South Pole Summer Camp Helps Combat Winter Blues

Posted March 15th, 2016 at 11:25 am (UTC-4)
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Refael Klein moves up the steep central overhang. Colored tape marks particular routes, sequences of climbing movements. (Photo by Hunter Davis)

Refael Klein moves up the steep central overhang. Colored tape marks particular routes, sequences of climbing movements. (Photo by Hunter Davis)

Construction on the Amundson-Scott elevated station began in 1998 and was completed in 2008.

SOUTH POLE JOURNAL
Refael Klein blogs about his year
working and living at the South Pole. Read his earlier posts here.

During the height of construction, the summer population at the South Pole ballooned to over 250 people. To accommodate the overflow in personnel, plastic, blue half-moon-shaped berthing units were installed south of the station. And heated plywood workshops were built for storage and shop space.

In addition, two unpainted, unfinished lounges were constructed, as well as a small gym with free weights and treadmills. This small village of about a dozen out-buildings was known as Summer Camp.

The cold dry Antarctic climate has been kind to Summer Camp and, seven years later, the buildings look as new as the day they were built. A few have been buried by drifting snow, but those that are still above ground continue to be used for storage and construction workshops.

From the outside, the Summer Camp gym doesn't look like much.  Inside, the climbing wall and work-out equipment provide a welcome escape from the close quarters of living in the main station. (Photo by Hunter Davis)

From the outside, the Summer Camp gym doesn’t look like much. Inside, the climbing wall and work-out equipment provide a welcome escape from the close quarters of living in the main station. (Photo by Hunter Davis)

When it’s too cold or windy to go skiing, I often find myself at the eastern-most side of Summer Camp, in a squat rectangular building with three poly-carbonate windows.

From the outside, the building, the old gym — a mishmash of mis-cut pieces of wood — looks like it was built by a group of elementary school boys to use as a club-house. The first time you see it, you half expect to see a sign that says, “NO GROWN UPS OR GIRLS ALLOWED”.

In a way, the old Summer Camp gym is a bit of a boy’s fort. It’s dimly lit, dirty and filled with broken exercise equipment and a spartan collection of free weights. That being said, any shortcomings of the building are made up by the fact that it is heated, has a good sound system, and is home to the southernmost climbing wall in the world.

As an avid rock climber, I was beside myself with excitement when I discovered the existence of a small climbing facility on station. Apparently, the wall didn’t always exist and wasn’t part of the gym’s original design.

As the story goes, two Italian scientists who were serious alpinists came to the South Pole a few years ago. Unwilling to let their wrists, hands and fingers atrophy, they spent their free time outside the lab stockpiling discarded building supplies and secretively building a small climbing wall at the summer camp gym. When they were done, they broke the news to station management — who, remarkably, were not upset — and convinced them to order two dozen pairs of climbing shoes and a few hundred plastic hand and foot holds.

WATCH VIDEO: Refael Klein blows off steam on the South Pole’s Summer Camp climbing wall

Today, thanks to altruism of the Italians, I, and many others on station, have a fun way to exercise and blow off steam after work. On a typical day, I spend an hour at the gym traversing the wall and setting new “problems”, short sequences of climbing movements, which I mark with colored tape.

The wall isn’t big and it takes a number of laps around its perimeter, or up its central overhang, before I get tired. As I climb, I like to have music playing and I keep the volume turned up loud enough to drown out the sound of the wind and heavy equipment clearing snow drifts.

Sometimes I become so focused on a challenging movement that I forget where I am.  It could be Colorado, California or Corsica.  It’s not until a foot slips, or I miss a hand hold and fall, that I remember I’m living at the bottom of the world and that I am thousands of miles away from any fantasy.

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

Astronomers Spot 80 of the Oldest Galaxies

Posted March 14th, 2016 at 2:23 pm (UTC-4)
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Advancing technology is making it possible for scientists to investigate the early universe.

About 200 million years after the Big Bang, it is thought that clumps of condensed primordial cold gas clouds provided material for the first stars to be born. As stars were created they formed small galaxies.

An international team of researchers are now saying that they’ve discovered about 80 galaxies that may have existed in the young universe about 12.6 billion years ago, which is around 1.2 billion years after the Big Bang.

The research team comes from Japan’s Ehime University, Nagoya University, and Tohoku University and the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) at Johns Hopkins University and the California Institute of Technology, in the U.S.

The team developed a list of galaxies to look for from data gathered by the Subaru Suprime Focus Camera (Suprime-Cam) instrument.

The Suprime-Cam is an 80-megapixel optical camera attached to the prime focus of the Subaru Telescope at the Mauna Kea Observatory, Hawaii.

With that information they were able to locate these 80 early galaxies and were able to conduct a detailed analysis on imaging data gathered by the Hubble Space Telescope’s (HST) Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS).

