Science World

Moon, Earth Might be Solar System’s Babies

The Moon (Photo: NASA)

(Photo: NASA)

Looking at our own world or up at the moon, we may think that we’re looking at a celestial body that’s as old as the solar system itself.

That is what scientists have thought for years.

The common estimate of the moon’s age is 4.5 billion years old, which was determined by mineralogy and chemical analysis of moon rocks gathered during the Apollo missions in the late 1960s to early 1970s.

But, hold on a minute.

Newly released research suggests Earth may in fact be millions of years younger than originally thought.

Scientists determined this by using a technique which measures the isotopes of lead and neodymium in lunar crustal rocks.

Chemist Lars Borg with the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, along with a team of international collaborators, analyzed three isotopic systems, including the elements found in ancient lunar rocks.

From their analysis, Dr. Borg and his team determined that the moon could be much younger than originally estimated. In fact, according to their studies, its age may be 4.36 billion years old.

The study team says this research can not only change what we think of the creation of the moon, but could also have implications for the age of Earth as well.

Scientists believe the moon formed from a giant impact into the Earth and then solidified from an ocean of magma.

According to Dr. Borg, if their analysis correctly represents the moon’s age, then the Earth must be fairly young, too.

The researchers contrast their findings to a planet like Mars, which scientists believe formed approximately 4.53 billion years ago.

If the team is right about the moon’s age – and if the data they examined was taken from one of the first-formed lunar rocks – then that makes the moon about 165 million years younger than Mars and about 200 million years younger than large asteroids.

The isotopes they measured were taken from samples of type of rock from the crust of the moon, considered to be the oldest of its type, called ferroan anorthosite.

Dr. Borg says the moon most likely solidified much later than most previous estimates or that a long-held belief concerning the origin of the rocks studied is incorrect.

Common belief says that the moon is supposed to be old and have a lunar magma ocean, but the measurements and analysis performed by Dr. Borg’s team shows that the moon is young and did not have a magma ocean.

This weekend on the “Science World” radio program, Dr. Borg talks about his team’s research and their findings and tells us about the origins of our moon.

>>>> Listen to the interview here…

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Other stories we cover on the “Science World” radio program this week include:

Science Scanner: Humanoid Robot Wakes Up in Space

NASA's Robonaut 2 offers a helping hand (Photo: NASA)

NASA's Robonaut 2 offers a helping hand (Photo: NASA)

After snoozing for a couple of months in a storage bag aboard the International Space Station, Robonaut 2 (R2) finally woke up in space for the first time this past Monday.

Back in February, when the space shuttle Discovery took off on its final mission, we had a piece on our radio show about some of the equipment it was hauling up to the International Space Station.

What caught our eye was NASA’s R2, which was developed by General Motors. The humanoid robot has a head that looks like a sleek metallic-looking helmet, a torso, two arms and two hands with fingers which operate a lot like human fingers.

But, while it has no legs, R2 can and will carry out a number of tasks aboard the ISS with its fully functional arms and fingers.

Mission specialists Mike Fossum and Satoshi Furukawa hooked R2 up inside the space station’s Destiny laboratory while NASA teams on the ground powered up the robot.

NASA kept R2’s power on for a couple of hours so that those aboard the space station and on the ground could check the humanoid robot out.

NASA engineers here on Earth verified that all of the circuits, wiring and connections inside R2 checked out after its trip into space and after being in “rest mode” for the months since.

The engineers also wanted to see how everything on R2 would work in the station’s microgravity environment.  NASA says that R2 passed the check-up and that the diagnosis was positive.

The ISS crew and the Earth-bound engineers have more tests planned for R2 and, if all continues to go well, Robonaut 2 could begin helping out with simple station tasks in 2012.

>>> Read more…

Counting All of Earth’s Living Creatures

Planet Earth by the Crew of Apollo 17 (Photo: Apollo 17 Crew/NASA)

(Photo: Apollo 17 Crew/NASA)

If you’ve ever wondered how many species call planet Earth home, a new study has come up with an answer.  Turns out there are some 8.7 million species sharing our world – plus or minus 1.3 million if you take the margin of error into account.

