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.

Venusian Atmosphere; Space Mice Liver Trouble; Gravitation Wave Light Pulse

Posted April 20th, 2016 at 4:29 pm (UTC-4)
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Artist impression of ESA's Venus Express conducting special maneuvers to lower its orbit around Venus ((c) ESA–C. Carreau)

Artist impression of ESA’s Venus Express conducting special maneuvers to lower its orbit around Venus ((c) ESA–C. Carreau)

New Details of Venusian Atmosphere Revealed

The European Space Agency’s Venus Express orbited Earth’s closest planetary neighbor for over eight years until its mission ended in December 2014.

In its final months the spacecraft was sent deep into the Venusian atmosphere for a series of low-altitude orbits.

Studying data of a previously unexplored piece of the planet’s polar atmosphere, ESA scientists found it to be pulsing with atmospheric gravity and planetary waves.

The gravity waves were described as being similar to waves we see in the ocean, moving vertically but not horizontally.

Planetary waves are linked with the spin of a planet as it rotates on its axis

The Venus Express data showed the polar atmosphere to have an average temperature of -157°C, which is up to 70° colder than expected.

And at 130 to 140 kilometers above the Polar Regions the atmosphere’s density was between 22 and 40% less than had been predicted.

Colorized transmission electron micrograph (TEM) revealed some of the ultrastructural morphology displayed by an Ebola virus virion. (CDC/Frederick Murphy)

Colorized transmission electron micrograph (TEM) revealed some of the ultrastructural morphology displayed by an Ebola virus virion. (CDC/Frederick Murphy)

Fighting Many Types of Viruses At Once

Treating someone infected with viruses such as HIV, Ebola, influenza and Zika has always been a challenge.

Not only do they come in a variety of forms, viruses are known to quickly mutate and develop a resistance to drugs designed specifically to eliminate them.

Scientists looking to create anti-viral medications usually go after these nasty bugs one at a time.

But some are expanding their focus to develop drugs that will fight more than one type of virus at once.

Unfortunately some of the new methods used to fight multiple viruses may also be poisonous to healthy cells.

A team of Asian and American scientists say they’ve come up with a plan that fights a wide range of viruses, even those that mutate to develop resistance.

This new approach uses a polymer called polyethylenimine, that’s specially treated to make it non-toxic. This polymer electrostatically interacts with both viral and human cells to prevent infection.

Visualization of merging black holes and gravitational waves.(NASA/CSC Government Solutions)

Visualization of merging black holes and gravitational waves.(NASA/CSC Government Solutions)

Light Pulse Detected at Gravitational Wave Source

Back in February the LIGO Scientific Collaboration announced the first detection of gravitational waves that passed through our planet on September 14, 2015.

The waves of energy that traveled for 1.3 billion years were produced by the merger of two black holes.

NASA scientists say that less than a half second after the gravitational waves rocked the fabric of space-time, the Fermi Gamma-ray Space telescope was able to detect a quick and weak pulse of high-energy light from the same area of space.

NASA says this would be a remarkable discovery since mergers of black holes are thought to happen without producing any kind of light.

While their analysis indicates that this burst of energy has just a 0.2-percent chance of being just a coincidence, the scientists say they’ll need additional such observations before they can firmly associate spurts of high-energy x-rays with gravitational waves from black hole mergers.

Mice (National Cancer Institute)

Mice (National Cancer Institute)

Mice Sent into Space Return with Liver Problems

As NASA continues its plans to send people to deep space destinations such as Mars, the effects of long distance space travel on the human body needs to be better understood.

A new study in the journal PLoS ONE finds that mice who had flown aboard the space shuttle Atlantis came back to Earth with early symptoms of liver disease.

The mice at the center of the study orbited the Earth for 13.5 days on the final space shuttle flight in 2011, after which researchers from the University of Colorado’a Anschutz Medical Campus gathered and studied samples of their livers.

Their study found that the little space travelers had symptoms of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, along with early signs of fibrosis, a mostly non-reversible condition that can lead to cirrhosis, which can be fatal.

The researchers plan to examine the livers of mice who fly in space for longer periods of time to see if there are any compensatory mechanisms that might protect them.

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

South Pole Station Gears Up for Busy ‘Nightlife’

Posted April 19th, 2016 at 1:34 pm (UTC-4)
2 comments

Many of the dark sector experiments study the cosmic microwave background--very faint radiation emanating from the farthest reaches of the universe. The detectors used by these experiments are very sensitive, and can be adversely affected by artificial light.

