Stranded Until Spring: Last Flight Leaves South Pole Before Winter Hits

Posted March 8th, 2016 at 10:30 am (UTC-4)
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The season's last LC-130 plane turns toward the runway. It will be eight months until another aircraft lands at the station. (Photo: Tim Ager)

The season’s last LC-130 plane turns toward the runway. It will be eight months until another aircraft lands at the station. (Photo: Tim Ager)

It’s the season of long shadows. The ice cap is a maze of dark and light. The smallest protrusions of snow create as much shade as a beach umbrella at high noon. As I walk to work, I’m accompanied by a 20-foot projection of myself. It marches silently through a windswept landscape, numb to the cold, a perfect mime, shivering when I do.

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

The sun sits 10 degrees above the horizon. Temperatures are getting colder. They will hit minus 50 Fahrenheit (minus 46 Celsius) any day, the cut-off for flight operations.

The last flight to Pole was on Monday. It landed for 20 minutes, just long enough for the last summer contractors and scientists to say their goodbyes, crack a few inside jokes, and still have enough time to walk casually to the aircraft and make themselves comfortable on board.

“Jovial” is how the scene outside was described to me.  A 20-minute holiday with the majority of the station outside, giddy and talkative, like high school freshmen smoking their first cigarettes. For some, the last plane marks the beginning of winter. For others, it’s not until the sun sets.

South Pole Telescope and the other Dark Sector Labs were the last buildings the plane flew over. The plane did not cross into the the Clean Air Sector, which is  restricted to flight operations. (Photo: Amy Lowitz)

South Pole Telescope and the other Dark Sector Labs were the last buildings the plane flew over. The plane did not cross into the the Clean Air Sector, which is restricted to flight operations. (Photo: Amy Lowitz)

Perhaps this time of year is best described as autumn? When orange light washes over everything and there are no ETAs (estimated time of arrival) or ETDs (estimated time of departure) listed on the station’s intranet.

I was on the roof of the Atmospheric Research Observatory (ARO), checking the orientation of our solar equipment, when the plane landed.

This time of year, with the sun setting as quick as it is, we have to adjust the azimuth angle of our roof-top instruments daily so they remain in line with the sun and continue to collect accurate data. Since we can only collect solar data when then sun is up (six months a year), it’s particularly important that we keep things in good working order.

The plane took off in a cloud of exhaust and blowing snow. It sped down the 6,000-foot ice runway, engines booming, gradually lifting into the air — ever so slowly easing itself off the ground as if it were probing the atmosphere for some unknown danger, before all of a sudden committing to its station and climbing steeply into the cloudless sky.

It was the size of my hand, then my palm, then my index finger. The plane grew more distant every second, and the landscape grew quiet again.

Then, unexpectedly, when it was at a distance where I could easily squish it between my index finger and thumb, the plane turned. It banked sharply to the left and descended steeply, speeding towards the station.

After taking off, the plane unexpectedly turns back toward the station. It circles the South Pole and then heads back towards McMurdo Station in Antarctica. (Photo: Tim Ager)

After taking off, the plane unexpectedly turns back toward the station. It circles the South Pole and then heads back towards McMurdo Station in Antarctica. (Photo: Tim Ager)

It was not in line with the runway. As the aircraft drew closer, the engines out-screamed the wind. The plane continued to dive. The engines out-screamed the clutter in my mind and then, 500 feet off the ground, directly over the station, the plane banked again, tipping a wing before turning back towards the Ross Sea.

A dramatic goodbye from the flight crew. The aircraft commander must have said, “Let’s give these Polies a bit of a thrill, something to talk about over dinner,” before pushing the sticks forward and bringing the plane around and down.

Back inside ARO, it was only me and the hum of our instruments. I finished my afternoon checks and began responding to a few emails while intermittently working on a monthly report for the National Science Foundation.

My back became stiff from sitting so I took a break. I boiled water, made some mint tea and stepped outside onto our first-floor deck. The plane was gone and the wind was blowing snow across the plateau in long wispy waves.

There are only 50 of us on station now and, for the first time in three months, the 50 of us are all alone.

 

Look for Refael Klein’s weekly blogs from the South Pole here on Science World. You can read his previous posts here.

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.

Zika Kills Cells Crucial to Brain Development; Did Volcanoes Cause Mars to Tilt?

Posted March 7th, 2016 at 4:20 pm (UTC-4)
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In an image released on 1/18/16, a female Aedes aegypti mosquito is seen drawing a blood meal from the arm of a researcher at the Biomedical Sciences Institute in the Sao Paulo's University in Sao Paulo, Brazil. This mosquito species can spread the Zika virus, which is spreading in parts of Latin America and the Caribbean. (AP)

In an image released on 1/18/16, a female Aedes aegypti mosquito is seen drawing a blood meal from the arm of a researcher at the Biomedical Sciences Institute in the Sao Paulo’s University in Sao Paulo, Brazil. This mosquito species can spread the Zika virus, which is spreading in parts of Latin America and the Caribbean. (AP)

Study: Zika Virus Infects and Kills Fetal Cerebral Cortex Cells

This birth defect can cause babies to be born with an unusually small head and inhibited brain development.