Scientists from the Census of Marine Life – a network of researchers from more than 80 nations – which has been working to explain the diversity, distribution, and abundance of life in the oceans came up with the estimate.

Using an innovative and validated analytical technique, they were able to narrow down the total number of species. Previous estimates had put the number of species at somewhere between 3 million and 100 million.

Of the 8.7 million species, the study finds that 6.5 million of them are found on land, while the other 2.2 million live in the ocean.

But there’s still much more to learn.

According to the study, published by PLoS Biology, 86 percent of all species found on land and 91 percent of those in the seas, have yet to be discovered, described and cataloged.

>>> Read more…

Existence of the “God Particle” Now in Doubt

The mysterious and elusive “God Particle,” if it exists, is running out of places to hide, according to scientists working with the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva .

The Large Hadron Collider/ATLAS at CERN (Photo: CERN)

The Large Hadron Collider/ATLAS at CERN (Photo: CERN)

Members of the scientific community are gathered for the 25th Symposium on Lepton Photon Interactions at High Energies in Mumbai, India.   They’re getting the latest results of research done with the Large Hadron Collider at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, CERN in Geneva.

The latest news regarding the search for the so-called “God Particle,” known as Higgs boson, has long been a popular subject at these biennial meetings.

The Higgs boson is the theoretical particle thought to be responsible for turning energy into matter following the big bang.

For years, scientists have worked to either prove or disprove the existence of this hypothetical and, so far, very elusive fundamental particle.

You can learn more about Higgs boson here.

Researchers familiar with the CERN project say that, if Higgs boson does turn out to be just a mirage, an area of physics called “new physics” would emerge as scientists to try to answer one of the great mysteries of the universe.

>>> Read more…

Exercise Medication for Depression

Instructor Taking Exercise Class At Gym (Photo: Stephanie Richard via Flickr)

Instructor Taking Exercise Class At Gym (Photo: Stephanie Richard via Flickr)

Doing jumping jacks or a round of push-ups can be as effective as taking additional  medication for depression, according to researchers in Texas.

Their study is one of the first controlled investigations in the U.S. to suggest that adding a regular exercise routine, along with specialized anti-depressant medications, can fully relieve the symptoms of major depressive disorder.

According to the World Health Organization, the mental disorder known as depression is quite common, with about 121 million affected worldwide.  The WHO says depression is one of the leading causes of disability worldwide and that it can be reliably diagnosed and treated in primary care.

For those diagnosed with chronic depression, doctors normally prescribe anti-depressants such as Prozac, Zoloft and Wellbutrin.  Along with the medication, psychotherapy if often recommended as an effective treatment for the disease.

Unfortunately, when all of that doesn’t work for a patient, doctors might prescribe a second anti-depression medication to supplement treatment.

But researchers at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center found that engaging in both moderate and intense levels of daily exercise can work as well as taking that second antidepressant drug.

>>> Read more…

Earth’s Oldest Fossils Could Provide Clues to Life on Other Planets

(Photo: Dr David Wacey of the University of Western Australia)

Recently discovered microfossils are believed to be the oldest ever found on Earth. (Photo: Dr David Wacey of the University of Western Australia)

Researchers from England and Australia recently found some microfossils in a remote part of Western Australia.

Before you click away and say, “Big deal another fossil find,” hang with me for a bit.

The microscopic fossils, according to the researchers, are 3.4 billion years old, making them Earth’s oldest fossils.

The fossils resulted from life forms which lived on our planet before Earth even had oxygen.

Wow!  Kind of hard to visualize Earth without its life-giving oxygen, isn’t it?

OK, lets step back to the time when Earth first formed.

Most scientists generally agree that our planet is between 4.5 and 4.6 billion years old.

Soon after being formed, Earth was a huge molten hunk of rock with no atmosphere and, of course, none of the characteristics that make our planet special.

Illustration of the inner earth (Image: Lawrence Livermore National Labs)

Illustration of the inner earth (Image: Lawrence Livermore National Labs)

At this time, Earth’s core was also still forming. There was no solid inner core or  liquid outer core, like there is today, so the world wasn’t able to retain gasses very well.

