Learning More About Mysterious Planet 9

Posted April 11th, 2016 at 3:50 pm (UTC-4)
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Simulated structure of planet candidate 9. (© Esther Linder, Christoph Mordasini, Universität Bern)

Simulated structure of planet candidate 9. (© Esther Linder, Christoph Mordasini, Universität Bern)

Konstantin Batygin and Mike Brown at the California Institute of Technology generated a lot of excitement in the science world back in January when they announced that they had found evidence of a giant planet traveling in an odd, drawn-out orbit in the far reaches of the solar system.

So far the new found planet, unofficially nicknamed Planet 9 – as in our solar system’s 9th planet if confirmed – has not been directly imaged. But, the Caltech scientists say the behavior of several distant Kuiper Belt objects have shown signs of being gravitationally affected by an object with a mass that’s about 10 times greater than Earth, and 5,000 times that of Pluto.

This artistic rendering shows the distant view from Planet Nine back towards the sun. (Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC))

This artistic rendering shows the distant view from Planet Nine back towards the sun. (Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC))

“Planet Nine” is thought to orbit the sun from a distance of nearly 20 times farther than Neptune, whose average distance to the sun is about 4.5 billion kilometers.

Astrophysicists at the University of Bern wanted to know more about Planet 9, such as its size, temperature, and what kind of telescope would be needed to find it.

Christoph Mordasini, a professor at the University of Bern, along with PhD candidate Esther Linder have modelled the evolution of the purported Planet 9.

Writing in the journal “Astronomy & Astrophysics”, the Swiss scientists say their modelling allows them to assume that Planet 9 is a small ice giant, smaller than Uranus and Neptune, and that it is surrounded with a blanket of hydrogen and helium.

They say their models show the mass of Planet 9 is 10 times the mass of Earth, the same reported by Brown and Batygin in January and that its radius is about 23,572 km, or 3.7 times that of Earth (6,371 km).

The researchers calculated that Planet 9’s current temperature is around -226° Celsius (47 Kelvin).  They say it’s that warm because its core is cooling; otherwise its temperature would only be about 10 Kelvin (-263° Celsius).

Orbital paths of the six most distant known objects in the solar system (magenta) along with theorized path of "Planet Nine". (Lance Hayashida/Caltech)

Orbital paths of the six most distant known objects in the solar system (magenta) along with theorized path of “Planet Nine”. (Lance Hayashida/Caltech)

Since most of the putative planet’s emitted energy appears to be coming from the cooling of the core and not reflected light from the sun, Mordasini and Linder suggest that Planet 9 may be much brighter in the infrared wavelengths rather than visible light.

The scientists say that the planet hasn’t shown up in past sky surveys because it would have been very difficult to spot an object with a mass 20 times that of Earth or less, especially if it was near its Aphelion, or farthest point from the Sun.

They think that either future telescopes, such as the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope now under construction near Cerro Tololo in Chile, or dedicated surveys specifically tasked with looking for Planet 9 should be able to find or rule out whether or not Planet 9 actually exists.

Meanwhile NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is putting to rest recent news reports that allege Planet 9 or perhaps another mystery planet beyond the orbit of Neptune is behind a mysterious anomaly in the orbit of its Cassini spacecraft around Saturn.

Artist's concept of the Cassini spacecraft during Saturn orbit insertion. (NASA/JPL/Caltech)

Artist’s concept of the Cassini spacecraft during Saturn orbit insertion. (NASA/JPL/Caltech)

Mission managers and orbit determination experts at JPL say that Cassini is not experiencing unexplained deviations described in the news reports and that no such abnormalities have been observed since the spacecraft arrived at Saturn in 2004.

“An undiscovered planet outside the orbit of Neptune, 10 times the mass of Earth, would affect the orbit of Saturn, not Cassini,” said William Folkner, a planetary scientist at JPL in a NASA press release.

A recently published paper suggested that if scientists were able to track Cassini’s position up to 2020, it might be able to find the mystery planet’s “most probable” location.

NASA, however said that by 2020 the Cassini spacecraft, whose mission is scheduled to end in September 2017, will have run out of fuel and plunged into Saturn’s atmosphere.

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.

South Pole Diaries: Bracing for Sun to Set for 6 Long Months

Posted April 5th, 2016 at 12:43 pm (UTC-4)
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Two Polies brave the frigid temperatures to snap a few photos of the sunset.  When conditions are as cold as they are at the moment, camera batteries only last a few minutes.  (Photo by Kyle Obrock)

Two Polies brave the frigid temperatures to snap a few photos of the sunset. When conditions are as cold as they are at the moment, camera batteries only last a few minutes. (Photo by Kyle Obrock)

SOUTH POLE JOURNAL
Refael Klein blogs about his year
working and living at the South Pole. Read his earlier posts here.

It is the solstice. The sun is half set. For the moment, it is perfectly bisected by the horizon. It is the same sun seen in Hawaii travel brochures and Kinkade paintings. It is the same sun that has sat above my head since October, and the same sun that will rise for you this morning and set for you this evening.

Perhaps anywhere else, it would be a kitsch image. The immutable laws of nature: a dependable 24-hour cycle, 365 ups and downs a year, an image so easy to capture and reproduce that it seems to no longer hold any aesthetic value; an icon used to convey the incredible and the exotic, but almost always representing the opposite — the mundane and the accessible: Walmart, Snapple, Days inn.

Now, the sun has set a little lower. It only took a few seconds, but at this very moment more of it sits below the horizon than above it. The horizon is deep orange, and pink light washes out in every direction over the polar plateau. It’s a fiery landscape. Outside it looks warmer then it is. If I had to guess, I’d say minus 30 Fahrenheit (minus 34 Celsius), but really it is much colder — minus 80 Fahrenheit (minus 62 Celsius), the coldest it’s been all year.