The scientists, who made their findings based on experiments performed with lab-grown human stem cells, discovered that the Zika virus is attracted to and infects the cells that go on to form the brain’s outer layer, known as the cerebral cortex.

While they admit their findings do not provide absolute proof of a link between Zika and microcephaly, the researchers say that discovering vulnerability of the cortex forming cells to the virus is significant.

A connection between Zika and microcephaly arose from last year’s spread in the virus throughout the Americas and a significant increase in the cases of microcephaly, especially in Brazil.

The planet Mars in late spring as imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope (NASA/JPL/California Institute of Technology)

The planet Mars in late spring as imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope (NASA/JPL/California Institute of Technology)

Huge Volcanic Structure Behind Mars Tilt

French scientists have found that a massive volcanic structure caused the surface of Mars and not the rotational axis of Mars to tilt between 20 and 25 degrees over 3 billion years ago.

The scientists say that enormous amounts of lava that pumped out of the solar system’s largest volcanoes for over several hundred million years formed a volcanic dome in the Tharsis region of Mars.

In a paper published by the journal Nature, the research team, which included geomorphologists, geophysicists and climatologists, suggest that because it’s so incredibly enormous, the dome caused the Red Planet’s crust and mantle to rotate around its core.

It’s thought that the Tharsis volcanic dome, which is said to have a mass of a billion billion metric tons, started to form at a Martian latitude of about 20° north, over 3.7 billion years ago.

But the eventual surface shift that took place may explain why the volcanic plateau now sits on the Red Planet’s equator.

This close-up picture shows a ceramic-like refractory inclusion (pink inclusion) still embedded into the meteorite in which it was found. (Origins Lab, University of Chicago)

This close-up picture shows a ceramic-like refractory inclusion (pink inclusion) still embedded into the meteorite in which it was found. (Origins Lab, University of Chicago)

Rare Element in Meteorite Provides Clues to Solar System Origin

Scientists have found evidence of the rare element curium in a carbon-rich meteorite.

This radioactive element is not known to occur naturally on Earth but instead is manufactured or is produced as a side-effect of a nuclear explosion.

Curium, named after Pierre and Marie Curie, wasn’t discovered until 1944.

That’s when Glenn Seaborg and his colleagues at the University of California, Berkeley, created the element after bombarding the atoms of plutonium with alpha particles, which are the fast moving equivalent of a helium atom’s nucleus.

The researchers, who detail their discovery in the journal Science Advances, suggest that that the curium wound up in the meteorite during the formation of the solar system, after a gaseous cloud that went on to create the sun condensed.

The researchers say that they believe that finding this rare material in a meteorite may cause scientists to reconsider current models of stellar evolution and nucleosynthesis, which is a change in the chemical composition of a star.

This image shows the position of the most distant galaxy discovered so far. The remote galaxy GN-z11, shown in the inset, existed only 400 million years after the Big Bang (NASA, ESA, and P. Oesch (Yale University))

This image shows the position of the most distant galaxy discovered so far. The remote galaxy GN-z11, shown in the inset, existed only 400 million years after the Big Bang (NASA, ESA, and P. Oesch (Yale University))

Astronomers Find Most Distant Galaxy

An international team of astronomers, led by researchers at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, say they have found the most distant galaxy in the universe.

Light from this newly discovered faraway galaxy, called GN-z11, took 13.4 billion years to reach Earth, which is thought to be about 400 million years after the Big Bang.

Last September, astronomers at Caltech announced the discovery of what was then the most distant galaxy when they found EGS8p7 whose light traveled for 13.2 billion light years before being seen on Earth.

Detailing their discovery in the Astrophysical Journal, the researchers say that the newly found GN-z11 galaxy is “surprisingly bright,” and is located in the direction of the constellation of Ursa Major.

Using the Wide Field Camera 3 on NASA’s Hubble Space telescope, the researchers were able get a precise measurement of the distance to the galaxy spectroscopically, by separating the incoming light into its component colors.

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 Diary: In Giant Parkas, Rank Is Less Apparent

Posted March 1st, 2016 at 10:23 am (UTC-4)
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The DVs arrive. Distinguished visitors and a few other passengers disembark from their aircraft. Temperatures were warm and the winds were low, making it an ideal day for a visit to Pole.

The DVs arrive. Distinguished visitors and a few other passengers disembark from their aircraft. Temperatures were warm and the winds were low, making it an ideal day for a visit to Pole.

Supporting world-class, meaningful scientific research in a unique landscape makes working at the Atmospheric Research Observatory (ARO) one of the most enjoyable positions I’ve held in the NOAA Commissioned Officer Corps.

