August 2016 Science Images

Posted August 31st, 2016 at 4:00 pm (UTC-4)
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NASA astronauts Jeff Williams, who is shown here, along with crewmate Kate Rubins (who can be seen reflected in William’s visor) successfully installed a new international docking adapter 8/19/16 during a five hour and 58-minute spacewalk. (NASA)

NASA astronauts Jeff Williams, shown here along with crewmate Kate Rubins (who can be seen reflected in William’s visor) successfully installed a new international docking adapter 8/19/16 during a six-hour spacewalk. (NASA)

This is a small 3D printed robot called Octobot. On 8/24/16, a team of researchers from Harvard University announced that they had demonstrated the first autonomous, untethered, entirely soft robot. (Lori Sanders)

This is a small 3D printed robot called Octobot. On 8/24/16, a team of researchers from Harvard University announced that they had demonstrated the first autonomous, untethered, entirely soft robot. (Lori Sanders)

Here is a time time-lapse photo of 41 meteors that were captured in around 2 hours on 8/12/16 from Anglesey, UK at the peak of the annual Perseid Meteor Shower. (Kev Lewis via Flickr/Creative Commons)

Here is a time time-lapse photo of 41 meteors captured in about two hours on 8/12/16 from Anglesey, UK at the peak of the annual Perseid Meteor Shower. (Kev Lewis via Flickr/Creative Commons)

In this artist impression, the small, flying reptiles known as azhdarchoid pterosaurs are not surrounded not by other pterosaurs, but by birds. Some researchers have argued that pterosaurs were ecologically replaced by birds by the Late Cretaceous epoch. However, the discovery of small-bodied pterosaur remains from British Columbia, announced 8/30/16, shows that at least some smaller flying reptiles lived alongside ancient birds. (Dr. Mark Witton)

In this artist’s impression, the small, flying reptiles known as azhdarchoid pterosaurs are not surrounded not by other pterosaurs, but by birds. Some researchers have argued that pterosaurs were ecologically replaced by birds by the Late Cretaceous epoch. However, the discovery of small-bodied pterosaur remains from British Columbia, announced 8/30/16, shows that at least some smaller flying reptiles lived alongside ancient birds. (Dr. Mark Witton)

A mockup of NASA's Orion spacecraft hits the water in a simulated ocean splashdown test at NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, VA on 8/25/16. The spacecraft is designed for deep space travel and will someday ferry astronauts to Mars. An unmanned test flight is scheduled for 2018 with the first crewed flight is slated for 2023. (NASA)

A mockup of NASA’s Orion spacecraft hits the water in a simulated splashdown test at NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, VA on 8/25/16. The spacecraft is designed for deep space travel and will some day ferry astronauts to Mars. An unmanned test flight is scheduled for 2018 with the first crewed flight slated for 2023. (NASA)

A model of an innovative street-straddling bus called Transit Elevated Bus is seen after a test run in Hebei Province, China, 8/3/16. According to local media this test is capable of carrying 300 people (Reuters)

A model of an innovative street-straddling bus called Transit Elevated Bus is seen after a test run in Hebei Province, China, 8/3/16. According to local media, this test is capable of carrying 300 people (Reuters)

Artist’s impression of the surface of the exoplanet Proxima Centauri b orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri, the closest star to our solar system. You can also see the better known double star Alpha Centauri AB in the image. Astronomers at the European Southern Observatory announced the discovery of the exoplanet, which is only 4.2 light years away from Earth on 8/24/16. The planet orbits its star within the habitable zone, where the temperature is said to be suitable for liquid water to exist on its surface. (ESO/M. Kornmesser)

This is an artist’s impression of the surface of the exoplanet Proxima Centauri b orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri, the closest star to our solar system. You can also see the double star Alpha Centauri AB in the image. Astronomers at the European Southern Observatory announced the discovery of the exoplanet, which is only 4.2 light years away from Earth on 8/24/16. The planet orbits its star within the habitable zone, where the temperature is said to be suitable for liquid water to exist on its surface. (ESO/M. Kornmesser)

Geoffrey Hargreaves, curator of the National Ice Core Laboratory, is shown in this 8/8/16 photo, gently placing an arctic ice core on a table inside the deep freeze work area at the lab, in Lakewood, Colo. Scientists are able to look back at past cosmic event such as solar flares or other cosmic by the distinctive radioactive atoms left in the snow. Also dust blown in from distant continents can offer clues about atmospheric circulation. (AP)

Geoffrey Hargreaves, curator of the National Ice Core Laboratory, is shown in this 8/8/16 photo, gently placing an arctic ice core on a table inside the deep freeze work area at the lab, in Lakewood, Colo. Scientists are able to look at past cosmic events such as solar flares or other cosmic by the distinctive radioactive atoms left in the snow. Also, dust blown in from distant continents can offer clues about atmospheric circulation. (AP)

On 8/30/16 it was announced that scientists using various NASA, ESA and ground-based telescopes have found the most distant galaxy cluster so far. At 11.1 billion light years from Earth this is Galaxy Cluster CL J1001+0220 or CLJ1001 for short. (NASA/CXC/CEA/T. Wang et al; Infrared: ESO/UltraVISTA; Radio: ESO/NAOJ/NRAO/ALMA)

On 8/30/16 it was announced that scientists using various NASA, ESA and ground-based telescopes have found the most distant galaxy cluster so far. At 11.1 billion light years from Earth this is Galaxy Cluster CL J1001+0220 or CLJ1001 for short. (NASA/CXC/CEA/T. Wang et al; Infrared: ESO/UltraVISTA; Radio: ESO/NAOJ/NRAO/ALMA)

