Stand Up and Move to Help Prevent Health Risks

Posted June 1st, 2015 at 10:27 pm (UTC+0)
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Stop sitting around so much. If you value your health, get up and move around.

Sedentary office workers who want to avert the onset of some chronic diseases and possibly premature death should get up on their feet for at least two hours every work day.

That is the part of a new set of recommendations drafted by an international group of experts working on behalf of Public Health England and Active Working CIC, a British community interest company. Their findings and recommendations were just published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

Even two hours per day may not be enough standing time, noted the experts. Instead, they’d like to see workers on their feet for up to four hours a day to break-up their daily sitting time.

They suggested that office workers make use of the increasingly popular sit/stand desks, be allowed to perform work that requires some standing and take quick walks throughout the workday.

The team of experts poured through and analyzed previously gathered evidence concerning the risks of prolonged sitting and the advantages of standing from time to time throughout each working day.

Looking at sedentary behavior in the UK, their findings showed that an average office worker sits for about 65-75 percent of their workday. Up to 50 percent of their sitting time involves prolonged periods of sitting.

The experts found that average people in the UK spend about 60 percent of their waking hours being inactive. Those at a higher risk of developing a long-term health condition were sedentary for about 70 percent of their day.

But standing for too long in one position may be as harmful as prolonged sitting, cautioned the researchers. So instead of standing still, move around a bit.

The experts listed some recommendations to avert health risks attributed to prolonged periods of sitting or inactivity:

1) Standing for two hours daily with light walking during working hours, then progressing to four hours for all office workers whose jobs are predominantly desk-based

2) Dividing work regularly between tasks that require sitting and those that can be done while standing, and using adjustable sit-stand desks/work stations

3) Altering posture, along with light walking to alleviate possible musculoskeletal pain and fatigue

4) Encouraging staff to adopt healthier habits by cutting down on drinking and smoking, eating a nutritious diet, and alleviating stress

5) Employers should warn staff about the potential hazards of sitting for too long, whether at work or at home

A woman using a sit-stand desk in its standing configuration. (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health)

A woman uses a sit-stand desk in its standing configuration. (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health)

The expert group’s findings join previous studies citing the dangers of prolonged sitting and inactivity.

An Australian study from March, 2012 published by the Archives of Internal Medicine found adults who sat 11 or more hours per day had a 40 percent increased risk of dying in the next three years, compared to those who stood more and sat for fewer than four hours a day.

In July 2012, an international team of scientists writing in the medical journal The Lancet cited statistics from 2008 that physical inactivity led to the death of nearly 5.3 million people across the world – that’s one in every 10 deaths.

The Mayo Clinic’s Dr. Michael Joyner, recommended, in the July 2012 edition of The Journal of Physiology, that inactivity or a lack of exercise should be treated as if it were a medical condition.

The researchers admitted that a lot of the evidence they reviewed was based on observational studies. They said that “makes it difficult to prove direct cause and effect.”

But while more in-depth studies are needed, the researchers emphasized that the findings justify their guidelines and recommendations, given their review of years of accumulated evidence and public health concerns over rising chronic diseases.

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.

Science Images from May 2015

Posted May 30th, 2015 at 3:00 pm (UTC+0)
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NASA posted this photo on 5/3/15, of Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti sipping a cup of espresso aboard the International Space Station.  Her cup of the robust coffee was brewed with the first ever espresso machine in space. (NASA)

In this NASA photo posted on May 3, 2015, Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti sips a cup of espresso aboard the International Space Station. Her cup of the robust coffee was brewed with the first ever espresso machine in space. (NASA)

On 5/19/15 a broken pipeline near Santa Barbara, CA spilled crude oil into a storm drain and into the Pacific Ocean.  Here, staff members and volunteers are shown working to clean oil off a brown pelican, on 5/22/15, at the International Bird Rescue office in the San Pedro area of Los Angeles. (AP)

On May 19, 2015, a broken pipeline near Santa Barbara, California spilled crude oil into a storm drain and into the Pacific Ocean. Here, staff members and volunteers work to clean oil off a brown pelican at the International Bird Rescue office in the San Pedro area of Los Angeles on  May 22, 2015. (AP)

