2014’s 1st Asteroid May Have Hit Earth

Posted January 3rd, 2014 at 7:42 pm (UTC+0)
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This animated GIF shows Asteroid 2014 AA, discovered by the NASA-sponsored Catalina Sky Survey on Jan. 1, 2014, as it moved across the sky. Image credit: CSS/LPL/UA

This animated GIF shows Asteroid 2014 AA, discovered by the NASA-sponsored Catalina Sky Survey on Jan. 1, 2014, as it moved across the sky. (CSS/LPL/UA)

As Americans were ringing in 2014 early Wednesday morning, scientists caught sight of what appeared to be a very small asteroid – between 2 and 3 meters in size – on a potential impact trajectory with Earth.

The observation was made at the Catalina Sky Survey near Tucson, Arizona. The space rock, designated 2014 AA, may have been the first asteroid discovery of the New Year. If the space object was an asteroid, scientists, using the scant observational data that was available to them, suggest that it probably entered Earth’s atmosphere sometime between 2 p.m. EST, Wednesday, Jan. 1 and 9 a.m. EST Thursday, Jan. 2.

Three independent projections of the space object’s possible orbit were made by Bill Gray, of the Minor Planet Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Steve Chesley from NASA’s Near Earth Object Program at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.  The two scientists agree that 2014 AA probably pushed its way into Earth’s atmosphere.

Using data produced by weak signals from three infrasound detections, the crisscrossing of the white lines in this image indicates a possible impact point of asteroid 2014 AA (Peter Brown/University of Western Ontario)

Using data produced by weak signals from three infrasound detections, the crisscrossing of the white lines in this image indicates possible impact points of asteroid 2014 AA (Peter Brown/University of Western Ontario)

Because of the uncertainty of the object’s orbit, 2014 AA could have fallen anywhere along an arc that extends from Central America to East Africa.

The scientists think that the object may have impacted Earth at 9 PM EST on Jan. 1, just off the coast of West Africa.

NASA said that since another asteroid, 2008 TC3, which was also between 2 to 3 meters in size, completely broke up in October 2008 as it passed over northern Sudan, it’s doubtful that asteroid 2014 AA would have made it through its rough atmospheric entry intact.

Asteroid 2008 TC3, according to NASA, was the only other example of an incoming celestial object that was discovered just prior to hitting Earth.

The scientists are continuing their research into the fate of 2014 AA.  They will be analyzing data generated by a few weak signals collected from infrasound – low frequency – monitoring stations located along the predicted impact arc to see if they could be connected to the atmospheric entry of 2014 AA.

Want to Quit Smoking? Seek Professional Help

Posted December 20th, 2013 at 7:31 pm (UTC+0)
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It can be tough for long time smokers to refuse a cigarette (U.S. Air Force via Wikimedia Commons)

(Photo: U.S. Air Force)

If your New Year’s resolution is to quit smoking, you might want to consider what scientists in England have learned.  According to their study published in  Addiction, smokers who want to kick the habit are better off seeking the help of a trained advisor, rather than doing it themselves.

The researchers found self-help aids such as nicotine patches, gum or other products, do not improve the chances of quitting smoking. They used data from the “Smoking Toolkit Study,” a large ongoing research project that’s been conducted since 2007. The UK project follows current smokers as well as those who recently quit smoking.

The researchers wanted to find out which smoking cessation methods were the most successful. So, they analyzed the responses to survey questions answered by more than 10,000 Britons who had tried to stop smoking over the prior year.

The results showed that smokers who use services provided by smoking cessation advisors, often offered by health care organizations, have the best chance of successfully kicking their smoking habit.

The study also points out that over-the-counter therapies, such as the nicotine patches and gum, alone might not be as beneficial as they may think.

Those who try to quit smoking using a combination of specialized behavioral support, along with anti-smoking medicine or nicotine replacement products, are three times more likely to be successful than those who try to stop smoking on their own.

Health experts say smoking can be hazardous to your health (CDC via Wikipedia Commons)

(Graphic: CDC via Wikipedia Commons)

In fact, the researchers found that smokers who only use over-the-counter smoking cessation aids, without the help of a trained advisors, have the same rate of success as those who didn’t use any of those quit-smoking products at all.

