Science World

Voyager Goes Where No Human-Made Vehicle Has Gone Before

Artist rendition of Voyager in space (Image: NASA/JPL)

Artist rendition of Voyager in space (Image: NASA/JPL)

No human-made object is further out in space than NASA’s Voyager I, which is currently near the edge of our Solar System, more than 33 lighthours – the distance traveled by light in a vacuum in one hour – roundtrip light time from the sun.

Its twin, Voyager II, is also headed toward the tip of the Solar System, but in another direction and it hasn’t journeyed as far.

The U.S.  space agency announced this month that Voyager I entered a new region between our Solar System and interstellar space – areas of outer space within a galaxy, but not occupied by stars or their planetary systems.

Voyager's "Golden Record" (Photo: NASA/JPL)

Voyager’s “Golden Record”, a time capsule of sorts (Photo: NASA/JPL)

Recent data from Voyager I suggests  this region is a kind of “cosmic purgatory.”

In this region,  solar wind from our sun has calmed, our Solar System’s magnetic field has intensified and high-energy particles from inside of our Solar System appear to be leaking out into interstellar space.

The finding highlights the fact that the Voyager spacecraft continue to send valuable information back to Earth more than 34 years since they were launched.

Voyager’s original mission, consisting of two unmanned spacecraft called Voyager I and II, was to explore our Solar System’s great outer planets – Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune – as well as their moons and the distinctive system of rings and magnetic fields those planets possess.

Voyager II was launched first, on Aug. 20, 1977, from Cape Canaveral, Florida aboard a Titan-Centaur rocket. Its twin, Voyager I,  launched 16 days later, on Sept. 5.

Jupiter and two moons (Photo: NASA/JPL)

Jupiter and two moons by Voyager Mission (Photo: NASA/JPL)

Dr. Edward Stone, the Voyager Mission’s project scientist since 1972, says 1977 was a perfect time to launch an interplanetary probe because, every 176 years, the giant outer planets are lined up so that one spacecraft can fly by all four.

Each of the two Voyager spacecraft, while packed with sophisticated equipment, also carried a time capsule of sorts, intended to communicate with possible extraterrestrials they might encounter on its journey.  The material, on a 12-inch, gold-plated disk, contains a variety of sounds and images selected to portray the diversity of life and culture on Earth.

Voyager I made it to within 206,800 kilometers of the cloud tops of Jupiter on March 5, 1979, with Voyager 2 following on July 9, 1979.  Among the discoveries made was that Jupiter’s  “Great Red Spot,” which had been seen by Earth’s telescopes, was a complex storm that moved in a counterclockwise direction.

The next stop of Voyager’s mission was Saturn.

Saturn by Voyager 2 (Photo: NASA/JPL)

Saturn by Voyager II (Photo: NASA/JPL)

Voyager II got to make its flyby first, on Aug. 25, 1981, coming within 41,000 kilometers of the planet’s cloud tops.  Voyager I did so about two and a half months later on Nov. 12, 1981.

Voyager encounters with the planet prompted scientists to conclude that Saturn’s famous rings are might be made from the shattered remains of larger moons.  Voyager I was also set on a path to get a good look at Saturn’s giant moon Titan .

However, this forced Voyager I to end its planetary science mission. The spacecraft, however, continued to feed valuable data back to Earth and its mission was later changed by NASA to be called the Voyager Interstellar Mission (VIM).

Uranus taken by Voyager (Photo: NASA/JPL)

Uranus taken by Voyager Mission (Photo: NASA/JPL)

That left Voyager II on its own to explore Uranus and Neptune. The spacecraft made its closest encounter with Uranus on Jan. 24, 1986, coming within 81,500 kilometers of the planet’s cloud tops.

Compared with the other planets of the solar system, Uranus is oriented a bit differently because it’s tipped on its side.   According to scientists, this unique feature was believed to have occurred after Uranus collided with another planet-sized body early in the history of the Solar System.

Voyager II found that the Uranus had a magnetic field comparable to Earth’s, which was affected by the planet’s sideways position.

On Aug. 25, 1989, Voyager II got close to Neptune, flying within 5,000 kilometers of the planet.  Voyager found the planet was very active and revealed several large, dark spots that seemed to be similar to those found on Jupiter.  Scientists named the biggest spot, the “Great Dark Spot,” which was found to be as big as Earth.

After its encounter with Neptune and its moons, Voyager II joined its twin spacecraft in its journey to the edge of the Solar System.

Voyager image of Neptune Voyager image of Neptune (Photo: NASA/JPL)

Voyager Mission image of Neptune (Photo: NASA/JPL)

However, before NASA turned any Voyager cameras off, the late Carl Sagan requested the lens be turned around to take a final look back at the planets.