Investigators with the Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator Project (LDSD) at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory are seen inspecting the LDSD spacecraft on 5/28/15.  The space vehicle that’s been dubbed the “flying saucer” is used to test new technologies that will allow the space agency to safely land heavier spacecraft such as those that would be used for future manned missions to Mars.  (NASA)

Investigators with the Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator Project (LDSD) at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory inspect the LDSD spacecraft on May 28, 2015. The space vehicle dubbed the “flying saucer” is used to test new technologies that will allow the space agency to safely land heavier spacecraft for future manned missions to Mars. (NASA)

This is a part of the High Performance Computing and Storage Complex II that’s been installed at the new data center of the Lehmann Center of the Dresden University of Technology in Dresden, Germany.  The data center was officially opened on 5/13/15.  This new supercomputer includes more than 43,000 CPU cores and attains a peak performance of 1.5 quadrillion floating point operations per second. (AP)

This is a part of the High Performance Computing and Storage Complex II that’s been installed at the new data center of the Lehmann Center of the Dresden University of Technology in Dresden, Germany. The data center was officially opened on May 13, 2015. This new supercomputer includes more than 43,000 CPU cores and attains a peak performance of 1.5 quadrillion floating point operations per second. (AP)

An international team of astronomers announced on 5/15/15 that they have discovered the most distant galaxy ever detected.  They measured the exact distance of EGS-zs8-1 (pictured in this Hubble image) and found that the galaxy is 13.1 billion light years away from Earth. The light from the galaxy now reaching Earth was produced back when the universe was only 5% of its present age. (Pascal Oesch and Ivelina Momcheva, NASA, European Space Agency)

An international team of astronomers announced on May 15, 2015 that they have discovered the most distant galaxy ever detected. They measured the exact distance of EGS-zs8-1 (pictured in this Hubble image) and found that the galaxy is 13.1 billion light years away from Earth. The light from the galaxy now reaching Earth was produced back when the universe was only 5 percent of its present age. (Pascal Oesch, Ivelina Momcheva, NASA, European Space Agency)

NOAA Fisheries announced on 5/15/15 that they found the first fully warm-blooded fish.  NOAA Fisheries scientists said that the opah or moonfish (seen here) is the first fully warm-blooded fish much like mammals and birds.  (NOAA Fisheries/Southwest Fisheries Science Center)

NOAA Fisheries announced on May 15, 2015 that they found the first fully warm-blooded fish. NOAA Fisheries scientists said the Opah or Moonfish (seen here) is the first fully warm-blooded fish, much like mammals and birds. (NOAA Fisheries/Southwest Fisheries Science Center)

Sunset on Mars – On 5/8/15, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory released this color image captured a few weeks earlier by the Curiosity rover from its location in Gale Crater. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Texas A&M Univ.)

Sunset on Mars, on May 8, 2015. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory released this color image captured a few weeks earlier by the Curiosity rover from its location in Gale Crater. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Texas A&M Univ.)

In this 5/11/15 photo, technicians, standing behind a protective barrier, at the Idaho National Laboratory’s Hot Fuel Examination Facility, operate a robotic arm that is handling radioactive material.  The U.S. Department of Energy wants scientists at the facility to get better understanding the storage and shipment of spent “High Burnup” nuclear fuel – burned in a nuclear reactor for 45 GigaWatt days per Metric Ton of Uranium or longer.  (AP)

In this May 11, 2015 photo, technicians standing behind a protective barrier at the Idaho National Laboratory’s Hot Fuel Examination Facility operate a robotic arm that is handling radioactive material. (AP)

This is a Russian sokol suit worn by astronauts/cosmonauts who fly up and back from the International Space Station. The photo was taken on 5/7/15 as members of the upcoming ISS expedition 44/45 crew prepare for their spaceflight to the space station. (NASA)

This is a Russian sokol suit worn by astronauts/cosmonauts who fly up and back from the International Space Station. The photo was taken on May 17, 2015 as members of the upcoming ISS expedition 44/45 crew prepare for their flight to the space station. (NASA)

Two small robots made from a CD, toothbrush bristles and motors sits atop a table on 5/11/15 at the Reuseum, a technology education and recycling center in Boise, Idaho. The Reuseum encourages children to pursue science and technology related fields by providing them with opportunities to tinker and create with used materials. (AP)

Two small robots made from a CD, toothbrush bristles and motors sit atop a table on May 11, 2015 at the Reuseum, a technology education and recycling center in Boise, Idaho. The Reuseum encourages children to pursue science and technology related fields by providing them with opportunities to tinker and create with used materials. (AP)

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

Paralyzed Man Wills Robotic Arm to Move

Posted May 27th, 2015 at 3:06 pm (UTC+0)
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Example of an fMRI scan used for targeting the device implantation location. (Caltech)

Example of an MRI scan used to target the device implantation location. (Caltech)

A quadriplegic man can now operate a robotic arm using just his thoughts and imagination.

