Science World

NASA Gears Up for Intensified Solar Activity

Last week, a massive solar flare on the sun produced one of the strongest radiation storms Earth has experienced since May 2005.

As a result, airlines were forced to reroute some flights that usually cross over the Polar regions. Many parts of the world, which usually can’t see the aurorae produced over the North and South Poles, were treated to a spectacular light show.

Last week’s events could be a sign of things to come as the sun moves toward its solar maximum, the period in which it experiences its greatest amount of activity. The sun goes through an approximately 11-year cycle that takes it from a period of relative calm to a state of agitation.

A comparison of three images over four years apart illustrates how the level of solar activity has risen from near minimum to near maximum in the Sun's 11-years solar cycle. (Images: SOHO (ESA & NASA))

These three images taken over four years illustrate how the level of solar activity has risen from near minimum to near maximum in the sun's 11-year solar cycle. (Images: SOHO (ESA & NASA))

The solar maximum is expected to peak sometime next year, in 2013.   In 2003, during its last period of intense activity, the sun produced the largest and most powerful solar flare ever observed, up to that point, which was measured by modern methods.

This time, as the sun reaches its period of greatest turmoil, experts at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center will be ready with new tools.

These tools will help them measure solar activity, giving space weather forecasters greatly enhanced forecasting capability.

Right now, forecasters work with only one set of parameters with data that is taken from near real-time information gathered by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), the Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory (STEREO), and the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO), among others.

But NASA officials point out that they have no assurance of receiving continuous real-time data stream from these observatories.

Chief space weather forecasters Yihua Zheng and Antti Pulkkinen are helping to implement a computer technique — ensemble forecasting — that will improve NASA’s ability to predict the path and impact of severe solar storms. (Photo: NASA/Chris Gunn)

Chief space weather forecasters Yihua Zheng and Antti Pulkkinen help implement ensemble forecasting, which will improve NASA’s ability to predict the path and impact of severe solar storms. (Photo: NASA/Chris Gunn)

Forecasting by the Space Weather Laboratory could be further hindered by imperfections in the data they do receive. Those imperfections tend to grow over time, all of which can lead to forecasts that may not necessarily agree with the progression of actual conditions.

Utilizing “ensemble forecasting,” a computer technique meteorologists use to predict weather on Earth, NASA’s space weather forecasters will be able to concurrently create up to 100 computerized forecasts instead of analyzing that one set of solar weather conditions as they do now.

These multiple computerized solar weather forecasts, made by calculating a number of possible conditions, allow forecasters to quickly and accurately provide alerts of space weather storms that could, for example, be potentially harmful to astronauts and NASA spacecraft.

Since the new computer systems have already been installed at the Space Weather Lab, NASA hopes its space weather scientists will be able to generate more specialized forecasts.

This state-of-the-art space weather forecasting capability, according to NASA, is expected to be completed within three years.

Stroke, Heart Attack Risk Greater Than Thought

(Photo: photos.com)

(Photo: photos.com)

If you think the odds of having a heart attack or stroke in your lifetime are low, you could be kidding yourself.

A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine reveals some sobering statistics.

Even if you are at low risk of having a cardiac incident in the short term, having one or two risk factors – such as high blood pressure or smoking – still might put you at high  risk of  heart attack or stroke over the long term, when you’re much older.

Other risk factors for cardiovascular disease include  high cholesterol levels and diabetes.

According to the study, if you have any two of these risk factors at middle age (approximately 45 years of age) the chances you’ll have a major heart attack or stroke some time in your remaining lifetime are a whopping 50 percent!

But, if you take good care of yourself and make it to that age with none of those risk factors or have them under control, then your chance of having a cardiac incident is down to 1.4 percent, meaning that you could live five to 10 years longer than those with a risk factor or two.  And that’s regardless of your age, sex, or the decade you were born in.