“When you think that stopping smoking saves six hours of life for every day of smoking avoided, investing an hour or two over a 6 week period to see…[a] stop smoking advisor seems like a good investment,” said Robert West from University College London, who led the team of researchers. “They can provide cheaper medicine than is available in shops and advise how to use it properly. It’s crazy that not all smokers who want to stop do it. As far as nicotine products bought from shops are concerned, there is an urgent need to understand what is going on because we know that if these products are used properly, they can be effective.”

Move Over Cleopatra, Chinese May Have Loved Cats Before Ancient Eyptians

Posted December 18th, 2013 at 5:17 pm (UTC+0)
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Humans and cats have long enjoyed a close relationshipe with each other (Bill Abbott via Flickr/Creative Commons)

(Bill Abbott via Flickr/Creative Commons)

Researchers in China and Missouri have traced the origins of today’s domesticated cat back 5,300 years to an ancient Neolithic Chinese agricultural village located in the modern-day Shaanxi Province.

Like in the old Mother Goose nursery tale “This is the cat that killed the rat that ate the malt that lay in the house that Jack built,” the cats that would later become popular household pets were attracted to village farms because of the number of small animals, like rodents, that feasted on the grains grown, stored and eaten by the ancient Chinese farmers.

“Results of this study show that the village of Quanhucun was a source of food for the cats 5,300 years ago, and the relationship between humans and cats was commensal, or advantageous for the cats,” said the study’s co-author Fiona Marshall, a professor of archaeology at Washington University in St. Louis. “Even if these cats were not yet domesticated, our evidence confirms that they lived in close proximity to farmers, and that the relationship had mutual benefits.”

Ancient Egyptians worshiped the goddess Bastet. Considered to be a protector deity she was represented as a cat. (Gunkarta via Wikipedia Commons)

Ancient Egyptians worshiped the goddess Bastet. Considered to be a protector deity she was represented as a cat. (Gunkarta via Wikipedia Commons)

There are believed to be about 600 million domesticated cats in the world. Scientists who’ve conducted DNA studies believe most felines descended directly from the Near Eastern Wildcat, one of the five Felis sylvestris lybica or African wildcat subspecies still found in Africa, Asia and Europe.

“We do not yet know whether these cats came to China from the Near East, whether they interbred with Chinese wild-cat species, or even whether cats from China played a previously unsuspected role in domestication,” Marshall said.

Scientists have long thought cats were first domesticated in ancient Egypt, where they were revered more than 4,000 years ago.

New research, however, indicates the close relationship between cats and humans may have taken root much earlier.

In 2004, scientists discovered a wild cat had been  buried with a human nearly 9,500 years ago in Cyprus.

The researchers who conducted this new study, which is published in  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, used various scientific techniques, such as radiocarbon dating and isotopic analyses of carbon and nitrogen traces on the bones of cats, dogs, deer and other forms of wildlife that they dug up near Quanhucan Village.

The clues researchers gathered suggest cats and humans were developing a closer relationship with each other at that time thousands of years ago.

The Near Eastern Wildcat, native to Western Asia and Africa, is believed to be the primary ancestor of all domestic cats now living around the globe. (Wikipedia Commons)

The Near Eastern Wildcat, native to Western Asia and Africa, is believed to be the primary ancestor of all domestic cats now living around the globe. (Wikipedia Commons)

One of the cats  found during their archeological dig was old when it died, which indicated that it lived well and flourished while living in the village.

The researchers also said that the remains of the ancient cats they studied showed signs that they didn’t eat too many animals and ate more millet than was expected. This suggested to the researchers that the cats either scavenged for human food or were fed by their human neighbors.

Other researchers working in China and in France are currently continuing the investigation of the domestication of cats and the development of the feline/human relationship.

Data Shows Universe Could Collapse Any Minute

Posted December 16th, 2013 at 7:08 pm (UTC+0)
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The European Space Agency's Planck mission released what they called the best map ever of the universe. (Image: ESA and the Planck Collaboration)

The European Space Agency’s ‘best map ever of the universe’. (Image: ESA and the Planck Collaboration)

Our universe is at even greater risk of collapse than has been previously thought, according physicists in Denmark.

Not only are the scientists predicting the end of the world… but the end of the universe!

The prediction that the universe will collapse and compress into a small hard ball isn’t something new. Physicists have been predicting a calamity for a long time.

Does this mean we should immediately cancel any long-term plans? The Danish scientists really don’t know when the universe will collapse. They say it could happen tomorrow–or  a billion years from now.

