Phobos May Shatter; Study: Poles Won’t Flip; Webb Space Telescope

Posted November 25th, 2015 at 4:00 pm (UTC-4)
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Color image of Martian moon Phobos (NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona)

Color image of Martian moon Phobos (NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona)

Mars May Shatter its Largest Moon

Scientists in California have found that the largest moon of Mars, Phobos, is slowly inching closer to Mars.

They predict that once the gravity of Mars finally overpowers Phobos, in about 20 to 40 million years, the moon will probably be shredded to bits.

The scientists from the University of California, Berkley explain that since Phobos is in such fragile condition, the closer it gets to the Red Planet, it will begin to break up instead of crashing into Mars intact.

While some of the moon’s largest remains will probably smash into Mars, most of the smaller bits and pieces are expected spread out above the planet, where they will circle it like the rings of Saturn.

After millions of years of orbiting the planet, the researchers say Phobos’ remains will eventually fall to the surface of Mars, much like our meteor showers on Earth.

Artist's illustration of the shape and function of the Earth's magnetic field that protects us from harmful cosmic radiation (NASA)

Artist’s illustration of the shape and function of the Earth’s magnetic field that protects us from harmful cosmic radiation (NASA)

Earth May Not Flip Magnetic Poles After All

A number of scientists say that Earth’s magnetic fields have been quickly losing strength over the past 100 years or so.

Recent research suggests that because of this, Earth is on the verge of flipping its magnetic poles.

But a new study finds that the field’s strength is merely returning to normal after reaching rather unusually high levels.

Columbia University’s Dennis Kent, the study’s co-author, says while Earth’s magnetic field may be rapidly weakening, it’s not lower than the long-term average.

He also suggests that after weakening to a point, the fields may again increase in intensity.

Earth’s magnetic field has flipped a number of times throughout its 4.5 billion year history.

The last time that happened, about 786,000 years ago, scientists say it took only about 100 years of diminishing field strength to do so.

NASA says that fossil records show that past field changes had no major effect on living creatures.

Vocal Tone Predicts Relationship Success or Failure

A new study from the University of Southern California finds that when couples converse it isn’t the words they say but their tone of voice that can predict whether their relationship will improve or worsen.

The USC team fed a number of recorded conversations between a hundred couples during marriage therapy sessions into a computer running a newly developed algorithm.

The system makes its predictions based on various acoustical properties of the couple’s voices.

After comparing the computer results with a two year follow up study, the researchers found that their new program had a 79 percent accuracy rate of forecasting the success or failure of the relationships.

They say that their algorithm was even more successful at predicting couple’s relationships than those made by relationship experts during the original marriage therapy sessions.

The USC team plans to improve their algorithm by incorporating other factors such as verbal and non-verbal language.

An engineer at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center worked to install the first flight mirror onto the telescope structure at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. (NASA/Chris Gunn)

An engineer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center worked to install the first flight mirror onto the telescope structure at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.
(NASA/Chris Gunn)

Important Step Taken in Webb Space Telescope Construction

NASA has taken an important step in completing construction of the James Webb Space Telescope it hopes to launch in 2018.

Recently engineers and technicians at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland used a robotic arm to successfully install the first of the new space telescope’s 18 flight mirrors.

NASA says that the mirror segments are made of an ultra-lightweight material called beryllium and is coated with a thin layer of gold.

Once all the mirror segments are installed, sometime early next year, they will work together as one 6.5 meter mirror.

After the space telescope launched, NASA says that the 18 mirror segments will unfold and adjust to shape.

The mirror along with other state of the art technologies that have been developed for the new space telescope will allow scientists to study the first stars and galaxies created after the Big Bang and play an important role in searching for possible life on distant exoplanets.

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.

En Route to South Pole, Witnessing New Zealand’s Artful Destruction

Posted November 24th, 2015 at 12:15 pm (UTC-4)
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Art and destruction in Christchurch, New Zealand. (Photo by Refael Klein)

Art and destruction in Christchurch, New Zealand. (Photo by Refael Klein)

It takes 21 hours of flying to reach Christchurch, New Zealand from Denver, Colorado.

That’s a lot of time in a small seat, and no matter how many laps you make through the aisles, or how frequently you stretch your back, you walk off the plane with sore a body and a head that is throbbing like an inflated balloon

As I’ve learned from my experiences on long ship voyages, it is imperative, upon arrival in a new port, to seek out a libation, be it coffee, booze, or some other epicurean delight.