Another step towards driverless cars. Here Uber employees test the self-driving Ford Fusion hybrid cars in Pittsburgh, Pa on 8/18/16. (AP)

In another step toward driverless cars, Uber employees test the self-driving Ford Fusion hybrid cars in Pittsburgh, Pa on 8/18/16. (AP)

Here’s another uniquely designed robot in a photo taken on 8/3/16. This stingray-shaped robot, designed in a laboratory at Harvard University, can paddle through water in water after being exposed to blue light. Scientists have constructed the robot from rat heart muscle, gold and silicone. (AP)

Here’s another uniquely designed robot in a photo taken on 8/3/16. This stingray-shaped robot, designed in a laboratory at Harvard University, can paddle through water in water after being exposed to blue light. Scientists have constructed the robot from rat heart muscle, gold and silicone. (AP)

NASA's Juno spacecraft successfully completed the first of 36 scheduled orbital flybys of Jupiter recently. In this view, Jupiter's north polar region is coming into view as the spacecraft approaches the giant planet. This view of the Jovian planet was taken on 8/27/16, when Juno was 703,000 kilometers away. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS)

NASA’s Juno spacecraft successfully completed the first of 36 scheduled orbital flybys of Jupiter recently. In this view, Jupiter’s north polar region is coming into view as the spacecraft approaches the giant planet. This view of the Jovian planet was taken on 8/27/16, when Juno was 703,000 kilometers away. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS)

 

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.

Artistry Under the Ice

Posted August 29th, 2016 at 12:04 pm (UTC-4)
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Deep within Amundsen-Scott South Pole station lies the entrance to the ice tunnels– a serpentine network of narrow passages and catacombs carved deep beneath the frozen polar plateau.

The ice tunnels meander underground for nearly a kilometer. The lighting is dim, the floor slick and the artwork outstanding. (Photo: R. Klein)

The ice tunnels meander underground for nearly a kilometer. The lighting is dim, the floor slick and the artwork outstanding. (Photo: R. Klein)

Starting from just outside the station’s power plant, they run for nearly a kilometer at a gently descending grade until they reach their terminus 24 meters below ground–the entrance of the Rodwell, the station’s fresh water drinking supply.

Through these tunnels run heavily insulated pipes that carry fresh water to the station, waste heat to the Rodwell and sewage to the outfall.  They are also home to the world’s oldest permanent installation of South Pole artwork.  Along their shear vertical walls, one encounters rectangular shelves of varying dimensions that have been cut into the ice using chainsaws and primitive hand tools.  They range in volume from that of a tissue box to a twin-size mattress.  Each acts as a pedestal, frame or diorama box for a single piece of artistry.

 

From found object and Dada, to Surrealism and pop, the installations that adorn the ice tunnels cover a wide range of expression and theme.  The Last Tub of Vanilla Ice Cream from 2012 (Artist Unknown) sits with its lid askew, tempting the viewer to look inside.

The Last Tub of Vanilla Ice Cream from 2012-- a perplexing piece. (Photo: R. Klein)

The Last Tub of Vanilla Ice Cream from 2012– a perplexing piece. (Photo: R. Klein)

Is The Last Tub a story of hardship–a winter endured with a limited supply of frozen custards–or does it symbolize polar gluttony, asking the viewer to reflect on the quantity of sugary treats the modern Antarctic explorer consumes? It is the first piece one encounters in the ice tunnels, and perhaps the most enigmatic and controversial from a curatorial perspective.

Acting as a foil to The Last Tub is the Tomb of the Unknown Carpenter (Artist and date Unknown). It is a 25 centimeter mixed-media sculpture depicting a humanoid figure in front of a headstone twice its size.

A visitor to the Ice Tunnels takes a moment to admire the craftsmanship of The Tomb of the Unknown Carpenter. (Photo: R. Klein)

A visitor to the Ice Tunnels takes a moment to admire the craftsmanship of The Tomb of the Unknown Carpenter. (Photo: R. Klein)

Built from broken saws, battery brackets and chains, the totem stands erect, arms outstretched, challenging the observer with its presence.  It is the physicality of man in the face of adversity, in the face of a cold death.  It is a piece purpose-built for its icy surroundings—the relational aesthetics exact—forcing viewers to contemplate the immediate dangers that surround them, and the high probability of losing an ear, toe or finger to frostbite by the time they leave the exhibit.

Werner Herzog's Greatest Hits--one of the most popular pieces in the Ice Tunnel's permanent collection. How a whole intact sturgeon was smuggled into the South Pole is a question that keeps many "Winter Overs" up at night. (Photo: R. Klein)

Werner Herzog’s Greatest Hits–one of the most popular pieces in the Ice Tunnel’s permanent collection. How a whole intact sturgeon was smuggled into the South Pole is a question that keeps many “Winter Overs” up at night. (Photo: R. Klein)

Moving onwards, the creativity and vision continue to pump like the music at an Ibiza night club: a one-meter long sturgeon titled Werner Herzog’s Greatest Hits, a hyper-realistic bust of polar explorer Roald Amundsen carved from a block of ice, a surreal scene of multi-colored, plastic toy ponies and horses grazing and frolicking in a golden world.

By the time visitors complete their underground tour of MOMA Antarctica, they will have viewed nearly a dozen pieces, each one exceptional and singularly unique—a purposefully and perfectly dysfunctional collection of the South Pole’s most profound thoughts and questions, and the creativity inspired by cold, dark months at the bottom of the world.

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.

Dark Matter Galaxy; Making Bland Tasty; Ouchless Insulin

Posted August 26th, 2016 at 4:15 pm (UTC-4)
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The dark galaxy Dragonfly 44. The image on the left is a wide view of the galaxy and a close-up on the right. The massive galaxy consists almost entirely of Dark Matter. (Pieter Van Dokkum, Roberto Abraham, Gemini, Sloan Digital Sky Survey)

The dark galaxy Dragonfly 44. The image on the left is a wide view of the galaxy and a close-up on the right. The massive galaxy consists almost entirely of Dark Matter. (Pieter Van Dokkum, Roberto Abraham, Gemini, Sloan Digital Sky Survey)

Galaxy Made-Up of Mostly Dark Matter Discovered

A team of astronomers, using two of the world’s most powerful ground based telescopes, have discovered an enormous galaxy that’s only .01 percent visible.

The remaining 99.9 percent, according to the astronomers, is made up of dark matter.

The faint galaxy is called Dragonfly 44.

It’s located within the Coma cluster, about 321 million light-years from Earth, and is nearly 70 thousand light-years across.

To make their discovery, the astronomers used the W. M. Keck Observatory and the Gemini North telescope, which are both on Maunakea, Hawaii.

A spectrograph, a device that splits light into separate wavelengths, called DEIMOS was installed on the Keck Observatory’s Keck II telescope to help astronomers calculate the amount of dark matter in the galaxy.

Dark matter, a so-far unknown type of matter that we can’t see, is thought to make up about 27% of the observable universe.

Diabetic patient prepares a dose of insulin for injection (Silva via Flickr/Creative Commons)

Diabetic patient prepares a dose of insulin for injection (JonathanSilva via Flickr/Creative Commons)

Ouchless Insulin for Diabetics

The International Diabetes Foundation predicts that one in ten people will have diabetes by 2040.

Treatment for diabetes can include one or two painful injections of the hormone insulin every day.

Now, scientists at Niagara University in New York say they’ve developed an ideal transport system that can withstand some of the harsh environments of the human body and effectively deliver insulin where it needs to go without the need for those painful shots.

The insulin is contained in a small capsule, called Cholestosome™, which is made of naturally produced lipid molecules or fatty acids.

After testing in rodents, the researchers found the capsules can travel undamaged through the digestive system and then cells in the bloodstream take them in, break them apart, and release the insulin.

The researchers presented their findings at the 252nd National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society in Philadelphia.

Aliens? (Interdimensional Guardians/Creative Commons)

Aliens? (Interdimensional Guardians/Creative Commons)

Search for ET Shifts to Lower Frequency Range

For years, professional and amateur astronomers have been examining the skies with radio telescopes, searching any signs of extraterrestrial intelligence, or ETI.

Scanning UHF radio frequencies, mostly between 1.4–1.7 GHz, scientists carefully listen for any distinctive signal that might emerge from the background noise.

Lately scientists are focusing on a lower frequency range, between 80 to 300 MHz, to look for ETI.

The Murchison Widefield Array or MWA radio telescope, located in Western Australia, has been built by an international group of universities to specifically hunt for ETI signals in this frequency range.

Initial observations of a small piece of the sky and a limited range of frequencies yielded no ETI signals.

But the scientists at the MWA are planning future observations that will cover the full sky at the full frequency range. What if anything will they hear? We will stay tuned, so to speak!

Enjoying a sweet dessert (typexnick via Flickr/Creative Commons)

Enjoying a sweet dessert (typexnick via Flickr/Creative Commons)

Device Helps Bland Food Taste Good

A diet containing less fat, sugar or salt is often recommended to many to ensure good health.

But the downside of those diets might mean having to eat foods that really don’t taste that good.

Now French scientists say they are working on a device that could help diners on restrictive diets enjoy the full flavor of their favorite foods and still eat healthfully.

The device, they call the Gas Chromatograph-Olfactometry Associated Taste (GC-OAT) allows scientists to isolate specific aroma molecules associated with the full flavored food.

When you eat, your taste buds allow you to sense sweet, sour, salty, bitter and savory tastes.  But it’s the smell of the food that completes your perception of its taste.

The scientists say that by applying the proper amount of these aroma molecules in food, the brain can be fooled into thinking there is more salt, sugar or fat than what may actually be present in that very healthful food you are having for lunch.

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.

Oh! No Flowing H2O on The Red Planet?

Posted August 24th, 2016 at 4:15 pm (UTC-4)
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(Blue dots on this map indicate sites of recurring slope lineae (RSL) in part of the Valles Marineris canyon network on Mars. RSL are seasonal dark streaks that may be indicators of liquid water. The area mapped here has the highest density of known RSL on Mars. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona)

(Blue dots on this map indicate sites of recurring slope lineae (RSL) in part of the Valles Marineris canyon network on Mars. RSL are seasonal dark streaks that may be indicators of liquid water. The area mapped here has the highest density of known RSL on Mars. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona)

Last September, with much hoopla, NASA confirmed evidence of liquid water flowing on present-day Mars.

But a new study using data from the space agency’s Mars Odyssey mission throws some cold water on those findings.

About a year ago, the space agency’s Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM) onboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter identified the chemical signature of hydrated salts and minerals in the mysterious dark streaks, called “recurring slope lineae” or RSL.

These streaks can be seen flowing down the slopes of a number of Martian hills and mountains and craters.

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

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

NASA said that these dark streaks form in late spring, grow through the summer and then disappear by fall.

Scientists believe that these hydrated salts and minerals, called perchlorates, found in the Martian RSLs, lower the freezing point of water just like salt make snow and ice melt at cooler temperatures here on Earth. The salts were thought to help normally frozen water on Mars to flow.

