Modern-day Antarctic Explorer Journeys to South Pole

Posted November 17th, 2015 at 4:05 pm (UTC-4)
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Refael Klein, a Lieutenant Junior Grade  in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Commissioned Officer Corps (NOAA Corps), will share his experiences as he spends one year working and living in the South Pole.

Refael Klein, a Lieutenant Junior Grade in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Commissioned Officer Corps (NOAA Corps), will share his experiences as he spends one year working and living in the South Pole.

My name is Refael Klein.

I’m a Lieutenant Junior Grade in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Commissioned Officer Corps, which supports research carried out by NOAA and other scientific institutions.

Klein's NOAA job has given him the opportunity to run day to day, on the ground, operations at three of NOAA’s most remote facilities.  Last year, he managed a facility in American Samoa, enjoying a tropical climate.

Klein’s NOAA job has given him the opportunity to run day to day, on the ground, operations at three of NOAA’s most remote facilities. Last year, he managed a facility in American Samoa, enjoying a tropical climate.

Last year, I was managing our facility in American Samoa, enjoying a tropical climate. This year, I will be at the National Science Foundation’s Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, trying to stay warm.

I invite you to come along on the journey. Let me be your guide to life and science at the South Pole.

Over the course of the next 13 months, I will be supporting over a dozen climate science research projects, working alongside scientists and engineers studying everything from subatomic particles to the Southern Lights.

This summer, we will learn about ice core drilling and carbon dioxide (CO2) sampling, and in the spring, we’ll watch the Ozone Hole form.

The South Pole is not an easy place to survive, and day-to-day life can be challenge even for the most intrepid.

This year, 50 of us will winter over, enduring months of complete darkness and the coldest temperatures in the world. Not all handle the isolation well, but most everyone leaves with a story to tell and an experience they can’t fully put into words.

Over the ensuing months, I’ll try my best to be descriptive and give you a true taste of what it is like to be a modern-day Antarctic explorer.

It will take me a few days to get from the United States to the South Pole. My first stop will be in Christchurch, New Zealand, the jumping off point for those heading to the “Ice”. It’s a long flight.

I’ll see you there.

Look for Refael Klein’s weekly blogs from the South Pole here on Science World.

Refael Klein
Refael Klein is a Lieutenant Junior Grade in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Commissioned Officer Corps (NOAA Corps). He's contributing to Science World during his year-long assignment working and living in the South Pole.

Scientists Measure A Mighty Wind Blowing on Exoplanet

Posted November 16th, 2015 at 5:32 pm (UTC-4)
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The planet HD 189733b is shown here in front of its parent star. A belt of wind around the equator of the planet travels at At nearly 8,700 kilometers per hour from its day side to the night side. The day side of the planet appears blue due to scattering of light from silicate haze in the atmosphere. The night side of the planet glows a deep red due to its high temperature. (Mark A. Garlick/University of Warwick)

The planet HD 189733b is shown here in front of its parent star. A belt of wind around the equator of the planet travels at At nearly 8,700 kilometers per hour from its day side to the night side. The day side of the planet appears blue due to scattering of light from silicate haze in the atmosphere. The night side of the planet glows a deep red due to its high temperature. (Mark A. Garlick/University of Warwick)

A pair of British scientists have found that winds of over 2 kilometers per second are blowing around HD 189733b, an exoplanet located about 63 light years away from us.

According to the researchers, the exoplanet’s 2 kps wind speed is about seven times the speed of sound and is 20 times more than the fastest wind speed ever known here on Earth.

The researchers, Tom Louden and Peter Wheatley, both of the University of Warwick’s Astrophysics group used data from the High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS), a high-resolution spectrograph device at the European Southern Observatory’s La Silla 3.6m telescope in Chile.

The information allowed the researchers to gauge and map the planet’s wind speed. They say it’s the first time a weather system of a planet outside of our solar system say the researchers has been measured and mapped directly.

Researchers measured the wind speed flowing around HD 189733b with data gathered by The HARPS high-resolution spectrograph at the European Southern Observatory’s La Silla 3.6m telescope in Chile. (ESO)

Researchers measured the wind speed flowing around HD 189733b with data gathered by The HARPS high-resolution spectrograph at the European Southern Observatory’s La Silla 3.6m telescope in Chile. (ESO)

“This is the first ever weather map from outside of our solar system. Whilst we have previously known of wind on exoplanets, we have never before been able to directly measure and map a weather system,” said Louden in a University of Warwick press release.