Writing in the Journal of High Energy Physics, the University of Southern Denmark physicists said new calculations led them to speculate  there will be a sudden and drastic change within the forces of the universe one day  that will make every atom in the universe become enormously heavy.

Everything, from the tiniest grain of soil to all of the planets within our solar system to every galaxy contained within the universe, will suddenly become billions and billions of times heavier than they are now.

The Big Bang theory says the universe expanded from an extremely dense and hot state (bottom) and continues to expand today (top)  (Wikimedia Commons)

The Big Bang theory says the universe expanded from an extremely dense and hot state (bottom) and continues to expand today (top). (Wikimedia Commons)

The theory holds that the sudden increase in weight will force all of the material within the universe to compress into a “small, super-hot heavy ball” which will cause the end of the universe as we know it.

The physicists call this powerful and destructive process “phase transition,” and they compare it to what happens when water boils and becomes steam, or when a magnet, after heating up, loses its magnetization.

This phase transition within the universe would take place if a bubble is formed where a Higgs-field, that’s related to the Higgs-Boson, transforms into a different value than the rest of the universe.

If this newly formed bubble is big enough, and the newly modified value produces lower energy, the bubble will then grow and expand in all directions at a pace the speed of light.

This rapid expansion of the bubble will cause all of the fundamental particles within the bubble to reach a mass that is a lot heavier than if they were located outside the bubble.

This increase of mass inside the bubble then will pull together and form what the physicists described as “supermassive centers”.

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

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

“Many theories and calculations predict such a phase transition, but there have been some uncertainties in the previous calculations,” said Jens Frederik Colding Krog of the University of Southern Denmark, who co-authored the paper. “Now we have performed more precise calculations, and we see two things: Yes, the universe will probably collapse, and: A collapse is even more likely than the old calculations predicted. “

He said this phase transition could start at any spot in the universe and then spread out to the entire universe.

“Maybe the collapse has already started somewhere in the universe and right now it is eating its way into the rest of the universe,” Krog said. “Or maybe it will start far away from here in a billion years. We do not know.”

Along with “phase transition,” another theory,  “The Big Crunch Theory,” could also spell the end of our universe.  “The Big Crunch” is based on and is the opposite of the “Big Bang” theory in creating the universe.

Following that Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago, material that made up galaxies, stars, and planets was expelled into a continually expanding universe from one small region.

Animated illustration demonstrates the "Big Crunch Theory" (Wikimedia Commons)

Animated illustration demonstrates the “Big Crunch Theory” (Wikimedia Commons)

According to the “Big Crunch”, there will be a point and time when this expansion will cease and  all of that material will attract each other and ultimately come together again in a small area.

“The latest research shows that the universe’s expansion is accelerating, so there is no reason to expect a collapse from cosmological observations,” Krog said. “Thus it will probably not be Big Crunch that causes the universe to collapse. “The Danish physicists said that while their new calculations predict the collapse of the universe is now more likely than ever, they also said it’s possible  it won’t happen at all.

A requirement for the phase change to take place, according to the researchers, is that the universe contains all of the known fundamental particles, including the Higgs boson. But, if the universe also contains undiscovered particles, the entire idea for predicting the phase change vanishes.

“Then the collapse will be canceled,” said Krog.

Curiosity Determines Age of Martian Rocks

Posted December 13th, 2013 at 7:33 pm (UTC+0)
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This sequence of images from Curiosity's Front Hazard-Avoidance Camera shows the rover drilling into a rock target (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

This sequence of images from Curiosity’ show the rover drilling into a rock target. (NASA)

The Curiosity Rover has accomplished yet another first as it continues its amazing journey across the Martian landscape.

Scientists from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) have been able to successfully determine the age of a Martian rock.

But what makes this finding special is that, for the first time, scientists have been able to do so on Mars itself, using some of the science tools built into the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL).

The team’s long-distance analysis has determined that the rocks they examined were about 3.86 to 4.56 billion years old.

The Caltech team got the go ahead to conduct its research after submitting a proposal to officials leading the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission.  To determine the age of rocks on Mars, they proposed using research techniques similar to those used by scientists who’ve done the same thing with alien rocks found here on Earth.

Back in March, while exploring the Yellowknife Bay area of Mars’ Gale Crater, the Curiosity rover used a drill mounted on its robotic arm to bore a couple of holes into fine-grained sedimentary rock, called mudstone.