But based on data gathered by the Thermal Emission Imaging Systems (THEMIS) aboard the Mars Odyssey spacecraft, which takes surface temperature measurements by infrared imaging, NASA scientists now believe the RSLs contain about “as much as in the driest desert sands on Earth.”

The space agency says these new findings really don’t contradict the September 2015 findings, since they did identify hydrated salt at these flows, something that has long been considered to be possible indicators for the presence of liquid water on modern Mars.

“Our findings are consistent with the presence of hydrated salts, because you can have hydrated salt without having enough for the water to start filling pore spaces between particles,” explained Christopher Edwards of Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff.

He said that the RSL salts can still absorb water from vapor in the Martian atmosphere without the need for any underground water source.

However, the new surface temperature measurements did provide Edwards and his colleague, Sylvain Piqueux of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, with an indication of just how much water is present within the RSL streaks.

Thermal Emission Imaging System - THEMIS, One of the scientific intruments aboard the Mars Odyssey. (NASA/JPL)

Thermal Emission Imaging System – THEMIS, One of the scientific intruments aboard the Mars Odyssey. (NASA/JPL)

The study authors say that by measuring just how quickly the surface temperature of small patch of ground heats up during the day and then cools off at night can provide evidence of just how much water, if any, can be found in the spaces between particles of soil or grains of sand.

They also pointed out other factors that can affect just how fast the Martian surface can lose heat. These include determining just how deep moisture reaches into the ground and how much water might present atop the surface.

If the thickness of RSL soil that might contain water is only wafer-thin, then according to the study’s calculations there is only about 3 grams of water for each kilogram of soil, which they say is about the same as some of the driest places on Earth.

But, if layer of RSL soil is thicker, the findings show that the quantity of water per kilogram of soil must be even less, according to the temperature measurements.

Edwards and Piqueux say that while there is a margin of error in gathering temperature data with THEMIS – as much a 1 degree Celsius – this difference was considered in determining the greatest possible amount of either frozen or liquid water in the ground material.

“Some type of water-related activity at the uphill end still might be a factor in triggering RSL, but the darkness of the ground is not associated with large amounts of water, either liquid or frozen,” Edwards said. “Totally dry mechanisms for explaining RSL should not be ruled out.”

A report detailing the findings by Edwards and Piqueux has been accepted for publication by the journal Geophysical Research Letters and is currently available online.

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 air down there

Posted August 23rd, 2016 at 9:19 am (UTC-4)
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To keep an eye on our changing climate, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Global Monitoring Division (GMD) operates six atmospheric baseline observatories around the world. They stretch from high in the Arctic Circle to the South Pole. Each facility collects similar data, and uses near-identical instruments and operating procedures to do so. By standardizing research at each site, GMD is able to paint an accurate picture of the chemical constituents that impact Earth’s climate. All of GMD’s data is available for free online, so if you are interested in seeing how the abundance and distribution of Aerosol Particles have changed over the past 10 years take a look at our website.

Many of the stations continuously operating, in vitro instruments, sample air from intakes on ARO's meteorological tower. It takes over 200 feet of tubing to connect an instrument in the building to an inlet at the top of the tower. (Photo: Hunter Davis)

Many of the stations continuously operating, in vitro instruments, sample air from intakes on ARO’s meteorological tower. It takes over 200 feet of tubing to connect an instrument in the building to an inlet at the top of the tower. (Photo: Hunter Davis)

At the South Pole’s Atmospheric Research Observatory (ARO), we operate and maintain instruments that are used for studying solar radiation, aerosols, ozone, ozone-depleting substances and carbon dioxide (CO2). Most of the instruments run continuously, processing steady streams of air that are pumped in from atop our 30 meter meteorological tower or from a 6 meter mast attached to the top of our building. This continuous, on-location data collection is known as “in situ” or onsite sampling. It allows us to collect an abundance of data, often by-the-minute averages that are useful for studying high resolution, day-to-day trends.

Of course, there is a limit to what our in situ instruments can measure, and the accuracy and precision with which they do so. The carbon dioxide analyzer we use cannot measure the presence of CO2 isotopes, which are important in understanding whether the CO2 we see is coming from burning fossil fuels or from forest fires. Similarly, our gas chromatograph can measures tens of different compounds with part-per-trillion accuracy, but a slight leak in any of its hundreds of delicate parts can destroy our data’s robustness and be nearly impossible to detect.

We address the shortcomings of our in situ measurements by collecting physical in vitro or glass flask samples of the same South Pole air our instruments analyze. Every week, air is collected in a variety of flasks and each summer, they are sent back to various laboratories around the world for detailed studies of the air they contain. In the proper setting, the in vitro samples allow for more precise and accurate measurements than our in situ systems, and can often reveal chemical compounds such as CO2 isotopes that would otherwise pass through our instruments undetected.

Furthermore, in vitro sampling allows us to identify and troubleshoot problems that may arise with our in situ experiments. For example, if a series of flask samples taken from the Gas Chromatograph air lines show a higher or lower detection rate of a Halon (an ozone-depleting substance found in old fire suppression systems), then we know there may be an issue with the instrument, and in turn, the data it’s collecting.

At ARO, glass flasks are filled for a number of research groups operating outside of NOAA. Above, samples are prepared for the The Commonwealth Industrial and Scientific Research Organization of Australia. (Photo: R. Klein)

At ARO, glass flasks are filled for a number of research groups operating outside of NOAA. Above, samples are prepared for the The Commonwealth Industrial and Scientific Research Organization of Australia. (Photo: R. Klein)

Over the course of a year, I’ll collect more than 300 flask samples for five distinct research projects. Flask sampling days are perhaps my longest, with some individual flasks taking more than an hour to flush, fill and package.

