New Maps Reveal Red Spot Changes and Odd New Features on Jupiter

Posted October 14th, 2015 at 3:46 pm (UTC-4)
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Scientists have created two new maps of Jupiter with data and images gathered over a nearly 21-hour period on January 19, 2015 by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope’s high performance Wide Field Camera 3.

The maps are a representation of two nearly continuous rotations of the Jovian planet. The maps and series of images will help scientists gauge the speeds of Jupiter’s winds.

New Portrait Of Jupiter (NASA/ESA/Goddard/UCBerkeley/JPL-Caltech/STScI)

The new maps have also revealed some interesting new features on the giant planet.

“Every time we look at Jupiter, we get tantalizing hints that something really exciting is going on,” said Amy Simon, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland in a NASA release. “This time is no exception.”

Among them is a rare wave that was spotted just north of Jupiter’s equator in an area that is spotted with cyclones and anticyclones – a circular flow around a high pressure area. This mysterious wave had only been seen one other time and that was back in 1979 by Voyager 2 as it made its flyby of the Jovian planet.

Another is an odd and delicate filamentary streamer-like feature that was spotted for the first time at the heart of the Great Red Spot.

Jupiter’s Giant Red Spot is one of the giant planet’s most prominent features. The red spot is actually a giant storm – about 28,000 km long and 14,000 km wide – that spins counterclockwise in planet’s southern hemisphere. Scientists say that the storm, which is similar to a hurricane here on Earth, has been raging for several hundred years.

The scientists studying the new maps said that these streamers were seen twisting and turning as they were buffeted by the red spot’s powerful storm at speeds of 150 meters per second or more.

The new series of Hubble images also verified previous observations that the Great Red Spot is continuing to get smaller and more circular in shape.

In Jupiter’s North Equatorial Belt, scientists spotted a rare wave that had been seen there only once before. It is similar to a wave that sometimes occurs in Earth’s atmosphere when cyclones are forming. This false-color close-up of Jupiter shows cyclones (arrows) and the wave (vertical lines). (NASA/ESA/Goddard/UCBerkeley/JPL-Caltech/STScI)

In Jupiter’s North Equatorial Belt, scientists spotted a rare wave that had been seen there only once before. It is similar to a wave that sometimes occurs in Earth’s atmosphere when cyclones are forming. This false-color close-up of Jupiter shows cyclones (arrows) and the wave (vertical lines).
(NASA/ESA/Goddard/UCBerkeley/JPL-Caltech/STScI)

The Hubble image gathering and map creation are part of a program called the Outer Planet Atmospheres Legacy (OPAL) program.

Hubble has also gathered images for maps of two other outer planets – Neptune and Uranus – as part of the OPAL program.

The program will image and create new maps of these planets annually.

NASA said that Saturn will be added to the OPAL planet survey in a couple of years.

“The collection of maps that we will build up over time will not only help scientists understand the atmospheres of our giant planets, but also the atmospheres of planets being discovered around other stars, and Earth’s atmosphere and oceans, too,” said co-author Michael H. Wong of the University of California, Berkeley.

The first results from the OPAL program’s 2015 Jupiter survey has been published in the Astrophysical Journal and is available online.

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

Study: Lakes On Ancient Mars; Scientists Say They Know Why Elephants Rarely Get Cancer

Posted October 9th, 2015 at 4:34 pm (UTC-4)
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The planet Mars in late spring as imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope (NASA/JPL/California Institute of Technology)

The planet Mars in late spring as imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope (NASA/JPL/California Institute of Technology)

New Caltech Study Finds That Mars Once Had Lakes

A couple of weeks ago the science world was all a twitter after NASA announced that its scientists had found evidence of flowing water on Mars.

The excitement raised expectations that life may exist on the Red Planet since, as some say, where there’s water, there’s life.

Scientists at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) who studied data from NASA/JPL’s Mars Curiosity Rover have just released a new study that suggests Mars had a much more rich and robust atmosphere and a lively hydrosphere where water flowed and accumulated in lakes across its surface.

