NASA’s Resumes Resupply Missions From Virginia Spaceport

Posted October 17th, 2016 at 3:45 pm (UTC-4)
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The Orbital ATK Antares rocket, with the Cygnus spacecraft onboard, launches from Pad-0A, Monday, Oct. 17, 2016 at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

The Orbital ATK Antares rocket, with the Cygnus spacecraft onboard, launches from Pad-0A, Monday, Oct. 17, 2016 at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Orbital ATK’s sixth contracted cargo resupply mission with NASA to the International Space Station is delivering over 5,100 pounds of science and research, crew supplies and vehicle hardware to the orbital laboratory and its crew. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

UPDATE: An Orbital ATK Antares 230 rocket carrying its Cygnus cargo spacecraft (pdf) was successfully sent into space at 7:45PM EDT (2245 UTC) on Monday, October 17th from the refurbished Pad 0A at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport.

The launch site is located on the southern tip of NASA’s Wallops Island Flight facility on the eastern shore of Virginia.

Monday’s launch marks the aerospace company’s return to the Virginia launch site after its last attempt to do so, on October 28, 2014, ended with a catastrophic explosion and fire just six seconds after lift-off.

The Antares rocket, Cygnus spacecraft, as well as its payload were all destroyed in the fiery accident.

NASA reported the explosion also caused significant damage to the launch pad which has been repaired and upgraded to accommodate an upgraded Antares rocket.

Along with the improved launch vehicle, the Cygnus spacecraft itself was also upgraded to allow for increased payload capacity. The enhanced cargo ship, which first went into space in December 2015, also sports new fuel tanks and UltraFlex solar arrays (pdf).

Orbital ATK has a tradition of naming each of its Cygnus spacecraft after deceased astronauts. This mission’s spacecraft is named in honor of the late Alan G. Poindexter, a former astronaut and naval aviator. Poindexter, who was selected for NASA’s astronaut program in 1998, flew on two space shuttle missions during his career as an astronaut.

This resupply mission, called OA-5, is carrying 2,313 kg of material that includes food, supplies, provisions and emergency equipment for the ISS crew, as well as the Spacecraft Fire Experiment-II or Saffire-II that will study the behavior of combustion in microgravity.

The Orbital Sciences Corporation Antares rocket, with the Cygnus spacecraft onboard suffers a catastrophic anomaly moments after launch on October 28, 2014 from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. (NASA)

The Orbital Sciences Corporation Antares rocket, with the Cygnus spacecraft onboard suffers a catastrophic anomaly moments after launch on October 28, 2014 from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. (NASA)

NASA says the Cygnus is scheduled to arrive at the space station on Sunday, October 23rd, which is a bit later than usual.

Its arrival was delayed to allow for the docking and reception of a Soyuz spacecraft carrying three new ISS crew members on Friday, October 21st.

NASA astronaut Shane Kimbrough, along with cosmonauts Sergey Ryzhikov and Andrey Borisenko of the Russian space agency Roscosmos are scheduled to be sent to the International Space Station from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Wednesday, October 19th at 0805 UTC.

After Cygnus’ arrival at the ISS, crewmembers Takuya Onishi of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency and NASA’s Kate Rubins will use the robotic arm of the space station’s Mobile Servicing System to grab, rotate and install Cygnus on the bottom of the station’s Unity module.

According to NASA, the cargo ship will remain attached to the ISS for a little over three weeks to allow ISS crewmembers to unload the new supplies and then pack it with waste for disposal.

Cygnus is scheduled to leave the ISS and head for Earth on November 18th. The space agency says the spacecraft and its load of garbage is expected to burn up as it reenters the atmosphere.

Launch of ISS Resupply Mission 0A-5 on October 17, 2016 (NASA)

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.

Cosmic Cannon; Mars Dust Storm Forecast; Dione’s Subsurface Ocean

Posted October 7th, 2016 at 4:20 pm (UTC-4)
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This four-panel graphic illustrates how the binary-star system V Hydrae is launching balls of plasma into space. (NASA, ESA, and A. Feild (STScI))

This four-panel graphic illustrates how the binary-star system V Hydrae is launching balls of plasma into space. (NASA, ESA, and A. Feild (STScI))

Astronomers Find a Cosmic Cannon

Astronomers have spotted super-hot blobs of plasma blasting into space like cannonballs near a dying red giant star, some 1,200 light years away.

Using the Hubble Space Telescope to make their discovery, the scientists found that the balls of hot gas are flying so fast a trip from the Earth to the moon would take only 30 minutes.

It’s estimated that a cosmic artillery blast has taken place every 8 and a half years for at least the past 400 years.

Hubble data revealed a sequence of these giant gas balls that date back to 1986.

The plasma balls’ temperature is thought to be more than 9,500 degrees Celsius, which is about twice as hot as the surface of the sun at 5,500 degrees Celsius.

Scientists don’t think the plasma balls are being ejected by the red giant, but by a nearby and unseen companion star that is consuming material from the atmosphere of dying star.

Composite image of the Earth at night assembled from data acquired by the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (Suomi NPP) satellite over nine days in April 2012 and thirteen days in October 2012. Population estimates based on similar satellite data can help improve vaccination campaigns. (NASA Earth Observatory/NOAA NGDC)

Composite image of the Earth at night assembled from data
acquired by the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership
(Suomi NPP) satellite. (NASA Earth Observatory/NOAA NGDC)

Satellite Imagery Guides Immunization Campaigns

A Pennsylvania State University-led team of researchers has developed a system that could help public health officials conduct more thorough and complete immunization campaigns in the developing world.