On Feb. 14, 1990, Voyager I snapped 60 images of the sun and Venus, Earth, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. The images were formed into a mosaic which became known as a “Family Portrait”.

Voyager I’s photos of Earth, from a distance of about 6 billion kilometers, made our planet appear as a tiny blue dot in the great vastness of space.

This photo, called the “Pale Blue Dot,” inspired Sagan to use it as the main title of his 1994 book, “Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space,” in which he wrote about his thoughts on a deeper meaning of the photograph.

Today, according to Dr. Stone, Voyager I and II continue to transmit data – which is picked up by NASA’s Deep Space Network– 24 hours a day.

Earth - The "Pale Blue Dot" taken by Voyager 1 (Photo: NASA/JPL)

Earth – The “Pale Blue Dot” taken by Voyager I (Photo: NASA/JPL)

Scientists monitor the signals sent by each spacecraft for about 10 hours daily and are learning about the magnetic field from the sun that has been carried out into the further recesses of our Solar System.

The strength and direction of this magnetic field, and the high energy particles within our Solar System’s heliosphere as well as the speed of the solar wind, are frequently measured.  As the Voyager spacecraft continue their journey into interstellar space, scientists have noticed that the speed of the solar wind is slowing down.

According to NASA, the twin spacecraft could enter into interstellar space before 2020 but, once they do, going beyond the heliopause, there will no longer be enough electrical energy to continue to power Voyagers’ instruments.

What happens after that is anyone’s guess.

Dr. Edward Stone joins us this weekend on the radio edition of “Science World.”  He’ll tell us about the Voyager program and its legacy.  Tune in (see right column for scheduled times) or check out the interview below.

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Be sure to check out our gallery of photos taken by the Voyager spacecraft below.

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

 

Photos taken by the Voyager Program – Click to enlarge (Photos: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

 

Science Scanner: New Year, New Calendar?

Pope Gregory XIII introduced the calendar we use today back in 1582. His namesake Gregorian calendar replaced one instituted back in 46 BC by Julius Caesar.

As you can see, our method of keeping track of the days, months and years has remained pretty constant.  Although ideas for new calendars have been introduced over the years, none  really caught on.

But now researchers at Johns Hopkins University say it’s time for a change.

Using computer programs and sophisticated mathematical formulas, they’ve created a perpetual calendar in which each new 12-month period is identical to the one before it and repeats year after year.

Under what researchers call the Hanke-Henry Permanent Calendar,  if you were born on a Sunday, your birthday would always fall on a Sunday.

In addition, under this new calendar, September and June would go from being 30-day months to 31 days and only March and December would remain at 31 days. All other months would have 30 days.

“Our plan offers a stable calendar that is absolutely identical from year to year and which allows the permanent, rational planning of annual activities, from school to work holidays,” says Richard Conn Henry, an astrophysicist and one of the researchers involved in developing this proposed  calendar. “Think about how much time and effort are expended each year in redesigning the calendar of every single organization in the world and it becomes obvious that our calendar would make life much simpler and would have noteworthy benefits.”

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Link between poor mother – toddler relationship and teen obesity

(Photo: Eduardo Merille via Flickr)

(Photo: Eduardo Merille via Flickr)

Toddlers who lack a strong emotional bond with their mothers have a greater the chance of becoming obese by age 15, according to a new study.

Ohio State University researchers examined and analyzed national data that detailed various relationship characteristics between mothers and their children during the toddler years.

The researchers’ findings suggest obesity-prevention efforts should consider strategies to improve the mother-child bond and not focus exclusively on eating and exercise.

“It is possible that childhood obesity could be influenced by interventions that try to improve the emotional bonds between mothers and children rather than focusing only on children’s food intake and activity,” says Sarah Anderson, assistant professor of epidemiology at Ohio State University and lead author of the study.

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Detecting serious illness in a breath

(Photo: Tecnalia - Interreg Medisen project)

(Photo: Tecnalia – Interreg Medisen project)

A Spanish-based company is developing biosensors capable of detecting lung cancer tumor markers in a person’s exhaled breath.

Serious illnesses, such as lung and stomach cancer as well as some liver diseases, are often difficult to diagnose because their symptoms can be confused with other, more routine maladies.

As a result, in many cases, the disease isn’t properly diagnosed until it reaches an advanced stage and is difficult or impossible to treat.

The new biosensors could change that.

Researchers say this method of detection is possible because of various bio-chemical changes produced by someone who is ill; changes, they say, that are reflected in the patient’s exhaled breath.

A person’s breath is comprised of a hundreds of organic compounds such as acetone, methanol, butanol and hydrocarbons.

According to the researchers, while there isn’t a single specific component in an exhaled breath that can act as a marker to help provide a diagnosis, a range of biomarkers taken from a combination of compounds can be analyzed to do so.

Project researchers say the biosensors they’re developing will help doctors diagnose certain diseases, mainly lung related, at the earlier stages of  illness, which could considerably increase chances of patient survival.

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Are you attractive to mosquitoes?

Have you ever noticed that some people tend to get more mosquito bites than others?

This might actually be true because, according to a new study, researchers have found that microbes on your skin can determine just how attractive you are to mosquitoes.

These findings could have important implications for malaria transmission and prevention.

A person’s sweat is odorless to the human nose without bacteria, so the various microbes on the skin help produce an individual’s specific body odor.

Conducting experiments with a mosquito known for its role in the transmission of malaria, researchers found that those who have a higher quantity, but smaller assortment, of bacteria on their skin were more attractive to the mosquito.

From their findings, the researchers speculate people who have a greater assortment of skin bacteria may have among them a group of microbes that emits certain compounds which interfere with the normal attraction of mosquitoes, which could lead to developing more personalized methods for malaria prevention.

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Higgs Boson Mystery Could Be Solved Soon

An event with four identified muons from a proton-proton collision in ATLAS. This event is consistent with coming from two Z particles decaying: both Z particles decay to two muons each. Such events are produced by Standard Model processes without Higgs particles. They are also a possible signature for Higgs particle production, but many events must be analysed together in order to tell if there is a Higgs signal. This view is a zoom into the central part of the detector. The four muons are picked out as red tracks. Other tracks and deposits of energy in the calorimeters are shown in yellow. (Photo: ATLAS Collaboration)

An event with four identified muons from a proton-proton collision in ATLAS. Such events are produced by Standard Model processes without Higgs particles. They are also a possible signature for Higgs particle production, but many events must be analysed together in order to tell if there is a Higgs signal. - Click photo for larger version (Photo: ATLAS Collaboration)

A definitive answer on whether or not the so-called “God Particle”  exists could come in 2012, according to a scientist involved in solving the mystery.

The search for the subatomic particle called the Higgs boson went into overdrive in 2008, when the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN, in Switzerland switched on its sophisticated atom smasher called the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) .

Results of  the CERN experiments,  known as Atlas and CMS, were announced recently at a seminar.

Rumor was that the Higgs boson had finally been found.  Instead, the teams revealed they’d found tantalizing hints of where the Higgs boson may be found, if it exists at all.

Dr. Pierre Savard, associate professor of physics at the University of Toronto, is currently involved in the Atlas experiments to track down the elusive particle. He says that before each experimental team revealed its findings, neither knew the other’s results.

Once those results were revealed, it became clear both the Atlas and CMS experiments pointed to “a certain excess of events at a certain mass, and that the two sets of results were consistent with each other.”

Dr. Pierre Savard (Photo: University of Toronto)

Dr. Pierre Savard (Photo: University of Toronto)

One reason scientists hope to find the Higgs boson is because of the critical role it’s believed to play in physics;  as a building block of the universe.

The Standard Model of particle physics provides an explanation for sub-nuclear physics, and some aspects of cosmology in the earliest moments of the universe. In the standard model, it’s the Higgs boson that gives mass to all particles.

Despite the recent CERN findings, there are those who remain skeptical that while the Higgs boson may exist it will never be found, while others doubt its existence at all.

“The evidence is quite interesting, but it’s not completely convincing, so the conclusive evidence will come in 2012 if there is a Higgs boson,” Dr. Savard says. “But it’s possible that what we saw  was just a big statistical fluctuation and it’s not really there.”

If the Higgs boson is not found researchers would have to go back to the drawing board.  In effect, Dr. Savard says, no Higgs boson, no mass, no universe.

“So if the electron didn’t have a mass, for instance, we wouldn’t have hydrogen, wouldn’t have atoms and we wouldn’t be around.”

Without the Higgs boson, the current explanation within the Standard Model of how particles acquire mass is wrong.  On the other hand, Dr. Savard says, if the mysterious sub-atomic particle is found in the course of the ongoing experiments and the teams are able to confirm that it behaves like the Standard Model hypothesized, then the mechanism for giving particles mass would also be probably found.

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

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

Dr. Savard believes scientists are closing in on determining whether the Higgs boson is real.

“We’re quite close. The Large Hadron Collider is working very well, and right now it’s in a shut-down period for three months and we’ll start taking data in March.”

According to Dr. Savard, the important thing to emerge from the recent findings is that both the Atlas and CMS experiments have the sensitivity to make a conclusive determination of whether the Higgs boson is there or not, and that within six or nine months after the LHC goes back on line, the experiments should have a definite answer.

Dr. Pierre Savard joins us this weekend on the radio edition of “Science World.”  He’ll give us some insight into the search for the elusive Higgs boson. Tune in (see right column for scheduled times) or check out the interview below.

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

Science Scanner: Discovery Could Explain Color of Pluto

(Image: NASA/Caltech)

(Image: NASA/Caltech)

Researchers have found new evidence pointing to the possibility of complex hydrocarbon and/or nitrile molecules lying on the surface of Pluto.

Using the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph, which was installed aboard the Hubble Space Telescope in 2009, the researchers found a strong ultraviolet-wavelength absorber on the distant dwarf planet.

The researchers point out that such chemical species can be produced by the interaction of sunlight or cosmic rays with Pluto’s known surface ices, including methane, carbon monoxide and nitrogen.

Dr. Alan Stern, from the Southwest Research Institute, led the research and says, “This is an exciting finding because complex Plutonian hydrocarbons and other molecules that could be responsible for the ultraviolet spectral features we found with Hubble may, among other things, be responsible for giving Pluto its ruddy color.”

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More water may help grow hotter hot peppers

Researcher Leslie McGinnis peers through a "forest" of chili plants being grown in the University of Washington Botany Greenhouse.  (Photo: Haley Morris)

Adding a little extra water could be the secret to cranking up the heat in chili peppers.

Biologists have learned that chilies grown in the wild develop their pungency, or heat, as a defense against a fungus that could destroy their seeds.

For a study published this week in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, researchers wanted to find out why some chili peppers are hot and others are not. They found that hot chilies, which grow in dry areas, need a lot more water to produce as many seeds as their less-pungent relatives.

The seed killing fungus, called fusarium, is not as much of a threat in dryer climates. Consequently, hot peppers grown there tend not to be too hot.

However since the fusarium fungus thrives in wetter regions, the chilies grown under those conditions build up their supplies of capsaicin in self defense.

Capsaicin is the compound that produces the pepper’s hot and spicy sensations. The more capsaicin it develops, the hotter the pepper.

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Keeping blood pressure low in middle age prevents stroke and heart attacks later

Patient having blood pressure measured (Photo: National Cancer Institute/Linda Bartlett)

Patient having blood pressure measured (Photo: National Cancer Institute/Linda Bartlett)

A new study shows the importance of maintaining low blood pressure early in middle age to guard against heart disease later in life.

A jump in blood pressure during middle age can significantly increase your risk of having either a heart attack or a stroke in a lifetime, according to the study from the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

Researchers found both men and women, with high blood pressure in middle age, had about a 30 percent increased chance of having a cardiac incident, such as a heart attack or stroke, as compared to those who kept their blood pressure at lower levels.

Previous estimates of a person’s risk of cardiovascular disease were based on a single blood pressure measurement. The higher the blood pressure reading, the greater the risk.

The new study expands on that; it shows a more accurate predictor is a change in blood pressure from age 41 to 55.

“We found the longer we can prevent hypertension or postpone it, the lower the risk for cardiovascular disease,” says lead author Norrina Allen, assistant professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “Even for people with normal blood pressure, we want to make sure they keep it at that level, and it doesn’t start increasing over time.”

The study indicates that people who maintain or reduce their blood pressure to normal levels by 55 years of age have the lowest lifetime risk for a heart attack or a stroke.

>>> Read more…

Scientists develop self-healing electronic circuitry

Microcapsules full of liquid metal sit atop a gold circuit, rupture and fill circuit break (Graphic: by Scott White)

Microcapsules full of liquid metal sit atop a gold circuit, rupture and fill circuit break (Graphic: by Scott White)

A team of professors from the University of Illinois may have come up with a self-healing system which quickly restores electrical conductivity to a broken circuit.

When one little circuit, out of hundreds found within an integrated circuit chip, breaks or fails, the entire chip, perhaps the whole electronic device itself, is lost.

But, as electronic technology continues to grow and evolve, much more information and circuitry is being packed onto already sophisticated IC chips.

However, jamming more and more into these chips can also cause them to be unreliable, with failures that could stem from causes such as fluctuating temperature cycles as the device operates, or from mere fatigue.

To enable the self-healing functions on circuit boards, the research team used a system for self-healing polymer materials they had previously developed, adapting this technique for conductive systems.