Since HD 189733b is a hot Jupiter-like planet that’s thought to be “tidally locked” with its star. This means that it has a distinctive day side (always facing the star) and a night side (in darkness), the researchers measured wind speeds on both sides of the planet. The duo discovered a strong wind that blew from the planet’s day side to its night side at a speed of about 8,700 kilometers per hour.

Explaining how he and his colleague were able to measure the exoplanet’s wind speed, Louden said that they used high resolution spectroscopy of sodium absorption in the planet’s atmosphere. “As parts of HD 189733b’s atmosphere move towards or away from the Earth the “Doppler effect” changes the wavelength of this feature, which allows the velocity to be measured,” he said.

The researchers continue to fine-tune their exoplanet weather system measurement and mapping techniques, which they say could allow scientists to study wind flows in detail and construct weather maps of smaller planets.

Louden and Wheatley’s research and findings have been outlined in a study published by Astrophysical Journal Letters.

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 MAVEN Solves Mars Atmosphere Mystery

Posted November 6th, 2015 at 4:27 pm (UTC-4)
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Artist’s rendering of a solar storm hitting Mars and stripping ions from the planet's upper atmosphere. (NASA/GSFC)

Artist’s rendering of a solar storm hitting Mars and stripping ions from the planet’s upper atmosphere. (NASA/GSFC)

Last month NASA dropped a bombshell when it announced it had found evidence of water flowing on Mars.

Yesterday the space agency held a press conference at its Washington headquarters to announce that they may have solved a decades-old mystery of what happened to the Martian atmosphere and its water, when they presented new findings from its Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution or MAVEN mission.

The orbiter has been studying various sections of Mars atmosphere since arriving there in September 2014.

There’s already evidence that suggests at one time early in its history Mars had a thick atmosphere rich in carbon dioxide that kept the planet warm enough to allow for liquid water to flow over its surface.

Back in 2013 scientists at England’s Oxford University revealed that Mars may have also had an oxygen-rich atmosphere about four billion years ago, nearly 1.5 billion years before Earth developed its atmospheric oxygen.

Artist concept of the solar wind interacting with the Mars upper atmosphere (L). But the solar wind is deflected past Earth by its global magnetic field (R) (Credit: NASA/GSFC)

Artist concept of the solar wind interacting with the Mars upper atmosphere (L). But the solar wind is deflected past Earth by its global magnetic field (R) (Credit: NASA/GSFC)

Some previous findings suggest that during this time Mars also had more water than Earth’s Arctic Ocean flowing over its surface.

Scientists generally describe today’s Martian environment as very cold and desert-like.

Michael Meyer, lead scientist of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program summed up what happened to the Martian atmosphere by quoting an old Bob Dylan lyric saying “The answer my friend is blowing in the wind.”

In this case, the wind Meyer is referring to is the solar wind, a stream of highly charged particles that blast from the upper atmosphere of the Sun into the solar system at a speed of about 1,609,344 kilometers per hour with a temperature of about 1 million degrees Celsius.

The MAVEN mission uncovered evidence that the thick Martian atmosphere of its distant past was stripped from the planet billions of years ago by the solar wind, when the sun was young and much more active than today.

NASA says that the solar wind continues to blast away at Mars now thinner atmosphere.

“MAVEN measurements indicate that the solar wind strips away gas at a rate of about 100 grams every second.” Like the theft of a few coins from a cash register every day, the loss becomes significant over time,” said Bruce Jakosky, MAVEN principal investigator at the University of Colorado, Boulder during the press conference.

MAVEN’s findings also revealed significantly more of the Martian atmosphere is stripped away during solar storms.

Artist's concept of the MAVEN spacecraft orbiting Mars. (NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center)

Artist’s concept of the MAVEN spacecraft orbiting Mars. (NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center)

According to the NASA scientists, the solar wind also carries a magnetic field. As the field passes past Mars, it generates an electric field around the planet in the same way that a turbine can produce electricity here on Earth. This electric field then excites ions, or charged atoms, in Mars’ upper atmosphere and blows them into space.

Data gathered by MAVEN allowed NASA’s scientists to determine how both the solar wind and ultraviolet light takes away gas from the top of the Martian atmosphere.

