Most Brilliant Supernova; Protein Hunts/Kills Cancer Cells; ETI in Old Star Clusters?

Posted January 15th, 2016 at 11:37 am (UTC-4)
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This is an artist's impression of the record-breakingly powerful, superluminous supernova ASASSN-15lh as it would appear from an exoplanet located about 10,000 light years away in the host galaxy of the supernova. (Beijing Planetarium/Jin Ma)

This is an artist’s impression of the record-breakingly powerful, superluminous supernova ASASSN-15lh as it would appear from an exoplanet located about 10,000 light years away in the host galaxy of the supernova. (Beijing Planetarium/Jin Ma)

Supernova: 50 Times Brighter than Milky Way

Astronomers have been observing a fascinating cosmic event taking place some 3.8 billion light years from Earth.

Its the most luminous supernova in the universe.  Scientists say that its to be the most powerful supernova ever seen.

They say the object at the center of this celestial wonder, is pumping out the energy of hundreds of billions of suns and is 50 times as bright as the entire Milky Way.

The astronomers report that the object, now called ASASSN-15lh, might be a magnetar, a very rare type of star. But, even if it is a magnetar they say it is so powerful that it pushes the laws of physics.

The astronomers say that despite all its power and brilliance this central object is only about 16 km across.

The astronomers will look to the Hubble Space Telescope to finally solve this mystery later this year.

Protein That Hunts and Kills Cancer Cells in the Blood Discovered

Researchers at Cornell University have made a finding that could lead to new and improved cancer treatments.

Studying mice with metastatic prostate cancer, the research team discovered some powerful proteins that seek, attack and destroy cancer cells flowing in the bloodstream.

The researchers created microscopic bubbles (liposomes) they filled with a protein called Tumor Necrosis Factor Related Apoptosis-Inducing Ligand or TRAIL for short and administered doses to the cancer ridden mice.

The TRAIL protein filled bubbles, which attach themselves to white blood cells, kill tumor cells as they travel through the bloodstream.

The researchers found that the TRAIL protein prevents the creation and growth of tumors that can spread to other parts of the body.

The treatment not only prevented these secondary tumors from developing, but the research team found that the mice’s primary tumors had also shrunk in size.

One of NOAA's two new supercomputers used for climate and weather forecasts. (NOAA)

One of NOAA’s two new supercomputers used for climate and weather forecasts. (NOAA)

NOAA’s New Supercomputers Provide Faster, More Accurate Forecasts

The ability of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration or NOAA to create faster and more accurate forecasts has greatly improved now that its new supercomputer system is up and running at record speed.

The U.S. agency’s powerful computing system is made up of two Cray XC40 supercomputers.  One, named LUNA, is at a computing center in Reston, Virginia and the other, called Surge is in Orlando, Florida.

Each of the giant computers has the capacity to process and analyze earth observations at quadrillions of calculations per second.

NOAA administrator Kathryn Sullivan says that their newly upgraded computing system will allow the agency to process a huge wave of data gathered by its new observation platforms.

The system will enable the NOAA to introduce a number of much needed weather, climate and water related computer model upgrades this year that will help forecasters make and quickly deliver better weather prognostications.

M80 (NGC 6093), one of the densest of the 147 known globular star clusters in the Milky Way galaxy. Located about 28,000 light-years from Earth, M80 contains hundreds of thousands of stars, all held together by their mutual gravitational attraction. (NASA/ESA)

M80 (NGC 6093), one of the densest of the 147 known globular star clusters in the Milky Way galaxy. attraction. (NASA/ESA)

Planets Circling Old Stars May Contain Extraterrestrial Intelligent Life

A team of astronomers is suggesting that some good places to look for extra-terrestrial intelligent life just might be in tightly bound groupings of hundreds of thousands of stars, known as globular star clusters.

The stars in these clusters are some of the oldest in the universe.

These ancient stars don’t have as much of the heavy elements that are needed to form planets as younger stars such as our sun.

But the researchers say exoplanets have been found orbiting stars with only a tenth of the heavy elements of the sun.

They say any planet capable of supporting life that formed around these old stars would have to orbit it closely.

The close orbit could protect the planet and help it survive for perhaps billions of years. The researchers theorize that any life that did develop, could have had plenty of time to evolve, becoming more complex, and possibly developing intelligence.

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.

Working at the South Pole…Not Your Average Day at the Office

Posted January 12th, 2016 at 9:05 am (UTC-4)
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The author runs through daily checks on the solar radiation equipment at the Atmospheric Research Observatory (ARO) at the South Pole.  (Photo by Hunter Davis)

The author runs through daily checks on the solar radiation equipment at the Atmospheric Research Observatory (ARO) at the South Pole. (Photo by Hunter Davis)

I live in the western wing on the first floor of the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Research Station.

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

My room is small — perhaps 3 meters by 3 meters (9 feet by 9 feet) — with institutional blue carpeting, and tan-and-blue walls. I have a twin-size bed with a surprisingly comfortable mattress (at least for government standards), large wooden desk, chair, a small home-made shoe rack built out of a broken plywood pallet, two 3-drawer dressers, of which I only use one, and a narrow free-standing closet, with two small mirrors built into the inside of the doors.

On the same side of the room as my bed, I have a small, 15-centimeter (6-inch) thick, double pane window that looks out onto the station’s central entrance and, conveniently, lines up with the sun around 6 a.m., the time my alarm is set to go off.