After a massive earthquake 4 years ago, Christchuch, New Zealand, is becoming a visual arts capital. (Photo by Refael Klein)

After a massive earthquake 4 years ago, Christchuch, New Zealand, is becoming a visual arts capital. (Photo by Refael Klein)

So, from the international airport, to taxi stand, to the Pavillions Hotel, I begin my journey downtown in search of something that will provide me with a level of enjoyment equivalent to the magnitude of discomfort experienced during my trans-Pacific flight.

A 2-mile walk from the hotel, I find CBD, a speakeasy-esque bar, run by a young Cook Islander who holds the distinction of being one of the top mixologists in the country.

Four years ago, Christchurch was hit by a massive earthquake, a 6.3 on the Richter Scale. Two-thirds of the city was destroyed and the devastation is still apparent today in the buildings with crumbling facades and empty gravel lots filled with twisted rebar and broken concrete pylons.

Despite the destruction, rebuilding efforts are well underway — I counted six cranes from my first-floor hotel room window — although, ultimately, it will be years before everything returns to “normal.”

A broken urban landscape and depreciated rents have meant an influx of creatives and artists. The city has embraced the trend and is becoming a visual arts capital.

Money has been poured into public art, and abandoned lots and buildings have been loaned to emerging artists for use as super-sized canvases and pop-up sites for sculptural installations.

The result is a massive post-apocalyptic Storm King, curated with such perfection that one has trouble distinguishing between what is art and what is destruction.

Shipping containers used both for art and rebuilding in Christchurch, New Zealand. (Photo by Refael Klein)

Shipping containers used both for art and rebuilding in Christchurch, New Zealand. (Photo by Refael Klein)

Outside CBD, the streets are quiet. Everyone is out of town for the Labor Day weekend and those who are still in the city are home watching the New Zealand versus Australia rugby game.

With only a few pedestrians in sight, I feel as if I’m wandering through the National Gallery after closing. Just me, the wind and the graffiti. It is so quiet, I can hear my thoughts echoing off the sidewalk. I’m witnessing the rebirth of a city, a moment in time that is too mundane for locals to see, and that few tourists will ever experience.

CBD is good and the bartender takes me on a tour of some of New Zealand’s best micro-distilleries. He is also kind enough to give me a list or his favorite area restaurants and bars. You can learn a lot about a food scene by scouring blogs and websites (which I did), but nothing is better than local, “industry” knowledge.

On this particular evening, the “industry” steers me six blocks east to 27 Steps, dutifully named for the 27-step staircase that takes you from an unassuming foyer to a nicely-adorned restaurant with 40 seats. The food is good and, suffice it to say, will provide me with fond memories when I find myself knee-deep in canned fruit and frozen veggies.

Look for Refael Klein’s weekly blogs from the South Pole here on Science World.

Refael Klein
Refael Klein, a Lieutenant Junior Grade in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Commissioned Officer Corps (NOAA Corps), blogs about his experiences as he spends one year working and living in the South Pole.

Study: Ancient Forests Fueled Early Climate Change

Posted November 23rd, 2015 at 5:30 pm (UTC-4)
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Reconstructed drawing of fossil forest in Svalbard (Cardiff University)

Reconstructed drawing of fossil forest in Svalbard (Cardiff University)

A pair of scientists from the United Kingdom have found a fossilized tropical forest complete with tree stumps of one of Earth’s first forests in Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago located between Norway and the North Pole.

They also say that primitive forests such as the one they found may be one of the reasons for an extraordinary climatic event nearly 400 million years ago.

The researchers, Chris Berry of Cardiff University, Wales and John Marshall of England’s Southampton University have dated this ancient forest and found it to about 380 million years old.

Back then, during the Devonian period what is now known as Norway was located near the equator, where high temperatures and large amounts of rain created ideal growing conditions for large forest trees.

It wasn’t until later after periods of continental drift that Norway eventually moved from the equator to its current icy location.

Scientists say that until the large trees that formed the ancient forests started to sprout up, vegetation on Earth mostly consisted of small plants, no taller than a meter high.

“These fossil forests shows us what the vegetation and landscape were like on the equator 380 million years ago, as the first trees were beginning to appear on the Earth,” said Berry in a University of Cardiff press release.

Animation of the continental rifting of Pangaea (USGS)

Animation of continental drift (USGS)

Between about 420 and 360 million years ago, scientists said that there was a significant drop in the levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide.  Before the decrease, CO2 levels were said to be about 15 time more than today.

That huge reduction in the level of CO2 also happened to coincide with the growth and spread of these very first forests, whose trees sucked the gas from the air to create food and tissue through the process of photosynthesis.

Scientists say that the large drop in atmospheric CO2 was also responsible for a remarkable reduction in Earth’s temperatures to levels that are similar to those we have today.

