Weekly Science Scanner

Posted June 11th, 2014 at 6:20 pm (UTC+0)
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Man vs machine (Heather Bailey via Wikimedia Commons)

Man vs machine (Heather Bailey via Wikimedia Commons)

Score one for the machine. In an historic test of man versus machine, a cyber-teen named Eugene Goostman took a step toward toward reaching technological singularity, the so-called moment in time when artificial intelligence reaches a point where it shows greater intelligence than man.

Eugene, actually a computer program pretending to be a 13-year-old boy, passed the Turing Test, which assesses a machine’s capability to display intelligent behavior equal or equivalent to a human being.

The Eugene Goostman computer program was created Vladimir Veselov and Eugene Demchenko who live in Russia.

 

A gathering of chimpanzees (Photo: Klaus Post via Flickr/Creative Commons)

A gathering of chimpanzees (Photo: Klaus Post via Flickr/Creative Commons)

Chimps might also be catching up with humans. Working with chimps from the Kyoto University Primate Research Institute, California researchers found that man’s evolutionary relatives can outsmart and outperform humans strategically in a simple game that resembled the children’s favorite “Hide and Seek”.

The Caltech researchers said that perhaps the exceptional performance by the participating chimpanzees could be due to the animals’ excellent good short-term memory.

 

Skull reconstructions comparing chimpanzees with four hominins (University of Utah/Skulls Unlimited)

Skull reconstructions comparing chimpanzees with four hominins. (University of Utah/Skulls Unlimited)

Did our faces evolve as a result of our need to fight? University of Utah researchers recently found that the faces of some of our early human ancestors evolved to minimize the amount of facial damage the could be caused by fist-fights with competitors or adversaries.

Previous studies show that human hands evolved to help improve fighting abilities.

The Utah scientists said their new research augments their previous studies that demonstrate the strong role violence has played in human evolution.

 

Earthrise on the Moon (NASA)

Earthrise on the Moon (NASA)

Earth and the moon are about 60 million years older than we thought, according to evidence found by a pair of geochemists from France’s University of Loraine.

The researchers were able to make their findings after studying and analyzing the isotopes of xenon gas trapped inside some South African and Australian quartz, which had been previously dated to between 2.7 and 3.4 billion years old.

The researchers presented their findings at the Goldschmidt Geochemistry Conference being held in Sacramento, California. They said that while it’s impossible to give an exact date of the Earth’s formation, their work does indicate that it is tens of millions of years older than scientists have long thought.

 

Lip of a patient with a herpes simplex lesion on the lower lip. (CDC)

Lip of a patient with a herpes simplex lesion on the lower lip. (CDC)

Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV), a common, incurable viral disease, has been around since long before humans first walked the Earth, according to new studies by scientists at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine.

There are two types of the Herpes Simplex Virus. HSV-1 usually causes oral herpes which can result in cold sores or fever blisters around the lips and mouth area and is caused by skin-to-skin contact with someone infected with the virus. HSV-2 usually causes genital herpes and is passed via sexual contact. Its symptoms include painful blisters.

The California researchers found that the HSV-1 virus first infected hominids shortly after the evolutionary split from chimpanzees, about 6 million years ago. The HSV-2 strain jumped species from the chimp to early human ancestors about 1.6 million year ago.

 

 NASA has been trying to test its Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) "flying saucer" vehicle. Shown here being prepared to shipment to the test facility in Hawaii. (NASA)


NASA has been trying to test its Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) “flying saucer” vehicle. Shown here being prepared to shipment to the test facility in Hawaii. (NASA)

Mother Nature is playing the role of spoiler as NASA attempts to test its “flying-saucer” Low Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) vehicle. The U.S. space agency hopes the vehicle will be a viable way of safely landing bigger payloads on the surface of Mars.

The LDSD was first scheduled for test launch from the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Missile Range Facility in Kauai, Hawaii on June 3, but was scrubbed due to adverse weather conditions.

It was rescheduled three more times due to weather reasons, the latest cancellation coming just today.

Maybe the sixth time will be the charm when NASA tries once again to test fly the LDSD on Saturday, June 14. We’re keeping our fingers crossed for optimal weather conditions!