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

The data collected by the Global Monitoring Division (GMD) is critical to climate research and includes some of the longest continuous measurements of climate-forcing agents. Six baseline observatories make up the backbone of GMD’s data collection efforts. As station chief of the South Pole Observatory, I’ve been given a tremendous amount of responsibility — a rare position for a junior officer.

A typical day at work includes fixing malfunctioning equipment, performing routine maintenance on different experiments, and collecting data. The hours can be long, but they’re rewarding.

Of course, there are also some less-than-glamorous tasks that can make up my week. Shoveling snow off the roof, hauling trash to the waste facilities, vacuuming the floor, sounding the urine barrel — the station chief wears many hats.

DVs at Pole

A group photo at the Geographic South Pole. From left to right: Refael Klein, Deputy Under Secretary to Operations at NOAA Vice Admiral Michael Devany; Dr. Scott Borg, head of Antarctic Sciences for the National Science Foundation; Dr. Colleen Hart, NASA Goddard’s deputy center director for Science, Operations and Performance; Dr. Richard Spinrad, NOAA’s chief scientist.

While it can be easy to procrastinate when it comes to cleaning and facility maintenance, every now and then I manage to gain the motivation to put Windex to window and replace the burned out fluorescent lights.

This week, I had the added esprit de corps to organize my desk and find homes for the lingering wrenches and screwdrivers that litter nearly every work surface in the station.

It would be easy to let ARO continue to creep towards chaos, but this week we had a group of distinguished visitors (DVs) who were scheduled to spend time at the station and they had specifically requested a tour of GMD’s facility.

Given the fact that the group included NOAA’s chief scientist along with a three-star vice admiral, the highest ranking officer within NOAA, I thought it would be prudent to take the extra time to make sure the trash cans had been emptied and new steps cut into the snow drift in front or our entrance.

The DV plane landed just after lunch. It was a perfect day outside. The sun sat at about thirty degrees above the horizon, infusing the landscape with a pale gold light. It was minus 45 Fahrenheit (minus 42 Celsius), just cold enough to remind everyone where they were without detracting from the “first time at Pole” experience.

I greeted the DVs as they left the aircraft, giving the sharpest salute I could manage with a pair of mittens to the Three-Star. They only had a few hours at Pole, so station management had arranged for the use of a Piston Bulley, a small utility vehicle on treads, to drive us from one point of interest to another. It was my first time in a covered vehicle on station and, as I hopped into the back with our guests and gave a nod to our driver to start rolling, I couldn’t help but feel like a DV myself.

After visits to the geographic and ceremonial Poles, I spent an hour showing the DVs around the Atmospheric Research Observatory.  Here I am (left) explaining the inner workings of our gas chromatograph.

After visits to the geographic and ceremonial poles, I spent an hour showing the DVs around the Atmospheric Research Observatory. Here I am (left) explaining the inner workings of our gas chromatograph.

Our first stop on the tour was at the ceremonial and geographic poles. Many photographs were taken, including several with the NOAA Corps Flag.

This was the admiral’s first time on the continent and, as he walked in and out of photos, he asked me about life on station and my thoughts on my assignment. Apparently, when he transferred from the navy to the corps, he had done so partially with the hope of going to Antarctica. He didn’t get the billet.

“It’s taken me my entire career to get down here,” he told me. I nodded, and we both stared off to some point on the plateau where a maze of shadows spilled out like a branching creek across the ice.

It’s not every day that you get to feel the admiration of the most senior officer in your service.  Standing where we were, the two of us shared a singular experience, something we had spent our entire careers searching for. It was five years for me, multiple decades for him.

For a brief moment, our difference in rank didn’t matter, nor did our time in uniform, or the path we followed to get to where we were. We both stood at the most unexpected location imaginable, surrounded by ice, wind and cold. We were fragile creatures in a harsh landscape, absolutely aware of our mortality and perfectly alert to the power, beauty and indifference that surrounded us.

 

Look for Refael Klein’s weekly blogs from the South Pole here on Science World. You can read his previous posts here.

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.

Fast Radio Burst Source Found; High Tech Fishing; Stress and Heart Health

Posted February 29th, 2016 at 9:59 am (UTC-4)
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Astronomers Locate Source of a Fast Radio Burst

Nearly a decade ago a pair of astronomers were going through some archival data gathered by the 210-foot Parkes radio telescope in Australia when they discovered a mysterious, powerful burst of radio waves that lasted only a few milliseconds.

The astronomers determined that these fast radio bursts (FRB) represented an entirely new astronomical phenomenon.

While scientists suspect a number of phenomena may be associated with them, their exact cause is unknown since they are so difficult to detect.

So far only 17 FRBs have been discovered with the latest detected April 18, 2015 by astronomers at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization’s 64-meter Parkes radio telescope in Australia.

After observing the FRB, the astronomer’s at Parkes alerted other observatories to their discovery and a number of radio and optical telescope facilities around the world joined in the search for the signal.