Scientists describe our first atmosphere as being composed of hydrogen and helium, two elements which were very common when Earth and the rest of the solar system were formed.

Because of the heat and unformed core, these gasses soon escaped from Earth into space.

Earth continued its cooling process and, as the core began to stabilize, the earth’s magnetic fields were formed.

A more stable core and a cooler planet meant that more of the gasses produced by our evolving world could be retained closer to its surface.

As volcanic activity began and continued to increase throughout the planet, a lot of different gases formed as a result.

These included carbon dioxide (CO2), carbon monoxide (CO), sulfur dioxide (S2), chlorine (CL2), nitrogen (N2), deuterium, also called heavy hydrogen (H2), ammonia (NH3) and methane (CH4).

The volcanoes also produced a lot of steam (water/H2O), but no free existing oxygen (O2).

Oxygen was later produced and introduced into our atmosphere through two processes; photochemical dissociation, caused by the breakup of water molecules by the sun’s ultraviolet light, and photosynthesis, the process that uses carbon dioxide and water (H2O) to form organic compounds while also releasing oxygen (O2).

Early forms of life that developed and lived during this “pre-oxygen time”, some 3.4 billion years ago, were sulfur-based cells and bacteria which lived off metabolized compounds which had sulfur, rather than oxygen, for energy and growth.

Photo: Dr David Wacey of the University of Western Australia

According to researchers, these microscopic fossils are 3.4 billion years old. (Photo: Dr David Wacey of the University of Western Australia)

The researchers, from the University of Western Australia and England’s  Oxford University,  say their discovery of these microfossils provides convincing evidence that these unique early life forms did exist.

Oxford Professor Martin Brasier, one of the team’s leaders, says the life forms of the fossils still exist and are common today.

The sulfur-based bacteria can be found in smelly ditches, soil, hot springs, hydrothermal vents – anywhere there’s little free oxygen and they can live off organic matter.

Professor Brasier says their discovery also has implications in the search for life on other planets, giving scientists an indication of what evidence for such life might look like.

A report on this finding can be found in the journal Nature Geoscience.

North America and Antarctica Were Attached to Each Other

The Franklin Mountains in West Texas (Photo: Charlie Llewellin/

The Franklin Mountains in West Texas (Photo: Charlie Llewellin/

Scientists  have found the strongest evidence yet that  North America and Antarctica were once connected.

The international team discovered that rocks collected from the Franklin Mountains in West Texas have the same chemical and geological properties – as well as the exact same composition of lead isotopes – as rocks collected from Coats Land, an area that was once part of the Antarctic continent south of the Atlantic Ocean basin.

How is that possible? When you look at a globe or examine a map of the world, everything pretty much looks familiar to us.

Every nation, island, ocean and continent is where it should be. And it’s been that way for about the last 180 million years.

But, anyone who has ever done a jigsaw puzzle can tell, by looking carefully at the world map, that it appears all of the continents could fit together as one huge supercontinent.

Well, at one time millions of years ago, they did.  All of the continents were a part of one great big land mass called Pangaea.

But looking further back into the world’s geological history, scientists say the continents broke up and reassembled six times, forming at least two other great supercontinents before Pangeaa.

Geologists say that, even now, the earth is in the process of a breakup cycle in which the Atlantic and Indian oceans are opening and Iceland is splitting along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, which is a divergent boundary between the North American and Eurasian Plates..

According to scientists, Rodinia, the earliest-known supercontinent, was formed roughly 750 million years ago and then began to break apart.

Pangeaa forms and breaks up (Image: US Geological Survey)

Pangeaa splits apart (Image: US Geological Survey)

The fragments of what was once Rodinia then recombined to form Pannotia, approximately 600–540 million years ago.  This supercontinent also began to break apart, only to come back together later  to form Pangeaa.

So, how do these huge pieces of land break apart and form back together again? The theory of plate tectonics might explain things a bit.

Developed in the late 1950s to early 1960s, the theory of plate tectonics builds upon an older theory called continental drift, which was formulated during the early part of the 20th century.  This newer theory suggests that the earth’s outer shell is split into what are called tectonic plates.  Depending on who you ask, there are currently seven or eight major plates and many minor plates.