The ACS is the Hubble’s prime imaging instrument.

The researchers were able to determine that around 1.2 billion years after the Big Bang these small galaxies were continuously merging together and growing into larger galaxies like our own Milky Way, which contains about 200 billion stars.

The researchers outlined their findings in a paper that was published in the Astrophysical Journal.

Speaking of galaxies growing as a result of mergers, some scientists say that in about 4 billion years the Milky Way and the neighboring Andromeda galaxy will collide into each other and become one.

The new galaxy created by this merger of the Milky Way with Andromeda galaxies has been nicknamed Milkomeda.

According to the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), the Milky Way is zooming towards the Andromeda galaxy, at a rate of about 120 kilometers per second.

Both the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies are part a group of galaxies known as “The Local Group“.

This grouping of galaxies also includes about forty other, much smaller galaxies and all are bound together by gravity.

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.

ESA’s LISA Pathfinder Lays Groundwork for Gravitational Wave Observatory in Space

Posted March 9th, 2016 at 3:55 pm (UTC-4)
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Artist’s impression of LISA Pathfinder, ESA’s mission to test technology for future gravitational-wave observatories in space. ((c) ESA-C. Carreau)

Artist’s impression of LISA Pathfinder, ESA’s mission to test technology for future gravitational-wave observatories in space. ((c) ESA-C. Carreau)

The European Space Agency’s (ESA) LISA Pathfinder spacecraft, launched last December, recently started its science mission after completing an intensive three month testing period.

The LISA – which stands for Laser Interferometer Space Antenna – Pathfinder’s job is to test and establish crucial technologies and techniques that would make it possible for future mission such as ESA’s proposed Evolved Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (eLISA), a space observatory that would detect and study gravitational waves in outer space.

Two-dimensional representation of gravitational waves generated by two neutron stars orbiting each other. (NASA/JPL)

Two-dimensional representation of gravitational waves generated by two neutron stars orbiting each other. (NASA/JPL)

Last month the LIGO Scientific Collaboration set the scientific community abuzz with news of the first discovery of these fluctuations in the fabric of spacetime, which was predicted by Albert Einstein a little over a century ago in his theory of General Relativity.

The proposed eLISA, which has been tentatively scheduled for launch some time in 2034, will be so sensitive that it would be able to detect gravitational waves with longer wavelengths than those that can be detected on the ground.  This would provide scientists with tool capable of investigating some of the most massive and powerful objects in the Universe.

To lay the groundwork needed for developing the needed technologies to produce such an observatory, the LISA Pathfinder spacecraft will attempt to create a “near perfect free fall”.

The LISA Pathfinder crew has released two identical gold-platinum cubes, or test masses, that are suspended in its own vacuum enclosure inside the spacecraft.

Each cube weighs 2 kg and measures 46 mm; the enclosures are separated by a distance of 38 cm.

NASA artist's conception of LISA spacecraft in space. The project has been renamed eLisa. (NASA)

NASA artist’s conception of LISA spacecraft in space. The project has been renamed eLisa. (NASA)

After release, the test masses must only be affected by gravity alone and not by other forces such as solar wind and radiation, which will allow them to remain perfectly still.

ESA scientists are working to create conditions with the spacecraft to ensure that only the force of a gravitational wave could cause them to wiggle around.

To do this, the spacecraft continually measures the cube’s positions and uses micro-thrusters to manipulate the spacecraft around them with to avoid it ever touching them.

Over next half-year, ESA scientists will conduct a number of experiments and ‘poking’ the cubes to study their motion and then experiment with different technologies that will help maintain their near perfect free-fall.

The experiments will include one where scientists boost the temperature inside each cube’s enclosure to heat any remaining gas molecules and determine it has any effect on the cube’s motion.

ESA is also planning to apply increasingly stronger magnetic and electric forces to the two test masses to determine just how much force would be needed to disturb them from their perfect freefall.

The LISA Pathfinder cannot detect gravitational waves itself since the distance between the two cubes is too small to measure the slight vibration in the fabric of spacetime.

LISA will comprise three satellites, linked by lasers across five million km of space, to track very slight spacetime distortion caused by gravitational waves ((c) AEI/MildeMarketing/Exozet)

LISA will comprise three satellites, linked by lasers across five million km of space, to track very slight spacetime distortion caused by gravitational waves ((c) AEI/MildeMarketing/Exozet)

To measure gravitational waves in space the distance between test masses would have to be much greater.

The proposed eLISA mission would be made up of one “Mother” and two “Daughter” spacecraft that will orbit the Sun – similar to Earth’s orbit – in a triangular configuration.

The “Mother” and two “Daughter” spacecraft would be separated by a distance of a million kilometers and will be connected to each other by laser beams, which form the arms of a highly precise Michelson-like laser interferometer.