At 12:30 a.m., an early morning at ARO.  When the sun sets, we will remove our solar radiation equipment from the roof. (Photo by Kyle Obrock)

At 12:30 a.m., an early morning at ARO. When the sun sets, we will remove our solar radiation equipment from the roof. (Photo by Kyle Obrock)

The sun rises and sets only once a year at the South Pole, rising in September and disappearing below the horizon in March, which means we experience up to 24 hours of sunlight in the summer and 24 hours of darkness in the winter.

No one really knows exactly when the sun will disappear. Atmospheric conditions can make it seem like it is sitting higher than it really is. Even if it has sunk completely below the horizon, a sliver of it may remain visible for a little longer. Our best guess is that the sun will drop out of sight sometime in the next six days.

Not knowing when the sun will set is a bit unnerving. It could be here tomorrow when I wake up or it could be gone. Maybe it will vanish while I’m skimming through my email or taking a shower. It could disappear in a green flash while I’m making myself a cup of mint tea. The whole ordeal is making me feel a little manic. It’s like watching a nurse prep a blood test for your yearly physical.  You don’t know when you will get stuck, but you will, and do they want to you inhaling or exhaling when it happens, sitting up or lying down?

An orange sky over the dark sector telescopes. As day turns to a 6-month-long night, the experiments will start up in earnest. (Photo by Christian Krueger)

An orange sky over the dark sector telescopes. As day turns to a 6-month-long night, the experiments will start up in earnest. (Photo by Christian Krueger)

I’d like to be on the rooftop of the Atmospheric Research Observatory (ARO) when the sun sets, with a cup of hot coffee held between my mittened hands. I’d like to watch the last inch of it rock on the horizon, like a gymnast standing at the end of a balance beam ready to dismount and then, with breath held, watch it slowly sink away until the horizon is nothing more than a perfectly straight, black line, and all that separates me from winter is a few days of dusk.

The sun has set even lower. It is darker out now than when I first began writing this entry. Only a minute has passed, but it is noticeably darker. The pink on the ice cap is more muted, the horizon more red than orange. Above the sun, the sky follows a perfect gradation from orange to blue to dark blue. It looks colder than it did, though I still wouldn’t peg it at minus 80 Fahrenheit because there’s still too much color flooding the landscape.

When the sun sets, it will be gone for six months. What to do with my final days? Ski, run, hike? It’s far too frigid for any of that. When the wind is blowing like it has been lately, it’s almost painful to be outside. I can only remove my fogged goggles for a few seconds before my forehead and the bridge of my nose go numb. It still looks warmer than it really is, but I know at this point to trust the daily weather report more than my own desires.

More South Pole Diaries
Isolated and Alone, South Pole Workers Face Unexpected Emergencies
South Polies Tackle Last-minute Preps to Survive Brutal Winter 
South Pole Summer Camp Helps Combat Winter Blues
Stranded Until Spring: Last Flight Leaves South Pole Before Winter Hits
In Giant Parkas, Rank Is Less Apparent

Refael Klein
Refael Klein is a Lieutenant Junior Grade in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Commissioned Officer Corps (NOAA Corps). He's contributing to Science World during his year-long assignment working and living in the South Pole.

Laser Cloaking Device; New Device Spots Exoplanets; Malaria Older Than We Thought

Posted April 1st, 2016 at 4:15 pm (UTC-4)
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A 22W laser used for adaptive optics on the Very Large Telescope in Chile. A suite of similar lasers could be used to alter the shape of a planet's transit for the purpose of broadcasting or cloaking the planet. (ESO/G. Hüdepohl)

A 22W laser used for adaptive optics on the Very Large Telescope in Chile. A suite of similar lasers could be used to alter the shape of a planet’s transit for the purpose of broadcasting or cloaking the planet. (ESO/G. Hüdepohl)

Lasers Could Hide Earth from Aliens

Scientists have been scanning the skies and conducting numerous studies in a search for extraterrestrial intelligent life or ETI’s.

Back in 2010 renowned theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking warned that it might be too dangerous for humans to interact with ETI’s.

While we’re looking for signs of intelligent life beyond Earth, it’s quite possible that alien beings may also be searching for Earth-like planets with advanced civilizations.

They may also be using the same techniques we do such as transiting, or looking for a dip in light as a planet passes in front of a star.

Now, a couple of Columbia University astronomers are suggesting that lasers could be used as cloaking devices that would hide our planet from searches by ETI’s.

Then again, perhaps possible extraterrestrial intelligent beings are doing the same them to hide from us.

Want Active Children? Exercise during Pregnancy

Expectant moms: if you want your baby to grow into a physically active adult, and help prevent obesity, a new study suggests that you’ll need to exercise regularly and stay physically active throughout your pregnancy.

Scientists at the Baylor College of Medicine, in Texas, picked a number of genetically identical female mice that enjoyed running.

The mice were split into two groups. One group was allowed access to running wheels during their pregnancy while the others were denied the privilege.

The Baylor team found that mice born to mothers who exercised throughout their pregnancy wound up being 50 percent more physically active than those born to less active mothers.

The researchers later found that the physically active youngsters continued to be energetic into adulthood.

Several groups of experts already recommend that women who are pregnant without any complications get at least 30 minutes moderate exercise each day.

Rotating Neutron Star Found In Andromeda Galaxy

Italian astronomers say they have observed something never seen before – a fast spinning neutron star in the nearby Andromeda, or the M31, galaxy.

Their findings were published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Neutron stars are very small compacted remains of a star that exploded in a supernova.

Some spinning neutron stars, called pulsars, can produce a focused beam of magnetic radiation which some say resembles a lighthouse beacon.

Since they rotate, their light can appear to be pulsating.