Keeping blood pressure under control can help lowering the risk of having a heart attack or stroke (Photo: Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine)

Keeping blood pressure under control can help lowering the risk of having a heart attack or stroke (Photo: Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine)

As part of the Cardiovascular Lifetime Risk Pooling Project, this study looks at white and African-American men and women. It follows more than 250,000 participants from 18 different groups of people living in the community over a period of more than 50 years.

The risk factors for each of the participants were measured at ages 45, 55, 65 and 75 years.

Dr. Donald Lloyd-Jones , chair and associate professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, heads up the study.

He says the key to keeping your chances of having a heart attack or stroke low is maintaining an optimal risk factor profile.  Dr. Lloyd-Jones considers a risk-factor profile to be optimal when you keep a total cholesterol level of less than 180 milligrams per deciliter, have an untreated blood pressure of less than 120 over less than 80,  and don’t smoke or have diabetes.

Dr. Donald Lloyd-Jones (Photo: Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine)

Dr. Donald Lloyd-Jones (Photo: Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine)

Even if you have just one small increase in a risk factor, such as a bump up in your cholesterol levels or blood pressure, Dr. Lloyd-Jones points out you can go from having an optimal risk factor profile to one that isn’t optimal, increasing your risk of having a heart attack or stroke.

According to Dr. Lloyd-Jones, doctors usually calculate a patient’s risk of cardiovascular disease about 10 years into the future.

“We are giving incomplete and misleading risk information if we only focus on the next 10 years of someone’s life,” he says.  “With even just one risk factor, the likelihood is very large that someone will develop a major cardiovascular event that will kill them or substantially diminish their quality of life or health.”

Cardiovascular disease, Dr. Lloyd-Jones points out, doesn’t only kill people, it alters people’s lives dramatically and tremendously affects a person’s quality of life, particularly after a stroke.

If you’re a young adult, Dr. Lloyd-Jones stresses the importance of maintaining a lifestyle that will help you keep those risk factors down, lessening your chance of developing cardiovascular disease during your life.

(Photo: Q Family via Flickr)

If you're a smoker, quitting will also help reduce your risks of a cardiac event (Photo: Q Family via Flickr)

But, if you’re already into middle-age and do have some of the risk factors, Dr. Lloyd Jones says that it’s never too late to reduce your elevated risk.

He says it’s “critically important” to see your doctor, watch your cholesterol levels and blood pressure and keep them under control as best as you can.  To help control some of these risk factors, he says that a large number of clinical trials have shown there are extremely effective medications, especially those that target cholesterol and high blood pressure.

Dr. Lloyd-Jones says if your doctor prescribes any of these medications, you can reduce the risks of having a heart attack or stroke from 30 to 50 percent if you take them regularly and as prescribed and you maintain a healthy lifestyle.

The best way to keep cardiovascular disease risks under control, Dr. Lloyd-Jones advises, is that you do everything you can to prevent the development of the risk factors in the first place.

Dr. Donald Lloyd-Jones shares some of the eye-opening findings of this study  on this weekend’s radio edition of Science World.  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: Dispute Over Life on Venus

Image of the surface of Venus taken by the space probe, Venera 13 (L. Ksanfomaliti-Solar System Research)

Image of the surface of Venus taken by the space probe, Venera 13 (Photo: L. Ksanfomaliti-Solar System Research)

A renowned Russian astronomer drew lots of attention after claiming there is life on Venus.

Leonid Ksanfomaliti, of the Russian Academy of Sciences, analyzed photos made by Venera-13, a Soviet-era space probe that explored Venus.

According to Ksanfomaliti, the photos showed objects – which looked like a disk, black flap and scorpion – that appeared to “emerge, fluctuate and disappear.”

This indicated, he said, that these objects had changed locations on the photos and traces on the ground.

But Ksanfomaliti’s claims are refuted by a number of experts including Jonathon Hill, a researcher and mission planner, who processes many of the images taken during NASA’s Mars missions.

Hill told an online journal his examination of higher-resolution versions of the Venera-13 photos determined one of the objects identified by Ksanfomaliti is not a living creature, but rather a mechanical component.