The samples can only be collected when the winds are blowing at high speed through our clean air sector; in other words, not over the power plant. This means flask sampling days often coincide with some of the South Pole’s worst weather—whiteouts, blowing snow and wind chills below minus 73 Celsius (minus 100F).

The most challenging flasks to fill are those that require me to collect air from deep within the clean air sector, using heavy portable sampling units that must be hand-carried through the night, across snow drifts and ankle-breaking sastrugi, to designated sampling locations.

Walking into the wind, my goggles removed to better see and avoid the more hazardous topography, my eyelashes will collect snow and ice, and mini drifts will form against my eyelids. When this happens, I’m careful not to blink too slowly, because if I do, my eyes will freeze shut and I’ll have to work in an even greater darkness.

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.

Oxygen on Exoplanet; Smaller Universe; Intergalactic Tan

Posted August 19th, 2016 at 4:15 pm (UTC-4)
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This artist's conception shows the rocky exoplanet GJ 1132b, located 39 light-years from Earth. New research shows that it might possess a thin, oxygen atmosphere - but no life due to its extreme heat. (Dana Berry/Skyworks Digital/CfA)

This artist’s conception shows the rocky exoplanet GJ 1132b, located 39 light-years from Earth. (Dana Berry/Skyworks Digital/CfA)

Nearby Exoplanet’s Atmosphere May Contain Oxygen

In November 2015, scientists discovered a Venus-like planet that’s only 39 light years away, called Gliese 1132b.

The planet is thought to have an atmosphere, despite having a blistering temperature of more than 230° degrees Celsius, since it orbits its red dwarf star from a distance of only 2.25 million kilometers.

A new study suggests that the exoplanet’s atmosphere is thick and dense and may contain a little bit oxygen too.

Since the planet is so relatively close to its sun, scientists say it’s being bombarded with ultraviolet light.

This UV light can break down water molecules, separating them into hydrogen and oxygen. Since hydrogen is so light, it can easily escape into space, leaving some of the oxygen to stay behind.

Study authors say they think the planet has a strong greenhouse effect, which can increase its already hot temperature. Because of this, it’s thought that the planet’s surface, which is molten, will remain so for millions of years.

A simulated view of the entire observable universe, approximately 93 billion light years or 28 billion parsecs in diameter. (Azcolvin429 via Creative Commons)

A simulated view of the entire observable universe, approximately 93 billion light years or 28 billion parsecs in diameter. (Azcolvin429 via Creative Commons)

Observable Universe Might Be Smaller Than Thought

Did you ever wonder – how big is the universe?

In 2005, scientists, using data from NASA’s Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP), calculated the radius of the observable universe, with Earth as its center, to be 45.66 billion light years in length.

Since then, this calculation has been considered to be the standard throughout the astrophysics community.

But now, according to a blog piece written by Nick Tomasello on the website medium.com, he and Paul Halpern of the University of the Sciences have made some new calculations.

With data gathered by the European Space Agency’s Planck Satellite, they find the radius is actually a bit smaller, at 45.34 billion light years.

That’s not the entire universe, it’s the observable universe, based on the farthest light to reach Earth, which is 13.8 billion light years away.

And in all the time it took that light to reach us, the universe kept right on expanding, to its present calculated radius of 45.34 billion light years.

Instructor teaches a class at the ESA Training and Learning Center in Belgium ((C) ESA)

Instructor teaches a class at the ESA Training and Learning Center in Belgium ((C) ESA)

Learn How to “Drive” a Spacecraft

The European Space Agency is offering a special four-day course to university students that will provide a unique overview of spacecraft operations.

Called the Ladybird Guide to Spacecraft Operations, this ESA course will be taught without a lot of advanced mathematics or technical jargon.

To apply, you must meet several qualifications, such as being a citizen of a European Space Agency Member or Cooperating State.

They recommend applicants have a good grasp on basic physics and can quickly develop an understanding of the various aspects of spaceflight operations.

The European space agency says the course will be held at its Training and Learning Academy in Belgium from October 11 through 14, 2016.

Application forms can be found at the ESA website at www.esa.int and must be submitted by September 4, 2016.

Where your tan comes from. (ICRAR/Dan Hutton)

Where your tan comes from. (ICRAR/Dan Hutton)

A Little Bit of Your Suntan Comes from Intergalactic Space

One of the most popular things to do in the summer is to lay on the beach or in your backyard, on a sunny day, to soak up sun-rays to get a suntan.

Scientists figure that as you lie in the sun, you’re being blasted by nearly one-sextillion photons per second. That’s a one followed by 21 zeroes.

A new Australian study finds that while most of it comes from our own sun, a tiny portion of the suntan producing energy actually comes from outside the Milky Way, traveling for billions of years before finally hitting Earth.

The study suggests that we are constantly bombarded by about 10 billion photons per second from beyond our galaxy when we’re outside both day and night.

Scientists call this energy extragalactic background light. They say it’s produced from within the cores of stars in distant galaxies or from supermassive black holes.

The study also points out that intergalactic dust downgrades this energy into a wavelength that isn’t really harmful to humans.

A commercial airliner produces a condensation trail in the skies over California. (Mick West)

A commercial airliner produces a condensation trail in the skies over California. (Mick West)

Scientists Debunk So-Called “Chemtrail” Conspiracy Theory

76 of 77 top atmospheric scientists have debunked the so-called chemtrail conspiracy theory says a new survey.