Erik Sorto, who was paralyzed from the neck down after suffering a gunshot wound 13 years ago, became the first person in the world to have a neuroprosthetic device implanted in the posterior parietal cortex (PPC), which is an area of the brain where intentions are made.

Doctors at the University of Southern California’s Keck Hospital surgically implanted the new device in Sorto’s brain in April 2013. Since it was implanted in the area of the brain that controls the intent to move, the research team said that they were able to develop a way to move the robotic arm with more natural, smooth and fluid motions.

Most other neural prosthetic devices in use today are usually implanted in the motor cortex – the part of the brain that directly controls movement. As a result, these units tend to produce motion that doesn’t mimic natural movement but instead tends to be somewhat delayed and erratic.

“When you move your arm, you really don’t think about which muscles to activate and the details of the movement, such as lift the arm, extend the arm, grasp the cup, close the hand around the cup, and so on. Instead, you think about the goal of the movement. For example, ‘I want to pick up that cup of water,’” said Caltech’s Richard Andersen, the clinical trial’s principal investigator, in a press release.

Using his mind and imagination Erik Sorto was able to control a robotic arm, which made it possible to give himself a drink for the first time in 10 years (Spencer Kellis & Christian Klaes/Caltech)

Using his mind and imagination, Erik Sorto was able to control a robotic arm and give himself a drink for the first time in 10 years. (Spencer Kellis & Christian Klaes/Caltech)

The new device was clinically tested by its developers at Caltech – the California Institute of Technology – in Pasadena, California, along with their colleagues at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California, in Los Angeles and the Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center in Downey, California.

“In this trial,” added Andersen, “we were successfully able to decode these actual intents by asking the subject to simply imagine the movement as a whole, rather than breaking it down into a myriad components.”

Since the surgery, researchers from Caltech and staff members at Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center have been working to rehabilitate Sorto and teach him to control a computer cursor and a robotic arm with his mind.

Researchers and rehabilitation staff helped him develop the capability of performing a natural hand-shaking gesture with the robotic arm and even play the “rock, paper, and scissors” game with a separate robotic arm.

As his instruction and rehabilitation progressed, the researchers said that they were able to actually see what they were hoping for – the intuitive movement of the robotic arm.

Soto said he was surprised at just how easy it was to control the robotic arm.

Using his mind and the neural prosthetic to control a robotic arm, he said he was able to give himself a drink for the first time since becoming paralyzed.

“This study has been very meaningful to me,” he said. “It gives me great pleasure to be part of the solution for improving paralyzed patients’ lives.”

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.

NOAA Scientists Hope to Unlock Secrets of Nighttime Thunderstorms

Posted May 20th, 2015 at 10:10 pm (UTC+0)
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Lightning flashes across the night sky (Carolina Ödman via Flickr/Creative Commons)

Lightning flashes across the night sky (Carolina Ödman via Flickr/Creative Commons)

Most thunderstorms get their incredible energy from the sun’s heat, but some of the storms gain their strength at night, baffling scientists.

To learn how these storms intensify, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – NOAA plans to keep 20 of its scientists up late at night for a large intensive field operation in the US western Great Plains called the Plains Elevated Convection at Night, or PECAN, over the summer months.

According to NOAA, soon after sunset Earth and its lower atmosphere tends to lose heat and becomes more stable. These conditions create a less than an ideal environment for supporting thunderstorms.

However, many summer thunderstorms, in the US Great Plains, take shape soon after the sun goes down and sometimes does so without an obvious trigger.

