Subtle Signals of Water Detected on Five Alien Worlds
Using the powerful eye of NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, two teams of scientists have found faint signatures of water in the atmospheres of five distant planets. The presence of atmospheric water was reported previously on a few exoplanets orbiting stars beyond our solar system, but this is the first study to conclusively measure and compare the profiles and intensities of these signatures on multiple worlds.
"We’re very confident that we see a water signature for multiple planets," said Avi Mandell, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “This work really opens the door for comparing how much water is present in atmospheres on different kinds of exoplanets, for example hotter versus cooler ones.”
Although exoplanets are too far away to be imaged, detailed studies of their size, composition and atmospheric makeup are possible. This video explains how researchers investigate those characteristics.
The five planets — WASP-17b, HD209458b, WASP-12b, WASP-19b and XO-1b — orbit nearby stars. The strengths of their water signatures varied. WASP-17b, a planet with an especially puffed-up atmosphere, and HD209458b had the strongest signals. The signatures for the other three planets, WASP-12b, WASP-19b and XO-1b, also are consistent with water.
NASA scientists found faint signatures of water in the atmospheres of five distant planets orbiting three different stars. All five planets appear to be hazy.
The studies were part of a census of exoplanet atmospheres led by L. Drake Deming of the University of Maryland in College Park. Both teams used Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 to explore the details of absorption of light through the planets’ atmospheres. The observations were made in a range of infrared wavelengths where the water signature, if present, would appear. The teams compared the shapes and intensities of the absorption profiles, and the consistency of the signatures gave them confidence they saw water. The observations demonstrate Hubble’s continuing exemplary performance in exoplanet research.
"To actually detect the atmosphere of an exoplanet is extraordinarily difficult. But we were able to pull out a very clear signal, and it is water," said Deming, whose team reported results for HD209458b and XO-1b in a Sept. 10 paper in the same journal. Deming’s team employed a new technique with longer exposure times, which increased the sensitivity of their measurements.
illustration depicting the atmosphere of a planet absorbing and transmitting different wavelengths of its star’s light To determine what’s in the atmosphere of an exoplanet, astronomers watch the planet pass in front of its host star and look at which wavelengths of light are transmitted and which are partially absorbed.
Image Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center The water signals were all less pronounced than expected, and the scientists suspect this is because a layer of haze or dust blankets each of the five planets. This haze can reduce the intensity of all signals from the atmosphere in the same way fog can make colors in a photograph appear muted. At the same time, haze alters the profiles of water signals and other important molecules in a distinctive way.
The five planets are hot Jupiters, massive worlds that orbit close to their host stars. The researchers were initially surprised that all five appeared to be hazy. But Deming and Mandell noted that other researchers are finding evidence of haze around exoplanets.
"These studies, combined with other Hubble observations, are showing us that there are a surprisingly large number of systems for which the signal of water is either attenuated or completely absent," said Heather Knutson of the California Institute of Technology, a co-author on Deming’s paper. “This suggests that cloudy or hazy atmospheres may in fact be rather common for hot Jupiters.”
Hubble’s high-performance Wide Field Camera 3 is one of few capable of peering into the atmospheres of exoplanets many trillions of miles away. These exceptionally challenging studies can be done only if the planets are spotted while they are passing in front of their stars. Researchers can identify the gases in a planet’s atmosphere by determining which wavelengths of the star’s light are transmitted and which are partially absorbed.
But here’s the catch: One couldn’t actually travel, or even communicate, through these wormholes, said Andreas Karch, a UW physics professor.
Quantum entanglement occurs when a pair or a group of particles interact in ways that dictate that each particle’s behavior is relative to the behavior of the others. In a pair of entangled particles, if one particle is observed to have a specific spin, for example, the other particle observed at the same time will have the opposite spin.
The “spooky” part is that, as past research has confirmed, the relationship holds true no matter how far apart the particles are – across the room or across several galaxies. If the behavior of one particle changes, the behavior of both entangled particles changes simultaneously, no matter how far away they are.
Recent research indicated that the characteristics of a wormhole are the same as if two black holes were entangled, then pulled apart. Even if the black holes were on opposite sides of the universe, the wormhole would connect them.
Black holes, which can be as small as a single atom or many times larger than the sun, exist throughout the universe, but their gravitational pull is so strong that not even light can escape from them.
If two black holes were entangled, Karch said, a person outside the opening of one would not be able to see or communicate with someone just outside the opening of the other.
“The way you can communicate with each other is if you jump into your black hole, then the other person must jump into his black hole, and the interior world would be the same,” he said.
The work demonstrates an equivalence between quantum mechanics, which deals with physical phenomena at very tiny scales, and classical geometry – “two different mathematical machineries to go after the same physical process,” Karch said. The result is a tool scientists can use to develop broader understanding of entangled quantum systems.
“We’ve just followed well-established rules people have known for 15 years and asked ourselves, ‘What is the consequence of quantum entanglement?’”
Astronomers have spotted what appear to be two supermassive black holes at the heart of a remote galaxy, circling each other like dance partners. The incredibly rare sighting was made with the help of NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE.
Follow-up observations with the Australian Telescope Compact Array near Narrabri, Australia, and the Gemini South telescope in Chile, revealed unusual features in the galaxy, including a lumpy jet thought to be the result of one black hole causing the jet of the other to sway. "We think the jet of one black hole is being wiggled by the other, like a dance with ribbons," said Chao-Wei Tsai of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., who is lead author of a paper on the findings appearing in the Dec. 10 issue of Astrophysical Journal. "If so, it is likely the two black holes are fairly close and gravitationally entwined."
The findings could teach astronomers more about how supermassive black holes grow by merging with each other.
The WISE satellite scanned the entire sky twice in infrared wavelengths before being put into hibernation in 2011. NASA recently gave the spacecraft a second lease on life, waking it up to search for asteroids, in a project called NEOWISE.
The new study took advantage of previously released all-sky WISE data. Astronomers sifted through images of millions of actively feeding supermassive black holes spread throughout our sky before an oddball, also known as WISE J233237.05-505643.5, jumped out.
"At first we thought this galaxy’s unusual properties seen by WISE might mean it was forming new stars at a furious rate," said Peter Eisenhardt, WISE project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., and a co-author of the study. "But on closer inspection, it looks more like the death spiral of merging giant black holes."
Almost every large galaxy is thought to harbor a supermassive black hole filled with the equivalent in mass of up to billions of suns. How did the black holes grow so large? One way is by swallowing ambient materials. Another way is through galactic cannibalism. When galaxies collide, their massive black holes sink to the center of the new structure, becoming locked in a gravitational tango. Eventually, they merge into one even-more-massive black hole.
The dance of these black hole duos starts out slowly, with the objects circling each other at a distance of about a few thousand light-years. So far, only a few handfuls of supermassive black holes have been conclusively identified in this early phase of merging. As the black holes continue to spiral in toward each other, they get closer, separated by just a few light-years.
It is these close-knit black holes, also called black hole binaries, that have been the hardest to find. The objects are usually too small to be resolved even by powerful telescopes. Only a few strong candidates have been identified to date, all relatively nearby. The new WISE J233237.05-505643.5 is a new candidate, and located much farther away, at 3.8 billion light-years from Earth.
Radio images with the Australian Telescope Compact Array were key to identifying the dual nature of WISE J233237.05-505643.5. Supermassive black holes at the cores of galaxies typically shoot out pencil-straight jets, but, in this case, the jet showed a zigzag pattern. According to the scientists, a second massive black hole could, in essence, be pushing its weight around to change the shape of the other black hole’s jet.
Visible-light spectral data from the Gemini South telescope in Chile showed similar signs of abnormalities, thought to be the result of one black hole causing disk material surrounding the other black hole to clump. Together, these and other signs point to what is probably a fairly close-knit set of circling black holes, though the scientists can’t say for sure how much distance separates them.