“Observations from the rover suggest that a series of long-lived streams and lakes existed at some point between 3.8 billion to 3.3 billion years ago, delivering sediment that slowly built up the lower layers of Mount Sharp,” said Ashwin Vasavada a scientist with the space agency’s Mars Science Laboratory project, in a press release.

Scientists Learn Why Elephants Rarely Get Cancer

Did you know that elephants rarely get cancer?

Why these giant creatures are better equipped to avoid this dreaded disease has mystified scientists for years.

Deepening the mystery further is that elephants have 100 times as many cells as humans, which should also boost the odds of having at least one of those many cells mutate into a cancerous state.

Researchers at the Huntsman Cancer Institute and the Ringling Brothers Center for Elephant Conservation say they may have the answer.

The scientists found that elephants have 38 additional copies of a modified gene that programs a well-known tumor suppressing protein called p53.  We humans only have two.

The researchers also believe that elephants may also have a much stronger system for destroying damaged cells that could become cancerous, but further research is need to confirm this.

UK Scientists Link Birth Order with Nearsightedness

Are you nearsighted, and were you the first born in your family?

A UK team has found a link between nearsightedness and birth order.

The researchers took information from a UK database of people between 40 and 69 years of age, who’ve had a vision assessment and conducted an analysis.

After considering factors such as age, gender and exposure to education, the researchers found that the first born were about 10% more likely to be myopic than their later born siblings.

Among the risk factors for myopia are genetic background, the amount of time spent outdoors, and how much time is spent doing what doctors and scientists call “near work”, such as reading, writing or working with a computer.

The researchers suggest that parents tend to invest more in the educational attention of the first born than those born later.  This could mean the first born child does more reading and other “near work” compared to their siblings, which would increase the odds them having myopia.

Astronomers Puzzled by Odd Behavior in Planet Forming Disk

AU Microscopii Debris Disk (NASA, ESA, G. Schneider/Steward Observatory, HST GO 12228 team)

AU Microscopii Debris Disk
(NASA, ESA, G. Schneider/Steward Observatory, HST GO 12228 team)

Astronomers recently discovered some odd, never seen before wave-like structures moving through a dusty planet forming disk surrounding a somewhat nearby star.

The star is AU Microscopii, located 32 light years away in the constellation Microscopium.

Using the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope, in Chile, the astronomers said what they saw looked like ripples moving through water.

They then pulled up some earlier images of the star that was taken by the Hubble Space Telescope back in 2010 and 2011.

At first they couldn’t find the mysterious ripples in the Hubble images, but after some reprocessing they were able to not only recognize them by noticed that they had changed over time.

The astronomers say that this odd new celestial phenomenon could provide valuable insight into the formation of planets.

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.

2015 Nobel Science Prizes Announced

Posted October 8th, 2015 at 12:20 am (UTC-4)
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AlfredNobel_adjusted

Alfred Nobel established the Prizes that bear his name in 1895 (Public Domain)

The 2015 Nobel Prizes for Physiology or Medicine, Physics, and Chemistry were announced this week in Sweden.

On Monday (10/5/15) the Nobel Assembly at Sweden’s Karolinska Institutet said this year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine has been awarded to three scientists who developed unique therapies for fighting parasitic diseases that especially impact the world’s poorest nations.

William C. Campbell from Drew University in New Jersey and Satoshi Ōmura from Kitasato University in Tokyo will each share one half of this year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for developing treatments to fight infections caused by roundworm parasites.

Among the diseases caused by these parasites are River blindness and Lymphatic filariasis, which include Lymphedema, Elephantiasis and Hydrocele in men.

The pair found that derivatives of a compound called Avermectin can be quite effective at lowering the prevalence of those diseases as well a growing number of other parasitic diseases.

Tu Youyou, from the China Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine, in Beijing, was awarded the other half of the Nobel Prize for her discoveries that may lead to an innovative therapies against malaria.