Many of the dark sector experiments study the cosmic microwave background–very faint radiation emanating from the farthest reaches of the universe. The detectors used by these experiments are very sensitive, and can be adversely affected by artificial light.

Dusk gives way to night. The first stars and planets have come out, and all that remains of the sun’s memory is a thin band of blue sky on the horizon.

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

With the skies darkening, experiments at the South Pole are in flux. The solar radiation equipment on top of the Atmospheric  Research Observatory (ARO) has been taken down and will be stored inside for the duration of the winter — until the sun rises again in September.

Conversely, new experiments studying different cosmological phenomena, such as aurora and galactic radiation, have been brought online and will remain in place for as long as the skies remain dark enough to collect accurate data.

The majority of these night-time experiments are located in what is called the Dark Sector — a region synonymous with the ARO’s Clean Air Sector, but protects the integrity of its measurements by limiting the use of artificial light and radio transmissions, instead of minimizing foot and vehicle traffic like we do.

To minimize light pollution at the South Pole, window coverings are installed over every station window. Over the years, winter-overs have taken the time to decorate them.

To minimize light pollution at the South Pole, window coverings are installed over every station window. Over the years, winter-overs have taken the time to decorate them.

In an effort to accommodate these projects, and ensure that the best possible data can be collected, window coverings made out of cardboard and foam have been fitted over all windows in the main station and outbuildings to reduce light pollution.

The signal on hand-held radios — which all South Pole “winter-overs” carry for emergency purposes and general communication — has been attenuated to produce less interference with dark sector instruments.

With the station boarded up and foot traffic limited to the distance our radios can transmit — about three-fourths of a mile (1.2 kilometers) with our current signal — the facility is beginning to feel a bit claustrophobic, perhaps akin to life on a submarine — just with more fresh air and bigger berthings.

Though the view out my office window was never anything special — a flat white ice cap occasionally disrupted by blowing snow and wind — it  provided some connection with the outside world, a reminder of where I was and of the harsh realities of the polar environment.

Now, back in ARO, sitting in a temperature-controlled building with warm fluorescent lights overhead and a downloaded copy of The Good Good radio show playing over a pair of black JBL computer speakers, I could be anywhere; at work in our main labs in Boulder, Colorado, or listening to the radio show live in a non-descript office building in Davis, California. Sixty-five degrees and funk appear to be the same no matter where you are.

After sunset, the solar radiation equipment on top of ARO is removed.  Refael Klein takes time to inspect and re-organize the instruments.

After sunset, the solar radiation equipment on top of ARO is removed. Refael Klein takes time to inspect and re-organize the instruments.

It’s tempting at times to pull off the window coverings to peek outside and see if more stars have come out, or if the moon is still occluded with clouds. Is it warmer or colder?

You can’t really tell by looking out the window, but that’s beside the point. The cardboard sucks your imagination dry and guessing doesn’t seem worth it.

It is noon and time for lunch. A quarter-mile (.40 kilometer) walk separates ARO from the galley and main station. The wind is blowing from the northeast, so it’s to my back as I march along the bamboo flag line that separates me from the station’s nearest entrance.

Below my heavy insulated boots, the snow sounds like crunching Styrofoam peanuts. The cold nips at a little patch of bare skin above my right cheekbone where my neck gator and ski goggles don’t quite meet. It prickles like champagne bubbles against a bare lower lip, and then begins to slowly “heat-up” like a forearm in the grip of an Indian rug-burn.  Thirty paces later, it is numb.

I pause and smell the air. It is minus 65 Fahrenheit (minus 53 Celsius). I smile, knowing that I’m just picking numbers out of thin air.

 

More South Pole Diaries
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 
South Pole Summer Camp Helps Combat Winter Blues

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.

Nearby Supernovae Showered Earth and Moon With Radioactive Iron

Posted April 15th, 2016 at 4:00 pm (UTC-4)
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Artist Animation of Star Explosion (NASA/JPL/Australian National University)

Two new studies suggest radioactive bits of a nearby star or stars that exploded into a supernova or supernovae showered the Earth and Moon with radioactive iron a couple of million years ago.

Both studies found the stellar evidence in concentrations of an isotope of iron called 60Fe.

In one study, based at the Technical University of Munich, scientists from Germany and the US who found the iron isotopes in samples found on both the lunar surface and the ocean floor say this provides provides evidence that they were produced by the same supernova.