Any incoming gravitational waves would be detected by this interferometer by monitoring for any changes in the distance between its lengthy arms.

The eLISA mission, formerly known as LISA, was originally proposed as a joint project between ESA and NASA.  But due to funding limitations, NASA had to withdraw from the partnership on April 8, 2011.  The project was later revised as Europe only mission.

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.

Stranded Until Spring: Last Flight Leaves South Pole Before Winter Hits

Posted March 8th, 2016 at 10:30 am (UTC-4)
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The season's last LC-130 plane turns toward the runway. It will be eight months until another aircraft lands at the station. (Photo: Tim Ager)

The season’s last LC-130 plane turns toward the runway. It will be eight months until another aircraft lands at the station. (Photo: Tim Ager)

It’s the season of long shadows. The ice cap is a maze of dark and light. The smallest protrusions of snow create as much shade as a beach umbrella at high noon. As I walk to work, I’m accompanied by a 20-foot projection of myself. It marches silently through a windswept landscape, numb to the cold, a perfect mime, shivering when I do.

SOUTH POLE JOURNAL
Refael Klein blogs about his year
working and living at the South Pole. Read his earlier posts here.

The sun sits 10 degrees above the horizon. Temperatures are getting colder. They will hit minus 50 Fahrenheit (minus 46 Celsius) any day, the cut-off for flight operations.

The last flight to Pole was on Monday. It landed for 20 minutes, just long enough for the last summer contractors and scientists to say their goodbyes, crack a few inside jokes, and still have enough time to walk casually to the aircraft and make themselves comfortable on board.

“Jovial” is how the scene outside was described to me.  A 20-minute holiday with the majority of the station outside, giddy and talkative, like high school freshmen smoking their first cigarettes. For some, the last plane marks the beginning of winter. For others, it’s not until the sun sets.

South Pole Telescope and the other Dark Sector Labs were the last buildings the plane flew over. The plane did not cross into the the Clean Air Sector, which is  restricted to flight operations. (Photo: Amy Lowitz)

South Pole Telescope and the other Dark Sector Labs were the last buildings the plane flew over. The plane did not cross into the the Clean Air Sector, which is restricted to flight operations. (Photo: Amy Lowitz)

Perhaps this time of year is best described as autumn? When orange light washes over everything and there are no ETAs (estimated time of arrival) or ETDs (estimated time of departure) listed on the station’s intranet.

I was on the roof of the Atmospheric Research Observatory (ARO), checking the orientation of our solar equipment, when the plane landed.

This time of year, with the sun setting as quick as it is, we have to adjust the azimuth angle of our roof-top instruments daily so they remain in line with the sun and continue to collect accurate data. Since we can only collect solar data when then sun is up (six months a year), it’s particularly important that we keep things in good working order.

The plane took off in a cloud of exhaust and blowing snow. It sped down the 6,000-foot ice runway, engines booming, gradually lifting into the air — ever so slowly easing itself off the ground as if it were probing the atmosphere for some unknown danger, before all of a sudden committing to its station and climbing steeply into the cloudless sky.

It was the size of my hand, then my palm, then my index finger. The plane grew more distant every second, and the landscape grew quiet again.

Then, unexpectedly, when it was at a distance where I could easily squish it between my index finger and thumb, the plane turned. It banked sharply to the left and descended steeply, speeding towards the station.

After taking off, the plane unexpectedly turns back toward the station. It circles the South Pole and then heads back towards McMurdo Station in Antarctica. (Photo: Tim Ager)

After taking off, the plane unexpectedly turns back toward the station. It circles the South Pole and then heads back towards McMurdo Station in Antarctica. (Photo: Tim Ager)

It was not in line with the runway. As the aircraft drew closer, the engines out-screamed the wind. The plane continued to dive. The engines out-screamed the clutter in my mind and then, 500 feet off the ground, directly over the station, the plane banked again, tipping a wing before turning back towards the Ross Sea.

A dramatic goodbye from the flight crew. The aircraft commander must have said, “Let’s give these Polies a bit of a thrill, something to talk about over dinner,” before pushing the sticks forward and bringing the plane around and down.

Back inside ARO, it was only me and the hum of our instruments. I finished my afternoon checks and began responding to a few emails while intermittently working on a monthly report for the National Science Foundation.

My back became stiff from sitting so I took a break. I boiled water, made some mint tea and stepped outside onto our first-floor deck. The plane was gone and the wind was blowing snow across the plateau in long wispy waves.

There are only 50 of us on station now and, for the first time in three months, the 50 of us are all alone.

 

Look for Refael Klein’s weekly blogs from the South Pole here on Science World. You can read his previous posts here.

