Month: January, 2018

Mysterious Radio Signals May Come From A Death Star Lurking Near A Supermassive Black Hole

After five years, scientists might have figured out what’s going on with blasts of mysterious radio waves coming from outside the Milky Way: they’re coming from a zombie star in an extreme environment.

In a new study, astronomers suggest this might explain these bizarre intergalactic radio waves, known as fast radio bursts. And it may be the best explanation we have yet for what’s causing them.

Fast radio bursts, or FRBs, have been one of the biggest enigmas for astronomers since 2007. These intense blasts of radio waves come from beyond our galaxy, lasting for only milliseconds at a time.

No one knows exactly what’s causing them, and studying them is incredibly difficult since they’re so brief.




It’s thought that one FRB is being produced in the Universe every second, but only 20 have been detected from Earth over the last decade.

Fortunately, one of those FRBs, called FRB 121102, is different from the rest: it’s the only one known to repeat. After it was found in 2012, astronomers have been able to observe this event as it burps up waves over and over again.

And they found that the waves coming from this FRB are actually twisted — a sign that they’ve passed through some highly magnetized material before reaching our planet.

A good place to find material like that? The nucleus of a galaxy.

If you think about the type of regions that have properties like this in our galaxy, the only region is around the center of the galaxy where there’s a supermassive black hole,” Jason Hessels, an astronomer at the University of Amsterdam and lead author of a Nature study on this discovery said.

Of course, there are other ways to pass through some other highly magnetized material, and Hessels and his team are open to others’ interpretations.

Figuring out what the environment is like around the place where this FRB originated will get scientists closer to understanding what these radio waves are in the first place.

Scientists have floated a number of ideas for what might be causing FRBs. Perhaps these waves are produced during cataclysmic events, like when two dense black holes slam into one another.

Or perhaps they’re caused when something collapses into a black hole and gets ripped apart.

But these scenarios don’t quite explain FRB 121102; whatever is producing the waves can’t be destroyed. “If the source is repeating it needs to continue producing such bursts,” says Hessels.

That’s why astronomers think the waves from FRB 121102 might be coming from a stellar corpse known as a neutron star — the dense leftover core of star after it’s collapsed.

Special kinds of neutron stars can periodically send out flashes of radiation, which may explain the repeating waves.

But the waves we’ve seen from FRB 121102 are incredibly bright and more powerful than a neutron star could produce from so far away.

Astronomers think the waves are coming from a galaxy 3 billion light-years away, which means they have to be super intense to fit what we’ve seen.

To learn more about the source, Hessels and his team used the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico and the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia to observe the radio blasts coming from this galaxy, ultimately measuring 16 bursts in 2016 and 2017.

When analyzing their data, they found a distortion in the radio waves. Normally, a natural burst of radio waves will have wavelengths moving in multiple directions.

But the waves coming from FRB 121102 all seemed to move in one similar direction, an effect known as polarization.

It’s like how sunglasses reduce glare from reflections off the snow. They’re only sensitive to a certain direction of light,” says Hessels. “And this light has a preferred direction.

Hopefully, more and more FRBs will be discovered in the years ahead to help scientists unravel the mystery. Powerful new radio telescopes are about to come online, which should be able to pick up FRBs more frequently.

And as we find more of these radio bursts, we might be able to learn more about them — especially if we find another one that repeats.

We expect to find many dozens, if not hundreds, of these sources over the next few years,” says Hessels. “And it may not be long before we find the next repeating source.

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Pass it on: New Scientist

Make Your Own Fake Snow From Clean Diapers

Materials to Make Fake Snow:

  • Diaper
  • Scissors
  • Water
  • Large, deep container (to store your snow and hold it while the children play)




Directions to make Fake Snow:

(The polymer sodium polyacrylate inside of diapers expands when it gets wet.  We’re basically harvesting the stuff and then getting it wet to “grow” our snow.)

1. Cut out the bottom of your diaper. Then, carefully peel out the white, fluffy, cottony stuff. Place it inside of a deep container.

(Note: Choose a nice large, and deep container.)

2.  Add water, a little at a time.  The white fluffy stuff will become mushier and mushier.

3.  Use your hands to smoosh up the white stuff.  It will feel slightly wet and squishy.  Keep smooshing and soon you’ll have a bunch of fake snow.

4.  To make your fake snow seem more realistic, place it in the fridge to make it colder or add animals.

Now you’re ready to play!