A mosaic of images from Curiosity's Mast Camera (Mastcam) shows geological members of the Yellowknife Bay formation, and the sites where Curiosity drilled into Martian mudstone. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

A mosaic of images from Curiosity’s Mast Camera (Mastcam) shows geological members of the Yellowknife Bay formation, and the sites where Curiosity drilled into Martian mudstone. (NASA)

Scientists said that these rocks were deposited in the bed of what they think is an ancient lake that may have flowed on Mars 3.6 million years ago.

Next, the rover scooped up the powdered rock that was produced by drilling into the rocks.The Sample Analysis on Mars instrument (SAM), which is installed aboard the Curiosity, conducted a number of chemical analyses on the powered rock samples, including several geochronology or rock-dating techniques.

Farley and his colleagues say there might be a bit of uncertainty regarding their measurements because the sedimentary rocks they studied were created in layers, over millions of years, with materials that had eroded from the local surroundings. The researchers presume the age of the samples they analyzed is actually a combined age of the different particles that the rocks were made of.

The Curiosity rover left the Yellowknife Bay research area and is moving on to new places to drill for rock samples as it makes its way to its eventual destination on Mount Sharp. The new drill sites will provide even more opportunities for scientists to analyze and date Martian rocks.

View into one of the drillholes in Martian mudstone made by Curiosity in the Yellowknife Bay area of Gale Crater. A sample of powdered material from the rock was used to determine the age of the rocks. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

A drill hole in the Martian mudstone made by Curiosity. A sample of powdered material from the rock was used to determine the age of the rocks. (NASA)

Caltech geochemist Ken Farley, who led the research, said that he and his colleagues will probably have Curiosity drill into more Martian rocks sometime in January to further test their rock dating techniques.

A paper that outlines the work done by the Caltech team has been published in the journal Science Express.

The team said its recent findings might not only help scientists better understand the geologic history of the red planet, but could also help support the MSL’s mission team in its search for evidence of ancient life on Mars.

Scientists Find the Coldest Place on Earth

Posted December 11th, 2013 at 7:53 pm (UTC+0)
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This image shows the location of record low temperature measurements for Antarctica. (Ted Scambos, National Snow and Ice Data Center) The red dots show where the record satellite-measured surface temperatures and the earlier record low air temperature occurred. Shades of gray are a compilation of the lowest MODIS-sensor land surface temperature readings made by NASA's Aqua satellite during 2003-2013, with darker grays representing the coldest areas. Landsat 8 thermal images acquired in July and August of 2013 provided more detail on the coldest areas (purple squares). Elevation of the Antarctic surface is shown in green lines, and a blue lines provide an outline of the Antarctic continent, its islands, and the edge of its floating ice sheet.

This image shows the location of record low temperature measurements for Antarctica. (Ted Scambos, National Snow and Ice Data Center)

Winter officially arrives in the Northern Hemisphere in about 10 days (12/21/13).  Here in the Washington, DC area, temperatures have already been dropping below 0° C at times.

While some of us are already complaining about the recent icy temperatures we know it could be a lot worse!

Scientists from NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), using a variety of sophisticated devices, such as those on the Landsat 8 satellite launched earlier this year (see related story), have found the coldest place on Earth.

Temperatures at spots along a 1,000 km strip of a remote and desolate ice plateau in East Antarctica have been measured between −92° to −93.2° C.

Project researchers made the temperature measurements between 2003 and 2013.

They used the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) sensor, an instrument installed on NASA’s Terra and Aqua satellites as well as the Advanced Very High Resolution Radiometer (AVHRR) which is aboard several National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration satellites.

NASA Video – The Coldest Place in the World (NASA)

During the 2013 Southern Hemisphere winter (6/21/13 – 9/23/13) their temperature measurements were augmented with data that was taken by equipment aboard the new Landsat 8 Earth observing satellite.

The newly recorded coldest temperature of -93.2° C was set on August 10, 2010 and it beats a record from more than 30 years ago when it was −89.2° C on July 21, 1983 at the Vostok Research Station in East Antarctica.

Ted Scambos the lead scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) at the University of Colorado Boulder also joined the NASA/USGS team for this project. “I’ve never been in conditions that cold and I hope I never am,” said Scambos. “I am told that every breath is painful and you have to be extremely careful not to freeze part of your throat or lungs when inhaling.”

An Atlas-V rocket with the Landsat Data Continuity Mission (LDCM) spacecraft onboard is seen as it launches on Monday, Feb. 11, 2013 at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. (Photo: NASA/Bill Ingalls)

An Atlas-V rocket with the Landsat Data Continuity Mission (LDCM) spacecraft onboard is seen as it launches on Monday, Feb. 11, 2013 at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. (Photo: NASA/Bill Ingalls)

These record temperatures in East Antarctica are much colder than a few other areas where sub-freezing temperatures are normal.

The project scientists found that the lowest recorded temperature in the United States was in Alaska coming in at −62° C.  In northern Asia cold temperatures have dipped to -68° C, while a temperature of -75° C was measured at the peak of the Greenland Ice Sheet.

According to NASA the coldest permanently inhabited place on Earth is located in northeastern Siberia, where temperatures dropped to -67.8° in the towns of Verkhoyansk – 1802 and Oymyakon – 1933.

The new record cold temperatures were found by the scientists in several 5 by 10 km pockets where the topography of the area shapes shallow hollows of about 2 to 4 meters deep.

These small dips in Antarctic landscape are close to an ice ridge that runs between the ice-dome peaks of Dome A (Argus) and Dome F (Fuji) which are located on the East Antarctic Ice Sheet.  An ice-dome has been described as a mass of ice located on an ice-sheet that has been shaped into a dome.

The researchers say that the cold air begins near the snow surface. Since cold air is thought to be much denser that the air above, this already cold air then moves down into those hollows making the air even colder, under ideal conditions.

“The record-breaking conditions seem to happen when a wind pattern or an atmospheric pressure gradient tries to move the air back uphill, pushing against the air that was sliding down,” Scambos said. “This allows the air in the low hollows to remain there longer and cool even further under the clear, extremely dry sky conditions. When the cold air lingers in these pockets it reaches ultra-low temperatures,” he added.

The researchers happened to notice the record low temperatures while they were studying some unusual cracks on East Antarctica’s ice surface that could be several hundred years old.

Satellite image shows a portion of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet (NASA)

Satellite image shows a portion of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet (NASA)

The scientists say that they suspect that a layer in the atmosphere above the ice plateau reaches a certain minimum temperature and is preventing the ice plateau’s surface from getting any colder.

“There seems to be a physical limit to how cold it can get in this high plateau area and how much heat can escape,” Scambos said. “The levels of carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide, traces of water vapor and other gases in the air may impose a more or less uniform limit on how much heat can radiate from the surface.”

The researchers say that they will continue to refine their map of Earth’s coldest places using Landsat 8 data.

“It’s a remarkable satellite and we’ve repeatedly been impressed with how well it works, not just for mapping temperature but for mapping crops and forests and glaciers all over the world,” Scambos said.

Fresh Water Once Flowed in Ancient Mars Lake

Posted December 9th, 2013 at 9:09 pm (UTC+0)
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Artist's concept as to where water may have once flowed in ancient Gale Crater lake (NASA/JPL)

Artist’s concept as to where water may have once flowed in ancient Gale Crater lake (NASA/JPL)

NASA’s Mars Science LaboratoryCuriosity Rover – was sent to Mars some 16 months ago with a major objective of finding evidence of a past environment that would be well suited to supporting microbial life.

Today, a team of mission researchers, writing in a series of papers published in the journal Science, said that they found evidence of what was once an ancient fresh water lake on Mars that might have been capable of supporting life.

The findings were also announced this morning by members of the research team who addressed the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco.

The researchers studied a set of sedimentary rock outcrops that were found in an area on the floor of Gale Crater called Yellowknife Bay, near the Mars equator.

These sedimentary rocks that probably formed from ancient Martian mud or clay have suggested to researchers that there was at least one lake that welled up with what could have been drinkable water inside of Gale Crater some 3.6 million years ago, and that the lake could have lasted for tens or even hundreds of thousands of years.

“Shortly after we landed, Curiosity found evidence that liquid water had flowed across the surface long ago in Gale crater,” said Jim Bell, from Arizona State University and an author of four of the papers. “These new results, however, come from the first drilling activities ever performed on Mars, and they show that in addition to surface water, there was likely an active groundwater system in Gale crater that significantly weathered ancient rocks and minerals.”

The mudstones analyzed by the research team are normally formed in calm conditions and produced by very fine sediment grains settling on each other layer-by-layer, in still water.

A mosaic of images taken by Curiosity showing a view of Yellowknife Bay Formation, where rock samples were taken that indicated a freshwater lake once flowed within Gale Crater (NASA/JPL)

A mosaic of images taken by Curiosity showing a view of Yellowknife Bay Formation, where rock samples were taken that indicated a freshwater lake once flowed within Gale Crater (NASA/JPL)

The team’s analysis of Yellowknife Bay’s clay-rich lake-bed region showed that a calm and fresh water lake that contained basic but crucial biological elements such as carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen and sulfur existed at least once inside the Gale Crater.

According to the team, a lake with these conditions could provide an ideal environment for simple microbial life.  The researchers think that a lake like this could have provided perfect conditions for simple bacterial life such as chemolithoautotrophs, which are rock-eating microbes that live on and derive their energy from mineral compounds.

The researchers pointed out that they did not find signs of ancient life itself on Mars.

“It is exciting to think that billions of years ago, ancient microbial life may have existed in the lake’s calm waters, converting a rich array of elements into energy. The next phase of the mission, where we will be exploring more rocky outcrops on the crater’s surface, could hold the key to whether life did exist on the red planet,” said another of the paper’s co-authors, Sanjeev Gupta from Imperial College London, who is also a member of the MSL mission team.

The researchers will continue to use the Mars roving science laboratory to continue exploring Gale Crater for even more evidence of ancient lakes or other habitable environments.

New-found Planet Defies Scientific Theory

Posted December 6th, 2013 at 8:14 pm (UTC+0)
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Artist's conception of HD106906b a young planet in a distant orbit around its host star. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Artist’s conception of HD106906b a young planet in a distant orbit around its host star. (NASA)

A newly-discovered  planet outside of our solar system has scientists rethinking how planets form.

The international research team said the new exoplanet, with the registration number HD 106906b,  is not only huge, weighing 11 times Jupiter’s mass, but also orbits its sun from a distance of 650 au’s – astronomical units or 97,238,615,955 km.  In comparison, the distance from the Sun to Pluto at its farthest orbital point – is 7,375,623,552 km.

“This system is especially fascinating because no model of either planet or star formation fully explains what we see,” said Vanessa Bailey, a graduate student at Tucson’s University of Arizona who led the research team.

The location and attributes of this giant exoplanet defy conventional planet formation theories.

It is thought that planets forming within a solar system usually do so at a relatively closer distance to their home stars.  Among other planet formation theories one indicates that there shouldn’t be enough of the primordial material with the mass needed to create a planet the size and weight of HD 106906b at a distance so far from its sun.

HD 106906b is only about 13 million years old.  In comparison, scientists believe Earth was born about 4.5 billion years ago, which makes our planet 350 times older than HD 106906 b.

This is a discovery image of planet HD 106906b in thermal infrared light from MagAO/Clio2, processed to remove the bright light from its host star, HD 106906A. The circle around the star indicates distance from Neptune to our sun. (Vanessa Bailey)

This is a discovery image of planet HD 106906b in thermal infrared light from MagAO/Clio2, processed to remove the bright light from its host star, HD 106906A. The circle around the star indicates distance from Neptune to our sun. (Vanessa Bailey)

The exoplanet is so young, according to the researchers, that it still glows with the left-over heat from its formation. The planet temperature is about 1,500 degrees Celsius and cooler than its sun, so HD 106906b emits most of its energy within the infrared spectrum rather than visible light.

The team used the new Magellan Adaptive Optics (MagAO) system and the Clio2 thermal infrared camera, which was mounted to the 6.5 meter-diameter Magellan telescope located in Chile’s Atacama Desert.

The MagAO system was developed by University of Arizona scientists to allow Earth-based telescopes take sharper images of the night sky than ever before. (see a related story)  This new optical system can counteract the blurring effects of the atmosphere by floating a very thin curved glass mirror that vibrates a 1,000 times per second  on a magnetic field that is set about 9 meters above the telescope’s primary mirror.

This atmospheric correction system allowed the research team to detect the weak heat emitted from the exoplanet without it being interfered with by the overpowering heat from its much hotter sun.

Scientists have thought that planets like Earth, which are relatively close to their suns,  form when remnant material from a star’s formation–such as dust and gas–gathers together.

