Short Circuit Snags Giant Atom Smasher Restart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fishing in Outer Space for Bigger Junk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NASA’S MAVEN Gives Scientists Double Surprise

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Iron Rain Once Fell On Earth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Nurse administers chemotherapy to patient (National Cancer Institute)

Nurse administers chemotherapy to patient (National Cancer Institute)

Study: Exercise Could Improve Cancer Treatment

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

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

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

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

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

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

Science Scanner: Milky Way Bigger than Thought, Hydrothermal Activity on Saturn Moon, New Way to Fight Cavities & Gum Disease, Dwarf Galaxy Surprises Scientists

Posted March 12th, 2015 at 2:58 pm (UTC+0)
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A "rippled" Milky Way may be 50 percent larger than previously estimated (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute)

A “rippled” Milky Way may be 50 percent larger than previously estimated (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute)

Milky Way May Be Much Bigger than Thought

Our galaxy, the Milky Way may be much bigger than previously thought, up to 50 light-years further across, say researchers.

Researchers from the United States, China and the United Kingdom came to the conclusion after reviewing data gathered by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS), an ongoing astronomy project that is creating comprehensive map of the universe.

Scientists say the increased size stems from the discovery of a bulging circle of stars located beyond what scientists have considered to be the known plane of the Milky Way.

The international team of scientists says, in a new study published was just published in the Astrophysical Journal, that their research shows the Milky Way’s galactic disk is actually shaped into several concentric ripples.

“In essence, what we found is that the disk of the Milky Way isn’t just a disk of stars in a flat plane — it’s corrugated,” said research leader Heidi Newberg, a professor of physics, applied physics, and astronomy in the Rensselaer School of Science in a university release. “As it radiates outward from the Sun, we see at least four ripples in the disk of the Milky Way. While we can only look at part of the galaxy with this data, we assume that this pattern is going to be found throughout the disk.”

The study’s lead author, Yan Xu, a scientist at the National Astronomical Observatories of China and a former visiting scientist at Rensselaer, says that the team’s findings indicate those features, originally recognized as rings, are really a part of the galactic disk.  The addition of this ring territory has extended the Milky Way’s known width from 100,000 light-years across to around 150,000 light-years.

Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus is spewing tiny silica grains, an indication hydrothermal activity is occurring in its ice-covered ocean. Such extreme environments are known to be suitable for life on Earth. (NASA/JPL)

Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus is spewing tiny silica grains, an indication hydrothermal activity is occurring in its ice-covered ocean. Such extreme environments are known to be suitable for life on Earth. (NASA/JPL)

Tiny Grains of Rock Provide Hints of Hydrothermal Activity on a Moon of Saturn

Microscopic grains of rock spotted near Saturn by NASA’s Cassini mission have provided scientists with some clear but tantalizing clues that hydrothermal activity is taking place within Enceladus one the ringed planet’s approximately 60 moons and moonlets.

The scientists believe that a heated and mineral-rich solution is being produced as the result of seawater getting into and reacting with its rocky crust.

Along with other observed geologic activity, such as geysers that have been found spewing jets of icy water high above its surface, this new finding only adds to the possibility that Enceladus could have the kind of environments that just might be hospitable for living organisms.

The scientists from the University of Colorado, Boulder made this discovery after conducting an all-encompassing four-year analysis of data from the Cassini spacecraft, which included laboratory experiments and computer modeling.

After examining the tiny bits of rock, the researchers think that they probably created whenever hot water – around 90° Celsius – that contains dissolved minerals from the moon’s rocky interior, moves up into and contacts much cooler water near the moon’s surface.

The research findings are outlined in a study that has just been published in the journal Nature.

 

Dentist conducts dental exam on a patient (US Army, 807th Medical Command)

Dentist conducts dental exam on a patient (US Army, 807th Medical Command)

Wonder Material May Make Cavities and Gum Disease a Thing of the Past

Chinese researchers believe graphene oxide could become an important tool in fighting dental diseases in the future.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), oral health is essential to general health and quality of life.

Most dental health problems and diseases are caused by an overgrowth of bacteria in the mouth, which are often the result of poor dental hygiene.

Dentists today often prescribe antibiotics to get rid of all that harmful tooth decay and gum disease causing bacteria.  But, with the ongoing problem of antibiotic resistance scientists and medical/dental professionals need to seek alternatives to traditional antibiotics.

