Science Scanner: NASA Readies for Human Deep Space Exploration

Posted May 25th, 2011 at 7:43 pm (UTC-4)
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NASA Spacecraft to Take Humans into Deep Space

NASA has revealed the new US spacecraft which will take humans into deep space.

The vehicle will carry four astronauts for 21-day missions and be able to land in the Pacific Ocean off the California coast. It is designed to be 10 times safer during ascent and entry than its predecessor, the space shuttle.

The new system will be based on designs originally planned for the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle and will be used to develop a new spacecraft known as the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV).

“We are committed to human exploration beyond low-Earth orbit and look forward to developing the next generation of systems to take us there,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.  “The NASA Authorization Act lays out a clear path forward for us by handing off transportation to the International Space Station to our private sector partners, so we can focus on deep space exploration”, said Bolden.

Lockheed Martin Corporation, an American aerospace company, will continue working to develop the MPCV.  The spacecraft will have a pressurized volume of 690 cubic feet, with 316 cubic feet of habitable space.

>>> Read more…

Genetic Study Reveals Shared Ancestry

A new study by Harvard researchers finds a distinct presence of African ancestry in Southern European, Middle Eastern and Jewish populations.

The finding sheds new light on the intermingling and migration of European, Middle Eastern and African and populations since ancient times.

David Reich, an Associate Professor of Genetics at the Harvard Medical School and his colleagues investigated the proportion of sub-Saharan African ancestry present in various populations in West Eurasia – defined as the geographic area spanning modern Europe and the Middle East.

While previous studies have established that such shared ancestry exists, they have not indicated to what degree or how far back the mixing of populations can be traced.

The researchers detected no African genetic signatures in Northern European populations.

>>> Read more…

Could Global Warming Limit Trees Ability to Store Carbon?

One of the most positive steps that anyone concerned about global warming can do is to plant trees and preserve forests.

Trees and plants capture carbon dioxide during photosynthesis, thereby removing the most abundant greenhouse gas from the atmosphere and storing some of it in their woody tissue.

Yet global warming may affect the capacity of trees to store carbon by altering forest nitrogen cycling. That’s the conclusion of a 7-year study led by Jerry Melillo of the Marine Biological Laboratory, which was published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

For the first time in a field experiment, the study showed that warmer temperatures stimulate the gain of carbon stored in trees as woody tissue, partially offsetting the soil carbon loss to the atmosphere.

The carbon gains in trees, the scientists found, is due to more nitrogen being made available to the trees with warmer soil.

>>> Read more…

Recently Discovered Massive Star Rivals the Sun

An international team of astronomers has discovered a massive star with a mass that is 150 times greater than the sun.

It was detected during a major study of the Tarantula Nebula, located in the Large Magellanic Cloud. The star, called VFTS 682, is one of the more massive stars (up to 300 times the mass of the Sun) ever known.

It was first observed a few years ago but was initially found not to be very massive. The team has now shown that a large part of its light is absorbed and scattered by dust on its way to the Earth and that the star is actually much brighter than first thought.

But the major surprise is that the star lies on its own and is not a member of a dense star cluster.

Up to now, astronomers have believed that very massive stars could only exist at the center of very dense star clusters.

>>> Read more…

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.

Improved Sense of Smell Led to Bigger Brains

Posted May 23rd, 2011 at 6:58 pm (UTC-4)
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We all enjoy the aroma of beautiful flowers or of those freshly baked cookies. Our acute sense of smell is something that is unique to mammals. And, according to a recent discovery, it also boosted brain evolution.

The study, published in the journal Science, may help explain why mammals evolved such large and complex brains, which in some cases grew to 10 times larger than relative body size.

The researchers reconstructed and examined the fossils of Morganuocodon and Hadrocodium, which are described as tiny, shrew-like creatures from the early Jurassic Period.

They were able to find new proof that the mammalian brain evolved in three major stages:  improvements in the sense of smell,  increasing touch or tactile sensitivity from body hair and  improved neuromuscular coordination, the ability to produce skilled muscle movement using the senses.