A typical berthing at Amundsen Scott South Pole Station. (Photo by Hunter Davis)

A typical berthing at the Amundsen Scott South Pole Station. (Photo by Hunter Davis)

From 6 a.m. to 8 a.m., breakfast is served in the galley. We have a full-time baker from Vermont who makes fresh pastries and bread, and a hot bar with a rotating selection of American-style breakfast staples. If we’re lucky, we also have a large bowl of fresh fruit and, if we are really lucky, we have two.

A bowl of oatmeal, an apple and few cups of mint tea are my typical morning meal. I rarely drink coffee, but if the weather is really bad, I’ll have a small cup to help push me through the half-kilometer (quarter-mile) walk to work.

I get to the Atmospheric Research Observatory (ARO) a little before 8 a.m., and if we have Internet, start the day at my desk checking and responding to emails from scientists I work with at NOAA, NASA and a range of other institutions. Depending on the day, and how well equipment is working on station, this could take me anywhere from 20 minutes to two hours.

Once the Internet disappears (when the satellites drop below the horizon), I begin my daily rounds, checking all the instruments we operate for proper function. I like working from the top of the station down, (it’s always easier to go with gravity), so I typically start my inspection on the roof, where all of our solar radiation equipment is mounted.

From the roof, I move to the second floor where, among many things, we have instrumentation that measures aerosols, surface ozone, and cloud density. The first floor, my last stop, is home to our gas chromatograph and CO2 measuring systems.

Watch: Heading to work

If everything is working perfectly, my round takes me about an hour. If something is malfunctioning, my round could take me all day.

Noon is lunch time, and if I’m not buried in repairs or a new instrument installation, I’ll be back in the galley enjoying a warm meal by 12:30 p.m.. There are normally three entrees to choose from — one with meat, one for vegetarians and one for vegans — and a stock pot full of soup. If we’re lucky, we also have a bowl of fresh fruit and, if we are really lucky, we have two.

The author's desk at work. (Photo by Hunter Davis)

The author’s desk at work. (Photo by Hunter Davis)

It’s 1:30 p.m. and I’m back at ARO, calibrating instruments or trying to de-bug the program that keeps crashing our UV monitoring system. If the weather is really nice, I’ll check the instrumentation on our 30-meter meteorological tower and spend a few minutes at the top enjoying the view.

At 4 p.m., I make my afternoon round and, provided that nothing is acting strangely or about to explode, I’ll be out the door, mittens on hands at 5 p.m..

An hour on the stationary bike, skiing on the ice-cap, or playing volleyball in the gym, and I’m hungry.

Dinner is from 5 to 7 p.m.. I rarely get there before 6:30 p.m.. Like at lunch, there are typically three entrees to choose from — one for carnivores, one for vegetarians, and one for vegans. There are always desserts, typically homemade cookies, cakes or puddings. If we are lucky, we also have a bowl of fresh fruit and, if we are really lucky, we have two.

A few pages in a good book, say this year’s Push Cart Prize anthology, and I’m ready for bed. I fill up my humidifier, pull down the blind over my window, and tuck myself in between a pair of well-worn, scratchy cotton sheets.

Sleep comes quickly. I typically have one of three dreams: one about surfing, one about work or one about home. These dreams can be in English or Spanish. On occasion they’re in a language I don’t understand.

If I’m lucky, I encounter a bowl of fruit in my dream and, if I’m really lucky, I wake up eight hours later and find a fresh grapefruit in the galley.

Look for Refael Klein’s weekly blogs from the South Pole every Tuesday 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.

NASA Creates New Office to Protect Us from Asteroid and Comet Impact

Posted January 11th, 2016 at 3:55 pm (UTC-4)
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Asteroid impacting Earth (NASA)

Asteroid impacting Earth (NASA)

NASA is taking the potential threat posed by near earth objects (NEO’s), such as asteroids and comets, more seriously than ever and has established the new Planetary Defense Coordination Office (PDCO).

The space agency says the new office will oversee all of its efforts in finding and characterizing all celestial objects that travel close to Earth as they orbit the sun. It will also coordinate any actions within and outside of NASA that may be needed to respond to potential threats of impact.

A meteorite contrail is seen over a village of Bolshoe Sidelnikovo 50 km of Chelyabinsk on Friday, Feb. 15, 2013. (Photo: AP/Nadezhda Luchinina, E1.ru)

A meteorite contrail is seen over a village of Bolshoe Sidelnikovo 50 km of Chelyabinsk on Friday, Feb. 15, 2013. (Photo: AP/Nadezhda Luchinina, E1.ru)

“Asteroid detection, tracking and defense of our planet is something that NASA, its interagency partners, and the global community take very seriously,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in a NASA press release.

Grunsfeld went on to say that while there aren’t any impact threats right now, events such as the huge meteor that exploded over Chelyabinsk in 2013 along with the recent close approach of the ‘Halloween Asteroid’ serve as reminders of why it’s important close approach remind us of why we need stay on guard and ‘keep our eyes to the sky’.

Scientists say that the space object that exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia in 2013 was about 17 meters across and had a mass of roughly 10,000 tons.  It was reported that the blast shattered windows in about 7,000 buildings in the area and injured around 1,700 people, mostly due to flying shards of glass.

