Curiosity Rover Finds Water on Mars

Posted September 27th, 2013 at 6:33 pm (UTC+0)
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This is the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) suite of instruments suite, prior to its installation on the Curiosity rover. (NASA Goddard)

The Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) suite of instruments, prior to its installation on Curiosity. (NASA)

The first scoop of Martian soil analyzed by Curiosity Rover’s built-in laboratory has revealed a high amount of water in the soil, according to NASA.

“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. “About 2 percent of the soil on the surface of Mars is made up of water, which is a great resource, and interesting scientifically.”

Researchers made their findings using Curiosity’s Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) unit, which includes three sophisticated instruments: a gas chromotograph, mass spectrometer, and tunable laser spectrometer.

SAM allowed the scientists to identify a wide range of chemical compounds and to calculate the ratios of different isotopes of the sample’s key elements.

The same soil sample, when heated to 835 degrees Celsius, showed significant amounts of carbon dioxide, oxygen and various sulfur compounds.

The heated collection of Martian dust, dirt and fine soil, gathered by the rover’s scoop at a location called Rocknest, also revealed a compound containing chlorine and oxygen, which the scientists think is likely chlorate or perchlorate.

The Curiosity's scoop grabed a sample of Martian surface material and delivered it to it's built-in laboratory called SAM. This is a file photo of some trenches Curiosity dug in October 2012. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

Some of the trenches Curiosity’s scoop dug in Mars’ surface, Oct. 2012. (NASA)

Up until this finding, the scientists had thought those materials only existed in the high-latitude areas of Mars. By finding them at Curiosity’s current location near the equator of Mars, the researchers say that perhaps they could be found all over the planet.

Since they are formed in the presence of water, the carbonate materials that were found in their tested sample, according to the researchers, also provided clues to Martian water.

According to Leshin, the results of her team’s research shed light on the composition of the planet’s surface, while offering direction for future research.

“We now know there should be abundant, easily accessible water on Mars,” said Leshin. “When we send people, they could scoop up the soil anywhere on the surface, heat it just a bit, and obtain water.”

Scientists Learn More about Mysterious 3rd Van Allen Belt

Posted September 25th, 2013 at 7:49 pm (UTC+0)
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Computer animation showing the formation of the third Van Allen radiation belt. Green bar indicates time/day from 9/2/12 to 9/8/12 (UCLA)

Computer animation showing the formation of the third Van Allen radiation belt. Green bar indicates time/day from 9/2/12 to 9/8/12 (UCLA)

New research provides insight into the mysterious Van Allen radiation belts.

There are normally two of these giant bands of high-energy radiation encircling the Earth. However, researchers discovered a third and previously unknown radiation ring that only lasted for about a month back in September 2012.

Writing in a recent edition of Nature Physics, scientists from UCLA College of Letters and Science  found the third ring was composed of extremely energetic particles, known as ultra-relativistic electrons, which can move at speeds close to the speed of light.

“The Van Allen Probes observations challenged our current views on the physics of the radiation belts,” said study co-author Yuri Shprits, a space scientist at UCLA. “In the past, we made estimates and thought they looked reasonable. Now we know we need to understand each storm in much more detail, creating global models that can reconstruct what’s happening at every level.”

Armed with data from the Van Allen Probes, two robotic spacecraft that are on two-year mission to study radiation belts, the researchers were able to create new computer models which help explain the extraordinary behavior of that transient third ring.

“The ultra-relativistic electrons of the third ring have so much energy that they are driven by very different physical processes,” said Shprits. “Incorporating that information not only explains the unusual observation of the long-lived narrow middle ring, it opens up a new area of research for the ultra-relativistic particles.”

Artist rendering of the twin Van Allen Probes in Earth orbit (NASA)

Artist rendering of the twin Van Allen Probes in Earth orbit (NASA)

The Van Allen belts were the first major discovery of the Space Age when they were first observed by NASA’s Explorer One spacecraft in 1958.