He points out the very same object also appeared in a photograph that was taken by an identical Venusian landing probe, the Venera-14.  One of the other objects was determined to be nothing more than processed noise.

>>> Read more…

Oldest dinosaur nest found

Close-up of embryonic skeleton of Massospondylus from clutch of eggs at the nesting site (Photo: D. Scott)

Close-up of embryonic skeleton of Massospondylus from clutch of eggs at the nesting site (Photo: D. Scott)

Scientists excavating in South Africa say they’ve discovered the oldest dinosaur nesting site ever found.

It is 190 million years old and belongs to the prosauropod dinosaur Massospondylus.

The researchers say the discovery reveals significant clues about the evolution of complex reproductive behavior in early dinosaurs.

The scientists found clutches of eggs, many with embryos, as well as tiny dinosaur footprints, which they say is the oldest known evidence showing that dinosaur hatchlings remained at their nesting site long enough to at least double in size.

The dinosaur nesting ground is believed to be more than 100 million years older than previously known nesting sites.

>>> Read more…

Saliva HIV test shown to be as accurate as standard blood test

OraQuick ADVANCE® Rapid HIV-1/2 Antibody Test (Photo: OraSure Technologies)

OraQuick ADVANCE® Rapid HIV-1/2 Antibody Test (Photo: OraSure Technologies)

A saliva test is as accurate as traditional blood tests when testing for HIV, according to a new study.

Scientists in Canada analyzed data from five worldwide databases and found the saliva HIV test, OraQuick HIV1/2, had the same accuracy as the blood test for high-risk populations.

The researchers found the saliva test is 99 percent accurate for HIV in high risk populations, and about 97 percent in low risk populations.

The oral HIV test has become popular for a number of reasons, including its acceptability and ease of use.  The test is also non-invasive, pain-free, convenient and provides test results within 20 minutes.

“Getting people to show up for HIV testing at public clinics has been difficult because of visibility, stigma, lack of privacy and discrimination,” says study lead author Dr. Nikita Pant Pai. “A confidential testing option such as self-testing could bring an end to the stigmatization associated with HIV testing.”

>>> Read more

Scientists observe scorpions to learn how to protect machine parts

Androctonus australis - Yellow fattail scorpion (Photo: Creative Commons)

Androctonus australis - Yellow fattail scorpion (Photo: Creative Commons)

Scientists looking for ways to protect a machine’s moving parts from wear and tear looked to the yellow fattail scorpion for inspiration.

This scorpion uses its bionic shield to protect itself from scratches caused by desert sandstorms.

The researchers examined bumps and grooves found on the scorpions’ backs, scanned the arachnids with a 3D laser device, and developed a special computer program simulating the movement of sand-filled air over the scorpions.

The tools allowed researchers to create a computer model that helped them to develop a number of patterned surfaces to test. The team tested these surfaces by conducting erosion tests on them.

They found that a series of small grooves, cut at a 30-degree angle, gave steel surfaces the best protection from erosion, which they say is a key cause of material damage and equipment failure.

>>> Read more…

Large amount of fresh water found in Arctic Ocean

Map of the Arctic Ocean

Map of the Arctic Ocean (Image: US Geological Survey)

A large dome of fresh water that’s been building up in the Arctic Ocean over the last 15 years has the potential to impact weather patterns.

English researchers say a change in wind direction could cause this water to spill into the north Atlantic, which in turn would cool Europe.

In a study published in Nature Geoscience, researchers report this fresh-water dome may have been created by strong Arctic winds, which sped up a large ocean circulation known as the Beaufort Gyre, causing the surface of the sea to bulge out.

The researchers say a change in wind direction would allow the fresh water to flow into the remainder of the Arctic Ocean, possibly reaching the north Atlantic.

If this happens, the researchers say a crucial ocean current which originates from the Gulf Stream, could be slowed.

That would then cool Europe.  This current usually helps maintain relatively-mild conditions on the continent compared to other parts of the world located at similar latitudes.

Katharine Giles, the lead author of the study says, “Our next step is to look into how changes in the sea ice cover might affect the coupling between the atmosphere and the ocean in more detail to see if we can confirm this idea.”