The Panoramic Survey Telescope & Rapid Response System (Pan-STARRS) 1 telescope on Maui's Mount Haleakala, Hawaii has produced the most near-Earth object discoveries of the NASA-funded NEO surveys in 2015. (University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy/Rob Ratkowski)

The Panoramic Survey Telescope & Rapid Response System (Pan-STARRS) 1 telescope in Hawaii has produced the most near-Earth object discoveries of the NASA-funded NEO surveys in 2015. (University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy/Rob Ratkowski)

With projects such as its Near-Earth Object Program, NASA has already been involved with finding and tracking NEO’s and has been a part of international efforts to develop methods to protect Earth from significant threats of impacts.

The space agency says that the new Planetary Defense Coordination Office will improve and ramp up those efforts by working with other U.S. government agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Emergency Management Agency as well as similar agencies from other countries.

Near earth objects are found by astronomers who use a worldwide network of ground-based telescopes as well NASA’s space-based NEOWISE infrared telescope.

Once an object is detected NASA says that its Center for NEO Studies at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory then will precisely predict its orbit and then will monitor its movements.

NASA says since more than 90 percent of near earth objects larger than 1 kilometer have already been discovered, the space agency will focus on finding objects that are about 140 meters – about the size of an American football field – or larger.

So far, astronomers have discovered more than 13,500 near-Earth objects, which vary in size from small boulders to those that are hundreds of kilometers in diameter. NASA says that about 1,500 near earth objects are spotted every year.

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.

Readying for Winter, South Pole Station Is Awash in Activity

Posted January 5th, 2016 at 4:21 pm (UTC-4)
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Approaching the  Atmospheric Research Observatory (ARO) at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. (Photo by Hunter Davis)

Approaching the Atmospheric Research Observatory (ARO) at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. (Photo by Hunter Davis)

From November until February, the South Pole is awash in activity.

With only four months to ready the station for the coming winter and fix what broke during the previous one, everyone is consumed with work. The cargo and materials specialists are unloading and organizing 70 C-130 airplanes worth of food, fuel and building supplies.

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

The carpenters are gutting one of our larger outbuildings and converting it into a new weather balloon inflation facility and the heavy equipment operators are clearing snowdrifts the size of small mountains from the sides of buildings.

Eight meters up, on the roof of the Atmospheric Research Observatory (ARO), you can witness the ebb and flow of each day. Trucks motor from maintenance bays to storage buildings, people hustle from worksites to tool shops to administrative offices, planes land, offload cargo, load cargo and refuel. The world below is in constant motion and stops only for the occasional cigarette or sip of water.

The NOAA Aerosol suite is comprised of four instruments: A CNC particle counter, (lower left) a MCPC particle counter (lower Right), a Nepholometer used for measuring particle size and distribution (center top) and an aetholometer (not pictured) used for measuring black carbon. (Photo by Hunter Davis)

The NOAA Aerosol suite is comprised of four instruments: A CNC particle counter (lower left), a MCPC particle counter (lower right), a nepholometer (center top) used for measuring particle size and distribution and an aetholometer (not pictured) used for measuring black carbon. (Photo by Hunter Davis)

While the logistical dance being performed this morning is captivating, I’m not on top of ARO to lounge and admire the day’s scene as it unfolds around me. Today, I’m setting up a new instrument on behalf of NASA, a sun photometer for studying aerosols.

Aerosols are any type of particulate, liquid or solid, that can be suspended in the atmosphere. They come in a variety of sizes and shapes, and can include everything from sea spray and ice crystals, to dust and smog. Of all the key components effecting climate change, aerosols are the least understood.

As a whole, they tend to reflect solar radiation, having a cooling affect to the planet, but can also — depending on their physical properties — absorb heat energy and warm their surroundings.

To top it all off, aerosols influence cloud formation and their effect on what type, and how, clouds develop, can lead to both warming and cooling trends, as well as effect global precipitation patterns.

NOAA’s Global Monitoring Division has an entire group devoted to studying aerosols, which has instrumentation set up at each of their baseline observatories. At the South Pole, we have three instruments running continuously.

Even though we have a robust system in place, we welcome complementary projects, as it allows us to compare our data to data gathered by different devices, which at the end of the day, helps us ensure the numbers we publish are accurate and truly representative of what’s happening in nature.

The sun photometer at the South Pole is part of NASA's Aerosol Robotic Network, and is just one of hundreds located around the world. (Photo by Hunter Davis)

The sun photometer at the South Pole is part of NASA’s Aerosol Robotic Network, and is just one of hundreds located around the world. (Photo by Hunter Davis)

Like our instruments, NASA’s sun photometer runs continuously. It’s comprised of three parts: a robotic arm that measures solar irradiance, a computer that controls the robot’s movement, and a laptop that sends off data to scientists and engineers.

The premise behind its function is simple. Aerosols of different types absorb solar radiation in different ways. By measuring the sun’s intensity at various wavelengths, the device can calculate the amount of particulate in the air and get a basic understanding of aerosol size distribution.

Simple instruments that work off basic principles, like NASA’s sun photometer, tend to perform well at the South Pole. Often, these devices are easy to install and maintain.