Scientists were able to determine that the belts, which receive their high-energy particles from solar wind and from cosmic rays, expand and contract, as well as change shape, as solar disturbances make their way toward Earth.

These bands of highly-charged energy are kept in place some 1,600 to 60,000 kilometers above the Earth’s surface by our planet’s magnetic fields.

The researchers said better understanding of the radiation belts surrounding Earth might someday help scientists better predict space weather that impacts our planet. Flare ups in space weather can cause problems with orbiting satellites, which in turn could impact communications and GPS systems.

Study: Sudden Explosion of Cambrian Period Animal Life Caused by a ‘Cascade of Events’

Posted September 19th, 2013 at 5:59 pm (UTC+0)
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Fossil of a Trilobite - Cheirurus ingricus - from the early Cambrian period (Tim Evanson/Creative Commons via Flickr)

Fossil of a Trilobite – Cheirurus ingricus – from the early Cambrian period (Tim Evanson/Creative Commons via Flickr)

Last week we told you about an Australian study that suggested that the evolution of life during the Cambrian Explosion took place at five times the rate it occurs today.

Now, another group of scientists from Britain, in their newly published study, weigh in on the “Big Bang of Life.”  They propose that the explosion of animal life on Earth that took place some 520 to 540 million years ago was not the result of just one single principal cause, but rather from a combination of interwoven factors.

The Cambrian Explosion, the researchers said, was a major evolutionary event that led to a wide range of biological innovation, which included the beginning of modern ecosystems, a rapid increase in animal diversity, the origin of skeletal creatures and the first appearance of specialist modes of life such as burrowing and swimming.

Animals that made their first appearances on Earth during the Cambrian explosion, according to the researchers, included vertebrates such as the distant ancestors of modern fish, reptiles, birds and mammals.

The British researchers suggested that in order to determine the reasons behind the Cambrian Explosion, scientists need to take a more ‘holistic approach’ that encompass a range of factors.

A number of odd looking lifeforms, like the Anomalocaris, pictured in this model, came out of the Cambrian explosion.  Model on display at the National Dinosaur Museum, Canberra, Australia. (Phonart via Wikimedia Commons)

A number of odd looking lifeforms, like the Anomalocaris, pictured in this model, came out of the Cambrian explosion. Model on display at the National Dinosaur Museum, Canberra, Australia. (Phonart via Wikimedia Commons)

“This is a period of time that has attracted a lot of attention because it is when animals appear very abruptly in the fossil record, and in great diversity. Out of this event came nearly all of the major groups of animals that we recognize today,” said Paul Smith, lead author of the study and director of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History.

“Because it is such a major biological event, it has attracted much opinion and speculation about its cause,” Smith said.

Over the years there have been a number of theories about the Cambrian Explosion.  The researchers said that those concepts, which fall into three main categories – geological, geochemical and biological — are separate and exclusive processes that also suggest a single cause of the explosion.

The researchers said that they consider the Big Bang of Life was the result of a “cascade of events,” more of a complex interaction of those biological, geochemical and geological processes that were suggested in those individual theories.

“It would be naive to think that any one cause ignited this phenomenal explosion of animal life. Rather, a chain reaction involving a number of biological and geological drivers kicked into gear, escalating the planet’s diversity during a relatively short interval of deep time,” said David Harper, co-author of the study and a professor of paleontology at Durham University.

Some consider the long extinct Haikouichthys (artist rendering), that emerged from the Cambrian explosion, one of the earliest fishes on Earth (Talifero via Wikimedia Commons)

Some consider the long extinct Haikouichthys (artist rendering), that emerged from the Cambrian explosion, one of the earliest fishes on Earth (Talifero via Wikimedia Commons)

The British researchers propose that the causes behind the explosion of animal life probably began with an early Cambrian rise in sea level.

This sea level rise, they said, generated a large increase in the area of habitable seafloor, which in turn drove an increase in animal diversity.

The team of scientists, led by Smith and Harper, wrote their study after working for four years from data that was gathered from a site that faced the Arctic Ocean in northernmost Greenland.