Youyou Tu, a pharmacologist, researched traditional Chinese herbal medicine to develop her unique malaria therapies. She found that an extract from the Artemisia annua plant, which was later called Artemisinin, proved to be highly effective against the malaria parasite in both infected animals and humans. The Artemisinin group of drugs are quite effective because they rapidly kill malaria parasites at an early stage of their development.

This year’s Nobel Prize in Physics, announced by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences on Tuesday (10/6/15), will be given to Takaaki Kajita of the University of Tokyo and Arthur McDonald of Canada’s Queen’s University for their work in helping to resolve a puzzle that had scientists stumped for decades.

Previously, it had been thought that neutrinos were massless sub-atomic particles. But Kajita and McDonald each conducted experiments that verified the tiny particles can undergo changes in their identities – something that requires them to have mass. The prize committee commented that the Nobel Laureate’s work has changed the understanding of the innermost workings of matter which could also help us better understand the universe.

The 2015 Nobel Prize winners in Chemistry, announced Wednesday (10/7/15) by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences on Wednesday (10/7/15), were awarded to Tomas Lindahl of the UK’s Francis Crick Institute and Clare Hall Laboratory, Paul Modrich from Maryland’s Howard Hughes Medical Institute and North Carolina’s Duke University School of Medicine and Aziz Sancar from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The trio won the Chemistry prize for their research on how our cells are able to repair DNA and protect genetic material from damage caused by its own instability, as well as external factors such as UV radiation, free radicals and other cancer-causing substances. The scientist’s research could lead to the development of new cancer treatments.

The three scientists mapped several of a number of molecular systems that constantly monitor and repair damaged DNA to see how they do their work at a molecular level. If it weren’t for these tiny molecular repair stations, scientists believe that our genetic material would crumble into a complete chemical mess.

The winners in each of the three categories will share a monetary prize worth about 8 million Swedish krona, which is about 1.2 million U.S. dollars.

This year’s Nobel Prizes will be awarded on December 10th in a ceremony that will be held in Stockholm, Sweden.

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.

Study: Texting Hampers Girls School Performance More Than Boys

Posted October 5th, 2015 at 12:58 pm (UTC-4)
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According to a 2012 Pew Research Center report, 63% of American teenagers use text messaging to communicate with each other every day.  The study also showed that a U.S. teen sends an average of 60 texts per day.

Now, a new study published by the American Psychological Association suggests that girls between 13 and 16 years old who compulsively text tend to perform more poorly academically than teen boys.

Lead researcher Kelly M. Lister-Landman of Pennsylvania’s Delaware County Community College describes compulsive texting as more tan just sending frequent texts.  She says it also “involves someone trying and failing to cut back on texting, becoming defensive when challenged about the behavior, and feeling frustrated when one can’t do it.”

The study’s subjects were 403 predominantly white teens (211 girls and 192 boys) in 8th and 11th grades from a small town in the Midwest United States.

Subjects filled out a two-part questionnaire called the Compulsive Texting Scale.  Some of the questions allowed the researchers to learn whether their subject’s texting activities hindered their ability to complete assigned tasks; how engrossed they were in texting and how much of an effort they made to conceal their texting activities. The second questionnaire was used to gauge their subjects’ academic performance and see how well adjusted they were in school.

After reviewing the results of the questionnaires, the researchers found that only the female subjects had any negative connotation between compulsive texting and academic performance.

Despite stereotypes that may suggest otherwise, other studies have found that girls do not engage in texting more often than boys, but each gender tends to text for different reasons.

Lister-Landman cited a 2005 study conducted by Naomi Baron (Gender Issues in College Student Use of Instant Messaging) that suggested young women mostly use internet communication to nurture relationships and for social interaction, while young men use it to merely pass along information to each other.

“Girls in this developmental stage also are more likely than boys to ruminate with others, or engage in obsessive, preoccupied thinking, across contexts. Therefore, it may be that the nature of the texts girls send and receive is more distracting, thus interfering with their academic adjustment,” Lister-Landman said in a press release.

The researchers admitted that since their test subjects were mostly white, as well as other issues, the results of their study were somewhat limited.

They envision further research to include observing students while texting, examining their monthly phone bills, as well as including parent interviews.

Lister-Landman added that it would be interesting to study what actually motivates teens to text, and learn how much of an impact multitasking (ability to do more than one task at a time) has on academic performance.

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.

September 2015 Science Images

Posted September 30th, 2015 at 9:43 pm (UTC-4)
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A new mosaic image captured by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope and released on 9/24/15 shows an incredibly detailed look at a small section of the remains of a massive star that exploded about 8,000 years ago.  Called the Veil Nebula, it is one of the best-known supernova remnants. The entire nebula is 110 light-years across and sits about 2,100 light-years away in the constellation Cygnus, the Swan. (NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA))

A new mosaic image captured by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope and released on 9/24/15 offers an incredibly detailed look at a small section of the remains of a massive star that exploded about 8,000 years ago. Called the Veil Nebula, it’s one of the best-known supernova remnants. The entire nebula is 110 light-years across and sits about 2,100 light-years away in the constellation Cygnus, the Swan. (NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA))

A boy tries to talk with a humanoid robot during a science event in the Chinese province of Henan province on 9/19/15. (Reuters)

A boy tries to talk to a humanoid robot during a science event in the Chinese province of Henan on 9/19/15. (Reuters)

This five frame composite silhouette of the International Space Station as it glides in front of the Sun was taken on 9/6/15 from Shenandoah National Park, Front Royal Virginia.  As it passed the sun the ISS was traveling at a speed of about 8 kilometers per second. (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

This five frame composite silhouette of the International Space Station as it glides in front of the Sun was taken on 9/6/15 from Shenandoah National Park, Front Royal Virginia. As it passed the sun, the ISS was traveling at a speed of about 8 kilometers per second. (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

On 9/10/15 scientists in South Africa announced that they had discovered a new human ancestor species.  This is a composite skeleton and other fossil elements of what scientists call Homo naledi.  The new hominid species shows a unique mix of human-like and more primitive characteristics. (AP)

On 9/10/15, scientists in South Africa announced they had discovered a new human ancestor species. This is a composite skeleton and other fossil elements of what scientists call Homo naledi. The new hominid species shows a unique mix of human-like and more primitive characteristics. (AP)

This new image of the spiral galaxy NGC 3521 was captured by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope released on 9/21/15.  It’s a member of a class of galaxies known as flocculent spirals and is located almost 40 million light-years away in the constellation of Leo. (ESA/Hubble & NASA and S. Smartt (Queen's University Belfast))

This new image of the spiral galaxy NGC 3521 was captured by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope and released on 9/21/15. It’s a member of a class of galaxies known as flocculent spirals and is located almost 40 million light-years away in the constellation of Leo. (ESA/Hubble & NASA and S. Smartt (Queen’s University Belfast))

A worker for the Israel Antiquities Authority shows a cross that was designed on a mosaic floor of a Byzantine era burial site at Ben Shemen Forest on 9/21/15. Investigating archaeologists say that may have marked the burial spot of an important person. (AP)

A worker for the Israel Antiquities Authority shows a cross that was designed on a mosaic floor of a Byzantine era burial site at Ben Shemen Forest on 9/21/15. Investigating archaeologists say it may have marked the burial spot of an important person. (AP)

With the Milky Way in the background, ISS crewmember Kjell Lingren grabbed this photo from space of a lightning strike on Earth that is so bright that it lights up the space station’s solar panels.  Lingren posted this photo on Twitter and Instagram on 9/2/15. (NASA)

With the Milky Way in the background, ISS crewmember Kjell Lingren grabbed this photo from space of a lightning strike on Earth that is so bright it lights up the space station’s solar panels. Lingren posted this photo on Twitter and Instagram on 9/2/15. (NASA)

A perigee full moon or supermoon is when a full moon makes its closest approach to Earth during its elliptical orbit.  Skywatchers were treated to a rare combination of a supermoon and a total lunar eclipse on 9/27/15.  Here’s a look at the supermoon behind an Orthodox church in Belarus as it nears the end of the eclipse.  (AP)