While pulsars and other rotating neutron stars are quite common in our own Milky Way, this marks the first time such an object has been spotted in the Andromeda Galaxy.

The astronomers made their discovery as they were reviewing past data from the European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton space telescope.

The WIYN telescope building at sunset. (NOAO/AURA/NSF)

The WIYN telescope building at sunset. (NOAO/AURA/NSF)

New Device Will Help Find Exoplanets

Since 1988, astronomers have found over 2,000 exoplanets or planets outside of our solar system.

To help spot these planets, scientists have used a number of technologies such as the Kepler Space Telescope.

Now NASA is moving on to an even newer and more sophisticated instrument for planet-hunting.

This new cutting-edge device is called NEID, short for NN-Explore Exoplanet Investigations with Doppler Spectroscopy.

The instrument will spot the extra solar planets by measuring the tiny “wobbling” of stars.

Nee-id is part of a planned planet-searching partnership between the space agency and the National Science Foundation.

The device will be built by at Pennsylvania State University, and is expected to be completed in 2019.

It will be installed on the 3.5-meter WIYN telescope (pictured above) at the Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona.

Malaria Has Been Around Much Longer Than Thought

The World Health Organization describes malaria as a life-threatening disease caused by parasites that are spread to people when they are bitten by infected female mosquitoes.

Some think that the disease originated as recently as 15,000 years ago.

Now, researchers at Oregon State University have traced the origins of malaria and find that that it has evolved for at least 100 million years.

They say the first vertebrates to be infected were most likely reptiles and at that time this group of animals included the dinosaurs.

But instead of mosquitoes spreading the malaria parasite to its victims, these prehistoric forms of the disease were carried by other insects such as a family of small flies called the biting midge.

The researchers say that understanding malaria’s evolution could help scientists develop new methods to stop its transmission.

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.

March, 2016 Science Images

Posted March 30th, 2016 at 12:21 pm (UTC-4)
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ESA Astronaut Tim Peake shared this image he took on March 21, 2016, from the International Space Station on Facebook.  He commented: "Every so often our orbit lets us enjoy a longer sunrise and sunset - more time to capture the spectacular colours!" (© ESA/NASA)

ESA Astronaut Tim Peake shared this image he took on March 21, 2016, from the International Space Station on Facebook. He commented: “Every so often our orbit lets us enjoy a longer sunrise and sunset – more time to capture the spectacular colours!” (© ESA/NASA)

Contractors are seen working on a nearly completed floating solar panel array on the Queen Elizabeth II Reservoir near Walton-on-Thames in south west London, Monday, March 21, 2016. The floating array will consist of just over 23,000 solar photo-voltaic panels and within its first year will generate an estimated 5.8 million kilowatt hours of electricity. The arrays will help produce power on both cloudy and sunny days. (AP)

Contractors are seen working on a nearly completed floating solar panel array on the Queen Elizabeth II Reservoir near Walton-on-Thames in south west London, Monday, March 21, 2016. The floating array will consist of just over 23,000 solar photo-voltaic panels and within its first year will generate an estimated 5.8 million kilowatt hours of electricity. The arrays will help produce power on both cloudy and sunny days. (AP)

An Orbital Cygnus resupply spacecraft is launched atop an Atlas V launch vehicle from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on March 22, 2016. The spacecraft delivered 7,500 pounds of supplies, science payloads and experiments. (NASA)

An Orbital Cygnus resupply spacecraft is launched atop an Atlas V launch vehicle from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on March 22, 2016. The spacecraft delivered 7,500 pounds of supplies, science payloads and experiments. (NASA)

The Nissan Micro Mobility Concept vehicle is displayed at the New York International Auto Show. The electric vehicle, show in this Monday, March 21, 2016, photo, is designed to transport two people over short distances. (AP)

The Nissan Micro Mobility Concept vehicle is displayed at the New York International Auto Show. The electric vehicle, show in this Monday, March 21, 2016, photo, is designed to transport two people over short distances. (AP)

On March 24, 2016, NASA released an image captured by its New Horizons spacecraft of what it says appears to be a frozen, former lake of liquid nitrogen.  The feature is located in a mountain range just north of Pluto’s informally named Sputnik Planum. (NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)

On March 24, 2016, NASA released an image captured by its New Horizons spacecraft of what it says appears to be a frozen, former lake of liquid nitrogen. The feature is located in a mountain range just north of Pluto’s informally named Sputnik Planum. (NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)

Dolphin therapy is helping to rehabilitate soldiers in Ukraine. Sergiy, a Ukrainian soldier who suffered a serious head injury in Eastern Ukraine, is seen here kissing one of the dolphins on March 1, 2016, during a therapy session at a Kiev aquarium. (AP)

Dolphin therapy is helping to rehabilitate soldiers in Ukraine. Sergiy, a Ukrainian soldier who suffered a serious head injury in Eastern Ukraine, is seen here kissing one of the dolphins on March 1, 2016, during a therapy session at a Kiev aquarium. (AP)

The illustration maps the magnetic field lines coming from the Sun. Their interactions are superimposed on an extreme ultraviolet image captured by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory on March 12, 2016. (Solar Dynamics Observatory, NASA)

The illustration maps the magnetic field lines coming from the Sun. Their interactions are superimposed on an extreme ultraviolet image captured by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory on March 12, 2016. (Solar Dynamics Observatory, NASA)

Here’s another shot of a new solar panel array.  This one is being constructed at a photovoltaic solar park on the outskirts of the coastal town of Lamberts Bay, South Africa, Tuesday, March 29, 2016.  The solar power plant, which is expected to produce up to 75 Megawatts, will be connected to the South African electric grid. (AP)

