Earth’s ‘Cousin’ Found; Burnt Scroll Made Readable, ET Search Boosted

Posted July 24th, 2015 at 11:24 pm (UTC-4)
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NASA Finds Earth’s Older and Bigger Cousin

NASA announced that its Kepler mission has discovered a planet and star that closely resembles the Earth and our Sun.  Some have even been calling the discovery of the exoplanet “Earth’s older and bigger cousin”.

The planet and sun are part of the Kepler-452 system and are about 1,400 light-years away and located in the constellation Cygnus.

Called Kepler-452b the Earth-like exoplanet, cis located within the star system’s “habitable zone”.  That’s the area around a star where liquid water could pool on the surface of an orbiting planet

NASA said that the Kepler mission also discovered 11 other new small exoplanets located in the habitable zone of their star systems.

Ancient and Charred Scroll Made Readable Again by New Technologies

Scientists have developed some advanced technologies that have made it possible, for the first time, to read parts of a badly burned 1,500 year old scroll.

The scroll, written in Hebrew, was discovered in 1970 inside the Holy Ark of the synagogue at Ein Gedi, Israel.

Text of damaged scroll was made readable again through the use of high-resolution scanning and an innovative new virtual unwrapping tool developed by Professor Brent Seales from the University of Kentucky.

The scroll contains the beginning of the Book of Leviticus and carbon dating has indicated that it’s from the late sixth century.

Four-Legged Snake Ancestor Found in Brazil

Scientists studying a fossil taken from the Crato Formation in Brazil said that they’ve discovered an ancient species of a four-legged snake called Tetrapodophis amplectus.

It’s thought that the Tetrapodophis’s four legs weren’t used for movement but for grasping, either to grab prey or to clasp during mating.

The quadruped serpent, which was found to be an ancestor of modern-day snakes, lived during the Early Cretaceous period some 146 to 100 million years ago.

The scientists said that their findings have provided evidence that the snake may have evolved from animals that were ground burrowers rather than from sea-based ancestors.

Lots of Friends at 20 and Good Friends at 30 Provides Well-being Later in Life

A new study from the University of Rochester (New York) has found that having an active social life at 20 and having really good friends at 30 can be beneficial to a person’s well-being as they get older.

A busy social life at 20, according to the study, helps people build a set of useful tools that can help later in life.

The researchers said that people in their twenties often get to meet people from a variety of backgrounds and have different opinions and values than ours.  This teaches us how to best manage those differences.

For people in their thirties, the study showed that having the kind of active social life as they had while they were in their twenties provided no psychosocial benefits later in life.

But, those 30 year olds who said that they had high-quality relationships that were intimate and satisfying also had a high level of well-being as they got older.

Billionaire and Scientist Will Boost Search for ET

Russian billionaire Yuri Milner and renowned theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking gave the search for extraterrestrial intelligence a significant boost this week when they announced the formation of the $100 million dollar Breakthrough Initiatives.

The multi-disciplinary project will span 10-years and use the world’s largest telescopes to mine data from the nearest 1-million stars in the Milky Way, and some 100 other galaxies.

The first two of these initiatives include “Breakthrough Listen,” which organizers say will be the most powerful, wide-ranging and intensive scientific search for signs of intelligent life in the cosmos.

The second initiative, called “Breakthrough Message,” will be a 1-million dollar international competition to compose digital messages that represent humanity and our planet, which one day could be sent to other civilizations beyond Earth.

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.

Rise in the Volume of Arctic Sea Ice Noted by UK Researchers

Posted July 22nd, 2015 at 10:37 pm (UTC-4)
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An image of an area of the Arctic sea ice pack well north of Alaska, captured by the MODIS instrument on NASA's Aqua satellite on Sept. 13, 2013 (NASA)

An image of an area of the Arctic sea ice pack well north of Alaska, captured by the MODIS instrument on NASA’s Aqua satellite on Sept. 13, 2013 (NASA)

Previous research has suggested that both the thickness and extent of Arctic summer sea ice have dramatically declined over the past 30 years. The data includes measurements taken by the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colorado.