Here’s how it works:  tiny microcapsules containing liquid metal, as small as 10 microns in diameter, are placed on top of a gold line that functions as a circuit. As a crack or break develops or grows, those microcapsules break open and then release the liquid metal which fills the gap in the circuit, restoring its electrical flow.

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Comet Survives Fiery Brush with Sun

Late last week  scientists witnessed something they wouldn’t have considered possible if they hadn’t seen it for themselves.

At about 7:00 p.m. EST on Thursday, Dec. 15, an icy comet flew right through the multimillion-degree atmosphere of the sun –  and survived fully intact.

As Comet Lovejoy passed through the solar corona, it came within approximately 140,000 kilometers of the sun’s surface.

Most scientific observers expected Lovejoy, which was first spotted on Dec. 2 2011, to be destroyed by the blazing heat. Instead, it survived, although it ended up much smaller after its close encounter with the sun.

The comet’s core was estimated to be about 500 meters in diameter before it plunged into the sun, which is what probably helped it survive the solar heat.

This coronagraph image from the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory shows Comet Lovejoy receding from the sun after its close encounter. The horizontal lines through the comet's nucleus are digital artifacts caused by saturation of the detector; Lovejoy is that bright! Click on image to view animated version. (Image: NASA)

This coronagraph image from the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory shows Comet Lovejoy receding from the sun after its close encounter.  Click on image to view animated version. (Image: NASA)

The comet’s journey was observed by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) and twin STEREO probes, Europe’s Proba2 microsatellite, and the ESA/NASA Solar and Heliospheric Observatory – all spacecraft which help keep track of the goings-on of the sun.

Of all of the images captured of the event,  NASA’s footage is among the most compelling. The SDO caught Comet Lovejoy entering the sun’s scorching atmosphere and then coming back out again.

Although the comet did remain intact after its encounter with the sun, scientist Karl Battams of the Naval Research Lab in Washington, D.C.,  says Lovejoy’s days could be numbered.

“There is still a possibility that Comet Lovejoy will start to fragment. It’s been through a tremendously traumatic event. Structurally, it could be extremely weak. On the other hand, it could hold itself together and disappear back into the recesses of the solar system.”

Clues to Life on Mars Found on Earth

Microbes from within this lava tube on Newberry Crater in Oregon were cultured under conditions like those on Mars. (photo by Amy Smith, Oregon State University)

Microbes found in this lava tube on Newberry Crater in Oregon were cultured under conditions similar to those on Mars. (Amy Smith, Oregon State University)

Scientists think they’ve uncovered clues to what life might exist on Mars – from a discovery made right here on Earth.

The team from Oregon State University collected microbes from ice within a lava tube found in the Cascade Mountains in America’s Northwest.

They found the little life forms not only live, but can actually thrive in cold, Mars-like conditions.

Study author Martin Fisk points out that, since temperatures on Mars hardly reach the freezing point, the levels of oxygen levels are lower and liquid water is not present on its surface, the conditions in the lava tubes aren’t as harsh as they are on Mars, though “water is hypothesized to be present in the warmer subsurface of Mars.”

“Although this study does not exactly duplicate what you would find on Mars, it does show that bacteria can live in similar conditions,” Fisk says.

His team found that the microbes’ metabolism, under the Mars-like conduction, is driven by the oxidation of iron from a volcanic mineral called olivine, which was found in the rocks of the lava tube. Olivine is also found on Mars.

In their search for microbes, Amy Smith and Radu Popa collect samples of ice with basalt chips containing olivine from a lava tube in Oregon 's Cascade Mountains. (photo by Jane Boone)

In their search for microbes, Amy Smith and Radu Popa collect samples of ice with basalt chips containing olivine from a lava tube in Oregon 's Cascade Mountains. (Jane Boone)

When the microbes were placed in a laboratory setting at room temperature with normal oxygen levels, they consumed organic material (sugar) the same way other Earth creatures do.

However, when the researchers took away that organic material, dropped the room temperature to near-freezing and lowered the oxygen levels, they noticed the microbes began to use the iron within olivine as a source of energy.

Within the lava tube, where they’re covered in ice and isolated from the atmosphere, the microbes out-compete oxygen for the iron.

Fisk adds, “We know from direct examination, as well as satellite imagery, that olivine is in Martian rocks, and now we know that olivine can sustain microbial life.”

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

Science Scanner: Zeroing in on Elusive ‘God Particle’

Peter Higgs is best known for his theory explaining the origin of mass of elementary particles in general and the Higgs Boson in particular. (Photo: Gert-Martin Greuel via Wikipedia Commons)

Peter Higgs is best known for his theory explaining the origin of mass of elementary particles in general and the Higgs boson in particular. (Photo: Gert-Martin Greuel via Wikipedia Commons)

Scientists might be zeroing in on just where the Higgs boson – the hypothetical sub-atomic particle believed to be a building block of the universe – may be hiding.