“The evolution of tree-sized vegetation is the most likely cause of this dramatic drop in carbon dioxide because the plants were absorbing carbon dioxide through photosynthesis to build their tissues, and also through the process of forming soils,” Berry said.

The UK research duo say most of the trees that made up the ancient fossil forest were lycopods, a species that reproduced by spreading spores produced in cones at their stem tips.

They also found that the primitive forest was extremely dense, with very small gaps, around 20cm, between each of the trees, which were probably around 4 meters high.

The pair’s findings were published in the journal Geology.

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.

Earth’s Atmosphere Got Its Oxygen in Periodic Bursts Over a 100 Million Year Period

Posted November 20th, 2015 at 5:11 pm (UTC-4)
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A view of Earth's atmosphere at sunset as seen by the International Space Station Expedition 23 crew in 2010. Colors here roughly denote the various layers of the atmosphere. (NASA)

A view of Earth’s atmosphere at sunset as seen by the International Space Station Expedition 23 crew in 2010. Colors here roughly denote the various layers of the atmosphere. (NASA)

For about the first 2.1 billion years of Earth’s history, its atmosphere didn’t have enough oxygen to support complex life.

Scientists believe that Earth’s first atmosphere,formed after its creation, was probably made up of hydrogen and helium. Then as a result of volcanic eruptions that spewed gases from Earth’s interior, in a process known as “outgassing”, a secondary atmosphere became filled with those such as carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, ammonia and water vapor.

Then about 2.3 to 2.5 billion years ago, during the Proterozoic Eon, blue/green algae called cyanobacteria, living in Earth’s shallow oceans, began emitting enough oxygen through photosynthesis to create the permanently oxygenated atmosphere that keeps us alive today.

Researchers from five North American universities have collaborated on a study that found the process in fully oxidizing the atmosphere didn’t happen suddenly, but instead took place in scattered bursts over an approximately 100-million-year period in what has become known as the Great Oxidation Event.

It may look like mere pond scum to you but this is cyanbacteria or blue/green algae which provided, through photosynthesis, enough oxygen to create the permanently oxygenated atmosphere that keeps us alive today. (Lamiot/Creative Commons)

It may look like mere pond scum to you but this is cyanbacteria or blue/green algae which helped provide, through photosynthesis, enough oxygen to create the permanently oxygenated atmosphere that keeps us alive today. (Lamiot/Creative Commons)

“The onset of Earth’s surface oxygenation was likely a complex process characterized by multiple whiffs of oxygen until a tipping point was crossed,” said one of the study’s authors, Brian Kendall from Canada’s University of Waterloo in a university press release. “Until now, we haven’t been able to tell whether oxygen concentrations 2.5 billion years ago were stable or not. These new data provide a much more conclusive answer to that question,” he said.

Prior to these large bursts of oxygen from the cyanobacteria, scientists say most of the oxygen that had been produced by early microbial life was simply chemically captured by materials such as dissolved iron or organic matter before having the chance to escape into the atmosphere.

But O2 began to collect in the atmosphere after these oxygen sinks filled up and couldn’t absorb any more.

The researchers were able to make their findings after discovering certain chemicals in black shale that had been deposited in the seafloor of an ancient ocean in West Australia.

The elements that provided the link to the researcher’s findings are osmium, molybdenum and rhenium. They are produced by a reaction of oxygen with land-based sulfide minerals.  The scientists say that after the chemicals are produced they then make their way into rivers, which flow into oceans and are eventually deposited on the sea floor.

The research collaborators from Canada’s Universities of Alberta and Waterloo along with Arizona State University, University of California Riverside, and Georgia Institute of Technology, all in the U.S., published their findings in the journal Science Advances.

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.

New Tool to Find ET; Detecting Spoiled Meat; Usernames Reveal Personality

Posted November 18th, 2015 at 10:55 am (UTC-4)
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Aliens? (Interdimensional Guardians/Creative Commons)

Aliens? (Interdimensional Guardians/Creative Commons)

NASA Working On a New Tool to Search for ET

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in Pasadena, California is developing what they’re calling a ‘chemical laptop’ to help search for extraterrestrial life.

The battery-powered device is actually a miniature laboratory that’s being equipped to consume and analyze samples in order to detect any material that might be associated with life, such as amino and fatty acids.

Once developed, NASA says that they’d like to send it out on a spacecraft to a destination such as Mars or Europa, one of the moons of Jupiter.

NASA describes the device is a chemical analyzer that’s about the size of a laptop computer. And, like a computer their ‘chemical laptop’ can be programmed and reprogrammed to perform a variety of functions.