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

Zika Kills Cells Crucial to Brain Development; Did Volcanoes Cause Mars to Tilt?

Posted March 7th, 2016 at 4:20 pm (UTC-4)
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In an image released on 1/18/16, a female Aedes aegypti mosquito is seen drawing a blood meal from the arm of a researcher at the Biomedical Sciences Institute in the Sao Paulo's University in Sao Paulo, Brazil. This mosquito species can spread the Zika virus, which is spreading in parts of Latin America and the Caribbean. (AP)

In an image released on 1/18/16, a female Aedes aegypti mosquito is seen drawing a blood meal from the arm of a researcher at the Biomedical Sciences Institute in the Sao Paulo’s University in Sao Paulo, Brazil. This mosquito species can spread the Zika virus, which is spreading in parts of Latin America and the Caribbean. (AP)

Study: Zika Virus Infects and Kills Fetal Cerebral Cortex Cells

This birth defect can cause babies to be born with an unusually small head and inhibited brain development.

The scientists, who made their findings based on experiments performed with lab-grown human stem cells, discovered that the Zika virus is attracted to and infects the cells that go on to form the brain’s outer layer, known as the cerebral cortex.

While they admit their findings do not provide absolute proof of a link between Zika and microcephaly, the researchers say that discovering vulnerability of the cortex forming cells to the virus is significant.

A connection between Zika and microcephaly arose from last year’s spread in the virus throughout the Americas and a significant increase in the cases of microcephaly, especially in Brazil.

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)

Huge Volcanic Structure Behind Mars Tilt

French scientists have found that a massive volcanic structure caused the surface of Mars and not the rotational axis of Mars to tilt between 20 and 25 degrees over 3 billion years ago.

The scientists say that enormous amounts of lava that pumped out of the solar system’s largest volcanoes for over several hundred million years formed a volcanic dome in the Tharsis region of Mars.

In a paper published by the journal Nature, the research team, which included geomorphologists, geophysicists and climatologists, suggest that because it’s so incredibly enormous, the dome caused the Red Planet’s crust and mantle to rotate around its core.

It’s thought that the Tharsis volcanic dome, which is said to have a mass of a billion billion metric tons, started to form at a Martian latitude of about 20° north, over 3.7 billion years ago.

But the eventual surface shift that took place may explain why the volcanic plateau now sits on the Red Planet’s equator.

This close-up picture shows a ceramic-like refractory inclusion (pink inclusion) still embedded into the meteorite in which it was found. (Origins Lab, University of Chicago)

This close-up picture shows a ceramic-like refractory inclusion (pink inclusion) still embedded into the meteorite in which it was found. (Origins Lab, University of Chicago)

Rare Element in Meteorite Provides Clues to Solar System Origin

Scientists have found evidence of the rare element curium in a carbon-rich meteorite.

This radioactive element is not known to occur naturally on Earth but instead is manufactured or is produced as a side-effect of a nuclear explosion.

Curium, named after Pierre and Marie Curie, wasn’t discovered until 1944.

That’s when Glenn Seaborg and his colleagues at the University of California, Berkeley, created the element after bombarding the atoms of plutonium with alpha particles, which are the fast moving equivalent of a helium atom’s nucleus.

The researchers, who detail their discovery in the journal Science Advances, suggest that that the curium wound up in the meteorite during the formation of the solar system, after a gaseous cloud that went on to create the sun condensed.

The researchers say that they believe that finding this rare material in a meteorite may cause scientists to reconsider current models of stellar evolution and nucleosynthesis, which is a change in the chemical composition of a star.

This image shows the position of the most distant galaxy discovered so far. The remote galaxy GN-z11, shown in the inset, existed only 400 million years after the Big Bang (NASA, ESA, and P. Oesch (Yale University))

This image shows the position of the most distant galaxy discovered so far. The remote galaxy GN-z11, shown in the inset, existed only 400 million years after the Big Bang (NASA, ESA, and P. Oesch (Yale University))

Astronomers Find Most Distant Galaxy

An international team of astronomers, led by researchers at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, say they have found the most distant galaxy in the universe.

Light from this newly discovered faraway galaxy, called GN-z11, took 13.4 billion years to reach Earth, which is thought to be about 400 million years after the Big Bang.

Last September, astronomers at Caltech announced the discovery of what was then the most distant galaxy when they found EGS8p7 whose light traveled for 13.2 billion light years before being seen on Earth.

Detailing their discovery in the Astrophysical Journal, the researchers say that the newly found GN-z11 galaxy is “surprisingly bright,” and is located in the direction of the constellation of Ursa Major.

Using the Wide Field Camera 3 on NASA’s Hubble Space telescope, the researchers were able get a precise measurement of the distance to the galaxy spectroscopically, by separating the incoming light into its component colors.