Astronomers from the University of Tokyo, the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan, and Konan University next examined a visual image of the FRB taken a day after the first burst and found that it may have originated at a location in an elliptical galaxy some 6 billion light-years away.

Some of the scientists involved in making this finding are also suggesting that these Fast Radio Bursts could generate gravitational waves such as those detected recently by the LIGO Scientific Collaboration.

Penguin Feathers May Lead to Ice Proof Materials

Researchers developing an ice-proof material are looking to the Humboldt penguin for inspiration.

While Humboldt penguins live in a warmer climate compared to many other types of penguins, the temperatures do drop below freezing in the winter.

Despite cold and wet winter weather the feathers of these animals manage to stay smooth and ice free.

Writing in the American Chemical Society’s Journal of Physical Chemistry C say the researchers say they found that the microstructure of penguins’ feathers is what keeps the ice of their bodies.

Using a scanning electron microscope to study Humboldt penguin feathers, the researchers found that along with water-proofing abilities, the microstructure was made up of a web of barbs and tiny interlocking hooks that gave them an anti-adhesive quality, which repelled ice.

The researchers copied the feathers’ microstructure to develop a fiber membrane that resists ice build-up that could someday be used in a variety of applications such as insulation on outdoor electrical lines.

Researcher Rolf Hut testing the temperature-sensing waders in the field. (Tim van Emmerik)

Researcher Rolf Hut testing the temperature-sensing waders (Tim van Emmerik)

Fishing Goes High-Tech

A team of Dutch and American researchers have put a high-tech spin on the age-old art of fly fishing.

The researchers have developed a new kind of waders, those waterproof boots with pants used by fishermen to keep them dry as they wade through streams while fishing.

These new high tech waders have been equipped with temperature sensors to gather data that helps evaluate water quality and quantity.

The wader’s sensors gauge water temperature and sends the measurements via Bluetooth to an angler’s GPS equipped smart phone.

According to the researchers, fishing enthusiasts would be able to immediately use this information to help them locate areas in the stream that are likely to have more fish.

Meanwhile the temperature data along with the GPS measured location can be uploaded to the telephone and sent a central database, where scientists can access it.

Reaction to Stress More Harmful to Heart Health

Perceptions and reactions to negative emotions such as stress, depression, and anger have been linked to more of an increased risk of heart disease than the frequency of stressful events.

Scientists at Penn State and Columbia Universities say that these emotions can lead to an impairment of the autonomic nervous system, which regulates important functions of the body, including heart muscle activity.

One way to gauge autonomic regulation is by determining heart rate variability, which is the difference in pauses between heartbeats.

Over 900 participants were asked, over an eight day period, to report any daily stressful events and feelings of negative emotions.

The researchers found that those who said these events were more stressful or who had increased negative emotions had lower heart rate variability than those reporting a lower level of stress and bad feelings.

Those with a lower heart rate variability are said to be at greater risk of cardiovascular disease and premature death.

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.

Taking a Hike on a ‘Balmy’ Day in Antarctica

Posted February 23rd, 2016 at 10:27 am (UTC-4)
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Highs can reach into the mid 40s but the US Antarctic Program still enlists the use of a Coast Guard Icebreaker to clear a path for supply vessels. (Photo by Refael Klein)

Highs can reach into the mid 40s but the US Antarctic Program still enlists the use of a coast guard icebreaker to clear a path for supply vessels. (Photo by Refael Klein)

McMurdo Station sits on the farthest reach of the Hut Point Peninsula on the southern side of Ross Island. It is located 850 miles from the South Pole, sits more or less at sea level, and has abundant wildlife — at least during the summer months.

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

This time of year, daily temperatures at McMurdo are in the low 30s (around 1 Celsius), making it about 50 degrees warmer than Pole. On occasion, it gets windy, making it feel colder than it is, but even on its chilliest summer days, you can still walk around in a pair of sneakers. I am here for a week of rest and recover (R&R) before heading back to the South Pole for the winter, which will mean 8 months of isolation with no flights coming in or out.

The sea ice has begun to break up and, from a few points on the peninsula, you can see stretches of open water. Icebergs bob up and down with the currents and tide, forming little waves that roll onto shore and lap at your feet, tempting you to the water’s edge, and beckoning the courageous for a swim.

To prevent the casual hiker from falling into crevasses, the Castle Rock Loop Trail is marked with flags.  Castle Rock and Mount Erebus can be seen up ahead. (Photo by Refael Klein)

To prevent the casual hiker from falling into crevasses, the Castle Rock Loop Trail is marked with flags. Castle Rock and Mount Erebus can be seen up ahead. (Photo by Refael Klein)

It is tempting, but I decline. Observing the seals — there are hundreds spread out over the sea ice — and following their lead, I sit on the ground, reclining on one shoulder, resting my arm on a large, warm, black rock and gaze in half consciousness across McMurdo Sound to the Royal Society (mountain) Range, while I let my lunch digest.