To see how the chemical laptop performed outside of the laboratory, the researchers conducted a successful field test last year at JPL’s Mars Yard, a simulated Martian landscape. The new device’s next test will take place soon in the Atacama Desert in Chile.

obese-mainScientists Developing Drug to Fight Obesity

Not all fat is alike.

White fat or ‘bad fat’, what we think of as body fat, is associated with obesity.

But there’s also brown or ‘good fat’, too.

Unlike white fat, brown fat does more than just store fat.  According to researchers, it actually burns fat.

Now, scientists at the Baylor College of Medicine in Texas, say that they’ve been able to come up with a way to convert some of the nasty white fat into brown-like fat in mice.

According to the researchers the brown-like fat helps burn up white fat cells by producing heat which in turn results in weight loss.

They say the white to brown-like fat conversion is made possible by activating a thyroid receptor with a synthetic chemical compound they created called GC-1.

The researchers think that their research might lead to a drug like the GC-1 compound to help fight obesity.

Hmmm.... is this meat any good? (National Cancer Institute)

Hmmm…. is this meat any good? (National Cancer Institute)

Is This Meat Any Good?

You’ve decided to cook-up that piece of meat you bought a few days ago but, wonder if it’s spoiled?  Many of us use the old sniff test.  If the meat smells kind of “funky” we normally toss it.

But commercial food suppliers who supply tons of meat to consumers need a more than the “sniff method” to determine if the meat they’re about to ship isn’t tainted.

Scientists writing the American Chemical Society’s new journal called ACS Sensors, say that they’ve come up with a new, portable and simple system to determine whether meat is safe to eat.

Using extremely florescent and hollow nanotubes, this newly developed method detects the compounds that are emitted as meat decomposes.  The compounds cause the florescent nanotubes to dim.  So, weaker the glow the more likely the tested meat is spoiled.

The researchers tested their new system by sealing a gram each of pork, beef, chicken, fish and shrimp in individual containers and letting it sit in a refrigerator for up to four days.

They then exposed their nanotube device to each of the samples and got a reaction in less than an hour. If the tubes glow dropped by more than 10 percent, the researchers found that this meant that the meat was spoiled.

Researchers Find That Gamer Usernames Reveal Personality

Want to be as transparent online as possible?  One thing British researchers suggest you do is to be very careful selecting your username.

Psychologists from the UK’s University of York have found that the usernames of those who play online video games reveals much about the actual personalities and even the ages of the individuals themselves.

The researchers made their findings after analyzing player data from the popular multi-player online game “League of Legends”.

They found players whose username included some kind of profanity or other crude words or phrases were also more inclined to be more antisocial in their game-play interactions with others than those with rather benign usernames.

On the other hand they also found that gamers with more positive usernames tended to have positive in-game behavior, which they say could correlate with positive personality traits in the real world.

The data provided to the researchers by the game’s publisher Riot Games contained user names, their in-game behavior and the reaction of other players.

The game’s publisher says some 27 million people from around the world play the “League of Legends” on a daily basis with about 67 million playing every month.

The researchers say that data from online video games could provide valuable insight into the player’s personalities and disorders such as autism, sociopathy or addictive personality.

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.

Modern-day Antarctic Explorer Journeys to South Pole

Posted November 17th, 2015 at 4:05 pm (UTC-4)
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Refael Klein, a Lieutenant Junior Grade  in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Commissioned Officer Corps (NOAA Corps), will share his experiences as he spends one year working and living in the South Pole.

Refael Klein, a Lieutenant Junior Grade in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Commissioned Officer Corps (NOAA Corps), will share his experiences as he spends one year working and living in the South Pole.

My name is Refael Klein.

I’m a Lieutenant Junior Grade in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Commissioned Officer Corps, which supports research carried out by NOAA and other scientific institutions.

Klein's NOAA job has given him the opportunity to run day to day, on the ground, operations at three of NOAA’s most remote facilities.  Last year, he managed a facility in American Samoa, enjoying a tropical climate.

Klein’s NOAA job has given him the opportunity to run day to day, on the ground, operations at three of NOAA’s most remote facilities. Last year, he managed a facility in American Samoa, enjoying a tropical climate.

Last year, I was managing our facility in American Samoa, enjoying a tropical climate. This year, I will be at the National Science Foundation’s Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, trying to stay warm.

I invite you to come along on the journey. Let me be your guide to life and science at the South Pole.

Over the course of the next 13 months, I will be supporting over a dozen climate science research projects, working alongside scientists and engineers studying everything from subatomic particles to the Southern Lights.

This summer, we will learn about ice core drilling and carbon dioxide (CO2) sampling, and in the spring, we’ll watch the Ozone Hole form.

The South Pole is not an easy place to survive, and day-to-day life can be challenge even for the most intrepid.