Based on their data the researchers say their findings confirm the star that produced the telltale isotopes was about 300 light years away from us – a relatively close distance – when it exploded about 2 million years ago.

Mosaic image captured by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope shows a detailed look of the a small section of the Veil Nebula, the remains of a massive star that exploded about 8,000 years ago. (NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA))

Mosaic image captured by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope shows a detailed look of the a small section of the Veil Nebula, the remains of a massive star that exploded about 8,000 years ago. (NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA))

When a star explodes it creates new chemical elements, such as 60Fe, that are then blasted into space.

They say that while the 60Fe isotope is produced almost exclusively by a supernova, it’s also possible that lunar material bombarded with cosmic particles could have also created the radioactive iron.

“But this can only account for a very small portion of the 60Fe found,” said Dr. Gunther Korschinek, physicist at TUM and scientist of the Cluster of Excellence Structure and Origin of the Universe in a press release.

The radioactive iron isotope is said to have a half-life (time it takes a particle to fall to half its original value) of 2.62 million years, which in comparison to the age of the solar system – about 4.6 billion years – is a pretty short time.

The researchers say that because of its half-life it’s doubtful that these isotopes were created when the solar system was formed.

To make their findings the research team analyzed lunar samples, gathered by several of the Apollo missions to the moon in the late 1960’s to early 1970’s with the high-sensitivity accelerator mass spectrometer of the Maier-Leibnitz Laboratory near Munich.

The other study by an international team of scientists led by Dr. Anton Wallner, a nuclear physicist at the Australian National University Research School of Physics and Engineering reveals evidence of not just one but a succession of massive nearby supernova explosions.

Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison H. Schmitt collects samples of lunar rocks and rock chips. Material gathered in this and other Apollo missions revealed presence of radioactive iron isotopes from a supernova explosion. (NASA)

Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison H. Schmitt collects samples of lunar rocks and rock chips. Material gathered in this and other Apollo missions revealed presence of radioactive iron isotopes from a supernova explosion. (NASA)

As with the German based study, Wallner and his colleagues found evidence of stellar remains in 120 samples of the 60Fe isotope gathered from the sediment and crust gathered from the bottom of the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Oceans.

They also found the concentration of 60Fe isotopes were from between 1.7 to 3.2 million years ago and agree that they were produced by a series of supernovae in that were less than 300 light years away.

“We were very surprised that there was debris clearly spread across 1.5 million years,” said Wallner in a press release.  “It suggests there were a series of supernovae, one after another.

The researchers said they also found the iron isotopes from a supernova that took place about around eight million years ago.

Wallner points out that the amount of 60Fe isotopes on Earth are about a million to a billion times less than other forms of iron.

The team found that the exploding stars that produced the 60Fe isotopes would have been close enough to Earth to be seen during the day and that they shined with a brightness comparable to the Moon.

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.

20 Years to Alpha Centauri; NASA’s Expandable Habitat; Elements of an Apology

Posted April 13th, 2016 at 4:00 pm (UTC-4)
1 comment

This wide-field view of the sky around the bright star Alpha Centauri was created from photographic images forming part of the Digitized Sky Survey 2. (European Southern Observatory)

This wide-field view of the sky around the bright star Alpha Centauri was created from photographic images forming part of the Digitized Sky Survey 2. (European Southern Observatory)

Proposed Spacecraft Will Take 20 Years to Reach Alpha Centauri

Renowned physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking and Russian internet investor and physicist Yuri Milner recently announced an ambitious new project they hope will someday send thousands of tiny spacecraft to the stars to explore space and search for life in the universe.

Called ‘Breakthrough Starshot,’ the project plans to send gram-sized ‘nanocraft’ into deep space at a velocity of about one-fifth the speed of light.

The tiny spacecrafts would be driven by a powerful beam of light generated here on Earth. It would capture images and gather scientific data of possible planets in Alpha Centauri, the nearest star system, in just a little over 20 years after being launched.

Considering that the Alpha Centauri star system is 4.37 light years away from us, it would take nearly 30,000 years for today’s fastest spacecraft to reach the system.

Breakthrough Starshot is at a very early stage of development, but the plan is to launch the mini-probes to Alpha Centauri within the next generation.