Many expected CERN scientists to announce the discovery of the mysterious Higgs boson at a  Dec. 13 seminar.  Observers didn’t hear what they had hoped to hear. Instead they were told that, while scientists are seeing hints of the Higgs boson, they haven’t actually found it yet.

The status of two experiments (Atlas and CMS)  – tasked with finding the Higgs boson, if it exists – was announced at CERN headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland Tuesday.

The results so far indicate that, while they’ve made significant progress in the search for the hypothetical sub-atomic particle, they haven’t found enough evidence to conclusively rule whether or not Higgs exists.

While tantalizing hints have been seen in both experiments, they’re not strong enough to claim a discovery.

CERN says the analysis of both experiments will be refined in the coming months.

However, a definitive statement on the existence or non-existence of the Higgs will require more data, and is not likely until later in 2012.

>>> Read more…

NASA plans to harpoon streaking comet

NASA scientists want to get a sample of a speeding comet as it makes its way through the inner solar system.

To get their sample, the researchers plan to send a spacecraft to rendezvous with a comet, then fire a harpoon which would take rapid samples with surgical precision from specific locations, all while hovering above the target.

Using, what they call, the “standoff” technique would allow scientists to gather samples even from areas that are too rugged or dangerous to permit the landing and safe operation of a spacecraft.

“One of the most inspiring reasons to go through the trouble and expense of collecting a comet sample is to get a look at the ‘primordial ooze’ – biomolecules in comets that may have assisted the origin of life,” said NASA Goddard‘s Donald Wegel, the lead engineer on the project.

Comets are frozen chunks of ice and dust left over from the formation of our Solar System. As such, the scientists want to take a closer look for clues to the origin of planets and ultimately, ourselves.

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Was Darwin wrong about emotions?

(Image artist: Simon alias Sympho via Wikipedia Commons)

(Image artist: Simon alias Sympho via Wikipedia Commons)

Researchers in Massachusetts are studying the link between emotions and facial expressions.

According to their research,  people don’t all have the same set of biologically basic emotions.

And those emotions are not automatically expressed on the faces of those around us, contrary to what many psychological scientists think today.

A commonly-held belief by scientists is that certain facial expressions have evolved over time to express certain mental states and prepare our bodies to react in certain ways to certain situations.

For example, there’s the belief that widening your eyes when you’re scared might help you take in more information about the scene, while at the same time signaling  to people around you that something dangerous is happening.

But lead author Lisa Feldman,  of Northeastern University, says expressions are not inborn emotional signals that are automatically expressed on the face.

The theory that emotional expressions evolved for specific functions is normally attributed to Charles Darwin, in his book “The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.”

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Cholesterol-reducing drugs may do more

Cholesterol-lowering drugs called statins not only lower cholesterol levels, but also promote the breakdown of plaque in the arteries, according to researchers at New York University’s Langone Medical Center.

That gives hope to people with atherosclerosis, also called hardening of the arteries.

Up until this study, the researchers say that it was not fully understood how these statin medications could reduce atherosclerosis, which is the accumulation of fat and cholesterol in the bloodstream which eventually hardens into plaque in the arteries.

In time, plaque builds up along the walls of the arteries, causing them to narrow, reducing the blood flow.  Blood clots can then form, or bits of the plaque can break off, causing blockages in the vessels which can lead to a potentially fatal heart attack or stroke.

Dr. Edward Fisher, co-author of the study, says, “Our new research shows statins actually promote the regression of atherosclerosis by altering the expression of a specific cell surface receptor within plaque cells. This molecular phenomenon helps dissolve plaque by expelling coronary artery disease-causing cells from the plaque lining the arteries.”

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Walking Fish Puts Chink in Evolution Chain

The African lungfish (Protopterus annectens) displays primitive walking behaviors in controlled conditions. (Photo: Yen-Chyi Liu/University of Chicago)

The African lungfish displays primitive walking behaviors in controlled conditions. (Photo: Yen-Chyi Liu/University of Chicago)

When you look at an African lungfish, you see an aquatic animal with an eel-like body and what appear to be small, scrawny limbs, which are actually pelvic fins.

A new study suggests this creature could up-end what we thought we knew about the evolution of life on Earth as it made its way from water to land.

After extensive video analysis,  University of Chicago researchers found the African Lungfish uses its pelvic fins to lift itself off the surface and propel itself forward. Before now,  scientists believed these abilities originated in the early species of tetrapods – creatures with four feet who appeared on Earth later than the lungfish’s ancestors.

