Jupiter’s Northern Lights; Watching Stars Explode & Too Much Sitting Kills

Posted March 23rd, 2016 at 4:00 pm (UTC-4)
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Jupiter's auroras, in purple, as seen by the Chandra X-Ray Observatory. (X-ray: NASA/CXC/UCL/W.Dunn et al, Optical: NASA/STSc)

Jupiter’s auroras, in purple, as seen by the Chandra X-Ray Observatory. (X-ray: NASA/CXC/UCL/W.Dunn et al, Optical: NASA/STSc)

Astronomers Study Jupiter’s ‘Northern Lights’

Earth’s Auroras – Borealis in the northern polar region and Australis in the south – are among the most beautiful and haunting light displays in nature.

Now, for the first time, scientists have been able to study Jupiter’s auroras, in x-ray wavelengths thanks to NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory.

Auroras both on Earth and on Jupiter are triggered by high charged energy particles blasting their way through the solar system on the solar wind.

But scientists have found that Jupiter’s aurora, generated by a giant interplanetary coronal mass ejection in October 2011, happened to be eight times brighter and have hundreds times the energy than Earth’s.

The study of Jupiter’s aurora comes just months before NASA’s Juno spacecraft is set to arrive at the planet.

During its scheduled 37 orbits of the giant planet, the Juno mission will study Jupiter’s make-up, gravity field, magnetic field (or magnetosphere) and its relationship with the solar wind. 

Vienna Musikverein is a classic shoebox-type concert hall. (Jukka Pätynen)

Vienna Musikverein is a classic shoebox-type concert hall. (Jukka Pätynen)

Where You Hear Music Affects Emotional Impact

Music has the power to transcend barriers of language and culture and the ability to stir deep human emotion.

A group of Finnish researchers has found that it’s not only music itself but also where you listen to it that can influence its emotional impact.

Previous scientific research suggests that emotional reaction to music can be gauged by physical responses, such as changes in the electrical properties of the skin.

With this in mind the researchers played a selection of a Beethoven symphony as it would be heard in different concert halls to a group of test subjects.

The scientists from Aalto University attached sensors, to the subject’s fingers, which measured these electrical changes, as they listened to the music under the varied acoustic conditions.

The researchers found that music played in the acoustical environment of shoebox-type or rectangular concert halls produced the strongest emotional reaction in the listeners than other hall designs.

The study was published in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America.

Artist Animation of Star Explosion (NASA/JPL/Australian National University)

Astronomers Watch Two Stars Explode

Back in 2011, NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope captured two red supergiant stars as they exploded into supernovae.

Astrophysicists studying the Kepler data, were able to not only watch both stars as they exploded, but for the first time, spot the tremendous shockwave produced deep inside the smaller of the two as its core collapsed.

Called KSN 2011a, the smaller supernova is only 700 million light years away from us, and is nearly 300 times the size of our sun.

The other, called KSN 2011d, is located 1.2 billion light years away, and had 500 times the solar mass.

The supernova shockwave is described as resembling a nuclear explosion on a massive scale.

The astrophysicists say that their observations of the supernovae will help scientists better understand how the earliest moments of a star’s explosive death is affected by its makeup and size.

More Proof That Too Much Sitting Can Kill

We have published several stories about the health dangers of sitting too much and its link to the onset of some chronic diseases and early death.

Now a new study published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine finds sitting for more than three hours a day is to blame for 3.8% of all worldwide deaths.

The study authors also found that moderate or even vigorous physical exercise might not be able to offset the negative effects of sitting for too long.

They suggest that reducing daily sitting time to less than three hours a day would add an average of .2 years to a person’s life expectancy.

The researchers say the link between sitting and death was highest in Western Pacific nations, followed by European, Eastern Mediterranean, American, and then Southeast Asian countries.

Lately, more office workers are using work stations that allow them to alternate between sitting and standing throughout the day.