Here’s another shot of a new solar panel array. This one is being constructed at a photovoltaic solar park on the outskirts of the coastal town of Lamberts Bay, South Africa, Tuesday, March 29, 2016. The solar power plant, which is expected to produce up to 75 Megawatts, will be connected to the South African electric grid. (AP)

Kazakhstan at 09:31 GMT on March 14, 2016. ((c)ESA–Stephane Corvaja)

ExoMars 2016 lifted off on a Proton-M rocket from Baikonur, Kazakhstan at 09:31 GMT on March 14, 2016. ((c)ESA–Stephane Corvaja)

A total solar eclipse is seen in Belitung, Indonesia on March 9, 2016. A total solar eclipse was witnessed along a narrow path that stretched across Indonesia while in other parts of Asia a partial eclipse was visible. (AP)

A total solar eclipse is seen in Belitung, Indonesia on March 9, 2016. A total solar eclipse was witnessed along a narrow path that stretched across Indonesia while in other parts of Asia a partial eclipse was visible. (AP)

Buses with solar panels installed on their roofs to save electricity are seen in a parking lot in Hangzhou, Jiangsu Province, China, March 17, 2016. (Reuters)

Buses with solar panels installed on their roofs to save electricity are seen in a parking lot in Hangzhou, Jiangsu Province, China, March 17, 2016. (Reuters)

According to a study published on March 22, 2016, solar storms are triggering X-ray auroras on Jupiter that are about eight times brighter than normal over a large area of the planet and hundreds of times more energetic than Earth’s "northern lights.  The auroras, seen in purple, were captured by the Chandra X-Ray Observatory. (X-ray: NASA/CXC/UCL/W.Dunn et al, Optical: NASA/STSc)

According to a study published on March 22, 2016, solar storms are triggering X-ray auroras on Jupiter that are about eight times brighter than normal over a large area of the planet and hundreds of times more energetic than Earth’s “northern lights. The auroras, seen in purple, were captured by the Chandra X-Ray Observatory. (X-ray: NASA/CXC/UCL/W.Dunn et al, Optical: NASA/STSc)

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.

Isolated and Alone, South Pole Workers Face Unexpected Emergencies

Posted March 29th, 2016 at 3:11 pm (UTC-4)
1 comment

During the summer months, the winter fire team works with professional firefighters to hone its fire fighting techniques.

During the summer months, the winter fire team works with professional firefighters to hone its fire fighting techniques.

From horizon to horizon, in every direction, blue-grey skies descend into a flat, grey, monochromatic landscape that is only disrupted by strong winds and cloud cover.

SOUTH POLE JOURNAL
Refael Klein blogs about his year
working and living at the South Pole. Read his earlier posts here.

The sun circles at nearly the same height each day, its zenith angle dropping at such an imperceptibly slow rate that one often thinks — perhaps hopes — it has called a hiatus to its setting.

The sun rises and sets only once a year at the South Pole, rising in September and disappearing below the horizon in March, which means we experience up to 24 hours of sunlight in the summer and 24 hours of darkness in the winter.

It will get dark slowly here and, even after the sun disappears in about a week, will remain light for nearly a month afterwards. Not until April will dusk begrudgingly give way to night.

Life at Amundson-Scott Station is much like life on-board a ship.  The crew — known as the winter-overs — share in collateral duties, cleaning spaces, swabbing decks, and hosting morale and recreation programs. Many of the entrances and exits into the station are dogged (use of a mechanical device called a “dog” to fasten something to something else)  to keep out the weather and the wind on stormy days.

Physician Hamish Wright and physician's assistant Scott Deacon  pose for a photo in the medical clinic, colloquially referred to as "Club Med". (Photo by Refael Klein)

Physician Hamish Wright and physician’s assistant Scott Deacon pose for a photo in the medical clinic, colloquially referred to as “Club Med”. (Photo by Refael Klein)

All of the skills and trades needed to keep the station operating without assistance from the outside world are present. If a generator fails, we have machinists, engine technicians and utility specialists who will get it back online. If a door needs to be re-leveled, a carpenter can fix it. If someone gets sick or injured, a full medical staff can provide care.

As on a ship, the days can be tedious and long. Rounds are conducted every morning —thermostats checked, glycol levels checked, engine temperatures and fuel usage checked. Many of the tradesmen follow the same routine each day, each week, each month, looking at the same things, performing the same preventive maintenance tasks that were carried out last year and the year before that.

Remaining focused on your job when everything is running smoothly takes mental discipline and, as they say on the bridge of many ocean-going vessels, “The work is 99 percent uneventful and 1 percent ‘Oh, <expletive>, we’re going to die’.”

At the South Pole, we are constantly training for the 1 percent scenario. What happens if there is a fire? What happens if someone gets lost in a whiteout or breaks their arm while working in the Machine Shop? How do we organize the response?  How do we carry out the tasks that would otherwise be handled by professional search and rescue specialists, paramedics and firefighters?

Everyone who works on-station is a member of an emergency response team. The station has five teams, each specializing in a type of emergency or a general aspect of the response process.  They include fire, medical, logistics and technical rescue teams and a group of first responders, to which I belong, whose role it is to secure the scene, and organize and lead the other groups as they attend to different emergency situations.

Each ERT team meets weekly to train. Here, the first responders review CPR and maintaining impaired airways. (Photo by Refael Klein)

Each ERT team meets weekly to train. Here, the first responders review CPR and maintaining impaired airways. (Photo by Refael Klein)

Each team meets weekly to train for an hour and, every month, there is a drill that the entire station participates in. Last month, we ran through a scenario in which someone had fallen off a ladder in the fuel arch, broken his leg, and lost consciousness. We carried the litter for a half-mile, climbing up numerous flights of steps, to get the patient to the sick bay. All in all, it took us about 50 minutes, not bad for a novice team carrying a limp 270-pound electrician.