The researchers think their observations will reshuffle our understanding of the order of evolutionary events that led up to creatures adapting to life on land. Fossil tracks thought to be the work of early tetrapods species could have instead been produced by lobe-finned ancestors of the lungfish.

The study’s lead author,  graduate student Heather King, and her colleagues designed and built a special tank to study and videotape the lungfish from the side and below for in-depth analysis. They chose to videotape and observe the lungfish in action, because if they only looked at the bones, as one would with a fossil, it might not be apparent the animals could have the ability of locomotion.

The African lungfish (Protopterus annectens) displays primitive walking behavior in controlled studies. (Photo: Yen-Chyi Liu/University of Chicago)

Researchers found the African Lungfish uses its pelvic fins to lift itself off the surface and propel itself forward. (Photo: Yen-Chyi Liu/University of Chicago)

The researchers reported the lungfish demonstrated both “bounding” motions, where both limbs moved at the same time, and “walking,”  with the fish alternating use of its limbs to move forward.

These behaviors, along with  the ability to fully rotate its limb and to place each subsequent footfall in front of the joint, suggest to researchers that similar creatures, perhaps ancestors of the lungfish, would have been capable of producing some of the fossil tracks credited to tetrapods.

The group says its discovery suggests that many of the developments necessary for animals to make the transition from water to land may have taken place long before early tetrapods were able to take their first steps on land.

They believe the lobe-finned ancestors of the lungfish, as well as tetrapods, could be responsible for the evolution of hind-limb propulsion and the ability to walk at the bottom of a lake or marsh millions of years before the appearance of  land-dwelling animals.

Human-like Life Could Exist on Newly-discovered Planet

This artist's conception illustrates Kepler-22b, a planet known to comfortably circle in the habitable zone of a sun-like star. (Image: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech)

Artist's conception of Kepler-22b, a planet which circles a sun-like star. (Image: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech)

A newly-discovered Earth-like planet could very well contain continental features where normal human-like life could exist. Or it  could be more of a water world with an ocean containing life forms similar to dolphins.

That’s according to Dr. Alan Boss, of the Carnegie Institution for Science, one of the researchers involved in  discovering the new planet.

This past Monday, NASA announced that its Kepler space telescope confirmed the first planet orbiting a star in its “habitable zone,” the region where liquid water could exist on a planet’s surface.

Some scientists described this planet, known as Kepler 22B, as “Earth-like” with a star similar to our sun.

Located some 600 light-years away, Kepler 22B is about 2.4 times the radius of Earth.  And while scientists don’t yet exactly know if the planet is predominantly rocky, gaseous or liquid composition, its discovery has excited  scientists who now say we’re now one step closer to finding other Earth-like planets throughout the cosmos.

If it is truly made of rock, as some speculate, Dr. Boss says it might look something like our own Earth with probably a fair amount of water on it as well.

This diagram compares our own solar system to Kepler-22, a star system containing the first "habitable zone" planet discovered by NASA's Kepler mission. (Image: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech)

While Kepler 22B is larger than Earth, its orbit of 290 days around a sun-like star resembles that of our world.  The planet’s host star belongs to the same class as our sun, called G-type, although it is slightly smaller and cooler.

Because of it star’s cooler attributes, Kepler 22B’s orbit is much closer to it in order to be habitable.  Dr. Boss says, with an atmosphere similar to ours, Kepler 22B’s surface temperature would be close to 72 degrees Fahrenheit, like a “rather pleasant day on Earth, a nice spring day.”

Dr. Boss credits the 2009 launch of NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope with the discovery.  He calls Kepler, “NASA’s most important mission to try to find planets around other stars.”

The Kepler mission does this by staring at a field of 150,000 stars – in the constellations of Cygnus and Lyra – and watching to see if any of those stars “blink”.

According to Dr. Boss, if the telescope finds a star blinking repetitively, it can sometimes be inferred that there is something passing in front of it, such as a planet orbiting around the star.

Artist's concept of the Kepler Space Telescope in space (Image: Dana Berry-NASA/Kepler Mission)

Artist's concept of the Kepler Space Telescope in space (Image: Dana Berry-NASA/Kepler Mission)

Boss says this  dimming of the star can be hard to detect, which is why observations must be made from space rather than from an Earth observatory.

The Kepler team has identified 48 other planet candidates, which can be found in their star’s habitable zone.  Further investigation needs to be done before any can actually be confirmed discoveries.

Dr. Boss joins us this weekend on the radio edition of “Science World.”  He gives us an insider’s view of  the remarkable discovery, as well as the search for habitable alien worlds. Tune in (see right column for scheduled times) or check out the interview below.