This artist’s concept depicts the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module attached to the International Space Station’s Tranquility module. (Bigelow Aerospace)

This artist’s concept depicts the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module attached to the International Space Station’s Tranquility module. (Bigelow Aerospace)

NASA to Test First Expandable Habitat on ISS

NASA is continuing its preparations for future manned voyages to deep space destinations such as Mars.

One of the many issues they are addressing is the need for comfortable small areas for astronauts that doesn’t take much room in their spacecraft.

NASA will be trying out a new module that when fully deployed will expand its compressed size of about 2 meters in length and diameter to about 4 meters by 3 meters.

This new module is called the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM, scheduled for installation at the International Space Station on April 16th.

According to NASA the installation should take about four hours and will involve technicians from mission control in Houston and astronauts aboard the ISS.

Astronauts will first go into the module about a week after expansion and will occasionally return over its two-year test mission to retrieve data.

The 1917 photographic plate spectrum of van Maanen's star from the Carnegie Observatories’ archive reveals first evidence of exoplanetary system. (Carnegie Institution for Science)

The 1917 photographic plate spectrum of van Maanen’s star from the Carnegie Observatories’ archive reveals first evidence of exoplanetary system. (Carnegie Institution for Science)

Photo Plate From 1917 Reveals First Evidence of Exoplanetary System

You’ve probably heard stories about someone digging through old storage boxes and finding a long lost treasure like a rare painting or photograph.

The folks at the Carnegie Observatories recently stumbled across something rare as they sifted through their archives to help a researcher.

The researcher was looking for photographic glass plate that contained spectral information of a white dwarf called van Maanen’s star.

Carnegie Observatories found the plate was produced in 1917, the year astronomer Adriaan van Maanen made his discovery.

Not only did the plate provide what the researcher was looking for, but it also shows the first-ever evidence of a planetary system beyond our own Sun.

While it has almost become common for distant worlds to be spotted, keep in mind that compared to 1917, astronomers today have access to much more sophisticated technology.

Six Steps to a Successful Apology

We all find ourselves in situations where we make a mistake, offend someone and find that owe them an apology.

A new study published in the journal Negotiation and Conflict Management Research finds that there are six elements that make up an apology that’s more likely to be accepted.

In order, here’s what they say you should do.  First, acknowledge responsibility – admit the mistake is your fault.  Then, off to fix what is wrong, in actions, not with words.  Next, express regret, and then explain what went wrong.  For the fifth element, declare your repentance – and last, request forgiveness.

Lead author of the study, Roy Lewicki, at Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business, says apologies really do work, but you should try to include as many of the six elements as possible.

But if you’re in a hurry, Lewicki says that the first two elements, when you acknowledge responsibility, and offer a repair, are most important to having your apology accepted.

When apologizing face to face, he says that eye contact, and real sincerity, are also important.

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.

Greeting 6 Months of South Pole Darkness With Sumptuous Feast

Posted April 13th, 2016 at 9:48 am (UTC-4)
4 comments

Head chef Darby Butts fries crab cakes for the pre-dinner cocktail hour. Along with a team of three, Butts put together the evening's menu.

Head chef Darby Butts fries crab cakes for the pre-dinner cocktail hour. Butts, along with a team of three, put together the evening’s menu.

It is dusk. The sun has set. Each day is slightly darker than the one that preceded it, but it is still too light to see stars or aurora. Most days have been overcast, with dark clouds climbing from the horizon to the sky.

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

Occasionally, there is a break in the grey and what is left of the sunset becomes visible again —   dark red and orange, spying out from behind a thick curtain of clouds, beckoning you forward with long wispy yellow fingers and a purple stare. Like a moth to a candle, you can’t help but move towards it. If you are standing by a window, you press your face against the glass until your nose and forehead become numb and your desire for warmth outweighs your need for vitamin D.

We don’t observe many holidays at the South Pole. Two-day weekends are a rarity and, apart from New Years and the odd birthday party, things remain pretty calm on station. One of the few exceptions to this is the Annual Sunset Dinner, our celebration of winter’s arrival.

An elaborate menu executed perfectly by the talented galley crew.

An elaborate menu executed perfectly by the talented galley crew.

Saturday was the day of the big event. The galley had been rearranged, transformed from its typical mess-deck-self into an eloquent banquet setting. The rectangular six tops are pushed together, end to end, into 24-seat arrangements with ironed white tablecloths spread over them; 12 piece table settings are laid out in front of 50 chairs, complete with white starched cloth napkins folded into little pyramids, precariously balanced in the middle of each entrée plate.