Studies have shown that successful vaccination drives can improve the prevention and control of disease of outbreaks.

The new technique uses satellite imagery to help track and predict short-term shifts in population size.

The researchers studied a measles outbreak in Niger between 2003 and 2004.

The only estimates of population health officials had at the time of the outbreak did not consider seasonal migrations, which led to an underestimation of the numbers of people that needed to be immunized.

Using satellite images of nighttime light, the team was able to more accurately estimate the size of the population at the time of the outbreak.

This four-panel graphic illustrates how the binary-star system V Hydrae is launching balls of plasma into space. (NASA, ESA, and A. Feild (STScI))

This four-panel graphic illustrates how the binary-star system V Hydrae is launching balls of plasma into space. (NASA, ESA, and A. Feild (STScI))

Forecasting Global Dust Storms on Mars

Scientists say that dust storms on Mars aren’t as powerful as the one that set up the plot to the hit movie and book, the Martian.

But these storms still could present some serious challenges for astronauts who’ll someday land on and explore the Red Planet.

Local Martian dust storms are somewhat common and can occasionally grow into regional storms.

There have also been rare occasions when the storms can grow into a global event.

Researchers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory are predicting a global Martian dust storm in the next few weeks or months.

The researchers noticed that current conditions are very similar to those when global storms occurred in the past.

If this prediction is proven correct, it might be possible to develop a system that can forecast future storms on the red planet.

Group of teens hanging out at the beach (Vladimir Pustovit via Flickr/Creative Commons)

Group of teens hanging out at the beach (Vladimir Pustovit via Flickr/Creative Commons)

Teen’s Drive for Reward Helps Them Learn

Some adults may think that teenagers today demand too much reward for little or no effort on their part.

But, a new study suggests that the need for reward may be a way evolution helps young people learn from their surrounding environment.

Study researchers had a group of teens play a picture-based learning game against a team of adults.

Some of the players were scanned with an MRI as they played.

If a player gave a right answer during the game they were rewarded with a flashing correct sign.  A wrong answer resulted in a scolding incorrect sign.

The teens out performed adults in the picture game.

The MRI scans showed activity in two areas of the teen’s brain as they played, while adults, mostly used only one.

A study author says that their work proposes that teens pay attention to their environment in a way that is different than adults.

Dione with Saturn and its rings in the background. This image was taken by the Cassini spacecraft on 08/17/15 (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)

Dione with Saturn and its rings in the background. This image was taken by the Cassini spacecraft on 08/17/15 (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)

Subsurface Ocean Found on Saturn Moon Dione

Belgian scientists say data from NASA’s Cassini mission has provided evidence of an ocean deep beneath the surface of Saturn’s moon Dione.

Previous studies suggested that the ringed-planet’s moon had no ocean.

With this finding, Dione joins its siblings Titan and Enceladus, as well as Jupiter’s moon Europa and possibly Pluto, in the group of celestial bodies having a subsurface ocean.

The study authors say that gravity data gathered during recent flybys by Cassini suggests Dione’s icy crust floats on an ocean several tens of kilometers deep, some 100 kilometers below its surface.

The study also proposes that Dione’s ocean surrounds a large rocky core.

The study suggests that interactions between the ocean and the moon’s rocky core could have long provided the essential ingredients needed to host microbial life.

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.

Another summer day at the bottom of the world

Posted October 5th, 2016 at 2:30 pm (UTC-4)
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It’s a cold, clear day outside. The sky is a cloudless light blue, uniform in color and shade from horizon to horizon. The ice cap stretches out beneath it, and apart from its icy whiteness, is a mirror image of its heavenly twin. Today, the sun sits slightly higher in the sky then it did yesterday, a full hand’s width above the plateau. It is supremely radiant — a sight worthy of sunglasses — and in the lee of the Atmospheric Research Observatory (ARO), you can feel the summer’s first suggestions of warmth.

In heavy extreme cold weather gear and navigating uneven terrain, it takes about 25 minutes to hike a couple of kilometers from the station. (Photo: R. Klein)

In heavy extreme cold weather gear and navigating uneven terrain, it takes about 25 minutes to hike a couple of kilometers from the station. (Photo: R. Klein)

The winds died down this morning. For the past week it’s been blustery outside to say the least, but today there is barely enough breeze to stir the American flag that stands beside the geographic South Pole marker.

It’s a lazy day out there. The snow is still and the smoke from the power plant climbs aimlessly into the air. The sun, circling slowly, casts long shadows that crawl across the landscape and align themselves with the hour of the day.

Three o’clock in the afternoon, and the 30 meter (100 ft.) meteorological tower casts a perfectly rectangular 90 meter (300’) long shade in the direction of due north. I adjust the time on my wristwatch and begin to think about making the most of the South Pole’s first summery day. Perhaps it high time for a hike.

The 30 meter tall meteorological tower at ARO acts as a large sundial. If you wanted to, you could set your watch by it. (Photo: H. Davis)

The 30 meter tall meteorological tower at ARO acts as a large sundial. If you wanted to, you could set your watch by it. (Photo: H. Davis)

I trade my chemical-stained jeans for my black, insulated canvas overalls, throw on a thick wool hooded sweatshirt with a hole in the right elbow, and don my always dependable 1000 fill, red goose-down jacket — my “Big Red.” I fill my purple Nalgene thermos with slightly cool tea-steeping water from the electric kettle that sits on top of the desk in my room, and place it cap-side down in the pocket of my coat so it doesn’t freeze shut when I head outside. Neck warmer: on. Hat: on. Googles: check. Mittens on hands. I make my way from my berthing to the giant steel refrigerator doors that divide the pleasantly heated, fluorescently illuminated station from the frigid and naturally lit great outdoors.