Scientists now plan to delve further into the diversification of the brain and sensory systems as mammals evolved and diversified.

“This will unlock new secrets about how huge brains and extreme sensory adaptations evolved in mammals, such as electroreception in the platypus and sonar in whales and bats. It is all very exciting,” said lead author Tim Rowe, director of the Vertebrate Paleontology Laboratory at the University of Texas at Austin.

Click here to read more on this study.

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.

Bubbling Volcanic Ocean Found Beneath Jupiter Moon

Posted May 20th, 2011 at 1:32 pm (UTC-4)
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Scientists have discovered an enormous ocean of bubbling magma beneath the surface of Io, one of the many moons of Jupiter.

A team of researchers studying this phenomenon says that the global ocean about 30 to 50 kilometers beneath Io’s crust helps explain the moon’s activity.

While volcanoes on Earth tend to occur in localized spots like the “Ring of Fire” around the Pacific Ocean, the volcanoes on Io are found all over its surface, producing about 100 times more lava each year than all the volcanoes on Earth.

On the Science World radio program this weekend, Dr. Krishan Khurana, from UCLA’s Institute of Geophysics & Planetary Physics, tells us why Io is considered to be the most volcanically active body in our solar system.

Listen to the interview here:

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Watch related video (Courtesy of: NASA/JPL/University of Michigan/UCLA):

Other stories we’ll cover on the Science World radio program include:

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.

Science Scanner: Exploding Watermelons and Silk-Shooting Tarantulas

Posted May 17th, 2011 at 8:09 pm (UTC-4)
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Fruit Land Mines

Watermelons are exploding all over Eastern China. It sounds like the storyline from a movie but, unfortunately, its true. And it’s causing havoc for farmers who had hoped to quickly grow bigger melons.

An investigative report by China Central Television finds farms in Jiangsu Province are losing acres of fruit to the problem. Anxious for a more bountiful harvest, the farmers reportedly sprayed too much growth chemical on the crops during wet weather.

So, instead of an abundance of melons, the farmers are coping with fields of fruit land mines.

>>> Read more…

Stopping HIV Transmission with a Molecular Barrier

Boston researchers have developed a topically-applied molecular microbicide, an agent that kills microbes, which is capable of preventing the transmission of HIV.

The microbicide works by silencing the genes that promote infection. The researchers continue to test the medication on mice and are optimistic about its long-term effects. The findings could lead to the development of a similar solution to protect women against HIV infection, potentially for weeks at a time, boosting the global efforts to halt the spread of HIV/AIDS.

The study, led by Lee Adam Wheeler and Judy Lieberman of the Immune Disease Institute and the Program in Cellular and Molecular Medicine at Children’s Hospital Boston, was published online in the Journal of Clinical Investigation.

>>> Read more

Keep Hackers and Crackers Away with a Good Beat

Computer scientists in Beirut are working on technology that would render stolen passwords useless.

Keeping your computer and confidential information secure is increasingly difficult. No matter how sophisticated and guarded, passwords aren’t  100 percent secure. Hackers, crackers and others who want to snoop or steal valuable data can always find ways to gain access to a password and, subsequently, to your information.

The Beirut computer scientists are approaching the verification of passwords in a  unique way. They take the speed with which a user types in their login into account. With this technique, the gaps between the entry of characters by someone unfamiliar with the password would render a stolen password useless.

>>> Read more

Ancient Egyptian Princess had Coronary Artery Disease

Researchers using whole body computerized tomography scanning techniques on mummified remains have determined that an Egyptian princess who lived between 1580 and 1550 BC is the first person in human history  to be diagnosed coronary artery disease.

Unlike many patients with coronary artery disease today, Princess Ahmose-Meryet-Amon, who lived in Thebes (Luxor), didn’t eat a poor diet loaded with red meats and fatty foods. She didn’t live a sedentary lifestyle, either. Plus, tobacco and trans-fats were unknown during her time.