People in the galley were busy at work dicing root vegetables, rolling bread dough, and icing cakes. It had been an early morning for them and would, most likely, be a late evening. They’d been planning the menu for several weeks and tonight would represent the culmination of their efforts searching out unique ingredients and planning a menu composed largely of frozen and dried foods.

Above the sound of simmering sauces and popping oil, and in between the knock, knock, knock of onions being diced, you could hear their focus — a quiet, even, breathless hum. Only the occasional phrase, “Behind you,” “Pull that”, “Where are you?” broke the illusion of what otherwise seemed to be telepathic communication between three men in aprons.

The "sunset" photo of the 2016 winter over crew.  It's a rare event for everyone on station to be in the same room at the same time.

The “sunset” photo of the 2016 winter over crew. It’s a rare event for everyone on station to be in the same room at the same time.

Earlier in the week, the chef had posted a volunteer sheet looking for stewards and dishwashers to assist throughout the meal. Having always been curious about what it would be like to be a waiter working the “front of the house”, I and two others — a weather forecaster and our lead tradesmen — volunteered to pour drinks, bus plates and serve appetizers.

The meal began at 4:00 pm with a cocktail hour in the foyer of our galley banquet hall. Beer and wine had been donated by those with ample reserves, and platters of cured meat and aged hard cheeses were laid out on circular tables. While my two fellow stewards assisted the galley in last-minute arrangements of tables and chairs and plating side salads, I ran hot Chilean Rock-Crab cakes from the galley to the hungry imbibers and pushed glasses of Barefoot red wine whose label promised “of a fine year”, “burnt oak”, and “exceptionally under rated.”

Some of the many treats prepared for the station's  celebration of the South Pole sunset. The jury is still out on whether sugar helps one cope with total darkness.

Some of the many treats prepared for the station’s celebration of the South Pole sunset. The jury is still out on whether sugar helps one cope with total darkness.

After an hour of casual conversation and nibbles, the community was ushered into the galley.

A fine dinner awaited them. Steam and rich scents rolled off the buffet line, pulling people to the edge of their seats. In keeping with tradition, the winter site manager gave a brief speech and then, with an uncharacteristic flourish of his hand, bade everyone a fine winter and an enjoyable meal.

A reserved table had been set aside for the stewards and, as volunteers, we’d been given the special privilege of filling our plates first. I walked to the head of the line and was instantly overwhelmed. What to grab first? How to maximize the limited surface area of my 12-inch round ceramic plate?

I started with protein, a healthy helping of Chinese 5-spice seared duck breast, cooked medium rare with a blackberry foie gras glaze. The scent emanating from it was so exotic and tantalizing, I couldn’t help but fork an extra piece directly off the wooden cutting board and straight into my mouth. It was borderline unsanitary, but entirely delicious.

From the duck, I moved on to roasted maple glazed New Zealand root vegetables, an alluring medley of potatoes, sweet potatoes, parsnips, carrots and my personal favorite—celeriac. The earthy flavors would pair well with the duck. I scooped up two heaping servings, enough for three people, knowing that this might be the last time I would see fresh vegetables for several months. My stomach would have to stretch for the occasion.

Ahead I pushed. My plate grew heavier. A polenta cake, topped with fresh beets and porcini mushrooms and… avocado. Avocado? Where did we find one of those? Shocked, I was nearly frozen with delight, but the excitement and energy of those behind me kept me moving forward like a man trapped on a DC Metro escalator. I wanted to grab another, but the next person in line, clearly a ravenous beast, had grabbed the tongs and was spooning polenta onto their plate with the eagerness of a puppy on speed.

By this point, my plate was quite full and I was beginning to doubt my ability to digest any more calories, let alone walk back to my chair without spilling a colossus of grub onto the floor. Yet, a final siren remained — a green salad, harvested locally from our hydroponics facility on station. Beautiful green and red buttercup lettuces, kale, cucumber and tomatoes. How could one say no? I didn’t, grabbing a tong-full, which I carefully placed into the small valley between Duck Mountain and Root Vegetable Spire.

With the grace of a ballerina and the strength of a power lifter, I delicately balanced my 5-pound cornucopia between my hands, at chest level, and walked with careful purpose back to my chair. Staring at my food, I waited for my fellow stewards, mustering years of patience and restraint, sitting on my hands, trying my hardest not to pluck another perfectly seared medallion of duck breast off my plate.