To those who have just arrived from the South Pole, the mountains that surround McMurdo are perhaps the most striking feature. For two months, the largest hill I’ve climbed has been a 20-foot (6 meter) drift of snow that sits outside the east entrance of our station.

Now, mountains surround me on all sides. Large volcanic peaks spring from the ocean to over 10,000 feet (3,048 meters). They are covered in glaciers and fields of basalt boulders. The eternal explorer, adventurer and peak bagger that lives inside of me pulls me in every direction my eyes happen to fall. Where do I go first?

There are a handful of hikes that crisscross the hills and coast line surrounding McMurdo. Most are just a few miles along, but each has beautiful views and can get you out of earshot of the station. My last trip here I did all of them but one.

The view from atop Castle Rock. On the horizon you can see open water. (Photo by Refael Klein)

The view from atop Castle Rock. On the horizon you can see open water. (Photo by Refael Klein)

The jewel of the Ross Island Trail Network, and the only hike still on my McMurdo tick list, is the Castle Rock Loop. It’s a 10-mile (16 kilometer) trail that takes you across a glacier to a large basalt dike that overlooks Mount Erebus, the largest mountain on the Island. Following a class III scramble, protected with chains and ropes, to the top of Castle Rock, it then descends the glacier via a flagged route to the Ross Ice Shelf, where it eventually connects with a gravel road that runs from Scott Base, New Zealand to McMurdo.

My bag is filled with a few extra layers, a grey down pullover and a light black fleece, two liters of water, and few double-chocolate chip cookies I took from the galley. I’m wearing a green long-sleeved button-down wool shirt and a grey quarter zip soft-shell coat. I was wearing a hat, but the uphill hiking has warmed me up quickly, so I have taken it off and have stuffed it into the waist band of my pants.

The visibility is perfect and, as the dirt road leading out of “town” turns into snow, then glacier, a slight breeze begins to blow from the ocean. It’s humid out and if I close my eyes and breathe, I can smell brine.

Look for Refael Klein’s weekly blogs from the South Pole here on Science 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.

Can Air Pollution Make You Fat?

Posted February 22nd, 2016 at 3:55 pm (UTC-4)
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When thinking about the impact of air pollution on human health; respiratory and cardiovascular issues would probably be among the first to come to mind.

But now a new study conducted by an international team of researchers is suggesting that laboratory rats who were exposed to the highly polluted air of Beijing, for three to eight weeks, also gained weight along with having cardio-respiratory problems.

To reach their findings, the research team put pregnant rats, along with their young, in two compartments.  One was open to the outdoor air of Beijing and the other included an air filter that removed most of the air pollution.

Both sets of rats were fed the same diet throughout the experiments.

The researchers found that the pregnant rats who breathed the polluted air after only 19 days had heavier lungs and livers along with increased tissue inflammation.

“Since chronic inflammation is recognized as a factor contributing to obesity and since metabolic diseases such as diabetes and obesity are closely related, our findings provide clear evidence that chronic exposure to air pollution increases the risk for developing obesity,” said the study’s senior author Junfeng “Jim” Zhang, of Duke University in Nashville, TN in a press release.

Compared to those who breathed filtered air, the researchers also found that the air pollution breathing rats also had 50 percent higher levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol; 46 percent higher triglycerides; 97 percent higher total cholesterol and a higher level of insulin resistance. Having a high insulin resistance level can set the stage for Type 2 diabetes.

The research team said that the baby rats displayed comparable results to their mothers, who lived under identical conditions in the same compartments.

For example, an eight week old female rat exposed to air pollution was 10% heavier and a male 18% heavier than those who breathed filtered air.

Since the researchers found that the detrimental effects of air pollution was more noticeable at eight weeks than at three weeks, the study suggests longstanding exposure to high levels of air pollution may be essential to produce the kinds of physiological changes that lead to obesity.

“If translated and verified in humans, these findings will support the urgent need to reduce air pollution, given the growing burden of obesity in today’s highly polluted world,” said Zhang.

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.

India OK’s New Observatory; Japan’s X-Ray Telescope; Long-Lasting Eclipse Detected

Posted February 19th, 2016 at 3:55 pm (UTC-4)
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Aerial view of LIGO Observatory in Hanford, Washington (LIGO Laboratory)

Aerial view of LIGO Observatory in Hanford, Washington (LIGO Laboratory)

LIGO Scientific Collaboration to Build New Observatory in India

Just days (2/11/16) after announcing the first detection of Einstein’s theorized gravitational waves, the LIGO Scientific Collaboration has been granted approval in principle by India to build an Advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory there.

LIGO currently operates two observatories in the United States; one in Hanford, Washington and the other in Livingston, Louisiana.

The LIGO Scientific Collaboration says the addition of an observatory in India to its network will greatly improve the ability of scientists to identify and analyze the sources of incoming gravitational waves.