>>> Read more…

Effects of Solar Radiation Storm Headed for Earth

The sun is producing the strongest solar radiation storm since May 2005, according to NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center.

NASA says it’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) observed the huge M8.7-class solar flare that erupted late on Sunday, Jan. 22 and peaked today, Jan. 23 at around 0400 UTC.

Now heading for Earth, the Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) produced by the solar flare is expected to get here tomorrow, Jan. 24. at around 1400 UTC.

As a result, NOAA has issued a Geomagnetic Storm Watch. The storm is expected to continue into Wednesday, Jan. 25.

Space weather models at NASA’s Goddard Space Weather Center show the CME is moving at almost 1,400 miles per second.

NASA says this CME could provide skywatchers with spectacular views of the aurora.  Normally, those who live closest to the magnetic north and south poles can observe the aurora.

However, with this storm, those who live further south of the magnetic north pole, or  further north of the magnetic south pole, may be able to enjoy the display.

While the Earth’s magnetosphere should protect us from most of the effects of the CME, it does have the potential to cause havoc with terrestrial and satellite communications equipment.

CME’s have also been known to overload power grids, triggering wide-spread power outages.

Less Sleeps Makes You More Hungry

(Photo: Mitchell Bartlett via Flickr)

(Photo: Mitchell Bartlett via Flickr)

Bad sleeping habits can make you hungrier, increasing your risk of becoming overweight, according to Swedish researchers.

The new study reveals a brain region associated with appetite becomes more active in those who haven’t slept all night as compared to those who had a normal night’s sleep.

Previous to this study, the researchers discovered young men of normal weight had less energy and increased levels of hunger after a lost night’s sleep. They say that shows  lack of sleep affects a person’s perception of food.

For this study, researchers used magnetic imaging (MRI) to analyze the brains of 12 normal-weight males while they viewed images of foods – first after a normal night’s sleep, and then after a night without sleep.

“After a night of total sleep loss, these males showed a high level of activation in an area of the brain that is involved in a desire to eat,” says Christian Benedict, one of the lead researchers. “Bearing in mind that insufficient sleep is a growing problem in modern society, our results may explain why poor sleep habits can affect people’s risk to gain weight in the long run. It may therefore be important to sleep about eight hours every night to maintain a stable and healthy body weight.”

(Photo: Bernard Wee via Flickr)

(Photo: Bernard Wee via Flickr)

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has called sleep deprivation a public health epidemic. Lack of sleep has been linked to potentially life threatening incidents like car crashes, and industrial accidents and also more likely to suffer from chronic diseases such as hypertension, diabetes, depression, as well as from cancer.

Some of the common causes of sleep deprivation include stress, diet and lifestyle.

For a good night’s sleep, you already know it’s not a good idea to ingest caffeine or alcohol close to bedtime.  But doctors also point to other causes of sleep loss, such as illness, work schedule, responsibilities at home, medication, an uncomfortable sleep environment or having any kind of sleep disorder such as sleep apnea.

Scientists Sucessfully Hide Moment in Time

(Photo: Kate Ter Haar via Flickr)

(Photo: Kate Ter Haar via Flickr)

Scientists have managed to create a hole in time, making it appear as if an event never happened at all.

It’s not quite Harry Potter’s cloak of invisibility, but researchers at Cornell University demonstrated time cloaking was possible, if only for a fraction of a second.

They managed the feat by creating what they call a temporal – or time related – cloak.

Now, before you surmise science has finally uncovered the secrets of the space-time continuum – and that we may one day edit or eliminate bits and pieces of time – I should tell you this accomplishment was made with a sort-of “trick of the light.”  The experiment dealt with the transport of information by a beam of light.

Dr. Alexander Gaeta, a physics and engineering professor, and his colleagues, developed this temporal cloak by creating a gap in the movement of a beam of light.

The object or event they wanted to hide occurred during that gap. The scientists then put the beam back together again without the gap, effectively hiding the object or event.