Science Images of the Week

Posted June 6th, 2014 at 7:32 pm (UTC+0)
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This is “Pepper” a human-like robot made by Japan’s SoftBank Corporation.  Pepper was displayed at SoftBank’s Tokyo branch on June 6, 2014.  SoftBank announced that it will begin selling robots like Pepper for personal use by next February. (Reuters)

Pepper, a human-like robot made by Japan’s SoftBank Corporation, on display in Tokyo on June 6, 2014. SoftBank envisions the robots serving as baby-sitters, nurses, emergency medical workers and even party companions, and will begin selling them for personal use for about $1900 by next February.  (Reuters)

Those who attended the 6th International Trade Fair for Automation and Mechatronics that was held from June 3 to June 6, 2014 in Munich got to visit with the humanoid robot 'Agile Justin'. (Reuters)

People visit with humanoid robot ‘Agile Justin’ at the 6th International Trade Fair for Automation and Mechatronics in Munich on June 5, 2014. (Reuters)

A new robotic exoskeleton called PowerLoader has been created to help farmers and construction workers do things that no ordinary human can do on their own.  The robotic helper, which is worn by its user and nicknamed the Ninja was demonstrated in Tokyo on June 2, 2014. (Reuters)

A new robotic exoskeleton called PowerLoader will help farmers and construction workers do things that ordinary humans can’t do on their own. The robotic helper, which is worn by its user and nicknamed the Ninja, was demonstrated in Tokyo on June 2, 2014. (Reuters)

Here is a nice composite picture of the Whirlpool Galaxy or M51 in the Canes Venatici constellation.  The composite merges x-ray images taken with NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory with optical images taken by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope. June 3, 2014 (NASA)

Here is a nice composite picture of the Whirlpool Galaxy (M51) in the Canes Venatici constellation. The composite merges x-ray images taken with NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory with optical images taken by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, June 3, 2014. (NASA)

A lion cub cuddles with its mom, the 4½-year-old Kashifa, at the Zoo Miami in Florida, during the family’s introduction on Thursday, June 5, 2014. Along with the cub seen here, Kashifa’s family also includes 4 more cubs. (AP)

A lion cub cuddles with its mom, the 4½-year-old Kashifa, at the Zoo Miami in Florida, during the family’s introduction on Thursday, June 5, 2014. Along with the cub seen here, Kashifa’s family also includes 4 more cubs. (AP)

NASA engineers finish their installation of the Orion spacecraft’s heat shield.  The heat shield will help protect those who ride back to Earth aboard the Orion from the blazing hot temperatures – about 2,205° Celsius - it will endure during its reentry into Earth’s atmosphere. June 5, 2014 (NASA)

NASA engineers finish their installation of the Orion spacecraft’s heat shield. The heat shield will help protect those who ride back to Earth aboard the Orion from the blazing hot temperatures – about 2,205° Celsius – it will endure during its reentry into Earth’s atmosphere, June 5, 2014 (NASA)

Astronomers gathered a number of images that were taken with NASA's Hubble Space Telescope and put together a spectacular and colorful picture of the evolving universe. June 3, 2014. (NASA/ESA)

Astronomers gathered a number of images taken by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and put together a spectacular and colorful picture of the evolving universe, June 3, 2014. (NASA)

Archeologists digging in China announced this week that they had discovered the first three-dimensionally preserved pterosaur eggs. June 5, 2014 (Maurilio Oliveira)

Researchers discovered the first three-dimensionally preserved pterosaur eggs in China. Pterosaurs were flying reptiles that lived during the dinosaur age. The eggs were found among dozens, if not hundreds, of pterosaur fossils, June 5, 2014. (Maurilio Oliveira)

The sun-powered Solar Impulse 2 experimental aircraft is shown here on June 2, 2014, during its maiden flight from its home in Payerne, Switzerland.  This aircraft has a wingspan of 72 meters and is powered by more than more than 17,000 solar cells. (Reuters)

The sun-powered Solar Impulse 2 experimental aircraft lands during its maiden flight in Payerne, Switzerland on June 2, 2014. The aircraft has a wingspan of 72 meters and is powered by more than more than 17,000 solar cells. (Reuters)

This is another composite image that was taken with 3 different telescopes.  This composite is of the colliding galaxy clusters MACS J0717+3745 which are more than 5 billion light-years from Earth.  The background imaging is from the Hubble Space Telescope image, the blue colored imaging was taken with Chandra X-Ray Observatory and the red colored imaging was taken with the National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s Very Large Array (VLA). June 3, 21014 (NASA, NRAO/AUI/NSF)

This composite image, taken with 3 different telescopes, is of colliding galaxy clusters located more than 5 billion light-years from Earth. The background imaging is from the Hubble Space Telescope, the blue colored imaging was taken with Chandra X-Ray Observatory, and the red colored imaging was taken with the National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s Very Large Array (VLA), June 3, 2014. (NASA)

Weekly Science Scanner

Posted June 4th, 2014 at 8:02 pm (UTC+0)
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Thorne-Żytkow objects (TŻOs) are thought to resemble a red supergiant such as Betelgeuse - seen here - in the orion constellation. (ESO/VLT)

Thorne-Żytkow objects (TŻOs) resemble red supergiants such as Betelgeuse. (ESO/VLT)

A bizarre hybrid star has been discovered by American, British and Chilean astronomers.

Using the Magellan Clay telescope at the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile, the researchers were able to confirm the existence of what, until now, has only been part of a theoretical class of stars.