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.

South Pole Diary: In Giant Parkas, Rank Is Less Apparent

Posted March 1st, 2016 at 10:23 am (UTC-4)
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The DVs arrive. Distinguished visitors and a few other passengers disembark from their aircraft. Temperatures were warm and the winds were low, making it an ideal day for a visit to Pole.

The DVs arrive. Distinguished visitors and a few other passengers disembark from their aircraft. Temperatures were warm and the winds were low, making it an ideal day for a visit to Pole.

Supporting world-class, meaningful scientific research in a unique landscape makes working at the Atmospheric Research Observatory (ARO) one of the most enjoyable positions I’ve held in the NOAA Commissioned Officer Corps.

SOUTH POLE JOURNAL
Refael Klein blogs about his year working and living at the South Pole. You can read
his earlier posts here.

The data collected by the Global Monitoring Division (GMD) is critical to climate research and includes some of the longest continuous measurements of climate-forcing agents. Six baseline observatories make up the backbone of GMD’s data collection efforts. As station chief of the South Pole Observatory, I’ve been given a tremendous amount of responsibility — a rare position for a junior officer.

A typical day at work includes fixing malfunctioning equipment, performing routine maintenance on different experiments, and collecting data. The hours can be long, but they’re rewarding.

Of course, there are also some less-than-glamorous tasks that can make up my week. Shoveling snow off the roof, hauling trash to the waste facilities, vacuuming the floor, sounding the urine barrel — the station chief wears many hats.

DVs at Pole

A group photo at the Geographic South Pole. From left to right: Refael Klein, Deputy Under Secretary to Operations at NOAA Vice Admiral Michael Devany; Dr. Scott Borg, head of Antarctic Sciences for the National Science Foundation; Dr. Colleen Hart, NASA Goddard’s deputy center director for Science, Operations and Performance; Dr. Richard Spinrad, NOAA’s chief scientist.

While it can be easy to procrastinate when it comes to cleaning and facility maintenance, every now and then I manage to gain the motivation to put Windex to window and replace the burned out fluorescent lights.

This week, I had the added esprit de corps to organize my desk and find homes for the lingering wrenches and screwdrivers that litter nearly every work surface in the station.

It would be easy to let ARO continue to creep towards chaos, but this week we had a group of distinguished visitors (DVs) who were scheduled to spend time at the station and they had specifically requested a tour of GMD’s facility.

Given the fact that the group included NOAA’s chief scientist along with a three-star vice admiral, the highest ranking officer within NOAA, I thought it would be prudent to take the extra time to make sure the trash cans had been emptied and new steps cut into the snow drift in front or our entrance.

The DV plane landed just after lunch. It was a perfect day outside. The sun sat at about thirty degrees above the horizon, infusing the landscape with a pale gold light. It was minus 45 Fahrenheit (minus 42 Celsius), just cold enough to remind everyone where they were without detracting from the “first time at Pole” experience.

I greeted the DVs as they left the aircraft, giving the sharpest salute I could manage with a pair of mittens to the Three-Star. They only had a few hours at Pole, so station management had arranged for the use of a Piston Bulley, a small utility vehicle on treads, to drive us from one point of interest to another. It was my first time in a covered vehicle on station and, as I hopped into the back with our guests and gave a nod to our driver to start rolling, I couldn’t help but feel like a DV myself.

After visits to the geographic and ceremonial Poles, I spent an hour showing the DVs around the Atmospheric Research Observatory.  Here I am (left) explaining the inner workings of our gas chromatograph.

After visits to the geographic and ceremonial poles, I spent an hour showing the DVs around the Atmospheric Research Observatory. Here I am (left) explaining the inner workings of our gas chromatograph.

Our first stop on the tour was at the ceremonial and geographic poles. Many photographs were taken, including several with the NOAA Corps Flag.

This was the admiral’s first time on the continent and, as he walked in and out of photos, he asked me about life on station and my thoughts on my assignment. Apparently, when he transferred from the navy to the corps, he had done so partially with the hope of going to Antarctica. He didn’t get the billet.

“It’s taken me my entire career to get down here,” he told me. I nodded, and we both stared off to some point on the plateau where a maze of shadows spilled out like a branching creek across the ice.

It’s not every day that you get to feel the admiration of the most senior officer in your service.  Standing where we were, the two of us shared a singular experience, something we had spent our entire careers searching for. It was five years for me, multiple decades for him.

For a brief moment, our difference in rank didn’t matter, nor did our time in uniform, or the path we followed to get to where we were. We both stood at the most unexpected location imaginable, surrounded by ice, wind and cold. We were fragile creatures in a harsh landscape, absolutely aware of our mortality and perfectly alert to the power, beauty and indifference that surrounded us.