This month’s scenario took place at our balloon inflation facility (BIF). I had just walked out to the Atmospheric Research Observatory (ARO), belly full from a lunch of grilled salmon and roasted vegetables, when the alarm went off and a computerized voice came over the PA announcing, “A fire has been detected”.

ARO sits close to a half-mile north of the BIF, so it was a challenge for me to get out there quickly. I radioed in my location and ETA to the on-scene commander, our group lead, and headed out the door, walking as fast as I could through soft snow while wearing heavy insulated boots.

The sun sat only a few degrees above the horizon. At that elevation and direction, it shined directly into my face. My goggles fogged up quickly from the exertion and cold, and soon I couldn’t see anything but a blurry, bright mass of snow and sky.  I removed my goggles and instantly felt the full intensity of the sun against my face.  As one shouldn’t do, I stared straight into it, unblinking, until my eyes began to water. I closed them tightly and turned away into the wind.

My eyelashes froze together, prompting the sun’s orange-and-yellow imprint to slowly fade from vision. I turned back towards the sun, tempted to look into it again, perhaps to create a more permanent memory, something to carry me through the winter, but I didn’t, and continued walk towards the emergency, eyes to the ground, indifferent to the cold.

More South Pole Diaries
South Polies Tackle Last-minute Preps to Survive Brutal Winter 
South Pole Summer Camp Helps Combat Winter Blues
Stranded Until Spring: Last Flight Leaves South Pole Before Winter Hits
In Giant Parkas, Rank Is Less Apparent

Refael Klein
Refael Klein is a Lieutenant Junior Grade in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Commissioned Officer Corps (NOAA Corps). He's contributing to Science World during his year-long assignment working and living in the South Pole.

Study: Dinosaurs Roamed Before Saturn’s Moons and Rings Formed

Posted March 25th, 2016 at 8:04 pm (UTC-4)
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The new paper finds that Saturn's moon Rhea and all other moons and rings closer to Saturn may be only 100 million years old. Outer satellites (not pictured here), including Saturn's largest moon Titan, are probably as old as the planet itself.  (NASA/JPL)

The new paper finds that Saturn’s moon Rhea and all other moons and rings closer to Saturn may be only 100 million years old. Outer satellites (not pictured here), including Saturn’s largest moon Titan, are probably as old as the planet itself. (NASA/JPL)

A new study from researchers at the SETI Institute (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) and the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) has found that most of Saturn’s 62 moons and perhaps even its celebrated rings may only be a hundred million years old. That’s more recent than when dinosaurs were roaming Earth.

Artist's concept of the Cassini spacecraft during Saturn orbit insertion. (NASA/JPL/Caltech)

Artist’s concept of the Cassini spacecraft during Saturn orbit insertion. (NASA/JPL/Caltech)

One of the study authors, Matija Cuk, principal investigator at the SETI Institute, said he and his team created computer simulations to check into the history of some of the ringed planet’s icy inner moons. Those computer models indicated that they were created ‘sometime during the most recent two percent of the planet’s history.’

Saturn’s rings have been known since Galileo first observed them back in the early 1600’s but scientists still argue about their age. Many assume that the rings are as old as the planet itself, between 4.5 – 4.6 billion years old. But, new research suggests that they, along with Saturn’s moons, were created more recently.

A moon’s orbit can be affected its gravitational interaction – tidal effects – with not only the host planet but with other moons.

To find out when Saturn’s moons were created, the researchers consulted data gathered by NASA’s Cassini mission.

Among the many findings made by Cassini since entering orbit with Saturn in 2004 was the discovery of ice geysers on its moon Enceladus.

Ice geysers erupt on Enceladus, bright and shiny inner moon of Saturn. (Cassini Imaging Team, SSI, JPL, ESA, NASA)

Ice geysers erupt on Enceladus, bright and shiny inner moon of Saturn. (Cassini Imaging Team, SSI, JPL, ESA, NASA)

By assuming that the moon’s geysers are driven by the energy created by these tidal effects and that the amount of its geothermal activity has always pretty much remained the same, the researchers figured that Saturn’s tides must be pretty strong.

Analyzing this information the team found that it would take Saturn’s tides nearly 100 million years for Enceladus to move from where it was formed to its current location, as it was predicted by the group’s simulations.

This would mean that except for Titan and Iapetus, which are further away, its major inner moons such as Tethys, Rhea, and Dione formed sometime during Earth’s Cretaceous Period, some 66 to 145 million years ago, which is known as the last portion of the “Age of Dinosaurs”.

The researchers add that they think Saturn once had a previous assortment of moons similar to its current inner moons.  But they were destroyed when their orbits were disturbed by some event that caused them to smash each other to bits.

“From this rubble, the present set of moons and rings formed,” said Cuk in a press release.”

The researcher’s findings have been published in the Astrophysical Journal.

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.

Jupiter’s Northern Lights; Watching Stars Explode & Too Much Sitting Kills

Posted March 23rd, 2016 at 4:00 pm (UTC-4)
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Jupiter's auroras, in purple, as seen by the Chandra X-Ray Observatory. (X-ray: NASA/CXC/UCL/W.Dunn et al, Optical: NASA/STSc)

Jupiter’s auroras, in purple, as seen by the Chandra X-Ray Observatory. (X-ray: NASA/CXC/UCL/W.Dunn et al, Optical: NASA/STSc)

Astronomers Study Jupiter’s ‘Northern Lights’

Earth’s Auroras – Borealis in the northern polar region and Australis in the south – are among the most beautiful and haunting light displays in nature.

Now, for the first time, scientists have been able to study Jupiter’s auroras, in x-ray wavelengths thanks to NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory.

Auroras both on Earth and on Jupiter are triggered by high charged energy particles blasting their way through the solar system on the solar wind.