Called a Thorne-Zytkow object (TZO), this celestial oddity is a hybrid between red supergiant stars and neutron stars, but it looks like red supergiants.

Located in the Small Magellanic Cloud, the TZO is referred to as HV 2112.

The researchers outline their findings in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society Letters.

 

SpaceShipTwo, christened VSS Enterprise during a glide flight in Mojave, CA, USA. Mark Greenberg/Virgin Galactic)

SpaceShipTwo, christened VSS Enterprise during a glide flight in Mojave, California. (Mark Greenberg/Virgin Galactic)

Sir Richard Branson’s dream of sending paying passengers into suborbital space is  closer to being a reality.

A month ago Branson’s space-flight company, Virgin Galactic, signed an agreement with the Federal Aviation Administration, the US agency that oversees all of non-military aviation, that will allow it to start routine space missions from a spaceport in New Mexico.

On June 3, Virgin Galactic, which has joined forces with NASA, announced the selection of 12 payloads designed and created by groups such as US federal laboratories, universities as well as private Companies. Although a launch date has not been announced, the NASA chartered flight will offer researchers the opportunity to conduct various scientific studies in microgravity offered by the sub-orbital trip into space.

 

A pile of moldy bread - YUCK! (Maestrosync via Wikimedia Commons)

A pile of moldy bread – YUCK! (Maestrosync via Wikimedia Commons)

Are you tired of finding that the loaf of bread you just bought a few days ago is already stale and moldy?  You might be interested to know that a new completely edible film made from oils contained in cloves and oregano preserves bread much longer than any currently available additives.

A study published by the American Chemical Society’s Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry has outlined the development of the more “consumer friendly” method of preserving a key staple in many people’s diet.

 

The planet-hunting Kepler spacecraft is back in action after experiencing mechanical failures that threatened to end it’s mission. The reborn Kepler mission, which is called K2, re-started its observation work on May 30.

 

Erasing a bad memory might be possible in the near future, but if we decide at some point that we need that memory back, it could be regenerated.

Writing in Nature, researchers from the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine said that they were able to successfully create a memory in rats, then erase it, only to reactivate that erased memory.

 

A koala keeping cool in a tree (Cody Pop via Wikimedia Commons)

A koala keeping cool in a tree. (Cody Pop via Wikimedia Commons)

Calling an environmentalist a “tree hugger” is usually meant as an insult, but scientists recently found that Australia’s koalas literally hug trees to keep themselves cool during periods of hot weather.

Writing in Biology Letters, the researchers observed the behavior of about 30 koalas and took thermal images of them getting a respite from the scorching temperatures by hugging trees.

The data showed that the trees in question were about 5 degrees, Celsius cooler than the air temperature.

The scientists found that koalas also pant and lick their fur to cool themselves even further.

Study: Sun Plays Role in Lightning Strikes

Posted June 2nd, 2014 at 7:31 pm (UTC+0)
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(University of Reading)

(University of Reading)

Lightning is one of nature’s most spectacular and mysterious phenomena, yet there is much scientists still don’t know about it.

British researchers have found evidence that high-energy particles, which are blown toward Earth on the solar wind, play a role in triggering lightning on Earth.

These energized solar particles can travel from the sun at a rate as high as 800 kilometers per second, according to NASA.

The scientists from the University of Reading’s Department of Meteorology discovered a large and significant increase in lightning strikes across Europe for up to 40 days after solar winds struck our atmosphere.

The British study comes on the heels of a report released about a year ago by Russian researchers who found evidence that cosmic rays ‒ high-energy radiation generated by exploding stars deep in the universe that travel through the cosmos at the speed of light ‒ play a role in initiating lightning strikes.

Of course, the atmospheric conditions needed to produce lightning must first be present before it can be triggered either by cosmic rays, solar particles, or other phenomena, says the new study’s lead author, Chris Scott from the University of Reading.

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

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

While the specific mechanism behind the causes of lightning still remains a mystery, study scientists think the air’s electrical properties change when the charged solar particles hit the atmosphere.

The team’s research found the sun can generate particles that ‒ while not as energetic as cosmic rays ‒ are nonetheless able to penetrate our atmosphere, helping to enhance and speed the lightning process.

Solar wind is the continuous expulsion of material from the sun into space.

“It’s a bit like steam rising from a sauce-pan,” Scott said. “It’s the most energetic particles in the solar atmosphere that are able to escape and move out into space.”

He also suggested that if you think of the sun as a “leaky football,” it has various different jets that produce fast and relatively slower solar winds that can cause gusts and concentrations within the solar wind, all of which can intensity the sun’s magnetic field in space.