A perigee full moon or supermoon is when a full moon makes its closest approach to Earth during its elliptical orbit. Skywatchers were treated to a rare combination supermoon and a total lunar eclipse on 9/27/15. Here’s a look at the supermoon behind an Orthodox church in Belarus as it nears the end of the eclipse. (AP)

This photo of the "Phoenix Cluster", released on 9/30/15, is actually a composite of images of the galaxy cluster taken at X-ray, optical, and ultraviolet wavelengths by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, the Hubble Space Telescope, and the Clay-Magellan telescope located in Chile.  (NASA/CXC/MIT/M.McDonald et al; NASA/STScI; TIFR/GMRT)

This photo of the “Phoenix Cluster”, released on 9/30/15, is actually a composite of images taken at X-ray, optical, and ultraviolet wavelengths by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, the Hubble Space Telescope, and the Clay-Magellan telescope located in Chile. (NASA/CXC/MIT/M.McDonald et al; NASA/STScI; TIFR/GMRT)

Nate Mitchell, co-Founder and vice president of product at Oculus, wears a new version of the company’s Gear VR virtual reality headset.  The photo was taken on 9/24/15 at an event in Hollywood, CA. (Reuters)

Nate Mitchell, co-Founder and vice president of product at Oculus, can be seen in the lens of a new version of the company’s Gear VR virtual reality headset. The photo was taken on 9/24/15 at an event in Hollywood, CA. (Reuters)

NASA released this high-resolution enhanced color view of Pluto on 9/25/15.  The image combines blue, red and infrared images taken by the Ralph/Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera (MVIC) on 7/14/15.  (NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)

NASA released this high-resolution enhanced color view of Pluto on 9/25/15. The image combines blue, red and infrared images taken by the Ralph/Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera (MVIC) on 7/14/15. (NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)

Scientists from Oregon State University announced on 9/28/15 that this flea preserved about 20 million years ago in amber may carry evidence of an ancient strain of the bubonic plague. (George Poinar, Jr/Oregon State University)

Scientists from Oregon State University announced on 9/28/15 that this flea, preserved about 20 million years ago in amber, may carry evidence of an ancient strain of the bubonic plague. (George Poinar, Jr/Oregon State University)

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.

NASA Says Water Flows on Mars

Posted September 28th, 2015 at 6:47 pm (UTC-4)
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These dark, narrow, 100 meter-long streaks called recurring slope lineae flowing downhill on Mars are inferred to have been formed by contemporary flowing water. Recently, planetary scientists detected hydrated salts on these slopes at Hale crater, corroborating their original hypothesis that the streaks are indeed formed by liquid water. (NASA/JPL/University of Arizona)

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

Today, NASA confirmed evidence of the presence of liquid water flowing on present-day Mars.

It’s most likely that any flowing Martian water is salty and not pure.

“Our quest on Mars has been to ‘follow the water,’ in our search for life in the universe, and now we have convincing science that validates what we’ve long suspected,” said John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington in a press release.

“This is a significant development, as it appears to confirm that water — albeit briny — is flowing today on the surface of Mars,” he added.

Scientists, who used the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM) onboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, said they have been able to identify the chemical signature of hydrated salts and minerals in the mysterious dark streaks that can been seen flowing down the slopes of a number of Martian hills and mountains and craters.

The scientists say these flowing streaks are known as ‘recurring slope lineae’ or RSL and had been thought in the past to be possibly linked with the flow of salty liquid water on Mars.

Scientists believe that these hydrated salts and minerals, called perchlorates, found in the Martian RSL’s lowers the freezing point of water just like salt helps snow and ice to melt rapidly here on Earth.  The salts could help normally frozen water on Mars to flow.

The confirmation of liquid water on Mars is outlined in a new study published in the journal Nature Geoscience.