Since they’re basically floating on a lower layer of the earth’s crust, over time these plates bump into and float away from each other.

Just how the plates move about is still a major question, although there are many theories about this geodynamic mechanism.

It was while tracking the movement of our continents, that the international team of researchers found the link between rocks in West Texas and what was once a remote region of  Antarctica.

Coats Land with its only rock outcrops, Littlewood (L) and Bertrab (B) nunataks. (Photo: Ian Dalziel)

Coats Land with its only rock outcrops, Littlewood (L) and Bertrab (B) nunataks. (Photo: Ian Dalziel)

The study’s authors say this evidence strengthens support for what is called the Southwestern United States and East Antarctica hypothesis (SWEAT), which suggests that North America and East Antarctica were joined in that earlier supercontinent of Rodinia.

In this latest report, scientists found that rocks barely peeking through the ice in Coats Land reflect a former continuation of the North American rift system, which extends across the continent from the Great Lakes down to Texas.

The study considers the tiny Coats Land block of Antarctica to be what they call a ‘tectonic tracer,’ which provides critical clues to the geographic relationships between three of the major continents of earth some 1 to 1.1 billion years ago.

This weekend on the “Science World” radio program, Dr. Ian Dalziel, a research professor at the University of Texas at Austin and a co-author of this study, gives us a bit of a geological history lesson and tells us about this new study and what the team’s research reveals.

Listen to the interview here…

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Other stories we cover on the “Science World” radio program this week include:

Science Scanner: Jodie Foster’s Real-Life Search for ET

Oscar-winning actress Jodie Foster is blending fiction with reality in her effort to jump-start the real-life search for extra terrestrial intelligence.

Foster starred in “Contact”, the movie adaptation of a book by the late Carl Sagan.

In the 1997 movie, she played Eleanor Arroway, a gifted scientist who becomes the director of a project  dedicated to the search for extra terrestrial intelligence.

SETI Institute's Allen Telescope Array - (Photo: SETI Institute)

SETI Institute’s Allen Telescope Array – (Photo: SETI Institute)

Well, Foster’s Ellie Arroway is back, in a way.

Foster wants to help the real-life SETI get back on its feet, by contributing to the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California.

Her donation, along with others, raised $200,000 to help restart the institute’s “Allen Telescope Array,” which was shut down due to lack of funds this past April.

The SETI Institute says its mission is to explore, understand and explain the origin, nature and prevalence of life in the universe.

>>> Read more…

New Tool to Help First Responders

A First Responder (Photo: US Coast Guard by Petty Officer First Class Paul Roszkowski)

A First Responder (Photo: US Coast Guard by Petty Officer First Class Paul Roszkowski)

A new high-tech tool is designed to help first responders better prepare for action following a disaster by providing accurate models of building damage and other post-event disaster effects.

Police, emergency crews and other first responders were introduced to the new tool when they took part in the recent National Level Exercise.

Using the easily-available Apple iPad mobile device, the emergency teams employed the science-based software application called the Standard Unified Modeling, Mapping and Integration Toolkit (SUMMIT).

Developed by the US Department of Energy’s Sandia National Laboratories, SUMMIT’s software architecture helps emergency preparedness professionals gain access to post-disaster models, helping ensure consistency, accuracy and robustness when various exercise scenarios are developed and played out.

The SUMMIT system takes key information into consideration, such as details on buildings and infrastructure and casualties. During exercises, it visualizes an integrated “story” that can be made available for all players operating within the reach of a master control cell.

Jalal Mapar, the program manager who oversees the SUMMIT program, says that the broader goal is to make SUMMIT an everyday part of preparedness and response for emergency managers, responders and exercise teams at the federal, state and local level.

>>> Read more…

Zoom, zoom alligator!

(Photo: Steven Beger Photography ( Productions))

(Photo: Steven Beger Photography ( Productions))

As the search for sustainable energy continues, bio-fuel – energy products made from biological material such as corn, soybeans, wood, and waste – is one of the more popular sources of alternative energy.