The first detection and observation of these ripples in the fabric of space time were made by LIGO on September 14, 2015, some 100 years after Albert Einstein predicted their existence in his General Theory of Relativity.

The gravitational waves that were detected were produced 1.3 billion years ago when a pair of orbiting black holes smashed into each other in a cataclysmic explosion.

Artist conception of the Hitomi, formerly ASTRO-H, spacecraft (Akihiro Ikeshita/JAXA via NASA Blueshift/Flickr)

Artist conception of the Hitomi, formerly ASTRO-H, spacecraft (Akihiro Ikeshita/JAXA via NASA Blueshift/Flickr)

Japan Sends New X-Ray Telescope into Space

The Japan Exploration Agency or JAXA successfully launched their X-ray astronomy satellite from the Tanegashima Space Center on Wednesday, February 17th at 0845 UTC.

JAXA learned from data transmitted by the spacecraft to its Uchinoura Ground Station that it had deployed its solar array paddles (SAPs) and is currently in good health.

The original name for the spacecraft was ASTRO-H, but the space agency renamed it Hitomi, which in Japanese means pupil, for the part of the eye which regulates incoming light.

According to JAXA, the Hitomi satellite has been equipped with a collection of instruments that will allow scientists to study the large-scale structure and evolution of the universe, the phenomena of the non/thermal universe and learn more about dark matter and dark energy.

Artist conception of binary star system TYC-2505-672-1. (Jeremy Teaford, Vanderbilt University)

Artist conception of binary star system TYC-2505-672-1 (Jeremy Teaford, Vanderbilt University)

Astronomers Find Longest-Lasting Eclipse in Binary Star System

Astronomers from Vanderbilt and Harvard Universities have discovered a binary star system nearly 10,000 light years from Earth where it takes 69 years for one of its stars to nearly totally eclipse the other.  But once it does, the eclipse lasts for three and a half years.

The researchers describe their findings in a paper that’s been accepted for publication in the Astronomical Journal.

This star system, which has no name but only an astronomical catalog number of TYC 2505-672-1, has set a new record for having both the longest duration stellar eclipse and the longest period between eclipses in a binary system, said the research team.

Until this discovery, the previous record holder was Epsilon Aurigae, an eclipsing binary system that is only 2,000 light years from Earth.

The star system’s yellow giant star is eclipsed by its normal sized companion that’s slightly bigger than our sun, for 640 to 730 days every 27 years.

Bat inspired membrane wings mounted on a Micro Air Vehicle (EPSRC)

Bat inspired membrane wings mounted on a Micro Air Vehicle (EPSRC)

Bats Inspire Development of Aircraft Wings That Change Shape

UK researchers looked to the bat for inspiration in developing wings that could be used in constructing a new generation of insect or bird sized aircraft called Micro Air Vehicles.

They say their new innovation will allow the tiny aircraft to eventually travel much longer distances than currently possible and are also inexpensive to run.

Scientists at the UK’s University of Southampton say that their new wings, which they liken to artificial muscles, have improved aerodynamic properties and can quickly respond to various flying conditions by simply changing their shape.

While this new technology uses no mechanical parts, it does incorporate electroactive polymers that use electrical current to modify the aerodynamic characteristics of the wing structure.

Micro Air Vehicles, which can be as small as 15 centimeters, can be used in various commercial and military applications.  Hobbyists also build these tiny aircraft and use them for aerial photography.

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 Diary: When Winter Comes, There’s No Escape

Posted February 16th, 2016 at 11:50 am (UTC-4)
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A rare sight: two LC-130s at South Pole Station: the plane I "boomeranged" on, and the plane that finally got me to McMurdo.

A rare sight: two LC-130s at South Pole Station: the plane I “boomeranged” on, and the plane that finally got me to McMurdo.

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

In three weeks, Amundson-Scott station will close to flight operations. There will be no more planes in or out and, for those who have chosen to winter over, the South Pole will be their home for the next eight months. No fresh fruit. No new people. No change in topography. No escape. An endless, flat ice cap in every direction, horizon to horizon.

A week of rest and recover (R&R) is given to those who will be staying the winter. In the past, this meant a flight back to Christchurch, New Zealand, to pick up last-minute supplies and indulge in the warmth, humidity and greenery of the South Island. Unfortunately, that’s no longer the case.

Over the years, enough winter overs have decided to extend their R&R permanently — preferring to quit their job and stay in New Zealand rather than return to the South Pole — that R&R is now held in McMurdo Station, located on the south tip of Ross Island in Antarctica. Management says, “We don’t want to risk another winter without a plumber or electrician.” I can’t help but agree.

I was supposed to leave for R&R last Monday, but flying conditions were poor so all flights were canceled. An LC-130 made it to Pole the following day, but shortly after our 11 p.m. takeoff, we were forced to return to base due to deteriorating conditions at McMurdo. It’s exceedingly rare for flights leaving Pole to boomerang back and, from what I’m told, it’s only happened twice in the past decade.