Computer generated image of the constant flow of solar wind streaming outward from the sun added to an actual image of the sun's chromosphere from NASA's Solar & Heliospheric Observatory - SOHO (NASA)

Computer-generated image of the constant flow of solar wind streaming outward from the sun, added to an actual image of the sun’s chromosphere. (NASA)

This concentration of the sun’s magnetic field also shields Earth from cosmic rays because they’re deflected by that magnetic field, which also accelerates the solar particles ahead of it in much the same way as a “surfer is accelerated by the wave he’s riding,” said Scott.

The research team noticed an increase in lightning when the streams of accelerated solar particles blew toward our planet.

They were able to make their findings after examining and analyzing lightning strike data from 2000 to 2005 recorded by the Met Office – the UK’s weather service – and its lightning detection system. They focused on lightning strikes that took place within a 500-kilometer radius in central England.

They compared that with data provided by NASA’S Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) spacecraft, which has studied and measured the high energy particles contained within the solar wind since August 1997.

Scott and his team found that, for 40 days prior to the arrival of a solar wind at Earth, there was an average of 321 lightning strikes across the UK.  But for the 40-day period after the arrival of the solar wind, that number increased to about 422. Their studies also revealed that the number of lightning strikes peaked between 12 and 18 days after the solar wind’s arrival.

The findings made by the researchers are outlined in a study published by the Institute of Physics journal Environmental Research Letters.

Video from the University of Reading Explains Where Lightning Comes From

Science Images of the Week

Posted May 30th, 2014 at 7:21 pm (UTC+0)
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The Soyuz TMA-13M spacecraft carrying the International Space Station crew of Alexander Gerst of Germany, Maxim Suraev of Russia and Reid Wiseman of the U.S. blasts off from the launch pad at the Baikonur cosmodrome May 29, 2014.

The Soyuz TMA-13M spacecraft carrying the International Space Station crew of Alexander Gerst of Germany, Maxim Suraev of Russia, and Reid Wiseman of the U.S., blasts off from the launch pad at the Baikonur cosmodrome May 29, 2014. (AP)

US President Barack Obama holds a model used to demonstrate how polymers expand at the 2014 White House Science Fair that was held this past week. The science fair featured the work of students from throughout the US who won science, technology, engineering and math competitions. (AP)

US President Barack Obama holds a model used to demonstrate how polymers expand at the 2014 White House Science Fair on May 27, 2014. The science fair featured the work of students from throughout the US who won science, technology, engineering and math competitions. (AP)

The SpaceX Corporation unveils its new manned spacecraft, Dragon V2, May 29, 2014. SpaceX hopes its spaceship will someday transport astronauts to and from the International Space Station. (AP)

Here’s a view of the inside of the newly unveiled SpaceX Dragon V2. (Reuters)

Here’s a view inside the SpaceX Dragon V2 that was unveiled May 29, 2014. (Reuters)

Robot dancers open the first LEGO League Open Championship in Pamploma, Spain.  90 teams from a number of countries around the world are taking part in this completion; organizers say celebrates science and technology. (AP)

Robot dancers open the first LEGO League Open Championship in Pamploma, Spain, on May 29, 2014. Ninety teams from around the world are taking part in the competition which celebrates science and technology. (AP)

NASA is planning to test its Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) project and fly an inflatable saucer-shaped test vehicle into near-space next week. NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory workers are shown here preparing the vehicle for shipment to the test facility in Hawaii. (NASA)

NASA is planning to test its Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) project and fly an inflatable saucer-shaped test vehicle into near-space next week. NASA workers are shown here preparing the vehicle for shipment to the test facility in Hawaii. (NASA)

Mounted on a piece of glass is a 1958 prototype of an integrated circuit chip.  It was designed by Jack Kirby at Texas Instruments.  The historical piece of electronic technology is expected to fetch up to $2 million at an auction held by Christie’s in New York City on June 19th. Kirby, who won the 2000 Nobel Physics Prize Physics died in 2005. (AP)

Mounted on a piece of glass is a 1958 prototype of an integrated circuit chip designed by Noble Prize Physics winner Jack Kirby of Texas Instruments. The prototype microchip, a historical contribution to the modern computing era, is expected to fetch up to $2 million at an auction held by Christie’s in New York City on June 19, 2014. (AP)

Tibor Toth, owner of a zoo in Abony, Hungary, just east of Budapest, is shown here feeding a couple of cute 7-week-old white lion cubs on May 30, 2014. (Reuters)

Tibor Toth, owner of a zoo in Abony, Hungary, just east of Budapest, is shown here feeding a couple of cute 7-week-old white lion cubs on May 30, 2014. (Reuters)

With much fewer than the 200 meteor per hour display that was predicted, a lot of people have called last weekend’s so called “spectacular” Camelopardalid meteor shower a dud. But we’ve got a shot of one of the meteors that did make an appearance streaking across the sky of Castaic Lake, California. (Reuters)

