hector Rodriguez, senior mechanical technician, works on the Keck Cosmic Web Imager in a clean room at Caltech. (Caltech)

Research suggests that galaxies are connected to one another with streams of hot thin ionized gas (mostly hydrogen) called the intergalactic medium or IGM.

The W. M. Keck Observatory (Keck Observatory) in Hawaii says in a press release that they have received a new device, they call the world’s most sensitive instrument for measuring these gas filaments of the IGM.

Called the Keck Cosmic Web Imager (KCWI), this device will help scientists study the cosmic web in extraordinary detail, learn about the life-cycle of galaxies, and investigate some of the mysteries of our universe.

Keck says the KCWI is a spectrograph that weights around 5 tons and is the size of an “ice cream truck”.

The device is set to be connected to one of the twin 10-meter telescopes at the Keck Observatory, which they say are the largest optical/infrared telescopes in the world.

The telescopes located on Hawaii’s 4,207-meter-high dormant volcano, Mauna Kea, which is said to provide the most perfect astronomical viewing conditions in the world.

California Institute of Technology (Caltech) physics professor, Christopher Martin, and his team in cooperation with the Keck Observatory, University of California Santa Cruz and industrial partners, designed and built the KCWI.

Along with investigating the cosmic web, the device will also allow astronomers to study other very faint objects in the universe.

Earth's Place in the Universe (Andrew Z. Colvin via Wikimedia Commons)

Earth’s Place in the Universe (Andrew Z. Colvin via Wikimedia Commons)

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.

Ants Goof Off Too; Milky Way Steals Stars; Astronomers Spot Exocomets

Posted January 16th, 2017 at 1:12 pm (UTC-5)
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Ants work outside of their colony (Schristia, Creative Commons via Flickr)

Ants work outside of their colony (Schristia, Creative Commons via Flickr)

Ants Balance Work and Rest to Maintain Colony

Ants have a reputation of being dedicated and hardworking creatures.

But did you know that like humans, ants also seek to maintain a healthy balance of work and rest?

While an ant colony appears to be filled with busy workers, according to new research, there are also a number of ants just lying around and not doing a thing.

Rather than belittling them for not carrying their share of the work load, these so called “lazy ants” are still providing a valuable service to their colony.

According to scientists at the Missouri University of Science and technology, it’s important for some of the ants to take it easy and not use up too much of the group’s food, energy, and resources, which colony needs to be productive.

The researchers also find found that the larger the colony, the more important this work-rest balance becomes.

In this computer-generated image, a red oval marks the disk of our Milky Way galaxy and a red dot shows the location of the Sagittarius dwarf galaxy. The yellow circles represent stars that have been ripped from the Sagittarius dwarf and flung far across space. (Marion Dierickx/CfA)

Computer-generated image: Red oval marks disk of  Milky Way galaxy – red dot shows the location of the Sagittarius dwarf galaxy. The yellow circles are stars that have been ripped from the Sagittarius dwarf and flung far across space. (Marion Dierickx/CfA)

Milky Way Looting Stars from Neighboring Galaxy

According to Harvard astronomers, it appears that our Milky Way is stealing stars from a nearby satellite galaxy.

Fresh research, based on computer models, suggests that five or six of the eleven farthest known stars in the Milky Way have been yanked from the Sagittarius dwarf galaxy.

These stars, located outside of the Milky Way’s spiral, are about 300,000 light years from Earth.

There are dozens of these mini satellite galaxies, like the Sagittarius dwarf, that surround the Milky Way.

Scientists say since the beginning of the universe they have circled our galaxy several times.

As they do, the Milky Way’s tidal gravity pulls on the smaller galaxies and pulls them apart like taffy.

This allows their stars to migrate toward our galaxy in streams that can reach as far as one million light-years from the Milky Way’s center.

Artist impression shows several comets speeding across a vast protoplanetary disc of gas and dust and heading straight for the youthful, central star HD 172555. (NASA, ESA, and A. Feild and G. Bacon (STScI))

Artist impression shows several comets speeding across a vast protoplanetary disc of gas and dust and heading straight for the youthful, central star HD 172555. (NASA, ESA, and A. Feild and G. Bacon (STScI))

Astronomers Spot Exocomets Falling into Star

You’re probably familiar with extra solar or exoplanets – planets found beyond our own solar system.

