Science Scanner: Discovery Could Explain Color of Pluto

Posted December 21st, 2011 at 11:34 pm (UTC-4)

(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.

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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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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.

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