"We note some caution in interpreting this mysterious system," said Daniel Stern of JPL, a co-author of the study. "There are several extremely unusual properties to this system, from the multiple radio jets to the Gemini data, which indicate a highly perturbed disk of accreting material around the black hole, or holes. Two merging black holes, which should be a common event in the universe, would appear to be simplest explanation to explain all the current observations."
The final stage of merging black holes is predicted to send gravitational waves rippling through space and time. Researchers are actively searching for these waves using arrays of dead stars called pulsars in hopes of learning more about the veiled black hole dancers (see http://www.nasa.gov/centers/jpl/news/pulsar20131106.html ).
400,000-Year-Old Human Ancestor DNA Sequenced --"Shows Link to Extinct Relatives of Neanderthals"
Researchers have sequenced the mitochondrial genome of a 400,000-year-old hominin from Sima de los Huesos, the “bone pit”, in a cave site in Northern Spain that has yielded the world’s largest assembly of Middle Pleistocene hominin fossils.
Using novel techniques to extract and study ancient DNA researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, determined an almost complete mitochondrial genome sequence of a 400,000-year-old representative of the genus Homo and found that it is related to the mitochondrial genome of Denisovans, extinct relatives of Neandertals in Asia. DNA this old has until recently been retrieved only from the permafrost.
“Our results show that we can now study DNA from human ancestors that are hundreds of thousands of years old. This opens prospects to study the genes of the ancestors of Neandertals and Denisovans. It is tremendously exciting” says Svante Pääbo, director at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.
Sima de los Huesos has yielded at least 28 skeletons, which have been excavated and pieced together over the course of more than two decades by a Spanish team of paleontologists led by Juan-Luis Arsuaga. The fossils are classified as Homo heidelbergensis but also carry traits typical of Neandertals. Until now it had not been possible to study the DNA of these unique hominins.
Matthias Meyer and his team from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, have developed new techniques for retrieving and sequencing highly degraded ancient DNA. They then joined forces with Juan-Luis Arsuaga and applied the new techniques to a cave bear from the Sima de los Huesos site. After this success, the researchers sampled two grams of bone powder from a hominin thigh bone from the cave. They extracted its DNA and sequenced the genome of the mitochondria or mtDNA, a small part of the genome that is passed down along the maternal line and occurs in many copies per cell. The researchers then compared this ancient mitochondrial DNA with Neandertals, Denisovans, present-day humans, and apes.
From the missing mutations in the old DNA sequences the researchers calculated that the Sima hominin lived about 400,000 years ago. They also found that it shared a common ancestor with the Denisovans, an extinct archaic group from Asia related to the Neandertals, about 700,000 years ago.
“The fact that the mtDNA of the Sima de los Huesos hominin shares a common ancestor withDenisovan rather than Neandertal mtDNAs is unexpected since its skeletal remains carry Neandertal-derived features”, says Matthias Meyer. Considering their age and Neandertal-like features, the Sima hominins were likely related to the population ancestral to both Neandertals and Denisovans. Another possibility is that gene flow from yet another group of hominins brought the Denisova-like mtDNA into the Sima hominins or their ancestors.
“This unexpected result points to a complex pattern of evolution in the origin of Neandertals and modern humans. I hope that more research will help clarify the genetic relationships of the hominins from Sima de los Huesos to Neandertals and Denisovans” says Juan-Luis Arsuaga, director of the Center for Research on Human Evolution and Behaviour. The researchers are now pursuing this goal by focusing on retrieving DNA from more individuals from this site and on retrieving also nuclear DNA sequences.
Image at the top of the page shows workers carrying out an excavation at the Atapuerca archaeological site prepare to go down to the “Sima de los Huesos” on July 21, 2010 (AFP/File, Cesar Manso)
Newly released research has identified the existence of a giant cosmic accelerator above the Earth—a natural space “synchrotron accelerator" has scales of hundreds of thousands of kilometers, dwarfing even the largest man-made similar accelerators such as the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, which has a circumference of only 27 kilometres.
By analyzing data from NASA’s Van Allen probes, University of Alberta physicist Ian Mann, together with his colleagues at NASA and other institutes, have been able to measure and identify the “smoking gun” of a planetary scale process that accelerates particles to speeds close to the speed of light within the Van Allen radiation belt.
Mann says this particle acceleration—deriving energy from solar flares or eruptions and carried through space on a solar wind—exists in the region of space dominated by the Earth’s magnetic field, where satellites fly, known as the magnetosphere. The discovery is a jumping-off point for understanding space storms and determining how to protect man-made systems—on Earth and in space—from potential damage from space storms and severe space weather.
"The puzzle ever since their discovery has been how do the particles get accelerated up to nearly the speed of light?" said Mann.
Mann says this highly relativistic particle acceleration, which can damage satellites and pose a risk to astronauts during space weather storms, is akin to the relationship between a surfer and a wave, in that the particles repeatedly catch a “ride” on a wave that sends them rocketing around the planet. As they circle the Earth, the particles may be picked up again by the same wave, which will boost its speed even further. The result is a perpetual cycle wherein the particles “get repeatedly accelerated by waves that are coherent on truly planetary scales spanning hundreds of thousands of kilometers,” Mann said.
And like climatic weather storms, space storms can be anywhere from mild to powerful. Mann says these solar storms can have variety of effects on technological infrastructure on Earth, from mild disruption of satellite communications to widespread damage of telegraph systems as occurred during the Carrington solar storm of 1859, manifested on Earth as bright Aurorae seen across the globe.
"There’s eyewitness accounts published in newspapers of telegraph wires setting on fire as a result of the electrical currents that were driven into ground infrastructure due to these space weather storms," said Mann, adding that the potential damage from a similar-sized space storm in today’s highly technological world has been forecast to cost trillions of dollars in loss and repair.
Mann says understanding the physics of space weather is still in the discovery phase, but with results such as this, researchers are moving closer to producing more accurate space weather forecasts.
"We’re still trying to piece together what a really big space storm would look like, and the impact that it might have on infrastructure such as operating satellites and ground power networks—and ultimately trying to improve some of our protection of those systems against severe space weather," said Mann. "With this discovery, we’re starting to put the pieces together to understand how this radiation might be created and, therefore, understand how extreme the response to severe space storms might be."
Building a full-scale wooden replica of Noah’s Ark forces one to confront a number of conceptual challenges. How, for instance, did Noah keep the ark from capsizing? How did he keep his wardrobe fresh? And how, during all that rain, did he and the animals avoid getting seasonal affective disorder?
Like most of Ham’s projects, Ark Encounter promises to be a heady combination of hands-on fun, perverse indoctrination, and apocalyptic terror. According to Ham’s fundraising newsletters, the ark itself will contain three levels of “edu-tainment” about Noah’s menagerie—which, as noted in his magnum opus Dinosaurs of Eden, included every species of dinosaur, even T. Rex. (How did they fit? As always, Ham has an answer: “When it came to the very few dinosaur kinds that grew to a very large size, God probably sent ‘teenagers,’ NOT ‘fully grown adults’ on the Ark.”) The ark’s exhibits will likely follow the lead of the Creation Museum, intertwining spectacularly weird animatronics, comicallyidioticsophism, and menacing warnings of cultural decay.
From the Answers in Genesis newsletter; photo by Mark Stern
Families who tire of such cerebral activities can frolic in Ark Encounter’s other offerings, an ambitious collection of “historically authentic” attractions. These will include “a tower of Babel with a 5D [sic] theater, a ride through the plagues of Egypt, a First Century village, drama theaters, a pre-flood village, [and an] amphitheater.” Budding zoologists can visit the petting zoo, a walk-through aviary, or live animal programs. (We’re a little too late for a live dinosaur show, though—in Ham’s world, humans hunted them to extinction literally hundreds of years ago, “for food or skins.”)
It won’t be all fun and games at Ark Encounter. The ark, to Ham, is a symbol of end times, of the divine punishment humans face when we challenge God’s authority. The ark, Ham claims on the Answers in Genesis website, “was also a visual warning of the condemnation that was coming—a judgment of those who had rebelled and would not turn their hearts to God.”
Sound familiar? It does to Ham:
Why is the time right to build another Ark? Well, today there is great rebellion against God and His Word in the land. With increasing homosexual behavior and a growing acceptance of abortion, God’s hand of judgment is being seen as He withdraws the restraining influence of His Holy Spirits. […] There is no doubt God is judging America. And one major recent sign of God’s judgment is that homosexual behavior is permeating the culture.
*LMAOOO. Sorry, I couldn’t help but laugh. These fucking idiots. OK, back to the article…*
The ark must “stand as a warning of coming judgment—to condemn those who reject God’s clear Word.” Gays, scientists, and liberals: Consider yourselves on notice. According to Ham, our current era of sin may soon be flooded by another cataclysm of divine punishment. When it arrives, those who “encounter … God’s Word” (young-earth creationists, as long as they aren’t gay) will travel through the “door of the ‘Ark’ ” to “the Lord Jesus.” Those who don’t will go to Hell—a doomsday rapture Ham feverishly anticipates.
From the Answers in Genesis newsletter; photo by Mark Stern
There’s just one problem. Before Ham can usher in a new era of mass destruction “to separate and to purify those who believe in Him from those who don’t,” as he wrote in his newsletter to supporters, he’ll need to actually build his ark—and three years after first announcing the project, he hasn’t even broken ground. The project’s first phase will require $73 million in total, and $24 million just to commence construction. (The state of Kentucky generously offered to toss in $37.5 million worth of tax breaks, though those will expire in 2014.) The next phases will require $52.6 million. Thus far, Answers in Genesis has raised $13.6 million—just 10 percent of an optimistic estimate of the total cost. For a while, Ham maintained public silence on the delay. Then, this fall, he explained the delay in a letter to Answers in Genesis donors and supporters:
In large part because of AiG’s [Answers in Genesis’] strong biblical stand against the Obamacare legislation’s mandated coverage of abortion-causing drugs, AiG pursued a change in the Ark Encounter funding structure that now includes a bond investment opportunity for you to consider. Actually, God has used this legislation for good! … [O]ur stand has created an exciting opportunity for you. Now you will be able to invest in what I believe to be to be one of the most thrilling outreaches to challenge church and culture in the USA and worldwide concerning the authority of the Word of God and the saving gospel.
I asked Answers in Genesis’ CCO, Mark Looy, exactly how the Affordable Care Act hindered the group’s fundraising abilities. He explained that “we originally planned to raise the remaining funding from a private placement equity offering for Christians who met SEC required accredited investor standards.” Those who contributed would then “participate as limited equity members in an LLC, with AiG as the controlling/operating member.” But after Obamacare was upheld, the group’s lawyers believed that “Ark Encounter would be required … to provide abortifaciants (i.e., abortion-causing drugs) under its health coverage to its employees.”
The solution? “A private bond offering through a 501(c)(3) that will allow us to claim the exemption to supply abortifaciants.” Under its previous financing scheme, Ark Encounter was just another LLC. Now it’s transformed itself into an official religious nonprofit, one eligible to seize the perks that come with the title.
In an executive summary sent to its supporters, Answers in Genesis makes the bonds sound like a decent investment. The group is offering bonds with 7-, 11-, and 15-year maturities, at yields between 5 and 6 percent. A 7-year bond starts at $250,000, while an 11-year bond begins at $50,000.
Tempting as those rates may seem, there’s a small catch. As Answers in Genesis readily admits, the bonds “are not expected to have any substantial secondary market” and are “not an obligation of AiG.” Somewhat alarmingly, the bonds are unrated, an indication that they’re extremely risky—and almost impossible to resell. High risk, higher yield: These, in essence, are creationist junk bonds.
From Dinosaurs of Eden, by Ken Ham; photo by Mark Stern
I asked Jie Yang, a professor of finance at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, for his opinions of the bonds.
“I would agree that these bonds are very high risk,” he told me. In addition to their lack of rating and a secondary market, the bonds are callable, meaning Answers in Genesis can collect on the bond at any point before it has matured. (The buyer has no such privilege.) Moreover, the bonds are secured only by the revenues and assets of the Ark Encounter project, not by Answers in Genesis itself.
“Should the project be unsuccessful,” Yang notes, “AiG holds no responsibility in meeting the interest payments of these bonds and the bonds may default.” If the project falls through, in other words, investors won’t just lose their interest payments: They’ll lose their entire investment.
Even if scores of naive congregations pool their money to support the project, Ham’s uncompromisingly grandiose vision seems to be careening toward failure. The ark park is Ham’s Xanadu, an extravagant vanity project born out of boundless narcissism and ambition. And that shouldn’t surprise us one bit. Ham is as much a showman as an evangelist; he preaches a twisted gospel of willful ignorance. He wants us to view the Ark Encounter as a delightful amusement park doubling as a fulfillment of the Gospel. Take a closer look, though, and it’s easy to see the ark park for what it actually is: a wreck.
The Mystery of Neutron Stars Deepens --"Strange, Alien Form of Matter Found at Core"
Until now, scientists were pretty sure they knew how the surface of a neutron star – a super dense star that forms when a large star explodes and its core collapses into itself – can heat itself up. Scientists had long thought that nuclear reactions within the crust, the thick, solid, outermost layer of the star, contributed to the heating of the star’s surface. However, writing in the journal Nature, Hendrik Schatz, a Michigan State University physicist and colleagues report results from theoretical calculations that identify previously unknown layers where nuclear reactions within the crust cause rapid neutrino cooling. Neutrinos are elementary particles created through radioactive decay that pass quickly through matter.
"These cooling layers are pretty shallow beneath the surface," said Schatz, a professor of physics and astronomy. "If heat from deeper within the star comes up, it hits this layer and never makes it to the surface."
Schatz said this discovery produces more questions than answers. “This completely changes the way we think about the question of the star’s hot surface,” he said. “It’s a big puzzle now.”
"Many nuclei are round, and that suppresses the neutrino cooling," said Sanjib Gupta, co-author and faculty member at IIT Ropar in India. “In this case, the nuclei are predicted by theorists to be ‘deformed,’ more football-shaped.”
In 2012, scientists with the Chandra Space Observatory found Evidence for a bizarre state of matter has been found in the dense core of the star left behind, a so-called neutron star, based on cooling observed over a decade of Chandra observations. NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory discovered the first direct evidence for a superfluid, a bizarre, friction-free state of matter, at the core of Cassiopeia A.
Superfluids created in laboratories on Earth exhibit remarkable properties, such as the ability to climb upward and escape airtight containers. The finding has important implications for understanding nuclear interactions in matter at the highest known densities.
Neutron stars contain the densest known matter that is directly observable. One teaspoon of neutron star material weighs six billion tons. The pressure in the star’s core is so high that most of the charged particles, electrons and protons, merge resulting in a star composed mostly of uncharged particles called neutrons.
Two independent research teams studied the supernova remnant Cassiopeia A, or Cas A for short, the remains of a massive star 11,000 light years away that would have appeared to explode about 330 years ago as observed from Earth. Chandra data found a rapid decline in the temperature of the ultra-dense neutron star that remained after the supernova, showing that it had cooled by about four percent over a 10-year period.
"This drop in temperature, although it sounds small, was really dramatic and surprising to see," said Dany Page of the National Autonomous University in Mexico. "This means that something unusual is happening within this neutron star."
Superfluids containing charged particles are also superconductors, meaning they act as perfect electrical conductors and never lose energy. The new results strongly suggest that the remaining protons in the star’s core are in a superfluid state and, because they carry a charge, also form a superconductor.
"The rapid cooling in Cas A’s neutron star, seen with Chandra, is the first direct evidence that the cores of these neutron stars are, in fact, made of superfluid and superconducting material," said Peter Shternin of the Ioffe Institute in St Petersburg, Russia.
Both teams show that this rapid cooling is explained by the formation of a neutron superfluid in the core of the neutron star within about the last 100 years as seen from Earth. The rapid cooling is expected to continue for a few decades and then it should slow down.
"It turns out that Cas A may be a gift from the Universe because we would have to catch a very young neutron star at just the right point in time," said Page’s co-author Madappa Prakash, from Ohio University. "Sometimes a little good fortune can go a long way in science."
The onset of superfluidity in materials on Earth occurs at extremely low temperatures near absolute zero, but in neutron stars, it can occur at temperatures near a billion degrees Celsius. Until now there was a very large uncertainty in estimates of this critical temperature. This new research constrains the critical temperature to between one half a billion to just under a billion degrees.
Cas A will allow researchers to test models of how the strong nuclear force, which binds subatomic particles, behaves in ultradense matter. These results are also important for understanding a range of behavior in neutron stars, including “glitches,” neutron star precession and pulsation, magnetar outbursts and the evolution of neutron star magnetic fields.
Small sudden changes in the spin rate of rotating neutron stars, called glitches, have previously given evidence for superfluid neutrons in the crust of a neutron star, where densities are much lower than seen in the core of the star. This latest news from Cas A unveils new information about the ultra-dense inner region of the neutron star.
"Previously we had no idea how extended superconductivity of protons was in a neutron star," said Shternin’s co-author Dmitry Yakovlev, also from the Loffe Institute.
The cooling in the Cas A neutron star was first discovered by co-author Craig Heinke, from theUniversity of Alberta, Canada, and Wynn Ho from the University of Southampton, UK, in 2010. It was the first time that astronomers have measured the rate of cooling of a young neutron star.
The MSU study highlights the discovery potential of the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams. FRIB will be a new U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science national user facility built on the MSU campus. It is exactly these types of nuclei that researchers could examine in the facility.
The Daily Galaxy via Chandra X-ray Center and MSU
Image Credit: This image presents a beautiful composite of X-rays from Chandra (red, green, and blue) and optical data from Hubble (gold) of Cassiopeia A, the remains of a massive star that exploded in a supernova.
Paul Walker: A fan's admiration, then a journalist's
It’s been a busy fucking weekend, but I just wanted to pay my respects to Paul Walker. What a great person he was. Donated a lot of time and effort to help those in need.
By Amy Kaufman, LA Times
In high school, my bedroom wall served mainly as a canvas for displaying ’90s teen heartthrobs. And somewhere between Devon Sawa and Ryan Phillippe, Paul Walker had his place.
He was certainly more than deserving of a spot with those periwinkle eyes, that chiseled jaw and just the vaguest suggestion of facial hair. He was the epitome of a California surfer bro — a specimen not easily found in the Massachusetts suburb where I grew up.
But I still had his poster — a 1999 Teen magazine cover, to be precise, boasting “He’s All That (AND MORE!)” — and his movies. In his early roles in “She’s All That” and “Varsity Blues,” Walker played an unfeeling jock — the kind of unattainable cool guy the nerdy girl pines after despite knowing better. My friends and I often spent sleepovers daydreaming about someone like Walker, thinking, “If only a guy like that really existed.”
When our paths ended up crossing over a decade later, I realized Walker was indeed a rare breed — just not the type I’d envisioned.
It was summer 2011, and “Fast Five” had just scored the biggest box office opening of the year. I started work on a story examining how the “Fast and Furious” franchise had become such a phenomenon and put in an interview request with Walker’s publicist. He agreed, and his representative passed along his cellphone number — a rarity in a town where most actors demand their handlers make and monitor important calls.
Still, I wasn’t expecting much from the phoner. It’s typically difficult to glean anything significant from a conversation with an actor when you’re not face-to-face with them. They’re calling from a seemingly endless press day, they’re in the car, they’re making dinner. They have little interest in sharing meaningful insight with a stranger over the telephone.
When Walker answered his cell, I feared I was right: He wasn’t in the mood to chat. It was 8:45 a.m., and it sounded as if my call had served as his alarm clock.
“I’m really groggy, so I may not make sense for a bit,” he cautioned, his voice raspy.
We started to talk about his career — one, he readily acknowledged, he probably wouldn’t have were it not for the success of the “Fast” franchise. Raised in San Clemente, he started acting when he was young but was never intensely passionate about it. He recalled signing on to a movie filming in Utah because he’d be able to snowboard in Park City. He liked the outdoors and studied marine biology at college, thinking he’d end up as a naturalist or a park ranger.
But when the producers of “The Fast and the Furious” approached him about playing undercover cop Brian O’Conner, he was excited. Growing up, he’d admired “cool guys” like Harrison Ford, Clint Eastwood and Bruce Willis — real action heroes — and O’Conner seemed to have a similar edge.
“I was 24 years old and had just recently had a child out of wedlock,” he recalled. “I wanted to have fun and needed to put a roof over my baby’s head.”
The filmmakers behind the movie knew he was “apprehensive about being ‘the guy’” — meaning a leading man — so they told him “to just show up and have fun, and that alleviated some of the pressure.”
He had no idea, of course, that the franchise would spawn seven films. (Walker would star in five of them and had been in the middle of shooting his sixth when he died.) And so he didn’t do a fantastic job negotiating his salary early on, unlike costar Vin Diesel.
“I’m not the businessman that Vin is,” he said, explaining that Diesel went on to make twice as much from the “Fast” movies as he did.
“But without him,” he countered quickly, “the material wouldn’t be elevated. And without me, there’s not as much harmony.”
Despite his comparatively low paycheck, Walker genuinely seemed to love working on the “Fast” films. When he wasn’t acting, he sought out adventure, spending time racing cars with his buddies. So why not do that in movies too?
“One day, I’m going to be an old man, but in the meantime — I love this [stuff],” he said, using more colorful language. “That’s what I’m built for.”
He was, I found, the rare actor who actually recognized his strengths and wasn’t bitter about being recognized for them.
Which isn’t to say he didn’t have bigger ambitions. After years of taking paycheck gigs, he said he was ready to explore new acting dimensions.
"I never even bothered to apply myself in Hollywood before, but I have the good fortune that this thing has hit again and the franchise has managed to keep me viable all these years," he said. "As opposed to completely disappearing, I’m still here. And now the verdict is out on me. It’s like, ‘What are you going to do with it, guy?’"
I was supposed to meet with Walker this month to talk about one of his first passion projects — an independent drama called “Hours” in which he is the sole actor on-screen for the majority of the movie. Since news of his death on Saturday, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how that interview would’ve gone. Where would he have chosen to meet? What would he have lighted up talking about?
Walker’s face has long since gone down from my childhood bedroom wall, along with all the other youthful heartthrobs. But even after all these years, I still feel myself part of the clique that has a deep admiration for him. Judging by the reaction to his death, it’s a pretty large group.
Fatwa: Muslim women who swim in the sea commit adultery, should be punished
This is the most amazing and hilarious Fatwa by any Islamic Scholar or Islamic School, please read and share it as much to save Muslim women from getting punished.
“When a woman goes swimming, as the word for sea is masculine, when “the water touches the woman’s private parts, she becomes an ‘adulteress’ and should be punished.”
- Summary of a report titled “The misguided Fatwas of the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis”, as published in the Al Masry Al Youm.
[India Today] A report by a committee set up by Al Azhar, one of the oldest and most prestigious Islamic universities in Cairo, to study the fatwas issued by the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis reveals how Islamists view women.
The findings of the committee’s report were published in the Egyptian newspaper Al Masry Al Youm. In all, the committee studied 51 fatwas issued by the Brotherhood and the Salafis during President Mohamed Morsi’s tenure.
According to the report, “the fatwas issued by both groups (the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis) regard women as strange creatures who are created solely for sex. They considered the voices of women, their looks and presence outside the walls of their homes an ‘offence’. Some even went as far as to consider women as a whole offensive.”
Another fatwa prohibited women from “eating certain vegetables or even touching cucumbers or bananas”, due to their phallic imagery which could lead women down the wrong path.
Another fatwa directed women to “turn off the air conditioners at home in the absence of their husbands as this could indicate to a neighbour that the woman is at home alone and any of them could commit adultery with her”.
Another fatwa orders that girls as young as 10-years-old be married “to prevent them from deviating from the right path”.
Another prohibited girls from going to school more than 25km away from their homes.
A strange one said that a couple’s marriage would be annulled if they copulate with no clothes on.
Interestingly, one fatwa which made headlines all over the world was issued by the Al Azhar university which called for women to “breastfeed male acquaintances thereby making them relatives and justifying their mixed company”. The fatwa was, however, later retracted.
At the same time, some of these fatwas also sanctioned the use of women as human shields during violent demonstrations and protests.
The Gatestone Institute, in an earlier report, had said that some of the fatwas issued by the Brotherhood and Salafis during Morsi’s tenure advocated the destruction of the pyramids and sphinx, the scrapping of the Camp David Accord, killing anyone who protested against ousted Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi, forbidding Muslims from greeting Christians, forbidding Muslim cab drivers from transporting Christian priests, forbidding TV shows that mock or make light of Islamists; and forbidding women from marrying any men involved with the former Mubarak government.
Experimentalists and theorists are still celebrating the Nobel-worthy discovery of the Higgs boson that was announced in July 2012 at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider. Now they are working on the profound implications of that discovery.
Symmetries and other regularities of the physical world make science a useful endeavor, yet the world around us is characterized by complex mixtures of regularities with individual differences, as exemplified by the words on this page. The dialectic of simple laws accounting for a complex world was only sharpened with the development of relativity and quantum mechanics and the understanding of the subatomic laws of physics. A mathematical encapsulation of the standard model of particle physics can be written on a cocktail napkin, an economy made possible because the basic phenomena are tightly controlled by powerful symmetry principles, most especially Lorentz and gauge invariance.
How does our complex world come forth from symmetrical underpinnings? The answer is in the title of Philip Anderson’s seminal article “More is different.” 1Many-body systems exhibit emergent phenomena that are not in any meaningful sense encoded in the laws that govern their constituents. One reason those emergent behaviors arise is that many-body systems result from symmetries being broken. Consider, for example, a glucose molecule: It will have a particular orientation even though the equations governing its atoms are rotationally symmetric. That kind of symmetry breaking is called spontaneous, to indicate that the physical system does not exhibit the symmetry present in the underlying dynamics.
It may seem that the above discussion has no relevance to particle physics in general or to the Higgs boson in particular. But in quantum field theory, the ground state, or vacuum, behaves like a many-body system. And just as a particular glucose orientation breaks an underlying rotation symmetry, a nonvanishing vacuum expectation value of the Higgs boson field, as we will describe, breaks symmetries that would otherwise forbid masses for elementary particles. Now that the Higgs boson (or something much like it) has been found at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC; see Physics Today, September 2012, page 12), particle experimentalists are searching for more kinds of Higgs bosons and working to find out if the Higgs boson interacts with the dark matter that holds the universe together. Cosmologists are trying to understand the symmetry-breaking Higgs phase transition, which took place early in the history of the universe, and whether that event explains the excess of matter over antimatter. The measured mass of the Higgs boson implies that the symmetry-breaking vacuum is metastable. If no new physics intervenes, an unlucky quantum fluctuation will eventually spark a cosmic catastrophe.
Symmetry breaking and the vacuum
Since symmetry breaking is a step on the road to complexity, it is only natural that condensed-matter physics abounds with important examples: crystals, ferromagnets, superfluids, superconductors, and many more. When the symmetry is continuous, the broken state is just one of an infinite number of equivalent ground states. For example, the electron spins in a particular magnetic domain of a ferromagnet are all aligned in the same direction, breaking rotational symmetry. But the direction itself is arbitrary—it varies from domain to domain according to tiny details in the history of the material.
A characteristic feature of the spontaneous breaking of a continuous symmetry is the presence of Goldstone modes—also known as Nambu–Goldstone modes or, in condensed-matter physics, as Anderson–Bogoliubov modes. They are long-wavelength excitations that deform a system from one broken state toward another. Because of the underlying continuous symmetry, it costs little energy to excite a Goldstone mode. A familiar example is an acoustic phonon in a crystal, described further in the box on this page.
The Nambu–Goldstone modes are named after Yoichiro Nambu and Jeffrey Goldstone (shown in figure 1 ), who in 1960 took a grand intellectual leap: They began to apply condensed-matter ideas about spontaneous symmetry breaking to particle physics. Nambu was attempting to get insight about the then-mysterious properties of baryons, such as the proton and neutron, and the lightest mesons—the pions. And he succeeded, in a fashion that won him the 2008 Nobel Prize in Physics.
42 Million Dead In Bloodiest Black Friday Weekend On Record
by The Onion
NEW YORK—According to emergency personnel, early estimates indicate that more than 42 million Americans were killed this past weekend in what is now believed to be the bloodiest Black Friday shopping event in history.
First responders reporting from retail stores all across the nation said the record-breaking post-Thanksgiving shopping spree carnage began as early as midnight on Friday, when 13 million shoppers were reportedly trampled, pummeled, burned, stabbed, shot, lanced, and brutally beaten to death while attempting to participate in early holiday sales events.
Law enforcement officials said the bloodbath only escalated throughout the weekend as hordes of savage holiday shoppers began murdering customers at Wal-Mart, Sears, and JCPenney locations nationwide, leaving piles of dismembered and mutilated corpses in their wake.
“The level of bloodshed this year was almost beyond imagination—no prior Black Friday could have prepared us for this,” said National Guard commander Frank Grass, talking to reporters in front of the still-smoldering remains of a local Best Buy that was burned to the ground Saturday. “We had fire trucks, police cruisers, and guardsmen stationed at multiple locations, but it was useless. At the moment, hundreds of thousands of American shoppers are still unaccounted for, and we expect $2 billion in damage has been wrought upon our cities. ”
“The stench of death is unbearable,” a tearful Grass added. “Simply unbearable.”
As the weekend of sales drew to a close, ambulances could be seen circling the now empty and completely ravaged shopping complexes as they searched for signs of life, while clean-up crews worked to clear the rubble, overturned cars, and large pools of blood from local Kohl’s and Macy’s parking lots.
The White House issued an official response, stating, “We mourn the deaths of those 42 million American shoppers who tragically lost their lives this Black Friday.”
Survivors of the deadly holiday sales event said that while the weekend began as a chance to “get in on some unbeatable post-Thanksgiving deals,” it quickly escalated into a merciless, no-hold-barred fight to the death.
“At some point in time we all stopped caring about the deals and the holiday shopping and were pretty much just out for blood,” said Dana Marshall, 37, a Target shopper who suffered seven broken ribs and a cracked sternum while fighting two other customers for a discounted Nikon digital camera. “I remember just sitting on top of a woman and smacking her head with a DVD player until her face was completely unrecognizable. I felt nothing. Absolutely nothing.”
The Onion will continue to publish a running list of the Black Friday dead throughout the week.
Figure 1. Artist’s visualization of the environment around M101 ULX-1, showing a stellar-mass black hole (foreground) with accretion disk. Gas from the Wolf-Rayet star (background) feeds the black hole’s voracious appetite. Gemini Observatory/AURA artwork by Lynette Cook.
Using data from the Gemini Observatory, researchers discovered that a small black hole can sustain a hugely voracious appetite while consuming material in an efficient and tidy manner – something previously thought impossible.
Observations of a black hole powering an energetic X-ray source in a galaxy some 22 million light-years away could change our thinking about how some black holes consume matter. The findings indicate that this particular black hole, thought to be the engine behind the X-ray source’s high-energy light output, is unexpectedly lightweight, and, despite the generous amount of dust and gas being fed to it by a massive stellar companion, it swallows this material in a surprisingly orderly fashion.
“It has elegant manners,” says research team member Stephen Justham, of the National Astronomical Observatories of China, Chinese Academy of Sciences. Such lightweights, he explains, must devour matter at close to their theoretical limits of consumption to sustain the kind of energy output observed. “We thought that when small black holes were pushed to these limits, they would not be able to maintain such refined ways of consuming matter,” Justham explains. “We expected them to display more complicated behavior when eating so quickly. Apparently we were wrong.”
A Surprising Twist
X-ray sources give off high- and low-energy X-rays, which astronomers call hard and soft X-rays, respectively. In what might seem like a contradiction, larger black holes tend to produce more soft X-rays, while smaller black holes tend to produce relatively more hard X-rays. This source, called M101 ULX-1, is dominated by soft X-rays, so researchers expected to find a larger black hole as its energy source.
In theoretical models of how matter falls into black holes and radiates energy, the soft X-rays come primarily from the accretion disk (see illustration), while hard X-rays are typically generated by a high-energy “corona” around the disk. The models show that the corona’s emission strength should increase as the rate of accretion gets closer to the theoretical limit of consumption. Interactions between the disk and corona are also expected to become more complex.
Based on the size of the black hole found in this work, the region around M101-ULX-1 should, theoretically, be dominated by hard X-rays and appear structurally more complicated. However, that isn’t the case.
“Theories have been suggested which allow such low-mass black holes to eat this quickly and shine this brightly in X-rays. But those mechanisms leave signatures in the emitted X-ray spectrum, which this system does not display,” says lead author Jifeng Liu, of the National Astronomical Observatories of China, Chinese Academy of Sciences. “Somehow this black hole, with a mass only 20-30 times the mass of our Sun, is able to eat at a rate near to its theoretical maximum while remaining relatively placid. It’s amazing. Theory now needs to somehow explain what’s going on.”
Figure 2. ULX-1 is located near a spiral arm of M101. The image for M101 is composed from X-ray (Chandra X-ray Observatory; Purple), Infrared (Spitzer Satellite; Red), Optical (Hubble Space Telescope; Yellow) and Ultraviolet (GALEX satellite; Blue).Credit: Chandra X-ray Observatory, Spitzer Satellite, Hubble Space Telescope, and GALEX Satellite.
An Intermediate-mass Black Hole Dilemma
The discovery also delivers a blow to astronomers hoping to find conclusive evidence for an “intermediate-mass” black hole in M101 ULX-1. Such black holes would have masses roughly between 100 and 1000 times the mass of the Sun, placing them between normal stellar-mass black holes and the monstrous supermassive black holes that reside in the centers of galaxies. So far these objects have been frustratingly elusive, with potential candidates but no broadly-accepted detection. Ultra-luminous X-ray sources (ULXs) have been one of the main proposed hiding places for intermediate-mass black holes, and M101 ULX-1 was one of the most promising-looking contenders.
“Astronomers hoping to study these objects will now have to focus on other locations for which indirect evidence of this class of black holes has been suggested, either in the even brighter ‘hyper-luminous’ X-ray sources or inside some dense clusters of stars,” explains research team member Joel Bregman of the University of Michigan.
“Many scientists thought it was just a matter of time until we had evidence for an intermediate-mass black hole in M101 ULX-1,” says Liu. But the new Gemini findings both take away some of that hope to solve an old puzzle and adds the fresh mystery of how this stellar-mass black hole can consume matter so calmly.
To determine the mass of the black hole, the researchers used the Gemini Multi-Object Spectrograph at the Gemini North telescope on Mauna Kea, Hawai‘i to measure the motion of the companion. This star, which feeds matter to the black hole, is of the Wolf-Rayet variety. Such stars emit strong stellar winds, from which the black hole can then draw in material. This study also revealed that the black hole in M101 ULX-1 can capture more material from that stellar wind than astronomers had anticipated.
M101 ULX-1 is ultra-luminous, shining a million times more brightly than the Sun in both X-rays (from the black hole accretion disk) and in the ultraviolet (from the companion star). Co-author Paul Crowther from the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom adds, “Although this isn’t the first Wolf-Rayet black hole binary ever discovered, at some 22 million light-years away, it does set a new distance record for such a system. The Wolf-Rayet star will have died in a small fraction of the time it has taken for light to reach us, so this system is now likely a double black hole binary.”
“Studying objects like M101 ULX-1 in distant galaxies gives us a vastly larger sampling of the diversity of objects in our universe,” says Bregman. “It’s absolutely amazing that we have the technology to observe a star orbiting a black hole in another galaxy this far away.”
Publication: Ji-Feng Liu, et al., “Puzzling accretion onto a black hole in the ultraluminous X-ray source M 101 ULX-1,” Nature 503, 500–503, (28 November 2013); doi:10.1038/nature12762
Source: Gemini Observatory
Image: Gemini Observatory/AURA artwork by Lynette Cook; Chandra X-ray Observatory, Spitzer Satellite, Hubble Space Telescope, and GALEX Satellite
ISON's Nucleus Survives Journey Through Sun's Corona
Wow!! That’s pretty badass. Click the link below to see the video.
"It now looks like some chunk of ISON’s nucleus has indeed made it through the solar corona, and re-emerged," said Karl Battams, a comet scientist for the Naval Research Laboratory after ISON swept about 730,000 miles over the sun’s surface Thursday about 2 p.m. ET. "It’s throwing off dust and (probably) gas, but we don’t know how long it can sustain that. Now it has emerged and started to brighten, we need to observe it for a few days to get a feel for its behavior."
A fleet of spacecraft watched ISON plunge toward the sun, including NASA’s STEREO satellite, the European Space Agency/NASA SOHO spacecraft and the Solar Dynamics Observatory.
Astronomers Vitali Nevski and Artyom Novichonok discovered ISON last year using a telescope near Kislovodsk, Russia. ISON — officially named C/2012 S1 — was 585 million miles away at the time. Its amazing journey through the solar system had been chronicled by amateur astronomers and by space telescopes.
"From the beginning, ISON has confused, surprised and amazed us, and in hindsight its latest little escapade really should not shock us," Battams said. "Nonetheless, this has been one of the most extraordinary comets we have ever encountered, and just goes to reiterate how beautiful, dynamic and exciting our universe is."
Earlier Thursday, NASA scientists had pretty much declared ISON dead at the end of a Google Hangout to watch the comet swing by the sun. But professional and amateur astronomers were undeterred by the reports and kept analyzing NASA satellites. They found images that clearly show something emerging from the sun.
"What we see here is the dust tail emerging first, pointing away from the sun," said Padma Yanamandra-Fisher with the Space Science Institute and a member of the ISON Observing Campaign.
A video made by observing campaign member John Maclean shows the comet slicing toward the sun and then something — apparently ISON — emerging from the other side. Maclean is a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society at Norman Lockyer Observatory Sidmouth in Devon, England.
Once billed as the comet of the century, Comet ISON apparently was no match for the sun.
Images from NASA spacecraft showed the comet approaching for a slingshot around the sun on Thursday, but nothing coming out on the other side.
In this frame grab taken from enhanced video made by NASA’s STEREO-A spacecraft, comet ISON, left, approaches the sun on Nov. 25, 2013. Comet Encke is shown just below ISON, The sun is to the right, just outside the frame.
"It does seem like Comet ISON probably hasn’t survived this journey,” U.S. Navy solar researcher Karl Battams said in a Google+ hangout.
Phil Plait, an astronomer who runs the “Bad Astronomy” blog, agreed, saying “I don’t think the comet made it.”
Still, he said, it wouldn’t be all bad news if the 4.5-billion-year-old space rock broke up into pieces, because astronomers might be able to study them and learn more about comets.
"This is a time capsule looking back at the birth of the solar system,” he said.
The comet was two-thirds of a mile wide as it got within 1 million miles (1.6 million kilometers) of the sun, which in space terms basically means grazing it.
NASA solar physicist Alex Young said it would take a few hours to confirm ISON’s demise, but admitted things were not looking good.
He said the comet had been expected to show up in images from the Solar Dynamics Observatory spacecraft at around noon eastern time (1700 GMT), but almost four hours later there was “no sign of it whatsoever.”
"Maybe over the last couple of days it’s been breaking up," Young told The Associated Press. "The nucleus could have been gone a day or so ago."
Comet ISON was first spotted by a Russian telescope in September last year.
Some sky gazers speculated early on that it might become the comet of the century because of its brightness, although expectations dimmed as it got closer to the sun.
Made up of loosely packed ice and dirt, it was essentially a dirty snowball from the Oort cloud, an area of comets and debris on the fringes of the solar system.
Two years ago, a smaller comet, Lovejoy, grazed the sun and survived, but fell apart a couple of days later.
"That’s why we expected that maybe this one would make it because it was 10 times the size," Young said.
It may be a while before there’s a sun-grazer of the same size, he said.
"They are pretty rare," Young said. "So we might not see one maybe even in our lifetime."
New Star System Similar to Ours - “We Cannot Stress Just How Important This Discovery Is"
A team of European astrophysicists has discovered the most extensive planetary system to date that orbit star KOI-351 – with seven planets, more than any other known planetary systems arranged in a similar fashion to the eight planets in the Solar System, with small rocky planets close to the parent star and gas giant planets at greater distances. Although the planetary system around KOI-351 is packed together more tightly, “We cannot stress just how important this discovery is. It is a big step in the search for a ‘twin’ to the Solar System, and thus also in finding a second Earth,” said Juan Cabrera, an astrophysicist at the DLR Institute of Planetary Research in Berlin-Adlershof.
KOI is the abbreviation for ‘Kepler Object of Interest’, which means the star was observed by NASA’s Kepler space telescope, between 2008 and 2013, and classified as a candidate for the existence of exoplanets. At present, KOI-351 is the star with the most extrasolar planets, or exoplanets for short. The star is 2500 light years away from Earth.
Astrophysicists around the world have been searching for a star system similar to our own for a long time. Now, the team led by Cabrera has taken a major step in this direction. Three of the seven planets in orbit around the star KOI-351 were discovered in recent years, and have periods of 331, 211 and 60 days, similar to those of Earth, Venus and Mercury.
The planets discovered by Cabrera and his team are even closer to the star and have orbital periods of 7, 9, 92 and 125 days. The outermost planet orbits the star at a distance of about 150 million kilometres, or roughly one Astronomical Unit (AU), so the entire planetary system is compressed into a space corresponding to the distance between Earth and the Sun.
“No other planetary system shows such a similar ‘architecture’ to that of our cosmic home as does the planetary system around KOI-351,” says Cabrera. “Just as in the Solar System, rocky planets with roughly the size of Earth are found close to the star, while, ‘gas giants’ similar to Jupiter and Saturn are found as you move away from the star.”
The development of a special computer algorithm enabled Cabrera and his team to detect the four new planets around KOI-351 by filtering out the light curves that reveal the ‘transit’ of a planet across its parent star from the Kepler measurements. The discovery was confirmed shortly afterwards by a US group led by Joseph R. Schmitt of Yale University, by visual inspection of the light curves recorded by Kepler.
“The resonances of the planetary orbits are another interesting feature of this system,” explains Szilárd Csizmadia, a member of the team. Resonance occurs when two or more orbiting bodies exert a regular, periodic gravitational influence on one another. “Resonances also play an important role in the Solar System; for example, the moons of Jupiter. So KOI-351 is a gold mine for all researchers investigating planetary formation and the stability of multi-body systems.”
The resonances in the planetary system of KOI-351, however, greatly complicated the search for the planets. Due to the strong interaction between the planets, the signals sought in the Kepler data were not strictly periodic, but showed strong variations in the orbital periods.
“The orbital period of planet KOI-351g varies by about a day between consecutive transits during the observations, said Rudolf Dvorak of the University of Vienna. “Disturbances of this kind have been noted previously, but so far only with maximum deviations of a few minutes.”
After the two successful space telescopes CoRoT and Kepler were decommissioned this year, planet hunters are now hopeful with regard to the pending decision on the PLATO mission. PLATO (Planetary Transits and Oscillations of Stars) will build on the experience of CoRoT and Kepler in the search for planetary systems around nearby bright stars, and thus allow for extensive follow-up observations. This could allow the determination of the radius (as in the system KOI-351) and the mass of the planets, as well as a first look at the composition of the planet.
Furthermore, it would even be possible to examine the atmosphere of the planets in such systems, which may give rise to indications of the activity of living organisms. This would be a major breakthrough in search for a ’second Earth’. The European Space Agency will make a decision on the PLATO mission in early 2014.
Until now, 771 stars with planets have been identified. However, most of the exoplanets discovered so far are ’solitary’. Only 170 stars are known to be orbited by more than one planet. Large planetary systems are the exception – not because they do not exist, but because they are particularly difficult to detect and characterise.
At present, only a handful of systems with at least five planets have been confirmed, including planets KOI-351b and 351c were confirmed. They are only 31 percent and 19 percent larger than the Earth. To detect such small planets, a special algorithm was developed by Cabrera. Besides the size of these planets, what is remarkable is the 5:4 orbital resonance. In the time it takes planet b to complete five orbits, planet c has completes exactly four orbits. Similar resonances are found among the inner moons of Jupiter.
Planet KOI- 351d was already known. It has an orbital period of 60 days. Its diameter is 2.9 times that of Earth’s. It is therefore likely a ’super-Earth’ or a ‘mini-Neptune’. Since the mass is not known, it is not yet possible to classify this planet.
The planet KOI-351e is also a new discovery and is roughly the same size as KOI- 351d (2.9 times the diameter of Earth). We know that neighbouring planets in planetary systems have similar sizes, as we see in the Solar System (Neptune and Uranus, or Venus and Earth). This has now been observed for the first time in exoplanets, and underlines the similarity of this system to our own.
The large gas giants KOI-351g and 351h (about 8 and 11 times the diameter of Earth) are outer planets and have long orbital periods (211 and 331 days). This is very reminiscent of the Solar System, where there also four rocky planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars) and two gas giants (Jupiter and Saturn ) with diameters 10 and 8 times that of Earth.
The Daily Galaxy via In the Astrophysical Journal, DLR Institute of Planetary Research in Berlin-Adlershof and the German Aerospace Center
"Comet of the Century" - A Blazing ISON on Its Approach to the Sun (Will It Survive the Encounter?)
ISON! “The “Comet of the Century,” first spotted in our skies in September 2012, has brightened brilliantly in the last few days as it nears its Nov. 28 close encounter with the sun. If it survives the heat, radiation and gravity of the Sun (which could cause it to disintegrate) there may be more chances to see it as it moves away from the sun, back toward where its origins in the distant Oort cloud far beyond the edge of our solar system.
ISON was fairly quiet until 1 November 2013, when a first outburst doubled the amount of gas emitted by the comet. On 13 November, just before this image was taken, a second giant outburst shook the comet, increasing its activity by a factor of ten. It is now bright enough to be seen with a good pair of binoculars from a dark site, in the morning skies towards the East. Over the past couple of nights, the comet has stabilised at its new level of activity.
These outbursts were caused by the intense heat of the Sun reaching ice in the tiny nucleus of the comet as it zooms toward the Sun, causing the ice to sublimate and throwing large amounts of dust and gas into space. By the time ISON makes its closest approach to the Sun on 28 November (at only 1.2 million kilometres from its surface — just a little less than the diameter of the Sun!), the heat will cause even more ice to sublimate. However, it could also break the whole nucleus down into small fragments, which would completely evaporate by the time the comet moves away from the Sun’s intense heat. If ISON survives its passage near the Sun, it could then become spectacularly bright in the morning sky.
This new view ISON was taken with the TRAPPIST national telescope at ESO's La Silla Observatoryon the morning of Friday 15 November 2013. TRAPPIST has been monitoring comet ISON since mid-October, using broad-band filters like those used in this image. It has also been using special narrow-band filters which isolate the emission of various gases, allowing astronomers to count how many molecules of each type are released by the comet.
The image is a composite of four different 30-second exposures through blue, green, red, and near-infrared filters. As the comet moved in front of the background stars, these appear as multiple coloured dots.
TRAPPIST (TRAnsiting Planets and PlanetesImals Small Telescope) is devoted to the study of planetary systems through two approaches: the detection and characterisation of planets located outside the Solar System (exoplanets), and the study of comets orbiting around the Sun. The 60-cm national telescope is operated from a control room in Liège, Belgium, 12 000 km away.
"The Great Dying" - MIT Insights into the Most Severe Mass Extinction in Earth’s History
It was the greatest extinction event of all time (at least by Earth standards): Since the first organisms appeared on Earth approximately 3.8 billion years ago, life on the planet has had some close calls. In the last 500 million years, Earth has undergone five mass extinctions, including the event 66 million years ago that wiped out the dinosaurs. And while most scientists agree that a giant asteroid was responsible for that extinction, there’s much less consensus on what caused an even more devastating extinction, the end-Permian extinction, that occurred 252.2 million years ago, decimating 90 percent of marine and terrestrial species, from snails and small crustaceans to early forms of lizards and amphibians.
“The Great Dying,” as it’s now known, was the most severe mass extinction in Earth’s history, and is probably the closest life has come to being completely extinguished. Possible causes include immense volcanic eruptions, rapid depletion of oxygen in the oceans, and — an unlikely option — an asteroid collision.
While the causes of this global catastrophe are unknown, an MIT-led team of researchers established in 2011 that the end-Permian extinction was extremely rapid, triggering massive die-outs both in the oceans and on land in less than 20,000 years — the blink of an eye in geologic time. The MIT team also found that this time period coincides with a massive buildup of atmospheric carbon dioxide, which likely triggered the simultaneous collapse of species in the oceans and on land.
With further calculations, the group found that the average rate at which carbon dioxide entered the atmosphere during the end-Permian extinction was slightly below today’s rate of carbon dioxide release into the atmosphere due to fossil fuel emissions. Over tens of thousands of years, increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide during the Permian period likely triggered severe global warming, accelerating species extinctions.
The researchers also discovered evidence of simultaneous and widespread wildfires that may have added to end-Permian global warming, triggering what they deem “catastrophic” soil erosion and making environments extremely arid and inhospitable.
The researchers published their findings in Science, and said the new timescale may help scientists home in on the end-Permian extinction’s likely causes.
“People have never known how long extinctions lasted,” said Sam Bowring, the Robert R. Schrock Professor of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS) at MIT. “Many people think maybe millions of years, but this is tens of thousands of years. There’s a lot of controversy about what caused [the end-Permian extinction], but whatever caused it, this is a fundamental constraint on it. It had to have been something that happened very quickly.”
Bowring worked with a group of American and Chinese researchers to pinpoint the extinction’s duration. The group analyzed volcanic ash beds from Meishan, a region in southern China where an old limestone quarry exposes rocks containing abundant fossils from the Permian period, as well as the very first fossils that signified a recovery from extinction, during the Triassic period. The rocks of the region have been widely studied as the best global example of the Permian-Triassic Boundary (PTB).
The group collected clay samples from ash beds both above and below rock layers from the PTB. In the lab, they separated out zircon, a robust mineral that can survive intense geological processes. Zircon contains trace amounts of uranium, which can be used to date the rocks in which it is found. Bowring and his colleagues analyzed 300 of the “best-looking” grains of zircon, and found the rocks above and below the mass-extinction period spanned only a 20,000-year phase.
Bowring says now that researchers are able to precisely date the end-Permian extinction, scientists will have to re-examine old theories. For example, many believe the extinction may have been triggered by large volcanic eruptions in Siberia (image below) that covered 2 million square kilometers of Earth — an area roughly three times the size of Texas.
The recent discovery of sections from the Permian-Triassic boundary in South China has allowed more detailed analysis to take place, leading to a conclusion that the Great Dying was probably caused by poisonous gas, released by the massive volcanic event in Siberia, the Siberian Traps, which spewed about 3 million cubic kilometers of basalt lava over vast swathes of the Siberian landmass (to put this in perspective, the largest eruption in historical time Mt Pinatubo on Luzon in the Phillipines 1991, released 12 cubic km of lava onto the island). This eruption ejected more than 1 cubic mile (5 cubic kilometers) of material into the air and created a column of ash that rose up 22 miles (35 km) in the atmosphere. Ash fell across the countryside, even piling up so much that some roofs collapsed under the weight. The blast also spewed millions of tons of sulfur dioxide and other particles into the air, which were spread around the world by air currents and caused global temperatures to drop by about 1 degree Fahrenheit (0.5 degree Celsius) over the course of the following year.
“In the old days you could say, ‘Oh, it’s about the same time, therefore it’s cause and effect,’” Bowring said. “But now that we can date [the extinction] to plus or minus 20,000 years, you can’t just say ‘about the same.’ You have to demonstrate it’s exactly the same.”
The group also analyzed carbon-isotope data from rocks in southern China and found that within the same period, the oceans and atmosphere experienced a large influx of carbon dioxide. Dan Rothman, a professor of geophysics in EAPS, calculated the average rate at which carbon dioxide entered the oceans and atmosphere at the time, finding it to be somewhat less than today’s influx due to fossil fuel emissions.
“The rate of injection of CO2 into the late Permian system is probably similar to the anthropogenic rate of injection of CO2 now,” Rothman said. “It’s just that it went on for … 10,000 years.”
Rothman says the total amount of CO2 pumped into Earth over this time period was so immense that it’s not immediately clear where it all came from.
“It’s just not easy to imagine,” Rothman observed. “Even if you put all the world’s known coal deposits on top of a volcano, you still wouldn’t come close. So something unusual was going on.”
David Bottjer, professor of earth sciences and biological sciences at the University of Southern California, views the group’s results as strong evidence for one of the extinction’s most likely causes.
“This is the most precise set of dates that have been produced for analysis of the end-Permian mass extinction,” Bottjer said. “Because these dates are analyzed in conjunction with geochemical and fossil information they provide unique evidence … that this mass extinction was probably caused by an enormous input of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and oceans caused by volcanic eruptions.”
090902122331The image left is an Asteroceras, a Jurassic ammonite from England. After the End-Permian extinction 252.6 million years ago, ammonoids diversified and recovered 10 to 30 times faster than previous estimates. The surprising discovery raises questions about paleontologists’ understanding of the dynamics of evolution of species and the functioning of the biosphere after a mass extinction.
The study was conducted by a Franco-Swiss collaboration involving the laboratories Biogéosciences (Université de Bourgogne / CNRS), Paléoenvironnements & Paléobiosphère (Université Claude Bernard / CNRS) and the Universities of Zurich and Lausanne (Switzerland.
Ammonoids are cephalopod swimmers related the nautilus and squid. They had a shell, and disappeared from the oceans at the same time as the dinosaurs, 65 million years ago, after being a major part of marine fauna for 400 MY.
The Franco-Swiss team of paleontologists has shown that ammonoids needed only one million years after the End-Permian extinction to diversify to the same levels as before. The cephalopods, which were abundant during the Permian, narrowly missed being eradicated during the extinction: only two or three species survived and a single species seems to have been the basis for the extraordinary diversification of the group after the extinction. It took researchers seven years to gather new fossils and analyze databases in order to determine the rate of diversification of the ammonoids. In all, 860 genera from 77 regions around the world were recorded at 25 successive time intervals from the Late Carboniferous to the Late Triassic, a period of over 100 million years.
The discovery of this explosive growth over a million years suggests that earlier estimates for the End-Permian extinction were based on truncated data and imprecise or incorrect dating. Furthermore, the duration for estimated recovery after other lesser extinctions all vary between 5 and 15 million years.