“When most people talk about water on Mars, they’re usually talking about ancient water or frozen water,” said study lead author Lujendra Ojha of the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Dark narrow streaks called recurring slope lineae emanating out of the walls of Garni crater on Mars. The dark streaks here are up to few hundred meters in length. They are hypothesized to be formed by flow of briny liquid water on Mars. (NASA/JPL/University of Arizona)

Dark narrow streaks called recurring slope lineae emanating out of the walls of Garni crater on Mars. The dark streaks here are up to few hundred meters in length. They are hypothesized to be formed by flow of briny liquid water on Mars. (NASA/JPL/University of Arizona)

“Now we know there’s more to the story. This is the first spectral detection that unambiguously supports our liquid water­ formation hypotheses for RSL,” he added.

It’s thought that the RSL’s hydrated salts are probably a mix of magnesium perchlorate, magnesium chlorate and sodium perchlorate.  It has been shown that some of these perchlorate salts can keep liquid from freezing even if the temperature drops to -70 Celsius.

NASA said the appearance of RSLs vary throughout a Martian year.  They appear to be quite dark during the Red Planet’s warm seasons (-23° Celsius) and then lighten and disappear during colder seasons.

“These are dark streaks that form in late spring, grow through the summer and then disappear by fall,” said Michael Meyer, lead scientist for the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters in a televised press conference.

Ojha first noticed these mysterious dark streaks on Mars back in 2010 after studying images from the MRO’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE).  Those observations made by the HiRISE have verified the existence of RSLs at dozens of locations on Mars.

Back in September, 2013 NASA announced the first scoop of Martian soil analyzed by Curiosity Rover’s built-in laboratory has revealed a high amount of water.  “One of the most exciting results from this very first solid sample ingested by Curiosity is the high percentage of water in the soil,” said Curiosity researcher Laurie Leshin, of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute at that time. “About 2 percent of the soil on the surface of Mars is made up of water, which is a great resource, and interesting scientifically.”

In December 2013, a team of researchers also released a series of papers that were published in the journal Science, revealed evidence of what was once an ancient fresh water lake on Mars that might have been capable of supporting life.

Earlier this year, an international team of scientists, who also wrote in the journal Science, said that their research suggested 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.

Speaking at Monday’s teleconference, Mary Beth Wilhelm of NASA’s Ames Research Center and the Georgia Institute of Technology said water found on Mars could be an important resource for those who may someday explore or even perhaps colonize the Red Planet.  She added that the discovery of water could decrease the cost of and also increase the resilience of human activity on Mars.

This animation simulates a fly-around look at Hale Crater on Mars (NASA/JPL)

 

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.

Babies Smile to Make You Smile Back

Posted September 24th, 2015 at 6:30 pm (UTC-4)
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Most people agree that there’s something very special about a baby’s smile.  But is there a purpose behind that smile? What are they trying to communicate to us?

A new multidisciplinary study has found that babies smile to get you to interact with them and smile back.

Writing in the recent issue of the journal PLOS ONE, the researchers also found that much like successful comedians who go for the big laugh, babies have a great sense of timing that helps get adults to smile back, without having to smile too much themselves.

“If you’ve ever interacted with babies, you suspect that they’re up to something when they’re smiling. They’re not just smiling randomly,” said study author Javier Movellan, from Machine Perception Laboratory at the University of California, San Diego in a university release.  “But proving this is difficult,” he added.

The research team, which included computer scientists, roboticists and developmental psychologists, took data gathered in a past study that examined the one-on-one interactions between mothers and their under-four-month-old children. Among the reactions taken from previous research included when and how often the mothers and their babies smiled.

With this data, the researchers programmed a child-like robot that could mimic the actions of the babies who were part of the earlier study. They then had the robots interact with student volunteers.

The scientists found that their experiment verified findings of the previous study.  The robot babies were able to provoke the same reactions from the students as the mothers who had been with their real-life babies. The baby bots, like their live counterparts, got the students to smile without having to smile much themselves.

Funded by the National Science Foundation, the study is part of a program that uses robots to get fresh insight into human development.

The research team is hoping that the program will provide developmental psychologists with new tools that will help them study children and adults who are unable to communicate verbally, such as those with autism.