The first step in any instrument installation is to gather your materials and get organized.  I unpack the 36-kilogram (80-pound) black trunk that the sun photometer is packed in and try to get as much of the system set up inside, before I head up to the roof. It’s cold out, minus 39 Celsius (minus 39 Fahrenheit) and windy, so the less time I have to expose my hands to the sub-zero temperatures the better.

There are a series of cables that connect the instrument to the control computer. During my first trip up, I get all the electrical connections staged.

My next trip outside is with the robotic portion of the instrument. For the sun photometer to work properly, it has to be perfectly level. While leveling it in a warmer environment would be trivial, adjusting the metal thumbscrews on its base when you can’t feel your fingers is unimaginably tricky.

WATCH: The roof-top sun photometer at the Atmospheric Research Observatory (ARO) at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. 

 

Each trip to the instrument, I get about three minutes of good work out of my hands. Between the time running back into ARO to warm up and returning to the instrument to adjust its orientation, it takes me close to an hour to get the device sitting evenly.

With the sun photometer level, I finish hooking it up to the computer and begin working through a series of simulations that allow me to evaluate the system’s function. The simulations have the robotic arm move from a neutral position, facing down, to an active position, where it points directly into the sun. If everything is working properly, I should see a pinpoint of light pass through a target and line up with a sensor on the instrument’s body.

When I enter my first command, the instrument turns on and begins to rotate. I’m so excited to see it working that I pump a small fist into the air. As it nears the direction of the sun, I wait in anticipation for it to stop and take its first measurement.

But it’s not my day. My excitement turns to frustration as I watch the instrument rotate past where it is supposed to stop, and point 180 degrees in the opposite direction. I don’t know what to do, but I have sneaking suspicion that I will have to disassemble everything and start from scratch.

Heading back to my desk, I make myself a cup of mint tea and gaze out the window. Winds are whipping over the ice cap, rebuilding drifts that were just plowed yesterday. A flight is supposed to land in an hour and there will be an endless stream of cargo to unload. Summer is a busy time at the South Pole.  It doesn’t matter if you’re a scientist, engineer or tradesmen, you only have so much time until the sun sets. I put my coat back on and climb the station’s exterior stairs back to the roof.

It’s going to be a long afternoon.

Look for Refael Klein’s weekly blogs from the South Pole every Tuesday 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.

Hormone Cuts Sugar Craving; inSight Launch Delayed; Space Telescope Mirrors

Posted December 31st, 2015 at 3:14 pm (UTC-4)
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Sugar (Ayelie via Flickr/Creative Commons)

Sugar (Ayelie via Flickr/Creative Commons)

Hormone Cuts Sugar Craving in Mice

For those of us with an active “sweet tooth”, it can be really difficult to resist sweet treats like candy, cake and cookies.

But with diseases and conditions associated with eating sugary foods like diabetes, heart disease and obesity at or near epidemic levels it’s important not to overindulge on the those sweet goodies.

While all the specific physical drivers that trigger our sugar cravings are not known, a group of researchers have found a hormone that actually quashes the intake of some simple sugars.

The scientists conducting studies on mice found that the liver produces the sugar suppressing hormone fibroblast growth factor 21 (FGF21) to respond to high levels of carbohydrates.

Once in the bloodstream the hormone tells the brain to reduce a fondness for sweets.  The scientists say that their findings could lead to improved diets and help those who are obese or diabetic.

This rare overhead shot of the James Webb Space Telescope shows the nine primary flight mirrors installed on the telescope structure in a clean room at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. (NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/Chris Gunn)

This rare overhead shot of the James Webb Space Telescope shows the nine primary flight mirrors installed on the telescope structure in a clean room at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. (NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Chris Gunn)

NASA Reaches Halfway Point in Space Telescope Mirror Installation

The ninth of the eighteen segments that will eventually become the primary mirror for the new James Webb Space Telescope has been put into place.

The new Webb Telescope is the more powerful scientific successor to the Hubble Space Telescope.

Working inside the gigantic clean room at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, engineers and technicians recently used a robotic arm to install the mirror segment.

Each of the hexagonal-shaped pieces measures a little over 1.3 meters across and weighs around 40 kilograms.

When completely assembled all 18 mirror segments will work together to form the telescope’s 6.5 meter primary mirror.

NASA expects the installation of all mirror segments will be completed sometime in early 2016.

The rocket that will carry the new space telescope into space is set for launch in October 2018 from the Guiana Space Center in French Guiana.

Positions of known outer Solar System objects. The centaurs lie generally inwards of the Kuiper belt and outside the Jupiter Trojans. (WilyD at English Wikipedia)

Positions of known outer Solar System objects. The centaurs lie generally inwards of the Kuiper belt and outside the Jupiter Trojans. (WilyD at English Wikipedia)

Giant Comets Pose More Of a Threat Than Asteroids

From time to time the internet buzzes with rumors of an approaching asteroid that just might pose a danger to us.

Now a team of British astronomers say giant comets called ‘centaurs’ in the far reaches of our solar system may pose more of threat to life on Earth than asteroids.

The scientists say that these ‘centaurs’ move through the solar system in unstable orbits past our outer planets of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.

The gravitational fields from these planets can deflect these objects into a trajectory that puts Earth in its path.

According to the researchers, Centaurs are usually between 50 to more than 100 kilometers across and can have more mass than all of the Earth-crossing asteroid discovered so far.

The scientists calculated that one of these giant comets gets deflected into an Earth-bound path every 40 to 100 thousand years.