The team was attracted to the site, which they said was difficult to reach, because of the high quality of its fossil material and the insights it provided.

The research team’s findings can be found in the latest edition of the journal Science.

Moving to the Beat Could Improve Your Reading Skills

Posted September 17th, 2013 at 8:58 pm (UTC+0)
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Moving to the beat... (Port of San Diego/Creative Commons via Flickr)

(Port of San Diego/Creative Commons via Flickr)

People who’ve got rhythm might have an edge when it comes to language and reading skills.

A new study in “The Journal of Neuroscience” shows the brains of people who can move to a musical beat react to speech on a more consistent basis than those who don’t, a finding that implies musical training could sharpen the brain’s response to language.

The researchers say their findings provide the first biological link between the capabilities of keeping a beat and how the brain responds to speech, something that can have substantial implications for reading ability.

To make their findings the research team recruited more than 100 teenagers who lived in the Chicago, Illinois, area.

A drummer keeping the beat going strong (Kris Krug/Creative Commons via Flickr)

(Kris Krug/Creative Commons via Flickr)

The teens were given two tests.  First, they were instructed to listen to and tap their fingers along to the beat of a metronome.  The researchers calculated how accurately their young volunteers were able to tap along to the musical timekeeper.

For the second test, the teen subjects were hooked up to an electroencephalography (EEG) device,which measures electrical activity in the brain.

The EEG device was focused on an area of the brain that not only processes sound, but is also connected to parts of the brain responsible for motor-movement. The scientists recorded the brainwaves as their teen subjects listened to the synthesized speech sound da, which was repeated at intervals over a half-hour period.

The researchers were able to determine how the nerve cells in that particular region of the brain responded every time the da sound was played.

“Across this population of adolescents, the more accurate they were at tapping along to the beat, the more consistent their brains’ response to the da syllable was,” said Nina Kraus, the director of Northwestern University’s Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory and co-author of the study.

Are language and reading skills enhanced the ability to keep a beat? (Eunice-Sleepyneko/Creative Commons via Flickr)

(Eunice-Sleepyneko/Creative Commons via Flickr)

While past studies have demonstrated the relation between reading prowess and a person’s ability to keep a beat, the researchers said their new findings show hearing is what provides a common basis for those links.

“Rhythm is inherently a part of music and language,” Kraus said. “It may be that musical training, with an emphasis on rhythmic skills, exercises the auditory-system, leading to strong sound-to-meaning associations that are so essential in learning to read.”

The researchers are already expanding their studies with a multi-year project involving children who are being musically trained. They’ll assess the effect musical training has on beat synchronization, brain response consistency, and reading skills.

Big Bang of Evolution Moved at Warp Speed

Posted September 13th, 2013 at 7:19 pm (UTC+0)
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Marine life during the Cambrian explosion ~520 million years ago. A giant Anomalocaris investigates a trilobite, while Opabinia looks on from the right, and the "walking cactus" Diania crawls underneath.(Katrina Kenny & Nobumichi Tamura)

Marine life during the Cambrian explosion 520 million years ago.  (Katrina Kenny & Nobumichi Tamura)

Evolution during the “Big Bang of Evolution,” also known as the Cambrian Explosion, happened at five times the rate it occurs today, according to a new study, a finding that is consistent with Darwin’s theory of evolution.

The Australian researchers said  they’ve been able to estimate, for the first time, just how fast life evolved during an incredibly productive period in Earth’s history some 520 to 540 million years ago.  It was during this Cambrian explosion when most modern animal groups first appeared on Earth.

The research group’s findings,  published in  Current Biology, also provide an answer to Darwin’s dilemma.

In his classic book “On the Origins of the Species,” where he lays out his theory of evolution, 19th century scientist Charles Darwin pointed out a potential problem with his theory.

While there was a rich fossil record of creatures dating from the beginning of the Cambrian Period, Darwin thought a lack of fossils from the years prior to that geologic time period might present a contradiction to his evolution theory.