But there are concerns the price of food crops currently used to produce bio-fuel will increase.  To respond to that concern, scientists have identified a new and unlikely raw material to produce the fuel.

Are you ready for this? Alligator fat.

In laboratory experiments, Rakesh Bajpai and his colleagues at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, showed that oil extracted from alligator fat can easily be converted into bio-diesel.

The researchers found that gator oil actually was more suitable for bio-diesel production than oil from some other animal fats.

The research team says alligator-fat based bio-diesel is similar in composition to fuel produced from soybeans, meeting nearly all of the official standards for high quality bio-diesel.

>>> Read more…

Stanford University Classes FOR FREE!

Computer Science professor Andrew Ng uses tablet-recording technology he developed to instantly display notes for his interactive video lecture. (Photo: Stanford University/Morgan Quigley)

Computer Science professor Andrew Ng uses tablet-recording technology he developed to instantly display notes for his interactive video lecture. (Photo: Stanford University/Morgan Quigley)

In an example of man’s never-ending quest for knowledge, some 85,599 people have signed up to participate in a free online course, “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence,” offered by Stanford University’s School of Engineering.

The class is among three of the school’s most popular computer science courses being offered for free online this fall. The other two classes are Machine Learning and Introduction to Databases.

Stanford engineering professors offer these classes to extend the benefits of a Stanford-style education to those who otherwise wouldn’t have access to it.

The professors plan to use the same technologies that are already used to enhance learning for Stanford students.

The courses are delivered online as short, interactive video clips that allow students to progress through course materials at their own pace.

They’re offering online students live quizzes with instant feedback and are testing new technologies which allow students to rank questions that should be posed to the instructors.

>>> Read more…


Study: It’s OK to Be Fat

Despite current conventional wisdom to the contrary, a new study suggests that being fat can actually be good for you.

Obese people, who are otherwise healthy, can live just as long as those who are thinner, and are less likely to die of cardiovascular causes, according to the study from Toronto’s York University,

The WHO says that overweight and obesity are the fifth leading risk for global deaths. At least 2.8 million adults die each year as a result of being overweight or obese.

The study’s lead author, Professor Jennifer Kuk at the University’s School of Kinesiology and Health Science,  says the new findings challenge the idea that all obese people need to lose weight.

Not only that, she says it’s possible that trying and failing to lose weight might be more harmful than just staying at the higher weight level, as long as obese or overweight people exercise and eat a balanced diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables.

In the study, Professor Kuk’s team examined about 6,000 obese Americans over a 16-year period and compared their mortality risk with leaner individuals.

Rather than use the common standard of the Body Mass Index (BMI),  Kuk’s research team used a measurement method recently developed by scientists at University of Alberta. Called the Edmonton Obesity Staging System (EOSS), it’s believed to be more accurate than the BMI for identifying who should attempt to lose weight.

This new five-stage EOSS not only uses traditional measurement methods such as BMI and waist-to-hip ratios, but it also classifies additional factors such as the extent and severity of other diseases like cancer, mental illness and heart disease.

The system also takes clinical measurements which reflect medical conditions often caused or aggravated by obesity, such as diabetes, hypertension and heart disease.

Professor Kuk stresses that individuals should be evaluated by a physician, using the criteria provided by EOSS, to determine whether they should lose weight.

The researchers found that obese people with mild or no physical, psychological or physiological impairments, had a higher body weight while they were younger adults, were happier at the higher body weight, and didn’t attempt to lose weight much during their lives.

The researchers also found that these people were also more likely to be physically active and maintain a healthy diet.

Gamers, Filmgoers Could Soon Feel Jolt of Onscreen Car Crash

Surround Haptics, developed at Disney Research, Pittsburgh, enhances video game play by using an array of vibrating actuators in a chair to create the tactile illusion of continuous strokes on the player’s back. (Photo: Disney Research, Pittsburgh)

Surround Haptics enhances video game play with a chair containing an array of vibrating actuators which create the tactile illusion of continuous strokes on the player’s back. (Photo: Disney Research, Pittsburgh)

Imagine playing a video game and literally feeling the jolt of an on-screen car collision. Or sitting in a movie theater and experiencing the sensation of  a finger being drawn against your skin as you watch it on film.