“Ah, what a day indeed.” If it wasn’t minus 56 Celsius (-70F) outside, the birds would be chirping and young liberal arts students would be busily debating weighty philosophical questions at hip, cigarette smoke-laden outdoor cafes.

Unfortunately, it’s still a few too many degrees below freezing for a true summer scene to unfurl, but for me, in this moment, it is perfect. The snow, clean and clear, reflects light in every direction, amplifying the sun’s intense glow. I follow the brightness towards the horizon and out onto the ice cap. The earth crunches below me like Styrofoam peanuts. Sastrugi glow orange and yellow in the late afternoon light. One kilometer, two kilometers out from the station, and the Antarctic surrounds me in every direction. I find a seat in the lee of a few exceptionally large ripples of snow, and sit with my legs stretched out in front of me, in the same fashion that someone might lean against a large log next to a campfire. I lower my neck gaiter, and breathe deeply through my nose.

The air smells different than it did a few weeks ago. Humid aromas, rain, and respiration, sap and ripening fruit, smells of summer… or is it just my mind playing tricks on me?

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.

September 2016 Science Images

Posted September 30th, 2016 at 4:30 pm (UTC-4)
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One of the last images of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko that was taken by the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission. This shot was taken at 0818 UTC 9/30/16 from an altitude of 5.7 km above the comet’s surface. Rosetta’s mission ended when the spacecraft was sent crashing into the comet’s surface. (ESA)

One of the last images of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko that was taken by the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission. This shot was taken at 0818 UTC 9/30/16 from an altitude of 5.7 km above the comet’s surface. Rosetta’s mission ended when the spacecraft was sent crashing into the comet’s surface. (ESA)

Up up and away! The 3rd of six Jet Propulsion Laboratory Remote payload flights was launched on 9/27/16, from NASA’s Scientific Balloon Launch Site at Fort Sumner, New Mexico. JPL’s Remote mission is an upper atmosphere research experiment that will help better understand stratospheric chemistry and the stability of the ozone layer. (NASA/JPL)

Up up and away! The 3rd of six Jet Propulsion Laboratory Remote payload flights was launched on 9/27/16, from NASA’s Scientific Balloon Launch Site at Fort Sumner, New Mexico. JPL’s Remote mission is an upper atmosphere research experiment that will help better understand stratospheric chemistry and the stability of the ozone layer. (NASA/JPL)

A glass squid that was found off the coast of Hawaii's Big Island is shown in this 9/16 photo provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Federal researchers just returned from an expedition to study the biodiversity and mechanisms of an unusually rich deep-sea ecosystem off the coast of Hawaii. (NOAA via AP)

A glass squid that was found off the coast of Hawaii’s Big Island is shown in this 9/16 photo provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Federal researchers just returned from an expedition to study the biodiversity and mechanisms of an unusually rich deep-sea ecosystem off the coast of Hawaii. (NOAA via AP)

Here’s another photo, taken in September 2016, of another odd sea creature found by researchers during a recent expedition to study the biodiversity and mechanisms of an unusually rich deep-sea ecosystem off the coast of Hawaii. In this photo provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is a Commerson's frogfish. (NOAA via AP)

Here’s another photo, taken in September 2016, of another odd sea creature found by researchers during a recent expedition to study the biodiversity and mechanisms of an unusually rich deep-sea ecosystem off the coast of Hawaii. In this photo provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is a Commerson’s frogfish. (NOAA via AP)

The Pisces V submersible sits on the deck of a research vessel during an expedition to previously unexplored seamounts off the coast of Hawaii's Big Island on 9/8/16. (AP)

The Pisces V submersible sits on the deck of a research vessel during an expedition to previously unexplored seamounts off the coast of Hawaii’s Big Island on 9/8/16. (AP)

On 9/29/16 NASA announced the discovery of the first gamma-ray binary system to be found inside another galaxy. The binary system called LMC P3 (circled) was found in a supernova remnant called DEM L241 within the Large Magellanic Cloud. (NOAO/CTIO/MCELS, DSS)

On 9/29/16 NASA announced the discovery of the first gamma-ray binary system to be found inside another galaxy. The binary system called LMC P3 (circled) was found in a supernova remnant called DEM L241 within the Large Magellanic Cloud. (NOAO/CTIO/MCELS, DSS)

This image taken by NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover on 9/8/16 provides a view of an outcrop with finely layered rocks within the "Murray Buttes" region on lower Mount Sharp. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

This image taken by NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover on 9/8/16 provides a view of an outcrop with finely layered rocks within the “Murray Buttes” region on lower Mount Sharp. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

Here’s a group of self-driving Uber vehicles that are ready to take journalists on rides during a media preview at Uber's Advanced Technologies Center in Pittsburgh, on 9/12/16. (AP)

Here’s a group of self-driving Uber vehicles that are ready to take journalists on rides during a media preview at Uber’s Advanced Technologies Center in Pittsburgh, on 9/12/16. (AP)