This year, 50 of us will winter over, enduring months of complete darkness and the coldest temperatures in the world. Not all handle the isolation well, but most everyone leaves with a story to tell and an experience they can’t fully put into words.

Over the ensuing months, I’ll try my best to be descriptive and give you a true taste of what it is like to be a modern-day Antarctic explorer.

It will take me a few days to get from the United States to the South Pole. My first stop will be in Christchurch, New Zealand, the jumping off point for those heading to the “Ice”. It’s a long flight.

I’ll see you there.

Look for Refael Klein’s weekly blogs from the South Pole here on Science World.

Refael Klein
Refael Klein, a Lieutenant Junior Grade in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Commissioned Officer Corps (NOAA Corps), blogs about his experiences as he spends one year working and living in the South Pole.

Scientists Measure A Mighty Wind Blowing on Exoplanet

Posted November 16th, 2015 at 5:32 pm (UTC-4)
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The planet HD 189733b is shown here in front of its parent star. A belt of wind around the equator of the planet travels at At nearly 8,700 kilometers per hour from its day side to the night side. The day side of the planet appears blue due to scattering of light from silicate haze in the atmosphere. The night side of the planet glows a deep red due to its high temperature. (Mark A. Garlick/University of Warwick)

The planet HD 189733b is shown here in front of its parent star. A belt of wind around the equator of the planet travels at At nearly 8,700 kilometers per hour from its day side to the night side. The day side of the planet appears blue due to scattering of light from silicate haze in the atmosphere. The night side of the planet glows a deep red due to its high temperature. (Mark A. Garlick/University of Warwick)

A pair of British scientists have found that winds of over 2 kilometers per second are blowing around HD 189733b, an exoplanet located about 63 light years away from us.

According to the researchers, the exoplanet’s 2 kps wind speed is about seven times the speed of sound and is 20 times more than the fastest wind speed ever known here on Earth.

The researchers, Tom Louden and Peter Wheatley, both of the University of Warwick’s Astrophysics group used data from the High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS), a high-resolution spectrograph device at the European Southern Observatory’s La Silla 3.6m telescope in Chile.

The information allowed the researchers to gauge and map the planet’s wind speed. They say it’s the first time a weather system of a planet outside of our solar system say the researchers has been measured and mapped directly.

Researchers measured the wind speed flowing around HD 189733b with data gathered by The HARPS high-resolution spectrograph at the European Southern Observatory’s La Silla 3.6m telescope in Chile. (ESO)

Researchers measured the wind speed flowing around HD 189733b with data gathered by The HARPS high-resolution spectrograph at the European Southern Observatory’s La Silla 3.6m telescope in Chile. (ESO)

“This is the first ever weather map from outside of our solar system. Whilst we have previously known of wind on exoplanets, we have never before been able to directly measure and map a weather system,” said Louden in a University of Warwick press release.

Since HD 189733b is a hot Jupiter-like planet that’s thought to be “tidally locked” with its star. This means that it has a distinctive day side (always facing the star) and a night side (in darkness), the researchers measured wind speeds on both sides of the planet. The duo discovered a strong wind that blew from the planet’s day side to its night side at a speed of about 8,700 kilometers per hour.

Explaining how he and his colleague were able to measure the exoplanet’s wind speed, Louden said that they used high resolution spectroscopy of sodium absorption in the planet’s atmosphere. “As parts of HD 189733b’s atmosphere move towards or away from the Earth the “Doppler effect” changes the wavelength of this feature, which allows the velocity to be measured,” he said.

The researchers continue to fine-tune their exoplanet weather system measurement and mapping techniques, which they say could allow scientists to study wind flows in detail and construct weather maps of smaller planets.

Louden and Wheatley’s research and findings have been outlined in a study published by Astrophysical Journal Letters.

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.

NASA’S MAVEN Solves Mars Atmosphere Mystery

Posted November 6th, 2015 at 4:27 pm (UTC-4)
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Artist’s rendering of a solar storm hitting Mars and stripping ions from the planet's upper atmosphere. (NASA/GSFC)

Artist’s rendering of a solar storm hitting Mars and stripping ions from the planet’s upper atmosphere. (NASA/GSFC)

Last month NASA dropped a bombshell when it announced it had found evidence of water flowing on Mars.

Yesterday the space agency held a press conference at its Washington headquarters to announce that they may have solved a decades-old mystery of what happened to the Martian atmosphere and its water, when they presented new findings from its Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution or MAVEN mission.

The orbiter has been studying various sections of Mars atmosphere since arriving there in September 2014.

There’s already evidence that suggests at one time early in its history Mars had a thick atmosphere rich in carbon dioxide that kept the planet warm enough to allow for liquid water to flow over its surface.