 

Look for Refael Klein’s weekly blogs from the South Pole here on Science World. You can read his previous posts here.

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

Fast Radio Burst Source Found; High Tech Fishing; Stress and Heart Health

Posted February 29th, 2016 at 9:59 am (UTC-4)
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Astronomers Locate Source of a Fast Radio Burst

Nearly a decade ago a pair of astronomers were going through some archival data gathered by the 210-foot Parkes radio telescope in Australia when they discovered a mysterious, powerful burst of radio waves that lasted only a few milliseconds.

The astronomers determined that these fast radio bursts (FRB) represented an entirely new astronomical phenomenon.

While scientists suspect a number of phenomena may be associated with them, their exact cause is unknown since they are so difficult to detect.

So far only 17 FRBs have been discovered with the latest detected April 18, 2015 by astronomers at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization’s 64-meter Parkes radio telescope in Australia.

After observing the FRB, the astronomer’s at Parkes alerted other observatories to their discovery and a number of radio and optical telescope facilities around the world joined in the search for the signal.

Astronomers from the University of Tokyo, the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan, and Konan University next examined a visual image of the FRB taken a day after the first burst and found that it may have originated at a location in an elliptical galaxy some 6 billion light-years away.

Some of the scientists involved in making this finding are also suggesting that these Fast Radio Bursts could generate gravitational waves such as those detected recently by the LIGO Scientific Collaboration.

Penguin Feathers May Lead to Ice Proof Materials

Researchers developing an ice-proof material are looking to the Humboldt penguin for inspiration.

While Humboldt penguins live in a warmer climate compared to many other types of penguins, the temperatures do drop below freezing in the winter.

Despite cold and wet winter weather the feathers of these animals manage to stay smooth and ice free.

Writing in the American Chemical Society’s Journal of Physical Chemistry C say the researchers say they found that the microstructure of penguins’ feathers is what keeps the ice of their bodies.

Using a scanning electron microscope to study Humboldt penguin feathers, the researchers found that along with water-proofing abilities, the microstructure was made up of a web of barbs and tiny interlocking hooks that gave them an anti-adhesive quality, which repelled ice.

The researchers copied the feathers’ microstructure to develop a fiber membrane that resists ice build-up that could someday be used in a variety of applications such as insulation on outdoor electrical lines.

Researcher Rolf Hut testing the temperature-sensing waders in the field. (Tim van Emmerik)

Researcher Rolf Hut testing the temperature-sensing waders (Tim van Emmerik)

Fishing Goes High-Tech

A team of Dutch and American researchers have put a high-tech spin on the age-old art of fly fishing.

The researchers have developed a new kind of waders, those waterproof boots with pants used by fishermen to keep them dry as they wade through streams while fishing.

These new high tech waders have been equipped with temperature sensors to gather data that helps evaluate water quality and quantity.

The wader’s sensors gauge water temperature and sends the measurements via Bluetooth to an angler’s GPS equipped smart phone.

According to the researchers, fishing enthusiasts would be able to immediately use this information to help them locate areas in the stream that are likely to have more fish.

Meanwhile the temperature data along with the GPS measured location can be uploaded to the telephone and sent a central database, where scientists can access it.

Reaction to Stress More Harmful to Heart Health

Perceptions and reactions to negative emotions such as stress, depression, and anger have been linked to more of an increased risk of heart disease than the frequency of stressful events.

Scientists at Penn State and Columbia Universities say that these emotions can lead to an impairment of the autonomic nervous system, which regulates important functions of the body, including heart muscle activity.

One way to gauge autonomic regulation is by determining heart rate variability, which is the difference in pauses between heartbeats.

Over 900 participants were asked, over an eight day period, to report any daily stressful events and feelings of negative emotions.

The researchers found that those who said these events were more stressful or who had increased negative emotions had lower heart rate variability than those reporting a lower level of stress and bad feelings.

Those with a lower heart rate variability are said to be at greater risk of cardiovascular disease and premature 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.

Taking a Hike on a ‘Balmy’ Day in Antarctica

Posted February 23rd, 2016 at 10:27 am (UTC-4)
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Highs can reach into the mid 40s but the US Antarctic Program still enlists the use of a Coast Guard Icebreaker to clear a path for supply vessels. (Photo by Refael Klein)

Highs can reach into the mid 40s but the US Antarctic Program still enlists the use of a coast guard icebreaker to clear a path for supply vessels. (Photo by Refael Klein)

McMurdo Station sits on the farthest reach of the Hut Point Peninsula on the southern side of Ross Island. It is located 850 miles from the South Pole, sits more or less at sea level, and has abundant wildlife — at least during the summer months.

SOUTH POLE JOURNAL Refael Klein blogs about his year working and living at the South Pole. Read his earlier posts here.