But now, some British scientists have found the volume of Arctic sea ice has actually increased by a third after 2013’s unusually cool summer.  That’s the conclusion of a new study conducted by researchers at University College London and the University of Leeds, and published in the journal Nature.

Rachel Tilling, the study’s lead author from the Center for Polar Observation and Modelling at the University College London, said that the much cooler temperatures in the summer of 2013 were more like those recorded back in the late 1990s.

“This allowed thick sea ice to persist northwest of Greenland because there were fewer days when it could melt,” she said in a press release. “Although models have suggested that the volume of Arctic sea ice is in long-term decline, we know now that it can recover by a significant amount if the melting season is cut short.”

In an email to Science World, Julienne Stroeve, a research scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center, said she is “very cautious about these results (of the UK study)” because much of the processing used in the study was not well-described, which makes it difficult for others to fully reproduce their results.  However, Stroeve said she doesn’t doubt that the overall Arctic ice thickness was larger in 2013 and 2014 than in 2012, because not as much ice melted.

The shallow but extensive ponds that form on Arctic sea ice when its snow cover melts in the summer. (US Army)

The shallow but extensive ponds that form on Arctic sea ice when its snow cover melts in the summer. (US Army)

According to the Nature study, the sudden increase in sea ice volume after just one cool summer suggests that Arctic sea ice may be more resilient than has been previously considered.

Stroeve doesn’t quite agree. “I think the statement that sea ice is more resilient is a bit premature as it’s based on only 5 years of data, and it does not take into account variable precipitation as they assume climatological snow depth,” she said.

To make their findings, the British researchers used measurements taken by the European Space Agency’s CryoSat satellite between 2010 and 2014, as well as maps of sea ice extent.

CryoSat’s primary instrument, according to ESA’s website, is the Synthetic Aperture Interferometric Radar Altimeter. It was designed to meet the measurement requirements for ice-sheet elevation and the height of sea ice protruding from the water.

Stroeve says that one does not measure ice thickness directly with radar or a laser altimeter. “You need to also know snow depth and density, both of which are not known over the Arctic Ocean,” she says.

ESA's CryoSat satellite scans polar ice sheets and floating sea ice.  ((c) ESA/P. Carril)

ESA’s CryoSat satellite scans polar ice sheets and floating sea ice. ((c) ESA/P. Carril)

Professor Andrew Shepherd, Director of Center for Polar Observation and Modelling said that while it is doubtful the Arctic region will be ice-free this summer, due to the jump in sea ice volume, temperatures are expected to rise again in the future.  He likens the effects of the cool summer of 2013 as simply “winding the clock back a few years” on long-term Arctic sea ice decline.

“Understanding what controls the amount of Arctic sea ice takes us one step closer to making reliable predictions of how long it will last, which is important because it is a key component of Earth’s climate system,” he says.

The researchers said that they are planning to use CryoSat’s measurements of changing sea ice thickness not only to help improve models that are used to forecast future climate change, but also to help sailors steer their ships in the potentially dangerous Arctic region.

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.

Close Call for ISS; Threat to Polar Bears; Binary System Cannibal

Posted July 18th, 2015 at 1:00 am (UTC-4)
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ISS Crewmembers Back to Work after Close Call with Space Junk

Fear that a floating piece of space junk could impact the ISS sent astronauts the station’s crew scrambling onto a docked Soyuz TMA-16M spacecraft on Friday (07/17). Luckily, the debris passed the station harmlessly, and the crew was back at work.

Houston’s Mission Control was tracking a chunk of what used to be a weather satellite when they noticed that it was headed to toward the space station for possible impact Thursday (07/16) at 1201 UTC.

Loss of Sea Ice Poses Serious Threat to Polar Bears

Food has always been scarce for polar bears, but the quickening loss of sea ice during the summer months could lead to even less food available.

While the bears have certain amount of stored energy, a new study suggests they may not be able to rely on that reserve to get them through the melt season. The bears also can reduce the amount of energy they use to help prolong their supply of stored energy, but the study indicates it isn’t enough to make up for any food shortages they experience during the summer.