But now thanks to NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope scientists detected exocomets – comets that are located outside of the solar system plummeting into a young star called HD 172555.

The star is about 95 light-years from earth and is thought to be about 23 million years old.

These recent observations of exocomets mark the third time these objects have been spotted in star systems beyond our own.

The two previous occasions where they were detect also happened to be in solar systems that are less than 40 million years old.

While the exocomets have not been seen directly, they spotted after the Hubble detected gas scientists think is probably the vaporized remains of their icy nuclei.

This artist's conception portrays a collection of planet-mass objects that have been flung out of the galactic center at speeds of 10,000 km/s. These cosmic "spitballs" formed from fragments of a star that was shredded by the galaxy's supermassive black hole. (Mark A. Garlick/CfA)

Artist conception portrays a collection of planet-mass objects that have been flung out of the galactic center at speeds of 10,000 km/s. These cosmic “spitballs” formed from fragments of a star that was shredded by the galaxy’s supermassive black hole. (Mark A. Garlick/CfA)

Black Hole Flings Planet-Like Objects Throughout Galaxy

Astronomers say there is a supermassive black hole situated at the very center of our Milky Way galaxy.

Every now and then a star will get too close and the black hole’s tremendous gravity will rip the star to shreds.

While a much of the star gets pulled into the black hole, some of the star’s gas is hurled away at a rapid speed.

Scientists at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics found that left over gas from one shredded star can form hundreds of planet-sized objects with a weight similar to Neptune and several Jupiter’s.

Because of the high speed the gas is already traveling these objects are blasted throughout the galaxy like giant “spitballs.”

Calculations from the scientists indicate that the closest of these planet-like objects might be within a few hundred light-years of Earth.

The researchers point out that other galaxies, such as Andromeda are also shooting these objects out at us all the time.

Is Our Moon Just One in a Series of Past Moons?

The most popular theory on how the moon was formed is called the giant impact hypothesis.

According to this proposition, our moon was made from the debris left over from a violent collision, about 4.5 billion years ago, between Earth and a Mars-sized protoplanet.

Now a group of Israeli scientists have developed a new theory that suggests the moon we now see in the night sky is not Earth’s first and only moon, but that there were actually a number of moons that preceded it throughout our planet’s history.

The group’s findings, based on a model, suggests that each of the series of moons that circled ancient Earth were formed from different collisions with the still forming planet.

One of the study’s co-authors says that it was likely that these moonlets were either ejected into space, that they crashed into Earth or with each other to form bigger moons.

obese-mainHuman Biology Not Lack of Willpower Causes Diets to Fail

One of the most popular resolutions people make with the New Year is to lose weight.

Whether it’s missing favorite foods or being frustrated with not losing enough weight as quickly as thought, many people unfortunately tend to give up within a week or so starting their weight loss program.

Dr. David Ludwig from the Harvard Medical School suggests biology and not a lack of willpower may be more responsible for these efforts at weight loss to fail.

He advises against eating hyperprocessed fast foods and go with whole and natural foods, which are more likely to be efficiently used by the body and brain and doesn’t turn into fat as easily.

Dr. Ludwig suggests a diet with foods such as whole fruits, vegetables, a good amount of protein, which doesn’t necessarily have to be meat, and surprisingly plenty of high-fat foods.

This could include various nuts, nut butters, foods prepared with olive oil, and even full-fat dairy products.

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.

Radioactive Material Found in Fracking Waste; Searching Space for H20

Posted December 21st, 2016 at 4:30 pm (UTC-5)
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Solid waste from horizontal gas wells contains radioactive material that ends up in landfills. (American Chemical Society)

Solid waste from horizontal gas wells contains radioactive material that ends up in landfills. (American Chemical Society)

Radioactive Isotopes Found in Fracking Waste

US oil and natural gas production, has been boosted in recent years by a drilling process known as hydraulic fracturing, commonly called “fracking.”

But this practice has also been criticized for its possible impact on the environment because of the wastewater this method generates.

A new study published in the American Chemical Society’s Environmental Science and Technology, which examined solid well waste from Marcellus shale in Pennsylvania, finds that the waste contains naturally occurring radioactive material that had not been previously reported.

In addition to the early reports of uranium 238 and radium 226, the study indicates that collected waste samples also contain elevated levels of the radioactive isotopes uranium-234, thorium-230, lead-210 and polonium-210.

Uranium-238 and radium-226 have been reported in previous such samples.

The compound view shows a new ALMA Band 5 view of the colliding galaxy system Arp 220 - in red - on top of an image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope -blue/green - (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO/NASA/ESA/STScI/AURA)

The compound view shows a new ALMA Band 5 view of the colliding galaxy system Arp 220 – in red – on top of an image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope -blue/green – (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO/NASA/ESA/STScI/AURA)

New ALMA Radio Receivers May Find Water in Universe

The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array or ALMA, in Chile, is a collection of some 66 radio telescope antennas that work together to provide astronomers to study some of the earliest and most distant galaxies in the Universe.

Regions of space where these objects are located tend to be cold and dark and are difficult if not impossible to detect in visible light wavelengths.

But these features can be seen clearly and brightly when they are observed in the millimeter and submillimeter wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum.

Now, ALMA has received an upgrade with the installation of new Band 5 receivers to a select set of the array’s antennas.

Band 5 refers a receiving range of frequencies that can vary from 582 to 806 megahertz.

These devices will make its observations in a whole new section of the radio spectrum and among other things will provide astronomers with a better way to look for signs of water in the nearby Universe.

This is an artist's rendering of Tingmiatornis arctica, the new prehistoric bird species discovered by scientists at the University of Rochester. (Michael Osadciw/University of Rochester)

Artist’s rendering of Tingmiatornis arctica, the new prehistoric bird species discovered by scientists at the University of Rochester. (Michael Osadciw/University of Rochester)

New Prehistoric Bird Species Discovered

Scientists have discovered a new ancient bird species that lived in the Canadian arctic some 90 million years ago during Cretaceous period.

They say that fossils leading to the discovery are among the oldest avian fossils that have been found in the northernmost latitudes.

The scientists describe this new ancient bird species as a cross between a large seagull and another diving bird species like cormorants.

They add that this creature probably had teeth as well.

The new fossils along with those gathered in the same area in the past suggest that the birds made their home near a peaceful freshwater bay, which was also home to turtles, large freshwater fish, and a now extinct crocodile-like reptiles called champsosaurs.

The scientists describe the climate in the Canadian arctic, some 90 to 84 million years ago, as being similar to northern Florida today – that is, warm through much of the year.

European Space Agency's three satellite Swarm network provide a high-resolution picture of the Earth's magnetic field (ESA)

European Space Agency’s three satellite Swarm network provide a high-resolution picture of the Earth’s magnetic field (ESA)

Jet Stream Found in Earth’s Molten Outer Core

The Earth’s core, which lies nearly 3,000 kilometers below the surface, is made of two layers.

At the very center of the Earth is the inner core, which scientists say is a solid sphere made of an iron-nickel alloy. Surrounding the inner core is the outer core of which is made of molten iron and nickel that’s believed to be between 4000-5000º Celsius.

New data gathered by the European Space Agency’s three satellite Swarm network is providing scientists with an x-ray view of the Earth’s core.

This information has led to the discovery of a jet stream flowing within the molten outer core.

Like the jet stream of air currents in the atmosphere, scientists explain that this jet stream in the outer core is a moving belt of molten material circling its magnetic North Pole and is traveling at a speed of about 40 kilometers per year.

Researchers who made the discovery say this jet stream lines-up with a boundary between two regions within the core.

Taking Sauna Baths May Help Prevent Dementia

A new study by Finnish researchers, and published in the journal Age and Aging, suggests taking frequent sauna baths can reduce the risk of dementia, such as Alzheimer’s disease.

Scientists from the University of Eastern Finland followed 2,000 middle-age men for twenty years as part of its ongoing Kuopio Ischemic Heart Disease Risk Factor Study (KIHD).

They found that participants who took sauna baths between 4 to 7 times per week were 66% less likely of being diagnosed with dementia than those doing so once a week.

An earlier report from the continuing study indicated that frequent sauna bathing also considerably decreases the risk of sudden cardiac death, the risk of death due to coronary artery disease and other cardiac events, as well as overall mortality.

According to the paper’s authors the association between sauna bathing and the risk of dementia had not been studied until recently.

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.

Biggest Wave Spotted; Walking Heel-to-Toe; Newborn Exoplanets

Posted December 15th, 2016 at 4:20 pm (UTC-5)
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Large breaking wave (Wikimedia Commons)

Large breaking wave (Wikimedia Commons)

New Record for Biggest Wave Measured by Buoy

The UN’s World Meteorological Society says the biggest wave ever to be measured by a buoy was identified at 0600 universal time on February 4, 2013.

The colossal 19-meter swell was spotted in the North Atlantic Ocean between Iceland and the UK.

The previous highest wave recorded by a buoy was measured at over 18 meters, on December 8, 2007, also in the North Atlantic.

The WMO says that the buoy that recorded the giant wave is a part of the UK’s Met Office (the British weather service) network of Marine Automatic Weather Stations.

Wave-measuring buoys are part of an extensive international observational network, which also includes ships and satellite observations to keep an eye on the oceans and make forecasts for weather-related hazards.

While this wave was the highest measured by a buoy, it’s certainly not the biggest overall — a nearly 31-meter high wave in Alaska, generated by an earthquake, is in the record books from 1958.

Why Do Humans Walk Heel-to-Toe?

University of Arizona doctoral student James Webber loves to run in his bare feet. It was his inspiration to study the mechanics of running.

But since it’s said you’ve got to walk before you run, Webber has focused his recent research on walking.

He incorporates his research into a new study that explores why humans walk heel-to-toe, while a number of other animal species walk on the balls of their feet.

Webber’s study suggests a human’s walk boils down to the length of our legs.

He explains that since we stand with heels down on the ground, our legs are physically shorter that if we stood on our toes.

To become more efficient walkers, Webber posits that we’ve had to adopt a heal-to-toe style of walking that produces what he calls “virtual legs” that are longer than actual physical legs.

A view of Earth's atmosphere at sunset as seen by the International Space Station Expedition 23 crew in 2010. Colors here roughly denote the various layers of the atmosphere. (NASA)

A view of Earth’s atmosphere at sunset as seen by the International Space Station Expedition 23 crew in 2010. Colors here roughly denote the various layers of the atmosphere. (NASA)

Harvard Researchers Have Idea to Safely Cool Planet

A recent assessment by the UN’s World Meteorological Organization indicates that 2016 will likely be the hottest year on record.

Some scientists have suggested that injecting light-reflecting sulfate aerosols into the stratosphere might cool the planet.

The problem with this approach is that while sulfate aerosols could cool the world, a nasty side effect would be that doing so would produce sulfuric acid in the atmosphere.

This is something scientists say would damage the ozone layer, which in itself could lead to a variety of health problems for Earth’s living creatures.

Now, Harvard researchers say that they found using calcite, a component of limestone, rather than sulfates in an aerosol might be able to cool the planet while at the same time repair any ozone damage. But both ideas reside only in the halls of academia, for now – no such global climate control plans are actually underway.

ALMA image of the protoplanetary disk surrounding the young star HD 163296 as seen in dust. New observations suggested that two planets, each about the size of Saturn, are in orbit around the star. (ALMA-ESO/NAOJ/NRAO/AUI/NSF)

ALMA image of the protoplanetary disk surrounding the young star HD 163296 as seen in dust.  (ALMA-ESO/NAOJ/NRAO/AUI/NSF)

Signs of Developing Planets Orbiting Young Star

Most of the extrasolar planets discovered so far are orbiting older or more mature stars with a fully developed planetary system.

But, new observations made by scientists working with the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile are providing evidence of two, still developing, possibly Saturn-sized planets circling a relatively young star called HD 163296.

The scientists say signs of the two developing planets were found in rings of carbon monoxide gas between bands of dust within the star’s surrounding protoplanetary disk, or materials left over from the formation of the star.

The planet’s host star is said to be located some 400 light-years from Earth, is only about 5 million years old, and has about twice the mass of our Sun.

Astronomers find that these two newborn planets are forming at distances from its sun that would be equivalent to being well beyond our solar system’s Kuiper Belt – that’s the region space beyond the orbit of Neptune.

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.

Back to Civilization

Posted December 14th, 2016 at 11:30 am (UTC-5)
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The smell of decaying cedar and brine wash over me in slow, undulating waves. A light rain, falling from a mosaic of low-lying slate-grey clouds, coats my neck and arms in chilly dampness. I can taste the 100 percent humidity. Thick and metallic, I roll it over my tongue like a sommelier tasting a fine wine. Green is everywhere. So is yellow, brown, orange and blue. It is a fecund scene—40 above zero (22 C), misty North American pine forest air so laden with oxygen I feel like I can breathe through my skin.

Vacation in the coastal rain forests of North America offers the author a chance to decompress and enjoy the sights, sounds, tastes, smells and textures of nature that have been absent from his life for the past year. (Credit: Seth Zippel)

Vacation in the coastal rain forests of North America offers the author a chance to decompress and enjoy the sights, sounds, tastes, smells and textures of nature that have been absent from his life for the past year. (Credit: Seth Zippel)

It’s been a month since I left the flat, odorless, toe-numbing and tasteless expanse of the South Pole. My senses have been bombarded ever since. New aromas carry me into Dali-esque landscapes. Textures—the sensation of standing on loose gravel, spongy earth, side-walk cement or fresh sod–perpetually catch me off balance. The sun rises and sets every 24 hours; light and shadow are in constant flux. Observing the patchwork of blue above me, as it brightens and dims, is disorienting and hypnotic in equal doses, like watching a bonfire through a kaleidoscope.

After some snotty weather on the Ice, a few delayed flights and a missed connection in Auckland, I finally made it back home to Colorado. It’s a bizarre feeling finding yourself face to face with “civilization” again, perhaps akin to what a captive black bear experiences when it’s released back into the wild. I went shopping for groceries today, and nearly had a mental breakdown when I hit the six shelves of olive oil. Lost in the profusion of extra virgin, virgin, regular and light, all went television static until a fellow basket-pusher nearly rammed into me and lifted me out of my stupor.

“I’m thawing out.” That’s what I’ve been telling myself and the grocery store attendant, and anyone else who is gutsy enough to begin a conversation with me. A little over a year in Antarctica and I now have the composure of a 1-month old golden retriever: manic, overwhelmed, curious, confused, elated, scared and playful.

Back at work at the Global Monitoring Division's headquarters in Colorado--working in a windowless office is nearly a novel experience after being stationed at the South Pole.

Back at work at the Global Monitoring Division’s headquarters in Colorado–working in a windowless office is nearly a novel experience after being stationed at the South Pole.

Each day in my brave new world is filled with novel experiences. Some are more exotic, like sitting at the bar in a popular wood-fired pizza restaurant while nursing a locally-crafted pale ale. Others are more mundane, like making myself a bowl of steel-cut oatmeal or paying my utility bill. Oh, the extreme, singular sensation of speaking with an unfamiliar face—penetrating new mannerisms, cultural references and tics. Living in an isolated community of 45 pale, grumpy and bearded men (and a few pale, grumpy women) for 55 weeks doesn’t prepare you for bus stop chit-chat or flirting with the girl with the tattooed forearm and nose piercing at the other end of the bar. “Is she reading the beer list behind me, or trying to get my attention?”

When the dishes pile up in the sink, or I sit down to another meal by myself, or I run out of laundry detergent, or my car’s fan-belt begins to squeal like a pig on a rollercoaster, I begin to think about what it would be like to do another season at the bottom of the earth, another 12 months at the Atmospheric Research Observatory. It’s in these moments, when my cursor is hovering over the send button to the “Dear Boss, do you need someone for Winter?” email, that I take a step back, open my refrigerator door and revel in the cornucopia of fresh fruit and vegetables.

Perhaps I’ll spend a few more years in temperate climates.

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.

Advanced Weather Satellite in Space; Can Migraines Lead to Stroke?

Posted November 21st, 2016 at 4:21 pm (UTC-5)
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NOAA's GOES-R satellite is launched into space from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. (NASA/Kim Shiflett)

Launch of NOAA’s GOES-R satellite (NASA/Kim Shiflett)

NASA Launches NOAA’S Advanced Weather Satellite

On Saturday, 11/19/16, NASA launched the first of four advanced weather satellites for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

The satellite will maintain a geostationary orbit nearly 36,000 kilometers above Earth’s western hemisphere.

Called the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-R Series or GEOS-R, NOAA says that the satellite will help it deliver more accurate and timely weather forecasts, watches and warnings.

According to NOAA, the GEOS-R will be able to examine the skies much faster than current technology, provide frequently updated high-resolution images of Earth’s weather, oceans and environment, and keep an eye on hurricanes and other dangerous weather.

The satellite will even monitor the sun and provide forecasters with critical information that will be used to issue space weather alerts and warnings.

Women’s Migraine Headaches Linked to Stroke

A new preliminary study from the American Heart Association suggests that women with a history of migraines may also have an increased risk of stroke.

Researchers led by Dr. Cecil Rambarat, M.D. of the University of Florida in Gainesville, Florida studied over 900 women who at the time were being assessed for heart disease.

Of the women studied, 224 or about 25 percent of them reported a history of migraine headaches.

The study suggests that compared to the women who did not report any migraines, those who did were found to have an 83 percent higher risk of some kind of cardiovascular event such either a stroke or heart-attack within an average six-year follow-up.

Compared to those who didn’t have migraines, women with a history of migraine were also found to be a little more than twice as likely to suffer a stroke during the study.

The intensity of FRB 150807 at different radio frequencies or colors -- red corresponds to lower frequencies and blue to higher frequencies. (Dr. Vikram Ravi/Caltech)

FRB 150807 at different radio frequencies — red (lower frequencies) and blue (higher frequencies) (Dr. Vikram Ravi/Caltech)

Rare Astrophysical Event Provides Intergalactic Clues

A team of scientists have discovered one of those rare and mysterious astrophysical events called a Fast Radio Burst or FRB.

A fast radio burst is just that an incredibly quick but brilliant and powerful pulse of radio waves.

So far scientists are stumped as to exactly what causes this phenomena.

It’s thought that some 2,000 to 10,000 FRBs take place every day somewhere in the universe, but since they’re so fast and unpredictable only 18 have been spotted since their 2007 discovery.

Researchers who discovered the newest FRB say it’s the most brilliant and brief fast radio burst that has be found so far and that it could provide insight into the “cosmic web” a network of intergalactic material.

FRB 150807 was detected on August 7, 2015 at the Parkes Observatory, a radio telescope facility in Australia, after traveling a distance of more than a billion light years.

A sample of some foods high in fat content (Lucasmartin2 via Wikimedia Commons)

A sample of foods high in fat content (Lucasmartin2 via Wikimedia Commons)

Fatty Foods While Young Could Impact Adult Brain Function

A new study, published in the medical journal Molecular Psychiatry, suggests that over indulging on a lot of high fat foods as a youngster could harm a person’s cognitive functions as an adult.

It’s no secret that children and teens love to eat junk food.  These high-fat foods often provide young people with convenient and inexpensive items to eat.

Eating high-fat foods over a long period of time can lead not only to problems such as obesity and possibly damage young and still developing brains, but new research is showing that eating a lot of fatty foods during adolescence may impact the brain in adulthood.

The findings were made after researchers compared the brains of young and adult mice who were fed either high-fat or normal diets.

The first signs of impaired cognitive functions of young mice who ate a high-fat diet started to show after only four weeks and before they started to show weight gain.

In this image of Pluto taken by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft, different colors represent different compositions of surface ices, revealing a surprisingly active body. (Image: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)

In this image of Pluto taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, different colors represent different compositions of surface ices, revealing a surprisingly active body. (Image: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)

Ice & Underground Ocean May Have Reoriented Pluto

A new study suggest that an accumulation of ice in Pluto’s Sputnik Planitia basin, along with the existence of subsurface ocean, may have played roles in the dwarf planet rolling on its side and reorienting eons ago.

Sputnik Planitia is located within the heart shaped region of Pluto called Tombaugh Regio.

Scientists say that the basin was probably created by a giant meteorite blasting away a large amount of the planet’s crust in that area making it much thinner.

This thinner crust could have allowed a subsurface ocean beneath it to well up toward the basin.

The studies suggest  that the added mass of the accumulated ice and upwelled water in the basin area, combined with tidal forces between Pluto and its largest moon Charon, could have caused the planet to reorient itself.

Sputnik Planitia, which was formed northwest of its current location, rolled toward Pluto’s equator, ending up directly opposite the side facing Charon.

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.