Gaeta and his team developed  a time lens, which controls and focuses signals in time, similar to the way a typical optical lens focuses light in space.

With this time lens, the researchers first split the light in time into two parts. Then, by manipulating the wavelength of each beam of light,  they sped up one part while slowing down the other. That created the gap in the beam of light.

Anything that took place during that gap – which the light beam would normally interact with –  was hidden or masked.

Afterward, the two beams of light were reassembled back into one.  This was done by speeding up the part that was slowed to create the gap and slowing down the part that was sped up.

The reassembled beam of light doesn’t show any trace of the gap, and no evidence of the hidden object or that the event took place.

So far, the amount of time Gaeta and his team can mask is incredibly small, clocking in at just 40 trillionths of a second.

As far as future practical applications, Gaeta sees it being quite useful in data transmission.  For example, if you needed to put in an emergency message within the data stream of a modern telephone transmission, you could create this gap, put in your emergency message, transmit it, take it back out and then put the data stream back together without ever interrupting or disturbing it.

Meanwhile Gaeta and his team continue their experiments, hoping to expand the amount of cloaking time and finding new practical ways in which this technology can be applied.

The research was partly funded by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA), which is responsible for the development of new technology for use by the military.

This weekend on the radio edition of “Science World,” Dr. Gaeta tells us more about his latest efforts to mask time. 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: Did US Radar Bring Down Russian Probe?

Nov. 9, 2011 file photo, the Zenit-2SB rocket with the Phobos-Ground probe blasts off from its launch pad at the Cosmodrome Baikonur, Kazakhstan.  (Photo: AP)

Nov. 9, 2011 The Zenit-2SB rocket with the Phobos-Ground probe blasts off from its launch pad in Kazakhstan. (AP)

Did powerful radar signals from the United States bring down a Russian Mars moon probe?

Russian scientists will examine whether a U.S. radar station transmitted radar signals which inadvertently interfered with the Phobos-Ground probe that recently fell back to Earth.

Experts say the assertion is far-fetched.

NASA says the military radar equipment in question wasn’t operating at the time of the Russian equipment failure.

According to spokesman Bob Jacobs, the space agency was using radar in the Mojave Desert in the western United States and in Puerto Rico.

The Phobos-Ground space probe, which launched aboard the Zenit-2SB rocket in November, was stuck in Earth’s orbit for two months before it crashed into the Pacific Ocean near Chile’s west coast on Sunday.

Officials leading the Russian government probe into the failure say their experiments should help prove or dismiss the possibility of the radar’s impact.

However, some U.S. experts have suggested the Russians should look for causes of the failure closer to home.

>>> Read more…

Headphones put pedestrians in danger

(Photo: Ed Yourdon via Flickr)

(Photo: Ed Yourdon via Flickr)

It’s easy to get lost in your own little world when your earphones are plugged into an MP3 player, playing your favorite tunes.

But, if you’re out walking, jamming to music and not paying attention to your surroundings, you could find yourself in serious trouble, according to newly released research.

With the music cranked up and your earphones blocking out most outside sound, you might not hear the cars, trucks, trains and other dangers that surround you.

A new study finds serious injuries to pedestrians wearing headphones – especially teens and young adult males – have more than tripled in six years.

In many cases, the moving vehicles sounded their horns, but the earphone-wearing pedestrians couldn’t hear them, which led to fatalities in nearly three-quarters of cases.

“Everybody is aware of the risk of cell phones and texting in automobiles, but I see more and more teens distracted with the latest devices and headphones in their ears,” say study lead author Dr. Richard Lichenstein, of the University of Maryland School of Medicine and University of Maryland Medical Center. “Unfortunately, as we make more and more enticing devices, the risk of injury from distraction and blocking out other sounds increases.”

The researchers hope that the results of this study will alert people to the dangers of earphone-related accidents as well as how they can be prevented.

>>> Read more…

Measuring the last light of the Big Bang

Artist's impression of the Planck spacecraft. (Photo: ESA)

Artist's impression of the Planck spacecraft. (Photo: ESA)

This past Saturday, the European Space Agency’s Planck mission finished its survey of the remnants of the Big Bang, although the first results from that survey won’t be available for about a year.