While most are expected to breakdown into dust and larger fragments, the amount of debris created could make an Earth impact almost certain.

An anxious woman bites her nails. (Maxwell GS/Flickr-Wikipedia)

An anxious woman bites her nails. (Maxwell GS/Flickr-Wikipedia)

Anxiety May Be Helpful in Stressful Situations

A team of French researchers may have found out why we have an uncanny knack for sensing danger.

When reacting to situations that pose a threat, the scientists say the brain assigns more of its processing resources than it does with less threatening circumstances.

Writing in the journal eLife, the researchers say they were able to identify the particular regions of the brain that are involved in this sensation.

They say the human brain can automatically sense social threats within just 200 milliseconds.

The researchers say they also found that the specific regions of the brain that sense threats differ among people who are anxious and those who aren’t as stressed.

The study finds that being anxious can actually be helpful in recognizing threats, since regions of the brain used to process these perceptions are also responsible for getting us to take action.

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)

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)

NASA’s inSight Mission to Mars Postponed

NASA’s inSight Mission was to be its next Mars mission.  inSight stands for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations Geodesy and Heat Transport.

But, the space agency recently had to scrub the launch, scheduled for March, after determining that a leak in the prime instrument of the spacecraft’s science payload could not be repaired on time.

According to NASA specific planetary alignments needed for a launch to Mars occur every 26 months and last for only a couple of weeks. So, with the inSight being unable to make its March 4th to 30th window, the next chance for launch won’t be until around May 2018.

The much acclaimed Mars Science Laboratory mission experienced a similar delay when its intended 2009 launch was postponed until November 2011.

NASA says that while it “remains fully committed to the scientific discovery and exploration of Mars,” a decision on what happens next for the inSight mission will be made some time in the upcoming months.

The inSight mission was designed to gather valuable information about the interior structure of Mars.

HAPPY NEW YEAR 2016 FROM VOA’S SCIENCE WORLD!

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.

Exploring South Pole on Cross-Country Skis

Posted December 29th, 2015 at 4:57 pm (UTC-4)
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Refael Klein returns to the station after a few hours of skiing. The smoke in the sky, is exhaust from the stations power plant. (Photo by Hunter Davis)

Refael Klein returns to the station after a few hours of skiing. The smoke in the sky is exhaust from the station’s power plant. (Photo by Hunter Davis)

SOUTH POLE JOURNAL
Refael Klein is blogging about his experiences as he spends a year working and living at the South Pole. Read his earlier posts here.

On a clear day at the South Pole, the horizon sits about 16 kilometers (10 miles) away.

We measure the visibility at any given point by referencing large wooden visibility markers that are anchored into the snow and run from the station at regular intervals to the north, east and south. The markers are painted black and the farthest ones are placed at almost 5 kilometers (3 miles), the minimum visibility required to land a plane on our ski-way.

For the past three days, the weather has been clear, windless and warm ( minus 28 Fahrenheit, minus 33 Celsius). I’ve taken advantage of these sublime conditions by indulging in a little outdoor recreation, exploring the vast barren polar landscape by cross country ski.

Refael Klein checks his bindings outside the Amundson-Scott South Pole Station. (Photo by Hunter Davis)

Refael Klein checks his bindings outside the Amundson-Scott South Pole Station. (Photo by Hunter Davis)

I don’t own a pair of skis but, fortunately, there is a big collection of Nordic equipment on base that’s free to rent.

Most of the stuff is pretty old but in good shape, thanks to the generosity of a few resident ski experts who have taken it upon themselves to repair broken bindings, patch boots and help novices like me pick out the proper gear.

The skis I use are red, with red bindings, about 6-feet long (1.82 meters) and wax-less. I have two adjustable well-worn, nicked blue poles that look like they may have been used at one point to reenact a scene from The Three Musketeers. My boots are blue, which I like, because they match my poles. Also, they’re well insulated and have enough wiggle room for few chemical heat pads.

Sunday, I skied 8 kilometers (5 miles). Monday, I skied six. Today, I want to ski eight.

It’s beautiful out, perhaps the nicest day we’ve had at the South Pole since I arrived. I dress lightly, foregoing my down jacket and substituting a thin, red polypropylene neck gator for my black, wool balaclava. The sun is sitting high on the horizon and I know I’ll warm up quickly, especially with no wind chill.

Outside the station’s main entrance, I clip into my bindings and I take off north, paralleling the visibility markers. The first mile, I’m on groomed “road” and I get a good glide with each stride.

After a few minutes, my goggles fog up. I stop and swap them out with an extra pair that I have stuffed down my shirt. Over the past two days, I’ve learned that it’s imperative to pack two pairs of goggles if you plan to stay outside for any length of time. They ice up quickly with condensation, and if you keep one stuffed down your clothes, next to your skin, they thaw out rapidly and you can switch between them endlessly.

Where the road ends, the wilderness begins. Snow at the South Pole is like no other snow I’ve ever encountered. It has a rough texture and if you were to run your hand along the surface, it would feel like the finest setting on a cheese grater. Needless to say, you don’t get much glide, but it’s still more efficient than walking. As a beginner, I move along at about 8 kilometers per hour (5 miles an hour).

Wind whipping over the Antarctic plateau blows snow into bizarre structures that look like miniaturized 1960’s concept car bodies. Typically, these formations are no bigger than a foot tall, but they can be many yards long.