We had clear weather and good visibility during our flight back to McMurdo.  This is one of the many mountains we passed on our way. (Photo by Refael Klein)

We had clear weather and good visibility during our flight back to McMurdo. This is one of the many mountains we passed on our way. (Photo by Refael Klein)

A new flight was scheduled for Wednesday, but was canceled due to limited visibility at McMurdo. The two flights that were supposed to make it Thursday morning were delayed until the afternoon and then canceled due to mechanical issues.

Meanwhile, the plane that had boomeranged sat idly off the runway as mechanics worked on a slew of issues that can pop up when you park a large plane in sub-zero temperatures overnight. By Friday morning, I had come terms with foregoing my R&R. I unpacked my bag, cleaned my room (it’s more enjoyable to be forlorn on top of a freshly-made bed), and headed off to work.

The morning was going as all other mornings do — daily instrument checks, email, working on misbehaving computer programs — when a scratchy voice came over our PA system: “Skier 51 will be departing McMurdo for South Pole at 1600 estimated time of arrival 2030.” I was in disbelief; a new flight was scheduled for us?

I called station communications to confirm the announcement. A flight of distinguished visitors would be leaving for Pole in the afternoon and would have room for additional passengers, like me, to take back to McMurdo.

Distinguished visitors (DVs), such as congressmen, famous artists and international dignitaries, routinely make their way to the South Pole. They typically stay for only a few hours, taking a quick tour of the station and its scientific facilities, before walking out to the ceremonial and geographic pole markers for a few glory shots.

According to station management, the DVs on this flight were all high-ranking military personnel, including a four-star general from the army who, among many things, was in charge of National Guard flights in Antarctica. I couldn’t imagine a flight he was on being canceled or delayed. He would surely have the best plane and flight crew at his disposal. The chances of getting out today were high, but I still kept my fingers crossed.


VIDEO: Flying with a four-star general has its perks. As we crossed the Beardmore Glacier, the general requested that we fly lower for a better look. We descended to about 1500 feet above it.

The rest of the day I spent walking on egg shells, expecting an announcement, at any moment, that the flight had been moved to another day, or to be taken aside by the Winter Site manager and told that the manifest had been changed and I was no longer an outbound passenger. Nothing of the sort happened and, to my surprise, at 2030, sea bag in hand, I boarded the LC-130.

I was one of the last passengers to board, so I sat towards the front of the plane. Beside me sat the army general. He fumbled for a pair ear plugs, pulled out two apples, looked around, tapped me on my shoulder and offered me one. I respectfully declined.

Look for Refael Klein’s weekly blogs from the South Pole here on Science 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.

100 Years Later Einstein is Proven Right!

Posted February 11th, 2016 at 1:05 pm (UTC-4)
1 comment

The collision of two black holes—an event detected for the first time ever by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, or LIGO—is seen in this still from a computer simulation. (SXS)

The collision of two black holes—an event detected for the first time ever by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, or LIGO—is seen in this still from a computer simulation. (SXS)

Some 1.3 billion years ago a pair of black holes that had been orbiting each other finally smashed into each other with such force that it produced gravitational waves that rang through the universe like a giant bell.

Today at a Washington DC news conference, some 100 years after Albert Einstein predicted their existence in his General Theory of Relativity, scientists with the LIGO Scientific Collaboration announced they were able to observe ripples in the fabric of spacetime and, for the first time ever, were able to detect gravitational waves.

These plots show the signals of gravitational waves detected by the twin LIGO observatories at Livingston, Louisiana, and Hanford, Washington on 9/14/15. The signals came from two merging black holes, each about 30 times the mass of our sun, lying 1.3 billion light-years away. (LIGO)

These plots show the signals of gravitational waves detected by the twin LIGO observatories at Livingston, Louisiana, and Hanford, Washington on 9/14/15. The signals came from two merging black holes, each about 30 times the mass of our sun, lying 1.3 billion light-years away. (LIGO)

“Our observation of gravitational waves accomplishes an ambitious goal set out over five decades ago to directly detect this elusive phenomenon and better understand the universe, and, fittingly, fulfills Einstein’s legacy on the 100th anniversary of his general theory of relativity,” said David H. Reitze, executive director of the LIGO Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in a press release.

Back on September 14, 2015 at 0951 UTC, both of LIGO’s twin Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) detectors one located in Livingston, Louisiana, and the other in Hanford, Washington, picked up the final milliseconds of the merger of two black holes to produce a single, more massive spinning black hole.

Not only did LIGO team researchers detect Einstein’s long theorized gravitational waves, but because of the method in which they were produced, were also able to finally confirm the theorized existence of stellar-mass binary black hole systems.

Gabriela González, a spokesperson for the LIGO Scientific Collaboration and a Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Louisiana State University said that the cataclysmic explosion, produced by the merger of the two black holes, took place in the southern sky near the Large Magellanic Cloud, a nearby galaxy and a satellite of the Milky Way.