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

South Polies Tackle Last-Minute Preps to Survive Brutal Winter

Posted March 23rd, 2016 at 9:14 am (UTC-4)
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A view of ARO from 29 meters up the Meterological tower, where one of the two inlets for the gas chromatograph is mounted. (Photo by Hunter Davis)

A view of ARO from 29 meters up the Meterological tower, where one of the two inlets for the gas chromatograph is mounted. (Photo by Hunter Davis)

The last plane left two weeks ago and everyone is settling into their wintertime roles.

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

Station population sits at 50 and most departments are only a fraction of the size they once were. Although the summer crew left us in good shape, there is still a lot of work to get done before the sun sets.

Outbuildings are being winterized — windows boarded up, electricity cut off. Food stores are hauled from the berms to storage facilities inside, all of the food we need for 50 people for 8 months. And our emergency systems are being tested and retested; we need to know our spare generators will work, no matter what.

It’s getting colder. Temperatures are regularly dropping into the minus 60s Fahrenheit (minus 51 Celsius). In a week, maybe two, it will be too cold to operate our heavy equipment. No fork trucks, no snow plows, no tractors. Snow drifts will begin to form anew and anything that needs to get dragged from one point to another will need to be pulled by snowmobile or by hand.

Needless to say, everyone is taking advantage of the current conditions, getting as much done before winter truly takes hold. It’s going to be a sprint to the finish, but when your only option is to “make it,” you “make it”.

At the Atmospheric Research Observatory (ARO), we are buttoning up the last of our more physically intensive, outside tasks. We raised our 2-meter meteorological instruments by a foot, so that they will still be at the same height, above the snow, in eight months, as they were when I first arrived. And we ran two new intake lines up our 30-meter tower for our gas chromatograph. Each activity took the better half of a day and resulted in cold hands, frost-nip and a few expletives, as work in these conditions often does.

Our gas chromatograph is perhaps the single most complex piece of equipment we utilize at ARO.  It is the workhorse of our Halocarbon research group, taking continuous measurements of various ozone-depleting substances and their replacement compounds. Since these chemicals only exist at very trace levels in the atmosphere, the instrument is designed to measure accurately at the part per trillion scale.

Many ozone-depleting substances are studied using the gas chromatograph. Pumps continuously suck air samples into the instrument, which then analyzes the sample for various compounds. Data is displayed on the computer screen. (Photo by Refael Klein)

Many ozone-depleting substances are studied using the gas chromatograph. Pumps continuously suck air samples into the instrument, which then analyzes the sample for various compounds. Data is displayed on the computer screen. (Photo by Refael Klein)

In other words, if you were to fill 400 Olympic size swimming pools with sugar cubes and then throw in one that was painted red, we would find it. It’s what our gas chromatograph does, continuously every day of the year: find, identify and count highly-elusive compounds.

When all is said and done, why does this matter? If something only exists at part per trillion levels, does it really affect our planet?  The answer is yes, and when it comes to ozone-depleting substances and their replacement compounds, it does so to a surprisingly high degree.

Chlorofluorocarbons, CFCs for short, make up the bulk of ozone-depleting substances. They were invented in the 1920s, as replacements for the refrigerants ammonia, sulfur dioxide and methyl chloride — all of which were highly toxic and dangerous to human health. At the time, CFCs were seen as a big step forward.  They were relatively inert, could withstand a seemingly endless number of refrigeration cycles and, if there happened to be a leak in your refrigerator, you wouldn’t die while pouring yourself a glass of milk.

What wasn’t known in the 1920s was the effect that trace amounts of CFCs would have on the ozone layer.

When there is a leak in your refrigerator, freezer or air-conditioner, refrigerant escapes and, if that refrigerant is a CFC, it will remain intact, unreactive, all the way to the stratosphere. Once in the stratosphere, with the help of UV radiation, CFCs are broken apart and release chlorine atoms, which proceed to bounce from ozone molecule to ozone molecule, tearing each one apart. It can do this for decades, which means that, even at a part per trillion levels, CFCs can do a lot of damage.

In fact, CFCs turned out to be so effective in destroying the ozone layer that, in the late 1980s, 27 nations, including the United States, drew up a treaty banning their use. To this day, the Montreal Protocol is considered by many to be the single most successful piece of international environmental legislation ever enacted. It stopped the use and production of CFCs, and replaced them with compounds that had shorter atmospheric lifespans and less ozone-destroying potential.