Strastrugi snow formations on the Antarctic Plateau. (Photo by Hunter Davis)

Strastrugi snow formations on the Antarctic Plateau. (Photo by Hunter Davis)

They are called strastrugi, and cover the landscape in an endless maze of surreal shapes. The strastrugi are hard to climb over and corrupting their sleek look with a pair of ski tracks feels like putting a dent in a Jeff Koon’s balloon animal sculpture. I try my best to avoid them. I blaze trail in an endless zig-zag.

Time disappears into the landscape. The horizon never moves, and with the last visibility markers behind me, I begin to judge my distance by the soreness of my legs.

It is endlessly white in every direction. So empty and so devoid of contrast that I can’t help but become hyperaware of every movement I make and every scratch, swoosh and knock that my skis, clothing and body generate. My breath is the loudest sound of all and fills the landscape for hundreds of miles.

My presence is maddening and makes me feel at odds with the pristine landscape — dead still and quiet. I stop, breathe in deeply, and try my hardest not to move, think or exhale. Staring into the distance, I see nothing, only white. It is cold, my body is numb. The landscape has no smell and my taste buds are frozen.

But no matter how hard I focus, I can still hear myself standing still.

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.

Braving Brutal Cold to Tower Climb at the South Pole

Posted December 22nd, 2015 at 12:57 pm (UTC-4)
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It's a steep climb from the bottom of the tower to the top. (Photo by Hunter Davis)

It’s a steep climb from the bottom of the tower to the top. (Photo by Hunter Davis)

Yesterday, it was minus 34 Celsius (minus 29 Fahrenheit) and sunny.

Winds were low and visibility was perfect. The sky was a uniform shade of blue, stretching from horizon to horizon like a taut canvas. Walking to work, I felt like a red line running down the middle of a Barnett Newman painting. I was an interloper in an otherwise still scene.

SOUTH POLE JOURNAL
Refael Klein is blogging about his experiences as he spends a year working and living at the South Pole. Read his earlier posts here.

Refael Klein at the base of the tower inspecting the electrical and air hose connections. (Photo by Hunter Davis)

Refael Klein at the base of the tower inspecting the electrical and air hose connections. (Photo by Hunter Davis)

Every movement I made felt accentuated and unnatural. Ice cracked and hissed with each step of my heavy, green, insulated rubber boots, its voice growing louder and louder until it was deafening, and there was nothing left for me to do but stand still and admire the desolation of the landscape.

It is rare to have South Pole days like these, especially in early summer. The winter is never more than a few moments away. At the flick of a wrist, the temperature can drop 30 degrees and the wind can carry away visibility with cyclones of snow.

We make the most of the conditions whenever it is stable and “warm”, and try to dedicate part of our day to working on outside tasks that would otherwise be too difficult or too dangerous to accomplish.

At the Atmospheric Research Observatory (ARO), this could mean setting up new solar radiation equipment on our rooftop, raising electrical runs on the outside of the building, or inspecting instrumentation on our meteorological tower.

Given the sheer beauty of the day, we decided to go climbing.

ARO’s meteorological tower is 30 meters (100 feet) tall. Built out of red-and-white, Erector-set-like pieces of steel, it is anchored to the ground with over a dozen woven steel guy-lines.

A ladder well running through the middle switchbacks so tightly from bottom to top that, as you ascend, you feel like an ant walking up the threads of a screw.

Instruments at the top of the tower: (top left) wind bird, (top right) temperature detector, (bottom) aspirated air intake. On a clear day, you can see out over 10 miles from the top of the meteorological tower. (Photo by Hunter Davis)

Instruments at the top of the tower: wind bird (top left), temperature detector (top right), aspirated air intake (bottom). On a clear day, you can see out over 10 miles from the top of the meteorological tower. (Photo by Hunter Davis)

Wind birds, temperature detectors, humidity probes, albedo sensors and air intakes for instruments inside the station run along the length of the tower. Even though the equipment is robust, it’s important to check on it regularly to ensure that everything’s working properly and not malfunctioning in a way that impacts data quality.

I dress warmly before leaving the station, filling my pockets with an assortment of basic tools in case I need to repair, re-level or take down a broken instrument.

As I climb upwards, the all-metal tower sucks heat away from my hands and feet and, by the time I’m half-way up, I’m uncomfortably cold.

At the top of the tower, an aspirator on one of our intake lines doesn’t sound like it’s spinning. I get down on my knees and roll the right side of my windproof hat up so I can place my ear next to the fan’s plastic protective backing for a better listen.

It is hard to tell if the fan is humming along, or if it’s just my ear ringing from the brutal cold, so I take off my mittens and wearing only thin liner gloves, begin to undo a series of thumb screws that will allow me to remove the housing and visually verify things. It takes me less than a minute to do so. Everything is working fine.

I shove my numb fingers back into my mittens and rush down the tower, hoping I can make it to the bottom before my fingers begin to burn and swell with new blood.

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.