5.  When you’re done, DON’T FLUSH the stuff down the drain! You don’t want to clog it.  Just throw it away in the trash.

Have fun playing with your fake snow!

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Pass it on: Popular Science

There Might Be More Big Stars In The Universe Than We Thought

A new series of observations suggests that we have underestimated the number of large stars that form in starburst events. If this finding is more than just an exception to the rule, there could be consequences for many astronomical theories.

As reported in Science, an international group of astronomers has studied the stars within 30 Doradus, also known as the Tarantula Nebula, a starburst region in the Large Magellanic Cloud.

The team managed to characterize the properties of 452 stars in 30 Doradus and, out of all of them, 247 were more massive than 15 times our Sun.




There are about 25 to 50 more heavy stars than theoretical predictions, known as the initial mass function (IMF), would expect.

The IMF describes the distribution of masses for any population of stars when it formed. It’s an empirical distribution and is very important. The mass of stars determines their evolution and how they’re going to end their life.

For example, more massive stars mean more supernovae, which leads to more black holes and neutron stars. It also influences the evolution of the stars’ host galaxies as a whole.

And since galaxies have up to 100 billion stars, the IMF is very useful for providing statistics.

Nevertheless, this doesn’t mean that the IMF is perfect. Since its proposal in 1955 by Edwin Salpeter, the IMF has been tweaked to better characterize the low-mass end of star mass distribution.

It turns out that there are a lot more small stars than predicted, and the new study suggests that some tweaking might be necessary for certain environments, even at the high end of mass distribution.

The study raises several questions that will require more observation. Is the excess of massive stars connected to advantageous conditions in the gas clouds?

Is it common during starburst events? Are there other mechanisms at work?

What remains interesting is the presence of some of the most massive stars ever observed, with some weighing over 200 times the mass of the Sun.

The researchers estimate that bigger stars might still exist in the core of the nebular, which was not resolved.

The Tarantula Nebula is the most active and largest (over 600 light-years) starburst region in the local group of galaxies.

Supernova 1987A, the closest supernova observed since the invention of the telescope, occurred on the outskirts of this nebula.

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Pass it on: New Scientist

What Would Life Be Like On The TRAPPIST-1 Planets?

The TRAPPIST-1 system is home to seven planets that are about the size of Earth and potentially just the right temperature to support life.

So how would life on these alien worlds be different than life on Earth? Here are some of the major differences.

Amazing night-sky views

Perhaps one of the most dramatic things that visitors to the TRAPPIST-1 system would notice is the view of the other six planets in the sky.

In some cases, a neighboring planet might appear twice as large as the full moon seen from Earth.

All seven of the known planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system orbit closer to their star than Mercury orbits the sun.




The innermost planet and the outermost planet are almost 30 times closer together than Earth and Venus at their largest separation.

The reason these seven planetary siblings can fit into such tight orbits is because their parent star is an ultracool dwarf star. It’s about 2,000 times dimmer than the sun, and only slightly larger than the planet Jupiter.

Three of the known planets orbit the star in what’s known as the “habitable zone,” or the region around a star where the planet could have a surface temperature right for liquid water.

The position of the habitable zone is different around each star — on a very dim star like TRAPPIST-1, which radiates significantly less heat than the sun, the habitable zone lies much closer to the star.

But there’s no guarantee that a planet in the habitable zone of TRAPPIST-1 can host liquid water on its surface.

Without an atmosphere, water won’t remain a liquid in space. For example, on comets, water ice sublimates directly into a vapor when it is heated by the sun.

Perpetual twilight

Even though the seven known planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system orbit extremely close to their parent star, the natural lighting on these planets would seem very dim to a human visitor.

Ultracool dwarf stars produce significantly less radiation than sun-like stars, and most of TRAPPIST-1’s light is radiated in the infrared wavelengths rather than visible wavelengths, according to Amaury Triaud of the Institute of Astronomy at the University of Cambridge in England, a co-author on the paper describing the discovery.

Short years, eternal days (and nights)

The TRAPPIST-1 planets take almost no time at all to make one complete orbit around their parent star. Six of the planets make a complete an orbit in anywhere from 1.5 to 12.4 days.

That means one “year” (or what scientists call the orbital period) on most of these planets is less than two weeks on Earth. But the orbital period of these planets is slightly upset by their neighbors.

Even though the years are short in the TRAPPIST-1 system, the days would be very long — almost eternal, because the according to the scientists behind the discovery, it’s very likely the seven planets are tidally locked, meaning that one side of each planet is always facing the star.