It was a trying three minutes, but my table-mates eventually arrived — plates filled high, though not as high as mine, and eyes wide and absent like bloodhounds who’ve scented a fox. They sat and we ate in silence, not speaking a word, oblivious to the surrounding laughter and flashing cameras, until our plates were empty and all that remained was a faint aura of comradery and the scratch, scratch, scratch of toothpicks at work.

 

More South Pole Diaries
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 
South Pole Summer Camp Helps Combat Winter Blues
Stranded Until Spring: Last Flight Leaves South Pole Before Winter Hits

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.

Learning More About Mysterious Planet 9

Posted April 11th, 2016 at 3:50 pm (UTC-4)
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Simulated structure of planet candidate 9. (© Esther Linder, Christoph Mordasini, Universität Bern)

Simulated structure of planet candidate 9. (© Esther Linder, Christoph Mordasini, Universität Bern)

Konstantin Batygin and Mike Brown at the California Institute of Technology generated a lot of excitement in the science world back in January when they announced that they had found evidence of a giant planet traveling in an odd, drawn-out orbit in the far reaches of the solar system.

So far the new found planet, unofficially nicknamed Planet 9 – as in our solar system’s 9th planet if confirmed – has not been directly imaged. But, the Caltech scientists say the behavior of several distant Kuiper Belt objects have shown signs of being gravitationally affected by an object with a mass that’s about 10 times greater than Earth, and 5,000 times that of Pluto.

This artistic rendering shows the distant view from Planet Nine back towards the sun. (Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC))

This artistic rendering shows the distant view from Planet Nine back towards the sun. (Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC))

“Planet Nine” is thought to orbit the sun from a distance of nearly 20 times farther than Neptune, whose average distance to the sun is about 4.5 billion kilometers.

Astrophysicists at the University of Bern wanted to know more about Planet 9, such as its size, temperature, and what kind of telescope would be needed to find it.

Christoph Mordasini, a professor at the University of Bern, along with PhD candidate Esther Linder have modelled the evolution of the purported Planet 9.

Writing in the journal “Astronomy & Astrophysics”, the Swiss scientists say their modelling allows them to assume that Planet 9 is a small ice giant, smaller than Uranus and Neptune, and that it is surrounded with a blanket of hydrogen and helium.

They say their models show the mass of Planet 9 is 10 times the mass of Earth, the same reported by Brown and Batygin in January and that its radius is about 23,572 km, or 3.7 times that of Earth (6,371 km).

The researchers calculated that Planet 9’s current temperature is around -226° Celsius (47 Kelvin).  They say it’s that warm because its core is cooling; otherwise its temperature would only be about 10 Kelvin (-263° Celsius).

Orbital paths of the six most distant known objects in the solar system (magenta) along with theorized path of "Planet Nine". (Lance Hayashida/Caltech)

Orbital paths of the six most distant known objects in the solar system (magenta) along with theorized path of “Planet Nine”. (Lance Hayashida/Caltech)

Since most of the putative planet’s emitted energy appears to be coming from the cooling of the core and not reflected light from the sun, Mordasini and Linder suggest that Planet 9 may be much brighter in the infrared wavelengths rather than visible light.

The scientists say that the planet hasn’t shown up in past sky surveys because it would have been very difficult to spot an object with a mass 20 times that of Earth or less, especially if it was near its Aphelion, or farthest point from the Sun.

They think that either future telescopes, such as the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope now under construction near Cerro Tololo in Chile, or dedicated surveys specifically tasked with looking for Planet 9 should be able to find or rule out whether or not Planet 9 actually exists.

Meanwhile NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is putting to rest recent news reports that allege Planet 9 or perhaps another mystery planet beyond the orbit of Neptune is behind a mysterious anomaly in the orbit of its Cassini spacecraft around Saturn.

Artist's concept of the Cassini spacecraft during Saturn orbit insertion. (NASA/JPL/Caltech)

Artist’s concept of the Cassini spacecraft during Saturn orbit insertion. (NASA/JPL/Caltech)

Mission managers and orbit determination experts at JPL say that Cassini is not experiencing unexplained deviations described in the news reports and that no such abnormalities have been observed since the spacecraft arrived at Saturn in 2004.

“An undiscovered planet outside the orbit of Neptune, 10 times the mass of Earth, would affect the orbit of Saturn, not Cassini,” said William Folkner, a planetary scientist at JPL in a NASA press release.

A recently published paper suggested that if scientists were able to track Cassini’s position up to 2020, it might be able to find the mystery planet’s “most probable” location.