Back in 2013 scientists at England’s Oxford University revealed that Mars may have also had an oxygen-rich atmosphere about four billion years ago, nearly 1.5 billion years before Earth developed its atmospheric oxygen.

Artist concept of the solar wind interacting with the Mars upper atmosphere (L). But the solar wind is deflected past Earth by its global magnetic field (R) (Credit: NASA/GSFC)

Artist concept of the solar wind interacting with the Mars upper atmosphere (L). But the solar wind is deflected past Earth by its global magnetic field (R) (Credit: NASA/GSFC)

Some previous findings suggest that during this time Mars also had more water than Earth’s Arctic Ocean flowing over its surface.

Scientists generally describe today’s Martian environment as very cold and desert-like.

Michael Meyer, lead scientist of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program summed up what happened to the Martian atmosphere by quoting an old Bob Dylan lyric saying “The answer my friend is blowing in the wind.”

In this case, the wind Meyer is referring to is the solar wind, a stream of highly charged particles that blast from the upper atmosphere of the Sun into the solar system at a speed of about 1,609,344 kilometers per hour with a temperature of about 1 million degrees Celsius.

The MAVEN mission uncovered evidence that the thick Martian atmosphere of its distant past was stripped from the planet billions of years ago by the solar wind, when the sun was young and much more active than today.

NASA says that the solar wind continues to blast away at Mars now thinner atmosphere.

“MAVEN measurements indicate that the solar wind strips away gas at a rate of about 100 grams every second.” Like the theft of a few coins from a cash register every day, the loss becomes significant over time,” said Bruce Jakosky, MAVEN principal investigator at the University of Colorado, Boulder during the press conference.

MAVEN’s findings also revealed significantly more of the Martian atmosphere is stripped away during solar storms.

Artist's concept of the MAVEN spacecraft orbiting Mars. (NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center)

Artist’s concept of the MAVEN spacecraft orbiting Mars. (NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center)

According to the NASA scientists, the solar wind also carries a magnetic field. As the field passes past Mars, it generates an electric field around the planet in the same way that a turbine can produce electricity here on Earth. This electric field then excites ions, or charged atoms, in Mars’ upper atmosphere and blows them into space.

Data gathered by MAVEN allowed NASA’s scientists to determine how both the solar wind and ultraviolet light takes away gas from the top of the Martian atmosphere.

They found that these ions are stripped away at three different areas of Mars. The first location is down its “tail” where the solar wind streams behind the Red Planet. The second location is at the Martian poles where it forms a “polar plume” of ions. And the third location is from a large cloud of gas that surrounds Mars. According to the scientists, about 75% of the ions that flow away from Mars do so at its tail region, with most of the remaining 25% from the polar plumes. A very small amount of the escaping ions come from the large surrounding cloud.

“Solar-wind erosion is an important mechanism for atmospheric loss, and was important enough to account for significant change in the Martian climate,” said Joe Grebowsky, MAVEN project scientist from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “MAVEN is also studying other loss processes – such as loss due to impact of ions or escaping hydrogen atoms – and these will only increase the importance of atmospheric escape,” he said.

The new MAVEN mission findings can be found in four new studies that have been published in the journals Science and Geophysical Research Letters.

Solar Wind Strips Martian Atmosphere (NASA Goddard)
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.

NASA Seeks Astronauts; Good Sleep = Good Mood; Device Finds Water in Space

Posted November 4th, 2015 at 4:45 pm (UTC-4)
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Help Wanted – NASA

As NASA continues to prepare to resume human spaceflight launches and readies its ambitious ‘Journey to Mars’, it is putting out its “help wanted” sign.

The space agency announced that it will soon begin to accept applications for its next class of astronauts who will fly from the Space Coast of Florida aboard new American-made commercial spacecraft.

Qualifications required to become a NASA Astronaut candidate, include U.S. citizenship, at least a bachelor’s degree, although an advanced degree is preferred, in either engineering, mathematics, or biological or physical science from an accredited institution.

The space agency said that candidates must also have at least three years of related and increasingly responsible professional experience or at least 1,000 hours of command pilot time in jet aircraft and be able to pass NASA’s long-duration spaceflight physical.

Applications to become an Astronaut candidate will be accepted by the space agency from December 14th until the middle of this coming February.

NASA will take about a year and a half to go through all the applications and will announce the new astronaut candidates sometime in mid-2017.

Engineers from Onsala Space Observatory's Group for Advanced Receiver Development examine the top part of SEPIA before its installation at APEX in Chile. (ESO/Sascha Krause)

Engineers from Onsala Space Observatory’s Group for Advanced Receiver Development examine the top part of SEPIA before its installation at APEX in Chile. (ESO/Sascha Krause)

New Device Helps Find Water in Space

Astronomers have a new tool that will help them look for water throughout the universe.