In an effort to make movies, television and gaming as life-like as possible,  the folks at Disney Research Labs at the Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Penn., have developed Surround Haptics, a technology which allows video game players and film viewers to feel a wide variety of sensations.

The use of 3D has become incredibly popular in offering a realistic visual experience, and 3D sound or surround sound technology, provides an authentic listening environment.  With Surround Haptics, researchers are taking things to the next step by adding a sense of touch to the experience.

In developing Surround Haptics, researchers performed a number of comprehensive experiments which examined the relationship between actual physical stimuli and the effects they produce in the mind. From these experiments, the team was able to create new models which explored how people perceive the sense of touch.

To demonstrate Surround Haptics, researchers enhanced a high-intensity driving simulator game with the technology. The game players were seated in a chair outfitted with a number of vibrating mechanisms, called actuators, which allowed the players to feel sensations such as road imperfections and objects falling on the car.  They could also feel a sense of skidding, braking, acceleration and the impact of a collision.

Surround Haptics has only been implemented with a gaming chair so far, but the researchers say with further work, the technology can be easily embedded into items such as clothing, gloves, sports equipment and even mobile computing devices.

In addition to heightening the entertainment experience,  Surround Haptics’ underlying technology could be applied to enhance means of communication for the blind, emergency workers, vehicle operators, athletes and others.

This weekend on the “Science World” radio program, Dr. Ivan Poupyrev, senior research scientist at the Disney Research Labs in Pittsburgh, who, co-invented Surround Haptics with his colleague Ali Israr, tells us more about this intriguing technology, how it was developed and its potential applications.

Listen to the interview here…

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Other stories we cover on the “Science World” radio program this week include:


Science Scanner: Massive Solar Flare Could Disrupt GPS, Electronic Communications on Earth

Yesterday, the sun emitted a massive solar flare toward earth which could interrupt GPS and other satellite communications.  It also has the potential to cause scattered radio communication blackouts.

NASA, the U.S. space agency, reports the sun emitted an x6.9 solar flare, the largest solar event so far in the sun’s current weather cycle. It was measured by the NOAA GOES satellite on Aug. 9, 2011 at 0748 UTC.

Thanks to the earth’s atmosphere and magnetic field, these tremendous bursts of radiation can’t harm us humans on the ground.

But, for humans traveling in space, the sun’s proton radiation could be dangerous and potentially fatal if they’re not properly protected.

Along with the flare, this solar event also produced something called a coronal mass ejection (CME), another sun-based phenomenon that sends solar particles into space.

Since this particular CME was not headed toward earth, no effects are expected here.

Classifying Solar Flares and Associated Phenomena

The sun, just like earth, has its own weather systems. And, just like on earth, there can be some wild weather.

The sun has an 11-year solar weather cycle which is currently headed for an event called the solar maximum. That’s a period when the sun experiences the greatest amount of activity.

Scientists predict the sun will reach its solar maximum in 2013.

As the sun continues its cycle toward its solar maximum, the number of solar events is expected to rise.

Among these sun-based weather events are solar flares, which are huge explosions on the sun that shoot energy, light and high speed particles into space.

As I mentioned, another of the sun’s weather events associated with the solar flares is a CME. These solar magnetic storms explode from active regions on the sun’s surface releasing massive bursts of solar wind, light and magnetic energy into space.

To keep tabs on them, scientists have developed a unique classification system for solar flares.

This system, which is often compared to the Richter scale – the system that measures the strength of earthquakes – classifies solar flares according to their strength.

The smallest flares are called A-Class, followed by B, C, M and X-Class, the largest, most powerful solar flares.

Each letter progression represents a tenfold increase in the flare’s energy output. The flare is further defined, within the letter class, on a scale of 1 to 9.

Of course, the impact and effect of the classifications of solar flares varies.

C-class and smaller flares don’t have much of an effect on earth, because they’re too weak to reach us.

Next are the M-class flares, which can cause brief radio/communications blackouts at our planet’s poles. They can also trigger minor radiation storms which could endanger astronauts outside of earth’s protective atmosphere and magnetic fields.