NOAA's PECAN researchers will gather data with a variety of instruments including weather balloons to learn what triggers large nighttime thunderstorms. (NOAA)

NOAA’s PECAN researchers will gather data with a variety of instruments including weather balloons to learn what triggers large nighttime thunderstorms. (NOAA)

Conrad Ziegler, PECAN’s principal scientist and a research meteorologist for NOAA’s National Severe Storms Laboratory said that while large nighttime thunderstorms provide an important source of rain for crops, they can also produce widespread and potentially dangerous severe weather, excessive rainfall, flash flooding and unusually frequent cloud-to-ground lightning.

“Weather forecast models often struggle to accurately account for these, said Ziegler in a NOAA press release. “The PECAN field campaign will provide us with valuable insights-and improve our ability to save lives and property through more accurate forecasts.”

NOAA says that its scientists along with other investigators, students and support staff from eight research laboratories and 14 universities will gather data with appropriately equipped aircraft, a variety of ground-based instruments, mobile radars and weather balloons before and during nighttime thunderstorms.

NOAA scientists will study nighttime thunderstorms this summer to better understand and predict them. (NOAA)

NOAA scientists will study nighttime thunderstorms this summer to better understand and predict them. (NOAA)

The PECAN researchers will conduct their field investigation from June 1, 2015 to July 15, 2015 so that they will be able to better understand just what triggers thunderstorms, what role our atmosphere plays in supporting the storm’s lifecycle as well as the impact they have on the lives, property, agriculture and water budget in the US western Great Plains region.

NOAA meteorologists believe that the specially targeted PECAN observations will eventually lead to improved forecasts of these potentially damaging storms.

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.

Science Scanner: Sea Salt on Europa; Natural Sunblock; ISS Crew Return Delayed

Posted May 13th, 2015 at 6:01 pm (UTC+0)
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The unique surface of Jupiter's moon Europa can be seen in this reprocessed color view, made from images taken by NASA's Galileo spacecraft in the late 1990s. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute)

The unique surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa can be seen in this reprocessed color view, made from images taken by NASA’s Galileo spacecraft in the late 1990s. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute)

Sea Salt Covers Parts of Europa’s Surface

Scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory found evidence that the dark material that covers parts of the surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa is probably sea salt produced by an ocean beneath its surface.

The researchers believe that the existence of sea salt on the moon’s icy surface implies that its sub-surface ocean is intermingling with its seafloor – something they say is a significant factor in determining if Europa can actually support life.

But this sea salt is discolored. Scientists said Jupiter’s strong magnetic field blasts Europa with a powerful force similar to what would be produced by a particle accelerator. It is believed that, as a result, the radiation discolored the salt, leaving it with a dark hue.

A study on the researcher’s investigation and findings has been accepted for publication in the journal Geophysical Research Letters and can be found online.

 

Research has discovered that some animals can produce their own sunscreen. (Cartoon by A.J. Hall/Creative Commons)

Research has discovered that some animals produce their own sunscreen. (Cartoon by A.J. Hall/Creative Commons)

Naturally-Produced Sunblock Protects Some Animals From Sunburn 

Did you ever wonder why certain animal species can spend their entire lives outdoors without getting a bad sun burn?

That’s because animals, including many species of fish, amphibians, reptiles, and birds naturally produce their own natural sunscreen.

Scientists from Oregon State University said the animals naturally produce a compound called gadusol, which provides a degree of protection from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays.

Unfortunately, mammals, including humans, don’t have the ability to produce this sun-blocking mixture.

 

Secondary school students attending their graduation ceremony (Nic McPhee/Creative Commons)

Secondary school students attending their graduation ceremony (Nic McPhee/Creative Commons)

Taking a Break between Secondary School and College? It’s Okay

Researchers at the Academy of Finland have some encouraging news for graduating secondary school students who want to take some time off before enrolling in college and parents concerned that a hiatus between high school and college could spell failure for their student

Taking a year off between secondary school graduation and beginning college does not weaken a young person’s enthusiasm to study, say the researchers, nor does it impact overall academic performance once the college term begins.

The researchers say those who do begin their college education immediately after secondary school graduation were more resilient in their studies and more committed to their study goals.