According to the Big Bang Theory, the universe was created following a massive explosion about 13.7 billion years ago.

A half-million years later, the fireball created by the Big Bang cooled down to temperatures of about 4000ºC filling the sky with bright, visible light.

Scientists explain that, as the universe continues to expand, that light has dimmed to a point where it can only be measured in microwave wavelengths.

Using the instruments aboard the Planck spacecraft, launched in May 2009, ESA scientists are studying various patterns that were imprinted in the light left by the Big Bang. They hope it will help them understand the very beginnings of our universe, long before galaxies and stars were first formed.

The results of this survey are widely anticipated by scientists. ESA will release the data in two stages; the first 15.5 months’ worth in early 2013, and then the data from the entire mission will be released a year after that.

>>> Read more…

Should we get rid of the leap second?

(Photo: Chris Beach via Flickr)

(Photo: Chris Beach via Flickr)

This is a leap year, which means that instead of the normal 28 days, February 2012 will get an extra or “leap” day this year.  But did you know that for at least the past 40 years, we’ve also had leap seconds?

Scientists have padded our measurement of time to keep the super accurate atomic clocks from getting ahead of solar time due to variations of Earth’s orbit.

After 10 years of discussion, the matter of whether the leap second stays or goes will be put to a vote this week at a meeting of the International Telecommunication Union in Geneva.

Those who support eliminating the leap second – breaking the centuries-long link between sunrise and sunset – say it would provide a more steady and accurate time than we have today.

Those who oppose the proposal say that, despite being hard to predict more than six months in advance, leap seconds have been used successfully since 1972.

Many in the United States and France want to eliminate the leap second.

However, China worries the change could hurt astronomers, who need to be able to compare and refer to observations made over thousands of years as part of their work.

It also seems that Britain isn’t too keen on the idea either; warning that eliminating the leap second could spell the end of Greenwich Mean Time, or GMT, as a meaningful measure.

What are your thoughts on this?  Should we keep or get rid of the leap second?

>>> Read more..

Study Finds You Can Die of a Broken Heart

We’ve all heard about people dying of a “broken heart.”

A new Harvard study suggests it really can happen. Researchers found the risk of heart attack goes way up in the hours and days after the death of a loved one.

Researchers  interviewed about 2,000 people who’d been hospitalized for a heart attack.

The subjects  were questioned about several different risk factors for heart disease as well as other behaviors over the past year.  Patients were also asked if they’d recently lost somebody significant in their lives.

The team found the risk of having a heart attack was 21 times higher in the 24 hours following the loss of a loved one, compared to other times.

While that risk was shown to decline over time, it did remain elevated for the following days and weeks.

Past research reveals grief and bereavement can trigger depression and anxiety.

These emotions can cause an increase in heart rate, blood pressure and blood clotting – all of which can increase the chances of having a heart attack, says study leader Elizabeth Mostofsky of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.

Since this study only involved interviewing those who survived heart-attacks, the research team was not able to examine the relationship between loss of a loved one and whether or not the patient survived or died after a heart attack.

Dr. Mostofsky says they’ll use data in future studies which will allow them to examine this aspect of the link between loss and heart attacks.

She adds that the key message of the study’s findings is that bereaved individuals and those around them should be aware of the heightened risk and make sure those who lose a loved one take care of themselves.

Mostofsky stresses if a person experiences symptoms of a heart attack, they shouldn’t simply assume it’s because they’re dealing with a stressful experience. It might really be a heart attack.

This weekend on the radio edition of “Science World,” Dr. Mostofsky talks to us about how a broken heart can be about more than just emotion. 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: NASA Finds New Planets with Twin Suns

This artist's concept illustrates Kepler-16b, a circumbinary planet. The planet, which can be seen in the foreground, was discovered by NASA's Kepler mission. (Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle)

Artist's concept of Kepler-16b, a circumbinary planet (Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle)

Remember when Luke Skywalker watched the double sunset of Tatooine’s twin suns in 1977’s Star Wars “Episode IV: A New Hope?”

