Antarctic Glacier Melt Could Raise Global Sea Level by Nearly 3 Meters

Posted May 20th, 2016 at 4:15 pm (UTC-4)
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Totten Glacier (Esmee van Wijk/Australian Antarctic Division)

Totten Glacier (Esmee van Wijk/Australian Antarctic Division)

An international group of scientists say if climate change continues at its current rate, Antarctica’s Totten Glacier might become so unstable that it could eventually release enough water to produce an almost 3 meter rise in the global sea-level sometime in the next several hundred years.

A year ago, this same group of scientists from Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand and the United States found warm water flowing beneath a segment of the glacier, which is causing more melting than had been expected.

Studying the advance and withdrawal history of the largest glacier in the East Antarctic Ice Sheet led the researchers to their findings, recently published in the journal, Nature.

They found unfettered climate change could, within the next century, push the giant glacier into a period of an irreversible and rapid retreat.

The calving front of the Totten Glacier ice shelf (Tas van Ommen/Australian Antarctic Division)

The calving front of the Totten Glacier ice shelf (Tas van Ommen/Australian Antarctic Division)

Although the Eastern Antarctic Ice Sheet is considered to be more stable than the smaller western ice sheet, the study finds the Totten Glacier isn’t doing as well and is currently losing a tremendous amount of ice.

If it moves back another 100 to 150 kilometers from its current location, the researchers say the front of the glacier will wind up resting on some unstable geology.

This is something, they say, could set it on a path of a much more rapid retreat, moving the glacier up to 300 kilometers further inland, in the coming centuries, than its current coastal front.

Once it moves onto the region where the underlying geology is unstable, the scientists say the glacier’s melting at that point will be unstoppable – at least until it continues to move back onto more stable ground – and will discharge a great quantity of water that would raise global sea-levels by up to 2.9 meters.

“The evidence coming together is painting a picture of East Antarctica being much more vulnerable to a warming environment than we thought,” said the study’s co-author Martin Siegert, Co-Director of the Grantham Institute at Imperial College London. “This is something we should worry about. Totten Glacier is losing ice now, and the warm ocean water that is causing this loss has the potential to also push the glacier back to an unstable place.”

The researchers point out that since the East Antarctic Ice Sheet is the largest ice mass on Earth, any small changes to it will in turn have a significant global impact.

Rick Pantaleo
Rick Pantaleo maintains the Science World blog and writes stories for VOA’s web and radio on a variety of science, technology and health topics. He also occasionally appears on various VOA programs to talk about the latest scientific news. Rick joined VOA in 1992 after a 20 year career in commercial broadcasting.

Scientists Find Traces of Early Earth in Volcanic Rock

Posted May 13th, 2016 at 3:50 pm (UTC-4)
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One of the two locations on Earth where scientists found chemical signatures of early Earth's mantle is Baffin Island off the coast of northern Canada. (Don Francis of McGill University)

One of the two locations on Earth where scientists found chemical signatures of early Earth’s mantle is Baffin Island off the coast of northern Canada. (Don Francis of McGill University)

According to most scientists, Earth was formed between 4.5 and 4.6 billion years ago after gravity forced gas and dust left over from the creation of the Sun accreted into an object called a planetesimal.

Over time, the planetesimal continued to gather more and more material and eventually became a planet.

Scientists say heat produced by this formation process caused our early planet to melt.

Illustration of an early and hotter Earth (Creative Commons)

Illustration of an early and hotter Earth (Creative Commons)

The heat separated Earth’s material into layers with heavy matter such as iron sinking down to the center of planet to form its core.

Lighter and less dense material such as silicates floated above the core, subsequently forming what would become the Earth’s mantle and crust.

As the planet evolved, the mantle continued this process of melting and separating with heavier remnants sinking downwards and lighter material rising toward the top to form the Earth’s crust.

It’s thought this process, over the years, changed the chemical composition of the mantle to a point where any of the original ancient mantle material dating back to the core’s formation may have completely disappeared.

Now a consortium of US and Canadian research institutions say they have found two ‘birthmarks’ of silicate material from Earth’s mantle that may have formed when our planet was a mere 50 million years old.

Writing in the journal Science, the researchers say they’ve found clear signatures of this unique silicate material in comparatively young rocks from two locations that are a long distance from each other.

Schematic cross section of the Earth’s interior. (Northwestern University)

Schematic cross section of the Earth’s interior. (Northwestern University)

One of the samples of the ancient material came from Baffin Island, which is located off the coast of northern Canada, while the other was found in the Ontong-Java Plateau just north of the Solomon Islands in the Pacific Ocean.

The volcanic rock containing the primitive mantle signatures are known as flood basalts and were created about 60 to 120 million years ago by massive lava eruptions.

What led the researchers to detect the primordial mantle material in the volcanic rock was a profusion of an isotope of tungsten called tungsten-182.

Scientists say this tungsten isotope is created when an isotope of the element hafnium (hafnium-182) undergoes radioactive decay – changes in its elemental composition as it gives off radiation.

According to the researchers, the radioactive decay of hafnium-182 into tungsten-182 takes place so quickly – about 9 million years – that differences in the amounts of tungsten-182 compared to other tungsten isotopes can only be due to processes that took place very early in the history of our Solar System.

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.

Watching Climate Change in Action at South Pole

Posted May 13th, 2016 at 11:57 am (UTC-4)
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Multiple laboratories around the world work with NOAA to collect air samples. Above, Refael Klein collects an air sample for the Scripps Institute of Oceanography. (Photo by Daren Lukkari)

Multiple laboratories around the world work with NOAA to collect air samples. Above, Refael Klein collects an air sample for the Scripps Institute of Oceanography. (Photo by Daren Lukkari)

The Global Monitoring Division (GMD) specializes in making long-term, continuous measurements of trace gases in the atmosphere which affect the Earth’s climate. GMD operates six baseline observatories that stretch from the Arctic Circle to the South Pole. These facilities act as the backbone of our data collection efforts.

Many of the data sets from our baseline observatories date back decades. If you are a climate modeler interested in seeing what stratospheric ozone levels were like in the 1990s, or a congressman interested in seeing the effects of environmental legislation on the abundance of CFCs, we can supply you with a trove of data, by-the-minute or by-the-hour averages, in some instances. Our data collection is free and open to the public, both foreign and domestic, so if you have a hankering to see what aerosol abundances were like on the West Coast of the United States last year, check out our website.

noaa graphOne of our longest measurement series, and perhaps the best-known, is our carbon dioxide (CO2) data set. At the South Pole, we have been measuring CO2 levels for the better half of a century — more or less since Amundsen-Scott Station first opened in 1957.

The first carbon dioxide measurements made at the South Pole were taken using glass flasks, a physical air sample that was then sent back to laboratories in the United States for analysis. We still use the same method and, over the course of my year on the “ice”, I will take over 1,000 air samples for research facilities all over the world.

Though the flasks are a critical component of our data collection, we only fill them a few times a month; the rest of the time, we take continuous CO2 measurements using an instrument called a LICOR CO2 analyzer.

To understand how the LICOR works, it helps to have a basic understanding of how CO2 behaves in our atmosphere, particularly when it comes to trapping heat energy that radiates off the Earth.

CO2 is one of many compounds (including water vapor and methane) that is considered a greenhouse gas. When energy is emitted by the sun, (in the form of light, some visible some not), and strikes the Earth, some is reflected back into outer space, and some is absorbed by the planet. The total amount of energy that is absorbed keeps the planet warm and at a livable temperature, and is re-radiated upwards at various wavelengths. This isn’t just true for the planet, it’s true for anything that has any temperature: you, me, a brick wall, a cloud — they all give off energy, all the time. It’s how thermal-imaging goggles work and why a hot pizza left on a counter cools down, it gives off energy in the form of heat.

The heat energy that leaves Earth, leaves it in a spectrum of different wavelengths. As it turns out, the most common wavelengths of energy the Earth emits are those that are absorbed by CO2 and other greenhouse gases. When CO2 absorbs the energy bouncing off the planet, it heats up and re-radiates energy in all directions, including back towards the ground. In effect, CO2 acts like the panes of glass in a greenhouse, letting high energy sunlight pass through, to warm the plants and environment inside, and trapping the heat that tries to escape.

 During the summer months air sample are sent back to their corresponding research groups, and new, empty flasks arrive at ARO. Transit, to and from Antarctica can be tough on the equipment, and the occasional flask is cracked.

During the summer months, air samples are sent back to their corresponding research groups, and new, empty flasks arrive at ARO. Transit to and from Antarctica can be tough on the equipment and the occasional flask is cracked.

The LICOR CO2 analyzer takes advantage of CO2’s ability to absorb energy at specific wavelengths to measure its relative abundance in the atmosphere. Outside air, which contains CO2, is pumped into the instrument at a specific rate.

As the air sample moves through the instrument, a light that emits energy at a wavelength that CO2 absorbs, is shined on the sample. Based on the amount of light absorbed, we can calculate the amount of CO2 present.

As one would imagine, global CO2 levels have been increasing dramatically over the last century. CO2 is a product of combustion, meaning anytime you drive a car, burn coal, or cook over natural gas — activities that have increased dramatically since the industrial revolution — you’re adding greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere and, in turn, helping warm the planet. In fact, thanks to the ever-increasing anthropogenic production of greenhouse gasses, over the past 100 years, the Earth’s temperature has increased by about 1.2F (0.7C). That’s about 10 times faster than the warming that occurred after the last Ice Age.

I check the data the LICOR is producing every day, sometimes multiple times a day. The values we get have increased steadily since I first arrived at the South Pole in November, and currently sit just below 400 parts per million — meaning that for every 1 million air molecules, about 400 are CO2.

As the CO2 levels tick up, you can almost follow the trends in industry and popular culture. From the most remote place on the planet, I can watch oil prices fluctuate and see what cars are the most popular. From the South Pole, I can observe 7 billion people in motion, turning on lights, watching TV, and cracking open a beer.

I can watch the climate change, 1-part-per-million CO2 at a time.

More South Pole Diaries
In South Pole Darkness, Radiant Moon Shines Like Sun
Shimmering Auroras Offset South Pole Boredom
South Pole Station Gears Up for Busy ‘Nightlife’

Greeting 6 Months of Darkness with Sumptuous Feast

Bracing for the Sun to Set for 6 Long Months

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.

Black Hole Mass Measured; Ice Sheets on Mars; Saliva Diagnoses Disease

Posted May 6th, 2016 at 4:00 pm (UTC-4)
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Combined image of NGC 1332 shows the central disk of gas surrounding the supermassive black hole at the center of the galaxy. (UC Irvine) ALMA (NRAO/ESO/NAOJ), NASA/ESA Hubble; Carnegie-Irvine Galaxy Survey)

Combined image of NGC 1332 shows the central disk of gas surrounding the supermassive black hole at the center of the galaxy. (UC Irvine) ALMA (NRAO/ESO/NAOJ), NASA/ESA Hubble; Carnegie-Irvine Galaxy Survey)

Astronomers Precisely Measure Black Hole Mass

A group of astronomers have been able to determine the precise mass of a distant black hole in the center of an enormous elliptical galaxy 73 million light years away.

The galaxy is called NGC 1332 and is located in the direction of the southern constellation Eridanus.

To measure the exact mass of the black hole, the scientists said that they had to accurately gauge the orbital speed of the cold, dense clouds of interstellar gas and dust that circles the supermassive black hole.

Since this orbiting cloud doesn’t produce visible light, but does shine at other wavelengths, the researchers made their observations with the Atacama Large Millimeter-submillimeter Array or ALMA radio telescope in Chile.

Data from the ALMA observations of the orbiting gas cloud allowed the astronomers to calculate that the black hole’s mass is 660 million times greater than that of the Sun. Details of the group’s findings have been outlined in a recent edition of Astrophysical Journal Letters.

This graphic illustrates where Mars mineral-mapping from orbit has detected minerals that can indicate where a volcano erupted beneath an ice sheet. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/JHUAPL/ASU)

This graphic illustrates where Mars mineral-mapping from orbit has detected minerals that can indicate where a volcano erupted beneath an ice sheet. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/JHUAPL/ASU)

Evidence of Subglacial Volcanism Found on Mars

Scientists say they have found fresh evidence that volcanoes once erupted billions of years ago beneath an ice sheet on Mars that is far from any ice sheet on the Red Planet today.

Using data from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the researchers say their findings indicate that ice was widespread on the planet during its early history.

They say their findings also provides proof that Mars once had an environment that combined heat and moisture, two elements that could have provided conditions for microbial life.

The researchers tapped into data from the orbiter’s Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars or CRISM that examined the chemical makeup of the Martian surface in a region called “Sisyphi Montes.”

The data revealed minerals like those that have been produced by Earth’s subglacial volcanoes, such as zeolites, sulfates and clays.

(Pereru via Creative Commons/Wikimedia)

(Pereru via Creative Commons/Wikimedia)

Using Your Spit to Diagnose Disease

To see how healthy you are or to properly diagnose a disease, doctors often run a few tests that can include uncomfortable measures such as getting jabbed with a needle for a blood test.

Scientists have been working on diagnostic procedures that aren’t as bothersome as those used today.

Urine testing is a popular, common and somewhat successful non-invasive method that’s used to diagnose some diseases or conditions.

The problem with urine testing is that factors such as diet and environment can actually change the sample’s basic metabolic signatures.

Now, researchers writing in the American Chemical Society’s Journal of Proteome Research, suggests that our saliva may contain biomarkers that could be used as a way of detecting disease.

But, unlike urine testing, the study suggests that saliva might also provide health change indicators that could be less affected by diet and the environment.

These dark, narrow, 100 meter-long streaks called recurring slope lineae flowing downhill on Mars are inferred to have been formed by contemporary flowing water. Recently, planetary scientists detected hydrated salts on these slopes at Hale crater, corroborating their original hypothesis that the streaks are indeed formed by liquid water. (NASA/JPL/University of Arizona)

These dark, narrow, 100 meter-long streaks called recurring slope lineae flowing downhill on Mars are inferred to have been formed by contemporary flowing water. (NASA/JPL/University of Arizona)

Boiling Water on Mars Alters Its Landscape

Back in late September 2015, NASA excited the science community when NASA confirmed evidence of liquid water flowing on present-day Mars.

Now, a new France-based study suggests that not only does liquid water exist on Mars, it boils quite violently as soon as it reaches the surface.

The liquid water on Mars was found to emerge only during the warmest time of day during the Red Planet’s summer months.

Water at sea level here on Earth boils at 100°C. But atmospheric pressure also affects water’s boiling point.

Since the atmosphere of Mars is so thin, it has only 0.6% of Earth’s mean sea level air pressure, which means that water on Mars can boil at a temperature as low as 0°C.

And, according to the scientists who conducted the study, the fiercely boiling water also creates an explosive flow that can blast dirt, dust and other sediment off the ground, in a process that could make significant changes to the Martian landscape.

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.

In South Pole Darkness, Radiant Moon Shines Like the Sun

Posted May 3rd, 2016 at 9:43 am (UTC-4)
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After weeks of darkness at the South Pole, a full moon seems nearly as bright as the sun. Details you couldn't see before, like vehicle tracks, become visible again. (Photo by Kyle Obrock)

After weeks of darkness at the South Pole, a full moon seems nearly as bright as the sun. Details you couldn’t see before, like vehicle tracks become visible again. (Photo by Kyle Obrock)

Everything is illuminated. The moon has risen. It is full or near full, and sits 30 degrees above the polar plateau — circling the horizon each day as our sun once did.

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

A softly bright glow washes over the landscape and each inconsistency in the ice and snow, every building, vehicle and person, casts a long grey shadow. Colors are muted, like in old low-exposure Polaroid photos, and details you could only feel a few days ago, like footprints and soft snow, you can now see.

Things appear bigger than they are. Perhaps it’s because they have been obscured so long in darkness that I have forgotten their relative size. When all there was was starlight and blackness, all I could measure and feel was myself. Walking to work in blinders — heavy boots, heavy coat, fogged goggles — I was the largest thing I could perceive. My outstretched arms touched each horizon and only the crunch, crunch, crunch of snow kept me apprised of my feet and reminded me that I wasn’t floating in an inkwell.

Steep snow drifts form alongside buildings and other "artificial structures" throughout the year. Above, Refael Klein climbs over one on his way to work -- a challenge made more difficult by the darkness. (Photo: Darren Lukkari)

Steep snow drifts form alongside buildings and other “artificial structures” throughout the year. Above, Refael Klein climbs over one on his way to work — a challenge made more difficult by the darkness. (Photo: Darren Lukkari)

Now I can taste, hear and see my whole self and, as a consequence, I feel much smaller.  Amundsen-Scott Station dominates the landscape. At 600 feet long (182 meters), it’s a skyscraper lying on its side. Moonlight bounces off of its surfaces and sections of the station glow candle-fire yellow.

The Atmospheric Research Observatory (ARO) is the same way — massive and casting a shadow that has no end.

The environment is ripe with tension, like a poorly-lit city parking lot at one in the morning, littered with cigarette butts and broken bottles. Was that a bird I saw or just a cloud moving across the sky? Is that whistle the wind blowing across the hood of my jacket, or is someone walking behind me?

You hear more and see more when the moon first comes out; it’s your senses in overdrive, tuning into a new world.

Up until a few days ago, the moon was nowhere to be seen. The sky was covered in clouds and the winds whipped snow across the plateau in big bales of smoke. Temperatures dropped to minus 90 Fahrenheit (minus 67 Celsius) and my daily walk to work was a battle.

Stepping outside with every inch of skin covered, I’d trip and fall over myself as I tried to kick steps up a steep, recently-formed snow bank that separated the east entrance of the main station from the bamboo flag line that ran out to ARO.

The flag line running between ARO and the main building stretches over a quarter mile (.4 kilometer). When the winds pick up and visibility is low, it can be hard to see the 20 feet between each marker. (Photo: Darren Lukkari)

The flag line running between ARO and the main building stretches over a quarter mile (.4 kilometer). When the winds pick up and visibility is low, it can be hard to see the 20 feet between each marker. (Photo: Darren Lukkari)

At the South Pole, every scientific outbuilding has a flag line that runs between it and one of the two primary entrances to the main station.

The flags are simple affairs, 5-foot (1.5 meter) bamboo poles sunk several inches into the snow, with a colored rectangular pennant — usually red — attached to the top. The flags are spaced about 20 feet (6 meters) apart, just wide enough to let our largest snowplow run between them without knocking them down.

On the worst days, when walking outside feels like walking through television static, the flags can be hard to see, even at 20 feet.

On days like these, when all you can glimpse through your fogged goggles are dark amorphous blobs, and since it’s too cold to take them off even for a second, you can’t navigate by sight. You have to  navigate by sound and follow the slap, slap, slap of the flags against the wind.

From flag to flag, you hone your hearing. You cancel out the sound of blowing snow and tune into the low pitch of beating fabric. And, when you can’t hear the flags, you stand still for a moment, hold your breath, and listen more intently.

 

More South Pole Diaries
Shimmering Sights While Battling South Pole Boredom
South Pole Station Gears Up for Busy ‘Nightlife’

Greeting 6 Months of Darkness with Sumptuous Feast

Bracing for the Sun to Set for 6 Long Months

Isolated and Alone, South Pole Workers Face Unexpected Emergencies

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.

Trio of Planets Found Circling “Ultra-cool” Star Might Support Life

Posted May 2nd, 2016 at 2:24 pm (UTC-4)
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This artist’s impression shows an imagined view from the surface one of the three planets orbiting an ultracool dwarf star just 40 light-years from Earth that were discovered using the TRAPPIST telescope at ESO’s La Silla Observatory. (ESO/M. Kornmesser)

This artist’s impression shows an imagined view from the surface one of the three planets orbiting an ultracool dwarf star just 40 light-years from Earth that were discovered using the TRAPPIST telescope at ESO’s La Silla Observatory. (ESO/M. Kornmesser)

An international team of astronomers has discovered three exoplanets that could possibly host alien life.

The trio of planets are circling an “ultra-cool” brown dwarf that’s located about 40 light years from Earth, in the constellation of Aquarius.

“Ultra-cool” dwarf stars are those that that are much cooler and redder than our Sun, and only slightly larger than Jupiter in size. Scientists say they’re quite common in the Milky Way.

Despite the relatively short distance between this star and Earth, the astronomers say that the star is too dim to be seen with the naked eye or even using a large amateur telescope.

The exoplanets were discovered with the Belgian TRAnsiting Planets and PlanetesImals Small Telescope (TRAPPIST) at the European Southern Observatory’s La Silla facilities in Chile’s Atacama Desert.

The star is referred to as 2MASS J23062928-0502285, but now is also known as TRAPPIST-1. It has about .05% of the Sun’s brightness and has 8% the mass of the Sun.

The newly found exoplanets were described as being similar in size to Earth and were the first planets to be found orbiting such a small and faint star.

The team, led by Michaël Gillon of the Department of Astrophysics, Geophysics and Oceanography at Belgium’s University of Liège, have published their findings in the journal Nature.

Gillon says the reason why his team has been trying to detect Earth-like planets around the smallest and coolest stars is simple. “Systems around these tiny stars are the only places where we can detect life on an Earth-sized exoplanet with our current technology,” he said. So if we want to find life elsewhere in the Universe, this is where we should start to look.”

 The TRAPPIST (TRAnsiting Planets and PlanetesImals Small Telescope) at La Silla Observatory, in Chile. The 60-cm telescope is operated from a control room in Liège, Belgium, 12 000 km away. (E. Jehin/ESO)

The TRAPPIST (TRAnsiting Planets and PlanetesImals Small Telescope) at La Silla Observatory, in Chile. The 60-cm telescope is operated from a control room in Liège, Belgium, 12 000 km away. (E. Jehin/ESO)

Astronomers conducting additional observations with larger telescopes have found that the one of the planets makes a complete orbit of its star every 1½ days, another takes about 2½ days and the third planet can take anywhere between 4½ to 73 days to circle its sun.

“With such short orbital periods, the planets are between 20 and 100 times closer to their star than the Earth to the Sun. The structure of this planetary system is much more similar in scale to the system of Jupiter’s moons than to that of the Solar System,” says Gillon.

The astronomers say that while the two most inner planets orbit closer to its star than the system’s habitable zone – the region around a star where planets can support liquid surface water – because TRAPPIST-1 isn’t nearly as powerful as our own Sun they still only receive between two to four times the amounts of radiation as Earth gets from our Sun.

The astronomers figure that the third, most outer planet, probably gets less radiation than Earth, but may still receive enough to lie within the star system’s habitable zone.

A more ambitious follow-up project to the TRAPPIST survey, called the Search for Planets EClipsing ULtra-cOOl Stars (SPECULOOS), is being planned at ESO’s Paranal Observatory.

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.

April 2016 Science Images

Posted April 29th, 2016 at 4:00 pm (UTC-4)
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This is an artist’s rendering of a star surrounded by a protoplanetary disk, which will eventually go on to form planets. The image, released on 4/26/16, shows material from the thick disk flowing along the star’s magnetic field lines and being dropped onto its surface. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

This is an artist’s rendering of a star surrounded by a protoplanetary disk, which will eventually go on to form planets. The image, released on 4/26/16, shows material from the thick disk flowing along the star’s magnetic field lines and being dropped onto its surface. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The sun powered Solar Impulse 2 is shown here as it lands at Moffett Field in Mountain View, California on 4/23/16. The solar plane had just completed a risky three day flight across Pacific Ocean from Hawaii as it continues its journey around the world. (AP)

The sun powered Solar Impulse 2 is shown here as it lands at Moffett Field in Mountain View, California on 4/23/16. The solar plane had just completed a risky three day flight across Pacific Ocean from Hawaii as it continues its journey around the world. (AP)

NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity took a selfie on 4/18/16 that revealed some wear and tear on a couple of its left-middle and left-rear wheels. The traveling science laboratory has cruised about 12.7 kilometers over the Martian surface since touching down on 8/6/12. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity took a selfie on 4/18/16 that revealed some wear and tear on its left-middle and left-rear wheels. The traveling science laboratory has cruised about 12.7 kilometers over the Martian surface since touching down on the Red Planet on 8/6/12. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

This image of NGC-7635 or the Bubble Nebular was released by NASA and ESA on 4/21/16 to celebrate the 26th anniversary – 4/24/16 – of the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope. (NASA, ESA, Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA))

This image of NGC-7635 or the Bubble Nebula was released by NASA and ESA on 4/21/16 to celebrate the 26th anniversary – 4/24/16 – of the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope. (NASA, ESA, Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA))

This microscopic view of an Aedes aegypti mosquito larva was taken at Colombia's National Institute of Health in Bogota, Colombia on 4/26/16. That day during a press conference, the CDC’s Margaret Honein said that along with microcephaly, babies whose mothers have had Zika during pregnancy may eventually acquire impaired hearing or vision. (AP)

This microscopic view of an Aedes aegypti mosquito larva was taken at Colombia’s National Institute of Health in Bogota, Colombia on 4/26/16. That day during a press conference, the Center For Disease Control and Prevention’s, (CDC) Margaret Honein said that along with microcephaly, babies whose mothers have had Zika during pregnancy may eventually acquire impaired hearing or vision. (AP)

NASA’s only remaining space shuttle external tank, ET-94, is shown being transported on 4/10/16 by trailer to a dock at the NASA Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans. The tank will soon travel via the Gulf of Mexico and the Panama Canal to the California Science Center in Los Angeles, where it will be part of the Space Shuttle Endeavour display. (AP)

NASA’s only remaining space shuttle external tank, ET-94, is shown being transported on 4/10/16 by trailer to a dock at the NASA Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans. The tank will soon travel via the Gulf of Mexico and the Panama Canal to the California Science Center in Los Angeles, where it will be part of the Space Shuttle Endeavour display. (AP)

OceanOne’s Humanoid Diving Robot, with a humanoid torso and a mermaid-like tail section is seen here during a presentation at the History Museum in Marseille, France on 4/28/16. The robot will eventually help with disaster relief, ship repair, oil and gas drilling, and other oceanographic research. (Reuters)

OceanOne’s Humanoid Diving Robot, with a humanoid torso and a mermaid-like tail section is seen here during a presentation at the History Museum in Marseille, France on 4/28/16. The robot will eventually help with disaster relief, ship repair, oil and gas drilling, and other oceanographic research. (Reuters)

The Orion spacecraft crew module for Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) is lifted into a test stand on 4/21/16 for pressure testing in the Neil Armstrong Operations & Checkout Building at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. According to NASA the tests will help verify the structural integrity of Orion’s underlying structure known as the pressure vessel. (NASA)

The Orion spacecraft crew module for Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) is lifted into a test stand on 4/21/16 for pressure testing in the Neil Armstrong Operations & Checkout Building at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. According to NASA the tests will help verify the structural integrity of Orion’s underlying structure known as the pressure vessel. (NASA)

NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) captured this image on 4/17/16 when an active region on the sun’s right side released a mid-level solar flare – seen here as a bright flash of light. Solar flares are powerful bursts of radiation. (NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center/SDO/Genna Duberstein)

NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) captured this image on 4/17/16 when an active region on the sun’s right side released a mid-level solar flare – seen here as a bright flash of light. Solar flares are powerful bursts of radiation. (NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center/SDO/Genna Duberstein)

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, carrying a Dragon spacecraft, lifts off from a launch complex at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on 4/8/16. The Dragon delivered nearly 7,000 pounds of science research, crew supplies, and hardware to the International Space Station. (AP)

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, carrying a Dragon spacecraft, lifts off from a launch complex at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on 4/8/16. The Dragon delivered nearly 7,000 pounds of science research, crew supplies, and hardware to the International Space Station. (AP)

Artist concept of dwarf planet Makemake and its moon MK2 (NASA/ESA)

Artist concept of dwarf planet Makemake and its moon MK2 (NASA/ESA)

After 26 years of service, the Hubble Space Telescope continues to capture amazing images of our universe. Released on 4/16/16, this is galaxy UGC 477 located some 110 million light years away in the constellation Pisces – The Fish (NASA/ESA)

After 26 years of service, the Hubble Space Telescope continues to capture amazing images of our universe. Released on 4/16/16, this is galaxy UGC 477 located some 110 million light years away in the constellation Pisces – The Fish (NASA/ESA)

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.

Dwarf Planet Moon Discovered; Supplements Boost Antidepressants; Kepler Back in Business

Posted April 27th, 2016 at 2:29 pm (UTC-4)
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Artist concept of dwarf planet Makemake and its moon MK2 (NASA/ESA)

Artist concept of dwarf planet Makemake and its moon MK2 (NASA/ESA)

Hubble Spots Moon Circling Distant Dwarf Planet

Out in the far reaches of our solar system lies the Kuiper Belt.  This region of space is occupied by icy objects left over from the creation of the solar system.

Several dwarf planets, such as Pluto, also occupy the Kuiper Belt.

Astronomers studying images gathered by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2015, say that they have found a dark and tiny moon circling the dwarf planet Makemake, the smaller sister of Pluto.

Makemake, discovered in 2005, was named after a deity worshiped by the Rapa Nui people of Easter Island.

This new found moon, the first companion to the dwarf planet that’s ever been seen, has been nicknamed MK 2.

Its diameter is estimated to be about 260 kilometers across and was found orbiting Makemake at a distance of about 21,000 kilometers.  Astronomers will further study MK2 to determine whether its orbit is elliptical or circular.

Astronomers will study MK2 further to determine whether its orbit is elliptical or circular.

Bupropion tablets - antidepressant medication (Tery-butyl via Wikimedia Commons)

Bupropion tablets – antidepressant medication (Tery-butyl via Wikimedia Commons)

Some Nutritional Supplements Boost Effects of Antidepressants

An international team of researchers has found that several nutritional supplements can enhance the effectiveness of antidepressant medications.

Researchers from Australia’s University of Melbourne and Harvard University say supplements such as Omega 3 fish oils, Vitamin D, methyl-folate, and another compound were found to boost the effects of medications prescribed to treat those with clinical depression.

The team’s findings are based on an analysis of 40 worldwide clinical trials along with a meticulous evaluation of evidence for treating severe depressive disorders with the combination of antidepressant medications and nutritional supplements.

The Australian/American group, who outlined their findings in the American Journal of Psychiatry say their research did not reveal any serious safety concerns from combining antidepressants with the supplements.

But they did caution that patients should consult with their health care provider before doing so.

Artist's concept of the Kepler Space Telescope in space (Image: Dana Berry-NASA/Kepler Mission)

Artist’s concept of the Kepler Space Telescope in space (Image: Dana Berry-NASA/Kepler Mission)

Kepler Recovers and Resumes Science Mission

NASA reports that its exoplanet finding Kepler spacecraft has recovered from a recent bout of problems that had sent it into ‘emergency mode’ earlier this month and has resumed its K2 mission of looking for extrasolar planets.

While Kepler team members were making a scheduled contact with the spacecraft on April 7th they noticed that it was operating in Emergency Mode (EM), its lowest operational level which was also described as being fuel intensive.

NASA declared the Kepler problem as a ‘spacecraft emergency’ which gave the mission priority use of its Deep Space Network, a large communications network that can transmit and receive radio signals into the far reaches of space.

Mission officials said that their initial findings indicated that the spacecraft went into Emergency Mode about 36 hours prior to its discovery.

According to NASA, mission operators put Kepler through a series of procedures to take it out of EM and normalize its operations.

Among the procedures that were performed included reloading and verifying the spacecraft’s pointing tables and science targets, which tells it where and what to look at and its various onboard logs and counters were all reset.

Mission controllers also turned the Kepler spacecraft so that its telescope points towards the center of the Milky Way and made other preparations for the K2 mission’s new project called Campaign 9 or C9.

Most of the exoplanets discovered so far by Kepler were found fairly close to its host star. But Campaign 9 will survey stars toward the center of the Milky Way to look for exoplanets that are further out from its host star or are wandering between stars.

The C9 experiment will not only involve the Kepler spacecraft but also some ground based observatories around the world.

The spacecraft had been preparing for the C9 project when it went into Emergency Mode.

Back in July 2012 a couple of Kepler’s four gyroscope-like reaction wheels, onboard instruments that allow mission controllers to make small and accurate adjustments to the spacecraft’s position in space, failed.

NASA said for the original Kepler mission to continue at least three of the four reaction wheels had to be fully functional.

So instead of completely scrubbing the remainder of Kepler’s mission, NASA decided to use the spacecraft’s remaining capabilities for a repurposed mission called K2.

The K2 mission continues Kepler’s search for planets located outside of our own solar system as well as pursue other opportunities to observe astronomical objects such as star clusters, galaxies and supernovae.

NASA says that Campaign 9’s observation period will end on July 1st when the spacecraft will no longer be able to look at the center of the Milky Way.

Kepler’s K2 mission will then begin Campaign 10 (C10), which NASA says will explore a new collection of astrophysical objectives.

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.

Shimmering Sights While Battling South Pole Boredom

Posted April 26th, 2016 at 2:05 pm (UTC-4)
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The first auroras of the season dance over the IceCube Neutrino Observatory a the South Pole. Long exposure and a steady hand are needed to capture them on film. (Photo by Hans Boenish)

The first auroras of the season dance over the IceCube Neutrino Observatory a the South Pole. Long exposure and a steady hand are needed to capture them on film. (Photo by Hans Boenish)

It continues to grow darker. More stars and planets have become visible and the first auroras — pale green wisps of light — have made their presence known. They shimmer and pulse through the night sky, swooping here and there in long bends like a figure skater lost in thought.

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

Projects at the Atmospheric Research Observatory (ARO) are running smoothly. Our CO2 analyzer, its pumps humming brightly, effortlessly sucks in air samples and calibration gasses, needing little help from me in the pursuit of its task.

Even the gas chromatograph, arguably our most fickle instrument, seems to have found its stride. The aerosol suite chugs along with the confidence of a locomotive and what is left of our roof top radiation equipment silently collects data, as indifferent as a nihilist watching the sun explode.

The quietude of the scene is the Antarctic winter personified. Everything in its place. Everything in stasis — hibernating, frozen. “‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.” Was Clement Clarke Moore writing about ARO in May?  Perhaps.

The power plant is located on the lowest level of the station. It is comprised of three 1 mega watt generators that run off of fuel carried in by airplanes during the summer.  (Photo by Refael Klein)

The power plant, located on the lowest level of the station, is comprised of three 1-megawatt generators that run off of fuel carried in by airplanes during the summer. (Photo by Refael Klein)

With things at work in robust form and with time on my hands, I’ve begun volunteering in the station’s power plant, hoping to learn something about how modern diesel electric generators work and to lend a wrench-willing hand to one of the busier departments on station.

Rosie, the power plant foreman, is a short, middle-aged New Yorker with a thick borough accent and general swagger that approaches Robert De Niro in the movie Taxi Driver or Al Pacino in Serpico. He’s been working on generators for 25 years and has the forearms and knuckle scars to prove it, not to mention the perspective and encyclopedic knowledge that comes with doing anything for two-and-a-half decades.

He is the type of guy who will take the time to show you how to do something properly, “textbook”, and then beat you with a wrench until it sticks. You can’t help but learn in his presence; your life depends on it.

Rounds are conducted every two hours to ensure the power plant equipment is running properly. "Rosie" the foreman inspects a generator. (Photo by Refael Klein)

Rounds are conducted every two hours to ensure the power plant equipment is running properly. “Rosie” the foreman inspects a generator. (Photo by Refael Klein)

The engine room is comprised of three 1-megawatt generators, and one smaller, peaker generator which comes online automatically when the station’s power draw exceeds the safe operating capacity of whatever generator is online.

The room is loud and bright, to the point of being disorienting, and every 10,000-foot-oxygen-deprived breath you take in is infused with the rich aroma of fuel and oil. It is an absolute sensory overload — a perfect departure from the calm and sterility that pervades most of the work centers at the South Pole.

This week, we took one of the generators offline to begin its 1,000-hour maintenance check, which includes, among many things, changing the oil, replacing filters and replacing worn piston heads.

It will be three weeks before we have everything wrapped up and, over the course of the next few days, I’ll get to break down the exhaust system and begin removing the rocker assemblies. I’ve tinkered with cars before but there is something otherworldly about turning wrenches on an engine the size of a school bus.

My hands and shirt are covered in grease and a black grimy swoosh sits above my right eye.  Deep in the trenches of engine warfare, I’ve climbed on top of the generator to do battle with a stubborn bolt that needs to be removed but won’t budge. It’s been 30 minutes of trying this wrench and that socket, but nothing seems to work.

My hands are scraped and bleeding, and sweat, which is mixing with the grease on my forehead, falls into my eyes. It stings. I climb down off the generator, grab a clean shop towel, and begin rub grease off my hands and face.

Maybe I should head back to ARO, I think, to check on the equipment, but I know all the instruments there are running soundly and that I’m far too stubborn to be beaten by a bolt.

More South Pole Diaries
South Pole Station Gears Up for Busy ‘Nightlife’
Greeting 6 Months of Darkness with Sumptuous Feast

Bracing for the Sun to Set for 6 Long Months

Isolated and Alone, South Pole Workers Face Unexpected Emergencies

South Polies Tackle Last-minute Preps to Survive Brutal Winter 

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.

Happy 26th Birthday Hubble Space Telescope!

Posted April 22nd, 2016 at 4:15 pm (UTC-4)
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To celebrate the 26th anniversary of the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope a new image of NGC-7635 or the Bubble Nebular was released. (NASA, ESA, Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA))

To celebrate the 26th anniversary of the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope a new image of NGC-7635 or the Bubble Nebular was released. (NASA, ESA, Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA))

Sunday, April 24, 2016 will mark the 26th anniversary of the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope aboard the space shuttle Discovery mission STS-31.  It was deployed from the shuttle’s payload bay the following day, April 25, 1990

Over its 26 years of service Hubble’s numerous discoveries and the breath-taking and detailed images it has gathered has provided scientists with incredible new insights into the universe.

This photograph was taken by the STS-31 crew aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery and shows the Hubble Space Telescope being deployed on April 25, 1990, from the payload bay. (NASA)

This photograph was taken by the STS-31 crew aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery and shows the Hubble Space Telescope being deployed on April 25, 1990, from the payload bay. (NASA)

The space telescope has also allowed us to look deep into space and time taking us back to as far 400 million years after the big bang.

But things didn’t start out so well for the Hubble.

Almost as soon as the space telescope was put into service – May 20, 1990 – scientists noticed that there was something wrong.  The images it was sending back looked blurry and weren’t as sharp as they were supposed to be.

After analyzing the blurry images technicians realized its primary mirror was slightly misshaped with a flaw called a “spherical aberration.” The defect caused incoming light to focus on the wrong part of the mirror.

A scientific panel investigating the problem found the imperfection was made during the careful mirror grinding process. They found that an instrument used to make precise measurements was miscalibrated which caused the mirror to be ground slightly too flat.

To fix the problem the Hubble team decided that their new space telescope needed some eyeglasses.

So engineers and technicians came up with a corrective optics system called the  or COSTAR.  The Hubble’s new glasses were designed to compensate for the aberration and allow it to function as it was intended.

The crew of the space shuttle Endeavour mission STS-61 fixed the space telescope’s optical problems during its first planned servicing mission (SM1) in December 1993.

Hubble images of galaxy Messier 100 before optical correction (left) and after (right). (NASA)

Hubble images of galaxy Messier 100 before optical correction (left) and after (right). (NASA)

The procedure included removing and replacing its High Speed Photometer with the COSTAR system and replacing the space telescope’s original Wide Field/Planetary Camera with the more advanced Wide Field Camera 2 (WFPC2) – which was replaced by the Wild Field Camera 3 (WFPC3) in 2009. The astronauts also performed a number of other maintenance procedures on the Hubble as well.

At the time NASA referred to STS-61 as one of the most complex space missions it ever attempted.  It took almost a year to train astronauts and technical staff to prepare for the first Hubble servicing mission.

There would be another four service missions in the years that followed, the last, SM4, being in May 2009.

To celebrate its 26th anniversary astronomers are featuring a Hubble image of NGC 7635 which is also known as the ‘Bubble Nebula’.

Hubble Space Telescope image of the Eagle Nebula’s “Pillars of Creation”, released  1/6/15.  (NASA/ESA/Hubble Heritage Team)

Hubble Space Telescope image of the Eagle Nebula’s “Pillars of Creation”, released 1/6/15. (NASA/ESA/Hubble Heritage Team)

Scientists say that it looks like an enormous bubble being blown into space by a super-hot, massive star.

“As Hubble makes its 26th revolution around our home star, the Sun, we celebrate the event with a spectacular image of a dynamic and exciting interaction of a young star with its environment, said John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters, in Washington, D.C. in a press release. “The view of the Bubble Nebula, crafted from Wide Field Camera 3 images, reminds us that Hubble gives us a front row seat to the awe inspiring universe we live in,” he said.

While the Hubble continues its work its advanced replacement, the James Webb Telescope (JWST), is set to be launched in 2018.

Compared to the Hubble, the JWST team says that it will look deeper into space to observe some of the earliest formed stars and galaxies in the universe and allow scientists to study how stars and planets are created.

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.