“The abrupt appearance of dozens of animal groups during this time is arguably the most important evolutionary event after the origin of life,” says lead author and associate professor Michael Lee of the University of Adelaide in South Australia.

Critics of Darwin’s theory of evolution have pointed  to the nearly impossibly fast rates of evolution  to discredit Darwin’s work.

Up until this new research, no one has been able to accurately measure the rates of evolution during this prolific period  because of the “notorious imperfection” of the ancient fossil record.

A living arthropod, centipede Cormocephalus crawls over a fossil of its 515-million-year-old relative, trilobite Estaingia which lived during the Cambrian explosion. (University of Adelaide)

A living arthropod, centipede Cormocephalus crawls over a fossil of its 515-million-year-old relative, trilobite Estaingia, which lived during the Cambrian explosion. (University of Adelaide)

In this new study, the researchers said that they were able to estimate that rates of both structural and genetic evolution of creatures that took place during the Cambrian explosion were five times faster than they are today.  The scientists say these changes are also consistent with Darwin’s theory of evolution.

The researchers focused their work on invertebrate animals called arthropods because they considered them to be the most diverse animal group that existed both back during the Cambrian period as well as today.  This group of animals includes insects, crustaceans and arachnids.

“It was during this Cambrian period that many of the most familiar traits associated with this group of animals evolved, like a hard exoskeleton, jointed legs and compound (multi-faceted) eyes that are shared by all arthropods. We even find the first appearance in the fossil record of the antenna that insects, millipedes and lobsters all have, and the earliest biting jaws,” said co-author Dr. Greg Edgecombe of London’s Natural History Museum.

Science Images Blog

Posted September 10th, 2013 at 7:22 pm (UTC+0)
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On Friday September 6, 2013 NASA launched its Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) observatory from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. (NASA/Carla Cioffi)

NASA launches its Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) observatory from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, Sept. 6, 2013. (NASA)

Evening view of the gantry at Pad 0B at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport, at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Wallops Island, Va. The gantry surrounded the Minotaur V rocket that took NASA’s LADEE lunar probe into space (NASA Wallops/Patrick Black)

Evening view of the gantry at Pad 0B at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport, at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Wallops Island, Va. The gantry surrounded the Minotaur V rocket that took NASA’s LADEE lunar probe into space (NASA)

A fire salamander - scientists have isolated a new species of fungus that eats amphibians' skin. The fungus has ravaged the fire salamander population in the Netherlands, bringing it close to regional extinction. (Kenny De Boeck)

A fire salamander – scientists have isolated a new species of fungus that eats amphibians’ skin. The fungus has ravaged the fire salamander population in the Netherlands, bringing it close to regional extinction. (Kenny De Boeck)

Sensitive photomultiplier tubes line a detector used by the Daya Bay Reactor Neutrino Experiment in China. The tubes are designed to amplify and record the faint flashes that signify an antineutrino interaction. (Roy Kaltschmidt, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory)

Sensitive photomultiplier tubes line a detector used by the Daya Bay Reactor Neutrino Experiment in China. The tubes are designed to amplify and record the faint flashes that signify an antineutrino interaction. (Roy Kaltschmidt, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory)

NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory has revealed a massive cloud of multimillion-degree gas in a galaxy about 60 million light years from Earth. Scientists say that the hot gas cloud was likely caused by a collision between a dwarf galaxy and a much larger galaxy called NGC 1232. (NASA)

A massive cloud of multi-million-degree gas in a galaxy about 60 million light-years from Earth as revealed by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory. Scientists say the hot gas cloud was likely caused by a collision between a dwarf galaxy and a much larger galaxy called NGC 1232. (NASA)

Fossils of prehistoric snails known as turritellid gastropods. Preserved in silicicalastic sand the snails are about 13 million years old and represent another class of marine organisms affected by the Earth's periodic mass extinction events. (Shanan Peters, University of Wisconsin-Madison)