But scientists have found that Jupiter’s aurora, generated by a giant interplanetary coronal mass ejection in October 2011, happened to be eight times brighter and have hundreds times the energy than Earth’s.

The study of Jupiter’s aurora comes just months before NASA’s Juno spacecraft is set to arrive at the planet.

During its scheduled 37 orbits of the giant planet, the Juno mission will study Jupiter’s make-up, gravity field, magnetic field (or magnetosphere) and its relationship with the solar wind. 

Vienna Musikverein is a classic shoebox-type concert hall. (Jukka Pätynen)

Vienna Musikverein is a classic shoebox-type concert hall. (Jukka Pätynen)

Where You Hear Music Affects Emotional Impact

Music has the power to transcend barriers of language and culture and the ability to stir deep human emotion.

A group of Finnish researchers has found that it’s not only music itself but also where you listen to it that can influence its emotional impact.

Previous scientific research suggests that emotional reaction to music can be gauged by physical responses, such as changes in the electrical properties of the skin.

With this in mind the researchers played a selection of a Beethoven symphony as it would be heard in different concert halls to a group of test subjects.

The scientists from Aalto University attached sensors, to the subject’s fingers, which measured these electrical changes, as they listened to the music under the varied acoustic conditions.

The researchers found that music played in the acoustical environment of shoebox-type or rectangular concert halls produced the strongest emotional reaction in the listeners than other hall designs.

The study was published in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America.

Artist Animation of Star Explosion (NASA/JPL/Australian National University)

Astronomers Watch Two Stars Explode

Back in 2011, NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope captured two red supergiant stars as they exploded into supernovae.

Astrophysicists studying the Kepler data, were able to not only watch both stars as they exploded, but for the first time, spot the tremendous shockwave produced deep inside the smaller of the two as its core collapsed.

Called KSN 2011a, the smaller supernova is only 700 million light years away from us, and is nearly 300 times the size of our sun.

The other, called KSN 2011d, is located 1.2 billion light years away, and had 500 times the solar mass.

The supernova shockwave is described as resembling a nuclear explosion on a massive scale.

The astrophysicists say that their observations of the supernovae will help scientists better understand how the earliest moments of a star’s explosive death is affected by its makeup and size.

More Proof That Too Much Sitting Can Kill

We have published several stories about the health dangers of sitting too much and its link to the onset of some chronic diseases and early death.

Now a new study published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine finds sitting for more than three hours a day is to blame for 3.8% of all worldwide deaths.

The study authors also found that moderate or even vigorous physical exercise might not be able to offset the negative effects of sitting for too long.

They suggest that reducing daily sitting time to less than three hours a day would add an average of .2 years to a person’s life expectancy.

The researchers say the link between sitting and death was highest in Western Pacific nations, followed by European, Eastern Mediterranean, American, and then Southeast Asian countries.

Lately, more office workers are using work stations that allow them to alternate between sitting and standing throughout the day.

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.

South Polies Tackle Last-Minute Preps to Survive Brutal Winter

Posted March 23rd, 2016 at 9:14 am (UTC-4)
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A view of ARO from 29 meters up the Meterological tower, where one of the two inlets for the gas chromatograph is mounted. (Photo by Hunter Davis)

A view of ARO from 29 meters up the Meterological tower, where one of the two inlets for the gas chromatograph is mounted. (Photo by Hunter Davis)

The last plane left two weeks ago and everyone is settling into their wintertime roles.

SOUTH POLE JOURNAL
Refael Klein blogs about his year
working and living at the South Pole. Read his earlier posts here.

Station population sits at 50 and most departments are only a fraction of the size they once were. Although the summer crew left us in good shape, there is still a lot of work to get done before the sun sets.

Outbuildings are being winterized — windows boarded up, electricity cut off. Food stores are hauled from the berms to storage facilities inside, all of the food we need for 50 people for 8 months. And our emergency systems are being tested and retested; we need to know our spare generators will work, no matter what.

It’s getting colder. Temperatures are regularly dropping into the minus 60s Fahrenheit (minus 51 Celsius). In a week, maybe two, it will be too cold to operate our heavy equipment. No fork trucks, no snow plows, no tractors. Snow drifts will begin to form anew and anything that needs to get dragged from one point to another will need to be pulled by snowmobile or by hand.

Needless to say, everyone is taking advantage of the current conditions, getting as much done before winter truly takes hold. It’s going to be a sprint to the finish, but when your only option is to “make it,” you “make it”.

At the Atmospheric Research Observatory (ARO), we are buttoning up the last of our more physically intensive, outside tasks. We raised our 2-meter meteorological instruments by a foot, so that they will still be at the same height, above the snow, in eight months, as they were when I first arrived. And we ran two new intake lines up our 30-meter tower for our gas chromatograph. Each activity took the better half of a day and resulted in cold hands, frost-nip and a few expletives, as work in these conditions often does.

Our gas chromatograph is perhaps the single most complex piece of equipment we utilize at ARO.  It is the workhorse of our Halocarbon research group, taking continuous measurements of various ozone-depleting substances and their replacement compounds. Since these chemicals only exist at very trace levels in the atmosphere, the instrument is designed to measure accurately at the part per trillion scale.

Many ozone-depleting substances are studied using the gas chromatograph. Pumps continuously suck air samples into the instrument, which then analyzes the sample for various compounds. Data is displayed on the computer screen. (Photo by Refael Klein)

Many ozone-depleting substances are studied using the gas chromatograph. Pumps continuously suck air samples into the instrument, which then analyzes the sample for various compounds. Data is displayed on the computer screen. (Photo by Refael Klein)

In other words, if you were to fill 400 Olympic size swimming pools with sugar cubes and then throw in one that was painted red, we would find it. It’s what our gas chromatograph does, continuously every day of the year: find, identify and count highly-elusive compounds.