In the late 1990s, an internet rumor developed that suggested dangerous chemicals or bio-agents were being mixed into the condensation trails, or contrails of jet aircraft.

Contrails, which look like white cloud-like streaks in the sky, are actually a bands of condensed water produced by aircraft or rockets at high altitude.

According to a 2011 international survey nearly 17 percent of respondents believed the existence of a secret large-scale atmospheric spraying program to be true.

Believers of the theory suggest that any contrail that doesn’t disperse after a few seconds or minutes must contain harmful chemical elements.

But scientists say condensation trails can last from a couple of seconds to even hours, depending on weather conditions.

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 Day Geoscience Saved the World From Possible Armageddon

Posted August 12th, 2016 at 3:40 pm (UTC-4)
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Artist illustration of events on the sun changing the conditions in Near-Earth space which can generate geomagnetic storms. These storms can interupt radar, radio communications and electrical grids on Earth. (NASA)

Artist illustration of events on the sun changing the conditions in Near-Earth space which can generate geomagnetic storms. These storms can interupt radar, radio communications and electrical grids on Earth. (NASA)

In the late 1960s, U.S. military action that would likely have led to nuclear Armageddon was averted, thanks to wary officers who looked for explanations other than Soviet aggression when warning systems suggested otherwise.

A new study by three retired U.S. Air Force officers and researchers at the University of Colorado, Boulder, details the events of May 23, 1967.  On that day, officials at the three Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS) sites in the Northern Hemisphere noticed that radar and radio communication systems weren’t working properly. It appeared they were being jammed.

Three of the huge AN/FPS-50 radars at the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System Site 2, near Anderson, Alaska, in 1962. (Library of Congress/US National Park Service)

Three of the huge AN/FPS-50 radars at the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System Site 2, near Anderson, Alaska, in 1962. (Library of Congress/US National Park Service)

These military installations in Greenland, Alaska and in England were designed to spot any possible incoming Soviet missiles that might be armed with nuclear weapons.

Since it was the height of the Cold War, it was immediately thought that the USSR was deliberately jamming their equipment.

At the time, any purposeful jamming or interruption of radar capabilities at sites like these was considered to be an attack and an act of war.

So thinking that the BMEWS radar and communications systems were being compromised, the U.S. Air Force prepared their aircraft for possible nuclear war.

Fortunately, the Command Post at the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) asked Arnold L. Snyder, a solar forecaster for its Solar Forecast Center, about any solar activity that might be occurring at the time.

“Yes, half the sun has blown away,” recalled Snyder who said he was quite excited at the time. The now retired Air Force Lt. Colonel, commenting in a press release, said that after his initial outburst he was able to calmly provide details about one of the largest geomagnetic storms of the 20th century to his commanders at NORAD.

According to their website, NORAD is a combined organization of the United States and Canada that provides aerospace warning, air sovereignty, and defense for Northern America.

The command Post of the North American Air Defense Command -NORAD - Cheyenne Mountain Complex (US Dept. of Defense)

The command Post of the North American Air Defense Command – NORAD – Cheyenne Mountain Complex (US Dept. of Defense)

At the time of the incident, NORAD was operating at their celebrated Cheyenne Mountain Complex near Colorado Springs, Colorado. The facility had achieved ‘Full Operational Capability’ just a few months earlier.

Using Snyder’s solar observations and realizing that the three BMEWS sites were in sunlight at the time, NORAD realized that the radars and other communications gear were not being jammed by the USSR but by our own sun.

It was also noted that as the huge solar storm calmed the radar sites became operational again, providing even more evidence that the disruption was caused by the sun.

The study’s authors say they believe that NORAD’s information from the Solar Forecast Center was passed up through the military’s chain of command just in time to stop any military action, which may have included the use of nuclear weapons.

Various public documents analyzed for the study also indicate that the information may have been passed along to President Lyndon Johnson, who was the U.S. military’s commander-in-chief.

The three retired Air Force officers who co-authored the study were on duty that day and were involved in forecasting and analyzing the huge geomagnetic storm.

US Air Force B52 Stratofortress aircraft like was loaded with nuclear weapons and flew a constant 24-hour airborne alert in case of a possible nuclear attack by the Soviet Union. (USAF)

US Air Force B52 Stratofortress in flight. (USAF)

It’s also important to note that throughout much of the 1960s, the U.S. Air Force kept nuclear weapon laden B-52 Stratofortress aircraft flying to maintain a constant 24-hour airborne alert in case of a possible nuclear attack by the Soviet Union.

In the late 1950s at the dawn of the ‘space age’ the U.S. military took steps to keep tabs on solar activity, such as solar flares and space weather, since it became known that they can lead to geomagnetic storms, which can disrupt crucial radio communications and other crucial elements like our nation’s power grids.

The Air Force took space weather forecasting a step further in the 1960s when it established a new branch of its Air Weather Service devoted to monitoring events such as solar flares, coronal holes, solar winds, and others.

Today the Space Weather Prediction Center, operated jointly by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. Air Force continually monitors and forecasts Earth’s space environment and distributes solar-terrestrial information.

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.

Clean-up Day at the South Pole

Posted August 9th, 2016 at 12:05 pm (UTC-4)
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It takes a lot of hands to keep the South Pole Station Clean. Every Tuesday, the entire winter over crew rallies to clean every square inch of the facility. (Photo: C. Krueger)

It takes a lot of hands to keep the South Pole Station Clean. Every Tuesday, the entire winter over crew rallies to clean every square inch of the facility. (Photo: C. Krueger)

You’d be surprised how much mess 50 people in a large research station can create. Here at the South Pole, where it takes six months for the sun to rise, it only takes two days for a 30 gallon (113 liter) trashcan in the bathroom to be stuffed to the brim and overflowing with used paper towels. Hallway floors turn from bright white to off white in a little less than a week. Dust accumulates, in every corner, on every surface—the collective residue of the station residents’ epidermis, aggravated by dry air, frigid temperatures, and lackluster use of moisturizing lotions.