Fossils of prehistoric snails, known as turritellid gastropods, preserved in silicicalastic sand. The snails are about 13 million years old and represent another class of marine organisms affected by the Earth’s periodic mass extinction events. (Shanan Peters, University of Wisconsin-Madison)

Part of a particle accelerator at Fermilab that is again producing a neutrino beam that will soon to be one of the most intense neutrino beams in the world.  The beam was switched off for about a year so that the equipment that produces it could be revamped (Reidar Hahn, US DOE Fermilab)

Part of a particle accelerator at Fermilab that is again producing a neutrino beam that will soon to be one of the most intense neutrino beams in the world. The beam was switched off for about a year so that the equipment that produces it could be revamped. (Reidar Hahn, US DOE Fermilab)

Hubble captured this image of a caterpillar-shaped interstellar cloud that surrounds a star in the making IRAS 20324+4057.  Scientists say that energetic winds are blowing and energetic light is eroding away much of the gas and dust that might have been used to form the star. (NASA, ESA, Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA), IPHAS)

Hubble captured this image of a caterpillar-shaped interstellar cloud surrounding a star in the making known as IRAS 20324+4057. Scientists say winds and energetic light are eroding much of the gas and dust that might have been used to form the star. (NASA)

A school of a small minnow-like fish called Blackside dace.  Scientists believe that hydraulic fracturing fluids are believed to be the cause of the widespread death or distress of this aquatic species that is only found in parts of Tennessee, Kentucky, and western Virginia. (J. R. Shute , Conservation Fisheries, Inc.)

A school of a small minnow-like fish called Blackside dace that scientists believe are endangered by hydraulic fracturing fluids, which  are believed to be the cause of the widespread death or distress of this aquatic species that is only found in parts of Tennessee, Kentucky, and western Virginia. (J. R. Shute , Conservation Fisheries, Inc.)

This image of the NGC 1398 galaxy was taken with the Dark Energy Camera built by the US Department of Energy’s Fermilab. This galaxy, about 65 million light years from Earth is in the Fornax cluster. It is 135,000 light years in diameter, just slightly larger than our own Milky Way galaxy, and contains more than a hundred million stars. (Dark Energy Survey)

This image of the NGC 1398 galaxy was taken with the Dark Energy Camera built by the US Department of Energy’s Fermilab. This galaxy, about 65 million light-years from Earth, is in the Fornax cluster. It is 135,000 light-years in diameter, just slightly larger than our own Milky Way galaxy, and contains more than 100 million stars. (Dark Energy Survey)

World’s Largest Single Volcano Found Off Japan Coast

Posted September 6th, 2013 at 5:36 pm (UTC+0)
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A 3D rendering of Tamu Massif (IODP/Texas A&M University)

A 3D rendering of Tamu Massif (IODP/Texas A&M University)

Researchers have identified the largest volcano ever documented on the planet. It’s even bigger than Hawaii’s legendary Mauna Loa, which remains the biggest active volcano on our planet.

Called Tamu Massif, this enormous dormant or inactive volcano is located within the huge underwater mountain range called Shatsky Rise formation about 1609 kilometers east of Japan. It covers an area of about 311,000 square kilometers of ocean bottom some 1981 meters to 6.5 kilometers below the water’s surface.

Tamu Massif covers an area that’s roughly equivalent to the size of the British Isles or the U.S. state of New Mexico and it is among the most massive volcanoes found so far in the solar system.

Research leader Will Sager (white polo shirt) waits with technicians to inspect a core sample drilled from the Shatsky Rise Formation. (IODProgram/USIO)

Research leader Will Sager (white polo shirt) waits with technicians to inspect a core sample drilled from the Shatsky Rise Formation. (IODProgram/USIO)

Right now, Mount Olympus on Mars takes the top spot for biggest volcano in the solar system, according to the researchers.