NASA, however said that by 2020 the Cassini spacecraft, whose mission is scheduled to end in September 2017, will have run out of fuel and plunged into Saturn’s atmosphere.

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

South Pole Diaries: Bracing for Sun to Set for 6 Long Months

Posted April 5th, 2016 at 12:43 pm (UTC-4)
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Two Polies brave the frigid temperatures to snap a few photos of the sunset.  When conditions are as cold as they are at the moment, camera batteries only last a few minutes.  (Photo by Kyle Obrock)

Two Polies brave the frigid temperatures to snap a few photos of the sunset. When conditions are as cold as they are at the moment, camera batteries only last a few minutes. (Photo by Kyle Obrock)

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

It is the solstice. The sun is half set. For the moment, it is perfectly bisected by the horizon. It is the same sun seen in Hawaii travel brochures and Kinkade paintings. It is the same sun that has sat above my head since October, and the same sun that will rise for you this morning and set for you this evening.

Perhaps anywhere else, it would be a kitsch image. The immutable laws of nature: a dependable 24-hour cycle, 365 ups and downs a year, an image so easy to capture and reproduce that it seems to no longer hold any aesthetic value; an icon used to convey the incredible and the exotic, but almost always representing the opposite — the mundane and the accessible: Walmart, Snapple, Days inn.

Now, the sun has set a little lower. It only took a few seconds, but at this very moment more of it sits below the horizon than above it. The horizon is deep orange, and pink light washes out in every direction over the polar plateau. It’s a fiery landscape. Outside it looks warmer then it is. If I had to guess, I’d say minus 30 Fahrenheit (minus 34 Celsius), but really it is much colder — minus 80 Fahrenheit (minus 62 Celsius), the coldest it’s been all year.

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

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

The sun rises and sets only once a year at the South Pole, rising in September and disappearing below the horizon in March, which means we experience up to 24 hours of sunlight in the summer and 24 hours of darkness in the winter.

No one really knows exactly when the sun will disappear. Atmospheric conditions can make it seem like it is sitting higher than it really is. Even if it has sunk completely below the horizon, a sliver of it may remain visible for a little longer. Our best guess is that the sun will drop out of sight sometime in the next six days.

Not knowing when the sun will set is a bit unnerving. It could be here tomorrow when I wake up or it could be gone. Maybe it will vanish while I’m skimming through my email or taking a shower. It could disappear in a green flash while I’m making myself a cup of mint tea. The whole ordeal is making me feel a little manic. It’s like watching a nurse prep a blood test for your yearly physical.  You don’t know when you will get stuck, but you will, and do they want to you inhaling or exhaling when it happens, sitting up or lying down?

An orange sky over the dark sector telescopes. As day turns to a 6-month-long night, the experiments will start up in earnest. (Photo by Christian Krueger)

An orange sky over the dark sector telescopes. As day turns to a 6-month-long night, the experiments will start up in earnest. (Photo by Christian Krueger)

I’d like to be on the rooftop of the Atmospheric Research Observatory (ARO) when the sun sets, with a cup of hot coffee held between my mittened hands. I’d like to watch the last inch of it rock on the horizon, like a gymnast standing at the end of a balance beam ready to dismount and then, with breath held, watch it slowly sink away until the horizon is nothing more than a perfectly straight, black line, and all that separates me from winter is a few days of dusk.

The sun has set even lower. It is darker out now than when I first began writing this entry. Only a minute has passed, but it is noticeably darker. The pink on the ice cap is more muted, the horizon more red than orange. Above the sun, the sky follows a perfect gradation from orange to blue to dark blue. It looks colder than it did, though I still wouldn’t peg it at minus 80 Fahrenheit because there’s still too much color flooding the landscape.

When the sun sets, it will be gone for six months. What to do with my final days? Ski, run, hike? It’s far too frigid for any of that. When the wind is blowing like it has been lately, it’s almost painful to be outside. I can only remove my fogged goggles for a few seconds before my forehead and the bridge of my nose go numb. It still looks warmer than it really is, but I know at this point to trust the daily weather report more than my own desires.

More South Pole Diaries
Isolated and Alone, South Pole Workers Face Unexpected Emergencies
South Polies Tackle Last-minute Preps to Survive Brutal Winter 
South Pole Summer Camp Helps Combat Winter Blues
Stranded Until Spring: Last Flight Leaves South Pole Before Winter Hits
In Giant Parkas, Rank Is Less Apparent

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.