When all is said and done, why does this matter? If something only exists at part per trillion levels, does it really affect our planet?  The answer is yes, and when it comes to ozone-depleting substances and their replacement compounds, it does so to a surprisingly high degree.

Chlorofluorocarbons, CFCs for short, make up the bulk of ozone-depleting substances. They were invented in the 1920s, as replacements for the refrigerants ammonia, sulfur dioxide and methyl chloride — all of which were highly toxic and dangerous to human health. At the time, CFCs were seen as a big step forward.  They were relatively inert, could withstand a seemingly endless number of refrigeration cycles and, if there happened to be a leak in your refrigerator, you wouldn’t die while pouring yourself a glass of milk.

What wasn’t known in the 1920s was the effect that trace amounts of CFCs would have on the ozone layer.

When there is a leak in your refrigerator, freezer or air-conditioner, refrigerant escapes and, if that refrigerant is a CFC, it will remain intact, unreactive, all the way to the stratosphere. Once in the stratosphere, with the help of UV radiation, CFCs are broken apart and release chlorine atoms, which proceed to bounce from ozone molecule to ozone molecule, tearing each one apart. It can do this for decades, which means that, even at a part per trillion levels, CFCs can do a lot of damage.

In fact, CFCs turned out to be so effective in destroying the ozone layer that, in the late 1980s, 27 nations, including the United States, drew up a treaty banning their use. To this day, the Montreal Protocol is considered by many to be the single most successful piece of international environmental legislation ever enacted. It stopped the use and production of CFCs, and replaced them with compounds that had shorter atmospheric lifespans and less ozone-destroying potential.

CFC 113 is one of many ozone-depleting substances monitored by the Global Monitoring Division. The commonly used refrigerant was banned under the Montreal Protocol. Note its precipitous decline. (Courtesy of NOAA/GMD)

CFC 113 is one of many ozone-depleting substances monitored by the Global Monitoring Division. The commonly used refrigerant was banned under the Montreal Protocol. Note its precipitous decline. (Courtesy of NOAA/GMD)

The gas chromatograph used by NOAA’s  Global Monitoring Division (GMD) is helping us better understand the dynamics of ozone recovery and predict what will happen in the future. The main focus of the instrument is to measure the presence of banned compounds, under the Montreal Protocol, and their replacements. As one would predict, CFCs are becoming less abundant and their replacement compounds are becoming more so, meaning the treaty is doing what it was designed to do: protect the ozone layer.

Working on the gas chromatograph has its challenges. It requires the most maintenance out of any project I work on — changing gas cylinders, tightening valves, adjusting air flows, building and replacing small fittings.  Sometimes our data shows a .5 part per trillion difference from what we expect to see. Where did the error come from? Was it me, the instrument, or the environment? It can be hard to figure out and, on occasion, working on such minute issues feels like chasing ghosts.

Studying the computer that runs the system, I watch data tick by; peaks form, they grow and shrink. Each one represents the presence of a certain compound and its abundance. Cycle after cycle, hour after hour, more data is displayed, compiled, and sent back to our labs for analysis.

I watch global trends unfold, the ebbs and flows of culture and industry as seen through the chemicals we produce. Everything measured at the smallest scale, the highest accuracy, and absolutely representative of our planet.

More South Pole Diaries
South Pole Summer Camp Helps Combat Winter Blues
Stranded Until Spring: Last Flight Leaves South Pole Before Winter Hits
In Giant Parkas, Rank Is Less Apparent

 

 

Refael Klein
Refael Klein is a Lieutenant Junior Grade in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Commissioned Officer Corps (NOAA Corps). He's contributing to Science World during his year-long assignment working and living in the South Pole.

Astronomers Find a Bunch of ‘Monster Stars’ in Star Cluster

Posted March 18th, 2016 at 4:00 pm (UTC-4)
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Hubble image shows the central region of the Tarantula Nebula in the Large Magellanic Cloud. Nine stars with more than 100 times the mass of the Sun were found in young and dense star cluster R136, which can be seen at the lower right of the image. (NASA, ESA, P Crowther (University of Sheffield))

Hubble image shows the central region of the Tarantula Nebula in the Large Magellanic Cloud. Nine stars with more than 100 times the mass of the Sun were found in young and dense star cluster R136, which can be seen at the lower right of the image. (NASA, ESA, P Crowther (University of Sheffield))

A group of astronomers probing a young star cluster within the ultraviolet section of the light spectrum just found a bunch of huge ‘monster stars.’

The R136 star cluster, located in the Tarantula Nebula, inside the Large Magellanic Cloud, is about 157,000 light years from Earth.

They chose to explore in the ultraviolet range since there are so many hot and extremely massive stars in the cluster that mostly radiate energy within that part of the electromagnetic radiation spectrum.

The group used a combination images gathered by the Hubble Space Telescope’s Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3) and the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS) to detect dozens of stars with at least 50 times the mass of the sun and about nine others with more than 100 times the solar mass.

The nine most massive of these stars were found to be not only incredibly enormous, but together they produce an extremely bright light that is 30 million times more luminous than our own Sun.

While the group was able to spot a number of supermassive stars, a previously detected star in the cluster called R136a1 is the most massive star known to exist in the Universe. It has a solar mass of about 265 times that of the Sun and is thought that to have had a solar mass of about 320.

The astronomer’s findings were outlined in a paper published by the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society,

“The ability to distinguish ultraviolet light from such an exceptionally crowded region into its component parts, resolving the signatures of individual stars, was only made possible with the instruments aboard Hubble,” explains the paper’s lead author Paul Crowther of the United Kingdom’s University of Sheffield in a press release.