“Tamu Massif is the biggest single shield volcano ever discovered on Earth,” said the University of Houston’s William Sager, who led the research. “There may be larger volcanoes, because there are bigger igneous features out there such as the Ontong Java Plateau, but we don’t know if these features are one volcano or complexes of volcanoes.”

Tamil Massif has been known to exist for some time but what wasn’t clear was whether it was a single volcano or a collection of multiple eruption points.

Data collected aboard the science research ship, JOIDES Resolution, helped researchers determine Tamu Massif did erupt from one single source located near its center.

Tamu Massif is the largest feature of the Shatsky Rise, which was created by the eruption of several underwater volcanoes 130 to 145 million years ago.  The giant volcano, according to the researchers, may have become inactive a few million years after it was formed.

The volcano is unique, compared to other underwater volcanoes, not just because if its huge size, but because of how it’s shaped. It is low and wide, which means when it erupted, its lava probably flowed longer distances than other volcanoes on Earth.

Tamu Mastiff is part of the Shatsky Rise Formation whose location is indicated here (Wikipedia Commons)

Tamu Masiff is part of the Shatsky Rise formation. (Wikipedia Commons)

“It’s not high, but very wide, so the flank slopes are very gradual,” Sager said. “In fact, if you were standing on its flank, you would have trouble telling which way is downhill. We know that it is a single immense volcano constructed from massive lava flows that emanated from the center of the volcano to form a broad, shield-like shape. Before now, we didn’t know this because oceanic plateaus are huge features hidden beneath the sea. They have found a good place to hide.”

Since Sager began studying the underwater volcano about 20 years ago while at Texas A&M, he decided to name it after the university.  Tamu Massif is a combination of an abbreviation of Texas A&M University and the French word for massive, which is also a geological term for large mountain mass.

Cosmic Impact May Have Caused Prehistoric ‘Big Freeze’

Posted September 3rd, 2013 at 7:39 pm (UTC+0)
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Asteroid impacting Earth (NASA)

Artist rendering of an asteroid impacting Earth (NASA)

Scientists say they may have found a link between a dramatic climate shift nearly 13,000 years ago and an asteroid or comet that struck the Canadian province of Quebec.

Researchers at Dartmouth College say the comet/asteroid strike took place at the beginning of a global cooling event known as the Younger Dryas stadial or the Big Freeze.

It was an abrupt, geologically brief period of colder and dryer climatic conditions that lasted about 1,300 years, and had far-reaching effects on both humans and animals.

Big animals, such as mastodons, camels, giant ground sloths, and saber-toothed cats all vanished from North America during this cool period.

The humans who lived in North America at the time, known as Clovis people, normally hunted the large animals, but after this  extinction they set aside their heavy hunting weapons and adopt a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, living off  a diet of roots, berries, and smaller game.

Paleo-Indians (includes Clovis People) are first people to entered and inhabit the Americas shown hunting a glyptodont (armadillo ancestor (Heinrich Harder via Wikimedia Commons)

Paleo-Indians (includes Clovis People), shown hunting a glyptodont (armadillo ancestor ), were the first humans to enter and inhabit the Americas.(Heinrich Harder via Wikimedia Commons)

“The Younger Dryas cooling is a very intriguing event that impacted human history in a profound manner,” said Mukul Sharma, one of the study authors and a professor in Dartmouth’s Department of Earth Sciences. “Environmental stresses may also have caused Natufians (a culture that existed between 13,000 and 9,000 BC) in the Near East to settle down for the first time and pursue agriculture.”

While the  environmental changes brought on by the Younger Dryas haven’t been disputed, the causes of it have been.

Scientists have long thought the Younger Dryas period was caused by a surge of meltwater from the North American ice sheet from the last glacial period.

According to this theory,  a great amount of fresh water from melted ice collected behind an ice dam, which suddenly burst, dumping  huge quantities of freshwater into the Atlantic Ocean. The sudden water surge was thought to have shut down the ocean currents that usually move ocean water from the tropics northward.  The lack of the usual northbound stream of warmer water then left the climate cold and dry throughout the Younger Dryas period.