This time of year, daily temperatures at McMurdo are in the low 30s (around 1 Celsius), making it about 50 degrees warmer than Pole. On occasion, it gets windy, making it feel colder than it is, but even on its chilliest summer days, you can still walk around in a pair of sneakers. I am here for a week of rest and recover (R&R) before heading back to the South Pole for the winter, which will mean 8 months of isolation with no flights coming in or out.

The sea ice has begun to break up and, from a few points on the peninsula, you can see stretches of open water. Icebergs bob up and down with the currents and tide, forming little waves that roll onto shore and lap at your feet, tempting you to the water’s edge, and beckoning the courageous for a swim.

To prevent the casual hiker from falling into crevasses, the Castle Rock Loop Trail is marked with flags.  Castle Rock and Mount Erebus can be seen up ahead. (Photo by Refael Klein)

To prevent the casual hiker from falling into crevasses, the Castle Rock Loop Trail is marked with flags. Castle Rock and Mount Erebus can be seen up ahead. (Photo by Refael Klein)

It is tempting, but I decline. Observing the seals — there are hundreds spread out over the sea ice — and following their lead, I sit on the ground, reclining on one shoulder, resting my arm on a large, warm, black rock and gaze in half consciousness across McMurdo Sound to the Royal Society (mountain) Range, while I let my lunch digest.

To those who have just arrived from the South Pole, the mountains that surround McMurdo are perhaps the most striking feature. For two months, the largest hill I’ve climbed has been a 20-foot (6 meter) drift of snow that sits outside the east entrance of our station.

Now, mountains surround me on all sides. Large volcanic peaks spring from the ocean to over 10,000 feet (3,048 meters). They are covered in glaciers and fields of basalt boulders. The eternal explorer, adventurer and peak bagger that lives inside of me pulls me in every direction my eyes happen to fall. Where do I go first?

There are a handful of hikes that crisscross the hills and coast line surrounding McMurdo. Most are just a few miles along, but each has beautiful views and can get you out of earshot of the station. My last trip here I did all of them but one.

The view from atop Castle Rock. On the horizon you can see open water. (Photo by Refael Klein)

The view from atop Castle Rock. On the horizon you can see open water. (Photo by Refael Klein)

The jewel of the Ross Island Trail Network, and the only hike still on my McMurdo tick list, is the Castle Rock Loop. It’s a 10-mile (16 kilometer) trail that takes you across a glacier to a large basalt dike that overlooks Mount Erebus, the largest mountain on the Island. Following a class III scramble, protected with chains and ropes, to the top of Castle Rock, it then descends the glacier via a flagged route to the Ross Ice Shelf, where it eventually connects with a gravel road that runs from Scott Base, New Zealand to McMurdo.

My bag is filled with a few extra layers, a grey down pullover and a light black fleece, two liters of water, and few double-chocolate chip cookies I took from the galley. I’m wearing a green long-sleeved button-down wool shirt and a grey quarter zip soft-shell coat. I was wearing a hat, but the uphill hiking has warmed me up quickly, so I have taken it off and have stuffed it into the waist band of my pants.

The visibility is perfect and, as the dirt road leading out of “town” turns into snow, then glacier, a slight breeze begins to blow from the ocean. It’s humid out and if I close my eyes and breathe, I can smell brine.

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

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

Can Air Pollution Make You Fat?

Posted February 22nd, 2016 at 3:55 pm (UTC-4)
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When thinking about the impact of air pollution on human health; respiratory and cardiovascular issues would probably be among the first to come to mind.

But now a new study conducted by an international team of researchers is suggesting that laboratory rats who were exposed to the highly polluted air of Beijing, for three to eight weeks, also gained weight along with having cardio-respiratory problems.

To reach their findings, the research team put pregnant rats, along with their young, in two compartments.  One was open to the outdoor air of Beijing and the other included an air filter that removed most of the air pollution.

Both sets of rats were fed the same diet throughout the experiments.

The researchers found that the pregnant rats who breathed the polluted air after only 19 days had heavier lungs and livers along with increased tissue inflammation.

“Since chronic inflammation is recognized as a factor contributing to obesity and since metabolic diseases such as diabetes and obesity are closely related, our findings provide clear evidence that chronic exposure to air pollution increases the risk for developing obesity,” said the study’s senior author Junfeng “Jim” Zhang, of Duke University in Nashville, TN in a press release.

Compared to those who breathed filtered air, the researchers also found that the air pollution breathing rats also had 50 percent higher levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol; 46 percent higher triglycerides; 97 percent higher total cholesterol and a higher level of insulin resistance. Having a high insulin resistance level can set the stage for Type 2 diabetes.

The research team said that the baby rats displayed comparable results to their mothers, who lived under identical conditions in the same compartments.