CFC 113 is one of many ozone-depleting substances monitored by the Global Monitoring Division. The commonly used refrigerant was banned under the Montreal Protocol. Note its precipitous decline. (Courtesy of NOAA/GMD)

CFC 113 is one of many ozone-depleting substances monitored by the Global Monitoring Division. The commonly used refrigerant was banned under the Montreal Protocol. Note its precipitous decline. (Courtesy of NOAA/GMD)

The gas chromatograph used by NOAA’s  Global Monitoring Division (GMD) is helping us better understand the dynamics of ozone recovery and predict what will happen in the future. The main focus of the instrument is to measure the presence of banned compounds, under the Montreal Protocol, and their replacements. As one would predict, CFCs are becoming less abundant and their replacement compounds are becoming more so, meaning the treaty is doing what it was designed to do: protect the ozone layer.

Working on the gas chromatograph has its challenges. It requires the most maintenance out of any project I work on — changing gas cylinders, tightening valves, adjusting air flows, building and replacing small fittings.  Sometimes our data shows a .5 part per trillion difference from what we expect to see. Where did the error come from? Was it me, the instrument, or the environment? It can be hard to figure out and, on occasion, working on such minute issues feels like chasing ghosts.

Studying the computer that runs the system, I watch data tick by; peaks form, they grow and shrink. Each one represents the presence of a certain compound and its abundance. Cycle after cycle, hour after hour, more data is displayed, compiled, and sent back to our labs for analysis.

I watch global trends unfold, the ebbs and flows of culture and industry as seen through the chemicals we produce. Everything measured at the smallest scale, the highest accuracy, and absolutely representative of our planet.

More South Pole Diaries
South Pole Summer Camp Helps Combat Winter Blues
Stranded Until Spring: Last Flight Leaves South Pole Before Winter Hits
In Giant Parkas, Rank Is Less Apparent

 

 

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.

Astronomers Find a Bunch of ‘Monster Stars’ in Star Cluster

Posted March 18th, 2016 at 4:00 pm (UTC-4)
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Hubble image shows the central region of the Tarantula Nebula in the Large Magellanic Cloud. Nine stars with more than 100 times the mass of the Sun were found in young and dense star cluster R136, which can be seen at the lower right of the image. (NASA, ESA, P Crowther (University of Sheffield))

Hubble image shows the central region of the Tarantula Nebula in the Large Magellanic Cloud. Nine stars with more than 100 times the mass of the Sun were found in young and dense star cluster R136, which can be seen at the lower right of the image. (NASA, ESA, P Crowther (University of Sheffield))

A group of astronomers probing a young star cluster within the ultraviolet section of the light spectrum just found a bunch of huge ‘monster stars.’

The R136 star cluster, located in the Tarantula Nebula, inside the Large Magellanic Cloud, is about 157,000 light years from Earth.

They chose to explore in the ultraviolet range since there are so many hot and extremely massive stars in the cluster that mostly radiate energy within that part of the electromagnetic radiation spectrum.

The group used a combination images gathered by the Hubble Space Telescope’s Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3) and the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS) to detect dozens of stars with at least 50 times the mass of the sun and about nine others with more than 100 times the solar mass.

The nine most massive of these stars were found to be not only incredibly enormous, but together they produce an extremely bright light that is 30 million times more luminous than our own Sun.

While the group was able to spot a number of supermassive stars, a previously detected star in the cluster called R136a1 is the most massive star known to exist in the Universe. It has a solar mass of about 265 times that of the Sun and is thought that to have had a solar mass of about 320.

The astronomer’s findings were outlined in a paper published by the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society,

“The ability to distinguish ultraviolet light from such an exceptionally crowded region into its component parts, resolving the signatures of individual stars, was only made possible with the instruments aboard Hubble,” explains the paper’s lead author Paul Crowther of the United Kingdom’s University of Sheffield in a press release.