We didn’t get the 200-meteor-per-hour display that was predicted, but the Camelopardalid meteor shower did offer this sight streaking across the sky of Castaic Lake, California, on May 24, 2014. (Reuters)

He Liang spent 10 years transforming an ordinary suitcase into an electric powered motor scooter.  He’s shown here riding his home-made suitcase-scooter down a street in Changsha, Hunan province.   He Liang says that the suitcase-scooter can zoom down the road at a top speed of up to 20km/h and one electrical charge will allow it to travel up to 50-60km. (Reuters)

He Liang spent 10 years transforming an ordinary suitcase into an electric powered motor scooter. He’s shown here on May 28, 2014, riding his home-made suitcase-scooter down a street in Changsha, Hunan province. He Liang says the suitcase-scooter can zoom down the road at a top speed of up to 20km/h and one electrical charge will allow it to travel up to 50-60km. (Reuters)

Scientists Explore Mystery of Antarctica’s Rising

Posted May 28th, 2014 at 7:05 pm (UTC+0)
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Typical landscape for the Antarctic Peninsula - Image shows the Laubeuf Fjord (Vincent van Zeijst via Wikimedia Commons)

The Antarctic Peninsula  (Vincent van Zeijst via Wikimedia Commons)

An altered Antarctic landscape is one of the rarely discussed side effects of accelerated ice melting.

For years as the ice grew in Antarctica, its weight compressed the ground beneath it. But when the ice melted and this weight was reduced, the ground sprang back, rebounding over time.

However, the ground in the Northern Antarctic Peninsula is rebounding at a faster rate than the elastic response of the lighter weight load should allow.

An international team of researchers, led by scientists at the UK’s Newcastle University, found that over the past year, the land in that area of the Antarctic has risen 15 millimeters.

A simple drawing illustrating the elastic reponse rebound of the ground following the removal of large amount of weight generated by objects such as a glacial ice sheet (Amorse3522 via Wikimedia Commons)

A simple drawing illustrating the elastic response of the ground following the removal of large amount of weight generated by objects such as a glacial ice sheet. (Amorse3522 via Wikimedia Commons)

Models created for the study have predicted that this rate could get as high as 45 millimeters per year, according to Peter Clarke of Newcastle University, one of the authors of the study.

The land rise in nearby areas was less than a millimeter each year.

Now Clarke and his colleagues think they know what might be causing the rapid ground rise.

As explained in the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters, the research team found that the Earth’s mantle, hundreds of kilometers beneath the surface, is flowing about 1,000 times faster than was thought possible, which in turn is allowing the land above to move upward at a faster rate.

The researchers think that the increased flow of the mantle may be due to some chemical or temperature changes brought on by the ice melt.

To reach their findings, Clarke and the team brought together a wide variety of different data sets from scientific GPS receivers, which are much more precise than those people use in their cars.  The GPS devices measured movements of the solid Earth within millimeters or less than millimeters per year.

In studying the GPS data for the North Antarctic Peninsula, the researchers noticed that the Earth was uplifting at a rate faster than they thought was possible.

After making this finding, the research team studied data gathered by NASA’s ICESat – Ice, Cloud, and land Elevation Satellite, which has a laser pointing downward from the satellite that measured the height of the ice sheet in the region.

In early 2002 the Larsen B Ice Shelf, in the northern Antarctic Peninsula splintered and collapsed in just over one month.  This image taken by NASA's Earth Observatory on February 17, 2002 shows fragments of the ice shelf floating in the Weddell Sea (NASA)

In early 2002, the Larsen B Ice Shelf, in the northern Antarctic Peninsula, collapsed in just over one month. This image taken by NASA on Feb. 17, 2002, shows fragments of the ice shelf floating in the Weddell Sea. (NASA)

Those measurements showed that the ice sheets, since the collapse of the Larsen-B Ice Shelf in 2002, were losing their ice in a few places at a rate of tens of meters per year.

To reach their conclusions, the researchers took the results from both the GPS and ICESat data studies and combined them into a mathematical model that showed how the Earth should respond to the change in the weight of the ice.

“The significant thing is that this part of the Antarctic Peninsula is behaving so differently to what we think is true for the rest of the Antarctic and indeed the rest of the world,” said Clarke. “And this is going to have an implication for the way in which we can use measurements of the ice height and the gravity field of the Earth in order to monitor the changes in the ice sheet in the future.”

Rare and Spectacular Meteor Shower May Light Up the Skies Over North and Central America

Posted May 23rd, 2014 at 8:49 pm (UTC+0)
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A meteor from the August 2009 Perseid meteor shower flashes across the Texas night sky. (Jared Tennant via Wikimedia Commons)

A meteor from the August 2009 Perseid meteor shower streaks across the Texas night sky. (Jared Tennant via Wikimedia Commons)

If you live in North or Central America, you just might have front row seats to a rare and spectacular meteor shower.