It May be Harder to Avoid Mosquito Bites than Thought

A new study from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) has found that blood-feeding mosquitoes have evolved to where they can use three senses to zero-in on the human or animal host for their next meal.

Many insects, including mosquitoes, are drawn in by the odor of carbon dioxide released by humans and other animals when they exhale.  But, the study found mosquitoes can also use their vision to see their host and detect body heat with their thermal sensory abilities.

Study: Oceans Reduced the Rise of Global Surface Temperatures

Climate scientists from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and UCLA, who studied ocean temperatures, have found that some of the heat generated by greenhouse gases has been trapped and held beneath the surface of the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

The researchers suggest this may explain the slowdown in the rise of global surface temperatures that have been observed over the past decade.

They found a layer beneath the surface Pacific and Indian Oceans, located between 91 and 305 meters, is gathering more heat than previously observed.  According to the researchers, movement of the warm subsurface ocean water has produced an unusually cooler surface which in turn has also cooled the air temperature above.

Astronomers Discover a Cannibal in a Dual-Star System

Professional astronomers with help from amateur stargazers have discovered a fascinating binary star system containing a very hot and dense white dwarf that is actually devouring its larger companion star.

Named Gaia-14aae, the rare star system is located some 730 light years away from Earth in the Draco constellation.

Another factor that sets this star system apart from others is that it contains a large amount of helium but no hydrogen, which is very strange since hydrogen is the most common element in the Universe.

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.

New Horizons Team Relieved After Spacecraft Phones Home

Posted July 15th, 2015 at 9:52 pm (UTC-4)
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New Horizons Flight Controllers celebrate after they received confirmation from the spacecraft that it had successfully completed the flyby of Pluto, Tuesday, July 14, 2015 in the Mission Operations Center (MOC) of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), Laurel, Maryland. (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

New Horizons Flight Controllers celebrate after they received confirmation from the spacecraft that it had successfully completed the flyby of Pluto, Tuesday, July 14, 2015 in the Mission Operations Center (MOC) of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), Laurel, Maryland.
(NASA/Bill Ingalls)

It took a little more than thirteen hours after NASA’s New Horizons mission made its historic close encounter with Pluto and its five known moons, but the piano-sized spacecraft finally phoned home to say that it’s OK and that the fly-by went according to plan.

Anxious members of the New Horizons mission team at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland became jubilant after they started receiving status messages from the spacecraft a little before 0100 UTC on July 15th.

The reason why mission controllers had to wait so long after the fly-by is that New Horizons was instructed not to communicate with Earth until after it flew beyond the Pluto system and had gathered as much data as possible.

New Horizons captured this close-up image of Pluto's surface (NASA-JHUAPL-SwRI)

New Horizons captured this close-up image of Pluto’s surface (NASA-JHUAPL-SwRI)

After traveling some five billion kilometers into the far reaches of our solar system for nearly a decade, the first spacecraft to be sent to Pluto flew within 12,500 kilometers above the surface of the dwarf planet on July 14th at 1149 UTC.

The New Horizons is the fastest spacecraft that has ever been launched – it’s hurtling through space at more than 52,000 kilometers per hour.

NASA said the spacecraft flew past Pluto and its five known moons while in data-gathering mode and was not in immediate contact with controllers here on Earth.

Mission officials said that the New Horizons has gathered so much data that it will take about 16 months for to send it all back to Earth.

New Horizons was sent into space in January 2006 to explore a region of the solar system beyond the large planets – Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune – that’s never been explored before.

This area of space, called the Kuiper Belt, is several billion kilometers wide and contains relatively smaller, icy and rocky objects that are thought to be remnants of the formation of the solar system.

“You can’t understand the solar system, in which we live in, without understanding all its parts,” said Paul Schenk, a co-investigator on the New Horizons science team in an interview with Science World.

Scientists are expecting the spacecraft to send back some amazing images of Pluto and its large moon, Charon as well as “pretty good views” of several of the remaining four smaller moons.

Artist’s concept of the New Horizons spacecraft as it approaches Pluto and its largest moon, Charon. (Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute (JHUAPL/SwRI))

Artist’s concept of the New Horizons spacecraft as it approaches Pluto and its largest moon, Charon. (Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute (JHUAPL/SwRI))

Schenk said that he and his colleagues didn’t actually know that two of the four smaller moons of Pluto even existed until the Hubble Space Telescope and ground based telescopes found them after New Horizons was launched. So, to make sure they would be able to get at least some images of them, the spacecraft’s flight path had to be changed slightly as it made its way to Pluto.

It’s hoped that the images taken by New Horizons will provide scientists with at least an idea of the size and shapes of the moons.

Members of the mission’s team began monitoring Pluto with the spacecraft this past January.

In that time they were able to learn about some of the dwarf planet’s basic characteristics, determine its exact position in space and its orbital dynamics so that they could make sure their targeting was correct as well as look for any of Pluto’s moons that had not yet been discovered.

So far they haven’t been able to spot any new moons, but the search continues.

With the successful fly-by behind them, Schenk said that in October mission members are planning to slightly nudge the spacecraft’s flight path so that they can visit other Kuiper belt objects that might prove to be just as or even more interesting than Pluto and its moons.

Listen to Science World’s interview with Paul Schenk, a co-investigator on the New Horizons science team.

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’s Boomerang-Like Aircraft, Kid Athletes Excel in Class, Citrus and Skin Cancer

Posted July 1st, 2015 at 10:00 pm (UTC-4)
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Boomerang-Like Aircraft Could Help NASA Find Landing Sites on Mars

NASA has built a prototype of what it hopes to be the first aircraft to fly on Mars sometime in the 2020’s. Shaped like a boomerang, the flying wing Prandtl-m will be rather small, with a 61 cm wingspan, and weighing only about 454 grams. The designers are planning to send the drone-like aircraft to Mars in a Cube Sat – a miniaturized satellite. Once deployed in the Martian atmosphere, the aircraft can glide down and land.

NASA plans to use the Prandtl-m to fly around Mars to look for possible landing sites for a future manned mission and send back to Earth detailed high resolution images that could tell scientists about the suitability of those landing sites. NASA is planning to test-launch the Prandtl-m from a high altitude balloon later this year.

 Kids Involved With Sports Programs Do Better in the Classroom

A new study led by scientists at the University of Montreal and the CHU Sainte-Justine Children’s hospital found that encouraging children to participate in structured extracurricular sports can help them develop the discipline needed to be successful in the classroom.

The researchers’ analyzed information provided by the parents and teachers of children enrolled in kindergarten. Scientists monitored children’s extracurricular activities as they grew up and compared their success on the field with their classroom success. They found that by fourth grade, children who participated in a structured sport program were better at following their teacher’s instructions and were able to remain more focused in the classroom than those who didn’t take part in extracurricular sports.

 Citrus Fruits May Make Us More Susceptible to Skin Cancer

A new study published online by the American Society of Clinical Oncology’s Journal of Clinical Oncology found that frequent consumption of citrus fruits could be associated with an increased risk of melanoma – skin cancer.

After analyzing the eating patterns of more than 100,000 Americans, the researchers noticed that people who ate or drank citrus products, specifically whole grapefruit and orange juice, at least 1.6 times a day, had 36 percent higher risk of melanoma than those who limited their citrus intake to less than twice a week. Despite the findings, the researchers say it’s too early to recommend changes to people’s citrus consumption.

 ESA’s New Leader Assumes Duties

The European Space Agency – ESA – has a new leader. Johann-Dietrich Woerner who was appointed by the space agency last December, began his new duties as Director General on July 1. He succeeded Jean-Jacques Dordain, the longest-serving Director General, who led ESA since July 2003. Along with overseeing ESA’s ongoing programs and missions, Woerner intends to play an active role in developing the space agency’s plans for the future, which he calls Space 4.0. Before he was appointed to his new position, Woerner served as Chairman of the Executive Board of the German Aerospace Center (DLR) from March 2007 to June 2015.

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.

June 2015 Science Images

Posted June 29th, 2015 at 6:08 pm (UTC-4)
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The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft, carrying supplies to the International Space Station, breaks apart shortly after liftoff at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Cape Canaveral, Florida., Sunday, June 28, 2015. (AP)

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft, carrying supplies to the International Space Station, breaks apart shortly after liftoff at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in  Florida,  June 28, 2015. (AP)

A red aurora as seen from the International Space Station and tweeted by astronaut Scott Kelly on June 22, 2015. (NASA)

A red aurora as seen from the International Space Station and tweeted by astronaut Scott Kelly on June 22, 2015. (NASA)

The Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition’s walks up stairs made of unstable bricks on June 5, 2015 during DARPA’s (U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) recent Robotics Challenge in Pomona, California. (AP)

The Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition’s ‘Running Man’ robot walks up stairs made of unstable bricks on June 5, 2015 during DARPA’s (U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) recent Robotics Challenge in Pomona, California. (AP)

Members of the International Space Station's "Expedition 43" take a rest break shortly after landing safely in the steppes of Kazakhstan on June 11, 2015.  The returning crew members are (L-R) Terry Virts of the U.S., Anton Shkaplerov of Russia and Samantha Cristoforetti of Italy. The trio spent 199 days aboard the space station. (NASA)

Members of the International Space Station’s “Expedition 43” take a rest break shortly after landing safely in the steppes of Kazakhstan on June 11, 2015. The returning crew members are (L-R) Terry Virts of the U.S., Anton Shkaplerov of Russia and Samantha Cristoforetti of Italy. The trio spent 199 days aboard the space station. (NASA)

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft flew past Saturn’s moon Dione on June 16, 2015. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft flies past Saturn’s moon Dione on June 16, 2015. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)

Indonesia’s Mount Sinabung spews volcanic materials and hot molten lava from its crater on June 25, 2015. (AP)

Indonesia’s Mount Sinabung spews volcanic materials and hot molten lava from its crater on June 25, 2015. (AP)

This NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image, released on June 26, 2015, shows a planetary nebula named NGC 6153, located about 4,000 light-years away in the southern constellation of Scorpius. (ESA/Hubble & NASA)

This Hubble Space Telescope image, released on June 26, 2015, shows a planetary nebula named NGC 6153, located about 4,000 light-years away in the southern constellation of Scorpius. (ESA/Hubble & NASA)

The Solar Impulse 2, a solar powered plane can be seen making its approach at Nagoya airport in Japan on June 1, 2015. The airplane, which is only powered by the energy of the Sun, is attempting a 35,000 km round-the-world flight. (Reuters)

The Solar Impulse 2, a solar powered plane, makes its approach at Nagoya airport in Japan on June 1, 2015. The airplane, which is only powered by the energy of the Sun, is attempting a 35,000 km round-the-world flight. (Reuters)

U.S. Navy sailors recover the test vehicle for NASA's Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) off the coast of Kauai, Hawaii on June 8, 2015.  NASA officials said that the parachute inflated during the test of new technology for landing larger spacecraft on Mars, but it then disintegrated immediately afterward (U.S. Navy)

U.S. Navy sailors recover the test vehicle for NASA’s Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) off the coast of Kauai, Hawaii on June 8, 2015. NASA officials said the parachute inflated during the test of new technology for landing larger spacecraft on Mars, but it then disintegrated immediately afterward. (U.S. Navy)

Meet Xiomei.   Seen during a demonstration, on June 3, 2015, at a class of China’s Jiujiang University, the robot teacher is able to narrate teaching materials and can respond to several voice orders like "repeat" or "continue". (Reuters)

Meet Xiomei. Seen during a demonstration,on June 3, 2015 at a class of China’s Jiujiang University, the robot teacher is able to narrate teaching materials and can respond to several voice orders like “repeat” or “continue.” (Reuters)

NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) snapped this image of the sun emitting an M7.9 class mid-level solar flare that peaked at 0816 UTC on June 25, 2015. (NASA/SDO)

NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) snapped this image of the sun emitting an M7.9 class mid-level solar flare that peaked at 0816 UTC on June 25, 2015. (NASA/SDO)

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.

Slumbering Giant Black Hole Awakes After 26 Years

Posted June 27th, 2015 at 1:00 am (UTC-4)
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Artist’s impression of a black hole feasting on matter from its companion star in a binary system. Material flows from the star towards the black hole and gathers in a disc, where it is heated up, shining brightly at optical, ultraviolet and X-ray wavelengths before spiralling into the black hole. (ESA/ATG medialab)

Artist’s impression of a black hole feasting on matter from its companion star in a binary system. (ESA/ATG medialab)

Some 8,000 light years from Earth, in the constellation Cygnus, a binary system known as V404 Cygni has come to life for the first time in 26 years.

While most binary systems consist of two stars orbiting a common center of mass, V404 Cygni is made up of a black hole and a star that orbit each other, with the black hole devouring matter from its companion.

In a system like V404 Cygni, material from the star pours out, heads toward the black hole and collects in an accretion disk, a circular object made of material that gathers around a black hole.

The incredibly powerful gravity produced by the black hole heats the disk and causes it to brilliantly shine at optical, ultraviolet and X-ray wavelengths until it spirals into the black hole and disappears.

But not all of the disk material winds up in the black hole. Scientists said some of it is ejected in the form of two powerful jets of particles

The binary system caught the attention of astronomers on June 15, 2015 when the Burst Alert Telescope, mounted on NASA’s Swift satellite, detected a sudden burst of gamma rays from V404 Cygni.

Once detected, the unexpected blast of extremely high frequency radiation then activated the satellite’s X-ray telescope to begin its observations of V404 Cygni.

A short time later, an X-ray flare originating from the same area as V404 Cygni was spotted by MAXI – Monitor of All-sky X-ray Image, part of the International Space Station’s Japanese Experiment Module.

The initial flurry of interest then set off a series of observations from ground-based and space telescopes around the world to monitor the black hole and its companion star at a variety of wavelengths that span the electromagnetic spectrum.

Erik Kuulkers, Integral project scientist at the European Space Agency (ESA), said V404 Cygni’s current behavior astonishes him and his colleagues, particularly its recurring flashes of bright light that last for less than an hour – something rarely seen in other black hole systems.

“In these moments, it becomes the brightest object in the X-ray sky – up to 50 times brighter than the Crab Nebula, normally one of the brightest sources in the high-energy sky,” said Kuulkers in an ESA press release.

Scientists said the last time the V404 Cygni system was as active and bright was back in 1989, when it was observed with the Japanese X-ray satellite Ginga, along with high-energy instruments mounted aboard the Mir space station.

Following that period of activity, the binary system began to quiet down again, allowing astronomers to finally see the black hole’s companion star, which had been obscured by the bright light produced by the outburst.

Referring back to the archival data gathered during the 20th century by various optical telescopes, astronomers found two previous outbursts. One occurred in 1938 and the other in 1956.

Scientists believe that the outbursts are triggered once the sheer amount of material within the surrounding accretion disk forces the black hole to dramatically increase its feeding mechanism – an event that takes place every two or three decades, said the scientists.

“Now that this extreme object has woken up again, we are all eager to learn more about the engine that powers the outburst we are observing,” said Carlo Ferrigno from the Integral Science Data Center at the University of Geneva, Switzerland.

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.

Ultra-Dark Galaxies; Exoplanet With Comet-Like Tail; New Dinosaur Species

Posted June 24th, 2015 at 7:52 pm (UTC-4)
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Astronomers Find Huge Treasure Trove of Ultra-Dark Galaxies

U.S. and Japanese researchers have discovered 854 “ultra dark galaxies” located within the Coma Cluster, about 321 million light years from Earth. Dark galaxies are described as those that are totally composed of or are mostly filled with dark matter, which cannot be seen by telescopes. Nevertheless, the existence of dark galaxies can be implied from the gravitational effect dark matter has on visible matter.

Fossils Gathered 80 Years Ago Unearth New Dinosaur

Paleontologists who analyzed dinosaur fossils gathered in South Africa in the late 1930’s have discovered a new, 200-million-year-old dinosaur. Among the more distinctive features found within the fossil samples was a unique cross-like ankle bone. Since the fossils were found in an area about 30 kilometers from the Lesotho border, the new dinosaur was named Sefapanosaurus, from the Sesotho word “sefapano,” which means cross.

Childhood Emotional Adversity Could Lead to Migraines in Adulthood

Canadian scientists have linked childhood emotional distress to migraine headaches in adulthood. The researchers from the University of Toronto said that they found evidence that children who see their parents fighting or have experienced physical and sexual abuse have a better than average chance of experiencing migraine headaches when they grow-up. Men who reported all three adversities were found to have over three times the odds of getting migraine headaches. Women  who reported the same have little less than three times the chance of getting a migraine.

Scientists Find Comet-Like Tail Following Small Exoplanet

Scientists have discovered a “comet-like” tail trailing a Neptune-sized exoplanet 33 light years away. The tail is a cloud of hydrogen escaping from the small exoplanet, identified as GJ 436b. While escaping gas has already been observed in larger gas giant exoplanets, scientists were surprised to see the phenomena on a much smaller planet. The scientists said x-rays from the dwarf red star are burning off the exoplanet’s upper atmosphere, which is creating the hydrogen cloud.

Today’s Racehorses Run Faster than Ancestors

A new study by researchers at UK’s University of Exeter found that today’s racehorses run faster than their ancestors, despite a past scientific studies that indicated the speed of the racehorse has leveled off. The researchers said those past studies used smaller and more selective samples and didn’t include factors such as ground softness. For their new study, the researchers analyzed a large data set of racing records that gave a more detailed overview of thoroughbred performance from the mid 1800’s to 2012.

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.

Pope’s Encyclical Draws Reactions from Climate Change Scientist and Skeptic

Posted June 19th, 2015 at 8:26 pm (UTC-4)
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Pope Francis delivers his speech during his weekly general audience, in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, Wednesday, June 17, 2015. (AP)

Pope Francis delivers his speech during his weekly general audience, in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican, Wednesday, June 17, 2015. (AP)

In the 1600’s, Galileo angered the Roman Catholic Church for supporting the Copernican system that placed the Sun at the center of the solar system, with Earth and other planets circling it. At the time, most people subscribed to the geocentric system, which had Earth at the center of the universe, with the sun, planets and stars in orbit.

And the debate between those who back Darwin’s theory of evolution and those who believe the Earth and all its creatures were created by God still rages today.

Religion and science have had a shaky relationship for centuries.

But on June 18, 2015, they came together in the form of Pope Francis’s encyclical, Praised Be – the Care of the Common Home.

In the encyclical, a letter that’s traditionally sent to all bishops of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis issued an urgent warning. He challenged the people of the world to recognize the harm humans continue to inflict on the Earth, take action against it, and take better care of “our common home.”

Pope Francis, who was a chemist before following his call into the priesthood, called for a “new partnership” between religion and science to fight human-driven climate change.

The environmentalist community welcomed and praised the Pope’s letter for entering the conversation on climate change. Those skeptical that climate change is real or linked to human behavior remained unswayed and unimpressed.

To gauge the reaction of both sides of the climate change “conversation” to the encyclical, Science World spoke with climatologist Raymond Bradley at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and James Taylor, a senior fellow for environment and energy policy at Chicago’s Heartland Institute, a think tank that promotes skepticism about man-made climate change.

Bradley said that since the issue of global warming and environmental degradation has become so politicized, it was great to have somebody who has no political agenda speak on the topic.

The climatologist argued that the Pope framed environmental issues as being everybody’s responsibility for the common good – that everybody has to deal with the limited natural resources available on this planet.

“I can’t think of anybody with more moral authority than Pope Francis,” he said.

Bradley believes that Pope Frances presented climate change as a moral and ethical issue. He argued that scientists are confident they know what the problem is and believe there are plenty of technological solutions to address it. But he said politics has prevented that from happening.

Copies of Pope Francis' encyclical "Laudato Si," (Praise Be) are displayed prior to the start of a press conference, at the Vatican, Thursday, June 18, 2015. (AP)

Copies of Pope Francis’ encyclical “Laudato Si,” (Praise Be) are displayed prior to the start of a press conference, at the Vatican, Thursday, June 18, 2015. (AP)

“So what the Pope is saying is let’s consider this as an ethical issue and let’s try to work together to elevate the problem above the petty politics that we seem to deal with all the time,” said Bradley.

But Taylor disagreed, arguing that by saying that current temperatures need to be addressed, the Pope is “missing out on the fact that if you go back over the past several thousand years, temperatures primarily have been warmer than today.”

He said while the Pope’s motives are good, he was getting “bad advice.”

“I believe that these actions [by the Pope] to address global warming are unnecessary and counterproductive,” said the climate change skeptic.

He said most people agree that we should care for our environment and help lift people out of poverty. But he argued that imposing expensive energy sources on people defeats the church’s goal of lifting them out of poverty and will have little, if any, environmental impact.

Forcing people to pay for expensive energy, added Taylor, leaves them with less money for better nutrition, health care, education, housing or whatever else is needed to improve their lives.

Taylor believes the best way for science and religion to come together is to find ways to better the human condition.

The full impact of the encyclical will probably take some time to sink in. But the spiritual leader of the world’s estimated 1.2 billion Roman Catholics has provided unique insight into the climate change debate and the role we all have in caring for our home planet.

Listen to the interviews with Ray Bradley and James Taylor below.

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.

Science Scanner: Cat Videos Can Help You, Permanent Dust Cloud Surrounds Moon

Posted June 17th, 2015 at 7:10 pm (UTC-4)
1 comment

Watching Cat Videos Can Give You a Boost

You can hardly surf the Internet without stumbling across a cat video, and new research suggests those videos could actually be good for you.  Of all the categories of YouTube video content, videos of cats have had more views per video. It’s been suggested that there were more than 2 million cat videos on YouTube in 2014 garnering more than 26 billion views.  Now, Jessica Gall Myrick, an Indiana University Media School researcher, has found that these feline videos do more than merely entertain people.  She says her research shows that they can actually boost the viewer’s energy level, increase positive emotions and reduce negative feelings.

Acidification of Arctic Ocean Could Mean Difficulties for Shellfish

Within 15 years it’s possible that parts of the Arctic Ocean will become so acidic that at certain times of the year, marine animals such as Alaska king crabs will no longer be able to build and maintain the shells they need for survival.  Researchers from NOAA, University of Alaska, and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution found that the increasing acidification is dissolving the calcium carbonate in the Arctic waters.  The sea creature’s shells are mostly composed of this chemical compound.

Earth’s Core Contains 90% of Earth’s Sulfur Supply

A new study has provided evidence that the Earth’s core contains 90 percent of our planet’s sulfur.  The scientists believe that a sizable amount of sulfur-rich liquid formed in the Earth’s mantle – the huge middle layer that surrounds the core – as the result of a planet-sized object crashing into the Earth in the very distant past.  The sulfur eventually sank from the mantle into the core.  A popular theory suggests that the moon was formed as a result of this collision.

Dust Cloud Envelopes Moon

Speaking of the moon, a new study led by scientists at the University of Colorado Boulder suggests that the moon is surrounded by a permanent cloud of dust that also intensifies from time to time.  Using data from NASA’s Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer, or LADEE, the scientists say that the lunar cloud is mostly composed of tiny grains of dust from the lunar surface that had been sent aloft by the impact of high-speed, interplanetary dust particles.

Clue to Possible Life on Mars Found in Meteorites

A group of scientists believes that samples of six meteorites made up of Martian volcanic rock have provided a possible clue in the search for life on Mars.  The scientists said that they found traces of methane after conducting laboratory analysis on the Martian meteorite samples.  Methane is a chemical compound that some microbes here on Earth use as a food source.  The scientists believe that their discovery suggests that the methane could also provide energy to basic life forms that could lie beneath the surface of Mars.  The scientists did not find traces of methane in two other meteorites that didn’t originate from the Red Planet

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.