Relative sizes of young stars, from the smallest “red dwarfs”, weighing in at about 0.1 solar masses, through low mass “yellow dwarfs” such as the Sun, to massive “blue dwarf” stars weighing eight times more than the Sun, as well as the giant star named R136a1 (dark blue) (ESO/M. Kornmesser/Creative Commons)

Relative sizes of young stars, from the smallest “red dwarfs”, weighing in at about 0.1 solar masses, through low mass “yellow dwarfs” such as the Sun, to massive “blue dwarf” stars weighing eight times more than the Sun, as well as the giant star named R136a1 (dark blue) (ESO/M. Kornmesser/Creative Commons)

Another of the paper’s authors, Saida Caballero-Nieves, also from the University of Sheffield, said that while some scientists have previously suggested that these monster stars were created by the merger of smaller binary system stars, this doesn’t really explain the supermassive stars in the R136 cluster.

Instead, he says that it appears the road that led to the huge size of these stars may have begun with its formation process.

The astronomers plan to continue analyzing the Hubble data they’ve gathered to learn more about the giant star’s origination.

They’ll also analyze new information from the Space Telescope’s Imaging Spectrograph to look for nearby binary star systems, where orbiting black hole binaries may lurk.

The twin black holes would eventually merge and produce the gravitational waves such as those predicted by Einstein in his Theory of General Relativity and were only recently detected by the LIGO Scientific Collaboration.

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.

Bright Spots of Ceres; Rotten Tomatoes Produces Energy; Black Hole Flashes Red

Posted March 16th, 2016 at 1:58 pm (UTC-4)
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New image of Ceres' Occator crater with mysterious bright spots take by NASA's Dawn spacecraft (NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/PSI)

New image of Ceres’ Occator crater with mysterious bright spots take by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft (NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/PSI)

Earth Based Telescope Provides New Insight on the Bright Spots of Ceres

The dwarf planet Ceres is the largest body in the asteroid belt, which is a large collection of small to very large space rocks between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.

Among the features of the dwarf planet that’s fascinated a lot of people are several bright spots on its surface.

Some scientists think that this might suggest Ceres is more active than any neighbors in the asteroid belt.

The most noticeable spots are located within Ceres’ Occator crater.

Scientists think that the bright spots may be collections of brine that contain magnesium sulfate hexahydrate.

Now, astronomers using the HARPS spectrograph at the European Southern Observatory’s La Silla Observatory in Chile have found that these bright spots go through some surprising changes.

While the spots have been known to change as Ceres rotates, the scientists also found that they also vary and brighten during the day.

The scientists say that their observations suggest that the bright spots may be made up of volatile substance and that solar radiation make cause it to evaporate.

NASA’s DAWN spacecraft has been circling and studying Ceres and its mysterious bright spots since arriving there a year ago.

Overripe tomatoes on a compost heap. (Paul Glazzard/Wikimedia Commons)

Overripe tomatoes on a compost heap. (Paul Glazzard/Wikimedia Commons)

Rotten Tomatoes Produce Renewable Energy

About 21-percent of world electricity generation is estimated to be from non-fossil fuels such as the wind or sun.

But scientists hope to boost that number by looking at new ways to create it – one of which involves spoiled fruit.

A team of researchers found that damaged or spoiled tomatoes can be turned into a unique and powerful source of renewable energy when fed to biological and microbial electrochemical cells.

And the good news is, there seems to be a nearly endless supply of damaged and rotten tomatoes.  Florida alone generates 396,000 tons of tomato waste every year.

The scientists admit that right now the power produced by their tomato fueled energy cells is quite small.

But they’re quite optimistic that with continued research they’ll be able to greatly increase the electrical output of their energy cells.

Image shows an artist's impression of a black hole, similar to V404 Cyg, devouring material from an orbiting companion star. (ESO/L. Calçada)

Image shows an artist’s impression of a black hole, similar to V404 Cyg, devouring material from an orbiting companion star. (ESO/L. Calçada)

Black Hole Discharges Light with the Power of a Thousand Suns

Black holes aren’t usually visible since material surrounding them, even light, is devoured by their intense gravity.

But occasionally a black hole can draw in material, such as a star, so rapidly that it spits some of it out, producing a powerfully bright light in the process.

Last June, astronomers noticed that a black hole called V404 Cygni, some 7,800 light years from Earth, became very bright for about a two week period.

As they observed this phenomena, they noticed the black hole also produced very bright flashes of red light that lasted only fractions of a second.

The astronomers say that each of these flashes produced light so intense it had the equivalent power of about 1,000 suns.

Poshak Gandhi, lead author of a study detailing the astronomer’s discovery, says that the red flashes seem to have been produced when the black hole was at the peak of its feeding frenzy.

ExoMars 2016 lifted off on a Proton-M rocket from Baikonur, Kazakhstan at 09:31 GMT on 14 March 2016. ((c)ESA–Stephane Corvaja)

ExoMars 2016 lifted off on a Proton-M rocket from Baikonur, Kazakhstan at 09:31 GMT on 14 March 2016. ((c)ESA–Stephane Corvaja)

First of Two European/Russian Probes Heads to Mars

The first of two ExoMars missions took off for the Red Planet from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on Monday, March 14th.

ExoMars is joint project between the European Space Agency and the Russian Federal Space Agency, Roscosmos.

The purpose of ExoMars is to find out if life ever existed on Mars.

The two spacecraft now being sent to Mars are the Trace Gas Orbiter and its attached Schiaparelli EDM lander.

Once they arrive at the Red Planet sometime in October the lander will be sent from the orbiter to the surface.

The orbiter will circle Mars and will sniff out the sources of methane and other gases in the Martian atmosphere.

The lander will monitor various weather conditions on Mars and gather information that will be used in the second ExoMars probe, which will be launched in 2018.

Methane has been seen as a possible sign of life since the gas is produced here on Earth by living organisms.

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.