Scientists said that the view might even better if you happen to be in the northwestern United States or in southern Canada

NASA said the shower — dubbed the May Camelopardalids, which can mean either ‘camel leopard’ or giraffe in Latin — could possibly light up the sky sometime between 0230 and 1100 UTC on May 24.

This celestial light show should take place early Saturday morning, but scientists aren’t absolutely sure.  Since this is a new meteor shower, there’s also a chance that it might take place at another time or possibly not at all.

At its peak, which should be between 0600 and 0800 UTC, May 24, the May Camelopardalids could produce about 200 or so meteors per hour.

Projected viewing of May Camelopardalids meteor shower at its peak 0600 - 0800 UTC May 24, 2014 (NASA)

Projected viewing of May Camelopardalids meteor shower at its peak 0600 – 0800 UTC May 24, 2014 (NASA)

A meteor shower occurs when a number of meteors originate from one point in the night sky. They are caused by cosmic debris which enters the Earth’s atmosphere at extremely high speeds on parallel trajectories.

The new meteor shower is being produced because Earth will be making its way through a field of dust and other debris generated by Comet 209P/LINEAR, which is looping back into the deep solar system after a recent rendezvous with the Sun.

The comet doesn’t seem to be particularly active at the moment, but it is dragging some of the refuse material it ejected in its previous 5-year trips around the sun. The amount of remaining debris will also factor into how active a meteor shower this will be.

Part of the comet’s name – LINEAR – is actually an acronym for Lincoln Near-Earth Asteroid Research which is the name of a research project that discovered the comet back in February 2004.

The comet got within about 13,463,808 kilometers of the Sun back on May 6, 2014.  The 209P/LINEAR     is also supposed to get pretty close to Earth on May 29, 2014 where it’ll pass us from a distance of about 5,983,915 kilometers.

Along with the upcoming May Camelopardalids, stargazers will also be getting set to observe two of the most popular annual meteor showers, the Perseid, which peaks in August and the Leonid meteor showers that usually takes place every November.

NASA Delves into Deep Recesses of Mars

Posted May 21st, 2014 at 8:10 pm (UTC+0)
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Artists rendering of InSight lander on Mars. Just under the spacecraft'sleft dish, you can also see the mission's heat-flow probe burrowed into the surface of the Red Planet. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Artist’s rendering of the InSight lander on Mars. Just under the spacecraft’s left dish, the mission’s heat-flow probe burrows into the surface of the Red Planet. (NASA)

NASA hope exploring the deep recesses of Mars will give scientists insight into the early history of Earth.

The US space agency recently gave the green light for the construction of a new lander that will examine the deep interior of the red planet.

Scientists hope learning more about the composition, layering and processes of the planet’s interior structure will also provide fresh insight into the creation of Earth-like planets, both within and beyond our solar system.

The mission, called the Interior Exploration Using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight), is scheduled to launch its spacecraft from California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base in March 2016.

InSight was selected after competing against two other proposals for NASA approval and funding. One of the competing missions involved sending a spacecraft to a comet, while the other proposed sending one to one of Saturn’s moons.

Bruce Banerdt, from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is the mission’s principal investigator. He tells us that he and his colleagues have been working for about 20 years to convince NASA to approve their project.

Unlike the ongoing and highly successful Curiosity and Opportunity rovers that are traveling across Mars, InSight will be sent to a location near the red planet’s equator and remain stationary to conduct its scientific research.

InSight will map out the geography of the deep interior of Mars and Banerdt hopes it will provide valuable information about the composition and depth of the planet’s crust and core, as well its internal thermal characteristics, such as heat flow and energy production.

InSight mission officials have narrowed their spacecraft's landing site to four possible spots located close together in the Elysium Planitia region of Mars.  You can see InSight's possible landing site, labeled in white letters on this map.  Note the landing sites of other current and past Mars probes. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The proposed InSight landing site is labeled in white lettering. The landing sites of other current and past Mars probes are also marked. (NASA)

The spacecraft will carry a bevy of sophisticated new instruments to carry out its mission. The space agencies of Germany, France, Switzerland and the United Kingdom are providing two of the most important tools of the mission.

An international team of researchers will work together as InSight’s science team.

InSight’s mission will be made up of three main investigations, according to Banerdt.

The first is a seismometer called the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS), a device that will be placed on the planet’s surface to measure the shaking of the ground, mostly due to distant quakes, otherwise called marsquakes.

The advanced technology of SEIS will also analyze the seismic waves produced by the quakes sent through the interior of planet.

The interior of Mars is made up of a diverse collection of materials, such as different kinds of rock as well as iron in its core, which could be solid or liquid. The use of seismology here on Earth has allowed scientists to map out Earth’s interior in great detail, providing us with most of what we know about our planet’s core, such as that it’s made out of iron and nickel and has a liquid exterior surrounding a solid core.