In fact, researchers believe she lived an active life and ate a diet rich in vegetables, fruit and a limited amount of meat from domesticated (but not fattened) animals. The princess also ate bread and drank beer – two of ancient Egypt’s dietary staples of this period – made from wheat and barley, which were grown along the banks of the Nile.

>>> Read more

Tarantulas Shoot Silk from their Feet

Back in 2006, research scientists in Germany published a paper that suggested tarantulas save themselves from falling by releasing silk threads from their feet.

The findings of Dr. Stanislav Gorb and his colleagues at the Max Planck Institute appeared in Nature. However, they were soon disputed by other researchers who said that they couldn’t find any proof of the tarantula’s silk.

Fast forward five years. Dr. Claire Rind from the University of Newcastle, UK, intrigued by spiders and the scientific controversy, decided to continue the investigation. She discovered that tarantulas do indeed shoot silk from their feet when they lose their footing.

Rind published the results of her research in The Journal of Experimental Biology.

>>> Read More

 

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.

Fat “Master Switch” Gene Found

Posted May 16th, 2011 at 7:36 pm (UTC-4)
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Scientists may have discovered the so-called “master switch” gene that’s linked to obesity, type 2 diabetes and cholesterol levels. Researchers believe the gene, known as KLF14,  controls the behavior of other genes found in body fat.

Although genetic researchers have known about KLF14’s connection to  diabetes and cholesterol levels for some time, this study shows how the gene acts like a regulator in controlling other genes located in the body’s fat cells.

Professor Mark McCarthy, of the University of Oxford, co-authored the study. “KLF14 seems to act as a master switch controlling processes that connect changes in the behavior of subcutaneous fat to disturbances in muscle and liver that contribute to diabetes and other conditions.”

Subcutaneous fat is the fat located just below the skin.

The other genes found to be controlled by KLF14 have been connected to a wide series of metabolic traits including obesity, cholesterol, insulin and glucose levels. Researchers say the finding illustrates just how connected these traits are to one another.

Since fat is a central factor in conditions like obesity, heart disease and diabetes, scientists hope finding this central regulatory gene will one day lead to new treatments to fight these diseases.

And, although we all inherit a set of genes from both of our parents, the activity of this “master switch” gene,  is said to be inherited from the mother. In a process called imprinting, researchers found that the copy of KLF14 from the father is switched off while the copy from the mother remains active.

The study was published recently in the  in scientific journal, Nature Genetics and was one part of a large multi-national collaboration known as the MuTHER study.

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.

Are Brain Waves as Unique as Fingerprints?

Posted May 13th, 2011 at 4:54 pm (UTC-4)
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When children enter adolescence their brains begin to undergo a series of rapid changes – actually a sort of neural overhaul – shedding what was needed in childhood and adding functions and abilities that are critical in adulthood.

Despite these considerable and ongoing changes, when something in the brain remains so steadily unaltered, neuroscientists take notice.

In a study co-authored by Dr. Mary Carskadon, professor of psychiatry at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University and director of the Sleep Research Laboratory at E.P. Bradley Hospital, researchers have found that most of their teenage study subjects maintained a unique and consistent pattern of underlying brain oscillations.

This observation appears to support an idea, already observed in adults, that people produce a kind of unique brain wave “fingerprint.”

On the Science World radio program this weekend, Professor Carskadon talks more about the study and how these “fingerprints” could someday lead to a method to predict and possibly treat those who may go on to develop mental illnesses such as schizophrenia or depression. Listen to a preview of the interview here:

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Other stories we’ll cover on the Science World radio program include:

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.

Science Scanner: 05/12/11

Posted May 12th, 2011 at 3:21 pm (UTC-4)
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Everywhere you look there’s something interesting and exciting in science news.  Here’s a rundown of some science-related stories that have caught my eye recently and may interest you as well.

NASA Sets New Launch Date for Endeavor’s Final Flight

NASA managers have set Monday, May 16 at 8:56 a.m. EDT as the new date for space shuttle Endeavour‘s final liftoff.  The STS-134 mission to the International Space Station is the penultimate shuttle flight and the final one for Endeavour.

At a Monday news briefing from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, NASA officials also discussed the progress of repairs since Endeavour’s launch postponement on April 29.
>>> Read more

The Vatican Issues Climate Change Report

A panel of scientists appointed by the Vatican confirms what climate change experts have been warning for years – that the Earth is getting warmer, causing glaciers to melt. The panel says urgent measures are needed to stem the damage.

The Pontifical Academy of Sciences hosted a conference last month on the causes and consequences of retreating mountain glaciers. Its final report, signed by independent glaciologists, climate scientists, meteorologists and chemists, was posted on the Vatican website Tuesday.
>>>Read more

Long-Term Use of Acetaminophen Linked to Blood Cancers

Frequent use of over-the-counter  pain killer acetaminophen increases the risk for developing blood cancers, such as Lymphoma, according to a new study.  The risk might be low and it’s still uncertain what role the drug plays.

The study,  published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, focused on 65,000 older men and women in the US western state of Washington. After considering factors like age, whether or not the patient had arthritis and a family history of certain blood cancers, the research indicated that chronic acetaminophen users had nearly twice the risk of developing the diseases.
>>> Read more

Indian Botanists Find Long Lost Medicinal Plant

A rare medicinal plant that hasn’t been seen for 115 years was recently rediscovered by botanists working in India’s Upper Subansiri district of Arunchal Pradesh.

The region’s ethnic tribes believed the “Begonia tessaricarpa” plant had medicinal properties and used it to treat stomach aches and dehydration. Its juices were said to be used to ward off leeches.  People of these tribes often referred to plant as “Buckuchurbu” or “Rebe”.

Details of this finding are outlined in the Indian publication, “Current Science”.
>>> Read more

Purdue University Unveils a New Class of Software

Researchers at Purdue University have defined a new class of software which enables designers and video gamers to more easily change features of complex objects like automotive drawings or animated characters.

The new interactive approach, called surrogate interaction, is being used commercially and in research but, until now, has not been formally defined. Doing so could boost its development and number of applications, said Ji Soo Yi, an assistant professor of industrial engineering at Purdue University.
>>> Read more

NASA Narrows Future Mission Choices

NASA’s Discovery Program has selected three finalists for a 2016 mission. The possibilities include looking at Mars’ interior for the first time, studying an extraterrestrial sea on one of Saturn’s moons or examining the surface of a comet’s nucleus in unprecedented detail.

Each investigation team now receives $3 million to further their mission’s concept and design.  After another detailed review in 2012, NASA will select one finalist to continue development efforts leading up to launch.
>>>Read more

 

 

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.

Future Computers May Go Subatomic

Posted May 9th, 2011 at 7:19 pm (UTC-4)
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Imagine the computer of the future – which would process complicated sets of data instantly while also being capable of storing an almost-infinite amount of information.

Physicists at the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics in Garching, Germany have taken a significant step toward making that a reality.

By reducing standard computer data down to the subatomic level, the scientists were able to store a bit of the information in just a single atom.   This accomplishment proved that quantum information can also be exchanged between single atoms and photons in a controlled way.  Prior to this finding the ability to store quantum information could only be accomplished with groups of thousands of atoms.

To satisfy our insatiable desire for more dynamic computers, manufacturers have been outdoing each other for years by producing devices that are faster and faster with increasing storage capabilities.

To accommodate faster and more powerful computers, the electronic components stored on its integrated circuits keep getting smaller.  Now, especially given the advances made by those German scientists, it won’t be long before the circuits on a microprocessor are measured on an atomic scale.

Some scientists say the next step in building that fast and powerful computer will be with what has been called quantum computers.

Quantum computers harness the power of atoms and molecules to perform memory and processing tasks and are said to have the potential to perform certain calculations significantly faster than any silicon-based computer.

In their experiments, the German researchers were able write this information into a rubidium atom and read it out again after a certain storage time.  Scientists are hopeful that this recent innovation will  bring practical quantum computing closer to reality and that this technique could be used in principle to design powerful quantum computers and to network them with each other across large distances.