Curiosity Hits Silica Jackpot; Sleep Aid & Strokes; Freshwater Supply Threatened

Posted December 18th, 2015 at 4:27 pm (UTC-4)
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NASA's Curiosity Mars rover shows the "Marias Pass" area where a lower and older geological unit of mudstone -- the pale zone in the center of the image -- lies in contact with an overlying geological unit of sandstone. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover shows the “Marias Pass” area where a lower and older geological unit of mudstone — the pale zone in the center of the image — lies in contact with an overlying geological unit of sandstone. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

NASA’s Curiosity Mars Rover Finds Plenty of Silica

As they reviewed data gathered by the Mars Rover, scientists found that some rocks in Gale Crater contained the chemical compound silica.  In fact they say it’s a very high amount of the compound.

According to the researchers, silica is actually a combination of silicon and oxygen. On Earth we normally see the compound as quartz. But it can also be found in a number of other minerals.

Albert Yen, a Curiosity science team member at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, says two geological processes that can increase the concentration of silica involves water. Knowing which of the two processes took place will allow scientists to learn more about the ancient wet environments of Mars.

The extinction of large animals from tropical forests could make climate change worse. New research published in Science Advances reveals that a decline in fruit-eating animals such as large primates, tapirs and toucans could have a knock-on effect for tree species. (Pedro Jordano)

The extinction of large animals from tropical forests could make climate change worse. New research published in Science Advances reveals that a decline in fruit-eating animals such as large primates, tapirs and toucans could have a knock-on effect for tree species. (Pedro Jordano)

Climate Change Could Worsen if Large Animals Become Extinct

An international team of researchers has found that climate change could worsen if large fruit eating animals, living in tropical forests, should become extinct.

After eating its fruit, the animals are known to scatter the seeds of large tree species in their waste material.

The researchers say birds and large mammals are responsible for almost all dispersal of the seeds for large plants such as trees.

These trees help counter climate change by capturing and storing a good amount carbon dioxide before it has a chance to escape into the atmosphere.

So if the large animals are taken from an ecosystem the researchers say it could lead to a loss in hardwood trees, which means more CO2, a primary greenhouse gas, winds up in the atmosphere.

According to the researchers, a number of large vertebrate species are currently being threatened by issues such as hunting, illegal trade and habitat loss.

Ambien (Zolpidem) tablets (Entheta/Wikimedia Commons)

Ambien (Zolpidem) tablets (Entheta/Wikimedia Commons)

Sleeping Aid Speeds Stroke Recovery Time in Mice

Stanford University School of Medicine scientists have found that mice, who had suffered strokes, recovered much faster if they were given low doses of a popular drug that helps treat insomnia.

A stroke occurs when the brain’s blood supply gets disrupted.

According to the researchers, initial brain damage caused by a stroke usually takes place within a couple of hours after the blood flow is interrupted and then continues to spread until the brain starts to rewire itself.

So far, there’s no known drug therapy that can help patients with their recovery once a stroke has occurred.

The researchers induced strokes in mice and then gave them low doses of Zolpidem, popularly known as Ambien.

They found the drug helped enhance a type of brain cell signaling activity, which dramatically improved the mice’s rate of recovery from stroke.

The researchers cautioned that their study results will first need to be independently duplicated by others before clinical trials can begin.

A combination of satellite data and ground measurements, such as from instrumented buoys like this one in Lake Tahoe on the California/Nevada border, were used to provide a comprehensive view of changing lake temperatures worldwide. The buoy measures the water temperature from above and below. (Limnotech)

A combination of satellite data and ground measurements, such as from instrumented buoys like this one in Lake Tahoe on the California/Nevada border, were used to provide a comprehensive view of changing lake temperatures worldwide. The buoy measures the water temperature from above and below. (Limnotech)

Study: Climate Change Threatens Earth’s Freshwater Supply

A new study that examined more than half of Earth’s freshwater supply finds climate change is quickly warming the world’s lakes, which is seen as a threat to the supply of freshwater and its ecosystems.

Researchers analyzed more than 25 years of data that includes both satellite and ground measurements of some 235 lakes located throughout six continents.  They found that our planet’s lakes are warming by .34 degrees Celsius every ten years.

While the noted temperature increase may seem small and insignificant, the scientists say it’s bigger than the warming rate of either the ocean or the atmosphere.

They say water temperature can affect the health and sustainability of our ecosystems.

They add that when there’s such a quick and wide shift away from normal lake temperatures the life forms it hosts could change radically and even disappear.

The study’s lead author Catherine O’Reilly from Illinois State University says that the results of the study suggest that large changes in our lakes are not only unavoidable, but are probably already happening.

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.

A Blast of Gamma Rays from Halfway Across the Universe Detected

Posted December 16th, 2015 at 1:38 pm (UTC-4)
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This artist's conception shows a blazar – the core of an active galaxy powered by a supermassive black hole. (M. Weiss/CfA)

This artist’s conception shows a blazar – the core of an active galaxy powered by a supermassive black hole. (M. Weiss/CfA)

Back in April 2015, a surge of high-powered gamma rays from half-way across the universe crashed into Earth’s atmosphere.

But, according to the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the burst of gamma rays didn’t put any of us in danger and produced no noticeable effects since the high-energy rays are blocked by Earth’s atmosphere.

Astronomers, using space and ground based telescopes found that this burst of powerful emissions came from a unique and active galaxy 7.6 billion light years from Earth.

The galaxy, known as PKS 1441+25, is actually a rare, compact and very bright mass of energy and light called a blazar.

The blazar’s twin powerful and opposite directed jets of plasma are driven at near light speed by a supermassive black hole located in the center of the galaxy.