But, according to the scientists, that method of planet formation may act too slowly for the giant planets located far from their sun to form.

The Magellan Telescope with MagAO’s Adaptive Secondary Mirror (ASM) mounted at the top looking down on the 6.5m (21 foot) diameter Primary Mirror. (Yuri Beletsky, LCO/Magellan Staff)

The Magellan Telescope with MagAO’s Adaptive Secondary Mirror (ASM) mounted at the top looking down on the 6.5m (21 foot) diameter Primary Mirror. (Yuri Beletsky, LCO/Magellan Staff)

Another theory suggests that these giant planets can form as the result of a fast, direct collapse of the primordial disk material. But the team says that in the case of HD 106906b, which is so far from its sun, any disks of planet forming material usually don’t have enough mass to create a planet.

Scientists have also developed and offered other theories including one that speculates how mini-binary star systems are formed.

“A binary star system can be formed when two adjacent clumps of gas collapse more or less independently to form stars, and these stars are close enough to each other to exert a mutual gravitation attraction and bind them together in an orbit,” said Bailey. “It is possible that in the case of the HD 106906 system the star and planet collapsed independently from clumps of gas, but for some reason the planet’s progenitor clump was starved for material and never grew large enough to ignite and become a star.”

Bailey and her team have outlined their research and discovery in a paper that will be published in a future issue of The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Real-time Flu Forecasting Proves Successful in Large-scale Test

Posted December 3rd, 2013 at 9:02 pm (UTC+0)
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(mcfarlandmo via wikimedia commons)

(mcfarlandmo via Wikimedia commons)

A flu forecasting system that uses some of the same techniques as modern weather forecasting was not only able to  predict the timing of the 2012-2013 influenza season, but was able to do so nine weeks before the flu season peaked.

Columbia University researchers say there were able to correctly predict that flu activity in the southeastern United States would peak in December 2012, and that the rest of nation wouldn’t see its flu season crest until the first weeks of 2013.

A study published in Nature Communications revealed the results of the researcher’s first large-scale demonstration, which tested the forecasting system in 108 U.S. cities.  The World Health Organization (WHO) says between 250,000 to 500,000 people worldwide die from influenza.  In the United States, between 3,000 to 49,000 people die from the flu every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). The CDC says about 45 percent of Americans receive annual flu inoculations.

The demonstration of Columbia University’s flu-predicting system follows the team’s study last year that predicted, in retrospect, the peak of the New York City flu season for each year between 2003 and 2008.

Predictions made in last year’s study were the initial test of the system and were limited to one city.  The researchers said the new and expanded demonstration made its predictions in real-time for a number of cities throughout the country.

A microscopic image of the H1N1 ('swine flu') influenza virus - In 2009, the World Health Organization declared this new strain as a pandemic.

A microscopic image of the H1N1 (‘swine flu’) influenza virus . (wikimedia commons)

The timing of flu season can vary from year to year and from region to region.  Influenza usually arrives any time between December and April, but when it does hit, a city can go from having no, or very few cases, to thousands within a short time period.

“Having greater advance warning of the timing and intensity of influenza outbreaks could prevent a portion of these influenza infections by providing actionable information to officials and the general public,” said  study author Jeffrey Shaman,  assistant professor  at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.

This advance warning could provide people with information that might encourage them to get their flu vaccination, become more aware of their own personal health,  and perhaps exercise extra caution when they’re around people who sneeze and cough.

The prediction system could also help health authorities prepare for an upcoming influenza outbreak.  It could help inform their decisions on how many vaccines and antiviral drugs to stockpile, and whether to take other measures such as closing local schools in the event of a virulent outbreak.

To test their prediction system on a large scale, the researchers began to perform weekly estimates for 108 US cities in November 2012.  The results of their weekly estimates were posted online and shared with the CDC.

They found that by the end of 2012, or four weeks into the flu season, their forecasting system had made accurate predictions in 63 percent of the cities they measured. That accuracy increased as the flu season moved forward. By the fourth week, the forecast system had accurately predicted the peak of the flu season in 70 percent of the country.

The flu forecasts were able to provide precise lead-times of up to nine weeks in advance of the peak, instead of the usual two-to-four weeks offered by other prediction methods that use historical data instead of real-time data.