Relative sizes of young stars, from the smallest “red dwarfs”, weighing in at about 0.1 solar masses, through low mass “yellow dwarfs” such as the Sun, to massive “blue dwarf” stars weighing eight times more than the Sun, as well as the giant star named R136a1 (dark blue) (ESO/M. Kornmesser/Creative Commons)

Relative sizes of young stars, from the smallest “red dwarfs”, weighing in at about 0.1 solar masses, through low mass “yellow dwarfs” such as the Sun, to massive “blue dwarf” stars weighing eight times more than the Sun, as well as the giant star named R136a1 (dark blue) (ESO/M. Kornmesser/Creative Commons)

Another of the paper’s authors, Saida Caballero-Nieves, also from the University of Sheffield, said that while some scientists have previously suggested that these monster stars were created by the merger of smaller binary system stars, this doesn’t really explain the supermassive stars in the R136 cluster.

Instead, he says that it appears the road that led to the huge size of these stars may have begun with its formation process.

The astronomers plan to continue analyzing the Hubble data they’ve gathered to learn more about the giant star’s origination.

They’ll also analyze new information from the Space Telescope’s Imaging Spectrograph to look for nearby binary star systems, where orbiting black hole binaries may lurk.

The twin black holes would eventually merge and produce the gravitational waves such as those predicted by Einstein in his Theory of General Relativity and were only recently detected by the LIGO Scientific Collaboration.

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.

Bright Spots of Ceres; Rotten Tomatoes Produces Energy; Black Hole Flashes Red

Posted March 16th, 2016 at 1:58 pm (UTC-4)
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New image of Ceres' Occator crater with mysterious bright spots take by NASA's Dawn spacecraft (NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/PSI)

New image of Ceres’ Occator crater with mysterious bright spots take by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft (NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/PSI)

Earth Based Telescope Provides New Insight on the Bright Spots of Ceres

The dwarf planet Ceres is the largest body in the asteroid belt, which is a large collection of small to very large space rocks between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.

Among the features of the dwarf planet that’s fascinated a lot of people are several bright spots on its surface.

Some scientists think that this might suggest Ceres is more active than any neighbors in the asteroid belt.

The most noticeable spots are located within Ceres’ Occator crater.

Scientists think that the bright spots may be collections of brine that contain magnesium sulfate hexahydrate.

Now, astronomers using the HARPS spectrograph at the European Southern Observatory’s La Silla Observatory in Chile have found that these bright spots go through some surprising changes.

While the spots have been known to change as Ceres rotates, the scientists also found that they also vary and brighten during the day.

The scientists say that their observations suggest that the bright spots may be made up of volatile substance and that solar radiation make cause it to evaporate.

NASA’s DAWN spacecraft has been circling and studying Ceres and its mysterious bright spots since arriving there a year ago.

Overripe tomatoes on a compost heap. (Paul Glazzard/Wikimedia Commons)

Overripe tomatoes on a compost heap. (Paul Glazzard/Wikimedia Commons)

Rotten Tomatoes Produce Renewable Energy

About 21-percent of world electricity generation is estimated to be from non-fossil fuels such as the wind or sun.

But scientists hope to boost that number by looking at new ways to create it – one of which involves spoiled fruit.

A team of researchers found that damaged or spoiled tomatoes can be turned into a unique and powerful source of renewable energy when fed to biological and microbial electrochemical cells.

And the good news is, there seems to be a nearly endless supply of damaged and rotten tomatoes.  Florida alone generates 396,000 tons of tomato waste every year.

The scientists admit that right now the power produced by their tomato fueled energy cells is quite small.

But they’re quite optimistic that with continued research they’ll be able to greatly increase the electrical output of their energy cells.

Image shows an artist's impression of a black hole, similar to V404 Cyg, devouring material from an orbiting companion star. (ESO/L. Calçada)

Image shows an artist’s impression of a black hole, similar to V404 Cyg, devouring material from an orbiting companion star. (ESO/L. Calçada)

Black Hole Discharges Light with the Power of a Thousand Suns

Black holes aren’t usually visible since material surrounding them, even light, is devoured by their intense gravity.

But occasionally a black hole can draw in material, such as a star, so rapidly that it spits some of it out, producing a powerfully bright light in the process.

Last June, astronomers noticed that a black hole called V404 Cygni, some 7,800 light years from Earth, became very bright for about a two week period.

As they observed this phenomena, they noticed the black hole also produced very bright flashes of red light that lasted only fractions of a second.

The astronomers say that each of these flashes produced light so intense it had the equivalent power of about 1,000 suns.

Poshak Gandhi, lead author of a study detailing the astronomer’s discovery, says that the red flashes seem to have been produced when the black hole was at the peak of its feeding frenzy.

ExoMars 2016 lifted off on a Proton-M rocket from Baikonur, Kazakhstan at 09:31 GMT on 14 March 2016. ((c)ESA–Stephane Corvaja)

ExoMars 2016 lifted off on a Proton-M rocket from Baikonur, Kazakhstan at 09:31 GMT on 14 March 2016. ((c)ESA–Stephane Corvaja)

First of Two European/Russian Probes Heads to Mars

The first of two ExoMars missions took off for the Red Planet from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on Monday, March 14th.

ExoMars is joint project between the European Space Agency and the Russian Federal Space Agency, Roscosmos.

The purpose of ExoMars is to find out if life ever existed on Mars.

The two spacecraft now being sent to Mars are the Trace Gas Orbiter and its attached Schiaparelli EDM lander.

Once they arrive at the Red Planet sometime in October the lander will be sent from the orbiter to the surface.

The orbiter will circle Mars and will sniff out the sources of methane and other gases in the Martian atmosphere.

The lander will monitor various weather conditions on Mars and gather information that will be used in the second ExoMars probe, which will be launched in 2018.

Methane has been seen as a possible sign of life since the gas is produced here on Earth by living organisms.

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

South Pole Summer Camp Helps Combat Winter Blues

Posted March 15th, 2016 at 11:25 am (UTC-4)
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Refael Klein moves up the steep central overhang. Colored tape marks particular routes, sequences of climbing movements. (Photo by Hunter Davis)

Refael Klein moves up the steep central overhang. Colored tape marks particular routes, sequences of climbing movements. (Photo by Hunter Davis)

Construction on the Amundson-Scott elevated station began in 1998 and was completed in 2008.

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

During the height of construction, the summer population at the South Pole ballooned to over 250 people. To accommodate the overflow in personnel, plastic, blue half-moon-shaped berthing units were installed south of the station. And heated plywood workshops were built for storage and shop space.

In addition, two unpainted, unfinished lounges were constructed, as well as a small gym with free weights and treadmills. This small village of about a dozen out-buildings was known as Summer Camp.

The cold dry Antarctic climate has been kind to Summer Camp and, seven years later, the buildings look as new as the day they were built. A few have been buried by drifting snow, but those that are still above ground continue to be used for storage and construction workshops.

From the outside, the Summer Camp gym doesn't look like much.  Inside, the climbing wall and work-out equipment provide a welcome escape from the close quarters of living in the main station. (Photo by Hunter Davis)

From the outside, the Summer Camp gym doesn’t look like much. Inside, the climbing wall and work-out equipment provide a welcome escape from the close quarters of living in the main station. (Photo by Hunter Davis)

When it’s too cold or windy to go skiing, I often find myself at the eastern-most side of Summer Camp, in a squat rectangular building with three poly-carbonate windows.

From the outside, the building, the old gym — a mishmash of mis-cut pieces of wood — looks like it was built by a group of elementary school boys to use as a club-house. The first time you see it, you half expect to see a sign that says, “NO GROWN UPS OR GIRLS ALLOWED”.

In a way, the old Summer Camp gym is a bit of a boy’s fort. It’s dimly lit, dirty and filled with broken exercise equipment and a spartan collection of free weights. That being said, any shortcomings of the building are made up by the fact that it is heated, has a good sound system, and is home to the southernmost climbing wall in the world.

As an avid rock climber, I was beside myself with excitement when I discovered the existence of a small climbing facility on station. Apparently, the wall didn’t always exist and wasn’t part of the gym’s original design.

As the story goes, two Italian scientists who were serious alpinists came to the South Pole a few years ago. Unwilling to let their wrists, hands and fingers atrophy, they spent their free time outside the lab stockpiling discarded building supplies and secretively building a small climbing wall at the summer camp gym. When they were done, they broke the news to station management — who, remarkably, were not upset — and convinced them to order two dozen pairs of climbing shoes and a few hundred plastic hand and foot holds.

WATCH VIDEO: Refael Klein blows off steam on the South Pole’s Summer Camp climbing wall

Today, thanks to altruism of the Italians, I, and many others on station, have a fun way to exercise and blow off steam after work. On a typical day, I spend an hour at the gym traversing the wall and setting new “problems”, short sequences of climbing movements, which I mark with colored tape.

The wall isn’t big and it takes a number of laps around its perimeter, or up its central overhang, before I get tired. As I climb, I like to have music playing and I keep the volume turned up loud enough to drown out the sound of the wind and heavy equipment clearing snow drifts.

Sometimes I become so focused on a challenging movement that I forget where I am.  It could be Colorado, California or Corsica.  It’s not until a foot slips, or I miss a hand hold and fall, that I remember I’m living at the bottom of the world and that I am thousands of miles away from any fantasy.

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.

Astronomers Spot 80 of the Oldest Galaxies

Posted March 14th, 2016 at 2:23 pm (UTC-4)
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Advancing technology is making it possible for scientists to investigate the early universe.

About 200 million years after the Big Bang, it is thought that clumps of condensed primordial cold gas clouds provided material for the first stars to be born. As stars were created they formed small galaxies.

An international team of researchers are now saying that they’ve discovered about 80 galaxies that may have existed in the young universe about 12.6 billion years ago, which is around 1.2 billion years after the Big Bang.

The research team comes from Japan’s Ehime University, Nagoya University, and Tohoku University and the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) at Johns Hopkins University and the California Institute of Technology, in the U.S.

The team developed a list of galaxies to look for from data gathered by the Subaru Suprime Focus Camera (Suprime-Cam) instrument.

The Suprime-Cam is an 80-megapixel optical camera attached to the prime focus of the Subaru Telescope at the Mauna Kea Observatory, Hawaii.

With that information they were able to locate these 80 early galaxies and were able to conduct a detailed analysis on imaging data gathered by the Hubble Space Telescope’s (HST) Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS).

The ACS is the Hubble’s prime imaging instrument.

The researchers were able to determine that around 1.2 billion years after the Big Bang these small galaxies were continuously merging together and growing into larger galaxies like our own Milky Way, which contains about 200 billion stars.

The researchers outlined their findings in a paper that was published in the Astrophysical Journal.

Speaking of galaxies growing as a result of mergers, some scientists say that in about 4 billion years the Milky Way and the neighboring Andromeda galaxy will collide into each other and become one.

The new galaxy created by this merger of the Milky Way with Andromeda galaxies has been nicknamed Milkomeda.

According to the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), the Milky Way is zooming towards the Andromeda galaxy, at a rate of about 120 kilometers per second.

Both the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies are part a group of galaxies known as “The Local Group“.

This grouping of galaxies also includes about forty other, much smaller galaxies and all are bound together by gravity.

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.

ESA’s LISA Pathfinder Lays Groundwork for Gravitational Wave Observatory in Space

Posted March 9th, 2016 at 3:55 pm (UTC-4)
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Artist’s impression of LISA Pathfinder, ESA’s mission to test technology for future gravitational-wave observatories in space. ((c) ESA-C. Carreau)

Artist’s impression of LISA Pathfinder, ESA’s mission to test technology for future gravitational-wave observatories in space. ((c) ESA-C. Carreau)

The European Space Agency’s (ESA) LISA Pathfinder spacecraft, launched last December, recently started its science mission after completing an intensive three month testing period.

The LISA – which stands for Laser Interferometer Space Antenna – Pathfinder’s job is to test and establish crucial technologies and techniques that would make it possible for future mission such as ESA’s proposed Evolved Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (eLISA), a space observatory that would detect and study gravitational waves in outer space.