They found that these ions are stripped away at three different areas of Mars. The first location is down its “tail” where the solar wind streams behind the Red Planet. The second location is at the Martian poles where it forms a “polar plume” of ions. And the third location is from a large cloud of gas that surrounds Mars. According to the scientists, about 75% of the ions that flow away from Mars do so at its tail region, with most of the remaining 25% from the polar plumes. A very small amount of the escaping ions come from the large surrounding cloud.

“Solar-wind erosion is an important mechanism for atmospheric loss, and was important enough to account for significant change in the Martian climate,” said Joe Grebowsky, MAVEN project scientist from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “MAVEN is also studying other loss processes – such as loss due to impact of ions or escaping hydrogen atoms – and these will only increase the importance of atmospheric escape,” he said.

The new MAVEN mission findings can be found in four new studies that have been published in the journals Science and Geophysical Research Letters.

Solar Wind Strips Martian Atmosphere (NASA Goddard)
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 Seeks Astronauts; Good Sleep = Good Mood; Device Finds Water in Space

Posted November 4th, 2015 at 4:45 pm (UTC-4)
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Help Wanted – NASA

As NASA continues to prepare to resume human spaceflight launches and readies its ambitious ‘Journey to Mars’, it is putting out its “help wanted” sign.

The space agency announced that it will soon begin to accept applications for its next class of astronauts who will fly from the Space Coast of Florida aboard new American-made commercial spacecraft.

Qualifications required to become a NASA Astronaut candidate, include U.S. citizenship, at least a bachelor’s degree, although an advanced degree is preferred, in either engineering, mathematics, or biological or physical science from an accredited institution.

The space agency said that candidates must also have at least three years of related and increasingly responsible professional experience or at least 1,000 hours of command pilot time in jet aircraft and be able to pass NASA’s long-duration spaceflight physical.

Applications to become an Astronaut candidate will be accepted by the space agency from December 14th until the middle of this coming February.

NASA will take about a year and a half to go through all the applications and will announce the new astronaut candidates sometime in mid-2017.

Engineers from Onsala Space Observatory's Group for Advanced Receiver Development examine the top part of SEPIA before its installation at APEX in Chile. (ESO/Sascha Krause)

Engineers from Onsala Space Observatory’s Group for Advanced Receiver Development examine the top part of SEPIA before its installation at APEX in Chile. (ESO/Sascha Krause)

New Device Helps Find Water in Space

Astronomers have a new tool that will help them look for water throughout the universe.

The Swedish-ESO PI receiver for APEX or SEPIA can detect light signals in the 1.4 to 1.8 millimeter wavelength range, where astronomers say water in space can be found.

The SEPIA device was installed on the European Southern Observatory’s Atacama Pathfinder Experiment, or APEX, telescope located on the incredibly dry Chajnantor Plateau some 5000 meters above sea level in the Chilean Andes.

Atmospheric water vapor at most places on Earth would hinder the space water search effort, but the exceptional dry conditions at their Chilean site, according to ESO astronomers, makes it an ideal location to look for celestial water.

Scientists say that water is important in a number of astrophysical processes, such as star formation, and that it may also play a key role in the origin of life.

Devices identical to SEPIA are also being installed in the antennas of ESO’s Atacama Large Millimeter radio telescope array.

Diamonds on a glass pane (En-cas-de-soleil/Wikimedia Commons)

Diamonds on a glass pane (En-cas-de-soleil/Wikimedia Commons)

Diamonds May Not Be So Rare After All

A new study from Johns Hopkins University suggests that diamonds may not be as rare as previously believed, and that formation of the carbon-based gem may be a much more common process than thought.

But before you get excited about picking up a big diamond ring at a cheap price, the researchers add that the diamond bonanza is actually in the deep Earth. The very deep earth, actually, say the researchers behind the study.

To get to any of the diamonds being formed deep below our feet, they must first be brought to near the Earth’s surface by somewhat rare volcanic magma eruptions. The researchers also add that most of these diamonds aren’t the large and gem quality stones found in valuable jewelry, but are so tiny that you’d need a microscope to seem them.

The researchers also found that diamonds could be formed by a natural chemical reaction that is much easier than the commonly understood process involving high temperatures and tremendous pressure.