This animation released by on 9/15/16 by NASA shows the slow migration of building-size fragments from Comet 332P/Ikeya-Murakami over a three-day period in January 2016. The animation was made from a sequence of Hubble Space Telescope images. The fragment broke off of the comet’s main nucleus in late 2015 its orbit brought it close to the sun (NASA, ESA, D. Jewitt (UCLA))

This animation released by on 9/15/16 by NASA shows the slow migration of building-size fragments from Comet 332P/Ikeya-Murakami over a three-day period in January 2016. The animation was made from a sequence of Hubble Space Telescope images. The fragment broke off of the comet’s main nucleus in late 2015 its orbit brought it close to the sun (NASA, ESA, D. Jewitt (UCLA))

In this 9/7/16 photo, Phil Schiller, Apple's senior vice president of worldwide marketing, introduces Apple’s new AirPods, Bluetooth headsets that were designed to work seamlessly with Apple’s software. (AP)

In this 9/7/16 photo, Phil Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president of worldwide marketing, introduces Apple’s new AirPods, Bluetooth headsets that were designed to work seamlessly with Apple’s software. (AP)

A municipal worker fumigates an alley in an impoverished area to prevent the spread of mosquito-borne diseases in New Delhi, India 9/2/16. Scientists say that 2.6 billion people living in parts of Asia and Africa could be at risk of infection by the Zika virus. (AP)

A municipal worker fumigates an alley in an impoverished area to prevent the spread of mosquito-borne diseases in New Delhi, India 9/2/16. Scientists say that 2.6 billion people living in parts of Asia and Africa could be at risk of infection by the Zika virus. (AP)

A Soyuz TMA-20M spacecraft with returning ISS Expedition 48 crew members Jeff Williams a NASA astronaut and cosmonauts Alexey Ovchinin, and Oleg Skripochka of the Russian space agency Roscosmos is about to land near the town of Zhezkazgan, Kazakhstan on 9/7/16. (NASA)

A Soyuz TMA-20M spacecraft with returning ISS Expedition 48 crew members Jeff Williams a NASA astronaut and cosmonauts Alexey Ovchinin, and Oleg Skripochka of the Russian space agency Roscosmos is about to land near the town of Zhezkazgan, Kazakhstan on 9/7/16. (NASA)

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.

The Sun has Risen

Posted September 27th, 2016 at 4:08 pm (UTC-4)
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The sun sits two fingers above the horizon. It is obscured by fine, white, icy clouds, but you can still make out its circular shape—dimming and brightening with each gust of wind and slight fluctuation in temperature. Pulsing, blinking, fluttering, stuttering, it jabbers away in a Polar Morse code. Transfixed, I stand in the middle of the frozen plateau, trying to decipher its speech, until my corneas start to burn, my eyes begin to water and my eyelids freeze shut.

"The sun is up, winter is over!" is a phrase that has become popular around the station. With the polar plateau fully lit, for the first time in six months one can see from horizon to horizon without straining their eyes. (Photo: R. Klein)

“The sun is up, the winter is over!” is a phrase that has become popular around the station. With the polar plateau fully lit, for the first time in six months one can see from horizon to horizon without straining their eyes. (Photo: R. Klein)

“The sun has risen, the winter is over!” I can walk to work at the Atmospheric Research Observatory (ARO) in broad daylight and can see the ARO from the station, which is a half-kilometer (quarter-mile) away. It doesn’t matter if it is cloudy or not. I no longer stumble over snow drifts and sastrugi on my walks outside and I’m awakened each morning by bright, natural light bouncing off the snow and the walls of the main station into my small, rectangular room.

Small changes

Light-sensitive experiments that were turned on at sunset have been turned off, and window coverings throughout the station have been removed. As I drink my morning coffee, I can stare outside onto the icy white canvas I have called home for the past 11 months. If it is windy, I can see how windy it is, and if it is clear I can see for nearly 20 unobstructed kilometers (12 miles) to the horizon.

It hasn’t begun to warm up yet and it won’t for several more weeks, not until the sun climbs higher into the sky. Nonetheless, being able to observe the landscape around me, the blowing snow and shifting drifts, has lifted some type of psychosomatic weight from within me. The cold no longer feels quite as cold as it did when the sun still slept out of sight. Minus 62 Celsius (-80 F) feels like minus 45 (-50), and where once I wore two pairs of long underwear I now only wear one.

Perhaps I should have said, “The sun has risen, the winter is nearly over.” A million things still stand between us, the winter crew and station opening. The first flight is not due in for another four weeks. Before then, 3 kilometers (2 miles) of runway need to be groomed and a dozen outbuildings opened, heated and dug out. An end-of-season report looms over my head and ARO’s standard operating procedures have to be revised and rewritten for the incoming station chief and technician. Hundreds of air sample flasks need to be packaged and prepared for delivery, the solar radiation equipment installed, the carpets vacuumed… and the list goes on.

From atop the roof of Amundsen-Scott station, a South Pole winterover watches the sun break the horizon. (Photo: Scott Deaton)

From atop the roof of Amundsen-Scott station, a South Pole winterover watches the sun break the horizon. (Photo: S. Deaton)

“The sun has risen, the winter is over—or so it seems?”

Less than two months stand between me, my flight off the continent and my return to civilization. It seems like freedom is just around the corner, but it isn’t. Each day ticks by second by second, and my perception of time seems to have inflated, expanded in step with the growing light, as if my newfound ability to see and observe the details of the endless polar landscape has made me hyper-aware of time, given me the power to feel each millisecond and wallow in the eternity of a single day. Though perhaps, given my growing to-do list — complete my performance evaluation, complete inventories for 10 different projects, install our all-sky camera — having time slow down for my final six weeks is a good thing.

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.

Don’t Smoke; Space Blob Mystery; Near Earth Asteroid Watch

Posted September 22nd, 2016 at 4:24 pm (UTC-4)
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It can be tough for long time smokers to refuse a cigarette (U.S. Air Force via Wikimedia Commons)

It can be tough for long time smokers to refuse a cigarette (U.S. Air Force via Wikimedia Commons)

Yet Another Reason Not to Smoke

The American Heart Association released a new study that uncovers yet another reason not to smoke.

The study, published in the journal Circulation: Cardiovascular Genetics, suggests that smoking can have a wide-ranging and long-term effect on our DNA.

The research shows that smoking leaves a “footprint” on the human genome, a complete set of a person’s genetic material, in a process called DNA methylation.

“These results are important because methylation, as one of the mechanisms of the regulation of gene expression, affects what genes are turned on, which has implications for the development of smoking-related diseases,” said Stephanie J. London, M.D., Dr.P.H., the study’s last author and deputy chief of the Epidemiology Branch at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, National Institutes of Health in a press release.

While the research shows this DNA footprint greatly diminishes five years after a smoker quits, it doesn’t completely disappear from the genome even 30 years after quitting.

Computer simulation of a Lyman-alpha Blob - This rendering shows a snapshot from a cosmological simulation of a Lyman-alpha Blob similar to LAB-1. (J.Geach/D.Narayanan/R.Crain)

Computer simulation of a Lyman-alpha Blob – This rendering shows a snapshot from a cosmological simulation of a Lyman-alpha Blob similar to LAB-1. (J.Geach/D.Narayanan/R.Crain)

Astronomers Find Source of Space Blob’s Light

Among the most mysterious objects in the universe are Lyman-alpha blobs, or LAB.

A LAB has been described as a huge cloud of hydrogen gas in distant areas of space.

The object’s name comes from the wavelength of UV light it produces, called Lyman-alpha radiation.

Since its discovery in 2000, scientists have been stumped by what causes an LAB to shine so brightly.

Studying SSA22-Lyman-alpha blob 1 or LAB-1 , one of the largest objects found so far, a team of astronomers say they found two galaxies at the object’s core that are forming stars at a rate over 100 times that of the Milky Way.

Surrounding these two prolific galaxies is a swarm of smaller galaxies, which the team says appears to be an early phase in the formation of a massive galaxy cluster.

It’s thought all the star making activity may be producing the UV light that illuminates the surrounding cloud of hydrogen gas.

The study is set to appear in the Astrophysical Journal.

Introducing the Daily Minor Planet: Delivering the Latest Asteroid News (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics)

Introducing the Daily Minor Planet: Delivering the Latest Asteroid News (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics)

New Email Service Will Deliver Updates on Passing Asteroids

Almost every day, an asteroid passes within a few million miles of Earth.

If the cosmic debris that whizzes past our planet worries you, you may want to check out a new information service from the International Astronomical Union’s Minor Planet Center, along with technology giant Oracle.

Called the Daily Minor Planet, a nod to Superman’s fictional “Daily Planet” newspaper, this free subscription-based service will provide what is described as up-to-the-minute information about near Earth asteroids both big and small.

Representatives from Daily Minor Planet say on days when a piece of space rock is expected to fly by Earth, the news service will list information about the asteroid, along with the time and distance of its closest approach.

Matt Holman, director of the Minor Planet Center says he wants the Daily Minor Planet to educate readers and provide an entertaining way to present facts about near Earth Asteroids.

Châtelperronian body ornaments and bone points from the Grotte du Renne in Arcy-sur-Cure. (Dr. Marian Vanheren)

Châtelperronian body ornaments and bone points from the Grotte du Renne in Arcy-sur-Cure. (Dr. Marian Vanheren)

Evidence: Neanderthals Produced Tools and Body Ornaments

An international research team says their new analysis of 28 previously unidentifiable bone fragments gathered from an archeological site in north central France may have solved a long running dispute.

Some scientists argue that only modern humans have the cognitive ability to produce tools and artifacts, such as body ornaments, also found at the French dig site.

But the researchers claim their studies confirm that the items were actually produced by Neanderthals, a now extinct relative of modern humans.

The analysis indicates that the bone fragments are from the remains of a young and breastfed individual. Radiocarbon dating of the fragments indicates Neanderthal ancestry.

The study was published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Neanderthals were a hominid species that are said to have lived in Europe, northern Africa, and western Asia from about 30,000 to 200,000 years ago.

Several recent studies suggest that some Neanderthals interbred with modern humans.

Alligators Have Not Evolved in 8 Million Years

Most animals from 8 million years ago either evolved into more modern species, or have become extinct.

Among the very few exceptions is the American alligator, which makes its home in freshwater wetlands from Texas to North Carolina.

A new study by scientists at the University of Florida suggests that these dinosaur look-alikes have remained untouched by significant evolutionary change for at least 8 million years.

The study also finds that the alligator may be up to 6 million years older than had been thought.

While it has remained unchanged for millions of years, the study suggests the American alligator evolved from ancestors that go back some 200 or more million years ago.

The researchers call the alligator a survivor, since it has endured many changes to its environment, such as wild fluctuations in the Earth’s climate and sea-level.

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.

Spring at the South Pole

Posted September 20th, 2016 at 11:21 am (UTC-4)
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It is springtime at the South Pole. The sun sits low on the horizon and bathes the landscape in rich hues of yellow and orange. Light bounces off each imperfection in the Polar Plateau, each wrinkle of snow and pinnacle of ice is set aglow. It transforms the ice cap from frozen desert to an endless field of what looks like wild flowers at the height of bloom.

High above, long thin wispy clouds crawl across the light blue sky. It is a peaceful scene and if it weren’t for the biting cold, one could almost imagine unfurling a blanket and enjoying an afternoon picnic of expensive cheeses and absinthe.

At 12:30 a.m., an early morning at ARO. When the sun sets, we will remove our solar radiation equipment from the roof. (Photo by Kyle Obrock)

At 12:30 a.m., an early morning at ARO.  (Photo by Kyle Obrock)

But with spring’s beauty also comes destruction. The ozone hole has begun to form—a springtime phenomenon in which the ozone layer over Antarctica is reduced to one-half its normal thickness.

Ozone destruction is not unique to the polar continent; it takes place wherever ozone-depleting substances—such as old refrigerants and aerosols—exist in the atmosphere. This is to say, all over the planet. What makes ozone destruction in Antarctica unique is the extent of the phenomenon, the magnitude and rate at which it occurs.

To better understand the seasonal depletion of ozone over the South Pole, it’s important to understand the general principles behind ozone destruction everywhere else.

Ozone is a molecule made up of three oxygen molecules bound together. It can be found throughout the atmosphere, from the surface of the planet to the top of the stratosphere. The ozone layer is the region of the atmosphere where it is most heavily concentrated, typically at an altitude of 20-to-30 kilometers (12-to-18 miles). It acts as the earth’s sunscreen, protecting us from too much ultraviolet radiation from the sun.

When man-made, ozone-depleting substances come in contact with ozone under the presence of sunlight, ozone is destroyed. A single molecule of an ozone-depleting substance can destroy over 100,000 ozone molecules before it is rendered inactive or removed from the atmosphere.

A composite image of the first few seconds of a ozonesonde balloon launch. The balloon will stay afloat for over two hours. (Photo: C. Krueger)

A composite image of the first few seconds of an ozonesonde balloon launch. The balloon will stay afloat for more than two hours. (Photo: C. Krueger)

Since sunlight is required for the ozone destruction to take place, the ozone layer over Antarctica remains relatively unaffected during the dark winter months. However, when the sun begins to rise in early September, the story changes and we begin seeing ozone destruction in earnest. Of course, if light were the only other part of the equation, why is ozone depletion so much more pronounced here, especially during the months of September and October?

As it turns out, two other phenomena occur during the Antarctic spring that intensify the formation of the ozone hole.

One is the development of polar stratospheric clouds, which can convert man-made chemicals into more destructive forms. PSCs can only form when temperatures are extremely cold, below minus 62 Celsius (-80F). The only place in the world where temperatures get this low is Antarctica, and consequently it’s one of the reasons we don’t see an ozone hole form over the North Pole.

The second phenomena is the springtime polar vortex. The seasonal weather system envelopes the continent and keeps ozone-rich air from the southern hemisphere from flooding in and rebuilding the ozone layer.

At the Atmospheric Research Observatory (ARO), we take ozone measurements using a variety of instruments throughout the year. Over the next eight weeks, however, as the ozone hole forms, our regimen of observations will increase.

It takes close to two weeks to condition an ozonesonde for deployment.  Above, an ozone generating machine is used to test the instrument for accuracy. (Photo: R. Klein)

It takes close to two weeks to condition an ozonesonde for deployment. Above, an ozone generating machine is used to test the instrument for accuracy. (Photo: R. Klein)

Weather balloons carrying a special measuring instrument called an ozonesonde form the cornerstone of our research. The balloons carry the ozonesondes upwards of 40 kilometers (25 miles) into the sky, collecting continuous measurements of ozone, which they transmit back to our computers via a radio signal.

When the balloon pops, after several hours of ascent, a parachute attached the ozonesonde is deployed, and additional readings of the ozone profile are taken during its descent. With both ascent and descent profiles of the ozone distribution, we are able to accurately describe the shape and size of the ozone hole on a day-by-day basis.

Change is hard to witness at the South Pole. The ice cap remains the ice cap; the silence is only punctured by the occasional gust of wind or the insistent drone of the power plant. Springtime is perhaps the one exception, the one time of the year that change can be witnessed on a daily basis. From the ever-brightening skies, to the brighter moods on station, and upwards to the stratosphere, where over the course of a few months, we witness the ozone layer’s annihilation and then rebirth.

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.

NASA Will Have Cassini Working Hard Right Up to Fiery Finish

Posted September 16th, 2016 at 5:00 pm (UTC-4)
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This image shows Saturn's northern hemisphere in 2016, as that part of the planet nears its northern hemisphere summer solstice in May 2017. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)

This image shows Saturn’s northern hemisphere in 2016. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)

As the saying goes all good things must come to an end and the same will go for the Cassini mission to Saturn as it begins its final year of operation.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory has big plans for the orbiter as it makes its year-long swan song.

Dubbed the Grand Finale, the space agency will carry out Cassini’s final observations into two phases.

Narrow jets of gas and icy particles erupt from the south polar region of Enceladus, contributing to the moon's giant plume. (NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute)

Narrow jets of gas and icy particles erupt from the south polar region of Enceladus, contributing to the moon’s giant plume. (NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute)

Phase one begins on November 30, 2016 when the spacecraft’s orbit will send it just past the outer edge of Saturn’s main rings.

In a series of 20 weekly orbits, Cassini will come within 7,800 kilometers of the center of Saturn’s narrow and peculiar F-ring.

“During the F-ring orbits we expect to see the rings, along with the small moons and other structures embedded in them, as never before,” said Cassini project scientist Linda Spilker at JPL in a press release.

Sometime in April 2017, Cassini will kick off the second phase.

The orbiter will fly close to Saturn’s biggest moon Titan, which will alter Cassini’s orbit so it can fly through the roughly 2,400 kilometer wide gap between the planet and its rings.

Beginning on April 27, 2017, Cassini will be begin to make a series of 22 dives through this so-far unexplored gap.

This image was returned Jan. 14, 2005, by the European Space Agency's Huygens probe after its successful descent to land on Titan. (ESA/NASA/JPL/University of Arizona)

This image was returned Jan. 14, 2005, by the European Space Agency’s Huygens probe after its successful descent to land on Titan. (ESA/NASA/JPL/University of Arizona)

NASA says that this Grand Finale will allow Cassini to make the closest-ever observations of Saturn, take some ultra-close images of its atmosphere, directly analyze dust-sized particles in its main rings, and sample the outer limits of its atmosphere.

The space agency says it hopes the final months and days of Cassini’s mission will provide scientists with information and insight about Saturn’s interior structure, the exact length of a Saturn day, and the total mass of the rings, something that could finally determine their age.

“It’s like getting a whole new mission,” said Spilker. “The scientific value of the F-ring and Grand Finale orbits is so compelling that you could imagine a whole mission to Saturn designed around what we’re about to do.”

20-year mission

The mission to Saturn began on October 15, 1997 when the unmanned Cassini-Huygens spacecraft, atop a Titan IVB/Centaur rocket, was launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

After a nearly seven year voyage, Cassini-Huygens entered orbit around the giant ringed planet on July 1, 2004.

The mission has been a combination of efforts between NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency and a total of seventeen nations.

The spacecraft that went to Saturn were NASA/JPL’s Cassini Orbiter with ESA/ATI’s (Agenzia Spaziale Italiana) Huygens lander attached.

The orbiter/lander combination circled Saturn together for just over five months.

Then on December 24, 2004 the Huygens lander was detached from the orbiter, allowing it to land on Saturn’s moon Titan on January 14, 2005.

As the lander headed through the moon’s thick nitrogen-rich atmosphere to its surface, Cassini continued its orbit around the planet.

(NASA/ Jet Propulsion Laboratory-Caltech)

(NASA/ Jet Propulsion Laboratory-Caltech)

According to NASA, the Huygens lander showed Titan to be a lot like early Earth before life began to emerge and evolve. The moon had methane rain, showed signs of erosion and drainage channels, as well as dry lake beds.  In its atmosphere was a mix of complex hydrocarbons, including benzene.

Over the last twelve years the Cassini orbiter has provided scientists with numerous unique insights and close-up views of Saturn, as well as its rings and moons.

With Cassini, scientists were able to discover and study plumes of icy water that periodically blasts from Saturn’s moon Enceladus. The orbiter made it possible to observe changes in Saturn’s famous rings and possibly the birth of a new moon.

Going out with a bang

The orbiter’s mission will come to a dramatic conclusion on Sept. 15, 2017 when it will be sent diving through Saturn’s atmosphere toward the planet itself.

As Cassini makes its final plunge the space agency says that the intrepid spacecraft will continue to gather and send back data about Saturn’s chemical composition until its signal is finally lost.

NASA says friction with the atmosphere will build during its descent and will cause the spacecraft to burn up like a meteor soon after signal loss.

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.

Light Not Shock Restarts Heart; Bees Nest in Sandstone; 5 Second Rule

Posted September 14th, 2016 at 4:21 pm (UTC-4)
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(Graphic by Patrick M. Boyle/Johns Hopkins University)

(Graphic by Patrick M. Boyle/Johns Hopkins University)

Using Light Instead of Electric Shock to Restart a Heart

A defibrillator is a device used to restore the normal operation of a heart after a life-threatening cardiac episode such as dysrhythmias and ventricular fibrillation.

The machine delivers a powerful electric shock that stops the heart and allows it to reset itself to function normally again.

While defibrillation has a long history of saving lives, it can be extremely painful and it’s possible the electrical shock can damage heart tissue.

After experimenting on mice, a joint team of researchers from Johns Hopkins University in the US and Germany’s University of Bonn have successfully demonstrated a system that uses gentle beams of light instead of electric shocks to revive patients with deadly heart rhythm disorders.

To see if their system, called optogenetic defibrillation, can work on people, the researchers will continue their experimentation on a computer model of a human heart they created.

A close-up of a bee of the species Anthophora pueblo in its sandstone nest. (Michael Orr, Utah State University)

A close-up of a bee of the species Anthophora pueblo in its sandstone nest. (Michael Orr, Utah State University)

New Desert Bee Species Builds Nest in Sandstone

Entomologists – scientists who study insects – at Utah State University have confirmed the discovery of a rare species of bee that builds its nest in hard sandstone rather than in softer soils and environments.

A new study outlining the findings also examines why these little bees put in so much effort to dig through rocks to create their home structures.

Called the Anthophora pueblo, this species of bees make their homes in the harsh desert environment of the US Southwest.

Michael Orr, lead author of the study says that sandstone is more durable than most other nesting options and that these tough, elevated shelters protect bees from erosion and sudden flash floods.

He also points out that since sandstone doesn’t have as much organic material as regular soil, parasite build-up over the years is naturally controlled, preventing the growth of life threatening microbes inside the bee’s living quarters.

Scanning electron micrograph of the superbug Staphylococcus aureus or MRSA. (CDC)

Scanning electron micrograph of the superbug Staphylococcus aureus or MRSA. (CDC)

A New Way to Fight Superbugs

Scientists in Australia may have come up with a unique solution to fight antimicrobial resistant infections or superbugs, a growing worldwide health concern.

The researchers found that star-shaped objects they created with short chains of proteins called ‘peptide polymers might be able to replace traditional antibiotics.

Doctors have long prescribed antibiotics to fight various bacteria borne ailments from acne to pneumonia.

But using these drugs repeatedly over time can cause many of these microbes to mutate and build a resistance against medications made to fight them.

After testing their star-shaped peptide polymers on animal models, the researchers found them to be effective in killing superbugs.

They also discovered that antibiotic resistant microbes showed no signs of fighting this new treatment method, suggesting that it might be more difficult for microbes to mutate like they have to antibiotics.

Cartoon illustrating the five-second rule (Greg Williams via Wikimedia)

Cartoon illustrating the five-second rule (Greg Williams via Wikimedia)

Sorry, 5 Second Rule Doesn’t Work

Did you ever drop a tasty or expensive food item on the ground and then quickly retrieve and eat it, justifying consumption with what is called the ‘five second rule’?

According to the ‘five second rule’, food dropped on the ground will not be contaminated with bacteria if it is picked up within five seconds of being dropped, making it OK to eat.

While this notion has been debunked in the past, researchers at New Jersey’s Rutgers University are the latest to discover that it is not a good idea to scoop up dropped food and eat it within a five-second window.

The study shows that factors such as moisture, type of surface the food is dropped on, along with contact time all play a role in contamination.

The researchers found, in some instances, it took less than a second for food to be tainted after being dropped.

But the research also finds that the longer food touches an unclean surface, the greater the chance for contamination.

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.

Signs of summer at the South Pole

Posted September 12th, 2016 at 1:20 pm (UTC-4)
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The sun has started to spiral upwards.  It now sits less than six degrees below the horizon—civil twilight on the Antarctic plateau.  Earth meets sky, in a rapture of orange, yellow and red, a chorus of bright hues that fades into what remains of the polar night.

A few stars and planets are still visible and occasionally faint aurora can be seen. More grey then green, they flicker in and out of existence –ghostly premonitions of the changing season.

Ten months of blowing snow mean monumental drifts. The author stands on top of one of the larger ones and admires the rugged landscape. (Photo: Hamish Wright)

Ten months of blowing snow mean monumental drifts. The author stands on top of one of the larger ones and admires the rugged landscape. (Photo: Hamish Wright)

It is light out now, bright enough to see the Atmospheric Research Observatory from the main station and to follow my footprints from yesterday while I walk to work. Clouds are visible on the horizon and exhaust from the power plant wafts upwards like a wood fire through a stone chimney at dawn. Despite the brightness, it is still cold—minus 70 Celsius (-95F) today with a wind-chill of minus ninety (-130F). Unfortunately, it won’t begin to warm until the sun breaches the horizon, an event that is still several weeks away.

As darkness continues to recede, more and more of the frozen landscape becomes visible.  Shadows give way to monumental drifts—3, 6, 9 meters tall, and three times as wide.  They have formed proportional in size to the objects they lie against—with the largest sitting on the south and west sides of the main station.  It will take months to remove the snow, an activity that will begin in earnest when the station opens for the summer.

Meanwhile, climbing on and exploring the drifts has become my preferred pastime. As the largest natural structures within hundreds of miles, they are a welcome diversion from the otherwise flat world that I have called home for the past 10 months.  An hour of walking between them, kicking steps up them, standing on their cat-walk summits, and running, rolling and sliding down them leaves my cheeks and nose frost-nipped, and my eyelashes and mustache covered in my frozen breath.

In celebration of the rising sun, a tent similar to the ones used on the original Scott expedition has been erected near the geographic pole. It is a good place to escape the wind and observe the receding night sky. (Photo: Max Peters)

In celebration of the rising sun, a tent similar to the ones used on the original Scott expedition has been erected near the geographic pole. It is a good place to escape the wind and observe the receding night sky. (Photo: Max Peters)

Beyond the drifts and the station, lies the ice cap. When the winds are calm, I’ll walk towards the brightest spot on the horizon—where the sun sits just out of sight, and the colors are most vivid.  The impenetrable grayness that dominated the plateau during the height of night is dissolving rapidly and for the first time in five months, I can see the effects of a ceaseless winter wind on an otherwise undisturbed world.  Sastrugi abound—wind-swept structures of snow and ice, shin-deep canyons of perfectly graded snow and snow sculptures that extend outwards like cresting waves just about to break.  What light is available reflects off them in incandescent blues and purples, which seem to pulse in the cold, glowing and dimming with a heart-like rhythm.

Our three-week sunrise is well underway.  Our six month night is nearly over, and our six month day is about to begin.  With the gradual transition from winter to summer, the station begins to wake from its frozen slumber. The plateau reveals its beauty in fine details, and the mind is set ablaze with inspiration.

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.