The second of InSight’s three main investigations is a heat-flow probe. This device consists of a tool project members call a “mole”, which is basically a 31-centimeter self-hammering nail that will burrow down about 4 ½ to 5 meters into the planet’s surface.

Artist concept of the interior of Mars (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Artist concept of the interior of Mars (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

As the mole makes its way beneath Mars’ surface, it will pull a string of thermocouples or heat sensors with it, which will sense the small increases in temperature as it goes further into the planet.

Banerdt says those tiny increases of temperatures will allow researchers to figure out how much heat is coming from the planet’s interior. These readings will help provide an indication as to how much of that heat is generated by radioactive decay and how fast it’s traveling up from deep within Mars and radiating out into space.

Since this heat-flow drives a lot of the planet’s geology such as volcanism, or perhaps the uplift of mountain ranges, the amount of heat developed inside of Mars will help scientists determine just how active the planet is.

The third of InSight’s investigations isn’t really an instrument, but a radio on the spacecraft that will send out signals to be tracked by project scientists.

By following the signal produced by the radio sitting on the rotating planet, Banerdt and his colleagues can watch Mars rotate on its axis and actually watch that axis “wobble a little bit”.

The size of Mars’ wobble will help scientists determine the distribution of material inside the planet and get a better understanding of the size and density of the planet’s core and determine whether it’s solid or liquid.

The InSight lander will also have a weather station and camera that will provide further information about Mars.

The new Mars lander’s mission is expected to last for about one Mars-year or two Earth years.

By better understanding what’s behind the interior of Mars, Banerdt said that scientists will be able to get a better idea of what the Earth might have looked like very early in its history.

InSight Mission – Animation of Spacecraft (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Astronomers Spot Square-shaped Hole in Sun

Posted May 19th, 2014 at 6:31 pm (UTC+0)
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A coronal hole, almost square in its shape, is one of the most noticeable features on the Sun of May 5-7, 2014. Because it is positioned so far south on the Sun, there is less chance that the solar wind stream will impact us here on Earth. (Solar Dynamics Observatory/NASA)

A coronal hole, almost square in its shape, is one of the most noticeable features on the sun of May 5-7, 2014. (NASA)

NASA astronomers recently noticed an odd looking, square shaped hole in the sun.

What they saw is called a coronal hole, something that occurs on a regular basis.

Dean Pesnell, project scientist for the Solar Dynamics Observatory at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, says the coronal hole is an area within the corona – the sun’s outer atmosphere – where the coronal material isn’t as dense as its surrounding area.

He adds that these holes don’t extend all the way down to the surface of the sun.

The reason the coronal hole looks like a dark spot on the sun is because it contains little solar material and is lower in temperature than its surroundings.

These holes take a wide variety of shapes including square, triangular, or even in the shape of a rubber chicken, said Pesnell.

He and his colleagues once spotted a coronal hole that resembled a Kokopelli, a Native American fertility symbol of a character playing a flute.

Coronal hole observed in June 2012 looks a 'rubber chicken' (SDO/NASA)

Coronal hole observed in June 2012 looks a rubber chicken. (NASA)

While Pesnell and his colleagues are still investigating what causes them to form, he thinks coronal holes are areas on the sun that were once occupied by sunspots.

As the sunspots fade away, they tend to leave behind magnetic fields that all point in the same direction.

“Sunspots are these areas where you get all of these cool looking loops,” said Pesnell. These coronal loops of magnetic activity that point north or south pour out of the sunspots and join up with either of the sun’s two magnetic poles.

Over time this activity tends to disperse all of the material above it leaving a coronal hole in its place.

Scientists have noted that coronal holes are a normal part of the 11-year solar cycle and tend to pop up during a period when the sun is least active or when it’s at the solar minimum.

The ESA/NASA Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) captured this image of a gigantic coronal hole hovering over the sun’s north pole on July 18, 2013. (ESA, NASA/SOHO)

Last summer  this gigantic coronal hole hovered over the sun’s north pole on July 18, 2013. (NASA)

During this time, a coronal hole will form over the sun’s North and South Pole and will last for about five years, according to Pesnell.

Last July astronomers spotted a gigantic coronal hole over the sun’s North Pole.

Other coronal holes that pop up on the sun can last from several hours to a couple of weeks or the equivalent of one rotation of the Sun. The sun makes a full rotation about once every 27 days.

Pesnell said that boundaries of the coronal hole will close up as new magnetic fields come up from inside the sun.

Coronal holes also play a role in space weather. Pesnell said that because of the way they’re built, they tend to produce a high-speed solar wind which can be up to three times faster – up to several hundred kilometers per second – than those produced from other areas of the sun, such as where sunspots have formed.