Video of child-like robot used in study (Jacob School of Engineering @ University of California, San Diego
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.

We’re Surrounded with Personal Cloud of Microbes

Posted September 22nd, 2015 at 7:55 pm (UTC-4)
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(Viputheshwar Sitaraman/Draw Science)

(Viputheshwar Sitaraman/Draw Science)

Just like ‘Pig Pen’, the character from Charles M. Schulz’s Peanuts cartoon, who walks in a cloud of dust, each of us is surrounded by our very own personal cloud of microbes.

Every day we all release millions of bacteria that live on and in our bodies into the air around us, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Oregon.

The researchers gathered 11 test subjects, put them in a germ-free compartment and then collected 312 samples of the air surrounding them.

They also gathered air samples from unoccupied compartments as well.

After sequencing the DNA of the bacteria contained within the air samples, the researchers found that they could identify most of the 11 test subjects in only four hours just by a distinctive combination of microbes in the air.

The scientists were able to detect the presence of commonly carried strains of bacteria such as Streptococcus, Propionibacterium and Corynebacterium around all of the test subjects.  But they found that each of their subjects gave off different combinations of the bacteria that made the individual’s “microbial cloud” unique.

“We expected that we would be able to detect the human microbiome in the air around a person, but we were surprised to find that we could identify most of the occupants just by sampling their microbial cloud,” said lead author James F. Meadow, in a press release.

The researchers said that their study revealed a distinct difference in the samples taken from the compartments occupied by the test subjects and those from an unoccupied unit.

The findings were published in the September 22, 2015 edition of the journal PeerJ.

The researchers believe that their findings could provide insight and an understanding of the mechanics behind the spread of contagious disease within buildings or other closed spaces.

They also say that the methods used to make their findings could be used some day in forensic studies.  For example, investigators might be able to learn the identity those who were at specific location or determine if a suspect had been at the scene of a crime he or she is accused of.

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.

Whirling Black Holes’ Dance to End in Cosmic Blast

Posted September 18th, 2015 at 10:20 pm (UTC-4)
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An artist's simulation to help explain an odd light signal thought to be coming from a close-knit pair of merging black holes, PG 1302-102, located 3.5 billion light-years away. (Columbia University)

An artist’s simulation to help explain an odd light signal thought to be coming from a close-knit pair of merging black holes, PG 1302-102, located 3.5 billion light-years away. (Columbia University)

Some 3.5 billion light years from Earth, in the Virgo Constellation, there are two black holes (binary black hole), locked by gravity, that are madly orbiting each other.

But their orbits are continuing to close in and scientists from Columbia University expect that in about 100,000 years they will join together in one huge cosmic blast.

Right now scientists say that the distance between the two black holes is no bigger than the width of our solar system.

The binary black hole system that also hosts a quasar called PG 1302-102 and it’s pumping out an odd cyclical light signal.

The pair was discovered earlier this year after astronomers at the California Institute of Technology, (Caltech) noticed an odd light beaming from the center of a galaxy.

The Caltech scientists, who used the ground based telescopes of the Catalina Real-Time Transient Survey – composed of the Mt. Lemmon Survey, Catalina Sky Survey, and Siding Spring Survey – found that the strange fluctuating light signal is probably being generated by the motion of the orbiting black holes.

It’s thought that the light in the signal probably isn’t coming from the black holes directly but rather from surrounding material.

NASA’s Galaxy Evolution Explorer (GALEX) and Hubble Space Telescope provided the historical data that allowed the scientists to further study the black hole duo and gain new details about the odd, cyclical light signal.

“This is the closest we’ve come to observing two black holes on their way to a massive collision,” said the study’s senior author, Zoltan Haiman, an astronomer at Columbia in a university release.

The researchers say they have been studying the close orbiting black holes so that they can get a better understanding of how galaxies and the giant black holes at their centers merge – something they say happened often in the early days of the universe.

The scientists published their findings in a recent issue of the journal Nature.