Fortunately, there is a rigorous system in place for preventing the station from falling into total decay. Where you are from, it might be called Sunday morning cleaning. If you are young and living in a group home, it’s the chore wheel taped to the refrigerator. If you are working for the National Science Foundation in Antarctica, it’s called House Mouse, and takes place every Tuesday from 4 to 5 in the afternoon.

A focused House Mouser sterilizes each of the station's 100 door knobs--one of many tasks that take place weekly. (Photo: R. Klein)

A focused House Mouser sterilizes each of the station’s 100 door knobs–one of many tasks that take place weekly. (Photo: R. Klein)

I am not sure how an hour of mandatory community cleaning came to be called “House Mouse.” I am no etymologist, but I do have a few pet theories—I’ll share one of them with you.

If there is one thing all grown men detest, it’s having to clean the departed follicles and urinary inaccuracies from the rim of a well-used, public, 1.5gpf white porcelain toilet. It is a brutal experience that comes with a brutal stigma that not even soaking in bleach can remove. “House Mouse” trivializes the experience of cleaning out the urinal, or pulling wads of hair out of the shower drain. The phrase rhymes, and stirs up images of anthropomorphized rodents and Disney classics. It makes the dirtiest tasks feel cute, and when you are hanging out with your friends at dinner, and one of them asks what you did that afternoon, you can say “House Mouse” and everyone smiles, still willing to shake your hand, and accept the bottle of hot sauce you passed down the table.

During House Mouse, the entire station breaks from their usual tasks, and picks up a broom or mop or some all-purpose cleaner. From the right vantage point, the hour appears to unfurl like the “Off to Work” scene in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, with stout men, complete with full beards, popping out of the subfloor, marching up ladder wells and throwing open office doors, keenly focused on the task ahead, and moving with determination towards the nearest cleaning locker.

VIDEO: House Mouse mopping

Often, we work in teams of four, typically divided by work center, to accomplish the particular duty we have been assigned that week. To my advantage, my team includes two previous winter-overs, who – between their multiple decades on ice – have developed effective strategies for tackling even the most unsavory “House Mouse” duties. Needless to say, I expect to learn much under their tutelage.

VIDEO: The most efficient way to mop a treadmill

Last week, my team was assigned one of the better chores on station—working with the Winter Site Manager to replace old, worn-out furniture in our lounges with new furniture that had arrived before the station closed. The work was physically demanding, as we had to haul couches, love seats and chairs up multiple flights of stairs, and down long hallways, but it was rewarding– the type of task that makes it okay to have two slices of chocolate cake with butter-pecan ice cream and sprinkles at dinner.

Over the next several months, every team will rotate through each House Mouse activity, meaning sooner or later, I’ll end up on bathroom duty. It’s still a few weeks out. Next week is tidying up the Arts and Crafts Room, and the week after that will be shoveling snow from the station’s main entrance and emergency exits. I’m not looking forward to my expedition into the toilet stalls, but as more than one South Pole veteran has told me, “it’s a harsh continent.”

Refael Klein
Refael Klein is a Lieutenant Junior Grade in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Commissioned Officer Corps (NOAA Corps). He's contributing to Science World during his year-long assignment working and living in the South Pole.

Black Hole Back Doors?; Io’s Atmosphere; No New Stars in Galaxy Center

Posted August 5th, 2016 at 3:50 pm (UTC-4)
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A computer-generated image of the light distortions created by a black hole. (Credit: Alain Riazuelo, IAP/UPMC/CNRS)

A computer-generated image of the light distortions created by a black hole. (Credit: Alain Riazuelo, IAP/UPMC/CNRS)

Do Black Holes Have Back Doors?

Most people describe a black hole as a cosmic object with gravity so strong that it sucks in any kind of material that comes close to it.

What happens to stuff that is pulled into a black hole?

Some scientists think that matter that enters a black hole gets crushed into a tiny point at the center called a “singularity” and is destroyed.

A new Spanish study proposes that matter may survive its trip into a black hole and then exit out its other side.

The study suggests that the black hole’s singularity could be compared to an imperfection in the geometric structure of space-time such as a wormhole.

According the researchers, after an object enters the black hole it would be stretched or “spaghettified,” which allows it to enter the wormhole. The object would then be restored to its normal size after exiting the wormhole.

Artist’s concept of the atmospheric collapse of Jupiter’s volcanic moon Io. (SwRI/Andrew Blanchard)

Artist’s concept of the atmospheric collapse of Jupiter’s volcanic moon Io. (SwRI/Andrew Blanchard)

Weird Things Happen to Jupiter Moon Io’s Atmosphere Every Day

Scientists, writing in the Journal of Geophysical Research-Planet, have found that the thin atmosphere of Io, one of Jupiter’s major moons, freezes, collapses and turns into surface frost every time it’s eclipsed by the giant planet.

The researchers found that once sunlight returns to Io its atmosphere, then reforms through a process known as sublimation, that’s when material that’s frozen solid quickly changes into gas without first turning into liquid.

The researchers noticed that when Io’s temperatures drop from -113 to -132 degrees Celsius its atmosphere begins to deflate.