The Swedish-ESO PI receiver for APEX or SEPIA can detect light signals in the 1.4 to 1.8 millimeter wavelength range, where astronomers say water in space can be found.

The SEPIA device was installed on the European Southern Observatory’s Atacama Pathfinder Experiment, or APEX, telescope located on the incredibly dry Chajnantor Plateau some 5000 meters above sea level in the Chilean Andes.

Atmospheric water vapor at most places on Earth would hinder the space water search effort, but the exceptional dry conditions at their Chilean site, according to ESO astronomers, makes it an ideal location to look for celestial water.

Scientists say that water is important in a number of astrophysical processes, such as star formation, and that it may also play a key role in the origin of life.

Devices identical to SEPIA are also being installed in the antennas of ESO’s Atacama Large Millimeter radio telescope array.

Diamonds on a glass pane (En-cas-de-soleil/Wikimedia Commons)

Diamonds on a glass pane (En-cas-de-soleil/Wikimedia Commons)

Diamonds May Not Be So Rare After All

A new study from Johns Hopkins University suggests that diamonds may not be as rare as previously believed, and that formation of the carbon-based gem may be a much more common process than thought.

But before you get excited about picking up a big diamond ring at a cheap price, the researchers add that the diamond bonanza is actually in the deep Earth. The very deep earth, actually, say the researchers behind the study.

To get to any of the diamonds being formed deep below our feet, they must first be brought to near the Earth’s surface by somewhat rare volcanic magma eruptions. The researchers also add that most of these diamonds aren’t the large and gem quality stones found in valuable jewelry, but are so tiny that you’d need a microscope to seem them.

The researchers also found that diamonds could be formed by a natural chemical reaction that is much easier than the commonly understood process involving high temperatures and tremendous pressure.

This Microscopic Image Mosaic shows a pre-existing crack which is being "healed over", which is evidence for the gel weathering alteration process. (NASA/JPL & S. Cole)

This Microscopic Image Mosaic shows a pre-existing crack which is being “healed over”, which is evidence for the gel weathering alteration process. (NASA/JPL & S. Cole)

Ancient Martian Rock Attacked by Acidic Fog

Planetary scientist Shoshanna Cole from Ithaca College in New York says that she has found evidence that that some type of acid fog created by past volcanic activity dissolved rocks on Mars.

Acid fog, or VOG as it’s known on Earth, is created when volcanic gas reacts with oxygen and sunlight.

Blankets of VOG form from time to time near Hawaii’s Kīlauea volcano, which has been continuously erupting since 1983.

Cole used a variety of data gathered in the Husband Hills area of Mars’ Guseve Crater by NASA’s Spirit rover to make her findings.

The data allowed her to hypothesize that the rocks in this area of Mars were exposed to acidic water vapor from volcanic eruptions over a long period of time.

She says that after the Martian VOG settled on the rocks it dissolved some of its minerals and formed a gel. Later, after the gel’s water evaporated it left behind material that broke down the rocks.

Sleeping man (Imogenisla via Creative Commons)

Sleeping man (Imogenisla via Creative Commons)

Uninterrupted Sleep Helps You Wake Up in a Good Mood

If you want to wake up and stay in a good mood all day, a new study from researchers at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine suggests that you need to get a good night’s sleep: not a necessarily a lot of sleep, but some good quality uninterrupted sleep.

The researchers found that being roused from sleep several times a night puts a damper on a good mood more than having a small amount of sleep without any interruptions.

According to the study, having continued nights of interrupted sleep can have increasing negative effects on a person’s mood.

Patrick Finan, the study’s lead author and an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins, says that when your sleep is disrupted throughout the night, you don’t have the chance to go through each of the various phases of sleep.

Not progressing through the stages of sleep can deprive you of the needed slow-wave sleep necessary to making a person feel refreshed and restored.

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.

