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.

Robotic Arm Has Split-Second Timing

Posted May 12th, 2014 at 6:09 pm (UTC+0)
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Ultra-fast robotic arm developed by scientists at the Learning Algorithms and Systems Laboratory (LASA) at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, Switzerland ((c)EPFL)

The ultra-fast robotic arm, seen here  grasping a container of milk, was developed by scientists at the Learning Algorithms and Systems Laboratory (LASA) at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, Switzerland. ((c)EPFL)

Swiss scientists have developed a robotic arm that can catch items thrown at it with split-second accuracy.

Researchers say the new invention, described in IEEE Transactions on Robotics, catches various sized objects within 5/100 of a second.

The mechanized arm has three joints, a complex and sophisticated hand with four fingers, and measures about 1.5 meters long.

The scientists ‒ from the Learning Algorithms and Systems Laboratory (LASA) at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, Switzerland (EPFL) ‒ invented the device while investigating various robotic solutions for catching moving objects.

“Increasingly present in our daily lives and used to perform various tasks, robots will be able to either catch or dodge complex objects in full-motion,” said Aude Billard, who’s in charge of the Learning Algorithms and Systems Laboratory. “Not only do we need machines able to react on the spot, but also to predict the moving object’s dynamics and generate a movement in the opposite direction.”

The LASA scientists say the as-of-now unnamed robot could help with the space junk problem.

The device is already connected to the Clean-mE project at the Swiss Space Center at EPFL, which develops new technologies to help recover and dispose of the thousands of pieces of potentially dangerous debris accumulating in space around the Earth since the beginning of the space age.

This computer generated graphic provided by NASA shows objects in Earth orbit that are currently being tracked.  Space junk has made such a mess of Earth's orbit that experts say we may need to finally think about cleaning it up. (AP)

This computer generated graphic provided by NASA shows orbital debris circling Earth.  (AP)

Once the LASA robotic arm is installed on a debris-hunting satellite, its job will be to catch flying space debris. The size, shape and trajectories dynamics of these objects are only partially known. The scientists said that, for their arm catch a variety of flying things, it’ll need to develop and incorporate a number of parameters to allow it to react to unexpected events in record time.

“Today’s machines are often pre-programmed and cannot quickly assimilate data changes,” said Billard. “Consequently, their only choice is to recalculate the trajectories, which requires too much time from them in situations in which every fraction of a second can be decisive.”

As they developed the device, the researchers were inspired by how humans learn things ‒ by imitation, and trial and error. As a result, they developed a technique based on programming by demonstration.

Instead of giving the robot specific directions, this programming method shows it examples of possible trajectories and then the researchers manually guide the arm to the projected target, repeating this exercise several times. This allows the robotic to learn what it needs to do.

The wide range of objects used by the researchers to teach the robotic arm how to quickly grab objects included a ball, empty bottle, half full bottle, hammer and  tennis racket.

Scientists Ashwini Shukla (left) and Seungsu Kim (right) are members of the LASA team that helped develop the new dexterous robotic arm (center) - ((c) EPFL)

Scientists Ashwini Shukla (left) and Seungsu Kim (right) are members of the LASA team that developed the dexterous robotic arm. ((c) EPFL)

The objects were selected because they provided the robot with a varied range of challenges to help it decide which part of the object has to be caught that doesn’t correspond to its center of gravity, such as the handle of the tennis racket. The bottle provided even a more of a challenge since its center of gravity moves several times during the course of its flight.

The researchers first began to teach their robotic arm by throwing an object at it several times. With the help of cameras planted in various locations around it, the robot created a model for the objects’ kinetics based on their trajectories, speeds and rotational movement.  The research team then translated this model into an equation that allows the robot to quickly position itself in the correct path whenever an object is thrown.  Within a few milliseconds before the object reaches it, the robot refines and fine tunes its conception of the trajectory for a real-time and highly precise catch.

The machine’s precision was even further enhanced when the researchers developed sophisticated controllers that help connect and coordinate the movements of the robot’s hand and fingers.

EPSL Video Demonstration of the New Ultra-Fast Robotic Arm ((C) EPSL)

Yawning May Cool Your Brain

Posted May 7th, 2014 at 7:39 pm (UTC+0)
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Yawning might be more than a sign you are tired, it could also cool your brain.

New study shows that yawning helps cool the brain (Andrew Gallup)

A new study shows that yawning helps cool the brain. (Andrew Gallup)

A new study published in Physiology and Behavior  links yawning to thermoregulation.

Humans have a tendency to yawn when tired, after waking up, or when we’re bored or under-stimulated. Of course, many of us yawn after seeing or hearing someone else yawn.