According to a tweet by the National Science Foundation, which hosted the announcement event Thursday at Washington’s National Press Club, each of the black holes in the binary system was thought to be between 29 and 36 times the mass of the sun.

Funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the twin LIGO Observatories were devised, constructed, and are being operated by Caltech and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Details outlining this discovery have been accepted for publication in the journal Physical Review Letters.

LIGO: The First Observation of Gravitational Waves (Caltech)

Listen to the Sound of a Gravitational Wave Captured by LIGO detectors (LIGO)

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.

Hidden Galaxies Found, Long-Term Impact of CO2 Emissions, Meditation/Exercise Cuts Depression

Posted February 10th, 2016 at 4:00 pm (UTC-4)
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This is an artist's impression of the galaxies found in the "Zone of Avoidance" hidden behind the Milky Way. (ICRAR)

This is an artist’s impression of the galaxies found in the “Zone of Avoidance” hidden behind the Milky Way. (ICRAR)

Astronomers Spot Never Before Seen Galaxies behind Milky Way

An international team of scientists was able to find hundreds of nearby galaxies that had been hidden by the dust and stars of the Milky Way galaxy and were able to gain new insight into a mysterious astronomical anomaly some 150 million light years away.

Writing in a new study published by the Astronomical Journal, the group says a third of the 883 galaxies they found behind our home galaxy have never been seen before.

“The Milky Way is very beautiful of course and it’s very interesting to study our own galaxy but it completely blocks out the view of the more distant galaxies behind it,” according to study lead author Professor Lister Staveley-Smith, from the University of Western Australia, as quoted in a press release.

The scientists say their discovery may also help explain the Great Attractor, which is described as a region of space that seems to be pulling ours and hundreds of thousands of other galaxies towards it with a gravitational force that’s tens of thousands of times more powerful than that of the Milky Way.

This visualization shows a running five-year average global temperature, as compared to a baseline average global temperature from 1951-1980. (NASA GISS)

This visualization shows a running five-year average global temperature, as compared to a baseline average global temperature from 1951-1980. (NASA GISS)

Focus Needed on Long Term Effects of Climate Change

A group of scientists have written a new analysis in the journal Nature Climate Change that examines the long term impacts of carbon emission and climate change.

Peter Clark, an Oregon State University paleoclimatologist, the lead author of the article, says that the carbon being emitted into the atmosphere today will remain there for thousands of years.

“How much climate change will occur as a result of an increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is not a short-term question, it’s a long-term question,” Clark said to VOA Science World.

Considering the long time scales of the carbon cycle and of climate change, the analysis says that the target must be zero – or even negative carbon emissions – as soon as possible.

Cross section of the human liver. (Department of Histology, Jagiellonian University Medical College)

Cross section of the human liver. (Department of Histology, Jagiellonian University Medical College)

Alcohol Allows Influx of Bad Bacteria Into Liver

Scientists at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine, who conducted research with mice and laboratory samples, have found that not only can alcohol directly damage liver cells but it can also cause further harm by allowing intestinal bacteria into the liver.

Writing in the journal Cell Host & Microbe, the scientists say that the bacterial infestation can promote alcohol liver disease.

“Alcohol appears to impair the body’s ability to keep microbes in check,” said the study’s senior author Bernd Schnabl, MD, at UC San Diego School of Medicine. “When those barriers breakdown, bacteria that don’t normally colonize the liver end up there. Strategies to restore the body’s defenses might help us treat the disease.”

The researchers found that the absence of an antimicrobial gene called REG3G can increase the development of alcohol-induced liver disease.

In their experiments, the researchers found that the REG3G gene in mice safeguarded them from alcoholic fatty liver disease, a disorder that can lead to cirrhosis of the liver, a disease that replaces healthy tissue with scar tissue and can often be fatal.

Two Yoga class participants assume a cross-legged, palms up meditation position. (CDC/Creative Commons)

Two Yoga class participants assume a cross-legged, palms up meditation position. (CDC/Creative Commons)

Mind and Body Exercise Can Decrease Depression

A new study from researchers at Rutgers University in New Jersey finds that a combination of meditation and aerobic exercise can help reduce depression.

A group of male and female student volunteers, some with a diagnosis of depression and others who were mentally healthy, completed a twice weekly eight week program that included a half-hour of focused attention meditation, followed by a half-hour of aerobic exercise.

Published in the journal Translational Psychiatry, the study found a specially designed combination of mental and physical training (MAP) reduced the symptoms of depression in the student volunteer group by 40 percent.

Along with its work with the student volunteers, the researchers provided the same MAP training to young and formerly homeless mothers who lived at a residential treatment facility.

According the researchers, these women initially displayed symptoms of severe depression and high anxiety levels.

But after eight weeks of mind/body training, they said that their depression and anxiety had lessened, they felt more motivated, and were able to have a more positive focus on their lives.

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