This brings us to the strongest classification of solar flares, the X-class flare.

Although X is the highest of the current classification of solar flare, believe it or not, scientists have observed and identified flares that are more than 10 times the power of a class-X1 solar flare.

X-class flares can and have gone higher than X9.

According to NASA, the most powerful flare observed and measured with modern methods occurred in 2003, during the last solar maximum.

That flare was so powerful, that it wound up overloading the sensors measuring it. (By the way those sensors cut out at the X28 level!)

According to scientists, the really big X-class solar flares are the largest explosions within our solar system. As a result, they’re the most exciting to watch.

While they may be fun to observe, these X-Class flares and the associated corona mass ejections, should they be toward the earth, can create a series of lengthy radiation storms. Those disturbances can cause harm to satellites, various communications systems, and even our power grids.

A series of X-class flares, which took place on Dec. 5 and Dec. 6, 2006, caused a CME that interfered with GPS signals picked up by ground-based receivers.

Agencies such as NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the US Air Force Weather Agency (AFWA) constantly monitor the sun’s activities and watch for those X-class flares and magnetic storms.

Scientists say that, with a bit of advance warning, various equipment and technology located both in space and here on earth can be protected from the most serious effects of these solar events.

Space Missions to Study the Sun

Over the years NASA has undertaken a number of missions to study the sun and its relationship with Earth and the entire solar system.

One of NASA’s first solar missions was the Interplanetary Monitoring Platform, or IMP.

IMP-8, also called Explorer 50, the last of the IMP series of spacecraft was launched into Earth orbit on October 25, 1973 as a part of NASA’s Sun-Earth Connection research program.

The IMP-8’s mission was to measure the magnetic fields, plasmas, and cosmic rays of the Earth’s magnetotail and magnetosheath and the solar wind nearest earth.

The latest NASA spacecraft deployed for observation and study of the Sun is The Solar Dynamics Observatory or (SDO).

Launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida on February 11, 2010, the SDO is first mission and what NASA describes as its crown jewel in a fleet of missions to study the sun.

NASA says that the mission of the Solar Dynamics Observatory mission is a major part of its Living With a Star (LWS) science program.

The SDO is studying just how solar activity is created and how space weather results from that activity.

A number of sophisticated instruments aboard the SDO are measuring the sun’s interior, its magnetic field, the plasma of the solar corona, and its irradiance or power of its electromagnetic radiation.

Among the numerous future missions NASA is planning as it continues its study of the sun is the Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph, also known as IRIS. This mission, currently under development, is hoped to be launched in December 2012.

Scientists working on this mission say that the primary goal of IRIS is to understand how the solar atmosphere is energized.

The investigation that will be undertaken by the IRIS mission will combine advanced numerical modeling with a high resolution UV imaging spectrograph and will focus on three significant themes regarding solar and plasma physics, space weather, and astrophysics.

And a bit further down the road is the European Space Agency and NASA’s joint mission called Heliophysical Explorers (HELEX).

This proposed program combines ESA’s Solar Orbiter with NASA’s Solar Sentinels mission.

The Solar Orbiter will make it possible to study the Sun from a distance closer than any spacecraft previously has, and will provide images and measurements in unprecedented resolution and detail.

NASA’s Solar Sentinels is a mission that plans to study the Sun during its Solar Maximum.

The program includes the launch of six spacecraft which will then separate into three groups.

The Solar Sentinels mission will help scientists understand the acceleration and transit of solar energetic particles as well the initiation and evolution of coronal mass ejections (CMEs) and interplanetary shocks in the inner heliosphere – the region of space around the sun where its influence is insignificant and where interstellar space is said to begin.

Diamonds are a Computer Chip’s Best Friend

Scanned Electron Microscope image of a triode made from nanodiamond thin film that shows how the diamond components are cantilevered over a silicon dioxide substrate.  (Photo: Davidson Laboratory, Vanderbilt University)

Scanned Electron Microscope image of a triode made from nanodiamond thin film that shows how the diamond components are cantilevered over a silicon dioxide substrate. (Photo: Davidson Laboratory, Vanderbilt University)

Looking to build a hardy new generation of electronic integrated chips,  electrical engineers at Vanderbilt University are looking to the world’s hardest natural substance – the diamond.