Some animals yawn to show dominance or to send a warning signal when threatened. Snakes yawn after eating a big meal to realign their jaws.

While some theorize that yawning is a natural reflex that increases the flow of oxygen to the brain, past scientific research has failed to find an association between the two.

Variations in brain temperatures have been associated with sleep cycles, cortical arousal – which increases wakefulness, vigilance, muscle tone and heart rate – as well as stress. According to the study’s authors, we yawn to maintain a balanced brain temperature, keeping it at a steady level.

The researchers anticipated that yawning would decrease in cooler temperatures since the brain temperature would be lower in colder weather.

To find out if they were right, the researchers conducted two tests. In one, team members from the University of Vienna measured how often pedestrians engaged in contagious yawning during winter and summer months. In the second test, conducted earlier in the US state of Arizona where the climate is generally warm and dry, pedestrians there were asked to look at pictures of people yawning to see if it would make them yawn.

The Vienna tests revealed that people there yawned more in summer than in winter, while the opposite was true for those tested in Arizona. People there yawned more in winter than in summer.

Even snakes yawn. But they do so in order to realign their jaws after swallowing a big meal (Mark Dumont via Creative Commons @ Flickr)

Even snakes yawn. But they do so in order to realign their jaws after swallowing a big meal. (Mark Dumont via Creative Commons @ Flickr)

An analysis of the test results found that neither the seasons, nor the amount of daylight hours experienced by those tested in Austria and Arizona, had an impact on their yawning behavior.

Instead they found that people in both locations tended to yawn contagiously most frequently when the temperature was about 20 degrees Celsius.

This contagious yawning was reduced when temperatures rose to about 37 degrees C during the summer of Arizona or during the freezing  temperatures of the Austrian winter.

According to the study’s lead author, Jorg Massen from the University of Vienna, yawning to cool the brain doesn’t work when the air temperature is cooler than normal body temperature, and may also not be necessary or even can be harmful, when the temperature is freezing cold.

The researchers found that cooling the brain works to improve a person’s arousal and mental efficiency. So with this in mind, they also suggested that individuals spreading yawning behavior through contagious yawning could be doing so in order to improve overall vigilance within a group.

The research team involved with this study was made up of scientists from the University of Vienna, Austria, Nova Southeastern University in Florida and the State University of New York in Oneonta, New York.

Study Finds World is Warming…and Cooling

Posted May 5th, 2014 at 8:06 pm (UTC+0)
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17-210-Skirble-global-warming-An international team of climate researchers says the world’s climate has warmed at an unparalleled rate over the past century, but has also found that this warming hasn’t occurred everywhere at the same rate.

Their research also indicates that some parts of the world actually cooled during the 100-year time period.

The new study, published in Nature Climate Change, is the first to provide a detailed look at trends in global land warming for the last 100 years, according to the researchers Florida State University and the College of Atmospheric Sciences at Lanzhou University in China.

The paper also provides details on exactly when and where different areas of the world started to either warm up or cool down.

To make their findings, the researchers developed an analysis method that reviewed historical records of land surface temperatures from 1900 through the present for the entire world, except Antarctica.

Researchers Zhaohua Wu, Fei Ji, and Eric Chassignet (l-r) led study that  provided the first detailed look at when and where the earth has warmed up and cooled down. (Meredith Field/Center for Ocean-Atmospheric Prediction Studies)

Researchers Zhaohua Wu, Fei Ji, and Eric Chassignet (l-r) led study. (Meredith Field/Center for Ocean-Atmospheric Prediction Studies)

“Global warming was not as understood as we thought,” said Zhaohua Wu, an assistant professor of meteorology at Florida State University, who led the research team.

With their new data analysis method, scientists were able to provide the kind of details that had been missing from previous climate studies.

They said due to limitations of previous analysis methods in climate research, past studies on global warming didn’t provide information on non-uniform warming in space and time.

Their analytical review of historical records showed noticeable warming first started in and around the areas that encircled the Arctic and also the subtropical regions – the area between the 35th parallel in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres and the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, which includes parts of North and South Africa, the Middle East, Southern Europe, North and South America, Asia and Australia.

But the area of the world where they found the largest buildup of warming taking place through present times has been in the mid-latitudes of the northern hemisphere such as the US and Canada in North America, most European countries and Asian countries such as parts of China and Russia.

Along with the warming trends, they found cooling had actually occurred in some parts of the world.

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

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

“The global warming is not uniform,” said research team member Eric Chassignet, director of Florida State University’s Center for Ocean-Atmospheric Prediction Studies. “You have areas that have cooled and areas that have warmed.”