For example, an eight week old female rat exposed to air pollution was 10% heavier and a male 18% heavier than those who breathed filtered air.

Since the researchers found that the detrimental effects of air pollution was more noticeable at eight weeks than at three weeks, the study suggests longstanding exposure to high levels of air pollution may be essential to produce the kinds of physiological changes that lead to obesity.

“If translated and verified in humans, these findings will support the urgent need to reduce air pollution, given the growing burden of obesity in today’s highly polluted world,” said Zhang.

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.

India OK’s New Observatory; Japan’s X-Ray Telescope; Long-Lasting Eclipse Detected

Posted February 19th, 2016 at 3:55 pm (UTC-4)
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Aerial view of LIGO Observatory in Hanford, Washington (LIGO Laboratory)

Aerial view of LIGO Observatory in Hanford, Washington (LIGO Laboratory)

LIGO Scientific Collaboration to Build New Observatory in India

Just days (2/11/16) after announcing the first detection of Einstein’s theorized gravitational waves, the LIGO Scientific Collaboration has been granted approval in principle by India to build an Advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory there.

LIGO currently operates two observatories in the United States; one in Hanford, Washington and the other in Livingston, Louisiana.

The LIGO Scientific Collaboration says the addition of an observatory in India to its network will greatly improve the ability of scientists to identify and analyze the sources of incoming gravitational waves.

The first detection and observation of these ripples in the fabric of space time were made by LIGO on September 14, 2015, some 100 years after Albert Einstein predicted their existence in his General Theory of Relativity.

The gravitational waves that were detected were produced 1.3 billion years ago when a pair of orbiting black holes smashed into each other in a cataclysmic explosion.

Artist conception of the Hitomi, formerly ASTRO-H, spacecraft (Akihiro Ikeshita/JAXA via NASA Blueshift/Flickr)

Artist conception of the Hitomi, formerly ASTRO-H, spacecraft (Akihiro Ikeshita/JAXA via NASA Blueshift/Flickr)

Japan Sends New X-Ray Telescope into Space

The Japan Exploration Agency or JAXA successfully launched their X-ray astronomy satellite from the Tanegashima Space Center on Wednesday, February 17th at 0845 UTC.

JAXA learned from data transmitted by the spacecraft to its Uchinoura Ground Station that it had deployed its solar array paddles (SAPs) and is currently in good health.

The original name for the spacecraft was ASTRO-H, but the space agency renamed it Hitomi, which in Japanese means pupil, for the part of the eye which regulates incoming light.

According to JAXA, the Hitomi satellite has been equipped with a collection of instruments that will allow scientists to study the large-scale structure and evolution of the universe, the phenomena of the non/thermal universe and learn more about dark matter and dark energy.

Artist conception of binary star system TYC-2505-672-1. (Jeremy Teaford, Vanderbilt University)

Artist conception of binary star system TYC-2505-672-1 (Jeremy Teaford, Vanderbilt University)

Astronomers Find Longest-Lasting Eclipse in Binary Star System

Astronomers from Vanderbilt and Harvard Universities have discovered a binary star system nearly 10,000 light years from Earth where it takes 69 years for one of its stars to nearly totally eclipse the other.  But once it does, the eclipse lasts for three and a half years.

The researchers describe their findings in a paper that’s been accepted for publication in the Astronomical Journal.

This star system, which has no name but only an astronomical catalog number of TYC 2505-672-1, has set a new record for having both the longest duration stellar eclipse and the longest period between eclipses in a binary system, said the research team.

Until this discovery, the previous record holder was Epsilon Aurigae, an eclipsing binary system that is only 2,000 light years from Earth.

The star system’s yellow giant star is eclipsed by its normal sized companion that’s slightly bigger than our sun, for 640 to 730 days every 27 years.

Bat inspired membrane wings mounted on a Micro Air Vehicle (EPSRC)

Bat inspired membrane wings mounted on a Micro Air Vehicle (EPSRC)

Bats Inspire Development of Aircraft Wings That Change Shape

UK researchers looked to the bat for inspiration in developing wings that could be used in constructing a new generation of insect or bird sized aircraft called Micro Air Vehicles.

They say their new innovation will allow the tiny aircraft to eventually travel much longer distances than currently possible and are also inexpensive to run.

Scientists at the UK’s University of Southampton say that their new wings, which they liken to artificial muscles, have improved aerodynamic properties and can quickly respond to various flying conditions by simply changing their shape.

While this new technology uses no mechanical parts, it does incorporate electroactive polymers that use electrical current to modify the aerodynamic characteristics of the wing structure.

Micro Air Vehicles, which can be as small as 15 centimeters, can be used in various commercial and military applications.  Hobbyists also build these tiny aircraft and use them for aerial photography.

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.