This Microscopic Image Mosaic shows a pre-existing crack which is being "healed over", which is evidence for the gel weathering alteration process. (NASA/JPL & S. Cole)

This Microscopic Image Mosaic shows a pre-existing crack which is being “healed over”, which is evidence for the gel weathering alteration process. (NASA/JPL & S. Cole)

Ancient Martian Rock Attacked by Acidic Fog

Planetary scientist Shoshanna Cole from Ithaca College in New York says that she has found evidence that that some type of acid fog created by past volcanic activity dissolved rocks on Mars.

Acid fog, or VOG as it’s known on Earth, is created when volcanic gas reacts with oxygen and sunlight.

Blankets of VOG form from time to time near Hawaii’s Kīlauea volcano, which has been continuously erupting since 1983.

Cole used a variety of data gathered in the Husband Hills area of Mars’ Guseve Crater by NASA’s Spirit rover to make her findings.

The data allowed her to hypothesize that the rocks in this area of Mars were exposed to acidic water vapor from volcanic eruptions over a long period of time.

She says that after the Martian VOG settled on the rocks it dissolved some of its minerals and formed a gel. Later, after the gel’s water evaporated it left behind material that broke down the rocks.

Sleeping man (Imogenisla via Creative Commons)

Sleeping man (Imogenisla via Creative Commons)

Uninterrupted Sleep Helps You Wake Up in a Good Mood

If you want to wake up and stay in a good mood all day, a new study from researchers at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine suggests that you need to get a good night’s sleep: not a necessarily a lot of sleep, but some good quality uninterrupted sleep.

The researchers found that being roused from sleep several times a night puts a damper on a good mood more than having a small amount of sleep without any interruptions.

According to the study, having continued nights of interrupted sleep can have increasing negative effects on a person’s mood.

Patrick Finan, the study’s lead author and an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins, says that when your sleep is disrupted throughout the night, you don’t have the chance to go through each of the various phases of sleep.

Not progressing through the stages of sleep can deprive you of the needed slow-wave sleep necessary to making a person feel refreshed and restored.

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.

October 2015 Science Images

Posted November 2nd, 2015 at 5:00 pm (UTC-4)
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This is the starburst galaxy Messier 94 as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope in an image released 10/19/15.  Within the bright ring area, also called the starburst area, new stars are being formed at a high rate of speed. (ESA/NASA)

This is the starburst galaxy Messier 94 as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope in an image released 10/19/15. Within the bright ring area, also called the starburst area, new stars are being formed at a high rate of speed. (ESA/NASA)

New observations from NASA's Swift and the Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array, or NuSTAR caught a supermassive black hole in the midst of a giant eruption of X-ray light.  In this artist’s image, released on 10/27/15, an x-ray flare can be see blasting from the corona of the supermassive black hole Mrk 335. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

New observations from NASA’s Swift and the Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array, or NuSTAR caught a supermassive black hole in the midst of a giant eruption of X-ray light. In this artist’s image, released on 10/27/15, an x-ray flare can be see blasting from the corona of the supermassive black hole Mrk 335. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Little three year-old Miyah Williams holds her old leg prosthesis as she wears a new and more high-tech version that was attached several months earlier. Miyah was at a 10/23/15 meeting in Washington, DC that discussed problems with pediatric prosthetic devices. (AP)

Little three year-old Miyah Williams holds her old leg prosthesis as she wears a new and more high-tech version that was attached several months earlier. Miyah was at a 10/23/15 meeting in Washington, DC that discussed problems with pediatric prosthetic devices. (AP)

On 10/7/15 NASA announced that it had successfully completed testing on heat shields (such as the one pictured here)  that would be used on future Mars exploration vehicles. (NASA)

On 10/7/15 NASA announced that it had successfully completed testing on heat shields (such as the one pictured here) that would be used on future Mars exploration vehicles. (NASA)

On 10/28/15 NASA's Cassini spacecraft flew close to the surface of Enceladus, one of Saturn’s moons.  The spacecraft captured images of the moon’s southern polar region. This image was taken in visible light with the Cassini spacecraft wide-angle camera from a distance of about 124 km above the moon’s surface (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)

On 10/28/15 NASA’s Cassini spacecraft flew close to the surface of Enceladus, one of Saturn’s moons. The spacecraft captured images of the moon’s southern polar region. This image was taken in visible light with the Cassini spacecraft wide-angle camera from a distance of about 124 km above the moon’s surface (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)

The Hubble Space Telescope recently gathered the largest sample of the faintest and earliest known galaxies in the universe. Some of these galaxies formed just 600 million years after the Big Bang. This is an image of the galaxy cluster MACS J0416.1–2403 that was released on 10/22/15. (ESA/NASA)

The Hubble Space Telescope recently gathered the largest sample of the faintest and earliest known galaxies in the universe. Some of these galaxies formed just 600 million years after the Big Bang. This is an image of the galaxy cluster MACS J0416.1–2403 that was released on 10/22/15. (ESA/NASA)

U.S. President Barack Obama takes a look at the moon through a telescope at the second White House Astronomy Night held on the South Lawn of the White House, Washington, DC on 10/19/15. The annual event brought students, teachers, astronomers, engineers, scientists, and space enthusiasts together for an evening of stargazing. (AP)

U.S. President Barack Obama takes a look at the moon through a telescope at the second White House Astronomy Night held on the South Lawn of the White House, Washington, DC on 10/19/15. The annual event brought students, teachers, astronomers, engineers, scientists, and space enthusiasts together for an evening of stargazing. (AP)

This photo of the category 5 Hurricane Patricia was taken from the International Space Station on 10/23/15 when it made landfall in Mexico. According to weather officials, Patricia was the strongest recorded hurricane in the Western Hemisphere. (Scott Kelly/NASA)

This photo of the category 5 Hurricane Patricia was taken from the International Space Station on 10/23/15 when it made landfall in Mexico. According to weather officials, Patricia was the strongest recorded hurricane in the Western Hemisphere. (Scott Kelly/NASA)

This is Belgium’s Punch Powertrain Solar Team car at the 2015 World Solar Challenge held near Dunmarra, Australia on 10/19/15.  The 3,000 km race from Darwin to Adelaide, Australia featured 45 solar cars from 25 countries. (AP)

This is Belgium’s Punch Powertrain Solar Team car at the 2015 World Solar Challenge held near Dunmarra, Australia on 10/19/15. The 3,000 km race from Darwin to Adelaide, Australia featured 45 solar cars from 25 countries. (AP)

This image released by NASA on 10/8/15, shows the blue color of Pluto’s haze layer in this picture taken by the New Horizons spacecraft's MVIC or Ralph/Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera. (NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)

This image released by NASA on 10/8/15, shows the blue color of Pluto’s haze layer in this picture taken by the New Horizons spacecraft’s MVIC or Ralph/Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera. (NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)

Yamaha's autonomous motorcycle-riding humanoid concept model is displayed during the 10/29/15 media preview of the Tokyo Motor Show in Tokyo. The Japanese vehicle exhibition opened to the public on 10/30/15 (AP)

Yamaha’s autonomous motorcycle-riding humanoid concept model is displayed during the 10/29/15 media preview of the Tokyo Motor Show in Tokyo. The Japanese vehicle exhibition opened to the public on 10/30/15 (AP)

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.

Oxygen Found in Comet’s Atmosphere; Making Robots Walk Like Humans

Posted October 28th, 2015 at 5:15 pm (UTC-4)
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Rosetta's NavCaM snapped this shot of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko on November 20, 2014 ((C) ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM – CC BY-SA IGO 3.0)

Rosetta’s NavCaM snapped this shot of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko on November 20, 2014 ((C) ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM – CC BY-SA IGO 3.0)

Scientists Find Oxygen in Comet’s Atmosphere

A couple of days ago we told you about the discovery of a boozy comet that dispensed large amounts of alcohol, sugar and other organic compounds as it made its pass by the sun last January.

Now, researchers from the Center for Space and Habitability (CSH) at the University of Bern say that after conducting a thorough chemical analysis they found that the atmosphere of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko contains a high amount of oxygen molecules.

Data gathered last year by the ESA Rosetta Mission’s ROSINA mass spectrometer, found that clear traces of oxygen molecules in the comet’s atmosphere.  In fact they say that they found oxygen to be the fourth most common gas in the comet’s atmosphere, behind water, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide.

The German researchers say that it had long been thought that the presence of oxygen in our early solar system could only be found when it was combined with other elements such as with hydrogen, which would form water.

“We had never thought that oxygen could ‘survive’ for billions of years without combining with other substances,” says Prof. Kathrin Altwegg, leader of the ROSINA mass spectrometer project and co-author of a study that outlines the researcher’s findings.

Oregon Engineers Develop System That Lets Robots Walk like Humans

(Dynamic Robotics Laboratory/Oregon State University)

Scientists and engineers have spent a lot of time over the years trying to design and build robots that mimic human activities like walking and talking.

Now, a group of engineers from Oregon State University say that they’ve been able to come up with the most realistic human-like walking system for robots that has ever been created.  With more research and fine tuning they say their system could improve a robot’s versatility and performance.

The Oregon engineers based their human-like locomotion system on a concept called “spring-mass” walking.   Conceived about ten years ago, this system applies computer control to various mechanical systems.   This idea they said would allow robots to maintain their balance, easily traverse rough terrain, maintain balance and basically walk just like humans.

The researchers said that their developments in robotic locomotion could also someday help those with disabilities.

DNAInexpensive Test Quickly Diagnoses Hepatitis B and Male Infertility

A group of Canadian researchers have developed a quick and inexpensive way to test for hepatitis B and male infertility.  They say that their new paper-based DNA test could especially be helpful in diagnosing these unrelated, but serious, conditions in developing nations.

Writing in the Journal of the American Chemical Society the researchers say that within 10-minutes, their new test can detect an early-stage hepatitis B infection in a patient’s blood serum, which would give medical professionals valuable time to develop treatment before it can spread.  The test can also be used to predict male fertility by checking the DNA integrity of sperm as precisely as current proven methods.

The researchers say that their new diagnostic test can be made from materials that cost less than $1 per device.

Vivid End-Of-Life Dreams Can Comfort the Dying

You may have heard that dying people have some rather amazing and vivid dreams or visions in the final weeks and days of their lives.

A new study by researchers at Canisius College in Buffalo, New York suggests that these end-of-life dreams are an important and comforting part of the dying process that actually improve quality of life of those about to die.

While some in the medical community consider them to be no more than delusions or hallucinations, the researchers found that to someone dying these dreams and visions are quite realistic and often very meaningful.

The researchers found that the most common and most comforting theme of these visions and dreams were those of deceased family and friends.

The study also showed that the end-of-life dreams become more frequent the closer a person came to death.

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.

Scientists Spot Cosmic Bartender

Posted October 26th, 2015 at 3:08 pm (UTC-4)
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Comet Lovejoy (C/2014 Q2) on 22 Feb. 2015.  (Fabrice Noel)

Comet Lovejoy (C/2014 Q2) on 22 Feb. 2015. (Fabrice Noel)

For the first time, an international team of researchers has discovered a cosmic cocktail maker hurtling through space at a speed of around 21.8 kilometers per second.

The researchers discovered that Comet Lovejoy is pumping out large amounts of the same kind of alcohol (ethyl) used in alcoholic beverages and a type of sugar into space.

Outlining their findings in a paper published recently in the journal Science Advances, the research team found that the booze-producing ball of ice and rock is spitting out gas that contains some 21 different kinds of organic molecules.

“We found that comet Lovejoy was releasing as much alcohol as in at least 500 bottles of wine every second during its peak activity,” said the paper’s lead author, Nicolas Biver of the Paris Observatory, France, in a press release.

Their discovery provides more evidence to back up a theory that the material needed for the creation of life is carried and delivered by comets.

“The result definitely promotes the idea the comets carry very complex chemistry,” said Stefanie Milam of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, a co-author on the paper.

Comet Lovejoy, which is also known as C/2014 Q2, was discovered in August, 2014 by astronomer Terry Lovejoy from his observatory in Brisbane, Australia.

Astronomers say that the comet, which made its closest approach to the sun, or perihelion, on January 30, 2015, was also one of the most dazzling and active comets to pass us since comet Hale-Bopp in 1997.

The researchers say that the sun actually stimulates the molecules in the comet’s atmosphere, which causes them to glimmer and glow at microwave frequencies that are specific to each molecule’s chemical composition.

So as Comet Lovejoy was making its close encounter with the sun, the team used special microwave detectors that were attached to a 30-meter diameter radio telescope at Pico Veleta in the Spanish Sierra Nevada Mountains, to observe and analyze its microwave glow to determine the composition of the outflow of alcohol, sugar and other organics from the comet.

The European Space Agency’s announced back in July that its Philae lander, from its comet chasing spacecraft Rosetta, detected some 16 complex organic compounds on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

ESA said that some of the carbon and nitrogen-rich organic compounds detected by Philae play an important role in creating some of the building blocks of life such amino acids, nucleobases, and sugars.

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.

A Close Look at Saturn Moon’s North Pole; Imitation Skin Senses Pressure

Posted October 16th, 2015 at 7:00 pm (UTC-4)
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NASA's Cassini spacecraft zoomed by Saturn's icy moon Enceladus on Oct. 14, 2015, capturing this stunning image of the moon's north pole. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft zoomed by Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus on Oct. 14, 2015, capturing this stunning image of the moon’s north pole. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)

Cassini Explores North Pole Area of Saturn’s Moon Enceladus

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has been sending back spectacular images and providing scientists with valuable data about the Saturn and its many moons since its arrival there in 2004.

On October 14th, Cassini returned to Saturn’s ice-covered and 6th largest moon Enceladus, the latest of many trips since 2005.

This time, the spacecraft sent back high resolution images of the moon’s northern region.

The scientists were quite surprised by what they saw.

Based on images taken by the 1970’s Voyager Mission, they thought the region would be heavily cratered.

NASA says Enceladus’ northern landscape is crisscrossed by a spidery web of delicately-thin cracks that have cut through its surface.

The Cassini is set to do its closest flyby of the moon’s southern polar region on October 28th and will make its final targeted pass of Enceladus on December 19th. NASA says that the Cassini Mission is scheduled to end in 2017.

Stanford chemical engineering Professor Zhenan Bao and her team have created a skin-like material that can tell the difference between a soft touch and a firm handshake. The device on the "golden fingertip" is the skin-like sensor developed by Stanford engineers. (Bao Lab)

Stanford chemical engineering Professor Zhenan Bao and her team have created a skin-like material that can tell the difference between a soft touch and a firm handshake. (Bao Lab)

Scientists Create Artificial Skin That Can Sense Pressure

Over the past few years, researchers have made tremendous strides in making prosthetic hands more lifelike.

While scientists are getting close to making artificial hands perform as well as natural hands, one area that remains a challenge is replicating the sense of touch.

Engineers at California’s Stanford University answered that challenge and have created a plastic “skin” that can detect how hard it is being pressed and then produce an electric signal that will provide that sensory response directly to a living brain cell.

This newly created artificial skin will allow users to be able to detect the pressure difference between a light finger tap and a firm handshake.

The skin is made with two layers of plastic. The top layer acts as an input device that senses the touch and the intensity of the touch. The bottom layer is like an electronic circuit board that processes electrical signals and converts them into a biochemical stimuli that are compatible with nerve cells.

President Barack Obama gives his first inaugural address from the West Steps of the U.S. Capitol on January 20, 2009. The record setting event attracted more than 800,000 people. (US Air Force)

President Barack Obama gives his first inaugural address from the West Steps of the U.S. Capitol on January 20, 2009. The record setting event attracted more than 800,000 people. (US Air Force)

Florida Researchers Create Automated Crowd Counting System

Anyone who has done a head count at a large gathering knows how frustrating and monotonous this task can be.

Now, imagine you’re working for a large corporation or government agency and you need to determine how many people participated in an event that attracted thousands of people.

The long and boring process usually involves people who examine aerial photos of the crowd. The photos may be overlaid with a grid of cells a couple of centimeters square. Then one cell at a time, the counters tally the number of heads per cell.

Researchers at the University of Central Florida have now come up with an automated crowd counter.

The software they created allows a computer to scan aerial photographs and then count the number of people in the images automatically.

The researchers say that what had once taken a week to complete can be done in as little as 30 minutes giving organizers of large events more time to develop a crowd management plan.

Young woman expresses her aversion to getting jabbed with a needle as a medical technician draws blood (Photo: US Navy)

Young woman expresses her aversion to getting jabbed with a needle as a medical technician draws blood (US Navy)

New Blood Test Let Doctors Create Patient Specific Cancer Treatments

British researchers say they’ve come up with a new blood test that could help doctors provide cancer patients with the most appropriate treatment for their particular disease.

By running these new blood tests at times throughout a patient’s treatment medical professionals will be able to quickly and easily monitor the cancer’s progress to see if the selected therapy is working or if a new plan should be devised.

The researchers say their new blood test filters out a tumor’s DNA from a patient’s blood, which then can be analyzed for genetic defects.

The results of the test will allow doctors to match up the defects with specific cancer treatments which will then go after and attack the cancer cells containing the flawed DNA.

The scientists say that since cancer tumors and their genetic makeup are unique and evolving, doctors need to understand these changes so they can develop the best treatment possible for their patients.

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 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.