As most of the world was warming up between 1910 and 1980, some areas south of the equator near the Andes were actually cooling down, and then afterwards had no change at all until the middle 1990s.

Wu said that the detailed representation of when and where the world has warmed or cooled made possible by their analysis should provide a greater context to global warming research overall.

Animation of researchers findings.

http://www.voanews.com/media/video/1913632.html?nocache=1

Giant Jovian Moon Might Have an Ocean and Ice ‘Club Sandwich’

Posted May 2nd, 2014 at 8:36 pm (UTC+0)
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Artist concept of possible 'Moonwich' of Ice and Oceans on Ganymede (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Artist concept of possible ‘Moonwich’ of Ice and Oceans on Ganymede (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Ganymede is Jupiter’s largest moon; in fact it’s the solar system’s biggest moon.  Now members of the Icy Worlds team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) think that the giant moon, which is even larger than the planet Mercury, may have several layers of ice and liquid oceans piled atop each other, much like a club or other type of stacked sandwich.

The JPL scientists based their findings on computer models of Ganymede’s makeup.

The research also revealed that the icy moon may have hosted primitive life.

They drew attention to areas of the Jovian moon where water and rock intermingle and said those interactions are important for the development of life.  The researchers pointed out that life on our own planet may have also gotten its start in a similar way.

Some scientists propose that about 3.6 billion years ago, key life-giving elements contained within material that originated deep beneath Earth’s surface bubbled out of hydrothermal ocean vents and eventually developed into our planet’s earliest life forms.

Until these recent findings, it was thought that the rocky sea bottom of Ganymede was covered with ice instead of liquid, which is something that could prevent the development of life.  The computer models the scientists produced for their research also led them to believe that the first layer atop the moon’s core might be salty water.

The Galileo spacecraft snapped this natural color view of Ganymede in 6/96 as it made its first encounter with the Jovian moon. (NASA/JPL)

The Galileo spacecraft snapped this natural color view of Ganymede in 6/96 as it made its first encounter with the Jovian moon. (NASA/JPL)

“This is good news for Ganymede,” said JPL’s Steve Vance, who also led the study. “Its ocean is huge, with enormous pressures, so it was thought that dense ice had to form at the bottom of the ocean. When we added salts to our models, we came up with liquids dense enough to sink to the sea floor.”

Models of Ganymede’s oceans produced in the past led scientists to assume that salt had little effect of a liquid’s properties with pressure. But the JPL team conducted laboratory tests that showed the density of liquids under the same harsh conditions inside of Ganymede were increased with salt.

While some may find it odd that the ocean could be made to be denser with the addition of salt, the researchers suggested an experiment that can be tried at home that will show how this is possible.  Simply add some regular table salt to a glass of water.  You should be able to notice that instead of increasing the volume of liquid within the glass, it shrinks and becomes denser. This is, according to the scientists, because the salt ions attract water molecules.

As the JPL scientists progressed through their computer models they noticed that things got a little more complicated when they took the different forms or phases of ice into consideration.

The cubes of ice you add to your drink to make it colder is referred to as something called “Ice Ih.” It’s lighter than liquid water and is the least dense form of ice.

But you start adding in more pressure and the structure of the ice crystals become much more compact.

Incredibly high pressure, such as what is thought to be found in the deep oceans of Ganymede, produces ice that is so dense that it can actually drop to the bottom of the ocean.  Study scientists believe the densest form of ice on the Jovian moon is “Ice VI”.

Artist concept of a super-Earth exoplanet GJ1214b orbiting its tiny red dwarf sun. Observations from the Hubble Space Telescope show that it is a waterworld enshrouded by a thick, steamy atmosphere. (NASA, ESA, and D. Aguilar/Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics)

Artist concept of a super-Earth exoplanet GJ1214b orbiting its tiny red dwarf sun. Observations from the Hubble Space Telescope show that it is a waterworld enshrouded by a thick, steamy atmosphere. (NASA, ESA, and D. Aguilar/Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics)

The team added these processes to their computer model and came up with an ocean sandwiched between up to three ice layers that cover the rocky seafloor of Ganymede. The lightest ice makes up the top layer and the bottom layer consists of the saltiest liquid.

The JPL team said that their findings can also be applied to the study of exoplanets or planets beyond our solar system.  Some have proposed that a number of the rocky exoplanets that are more massive than Earth – Super-Earths – are also covered in oceans.

Vance and his colleagues think that scientists conducting laboratory experiments with models similar or even more complex than those they used in their research could help determine whether or not life could exist on these alien “water worlds”.

The study that outlines the JPL team’s findings was published in the journal “Planetary and Space Science.”

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