Two-dimensional representation of gravitational waves generated by two neutron stars orbiting each other. (NASA/JPL)

Two-dimensional representation of gravitational waves generated by two neutron stars orbiting each other. (NASA/JPL)

Last month the LIGO Scientific Collaboration set the scientific community abuzz with news of the first discovery of these fluctuations in the fabric of spacetime, which was predicted by Albert Einstein a little over a century ago in his theory of General Relativity.

The proposed eLISA, which has been tentatively scheduled for launch some time in 2034, will be so sensitive that it would be able to detect gravitational waves with longer wavelengths than those that can be detected on the ground.  This would provide scientists with tool capable of investigating some of the most massive and powerful objects in the Universe.

To lay the groundwork needed for developing the needed technologies to produce such an observatory, the LISA Pathfinder spacecraft will attempt to create a “near perfect free fall”.

The LISA Pathfinder crew has released two identical gold-platinum cubes, or test masses, that are suspended in its own vacuum enclosure inside the spacecraft.

Each cube weighs 2 kg and measures 46 mm; the enclosures are separated by a distance of 38 cm.

NASA artist's conception of LISA spacecraft in space. The project has been renamed eLisa. (NASA)

NASA artist’s conception of LISA spacecraft in space. The project has been renamed eLisa. (NASA)

After release, the test masses must only be affected by gravity alone and not by other forces such as solar wind and radiation, which will allow them to remain perfectly still.

ESA scientists are working to create conditions with the spacecraft to ensure that only the force of a gravitational wave could cause them to wiggle around.

To do this, the spacecraft continually measures the cube’s positions and uses micro-thrusters to manipulate the spacecraft around them with to avoid it ever touching them.

Over next half-year, ESA scientists will conduct a number of experiments and ‘poking’ the cubes to study their motion and then experiment with different technologies that will help maintain their near perfect free-fall.

The experiments will include one where scientists boost the temperature inside each cube’s enclosure to heat any remaining gas molecules and determine it has any effect on the cube’s motion.

ESA is also planning to apply increasingly stronger magnetic and electric forces to the two test masses to determine just how much force would be needed to disturb them from their perfect freefall.

The LISA Pathfinder cannot detect gravitational waves itself since the distance between the two cubes is too small to measure the slight vibration in the fabric of spacetime.

LISA will comprise three satellites, linked by lasers across five million km of space, to track very slight spacetime distortion caused by gravitational waves ((c) AEI/MildeMarketing/Exozet)

LISA will comprise three satellites, linked by lasers across five million km of space, to track very slight spacetime distortion caused by gravitational waves ((c) AEI/MildeMarketing/Exozet)

To measure gravitational waves in space the distance between test masses would have to be much greater.

The proposed eLISA mission would be made up of one “Mother” and two “Daughter” spacecraft that will orbit the Sun – similar to Earth’s orbit – in a triangular configuration.

The “Mother” and two “Daughter” spacecraft would be separated by a distance of a million kilometers and will be connected to each other by laser beams, which form the arms of a highly precise Michelson-like laser interferometer.

Any incoming gravitational waves would be detected by this interferometer by monitoring for any changes in the distance between its lengthy arms.

The eLISA mission, formerly known as LISA, was originally proposed as a joint project between ESA and NASA.  But due to funding limitations, NASA had to withdraw from the partnership on April 8, 2011.  The project was later revised as Europe only mission.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Refael Klein
Refael Klein is a Lieutenant Junior Grade in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Commissioned Officer Corps (NOAA Corps). He's contributing to Science World during his year-long assignment working and living in the South Pole.

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

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

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

Study: Zika Virus Infects and Kills Fetal Cerebral Cortex Cells

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

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

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

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

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

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

Huge Volcanic Structure Behind Mars Tilt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rare Element in Meteorite Provides Clues to Solar System Origin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Astronomers Find Most Distant Galaxy

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

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

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

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

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

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

South Pole Diary: In Giant Parkas, Rank Is Less Apparent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DVs at Pole

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Refael Klein
Refael Klein is a Lieutenant Junior Grade in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Commissioned Officer Corps (NOAA Corps). He's contributing to Science World during his year-long assignment working and living in the South Pole.