A flu shot may sting a little bit but the US CDC recommends a yearly flu vaccine as the first and most important step in protecting ourselves against flu viruses. (Photo: US Navy)

A flu shot may sting a little bit but the US CDC recommends a yearly flu vaccine as the first and most important step in protecting ourselves against flu viruses. (Photo: US Navy)

In reviewing the results of their measurements, the researchers noticed regional differences regarding the accuracy of the system.

“We were able make better predictions in smaller cities. Population density may also be important,” said Shaman. “It suggests that in a city like New York, we may need to predict at a finer granularity, perhaps at the borough level. In a big sprawling city like Los Angeles, we may need to predict influenza at the level of individual neighborhoods.”

Shaman and his colleagues are gearing up for the 2013-2014 flu season and will be ready to put their forecasting system back into action as soon as it begins.

“Right now there are few cases of the flu, but as soon as the needle starts to move, we will start making predictions,” said Shaman.

Flu forecasts this season will be more available to the public because they will be posted on a soon-to-be launched website hosted by Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health.

Rainy-day Drivers Become Precipitation Gauges

Posted November 29th, 2013 at 8:39 pm (UTC+0)
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A windshield wiper at work on a rainy day (Basheer Tome via Flickr/Creative Commons)

A windshield wiper at work on a rainy day (Basheer Tome via Flickr/Creative Commons)

German scientists plan to use moving vehicles to measure precipitation on rainy days, after noticing that drivers control the speed of their windshield wipers according to the intensity of rainfall—faster for heavy rain and slower for light rain or drizzle.

Writing in Hydrology and Earth System Sciences, the University of Hanover scientists say they will use cars equipped with GPS systems as mobile rain measuring devices.

The amount of rainfall can vary quite a bit within even small parts of a region. The scientists said that while standard rain gauges can provide accurate measurements, some parts of the world may have very few of these gauges in place and those they do have are spread out over a large area.

As a result, the measurements made by the rain gauges aren’t able provide the detailed information that would reflect that variation, information that could be vital to help predict and prevent flooding.

“If moving cars could be used to measure rainfall the network density could be improved dramatically,” said Uwe Haberlandt, project leader for the RainCars project, an initiative that was conceived after a brainstorming session between the scientists.

To test the idea, the researchers went to work in a laboratory equipped with a rain simulator that mimicked both light and heavy rainfall. They placed cars equipped with different types of windshield wiper systems, into their rain simulator to determine the relationship between wiper speed and rainfall intensity.

For their first experiment, they placed a person inside each of the cars to manually adjust the speed of the wipers for the best windshield visibility.

“The experiments have shown that the front visibility is a good indicator for rainfall intensity,” says Ehsan Rabiei, the paper’s lead author.

But the researchers also found that measurements made with this method might not be dependable since they would rely on the visibility perception of the individual making the manual wiper speed adjustments.

Moving on to their next rain simulator experiment, the researchers tested optical sensors used by some new wiper systems that allow the systems to operate automatically. These sensors use infrared laser beams that can detect rain drops collecting on the device’s surface. Each sensor reading, according to the researchers, corresponds to a specific amount of water – in other words, the more readings made by the sensors, the more intense the rainfall.

“The optical sensors measure the rain on the windshield in a more direct and continuous manner so, currently, they would be the better choice for rain sensors in cars,” said Haberlandt.

The researchers also found that speed isn’t the only factor that can impact rain measurements.

Here's a car that's being tested under the research group's rain simulator (www.ikg.uni-hannover.de, Daniel Fitzner)

Here’s a car that’s being tested under the research group’s rain simulator (www.ikg.uni-hannover.de, Daniel Fitzner)

“Our experiments so far were carried out in an ideal and controlled environment. In nature there are external effects like wind, spray from other cars or shielding trees that can affect the readings, and rainfall characteristics are different from the rain simulator,” said Rabiei.

The research team’s goal isn’t so much about a higher accuracy of measuring rainfall, as it is about being able to increase the number of available measurement points.

A study published in 2010 by two members of the team showed that a system using a higher number of gauges that perhaps weren’t so accurate still provided more reliable rainfall readings than one that used a smaller number of much more accurate gauges.

The researchers said that they are already back at work conducting field experiments that use cars to measure the amount of real rainfall in and around their home city of Hanover.

They’re conducting these experiments with the help of volunteers, a taxi company and a car company, and say that they would like to see more people involved in this work.

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