The team is considering the gem for use in electronic chips which might be used in extreme environmentsSilicon semiconductor material is commonly used to make the chips right now.

The Vanderbilt team has been able to develop and build many of the chip’s basic components  – such as transistors and logical gates, which both are key in creating these electronic circuits – by using thin films of nanodiamond, which is usually produced by the detonation of a diamond blend.

Along with an ability to operate in harsh conditions, including  radioactive or extreme temperature environments, the nanodiamond-based components also have the potential to operate at higher speeds while using less power than the silicon-based versions.

Of course, anytime you talk about diamonds, the first thing many people think of is cost.  But, according to research Professor Jimmy Davidson, even though their chip design does use a diamond film,  it is not really that expensive.

In fact, since electronic units are so small,  the researchers estimate that around one billion of them can be manufactured from just one carat of a diamond.

The nanondiamond films are made through a widely-used method called chemical vapor deposition (CVD), a chemical process which produces high-purity, high-performance solid materials frequently used in the microelectronics industry.

Diamonds in this form are said to be less than one-thousandth the cost of quality jewelry diamonds.

They’re so inexpensive that a number of companies already put diamond coatings on tools, cookware and other products.  With this in mind, researchers figure the cost of producing the nanodiamond devices should be competitive with those made from silicon.

The research team describes its nanodiamond circuits as a hybrid of electronic technologies; a unique combination of the best qualities of old-fashioned vacuum tubes and modern solid-state microelectronics.

The Vanderbilt team explains that its devices are first built on a thin film of nanodiamond that is then overlaid on a layer of silicon dioxide.

This combination mimics the use of vacuum tubes, since the electrons move through a vacuum between the nanodiamond components, instead of flowing through solid material the way they do in normal microelectronic devices.

Because of this, the nanondiamond-based devices require vacuum packaging in order to operate.

The potential applications for this nanondiamond chip include use in military electronic devices as well as electronic and computer circuitry needed to operate in space.

With a little bit of modification to allow them to be packaged in a vacuum, these nanodiamond devices, according to the research team, can be made by virtually the same processes currently used by the semiconductor industry.

Natural Protein Could Reduce Brain Damage Caused by Stroke

California scientists have found that a protein, which occurs naturally in the body, might reduce brain damage caused by a stroke.

Stroke is the world’s second leading killer, responsible for almost 10 percent of all deaths worldwide in 2005, according to the World Health Organization.  Eighty five percent of those deaths occur in low and middle income countries and one-third strike people under 70.

Stroke is also the leading cause of serious disability among adults.

A stroke occurs when the blood supply to the brain is interrupted, usually due to a burst blood vessel or a clot.  When that happens, the supply of oxygen and nutrients is cut off, causing damage to the brain tissue.

Time is critical for stroke victims. The longer blood flow is cut off to the brain, the greater the damage.   The U.S. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke says  immediate treatment can save  lives and enhance chances for a successful recovery.

This recent discovery by scientists at Stanford University School of Medicine might just give stroke victims that much-needed time to treat their illness.

The team found that alpha-B-crystallin — a naturally-occurring substance which is a major structural protein in the eye’s lens — shrank stroke-induced lesions in the brains of experimental mice — even when administered as much as 12 hours after the event.

The protein acts as a brake on the immune system by lowering inflammation, which can be responsible for substantial brain damage beyond what’s caused by the initial stroke.  Alpha-B-crystallin acts like a mop; sopping up those bad chemicals and stopping inflammation from making a bad situation worse.

If further studies confirm and expand upon the Stanford findings, members of the research team say that alpha-B-crystallin may then be an excellent candidate for clinical trials in stroke.

This weekend on the “Science World” radio program, Dr. Lawrence Steinman, MD, a senior author of the study, tells us more about the promising findings and how they might impact future stroke victims.

Listen to the interview here…

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Watch video… What Happens During A Stroke – From a Survivors Perspective…

Other stories we cover on the “Science World” radio program this week include: