New Planet: Another “Earth” Discovered By Scientists

COURTESY: NATIONAL SCIENCE FOUNDATION
R. Paul Butler, Planet co-discoverer
Steve Vogt, Planet co-discoverer

Astronomers have announced they have discovered an earth like planet that could support the crucial conditions needed for life to exist. The new planet sits directly in the middle of what is referred to as the habitable or Goldilocks zone (Gliese 581 g), unlike any of the nearly 500 other planets astronomers have found outside Earth’s solar system. It also is in Earth’s galactic neighbourhood, suggesting that plenty of Earth-like planets circle other stars. Astronomers say the planet is neither too far from its star, not too close and could contain liquid water.

Battered Tharsis Tholus Volcano On Mars

ScienceDaily (Nov. 8, 2011) — The latest image released from Mars Express reveals a large extinct volcano that has been battered and deformed over the aeons.

Tharsis Tholus Volcano - Mars

By Earthly standards, Tharsis Tholus is a giant, towering 8 km above the surrounding terrain, with a base stretching over 155 x 125 km. Yet on Mars, it is just an average-sized volcano. What marks it out as unusual is its battered condition.

Shown in images taken by the HRSC high-resolution stereo camera on the European Space Agency’s Mars Express spacecraft, the volcanic edifice has been marked by dramatic events.

At least two large sections have collapsed around its eastern and western flanks during its four-billion-year history and these catastrophes are now visible as scarps up to several kilometres high.

The main feature of Tharsis Tholus is, however, the caldera in its centre.

It has an almost circular outline, about 32 x 34 km, and is ringed by faults that have allowed the caldera floor to subside by as much as 2.7 km.

It is thought that the volcano emptied its magma chamber during eruptions and, as the lava ran out onto the surface, the chamber roof was no longer able to support its own weight.

So, the volcano collapsed, forming the large caldera.

November is a busy month for Mars exploration: Russia and NASA both plan launches this month.

Russia’s Phobos-Soil (formerly known as Phobos-Grunt) is designed to land on Phobos, the larger of Mars’ two moons, to collect samples, and return them to Earth in 2014. It also carries the first Chinese spacecraft to Mars, Yinghuo-1.

Mars Express HRSC digital elevation models of Phobos were used by Russian scientists to assess the mission’s potential landing sites and ESA is also providing telecommunications support for both Phobos-Soil and Yinghuo-1.

In return, the European scientific community will have access to data obtained by both spacecraft.

NASA’s mission is the Mars Science Laboratory, a large rover known as Curiosity, with experiments designed to detect organic molecules — past or present — on the Red Planet.

Also worth noting is the simulated Mars mission, Mars500, which ended on Friday when the hatch was opened for the first time since June 2010. For 520 days, the international crew had been working in a simulated spacecraft in Moscow.

Slideshow
http://news.yahoo.com/photos/mars-volcano-1320955000-slideshow/

Tatooine-like planet discovered

This artist's concept illustrates Kepler-16b, the first planet known to definitively orbit two stars — called a circumbinary planet. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Scientists uncover a planet that orbits around two stars.

By Carnegie Institution for Science, Washington, D.C. — Published: September 15, 2011

A planet with two suns may be a familiar sight to fans of the Star Wars film series, but not, until now, to scientists. A team of researchers, including Carnegie’s Alan Boss, has discovered a planet that orbits around a pair of stars.

This is the first instance of astronomers finding direct evidence of a so-called circumbinary planet. A few other planets have been suspected of orbiting around both members of a dual-star system, but the transits of the circumbinary planet have never been detected previously.

The team, led by Laurance Doyle from the Carl Sagan Center for the Study of Life in the Universe at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California, used photometric data from NASA’s Kepler space telescope, which monitors the brightness of 155,000 stars.

They found the binary star system by detecting a system where the stars eclipsed each other from the perspective of the Kepler spacecraft. These stars have two eclipses: a primary eclipse when the larger star is partially blocked by the smaller star, and a secondary eclipse where the smaller star is fully blocked by the larger star.

But the researchers also noticed other times when the brightness of the two stars dropped, even when they were not in an eclipse position. This pattern suggested that there was likely a third object involved. The fact that these so-called tertiary and quaternary eclipses recurred after varying intervals of time, and of different depths, indicated that the stars were in different positions in their orbit at each instance. This result showed that the tertiary and quaternary eclipses were being caused by something circling both stars, and not an object circling one or the other star.

Measurements of the variations in the timing of all four types of eclipses, resulting from the mutual gravitational interactions of the two stars and the third body, demonstrated that the third object was, indeed, a planet. The astronomers’ work indicates that the planet is less massive than Jupiter, possibly comparable in mass to Saturn, and that the larger of the two binary stars is smaller than our Sun.

“This discovery is stunning,” Boss said. “Once again, what used to be science fiction has turned into reality.”

Amber trapped dinosaur feathers at different stages in their evolution

We now have enough fossils of feathered dinosaurs to fill entire museums. These specimens have beautifully recorded the history of feather evolution but Ryan McKellar from the University of Alberta has found another narrator for that tale: amber.

Amber is actually fossilised tree resin, and some of it contains feathers dropped by dinosaurs. McKellar, working with Phillip Currie, studied beautiful cache of 11 such pieces that had been recovered from Grassy Lake, Canada many years earlier. “These were chance finds when we were preparing the amber to look for insects,” says Currie. “About half a dozen specimens were in my “research to do” specimen cabinet when Ryan ran across some more in his work.”

These 70-million-year old specimens hail from the late Cretaceous period and they are far more diverse than other amber-trapped feathers from the same period. It’s impossible to say who the feathers came from but given that some of them are far simpler than anything seen in known birds, McKellar suspects that they came from other types of dinosaur instead. After all, such species are far more common in Alberta’s fossil beds than true birds are.

Together, the amber feathers encompass the entire evolutionary history of feathers in four different stages, from simple filaments to flight-capable plumes. “It fleshes out a framework that was already evident from the feathered dinosaurs, although the preservation is far more spectacular in terms of detailed preservation and even colours,” says Currie. The slideshow below shows the various types.

Reference: McKellar, Chattertton, Wolfe & Currie. 2011. A Diverse Assemblage of Late Cretaceous Dinosaur and Bird Feathers from Canadian Amber.

http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.1203344

Melting Arctic Sea Ice Drives Walruses onto Land

Fast-melting Arctic sea ice appears to be pushing walruses to haul themselves out onto land, and many are moving around the area where oil leases have been sold, the U.S. Geological Survey reports.

By Deborah Zabarenko, Environment Correspondent

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Fast-melting Arctic sea ice appears to be pushing walruses to haul themselves out onto land, and many are moving around the area where oil leases have been sold, the U.S. Geological Survey reports.

Walruses are accomplished divers and frequently plunge hundreds of feet (meters) to the bottom of the continental shelf to feed. But they use sea ice as platforms to give birth, nurse their young and elude predators, and when sea ice is scarce or non-existent, as it has been this summer, they come up on land.

Last September, the loss of sea ice caused an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 walruses to venture onto land, and as sea ice melts reached a record last month, U.S. government scientists are working with Alaskan villagers to put radio transmitters on some of the hauled-out walruses to track their movements around the Chukchi Sea.

“The ice is very widely dispersed and there is little of it left over the continental shelf,” researcher Chad Jay of the U.S. Geological Survey said in a statement on Wednesday. “Based on our tracking data, the walruses appear to be spreading out and spending quite a bit of time looking for sea ice.”

The loss of sea ice puts Pacific walruses at risk, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, but other, higher-priority species will get attention first. In February, the wildlife service listed Pacific walruses as candidates for protection, though not protection itself.

Walruses are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which means these animals cannot be harvested, imported, exported or be part of interstate commerce.

Polar bears, which also use sea ice in the Chukchi Sea as platforms for hunting, have been designated as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act because of declining sea ice in the Arctic.

Compared to last year’s massive haul-out, there are few walruses on land, and there is no solid count, Jay said.

“There is a lot less ice than there used to be on the continental shelf this time of year,” he said. “So we might be headed into a new normal.”

Transmissions from the radio-tagged walruses offer a good picture of where these creatures are in the Chukchi Sea in a U.S. Geological Survey graphic updated approximately weekly.

SHRINKING ARCTIC SEA ICE
Available online at http://alaska.usgs.gov/science/biology/walrus/2011animation_Norseman.html, the graphic shows where the walruses were when they were first tagged (shown as red Xs) and how they moved around the water (shown as yellow dots).

The graphic also shows changes in sea ice cover in the far north, indicating nearly ice-free conditions in areas where the walruses are moving. Many are within the boundaries of an oil lease sale area that stretches along the northwestern Alaska coast and far into the Chukchi Sea.

Royal Dutch Shell, ConocoPhillips and Statoil hold leases in the Chukchi Sea, though no drilling has started.

Last month saw Arctic sea ice drop to its lowest extent — meaning that it covered the smallest area — for any July since satellite records began in 1979, according to the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center. Typically, Arctic sea ice hits its lowest extent for the year in September.

This record-low ice extent for July is lower than July ice extent in 2007, when ice extent shrank in September to its smallest area in the satellite record.

(Editing by Sandra Maler)

IBM produces first ‘brain chips’

IBM's processors replicate the system of synaptic connections found in the human brain.

IBM has developed a microprocessor which it claims comes closer than ever to replicating the human brain.

The system is capable of “rewiring” its connections as it encounters new information, similar to the way biological synapses work.

Researchers believe that by replicating that feature, the technology could start to learn.

Cognitive computers may eventually be used for understanding human behaviour as well as environmental monitoring.

Dharmendra Modha, IBM’s project leader, explained that they were trying to recreate aspects of the mind such as emotion, perception, sensation and cognition by “reverse engineering the brain.”

The SyNAPSE system uses two prototype “neurosynaptic computing chips”. Both have 256 computational cores, which the scientists described as the electronic equivalent of neurons.

One chip has 262,144 programmable synapses, while the other contains 65,536 learning synapses.

Man machine
In humans and animals, synaptic connections between brain cells physically connect themselves depending on our experience of the world. The process of learning is essentially the forming and strengthening of connections.

A machine cannot solder and de-solder its electrical tracks. However, it can simulate such a system by “turning up the volume” on important input signals, and paying less attention to others.

IBM's processor replicates the synaptic connections between neurons found in the brain.

IBM has not released exact details of how its SyNAPSE processor works, but Dr Richard Cooper, a reader in cognitive science at Birkbeck, University of London said that it likely replicated physical connections using a “virtual machine”.

Instead of stronger and weaker links, such a system would simply remember how much “attention” to pay to each signal and alter that depending on new experiences.

“Part of the trick is the learning algorithm – how should you turn those volumes up and down,” said Dr Cooper.

“There’s a a whole bunch of tasks that can be done just with a relatively simple system like that such as associative memory. When we see a cat we might think of a mouse.”

Some future-gazers in the cognitive computing world have speculated that the technology will reach a tipping point where machine consciousness is possible.

However, Dr Mark Bishop, professor of cognitive computing at Goldsmiths, was more cautious.

“[I] understand cognition to be something over and above a process simulated by the execution of mere computations, [and] see such claims as verging on the magical,” he said.

IBM’s work on the SyNAPSE project continues and the company, along with its academic partners, has just been awarded $21m (£12.7m) by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

What’s the age of the moon? It could be waning

the full moon rises behind the ancient temple of Posseidon (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)


WASHINGTON (AP) — That old moon might not be as antique as we thought, some scientist think. They say it’s possible that it isn’t a day over 4.4 billion years old.

But other astronomers disagree with a new study’s conclusions. They think the moon is up to its typical age-defying tricks and is really pushing 4.6 billion as they have suspected all these years.

Either way, the new analysis of an important moon rock brought back by the Apollo 16 mission is showing that the moon isn’t ready to give up its true age and origins quite yet, even though scientists thought they had it all figured out a decade or two ago.

“It’s not as ancient as we might think,” said study chief author Lars Borg, a geochemist at the Lawrence Livermore National Lab. His study appears online Wednesday in the journal Nature.

The study uses new techniques and radioactive isotopes of lead and other elements to date the moon rock at 4.4 billion years old. What’s key is that this is a special type of rock that would have floated up to the moon’s crust soon after its theorized ocean of molten rock cooled. That supposedly happened soon after the moon formed as a result of a spectacular crash between Earth and a planet. The chunks that broke off formed the moon.

That means there are two possibilities, Borg said. Either the moon is 200 million years younger or the accepted theory of a molten rock ocean on the moon is wrong, he said.

Borg acknowledges that some moon rocks have been dated at nearly 4.6 billion years old. But those conclusions could be wrong because of weaker rock dating techniques used in the past, he said.

Outside scientists said Borg did good work coming up with a date for the Apollo 16 rock but may have jumped to the wrong conclusion on lunar age or origins. They said it’s possible that the rock is from a smaller molten rock ocean or was created when the moon was bombarded by space debris which was much more common a few billion years ago.

Borg’s conclusion “is a little bit fancy for my taste,” said Erik Asphaug of University of California, Santa Cruz, who recently published a theory that Earth used to have a second smaller moon until it crashed into the bigger one.

MIT astronomer Maria Zuber called the study in Nature “very puzzling.”

Caribbean Coral Catch Disease From Sewage

Healthy elkhorn coral is found on Sombrero Reef in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. In the past 15 years, almost 90 percent of elkhorn populations in the Florida Keys have died, landing this once-common coral on the endangered species list.

Human beings occasionally get diseases from animals, such as swine flu, rabies and anthrax. A new study finds that humans can also spread disease to wildlife, with grim results. A bacterium from our guts is now rampaging through coral reefs in the Caribbean.

Those reefs were already in slow decline, but they took a huge hit starting in 1996, when a disease called white pox appeared in the Florida Keys.

“Since that time, elkhorn coral — the species it affects — has declined 88 percent in the Florida Keys,” says Kathryn Sutherland, a reef ecologist at Rollins College in Florida. “And we’ve seen similar declines elsewhere in the Caribbean.”

The coral is named for its resemblance to elk antlers, and is among the most important reef-building species in the Caribbean. Sutherland and her colleagues soon found a culprit for the die-off — a bacterium called Serratia marcescens. It also happens to cause disease in human beings, notably hospital infections. But the scientists couldn’t prove cause and effect.

“In 2002, we could only speculate that human waste was the source of the pathogen because the pathogen is also found in the guts of other animals,” such as deer, Sutherland says.

So she and some colleagues exposed the coral in the laboratory to bacteria extracted from sewage. As they report in the journal PLoS ONE, the coral got the pox within days.

“That gave us definitive evidence that white pox disease is caused by a pathogen found in human sewage.”

An ‘Evolutionary Triple Jump’
Traditionally, we think of diseases moving from animals to us, but “this is almost a man-bites-dog story,” says James Porter at the University of Georgia, a co-author of the study.

“This is a very rare and unusual evolutionary triple jump,” Porter says. The bacterium “went from humans to the lower invertebrates — coral. It went from the terrestrial environment to the marine environment. And then it went from the anaerobic [low oxygen] conditions of our stomach to the fully oxygenated conditions on the reef.”

Porter says they are still trying to explain exactly how the bacterium makes coral sick, and why white pox appeared so suddenly and viciously. The good news is those answers aren’t needed to protect coral. You can just keep the germ away. And, happily, that’s been happening along the Florida Keys.

Jay Gewin, utilities manager in the city of Key West, says residents there voted to upgrade their leaky sewer system. It was not done to save coral per se, but to get rid of health warnings that were keeping the tourists away.

“In the early 2000s when this was such a problem, every single beach in the city of Key West would have an advisory,” Gewin says.

Those health warnings on the beach are now rare, thanks to a sophisticated new wastewater system that cost the city more than $70 million.

“The wastewater is treated to the highest level in the state of Florida, and then it goes into a deep injection well, where the treated final water product is sent thousands of feet down into the ground,” Gewin says.

Eventually it may seep back up into the ocean, but he says by then it’s clean. The biologists say that since the new system was installed, there haven’t been any further die-offs of elkhorn coral around Key West. Other towns along the Keys are now in the process of cleaning up their act, too.

“But this is a problem Caribbean-wide,” Sutherland says, “and there’s a widespread lack of wastewater treatment in the wider Caribbean region.”

And that’s bad news for the elkhorn coral. Due largely to the disease spreading from humans, it’s been tagged as vulnerable on the endangered species list.

Critters moving away from global warming faster

This is a photograph of a comma butterfly, which has moved north 135 miles in just 21 years in Great Britain. (AP Photo/Butterfly Conservation, Jim Asher)...

WASHINGTON (AP) — Animals across the world are fleeing global warming by heading north much faster than they were less than a decade ago, a new study says.

About 2,000 species examined are moving away from the equator at an average rate of more than 15 feet per day, about a mile per year, according to new research published Thursday in the journal Science which analyzed previous studies. Species are also moving up mountains to escape the heat, but more slowly, averaging about 4 feet a year.

The species — mostly from the Northern Hemisphere and including plants — moved in fits and starts, but over several decades it averages to about 8 inches an hour away from the equator.

“The speed is an important issue,” said study main author Chris Thomas of the University of York. “It is faster than we thought.”

Included in the analysis was a 2003 study that found species moving north at a rate of just more than a third of a mile per year and up at a rate of 2 feet a year. Camille Parmesan of the University of Texas, who conducted that study, said the new research makes sense because her data ended around the late 1990s and the 2000s were far hotter.

Federal weather data show the last decade was the hottest on record, and 2010 tied with 2005 for the hottest year on record. Gases from the burning of fossil fuel, especially carbon dioxide, are trapping heat in the atmosphere, warming the Earth and changing the climate in several ways, according to the overwhelming majority of scientists and the world’s top scientific organizations.

As the temperatures soared in the 2000s, the species studied moved faster to cooler places, Parmesan said. She pointed specifically to the city copper butterfly in Europe and the purple emperor butterfly in Sweden. The comma butterfly in Great Britain has moved more than 135 miles in 21 years, Thomas said.

It’s “independent confirmation that the climate is changing,” Parmesan said.

One of the faster moving species is the British spider silometopus, Thomas said. In 25 years, the small spider has moved its home range more than 200 miles north, averaging 8 miles a year, he said.

Stanford University biologist Terry Root, who wasn’t part of this study but praised it as clever and conservative, points to another species, the American pika, a rabbitlike creature that has been studied in Yellowstone National Park for more than a century. The pika didn’t go higher than 7,800 feet in 1900, but in 2004 they were seen at 9,500 feet, she said.

For Thomas, this is something he notices every time he returns to his childhood home in southern England. The 51-year-old biologist didn’t see the egret, a rather warm climate bird, in the Cuckmere Valley while growing up. But now, he said, “All the ditches have little egrets. It was just a bizarre sight.”

Thomas plotted the movement of the species and compared it to how much they would move based on temperature changes. It was a near perfect match, showing that temperature changes explain what’s happening to the critters and plants, Thomas said. The match wasn’t quite as exact with the movement up mountains and Thomas thinks that’s because species went north instead or they were blocked from going up.

Thomas found that the further north the species live, the faster they moved their home base. That makes sense because in general northern regions are warming more than those closer to the equator..

Conservation biologist Mike Dombeck, a former U.S. Forest Service chief, said changes in where species live — especially movements up mountains — is a problem for many threatened species.

Thomas said what he’s studied isn’t about some far off problem.

“It’s already affected the entire planet’s wildlife,” Thomas said in a phone interview. “It’s not a matter that might happen in the lifetime of our children and our grandchildren. If you look in your garden you can see the effects of climate change already.”

The Darkest World: Scientists Discover ‘Darth Vader’ Planet

The distant exoplanet TrES-2b, shown here in an artist's conception, is darker than the blackest coal. It refuses to give back light. Why? That's a mystery

The polarities of darkness and light have been central to human cultural imaginings since our origins.

In the 5th century B.C. there was Zoroastrian religion, based on the eternal battle between darkness (evil) and light (spiritual purity). In the modern world we have the mythic conflict between Luke Skywalker in his white tunic and his black-shrouded, fallen father, Darth Vader. Given our penchant for pulling the world apart into this kind of dichotomy, it is, perhaps, no wonder that the recent discovery of the darkest of dark planets has made news.

A few weeks ago, two astronomers announced the discovery of TrES-2b via the Kepler spacecraft. The planet is a so-called “Hot Jupiter” — a large gas giant orbiting extremely close to its sun-like star (the whole system is about 750 light years away from us).

What makes TrES-2b so remarkable is its refusal to give back light. The scientific word for reflectivity is albedo. The Earth reflects about 37 percent or 0.37 of the light it receives from the sun. That is why we present such a beautiful bright blue face to the universe.

TrES-2b is another story entirely. It bounces back less than 1 percent (0.01) of the light it receives from its star. That means the planet is blacker than coal. Seen from space, TrES-2b would barely be visible.

It is not clear yet why TrES-2b is so dark. It may be that the intense heat from the nearby star has formed strange, light-absorbing compounds in the planet’s atmosphere.

“It’s a mystery as to what’s causing it to be so dark,” co-discover David Kipping told Space.com. “There’s a good chance it’s a chemical we haven’t even thought of yet.”

A world darker than coal, darker than night and darker than the heart of wickedness. You can provide your own metaphor, analogy or back story if you want.

One of the great beauties of science is the way it lets us discover how much richer the world is than our imagination might have conceived. Then our imaginations find their own uses for these discoveries, making the world we find our own.

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