As a result of tremendous volcanic activity it has been determined that a majority of Io’s atmosphere is made up of volcanic gases, mostly sulfur-dioxide.

Io, is considered, by scientists, to be the most volcanically active body in the entire solar system.

Jupiter eclipses Io for two hours of its day, every day. One day on Io equals about 1.7 Earth days.

An artist's impression of the implied distribution of young stars, represented here by Cepheids shown as blue stars, plotted on the background of a drawing of the Milky Way. (University of Tokyo)

An artist’s impression of the implied distribution of young stars, shown as blue stars, plotted on the background of a drawing of the Milky Way. (University of Tokyo)

Study: No New Stars at Milky Way’s Center

A new study finds a huge region at the center of Milky Way is devoid of young stars.

A team of Japanese, South African and Italian astronomers, writing in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, found that there are no Cepheid stars an area that extends to some 8,000 light years from our galaxy’s center.

Cepheid stars are said to repeatedly pulsate in brightness and are quite young, between 10 and 300 million years old, compared to our 4.6 billion year old sun.

Astronomer Giuseppe Bono, one of the study’s authors, said their research shows there has been no significant star formation in this large region of the Milky Way for over hundreds of millions years.

The researchers analyzed observations made in the near-infrared light range, since looking for stars so deep in the galaxy can be difficult. Accumulations of interstellar dust can block out light and can hide many stars from view.

(otodo via Flickr/Creative Commons)

(otodo via Flickr/Creative Commons)

Scientists Develop New Method to Convert CO2 into Fuel

A number of studies have linked increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide with global warming and climate change.

Because of this, scientists have focused a lot of their research efforts in trying to reduce the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere.

In process known as photosynthesis, trees and other plant life take CO2 in the air and with help from the sun converts it to sugars that store energy.

Now, a new study from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory and the University of Illinois at Chicago, offers a new method that could allow for the conversion of carbon dioxide into a usable energy source in a manner similar to photosynthesis.

Trees and plants use natural enzymes to help spark the CO2 conversion to sugars.

The study proposes the use of a metal compound called tungsten diselenide to help convert the greenhouse gas into usable fuel such as methanol.

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 beginning of the end of night at the South Pole

Posted August 2nd, 2016 at 9:57 am (UTC-4)
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With only a week left of perfect nighttime conditions, photographers around station are trying to capture their last images of the Aurora Australis and Milky Way. (Photo: Darren Lukkari)

With only a week left of perfect nighttime conditions, photographers around station are trying to capture their last images of the Aurora Australis and Milky Way. (Photo: Darren Lukkari)

Stars and auroras fill the night sky.  They blink and swerve through the darkness, like race cars on a dark, winding, celestial freeway.  For four months, they have been my steadfast companions, joining me on my walk to and from the Atmospheric Research Observatory (ARO) each morning.  On calm, clear days, they cast green and white light  downwards with such intensity that I can occasionally see my shadow and the forms and curves of the ice cap– everything bathed in ghostly colors, the auras of a cold, harsh and indifferent world.

On the darkest days, when the air is so cold and the wind so still that you feel like you’re floating in television static, I’ll drop to the ground and lay on my back, and view the night sky in repose.  The Milky Way spins above me, its origin directly overhead. Billions of stars, each a distinct pinprick of light, each crying out the infallible laws of nature, which–if you hold your breath and quiet your beating heart–you can almost hear.

After four months of darkness, many on station are eagerly awaiting the arrival of brighter days. Of course, the rising of the sun means a duller view of the cosmos. (Photo: Kyle Obrock)

After four months of darkness, many on station are eagerly awaiting the arrival of brighter days. Of course, the rising of the sun means a duller view of the cosmos. (Photo: Kyle Obrock)

Astronomical twilight has begun, and though the night sky looks no different, from this day forward, each day it will become imperceptibly lighter out.  Distant stars will begin disappear and the brightest will begin to dim.  The auroras will still be visible, though less vibrant.  They will fade from a bright green to a dull purple, and then finally evaporate, blending into the leaden sky like campfire smoke.

In a week, the moon will rise, so in a sense, this is our final week of pure darkness, our final week to trace spy satellites through the sky and count shooting stars.  The moon, the South Pole’s pale sun, will bathe the ice cap in light, and obscure all other celestial phenomena.  It will be bright enough to walk to ARO without tripping over myself, to see the silhouette of the facility from a quarter-mile away and to wander without fear of getting lost, off the flag line and into the never-ending expanse of the polar plateau.

By the time the moon sets, about two weeks after it rises, the sun will sit just 12 degrees below the horizon. It will be nearly as light out as when the moon was full and high.  This is the start of nautical twilight, when distant landforms, hills and mountains, or in our case, drifts and the hard, wind-swept ridges of snow known as sastrugi, become visible on the horizon—when the ice cap begins to take on shape and transform from a uniform black expanse into a landscape with observable topography.

The perfectly dark and clear night skies will disappear when the moon rises in one week. By the time it sets, only the brightest stars and planets will still be visible. (Photo: Christian Krueger)

The perfectly dark and clear night skies will disappear when the moon rises in one week. By the time it sets, only the brightest stars and planets will still be visible. (Photo: Christian Krueger)

The sun won’t be visible at this point, but you can trace its daily transit around the horizon—an orange and blue glow at the intersection of the night sky and the earth.   Each day, the glow growing more intense, the sun spiraling upwards more rapidly.  Each day, the stars disappearing into the greying sky, the auroras becoming more amorphous and dull.

A colorful winter will give way to a pallid spring; a welcome change, carrying promises of vitamin D and warmer weather.

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.