When the binary black hole, a large one and a smaller companion finally do crash into each other and become one, it’s expected to trigger such a colossal cosmological blast that will be comparable to the explosion of 100 million supernovae. It has been predicted that the blast will also send out ripples in space and time (gravitational waves).

If it were possible for us to still be here in 100,000 years, we would be in for quite a show when these two black holes collide.

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.

Alien Invasion Unlikely; Love Rooted in Evolution; Smokers Risk Losing Teeth

Posted September 15th, 2015 at 8:31 pm (UTC-4)
5 comments

Dutch Scientist assures that An Alien Invasion is Unlikely

Should we be fearful of an invasion by Aliens?  Probably not any time soon, according to researchers involved in scanning the skies for signs of extraterrestrial life.

Professor Michael Garrett, from the University of Leiden and the General and Scientific Director of the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy (ASTRON) is one of the scientists who conducted numerous radio observations over the years.

Based on his radio scans of the best candidate galaxies (those that held promise of hosting ETI) Garrett has determined that advanced ET civilizations are rare or are not present within the surveyed range of the universe.  He says that natural astrophysical processes are most likely behind the detection of any odd radio signals that had been received so far.

“In my view, it means we can all sleep safely in our beds tonight – an alien invasion doesn’t seem at all likely,” said Garrett.

Researchers find that Love is Rooted in Evolution

Humans aren’t the only species who are choosy when selecting mates.

A research team from Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Ornithology recently conducted an experiment that found the Zebra Finch is also pretty fussy too, and for good reason: survival of its species.

For their experiment, the researchers had groups of 20 female Zebra Finches freely select their choice of mates from 20 males.

Once the birds had paired up, half of the zebra finch couples where allowed to go their own way, produce baby birds and live happily ever after.

For the remaining half, the researchers stepped in and broke up the couples.  The birds were forced to pair up and mate with a different companion, one who was just as heartbroken.

The researchers found that the happy, self-selected zebra finch couples produced significantly more chicks than the birds in the forced pairings.

On Sept. 15, NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko reached the halfway point of the first one-year mission to the International Space Station. (NASA)

On Sept. 15, NASA astronaut Scott Kelly (L) and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko (R) reached the halfway point of the first one-year mission to the International Space Station. (NASA)

ISS One-Year Mission Marks Halfway Point

Today (9/15/15) marks the halfway point of the one-year mission being conducted on the International Space Station.

NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko have been up in the space station since March and aren’t scheduled to return to Earth until the spring of 2016 when their Soyuz spacecraft will land in Kazakhstan.

Typically, an ISS expedition lasts between four and six months.

The One-Year Mission was developed to gain an understanding of the effects of extended spaceflight on the human body.

Knowing this is quite important to NASA’s plans of sending humans deeper into space, such as manned flights to and from Mars.

NASA says that research conducted over the year in space may also benefit humans here on Earth.  For example, scientists and doctors can learn to better assist patients who’ve been confined to bed for long periods of time and could allow for the development of improved monitoring systems for those whose bodies have difficulty fighting infections.

Scott Kelly’s twin brother Mark was also a NASA Astronaut who flew on four Space Shuttle missions.  Throughout the One-Year Mission both Scott and his Earth bound brother, Mark, are being medically tested and monitored.  The results of each twin’s tests will later be compared to another.

Smokers Have Higher Risk of Losing Teeth

There are lots of good reasons to quit smoking.  Here’s another one: Keep smoking, and you’ll have higher risk of losing your teeth.

A new study just published in Journal of Dental Research shows that men who smoke are up to 3.6 times more likely than non-smoking guys to lose their teeth.

Among the ladies those who smoke are 2.5 more likely than those who don’t.

According to the study’s lead author Professor Thomas Dietrich, from the UK’s University of Birmingham, most people lose their teeth from either tooth decay or gum disease, which lists smoking as a risk factor.

Smoking can also hide the effects of gum disease so smokers may not realize the seriousness of their oral problems until it’s too late and the teeth start falling out.

And, if you think only old people lose their teeth because of smoking, think again.  The study also found that the connection between smoking and tooth loss was stronger among younger people than those who were older.

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.