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Watch NASA’s Kepler Mission Announces Latest Planetary Discovery

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

Science Scanner: NASA Telescope Spots Earth-like Planet

This artist's conception illustrates Kepler-22b, an earth-like planet known to comfortably circle in the habitable zone of a sun-like star. (Image: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech)

This artist's conception illustrates Kepler-22b, an Earth-like planet known to comfortably circle in the habitable zone of a sun-like star. (Image: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech)

The scientific community is buzzing after news broke that NASA’s Kepler telescope has honed in on the most Earth-like planet ever seen outside our solar system.

The findings suggest it could be a large, rocky planet with a surface temperature of about 72 degrees Fahrenheit, comparable to a comfortable spring day on Earth.

It is the first planet that NASA’s Kepler mission has confirmed orbits in a star’s habitable zone – the region around a star where liquid water, a requirement for life on Earth, could exist.

The star the earth-like planet orbits is about 600 light-years away from us toward the constellations of Lyra and Cygnus. The planet – dubbed Kepler-22b – orbits its star over a period of 290 days, compared to 365 days for Earth, at a distance about 15 percent closer than the Earth is to the sun. That explains why the planet has such a warm temperature.

More on this fascinating find when we  talk with Dr. Alan Boss, one of the researchers on NASA’s Kepler project, this Friday on the blog and also on this weekend’s radio edition of “Science World.”

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Vampire star feeds on its neighbor

Vampire double star system SS Leporis The system consists of a red giant star orbiting a hotter companion. Note that the stars have been artificially colored to match their known temperatures. (Photo: ESO/PIONIER/IPAG)

Vampire double star system SS Leporis. The stars have been artificially colored to match their known temperatures. (Photo: ESO/PIONIER/IPAG)

No, it’s not another installment of the Twilight series.

However, astronomers  do say they’ve gotten the best images ever of a star which lost most of its material to a nearby vampire star.

The star system, observed by the astronomers at the European Southern Observatory’s Paranal Observatory, is called Leporis. It contains two stars – one hot, the other cool – which orbit each other over a 260-day period.

Located in the constellation of Lepus, the stars are just a bit further apart than the sun is from Earth.  Scientists say that proximity between the two stars explains why the hot companion has sucked up about half the mass of the larger star.

And it’s not as violent a process as one might think. The new images suggest the transfer of mass from one star to the other is gentler than expected. The astronomers think matter from the giant star expels as a stellar wind, which is captured by the hotter companion, rather than streaming from one star to the other as previously thought.

The astronomers were able to render their images by combining the light captured by four telescopes to create a virtual telescope measuring 130 meters across, with a vision that’s 50 times sharper than the Hubble Space Telescope.

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There’s nothing like a mother’s touch

(Photo: Ojie Paloma Photograph via Flickr)

(Photo: Ojie Paloma Photograph via Flickr)

A study of rats suggests attentive and nurturing mothering permanently alters genetic activity in the brain, leaving young rats better able to resist the temptation of drugs later in life.

According to the researchers at Duke University and the University of Adelaide in Australia, a rat mother’s attention to her young during early childhood changes the immune response in her pups’ brains by permanently altering genetic activity.

They found  high-touch mothering caused an increase in the brain’s production of an immune-system molecule called Interleukin-10, which left these rats better able to resist the temptation of a dose of morphine much later in life.

Researchers found that the rat pups who experienced high-touch mothering were found to have more active genes for producing the Interleuken-10 in their brains, which apparently knocks out drug-seeking behavior.

“The nurturing moms can profoundly change outcomes,” says Staci Bilbo, an assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke, who led the research.

Next, the team wants to look at the long-term effects of maternal stress on the brain’s immune response.

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Fight against malaria gets tougher

Micrograph reveals a mature Plasmodium vivax trophozoite (Photo: US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

Micrograph reveals a mature Plasmodium vivax trophozoite (Photo: US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

A newly unveiled global malaria map is the first to identify where – in large parts of South Asia and some part of Latin America – a long-lasting and a potentially-deadly form of malaria has established a strong foothold.

The map’s makers say malaria caused by the vivax parasite has become endemic and that its transmission is significant in many parts of the world.

The researchers also characterize the current tools to fight this type of malaria as ineffective to non-existent.

The vivax parasite, while not as deadly as the Plasmodium falciparum – the malaria parasite that is predominant in Africa – is more common throughout the world, with 2.85 billion people estimated to be at risk of infection.

To make matters worse the vivax parasite is harder to detect and cure because it has the ability to cause relapse by hiding in the liver for months or even years.

>>> Read more…