Sharma said that while his team’s research shows conclusive proof that an asteroid/comet impacted over the North American Ice Sheet around the beginning of the Younger Dryas period, further investigation will need to determine whether the cosmic event is linked to the Big Freeze.

The researchers  found evidence of a connection in droplets of solidified molten rock  thrown off from a celestial object during impact. The spherules were collected from boundary layers of sediment from the beginning of the Big Freeze at sites in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

The high temperatures of the meteorite impact 12,900 years ago produced mm-sized spherules of melted glass with the mullite and corundum crystal structure shown here. (Mukul Sharma)

The high temperatures of the meteorite impact 12,900 years ago produced mm-sized spherules of melted glass with the mullite and corundum crystal structure shown here. (Mukul Sharma)

There is a 4-kilometer-wide impact crater in Quebec, known as the Corossol crater, where researchers believe a meteor or comet hit. The New Jersey and Pennsylvania spherules are identical to rock found in southern Quebec, but geochemical and mineralogical research indicates they are not a perfect match.

“What is exciting in our paper is that we have for the first time narrowed down the region where a Younger Dryas impact did take place, even though we have not yet found its crater,” Sharma said in a press release.

Sharma also pointed out that the extensive environmental changes of the Younger Dryas might be the result of not just one but multiple concurrent asteroid/comet impacts.

The study, funded by the National Science Foundation, will be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Whales Get Sunburned Too

Posted August 30th, 2013 at 5:59 pm (UTC+0)
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The sun blistered skin of a blue whale photographed in the Gulf of California. (AP)

The sun blistered skin of a blue whale photographed in the Gulf of California. (AP)

Anyone who has experienced the searing pain of sunburn knows that too much sun can wreak havoc on your skin.

Turns out that our fellow mammal, the whale, can also tan and get sunburn.

A study published in ‘Scientific Reports, from the publishers of the journal Nature, reveals the sun produces an increase in pigment in the skin of whales.

Research by an international team of scientists showed that, not only do some species of whales get dark tans when they’re exposed to the sun, but they also suffer harm to their skin’s DNA.  And just like us, whales can wind up with damaged skin cells as they get older.

Marine biologists at Universities in Mexico noticed that an increasing number of whales in their area had blistered skin, so they called in researchers from the UK’s Newcastle University. The British scientists analyzed skin samples from three types of whales, the blue whale, sperm and fin whale.

They worked with their Mexican colleagues along with other marine biologists from Canada’s Trent University, to study changes in whale skin after the gargantuan creatures made their annual migration to sunnier climes.

Taking a skin biopsy from a blue whale (Newcastle University, UK.)

Taking a skin biopsy from a blue whale (Newcastle University, UK.)

“Whales can be thought of as the UV barometers of the sea. It’s important that we study them as they are some of the longest living sea creatures and are sensitive to changes in their environment so they reflect the health of the ocean,” said Mark Birch-Machin, a senior author of the study and a professor of molecular dermatology at Newcastle University.

The Mexican and Canadian scientists took skin samples off the backs of the three species of whales over a three-year period between February and April, when the whales make their annual move to the sunny Gulf of California, located along the northwest coast of Mexico.

The biggest species the researchers studied was the pale-skinned blue whale.

The  team found a seasonal change with the blue whale during its migration time.  They noticed that the whale’s skin pigment increased and that its skin cell’s mitochondria – a cell’s power plant – were also experiencing some DNA damage.  They say that the internal mitochondrial damage that was discovered was caused by UV exposure and was similar to what could be found in the sunburned human skin.

A pod of sperm whales (Gabriel Barathieu via Creative Commons/Flickr)

A pod of sperm whales (Gabriel Barathieu via Creative Commons/Flickr)

Another species, sperm whales have a darker pigmentation than their blue whale relatives.  While they too take part in the annual February to April trek to the Gulf of California, the sperm whales have a different lifestyle than other whales. They spend a long time on the water’s surface which means they are exposed to more UV rays.

But the researchers found that by setting off a stress response in their genes, the sperm whales had developed a unique mechanism to protect themselves from harm caused by the sun.

“We saw for the first time evidence of genotoxic (a toxic agent that damages DNA molecules in genes) pathways being activated in the cells of the whales – this is similar to the damage response caused by free radicals in human skin which is our protective mechanism against sun damage,” said Amy Bowman, a researcher from Newcastle University.

The third species studied by the researchers was the fin whale, which compared to the blue and sperm whales, had the deepest pigmented skin.  Because of their darker skin color, the researchers discovered  the fin whale had the lowest number of sunburn lesions on their skin, which meant that they were more resistant to sun damage.

Fin whale (Ulrich Zink via Wikimedia Commons)

Fin whale (Ulrich Zink via Wikimedia Commons)

“We need to investigate further what is happening,” said Birch-Machin. “If we are already seeing blistered skin in the whales caused by UV damage, then we want to know whether this could develop into skin cancer and therefore serve as an early warning system.

The research team noted that their findings serve as a reminder that changing climatic conditions are affecting every creature on the planet.

Scientists Say They’ve Confirmed Existence of New Chemical Element

Posted August 28th, 2013 at 7:30 pm (UTC+0)
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Period table of elements ( Le Van Han Cédric via Wikimedia Commons)

Students heading back to school for the new year might need to add a new element to their periodic table of elements in chemistry class.

Swedish scientists  say they have fresh evidence that confirms the existence of a previously unknown chemical element.

The new “super-heavy” element is listed as number 115 or Ununpentium (Uup) and has an atomic weight – the average mass of the element’s atom – of 289.

Element #115 was discovered in 2003 (reported in February 2004) by scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California working with researchers from the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research in Russia (JINR).

This element, considered to be radioactive and classified as a metal, is artificially produced by bombarding atoms of americium-243 — an isotope of the element Americium (Am)  — with ions of a rare isotope calcium-48 using a device called a cyclotron.

Electron configuration of element #115 ununpentium (Greg Robson via Wikimedia Commons)

Electron configuration of element #115 ununpentium (Greg Robson via Wikimedia Commons)

Scientists say this  element probably won’t have any practical purposes, unlike others such as iron (Fe), oxygen (O) or even uranium (U) since it is  unstable and has a short half-life of about 220 milliseconds. An element’s half-life is the point in which the nucleus of an unstable atom loses energy to half its value.

Because of its unstable properties, scientists also say element #115 should not have any negative effects on human health or the environment.

Along with making observations of the new chemical element, the research team was also able to gain access to data that provides a deeper insight into the structure and properties of super-heavy atomic nuclei.

“This was a very successful experiment and is one of the most important in the field in recent years”, said Dirk Rudolph, professor nuclear physics at Lund University.

In creating the element, the researchers bombarded a thin film of americium with calcium ions which made it possible for them to measure photons in connection with the element’s alpha decay, which is a process that unstable atoms can use to become more stable.

During an alpha decay, the unstable atom’s nucleus discards two of its protons and two neutrons, creating  an “alpha particle” that has a composition identical to a helium nucleus.

diagram showing an alpha particle (α) being ejected from the nucleus of an atom. Protons are red and neutrons are blue.(Wikimedia Commons)

diagram showing an alpha particle (α) being ejected from the nucleus of an atom. Protons are red and neutrons are blue.(Wikimedia Commons)

Scientists have said element #115 alpha decays into element #113, dubbed ununtrium (Uut), which in turn decays into roentgenium (Rg) or element #111, which also doesn’t last too long either, with a half-life of about 26 seconds.

Ununpentium is a hybrid Greek and Latin word that loosely translates into one-one-five, the temporary name of element #115, which hasn’t been given an official name.

A committee of experts will first review the new findings  so that they can decide whether to recommend further experiments before acknowledging the discovery of element #115.

The team’s findings were published in the “The Physical Review Letters.”

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