October 2015 Science Images

Posted November 2nd, 2015 at 5:00 pm (UTC-4)
2 comments

This is the starburst galaxy Messier 94 as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope in an image released 10/19/15.  Within the bright ring area, also called the starburst area, new stars are being formed at a high rate of speed. (ESA/NASA)

This is the starburst galaxy Messier 94 as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope in an image released 10/19/15. Within the bright ring area, also called the starburst area, new stars are being formed at a high rate of speed. (ESA/NASA)

New observations from NASA's Swift and the Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array, or NuSTAR caught a supermassive black hole in the midst of a giant eruption of X-ray light.  In this artist’s image, released on 10/27/15, an x-ray flare can be see blasting from the corona of the supermassive black hole Mrk 335. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

New observations from NASA’s Swift and the Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array, or NuSTAR caught a supermassive black hole in the midst of a giant eruption of X-ray light. In this artist’s image, released on 10/27/15, an x-ray flare can be see blasting from the corona of the supermassive black hole Mrk 335. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Little three year-old Miyah Williams holds her old leg prosthesis as she wears a new and more high-tech version that was attached several months earlier. Miyah was at a 10/23/15 meeting in Washington, DC that discussed problems with pediatric prosthetic devices. (AP)

Little three year-old Miyah Williams holds her old leg prosthesis as she wears a new and more high-tech version that was attached several months earlier. Miyah was at a 10/23/15 meeting in Washington, DC that discussed problems with pediatric prosthetic devices. (AP)

On 10/7/15 NASA announced that it had successfully completed testing on heat shields (such as the one pictured here)  that would be used on future Mars exploration vehicles. (NASA)

On 10/7/15 NASA announced that it had successfully completed testing on heat shields (such as the one pictured here) that would be used on future Mars exploration vehicles. (NASA)

On 10/28/15 NASA's Cassini spacecraft flew close to the surface of Enceladus, one of Saturn’s moons.  The spacecraft captured images of the moon’s southern polar region. This image was taken in visible light with the Cassini spacecraft wide-angle camera from a distance of about 124 km above the moon’s surface (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)

On 10/28/15 NASA’s Cassini spacecraft flew close to the surface of Enceladus, one of Saturn’s moons. The spacecraft captured images of the moon’s southern polar region. This image was taken in visible light with the Cassini spacecraft wide-angle camera from a distance of about 124 km above the moon’s surface (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)

The Hubble Space Telescope recently gathered the largest sample of the faintest and earliest known galaxies in the universe. Some of these galaxies formed just 600 million years after the Big Bang. This is an image of the galaxy cluster MACS J0416.1–2403 that was released on 10/22/15. (ESA/NASA)

The Hubble Space Telescope recently gathered the largest sample of the faintest and earliest known galaxies in the universe. Some of these galaxies formed just 600 million years after the Big Bang. This is an image of the galaxy cluster MACS J0416.1–2403 that was released on 10/22/15. (ESA/NASA)

U.S. President Barack Obama takes a look at the moon through a telescope at the second White House Astronomy Night held on the South Lawn of the White House, Washington, DC on 10/19/15. The annual event brought students, teachers, astronomers, engineers, scientists, and space enthusiasts together for an evening of stargazing. (AP)

U.S. President Barack Obama takes a look at the moon through a telescope at the second White House Astronomy Night held on the South Lawn of the White House, Washington, DC on 10/19/15. The annual event brought students, teachers, astronomers, engineers, scientists, and space enthusiasts together for an evening of stargazing. (AP)

This photo of the category 5 Hurricane Patricia was taken from the International Space Station on 10/23/15 when it made landfall in Mexico. According to weather officials, Patricia was the strongest recorded hurricane in the Western Hemisphere. (Scott Kelly/NASA)

This photo of the category 5 Hurricane Patricia was taken from the International Space Station on 10/23/15 when it made landfall in Mexico. According to weather officials, Patricia was the strongest recorded hurricane in the Western Hemisphere. (Scott Kelly/NASA)

This is Belgium’s Punch Powertrain Solar Team car at the 2015 World Solar Challenge held near Dunmarra, Australia on 10/19/15.  The 3,000 km race from Darwin to Adelaide, Australia featured 45 solar cars from 25 countries. (AP)

This is Belgium’s Punch Powertrain Solar Team car at the 2015 World Solar Challenge held near Dunmarra, Australia on 10/19/15. The 3,000 km race from Darwin to Adelaide, Australia featured 45 solar cars from 25 countries. (AP)

This image released by NASA on 10/8/15, shows the blue color of Pluto’s haze layer in this picture taken by the New Horizons spacecraft's MVIC or Ralph/Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera. (NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)

This image released by NASA on 10/8/15, shows the blue color of Pluto’s haze layer in this picture taken by the New Horizons spacecraft’s MVIC or Ralph/Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera. (NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)

Yamaha's autonomous motorcycle-riding humanoid concept model is displayed during the 10/29/15 media preview of the Tokyo Motor Show in Tokyo. The Japanese vehicle exhibition opened to the public on 10/30/15 (AP)

Yamaha’s autonomous motorcycle-riding humanoid concept model is displayed during the 10/29/15 media preview of the Tokyo Motor Show in Tokyo. The Japanese vehicle exhibition opened to the public on 10/30/15 (AP)

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.