Laser Cloaking Device; New Device Spots Exoplanets; Malaria Older Than We Thought

Posted April 1st, 2016 at 4:15 pm (UTC-4)
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A 22W laser used for adaptive optics on the Very Large Telescope in Chile. A suite of similar lasers could be used to alter the shape of a planet's transit for the purpose of broadcasting or cloaking the planet. (ESO/G. Hüdepohl)

A 22W laser used for adaptive optics on the Very Large Telescope in Chile. A suite of similar lasers could be used to alter the shape of a planet’s transit for the purpose of broadcasting or cloaking the planet. (ESO/G. Hüdepohl)

Lasers Could Hide Earth from Aliens

Scientists have been scanning the skies and conducting numerous studies in a search for extraterrestrial intelligent life or ETI’s.

Back in 2010 renowned theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking warned that it might be too dangerous for humans to interact with ETI’s.

While we’re looking for signs of intelligent life beyond Earth, it’s quite possible that alien beings may also be searching for Earth-like planets with advanced civilizations.

They may also be using the same techniques we do such as transiting, or looking for a dip in light as a planet passes in front of a star.

Now, a couple of Columbia University astronomers are suggesting that lasers could be used as cloaking devices that would hide our planet from searches by ETI’s.

Then again, perhaps possible extraterrestrial intelligent beings are doing the same them to hide from us.

Want Active Children? Exercise during Pregnancy

Expectant moms: if you want your baby to grow into a physically active adult, and help prevent obesity, a new study suggests that you’ll need to exercise regularly and stay physically active throughout your pregnancy.

Scientists at the Baylor College of Medicine, in Texas, picked a number of genetically identical female mice that enjoyed running.

The mice were split into two groups. One group was allowed access to running wheels during their pregnancy while the others were denied the privilege.

The Baylor team found that mice born to mothers who exercised throughout their pregnancy wound up being 50 percent more physically active than those born to less active mothers.

The researchers later found that the physically active youngsters continued to be energetic into adulthood.

Several groups of experts already recommend that women who are pregnant without any complications get at least 30 minutes moderate exercise each day.

Rotating Neutron Star Found In Andromeda Galaxy

Italian astronomers say they have observed something never seen before – a fast spinning neutron star in the nearby Andromeda, or the M31, galaxy.

Their findings were published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Neutron stars are very small compacted remains of a star that exploded in a supernova.

Some spinning neutron stars, called pulsars, can produce a focused beam of magnetic radiation which some say resembles a lighthouse beacon.

Since they rotate, their light can appear to be pulsating.

While pulsars and other rotating neutron stars are quite common in our own Milky Way, this marks the first time such an object has been spotted in the Andromeda Galaxy.

The astronomers made their discovery as they were reviewing past data from the European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton space telescope.

The WIYN telescope building at sunset. (NOAO/AURA/NSF)

The WIYN telescope building at sunset. (NOAO/AURA/NSF)

New Device Will Help Find Exoplanets

Since 1988, astronomers have found over 2,000 exoplanets or planets outside of our solar system.

To help spot these planets, scientists have used a number of technologies such as the Kepler Space Telescope.

Now NASA is moving on to an even newer and more sophisticated instrument for planet-hunting.

This new cutting-edge device is called NEID, short for NN-Explore Exoplanet Investigations with Doppler Spectroscopy.

The instrument will spot the extra solar planets by measuring the tiny “wobbling” of stars.

Nee-id is part of a planned planet-searching partnership between the space agency and the National Science Foundation.

The device will be built by at Pennsylvania State University, and is expected to be completed in 2019.

It will be installed on the 3.5-meter WIYN telescope (pictured above) at the Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona.

Malaria Has Been Around Much Longer Than Thought

The World Health Organization describes malaria as a life-threatening disease caused by parasites that are spread to people when they are bitten by infected female mosquitoes.

Some think that the disease originated as recently as 15,000 years ago.

Now, researchers at Oregon State University have traced the origins of malaria and find that that it has evolved for at least 100 million years.

They say the first vertebrates to be infected were most likely reptiles and at that time this group of animals included the dinosaurs.

But instead of mosquitoes spreading the malaria parasite to its victims, these prehistoric forms of the disease were carried by other insects such as a family of small flies called the biting midge.

The researchers say that understanding malaria’s evolution could help scientists develop new methods to stop its transmission.

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.