Studies conducted previously have revealed that the use of graphene oxide in biomedical applications shows great promise.   Scientists say that the material can prevent the growth of some strains of bacteria without causing much harm to health cells.

Zisheng Tang and his colleagues at Shanghai Jiao Tong University tested the material against three different kinds of bacteria that are known to cause tooth decay and gum disease.  The researchers found an application of graphene oxide successfully reduced the growth of the harmful bacteria by destroying its cell walls and membranes.

The researcher’s findings have been published in the American Chemical Society’s journal, Applied Materials & Interfaces.

 

This illustrates a region of the sky surrounding the newly discovered dwarf galaxy Reticulum 2. The image was generated using the authors’ search algorithm applied to Fermi gamma-ray data. (NASA/DOE/Fermi-LAT Collaboration/Geringer-Sameth & Walker/Carnegie-Mellon University/Koushiappas/Brown University)

This illustrates a region of the sky surrounding the newly discovered dwarf galaxy Reticulum 2. The image was generated using the authors’ search algorithm applied to Fermi gamma-ray data. (NASA/DOE/Fermi-LAT Collaboration/Geringer-Sameth & Walker/Carnegie-Mellon University/Koushiappas/Brown University)

Nearby Dwarf Galaxy Surprises Physicists

Gamma rays emanating from a dwarf galaxy may help in the discovery of dark matter.

The dwarf galaxy, which is called Reticulum 2, was found over the past few weeks within data collected by NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope for an internationally collaborative experiment called the Dark Energy Survey.  The Dark Energy Survey is being conducted in order to understand the accelerated expansion of the universe.

The gamma rays left a team of physicists from Carnegie Mellon and Brown Universities in the US and Cambridge University in the United Kingdom surprised.

“In the search for dark matter, gamma rays from a dwarf galaxy have long been considered a very strong signature,” said team member Savvas Koushiappas, an assistant professor of physics at Brown University in a press release. “It seems like we may now be detecting such a thing for the first time.”

Reticulum 2 is one of closest dwarf galaxies to Earth that have been detected so far.  It’s about 98,000 light-years from Earth.

The team expressed caution that while their initial results are exciting, more research is needed to confirm a dark-matter origin.

The team’s findings have been submitted for publication in the journal Physical Review Letters.

Mars Once Abundant With Water

Posted March 9th, 2015 at 7:17 pm (UTC+0)
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An artist’s impression shows how Mars may have looked about four billion years ago. (ESO/M. Kornmesser/N. Risinger/skysurvey.org)

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

Past observations made by a number of Mars probes, such as the Curiosity rover and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, have suggested that Mars once had an abundance of water flowing over its surface.

Now, an international team of scientists say their recent research suggests that an ancient ocean that held more water than Earth’s Arctic Ocean once flowed over an area of the surface of Mars that was larger than our own Atlantic Ocean.

Writing in the online edition of the journal Science, the scientists said that after monitoring and mapping out parts of its atmosphere over a six-year period, they found evidence that some four billion years ago,  Mars had enough water to cover its entire surface with liquid about 140 meters deep.

But, their observations also led them to believe that the water probably pooled into an ocean with depths of more than 1.6 kilometers in places that flowed across almost half of the Red Planet’s northern hemisphere.

Telescope enclosures of ESO's Very Large Telescope located in Chile. (ESO/H. Heyer)

Telescope enclosures of ESO’s Very Large Telescope located in Chile. (ESO/H. Heyer)

The study’s science team worked with the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in Chile, along with the facilities of the W. M. Keck Observatory and the NASA Infrared Telescope Facility, both located in Hawaii.

“Our study provides a solid estimate of how much water Mars once had, by determining how much water was lost to space,” said the study’s lead author Geronimo Villanueva, a scientist from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland in a press release. “With this work, we can better understand the history of water on Mars.”

The science team based their findings on their thorough study of two different forms of water found in Mars’s atmosphere.

One could be considered normal water with the classic H2O formulation — one atom of oxygen with two hydrogen atoms.

The other is what some call semi-heavy water (HDO), a variety of water where one of the two atoms of hydrogen has been replaced by a heavier form of the element, which is called deuterium.

NASA's Infrared Telescope Facilitya, located atop of Hawaii's Mauna Kea. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

NASA’s Infrared Telescope Facilitya, located atop of Hawaii’s Mauna Kea. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Since it’s heavier than normal H2O, the deuterium-enhanced water doesn’t get lost into space due to evaporation as easily as normal water.  So the scientists figured that any water remaining on the planet would have a higher ratio of HDO to the normal H2O formulation.