As a black hole sucks in a variety of matter, such as dust, gas and even a star, it forms a surrounding high-energy accretion disk of elementary particles such as photons, electrons and positrons.

Friction is generated as these subatomic particles, from the accretion disk, gets pulled into the black hole’s point of no return (event horizon).  The friction heats tiny bits of material into a plasma.  The plasma combines with the black hole’s revolving magnetic field to form the blazar’s jets.

While scientists are still arguing over the exact processes that generate the gamma-ray emissions from the jets, the researchers say their findings will provide valuable clues.

April’s gamma ray burst was observed and studied over a number of different wavelengths with telescopes such as NASA’s Fermi Gamma Ray and Swift space telescopes and the Very Energetic Radiation Imaging Telescope Array System (VERITAS) in Arizona.

The astronomers said their multi-wavelength observations of this rare phenomena provided them with valuable insight into where such gamma rays are produced, the various physical processes that occur near the black hole, as well as a unique look into the distant galaxy.

The researchers figured that the region where the burst of gamma rays originated is probably about five light years from the black hole, which is much further than they expected.

They also found that the size of the gamma ray emitting region was around a third of a light year across, which was bigger than what is normally observed in an active galaxy.

The astronomer’s findings will be published in Astrophysical Journal Letters, which are currently available online.

NASA Goddard Video Explains Distant Blazar and Blast of Gamma Rays
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.

How to Avoid Getting Lost While Living at the South Pole

Posted December 15th, 2015 at 1:14 pm (UTC-4)
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A vast, empty landscape  surrounds the Atmospheric Research Observatory (ARO) at the South Pole. The upwind side of the station (left) is the clean air sector. (Photo by Hunter Davis)

A vast, empty landscape surrounds the Atmospheric Research Observatory (ARO) at the South Pole. The upwind side of the station (left) is the clean air sector. (Photo by Hunter Davis)

Cardinal directions become meaningless at the South Pole.

There is no east, west or south. You are at the bottom of the world. Any direction you move is north. This makes certain tasks complicated, like giving someone directions to a building they have never been to before, or trying to describe which way the wind is blowing.

SOUTH POLE JOURNAL
Refael Klein is blogging about his experiences as he spends a year working and living at the South Pole. Read his earlier posts here.

To overcome these difficulties, and to lend some type of geospatial acumen to everyday life, the station has developed a “Grid System.”

The South Pole is our origin, and north, south, east and west emanate from its center. It’s like living on a giant sheet of graph paper. The world may be round, but its flat here, at least when it comes to not getting lost.

A quarter-mile grid north-east from the Pole, sits the Atmospheric Research Observatory (ARO), a National Science Foundation facility. The rectangular, seaweed-green building is two stories tall and sits atop an elevated steel foundation anchored into the ice below. From afar, it looks like an artist’s rendering of a moon base that you may have seen in an old edition of a science magazine.

NOAA shares space at the Atmospheric Research Observatory (ARO) with research projects from NASA, international research institutions, and universities. (Photo by Hunter Davis)

NOAA shares space at the Atmospheric Research Observatory (ARO) with research projects from NASA, international research institutions, and universities. (Photo by Hunter Davis)

ARO's rooftop is home to NOAA's suite of solar radiation equipment. (Photo by Hunter Davis)

ARO’s rooftop is home to NOAA’s suite of solar radiation equipment. (Photo by Hunter Davis)

ARO was built in 1997, dedicated in 1998, and since then has been continuously pummeled by the harsh Antarctic weather. As a tall, artificial structure on an otherwise flat, featureless plane, it has become a windbreak for blowing snow.

Massive drifts pile up each year around the station, and each summer it takes a bulldozer a few hours to clear a drivable path to the building’s cargo deck. Despite our best efforts to keep ARO above the snow, Mother Nature is ultimately winning. Plans are being made to raise the building a few feet higher and, rumor has it, the “big lift” might take place as soon as next year.

During white out conditions, personnel follow flag lines between the main building and and ARO. (Photo by Hunter Davis)

During white out conditions, personnel follow flag lines between the main building and the ARO. (Photo by Hunter Davis)

NOAA’s Global Monitoring Division’s (GMD) South Pole Baseline Observatory is ARO’s main occupant. The rooftop is home to our solar radiation instruments and the two main floors of the facility are filled with experiments studying carbon dioxide, ozone, (both surface and stratospheric), ozone depleting substances, and particulates in the air.

The goal of all these projects, and for GMD as a whole, is to measure the global background levels of key substances that affect climate change. To accomplish this, the building and our air sampling towers have been located upwind of the rest of Amundson Scott Station, and the region upwind of us has been defined as the Clean Air Sector; no vehicle or foot traffic allowed.

It’s an endless expanse of windswept ice cap, cut off from any direct anthropogenic (human made) source of pollution, making the air we sample the cleanest air on earth, and the data we collect representative of our entire planet.

Wind blows clean for us 90 percent of the year. I take advantage of its consistency as much as I can, and frequently find myself standing on top of ARO’s roof — face into the frozen breeze — gazing towards the horizon.

It’s a barren landscape everywhere you look, not unlike the view you would have if you were floating on a ship in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. When the sun is behind you, the wind-carved ice looks like foam-capped waves and every time you breathe you expect to taste salt.

 

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.