 

NASA astronaut Terry Virts (left) Commander of Expedition 43 on the International Space Station along with crewmates Russian cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov (center) and ESA (European Space Agency) astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti on May 6, 2015 (NASA)

NASA astronaut Terry Virts (left) Commander of Expedition 43 on the International Space Station along with crewmates Russian cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov (center) and ESA (European Space Agency) astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti on May 6, 2015 (NASA)

ISS Crewmembers Return to Earth Delayed

NASA said the schedule for space traffic to and from the International Space Station must be adjusted following initial investigative findings by the Russian Federal Space Agency – Roscosmos – on the recent loss of the Progress 59 re-supply spacecraft.

While exact dates of the modified schedule haven’t yet been determined, NASA plans to do so within the coming weeks.

The schedule change means that the return of ISS expedition 43 crewmembers Terry Virts, Samantha Cristoforetti and Anton Shkaplerov will be delayed until at least early June.

Roscosmos continues its investigation of the Progress mishap and is expected to provide an update on Friday, May 22.

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 Carl Sagan Institute: Pale Blue Dot and Beyond at Cornell University

Posted May 11th, 2015 at 8:50 pm (UTC+0)
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The late Carl Sagan: author, educator, astronomer, cosmologist, astrophysicist, astrobiologist,  and science communicator. (NASA/JPL via Wikimedia Commons)

The late Carl Sagan: author, educator, astronomer, cosmologist, astrophysicist, astrobiologist, and science communicator. (NASA/JPL via Wikimedia Commons)

The late Carl Sagan was an accomplished author, educator, astronomer, cosmologist, astrophysicist and astrobiologist, but several generations know him best as one of the greatest science communicators ever.

Whether it was through his best-selling books or popular television series, Cosmos, Sagan shared his infectious passion for science and brought the mysteries and wonder of the universe to the average person before he died in 1996.

Looking at a photo of Earth that had been taken from a distance of about 6 billion kilometers by the Voyager I space probe, Sagan noticed that our planet, surrounded by the vastness of space, looked like a tiny pale blue dot.

After looking at that pixel sized pale blue dot, Sagan reflected on what that image meant to him.

“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there-on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam,” Carl Sagan from his 1994 book Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space.

Carl Sagan spent a good portion of his professional life at as a professor of astronomy at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.  He also served as the director of the school’s Laboratory for Planetary Studies.

Carl Sagan's tiny "pale blue dot" (in circle) is a photo of Earth taken by the Voyager 1 space probe from a distance of about 6 billion kilometers (NASA via Wikimedia)

Carl Sagan’s tiny “pale blue dot” (in circle) is a photo of Earth taken by the Voyager 1 space probe from a distance of about 6 billion kilometers (NASA via Wikimedia)

On Saturday, May 9, Cornell University remembered their late colleague by naming a research institute at the school in his honor.

Called the Carl Sagan Institute: Pale Blue Dot and Beyond, this new organization, according to Cornell officials, will be dedicated to the exploration of other worlds and to search for life beyond Earth.

Established last year, the institute brings together astrophysicists, geologists, biologists, engineers and scientists from other disciplines to search for signs of life throughout the cosmos.

Cornell officials said that research conducted at the Carl Sagan Institute will focus on planets within our own solar system, including Earth, as well those beyond our cosmic neighborhood.

The institute will also be home to a colorful catalog of life forms, which is actually a newly created database that contains what has been described as the color reflection signatures of Earth life forms that might also be found on other planets throughout the universe.

It’s hoped that the catalog will help scientists identify a wide range of signatures of life on other worlds.

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.

Astronomers Detect a Galaxy Far, Far Away

Posted May 6th, 2015 at 11:12 pm (UTC+0)
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The galaxy EGS-zs8-1 sets a new distance record. It was discovered in images from the Hubble Space Telescope from the CANDELS survey.  (NASA, ESA, P. Oesch and I. Momcheva (Yale University), 3D-HST and HUDF09/XDF Teams)

The galaxy EGS-zs8-1 sets a new distance record. It was discovered in images from the Hubble Space Telescope from the CANDELS survey. (NASA, ESA, P. Oesch and I. Momcheva (Yale University), 3D-HST and HUDF09/XDF Teams)

Astronomers have discovered the most distant galaxy ever detected, gaining new insight into the early beginnings of our universe.

Identified as EGS-zs8-1, the international team of astronomers measured its exact distance at 13 billion light years away from Earth. That means that light from the galaxy now reaching Earth was produced back when the universe was only 5% of its present age.