Well, reality took a page from fiction today as NASA astronomers announced the discovery of two new “twin-sun” planets in Nature.

According to NASA’s Kepler Mission,  planets which orbit two stars – like the fictional Tatoonine – are called circumbinary planet systems, and are actually quite common.

In fact, many millions exist in our galaxy.

The two new planetary systems announced by NASA today are both gaseous, Saturn-sized planets named Kepler-34 b and Kepler-35 b.

They are in the constellation Cygnus, about 4,900 to 5,400 light-years from Earth which, according to NASA, also makes them among the most distant planets discovered.

>>> Read more…

Habitable planets may be plentiful in the Milky Way

Artist's rendering gives an impression of how common planets are around the stars in the Milky Way. (Image: ESO/M. Kornmesser)

Artist's rendering gives an impression of how common planets are around the stars in the Milky Way. (Image: ESO/M. Kornmesser)

Meanwhile, astronomers have also found that most of the Milky Way‘s 100 billion stars have habitable planets very similar to planets in our own Solar System, such as Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars.

(Planets like Jupiter and Saturn are considered to be a rare find in our galaxy.)

The finding, published in Nature, is based on six years of observation of millions of stars, using a method that’s highly sensitive to planets which lie in a habitable zone around the host stars.

“Our results show that planets orbiting around stars are more the rule than the exception,” says astronomer Uffe Gråe Jørgensen of the University of Copenhagen. “In a typical Solar System, approximately four planets have their orbits in the terrestrial zone, which is the distance from the star where you can find solid planets. On average, there are 1.6 planets in the area around the stars that corresponds to the area between Venus and Saturn.”

>>> Read more…

Study: Marijuana may be less damaging to lungs than tobacco

(Photo: United States Fish and Wildlife Service)

(Photo: United States Fish and Wildlife Service)

Those who advocate for legalized marijuana use may have a new and comprehensive medical study to add to their arguments.

The study suggests low-to-moderate use of marijuana is less harmful to users’ lungs than exposure to tobacco, even though the two substances contain many of the same components.

“Essentially with tobacco, the more you use, the more loss you have with both of the indicators; air flow rate and lung volume,” says Stefan Kertesz of the University of Alabama at Birmingham, one of the authors of the study. “There’s a straight-line relationship: the more you use, the more you lose.”

But the findings show the same is not true with marijuana use. Air flow rate increased, rather than decreased, with increased exposure to marijuana – up to a certain level.

Researchers weren’t able to get reliable estimates as to whether very heavy use of marijuana takes a toll on the lungs, since participants who smoke large amounts of marijuana were relatively rare in the study’s research population.

Researchers from the University of California, San Francisco were also involved in the study.

>>> Read more…

Parasite fly might be responsible for lost honeybee colonies

Fly larvae emerge from a bee after being deposited in the bee's abdomen several days earlier. (Photo: Core A, Runckel C, Ivers J, Quock C, Siapno T, et al.)

Fly larvae emerge from a bee after being deposited in the bee's abdomen several days earlier. (Photo: Core A, Runckel C, Ivers J, Quock C, Siapno T, et al.)

Researchers at San Francisco State University have spotted deadly fly parasites in honey bees that cause them to abandon their hives and die after a bout of disoriented, “zombie-like” behavior.

The discovery could help explain the dramatic drop in the number of honey bee colonies in North America and some European countries.

The massive loss of the honey bees has been blamed on a mysterious phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).

While the actual cause of CCD is unknown, scientists have been working to solve this troubling ecological dilemma.

Professor John Hafernik of San Francisco State University says, so far, the fly parasite has only been found in honey bee hives in California and South Dakota.

According to the new study, published by PLos One, it’s possible it is an emerging parasite that “underlines the danger that could threaten honey bee colonies throughout North America, especially given the number of states that commercial hives cross and are deployed in.”

>>> Read more…