By comparing the ratio of HDO to H2O of Mars’ remaining water, researchers were able to measure the increase in the amount of HDO. That in turn allowed them to calculate the amount of water that did escape into space.  At the same time, the scientists were also able to estimate the amount of water that flowed on Mars during its early history.

Since the planet’s polar ice caps contain its largest known amount of water, the scientists were attracted to areas around Mar’s north and south poles.

The results of the team’s studies show that atmospheric water above Mars’ Polar Regions had about seven times the amount of HDO water than the type of water found in Earth’s oceans.

W. M. Keck Observatory located near the summit of Mauna Kea in Hawaii (T. Wynne/JPL)

W. M. Keck Observatory located near the summit of Mauna Kea in Hawaii (T. Wynne/JPL)

Knowing this allowed the scientists to determine that Mars must have lost about 6.5 times as much water than is now present in polar caps, and that the Red Planet’s primitive ocean probably contained at least 20 million cubic kilometers of water.

After considering what the surface of Mars is like today, the science team determined that the probable location for this ancient body of water would have been in the Northern Plains of the planet – an area of Mars long considered to be an ideal location for an ocean because of its low-lying ground.

The researchers estimated that such an ancient ocean at that location would have covered 19 percent of Mars’ surface. Our own Atlantic Ocean by comparison takes up about 17 percent of the Earth’s surface.

“With Mars losing that much water, the planet was very likely wet for a longer period of time than previously thought, suggesting the planet might have been habitable for longer,” said the study’s second author, Michael Mumma, a senior scientist at Goddard.

ESO artist concept video of what Mars may have four billion years ago (ESO/M. Kornmesser)

The scientists believe it might be possible that Mars may have had even more water because their newly-created maps exposed microclimates and variations, over time, in the content of atmospheric water.

The team believe their research and maps could also help in the ongoing search for underground water on the Red Planet.

The Best Science Images – February 2015

Posted March 2nd, 2015 at 6:21 pm (UTC+0)
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This composite of x-ray and infrared images taken by the Chandra X-ray Observatory, released on 2/12/15, is supernova remnant G299.2-2.9 left over by a type Ia supernova.  It's located about 16,000 light years from earth.  (NASA/CXC/U.Texas)

NASA released this composite of x-ray and infrared images taken by the Chandra X-ray Observatory on Feb. 12. It shows the remnants of supernova G299.2-2.9, a type Ia supernova about 16,000 light years from earth. (NASA/CXC/U.Texas)

In this 2/5/15 photo, an operator controls a robot at a government facility in Hitachi, Ibaraki Prefecture, northeast of Tokyo.  In April, 2015, this snake-like robot, will be sent into the Unit 1 reactor at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant to examine the damage caused by the March, 2011 earthquake and tsunami. (AP)

An operator controls a robot at a government facility in Hitachi, Ibaraki Prefecture, northeast of Tokyo on Feb. 5. In April, this snake-like robot will be sent into the Unit 1 reactor at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant to examine the damage caused by the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami. (AP)

NASA astronaut Barry Wilmore is shown here working outside the International Space Station on 2/21/15.  He and fellow spacewalker Terry Virts – who can be seen reflected in Wilmore’s visor – were preparing the ISS for future arrivals by U.S. commercial crew spacecraft.  (NASA)

NASA astronaut Barry Wilmore works outside the International Space Station on Feb. 21. He and fellow spacewalker Terry Virts –  seen reflected in Wilmore’s visor – were preparing the ISS for future arrivals by U.S. commercial crew spacecraft. (NASA)

Here’s an aerial view of SunEdison and TerraForm Power’s Regulus solar facility in Kern County, California that began generating solar energy on 2/18/15 (PRNewsFoto/SunEdison, Inc.)

Here’s an aerial view of SunEdison and TerraForm Power’s Regulus solar facility in Kern County, California that began generating solar energy on Feb. 18 (PRNewsFoto/SunEdison, Inc.)

Although it looks like the iconic “Have a Nice Day” smiley face, this is actually the galaxy cluster SDSS J1038+4849 as imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope.  The two eyes in the image, released on 2/10/15, are really two very bright galaxies and the smile lines are arcs caused by strong gravitational lensing. (NASA/ESA)

Although it looks like the iconic “Have a Nice Day” smiley face, this is actually the galaxy cluster SDSS J1038+4849 as imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope. The two eyes in the image, released on Feb. 10, are really two very bright galaxies and the smile lines are arcs caused by strong gravitational lensing. (NASA/ESA)

NOAA's Deep Space Climate Observatory Satellite which was carried aboard the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is shown here lifting off from launch pad 40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Cape Canaveral, Florida 2/11/2015.  The new NOAA satellite will help keep tabs on solar storms and image Earth from nearly 1.6 million km away.  (Reuters)

NOAA’s Deep Space Climate Observatory Satellite was carried aboard the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket  launched Feb. 11 from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Cape Canaveral, Florida. The new NOAA satellite will help keep tabs on solar storms and image Earth from nearly 1.6 million km away. (Reuters)

The glow of the Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights, is seen in the horizon in the Kawartha Lakes region of southern Ontario 2/23/15.  The colorful Aurora Borealis, caused by charged particles from the sun, is rarely seen in Ontario.  (Reuters)

The glow of the Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights, is seen in the horizon in the Kawartha Lakes region of southern Ontario on Feb.23. The colorful Aurora Borealis, caused by charged particles from the sun, is rarely seen in Ontario. (Reuters)

A collection of SIM cards lie on a table in this photo illustration taken in Sarajevo on 2/24/15.  (Reuters)

A collection of SIM cards lie on a table in this photo illustration taken in Sarajevo on Feb. 24. (Reuters)

The Chandra X-ray Observatory imaged a newly discovered cosmic object in the galaxy NGC 2276.  The object pictured in this photo released on 2/24/15 may help provide answers to some long-standing questions about how black holes evolve and influence their surroundings.  (NASA/CXC/SAO/M.Mezcua/INAF/A.Wolter)

The Chandra X-ray Observatory imaged a newly discovered cosmic object in the galaxy NGC 2276. The object pictured in this photo released Feb. 24 may help provide answers to some long-standing questions about how black holes evolve and influence their surroundings. (NASA/CXC/SAO/M.Mezcua/INAF/A.Wolter)

Expectant parents often receive a photograph of their unborn child taken in utero with ultrasound scanning.  Now, an Estonian technology company has taken this momentous event a step further by offering life-sized 3D printed renderings instead of the traditional grainy photograph.   Here a company technician puts the finishing touch on a model. (Reuters)

Expectant parents often receive a photograph of their unborn child taken in utero with ultrasound scanning. Now, an Estonian technology company has taken this momentous event a step further by offering life-sized 3D printed renderings instead of the traditional grainy photograph. Here a company technician puts the finishing touch on a model. (Reuters)

This is an image of the dwarf planet Ceres taken by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft on 2/19/15 from a distance of nearly 46,000 kilometers.  It shows that the mysterious bright spot, noticed earlier by scientists, shares its basin location with a dimmer companion.  Dawn is preparing to rendezvous with Ceres and go into orbit 3/7/15 after a three-year journey. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA)

This is an image of the dwarf planet Ceres taken Feb. 19 by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft from a distance of nearly 46,000 kilometers. It shows that the mysterious bright spot, noticed earlier by scientists, shares its basin location with a dimmer companion. Dawn is preparing to rendezvous with Ceres and go into orbit March 7 after a three-year journey. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA)

 

 

 

 

 

Tiny Protein Keeps Heart Beating in Time

Posted February 23rd, 2015 at 8:41 pm (UTC+0)
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Blood is pumped into and out of the heart (Public Domain via Wikimedia)

Blood is pumped into and out of the heart (Public Domain via Wikimedia)

The simple ‘thump-thump, thump-thump’ rhythm of a heartbeat can be quite deceiving. With each heartbeat or cardiac cycle, the heart pumps in blood and then pushes it back out.

One half of the heart receives the deoxygenated (venous) blood used by our body and then sends it to our pulmonary system (lungs etc.) to again be enriched with oxygen. The other half of the heart receives freshly oxygenated (arterial) blood from the pulmonary system and pumps it into circulation throughout our body.

The cycle repeats throughout our lives. It is estimated that the heart beats some 35 million times in a year and more than two and a half billion times in an average lifetime without ever pausing to rest.

Each heartbeat must be precisely calibrated. One small deviation can bring sudden death.

So how does the heart pull this off?

An international team of researchers, writing in a study that was published in the inaugural issue of the journal Science Advances, have identified a specific protein called myosin-binding protein C (cMyBP-C) that they found plays a pivotal role in keeping the heart beating in reliable time.

The scientists discovered that the position of this protein within the heart’s muscle cells allows the heart’s muscle fibers to work together in perfect synchronization, which is vital to ensure the heart operates properly.

If the tiny protein should break down, the researchers found that the heart can malfunction in way that can lead to sudden death causing arrhythmias, or irregular heartbeat.

Protein Data Bank rendering of the "myosin-binding protein C (cMyBP-C)" (Emw via Wikimedia Commons)

Protein Data Bank rendering of the “myosin-binding protein C (cMyBP-C)” (Emw via Wikimedia Commons)

On the other hand, the researchers said their finding also suggests that making adjustments to the cMyBP-C protein could help resolve a number of heart problems and may someday be used to treat people with potentially deadly heart conditions.

Two of the study’s lead researchers, David Warshaw, Ph.D., Michael Previs, Ph.D., both molecular physiologists from the University of Vermont’s Cardiovascular Research Institute, used powerful microscopes to look inside a part of heart muscle tissue called the sarcomere.

The sarcomere, which is about one fiftieth the diameter of a human hair, expands and contracts with every heartbeat. For the heart to beat properly, trillions of these sarcomeres must contract and expand simultaneously.

“To pump blood efficiently, they all have to be doing it at the same time,” Warshaw said.

Two proteins called myosin and actin help the sarcomere expand and contract. Myosin acts like a motor that pushes or pulls the rope-like actin. In turn, actin pulls in the sarcomere and then releases it out so it can refill with blood.

Since the myosin protein is always trying to snatch and move the actin, it needs some kind of control mechanism to make sure that it’s grabbing and moving actin at the precise time when the sarcomere needs to contract.

The cMyBP-C protein, located at the center of the sarcomere, regulates the two proteins by balancing the myosin — slowing or speeding its interaction with actin as needed — to maintain the precise timing of the sarcomere’s expansion/contraction.

The researchers were able to make their findings by examining the normal heart muscle of animals.  Now, the plan to find out what goes wrong with cMyBP-C protein in a diseased heart.

Once all of the research is complete, scientists then would be able to develop cMyBP-C-based pharmaceutical treatments to help repair unhealthy hearts.

Heart Beating (National Institute of Genetics, Japan)

Science Scanner – A Fish for Your Wounds? US Megadroughts; Help for MRI Stress

Posted February 13th, 2015 at 8:20 pm (UTC+0)
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Soil moisture 30 cm below ground projected through 2095 for high emissions scenario RCP 8.5. (NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center)

Soil moisture 30 cm below ground projected through 2095 for high emissions scenario RCP 8.5. (NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center)

“Megadroughts” May Impact Parts of US in the Late 21st Century

California has been contending with one of the most severe droughts on record.  Now a new study is predicting that in the second-half of our current century, the U.S. Great Plains and the Southwest, including California, will face what could be considered “mega-drought” conditions that will be worse than anytime over the past 1,000 years.

The study, written by the Earth Institute at New York’s Columbia University, suggests that the drying conditions leading to the severe drought will be primarily driven by human-generated global warming.

While there already have been numerous past studies that predicted that global warming could dry the Southwest, this new paper is the first to say that the severe drying conditions could be way beyond the driest conditions since ancient time.

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, which has been produced by a number of U.S. government agencies, eleven out of the past 14 years have been considered drought years in much of the Western U.S., which includes California, Nevada, New Mexico and Arizona, as well as Texas and Oklahoma in the U.S. Southern Plains.

NASA said the current drought is directly affecting more than 64 million people in parts of the U.S. that include Southwest and Southern Plains. Many more people in the agricultural regions of those areas are indirectly affected by the dry spell as well.

 

Scientists believe that the popular food fish Tilapia could produce an ideal dressing to treat wounds. (Bjørn Christian Tørrissen/Wikipedia Commons)

Scientists believe that the popular food fish Tilapia could produce an ideal dressing to treat wounds. (Bjørn Christian Tørrissen/Wikipedia Commons)

Dress That Wound With a Fish, You Say?

I’m sorry if this story seems fishy.  But, scientists, writing in the American Chemical Society’s journal, “Applied Materials and Interfaces”, suggest that tilapia, a popular dinner fish, can be used to create effective wound dressings.

Experimenting on rats, the researchers found that the fish’s collagen — a major structural protein — when incorporated into a wound dressing, can help repair damaged skin without incurring an immune reaction.

The scientists also found that similar protein dressings created from the collagen of mammals such as cows and pigs could possibly transfer conditions such as foot-and-mouth disease.

After their successful experiments on rats, researchers now believe that their fish protein dressing could be used to effectively treat humans in the future.

 

A technician watches as patient enters a Magnetic Resonance Imaging, (MRI) machine at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. (U.S.Navy/Wikimedia Commons)

A technician watches a patient enter a Magnetic Resonance Imaging machine at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. (U.S.Navy/Wikimedia Commons)

New DVD Helps MRI Patients Reduce Stress

Anyone who has undergone a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) examination knows that the procedure, especially when performed with units where the patient is placed inside a tight tube, can often induce varied levels of stress, claustrophobia, or outright panic.

The patient must remain absolutely still throughout most of the procedure in order to ensure a successful MRI exam. This can be quite difficult given the loud noises produced by some MRI machines and confinement in such tight quarters.

But in the future, those undergoing MRI scans could have a less stressful experience, thanks to a new instructional DVD developed by an international team of scientists.

The DVD is in two sections. The first section, called ‘Preparation for MRI’, includes various information about the exam, such as what to expect in an MRI scan and what the scan would feel like. This portion also features a demonstration of a patient undergoing a scan, as well as others who talked about their MRI scan experience.

The second section of the DVD provides some detailed relaxation techniques that can be performed by examinees before and during their scan.

Those given the DVD were asked to watch it at least once before their scan appointment.

To test its effectiveness, the researchers provided the DVD to 41 people who had an appointment for an MRI scan. Of those 41 people, scientists found that 35 wound up having satisfactory exams. They were able to remain in the scanner for the entire procedure while keeping still enough for the machine to produce high quality images.

Practice is the Key to Good Singing

Posted February 10th, 2015 at 5:00 pm (UTC+0)
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Alaskan Huskies howling (Linda Martin/Creative Commons)

Alaskan Huskies howling (Linda Martin/Creative Commons)

Do you think you have a singing voice that makes dogs howl?

Don’t worry because new research shows that practice does indeed make perfect … pitch that is.

Moreover, the research shows that even if you were born with perfect pitch and are a wonderful singer, if you don’t practice or sing frequently you could lose that ability over time.

Researchers at Northwestern University made the discovery and have published their results in a new paper.

The study’s lead researcher Steve Demorest, a professor of music education at Northwestern’s Bienen School of Music says that developing the ability to sing on key may be the same as the kind of practice it takes to become a skilled instrumentalist.

“No one expects a beginner on violin to sound good right away, it takes practice, but everyone is supposed to be able to sing,” Demorest said in a University press release. “When people are unsuccessful they take it very personally, but we think if you sing more, you’ll get better.”

The new Northwestern study tested the singing accuracy (ability to sing on key) of volunteers in three age groups: kindergarteners, sixth graders and college-aged adults.

African Children's Choir performing (Louis/Creative Commons)

Musical education for elementary school-age children such as members of the African Children’s Choir focuses primarily on singing (Louis/Creative Commons)

Rather than have members of each group sing a particular song, the researchers had the volunteer singers listen to four varied repetitions of a single musical note and then sing back what they had heard. In another test the singers were asked to sing back what there heard in scattered intervals.

The researchers used similar methods to gauge the singing accuracy of each of the three groups of volunteers.

After testing each group, the researchers studied their measurement data and found that those who were in the kindergarten to late elementary school groups showed considerable improvement in singing accuracy.

The young-adults didn’t do so well on the tests, compared with their grade school colleagues. The college-age crowd performed their tests at the same level as the kindergarten volunteers in two of three tests given. The researchers said these results suggested the “use it or lose it” aspect of maintaining singing accuracy.

“Our study suggests that adults who may have performed better as children lost the ability when they stopped singing, said Demorest.

But in all fairness the elementary school age children are also given a good deal of musical instruction that’s focused on mostly singing.

As a student gets older and progresses from elementary into higher grades, music, especially singing becomes more of an elective study with only 34 percent of U.S. students actively involved in musical and/or singing instruction and participation. The number of students doing so drops even further as they progress toward high school graduation.

Opera singers like Laura Wright must practice frequently to ensure quality performances (Carl Milner/Creative Commons)

Opera singers like Laura Wright must practice frequently to ensure quality performances (Carl Milner/Creative Commons)

Although older students tend to sing more accurately than younger children, there’s not a lot of data on the singing ability of those between 12 and 18 years old, which the researcher call “an especially formative period, when voices change and there’s high interest in concerts and other forms of musical expression.”

The issue is further complicated since there’s really not a set standard of what accurate singing is nor is there any way at present to reliably measure such abilities.

So Demorest and a colleague and co-author of the study Peter Pfordresher the director of the Auditory Perception and Action Lab at the University at Buffalo in New York, are leading an endeavor that would create a measure of singing accuracy through internet based tools.

Once the online tools are completed, Demorest and Pfordresher hope that music teachers will use them to help children who are struggling with singing as well as by adults who would be able to test their own singing ability by a set measure.

Demorest did acknowledge that the being able to sing on key is easier and more natural for some people than others. But he also said it’s a skill people can learn and, with practice, be able to develop.

Science Scanner: Stars Younger than Thought, E-Cigarettes Not Really a Healthier Alternative, Red Grapes Help Burn Fat

Posted February 6th, 2015 at 8:48 pm (UTC+0)
1 comment

A visualization of the polarization of the Cosmic Microwave Background, or CMB, as detected by ESA's Planck satellite over the entire sky. ((C) ESA and the Planck Collaboration)

A visualization of the polarization of the Cosmic Microwave Background, or CMB, as detected by ESA’s Planck satellite over the entire sky. ((C) ESA and the Planck Collaboration)

Stars Are Younger than Thought

A preliminary analysis of data gathered by the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Planck mission has shown that the first stars of our universe are younger than first thought.

Scientists said data gathered by the Planck mission between 2009 and 2013 shows that the universe remained completely dark for about 550 million years after the ‘big bang’ some 13.8 billion years ago.

Previously conducted research estimated the universe’s ‘Dark Ages’ lasted between 300 to 400 million years after its creation.

Planck mission scientists have been studying the ‘cosmic microwave background’ (CMB), the primordial radiation left over from the big bang, for more than four years.

The space telescope’s data is also providing scientists with new insight into the structure of normal matter, dark matter and dark energy contained within the universe as well its age and rate of expansion.

 

Photo of a 117mm e-cigarette (Jakemaheu/Wikipedia Commons)

Photo of a 117mm e-cigarette (Jakemaheu/Wikipedia Commons)

E-Cigarettes Can Damage Lung Cells

Over the past several years, smokers have been switching from tobacco-based products to puff on the increasingly popular electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes.   Some smokers see the e-cigarette as a way to help them quit smoking while others view them as a healthier alternative that helps them avoid the social stigma associated with smoking.

But new research from the University of Rochester Medical Center suggests that e-cigarettes aren’t such a healthy tobacco replacement after all, and that they can actually damage lung cells.

The vapors inhaled by e-cigarette smokers were found by the researchers to contain heavy metals and tiny particulate matter that can make its way farther into lung tissue, cell systems, and the blood stream.

Writing in the journal PLOS ONE, the researchers suggest that aerosols and flavorings found in e-cigarette vapors cause lung cell damage by creating harmful free radicals and lung tissue inflammation.

“Several leading medical groups, organizations, and scientists are concerned about the lack of restrictions and regulations for e-cigarettes,” said lead researcher Professor Irfan Rahman, Ph.D., from the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry in a university press release. “Our research affirms that e-cigarettes may pose significant health risks and should be investigated further. It seems that every day a new e-cigarette product is launched without knowing the harmful health effects of these products.”

 

A glass of red wine (Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons)

A glass of red wine (Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons)

Red Grapes Help Burn Fat

Having a hard time losing weight?  You may want add some red grape juice or wine to your diet.

A new study published in the Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry suggests that eating dark-colored grapes, or drinking their juice or wine, can help people burn fat more efficiently. This could allow those who are severely overweight to better manage their obesity as well as metabolic ailments such as fatty liver.

Researchers from Oregon State University, the University of Florida and the University of Nebraska found that ellagic acid – one of the chemicals found in dark-red Muscadine grapes, along with other natural chemicals – drastically slowed the growth of current fat cells and the creation of new ones, as well as improving the metabolism of fatty acids in liver cells.

“We didn’t find, and we didn’t expect to, that these compounds would improve body weight,” said Neil Shay an Oregon State University biochemist, molecular biologist and a member of the study team in a university press release. “But by boosting the burning of fat, especially in the liver, they may improve liver function in overweight people,” he said.

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