Want to learn more about quantum computers? Watch this cute but helpful and instructive animated video, “Quantum Computing 101” from the Institute of Quantum Computing at the University of Waterloo, Canada.

Here’s where you can read more about the recent findings made by the scientists at the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics.

I’d like to know what you think about quantum computers and the potential they offer to those of us who are seeking faster and more powerful computers.  How long do you think it will take scientists and researchers to make this a practical reality?

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.

This Week on the Science World Radio Program

Posted May 6th, 2011 at 2:57 pm (UTC-4)
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Do fragile ecosystems send out a warning signal prior to their imminent collapse? That’s one question we explore this weekend on the Science World radio program.

Researchers recently discovered that a remote Wisconsin lake is sending what they believe are complex signals warning of the impending collapse of the lake’s aquatic ecosystem.

Dr. Stephen Carpenter, a professor of zoology at the University of Wisconsin in Madison led the research team and says that the implications of this study are big.

The findings suggest that, with the right kind of monitoring, it may be possible to track the vital signs of any ecosystem and intervene in time to prevent what is often irreversible damage to the environment.

Professor Carpenter tells us much more about the study, its findings and how ecosystems from around the world can possibly be saved from catastrophe.  Listen to the interview here…

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Other stories we’ll cover include:

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.

Take a Peek into FBI’s UFO Files

Posted May 6th, 2011 at 1:22 pm (UTC-4)
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It’s just become a little easier to access some of the FBI’s most intriguing files.

The FBI has files on phenomena like flying saucers, Extra Terrestrials and Extra Sensory Perception. And now you can see them for yourself.

The bureau recently overhauled its Freedom of Information and Privacy website.  Among the items that were updated is the bureau’s Electronic Reading Room, which they call “The Vault”.

It contains FBI information on the famous and the infamous. You can read actual FBI records on such luminaries as John Lennon, Al Capone, Malcolm X, Marilyn Monroe and many more.

Since going online, one section of The Vault has generated news and grabbed quite a bit of attention. It’s the section on “Unexplained Phenomenon” which includes FBI records on topics such as UFOs, extra terrestrials and extra-sensory perception (ESP).

Although it was only occasionally involved in investigating reports of UFOs and extraterrestrials over the years, the FBI says citizens would call them regularly to report sightings of the strange and unusual.

The bureau’s involvement with UFOs began around the time of the legendary incident in Roswell, New Mexico.  The “Roswell incident” centered around reports of a UFO crashing near the tiny New Mexican farming and ranching community on July 1947.

According to the unconfirmed reports, the wreckage of a UFO was found on a ranch with the  bodies of aliens discovered nearby. The Roswell incident boosted worldwide interest in the UFO phenomenon.

Throughout the 1940s and ’50s, the FBI checked into reports of flying objects  shaped like flapjacks, saucers, discs and even a large circular saw blade that supposedly hit a lightning rod on top of a church.  While the US military initially sought the help of the bureau, the FBI soon distanced itself.

It released a statement in 1950 that said, “The jurisdiction and responsibility for investigating flying saucers have been assumed by the United States Air Force. Information received in this matter is immediately turned over to the Air Force, and the FBI does not attempt to investigate these reports or evaluate the information furnished.”

Still it’s quite fascinating to look back at what many would consider the beginning of the UFO phenomenon and to read observations such as one dated March 22, 1950.  Guy Hottel,  a special agent in charge of the FBI’s Washington field office, sent a brief (and, to me at least, kind of a skeptical sounding) memo about flying saucers to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.

Mr. Hottel reported that, “An investigator for the Air Force stated that three so-called flying saucers described as being circular in shape with raised centers, approximately 50 feet in diameter.  Each one occupied by three bodies of human shape but only 3 feet tall, dressed in metallic cloth of very fine texture.”

Other entries included in the “Unexplained Phenomenon” section include the Roswell UFO, animal mutilation, extra-sensory perception and the controversial Project Blue Book, an 18-year US Air Force study of UFOs.

See for yourself. Visit “The Vault” at the FBI website.

 

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.