While the fast solar winds produced by a coronal hole don’t tend to have a large impact on Earth, according to Pesnell, they still can hit us and produce Auroras, beautiful displays of light in the skies around the polar regions of the Earth.

Time Lapse Video of Square Coronal Hole (SDO/NASA)

Dr. Dean Pesnell recently appeared on the radio edition of Science World.  You can hear the interview here.

 

Humans Too Stupid to Meet ET

Posted May 14th, 2014 at 8:11 pm (UTC+0)
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The original ET from the bicycle escape scene from Steven Spielburg's 1982 blockbuster movie. (AP Photo)

The original ET from the bicycle escape scene from Steven Spielburg’s 1982 blockbuster movie. (AP Photo)

Are we alone in this mammoth universe? Or are there other life forms and civilizations out there waiting to be discovered?

Would we be ready for such an encounter?

The answer is no, according to a new study conducted by a Spanish neuropsychologist, who found we aren’t smart enough, and are too influenced by religion, to be able to handle such contact.

The study, published in Acta Astronautica, was conducted by Gabriel G. de la Torre, a professor with the Department of Psychology at the University of Cádiz in Spain, who has also worked on projects for the European Space Agency and the European Science Foundation.

For his study, de la Torre analyzed the ethical and sociological implications of a possible human/ET interaction.

He wondered, “Can such a decision be taken on behalf of the whole planet? What would happen if it was successful and someone received our signal? Are we prepared for this type of contact?”

To get answers to these questions, de la Torre sent out a questionnaire to 116 American, Italian and Spanish university students.

Do you think humans are ready for contact with a supposed extraterrestrial civilization? (José Antonio Peñas/Sinc)

Do you think humans are ready for contact with an extraterrestrial civilization? (José Antonio Peñas/Sinc)

The survey was designed to assess the respondent’s knowledge of astronomy, their level of perception of the physical environment, their opinion on the place that things occupy in the cosmos, the likelihood of contact with extraterrestrials as well as religious questions such as, “Do you believe that God created the universe?”

The students’ answers indicated that the general public’s knowledge of the universe and our place within it — even at the university level — is still poor.

“Regarding our relation with possible intelligent extraterrestrial life, we should not rely on moral reference points of thought, since they are heavily influenced by religion,” said de la Torre. “Why should some more intelligent beings be ‘good’?”

De la Torre’s curiosity about a possible ETI/Human encounter was piqued by a project currently being considered by the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute (SETI) in California.

A colorized visualizaton of the Arecibo Message that was transmitted into space in 1974.  The transmission was directed to globular star cluster M13 some 25,000 light years away. (Arne Nordmann via Wikimedia Commons)

A colorized visualization of the Arecibo Message transmitted into space in 1974.  (Arne Nordmann via Wikimedia Commons)

The SETI project began in the late 1960s and early 1970s with a mission to hunt for radio signals being broadcast by extraterrestrial intelligence.

For the last several years, there have been some at SETI who would not only like to listen for signs of ETI, but would like to also regularly send messages to them as well. The proposed project is called ‘Active SETI’, also known as METI (Messaging to Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence).

Since 1974, a number of specific messages from Earth have been beamed out to targeted areas of the cosmos in hopes that an intelligent extraterrestrial being would receive it and realize that we’re here, too.

Renowned theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking has raised concerns about transmitting these messages to areas light-years away from Earth.

In a 2010 documentary, Hawking said communicating with aliens could pose a threat to Earth.

Hawking likened a possible human/ETI encounter to one that took place over 500 years ago between Christopher Columbus and the natives of the New World.

“If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans,” said Hawking. “We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet.”

But SETI’s senior astronomer looks at it differently.

“We can reliably state that a culture able to project force to another star system is at least several centuries in advance of our own,” said Seth Shostak in article he wrote for The Edge magazine. “This statement is independent of whether you believe that such sophisticated beings would be interested in wreaking havoc and destruction. We speak only of capability, not motivation.”

Our presence has been been transmitted into the cosmos since World War II via new technologies such as Television, FM radio and radar such as this air traffic control radar at Fuerteventura airport in the Canary Islands (Andy Mitchell via Wikimedia Commons)

Technologies such as radar have transmitted signals into space for decades.  (Andy Mitchell via Wikimedia Commons)

Deciding whether we should purposely send out messages for possible reception by ETI might be something that’s irrelevant anyway.

Our radio presence has been regularly transmitted throughout space since World War II when television, FM radio and radar were first being used. TV, FM and radar all broadcast at frequencies that are high enough for their signals to escape our atmosphere and continue outwards into outer space where they could possibly be intercepted by ETI.

Study author de la Torre doesn’t believe a handful of scientists should monopolize the debate on this subject.

“In fact, it is a global matter with a strong ethical component in which we must all participate,” he said.

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