Astronomers say the galaxy was one of the most enormous and brightest objects in the early universe.

The team also found that, 13 billion years ago, this distant galaxy was forming stars some 80 times faster than our galaxy does today.

“It has already built more than 15% of the mass of our own Milky Way today,” said Pascal Oesch, a Yale astronomer in a press release.

W. M. Keck Observatory located near the summit of Mauna Kea in Hawaii (T. Wynne/JPL)

W. M. Keck Observatory located near the summit of Mauna Kea in Hawaii (T. Wynne/JPL)

The team’s observations of galaxy EGS-zs8-1, as it existed so many years ago, also provided evidence that the universe at its early age, was going through some significant changes.

They found that intergalactic hydrogen was evolving from a neutral or normal state into an ionized state.

“It appears that the young stars in the early galaxies like EGS-zs8-1 were the main drivers for this transition, called reionization,” said Rychard Bouwens of the Leiden Observatory.

The astronomers, led by Yale University and the University of California-Santa Cruz, were able to determine the exact distance of EGS-zs-8-1 by using the powerful Multi-Object Spectrometer for Infra-Red Exploration or MOSFIRE instrument.

This device, which lets astronomers effectively conduct research on several galaxies at the same time, was installed in 2012 on the Keck 1 telescope at the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii.

The distant EGS-zs8-1 galaxy was first identified by its particular colors that appeared in images from NASA’s Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes.

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.

Astronomers Observe Exoplanet Temperatures Swinging Wildly

Posted May 4th, 2015 at 11:06 pm (UTC+0)
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Artist rendering of super-Earth exoplanet 55 Cancri e in close orbit with its sun. (NASA)

Artist rendering of super-Earth exoplanet 55 Cancri e in close orbit with its sun. (NASA)

For the first time ever, scientists in the United Kingdom detected temperature fluctuations on a super-Earth exoplanet – 55 Cancri e, the so-called “diamond planet.”

Using NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope to study the rocky exoplanet’s thermal radiation over a two-year period, researchers led by the University of Cambridge found that the temperature on the side of the planet facing its nearby sun rapidly shifted between 1,000-2,700 degrees Celsius.

55 Cancri E is tidally locked, which means that it doesn’t rotate on its axis like Earth. So it has a permanent ‘day’ side that always faces its sun, and a permanent ‘night’ side – always away from its sun.

“This is the first time we’ve seen such drastic changes in light emitted from an exoplanet, which is particularly remarkable for a super-Earth,” said Nikku Madhusudhan of the University of Cambridge’s Institute of Astronomy in a press release.

Madhusudhan, who is also the co-author of a study published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, said “no signature of thermal emissions or surface activity has ever been detected for any other super-Earth to date.”

Past observations reveal that 55 Cancri e is a rocky exoplanet that is about twice the size of Earth and has eight times its mass. It orbits its parent star from such a close distance that one year there is only 18 hours long.

Artist impression showing surface of the rocky exoplanet 55 Cancri e with its sun in the background (Ron Miller/NASAblueshift)

Artist impression showing surface of the rocky exoplanet 55 Cancri e with its sun in the background (Ron Miller/NASAblueshift)

Along with five other exoplanets, 55 Cancri E orbits 55 Cancri, a Sun-like star located about 40 light years away in the Cancer constellation.

Back in 2012, Madhusudhan, then a researcher at Yale University, was lead author of a study that found that 55 Cancri e’s chemistry was much different from Earth. He and his colleagues found that the exoplanet’s surface was probably covered in graphite and diamond rather than water and granite like Earth.

It is now thought that the results of the new study may throw doubt on those earlier observations and that further study of the planet’s possible chemical composition is needed.

“When we first identified this planet, the measurements supported a carbon-rich model,” said Madhusudhan. “But now we’re finding that those measurements are changing in time. The planet could still be carbon rich, but now we’re not so sure. Earlier studies of this planet have even suggested that it could be a water world.”

Analysis of data is at an early stage, but the researchers think that enormous clouds of gas and dust that occasionally cover the exoplanet’s surface may be a contributing factor to the wide fluctuation of temperatures.

The researchers believe that these clouds of gas and dust, which could be partially molten, could be caused by a remarkably high amount of volcanic activity on 55 Cancri e.

“While we can’t be entirely sure, we think a likely explanation for this variability is large-scale surface activity – possibly volcanism … spewing out massive volumes of gas and dust, which sometimes blanket the thermal emission from the planet so it is not seen from Earth,” said the study’s lead author, Brice-Olivier Demory of the University of Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory.

Demory said the researchers observed “300 percent change in the signal coming from this planet, which is the first time we’ve seen such a huge level of variability in an exoplanet.”

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 Best Science Images – April 2015

Posted April 29th, 2015 at 8:26 pm (UTC+0)
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The Calbuco volcano, near Puerto Varas, Chile, recently erupted for the first time in more than 42 years.  Here’s a spectacular photo of the volcano erupting the night of 4/23/15. (AP)

The Calbuco volcano, near Puerto Varas, Chile, recently erupted for the first time in more than 42 years. Here’s a spectacular photo of the volcano erupting the night of 4/23/15. (AP)

This photo taken from outer space by NASA’s Earth observing Terra satellite on 4/23/15 shows an ash plume rising from the erupting Calbuco volcano in southern Chile. (NASA’s Earth Observatory)

This photo taken from outer space by NASA’s Earth observing Terra satellite on 4/23/15 shows an ash plume rising from the erupting Calbuco volcano in southern Chile. (NASA’s Earth Observatory)

Here’s a view of the shortest lunar eclipse of the century as seen from the Echo Park district of Los Angeles on 4/4/15.  (AP)

A view of the shortest lunar eclipse of the century as seen from the Echo Park district of Los Angeles on 4/4/15. (AP)

Apple fans were excited when the highly anticipated Apple Watch was recently released.  Here a customer tries on the Apple Watch Edition at the Eaton Centre Apple Store, in Toronto on 4/10/15.  (AP)

Apple fans were excited when the highly anticipated Apple Watch was recently released. Here a customer tries on the Apple Watch Edition at the Eaton Centre Apple Store, in Toronto on 4/10/15. (AP)

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, carrying a Dragon cargo spacecraft, was launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on 4/14/15. (NASA)

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, carrying a Dragon cargo spacecraft, was launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on 4/14/15. (NASA)

The Dragon spacecraft, seen here in this image from NASA-TV, is about to be grappled by the International Space Station’s robotic arm as it arrives on 4/16/15.  The cargo ship delivered nearly 2,000 kg of food, science experiments, equipment and the first espresso maker in space to the 6 ISS crewmembers (NASA)

The Dragon spacecraft, seen here in this image from NASA-TV, is about to be grappled by the International Space Station’s robotic arm as it arrives on 4/16/15. The cargo ship delivered nearly 2,000 kg of food, science experiments, equipment and the first espresso maker in space to the 6 ISS crewmembers (NASA)

A robot plays the ball during a soccer match during the RoboCup German Open 2015 in Magdeburg, Germany on 4/24/15.  Around 200 robotic teams from 14 countries demonstrated state-of-the-art robotics with a variety of competitions (AP)

A robot plays the ball during a soccer match during the RoboCup German Open 2015 in Magdeburg, Germany on 4/24/15. Around 200 robotic teams from 14 countries demonstrated state-of-the-art robotics with a variety of competitions (AP)

Researchers recently found evidence, in this image of NGC 6388, that a white dwarf star may have ripped apart a planet as it came too close.  The image of the globular cluster was captured by NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory. (NASA)

Researchers recently found evidence, in this image of NGC 6388, that a white dwarf star may have ripped apart a planet as it came too close. The image of the globular cluster was captured by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory. (NASA)

Japan’s space agency JAXA recently announced that it is considering an unmanned mission to the moon by 2018 or early 2019.  This is an artist’s rendering of the proposed Japanese lunar spacecraft SLIM (Smart Lander for Investigating Moon) as it is about to touch down on the lunar surface (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency via AP)

Japan’s space agency JAXA recently announced that it is considering an unmanned mission to the moon by 2018 or early 2019. This is an artist’s rendering of the proposed Japanese lunar spacecraft SLIM (Smart Lander for Investigating Moon) as it is about to touch down on the lunar surface (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency via AP)

After orbiting Mercury for a little over four years, NASA’s MESSENGER mission is scheduled to come to an end on 4/30/15 when it runs out of fuel and crashes into the surface of the planet.  The MESSENGER sent back one its final images on 4/26/15.  (NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington)

After orbiting Mercury for a little over four years, NASA’s MESSENGER mission is expected to come to an end on 4/30/15 when it runs out of fuel and crashes into the surface of the planet. The MESSENGER sent back one its final images on 4/26/15. (NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington)

This is the Noor I solar power plant near Ouarzazate, Morocco on 4/24/15.  Construction of the 160 megawatt solar power station is nearly complete. (AP)

This is the Noor I solar power plant near Ouarzazate, Morocco on 4/24/15. Construction of the 160 megawatt solar power station is nearly complete. (AP)

NASA/NOAA Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership spacecraft captured this combination image of Southern Africa and the surrounding oceans on 4/9/15 and released it to the public on 4/21/15 just in time for Earth Day the following day.  Note: Tropical Cyclone Joalane can be seen (upper right side) over the Indian Ocean.  (Ocean Biology Processing Group/Goddard Space Flight Center)

NASA/NOAA Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership spacecraft captured this combination image of Southern Africa and the surrounding oceans on 4/9/15.  They released it to the public on 4/21/15 just in time for Earth Day the following day. Note: Tropical Cyclone Joalane can be seen (upper right side) over the Indian Ocean. (Ocean Biology Processing Group/Goddard Space Flight Center)

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.

Calling ET: NASA Expands Search for Alien Life

Posted April 27th, 2015 at 10:48 pm (UTC+0)
2 comments

(NASA)

(NASA)

The search for life beyond our own solar system has taken a major step forward with a new interdisciplinary research coalition devoted to the search for life in the cosmos.

Nexus for Exoplanet System Science (NExSS) will be made up of research teams from several NASA facilities, 10 U.S. universities and two research institutions, according to a recent NASA announcement.

Research teams were picked from proposals submitted to the four various divisions that make-up the space agency’s Science Mission Directorate.

NExSS experts will search for life in the cosmos by studying various aspects of a extra solar planet or exoplanet, as well as how the planet’s star and neighboring worlds all act together to support life.

NASA said NExSS researchers will be better equipped to look for life on extrasolar planets if they gain a better understanding of how biology interacts with various components of an exoplanet, such as its interior, atmosphere, geology and ocean, and how its host star affects these interactions.

“This interdisciplinary endeavor connects top research teams and provides a synthesized approach in the search for planets with the greatest potential for signs of life,” said Jim Green, NASA’s Director of Planetary Science in a press release.

Artist rendering of 51 Pegasi by Celestia Français (Kirk39/Wikimedia Commons)

Artist rendering of 51 Pegasi b the first discovered exoplanet.  (Calista Francais/Kirk39/Wikimedia Commons)

He said “the hunt for exoplanets is not only a priority for astronomers, it’s of keen interest to planetary and climate scientists as well.”

As more and more planets are found in solar systems beyond our own, researchers have been working on scientific methods that would not only allow them to confirm whether the alien planets are suitable to host life, but also help them look for specific biosignatures that point to the presence of life on these planets.

Experts from the four divisions of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate will provide NExSS with guidance and knowledge in the areas of Earth Science, Planetary Science, Helieophysics and Astrophysics. And NExSS team members will study and classify newly discovered exoplanets, determine if they are possibly habitable, and develop the needed tools and technologies to find life beyond our own planet.

“NExSS scientists will not only apply a systems science approach to existing exoplanet data, their work will provide a foundation for interpreting observations of exoplanets from future exoplanet missions such as TESS, JWST, and WFIRST,” noted Paul Hertz, director of the Astrophysics Division at NASA Headquarters, Washington.

The TESS or Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite mission is scheduled for a 2017 launch date. The JWST or James Webb Space Telescope – Hubble’s replacement – is set to be launched in 2018.  And NASA is now studying the WFIRST or Wide-field Infrared Survey Telescope which they hope to launch sometime in the 2020s.

The first extrasolar planet was discovered only 20 years ago when 51 Pegasi b was found orbiting 51Pegasi, a main sequence star much like our own Sun, some 50 light years away.

After NASA’s Kepler space telescope went into operation in May 2009, scientists were able to confirm the existence of more than 1,800 exoplanets.

Thousands more await confirmation.

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.