The moon is tidally locked to Earth, which is we see only one side of our lunar companion (at least from the ground).

There’s some debate about whether or not a tidally locked planet could host life.

Some tidally locked planets might be uninhabitable because the side facing the star would become extremely hot, while the other side would grow extremely cold.

But some models show that if the planet’s atmosphere can dissipate heat across the planet’s surface, then life could still find a welcoming home there.

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Pass it on: New Scientist

You Could Be Mining This Cryptocurrency Without Knowing It

Zcash is a new virtual currency that claims to be more anonymous than bitcoin, and has garnered interest from academics, investors, and criminals.

Perhaps thanks to the latter group, hackers are allegedly installing malware on unsuspecting users’ computers that forces them to mine Zcash for the hackers’ own profit.

The malware is distributed via links for things like pirated software, according to a blog posted on Monday by Kaspersky Lab security researcher Aleks Gostev.

Once installed, it forces a person’s computer to mine Zcash—basically solving math problems for a reward in the currency—and funnels the funds back to the attacker.




According to Gostev, around 1,000 possibly infected computers have been identified. This many zombie computers mining Zcash could generate as much as $75,000 a year in income, Gostev wrote.

Downloading mining software to a PC doesn’t necessarily have severe consequences for a user’s data,” Gostev wrote me in an email.

However, it does have the effect of increasing the energy consumption level of their machine, which results in more expensive electricity bills.”

Another consequence is a heavy load on the PC’s RAM, because mining software consumes up to 90% of available memory,” he continued, “which leads to a significant performance slowdown.

According to Zooko Wilcox, founder and CEO of Zcash, the most users can do at this point is protect themselves.

Unfortunately, we have no way to prevent this kind of thing, since Zcash is an open source network, like Bitcoin, that nobody (including us) controls,” Wilcox wrote me in an email.

Our recommendation to security companies that detect this kind of activity, like Kaspersky, is that their software should alert users when potentially malicious software is detected, and give the user the option of shutting it down or, if it was deliberately installed by the user, allowing it to run.

This sort of thing isn’t unique in the world of virtual currencies. Bitcoin, for its part, has seen a number of botnet mining pools over the past several years.

Even some bitcoin alternatives, like Dogecoin, have been fertile grounds for similar attacks.

Botnet mining on these currencies has mostly died out because they were designed so that mining difficulty increases over time and the rewards continually diminish.

In this situation, even an army of regular PCs can’t compete with the specialized hardware employed by big-business miners, known as ASICs.

Wilcox contended in an email that it’s incorrect to describe non-consensual Zcash mining as a “botnet,” writing, “A botnet is where you have a controller that can deploy software automatically to a large number of compromised machines.

The potential difference for Zcash, however, is that the currency is touted by its creators as being resistant to the use of ASICs, making mining with plebeian hardware a profitable approach over the long-term.

Zcash could theoretically be mined on a smartphone.

This may make Zcash mining less resource-intensive and thus more decentralized, but, somewhat ironically, it may also have the unintended side effect of making botnet mining with malware a consistently attractive option, despite diminishing returns.

However, according to Marco Krohn, chief financial officer at cryptocurrency mining firm Genesis Mining, the current state of botnet mining on Zcash as described by Kaspersky’s Gostev isn’t of much concern.

Only if a botnet manages to infect 250,000 computers, exceeding 10 percent of the whole network’s mining power, Krohn said, would miners see any effects.

But while bigger electricity bills aren’t a problem for professional miners, the average person might not appreciate the financial strain.

According to Gostev, users should check their security software to make sure blocks legitimate software from being used for malicious purposes, which might be disabled by default.

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Pass it on: New Scientist

Microsoft’s Cortana Falls Behind Alexa And Google Assistant at Consumer Electronics Show

The annual Consumer Electronics Show is always a good opportunity to get an early look at devices coming throughout the year.

It’s also a reasonable gauge on the health of an ecosystem, or emerging platforms. At this year’s CES it was all about Alexa vs. Google Assistant.

If you were hoping to see more Cortana-powered devices, they were nowhere to be found. With the exception of the Cortana-powered thermostat (announced last year), no new Cortana devices were unveiled at CES this year.

In comparison, Alexa is arriving on headphones, smartwatches, cars, and many more TVs this year, and will even be able to directly control ovens and microwaves.




Google introduced a new Smart Display platform with its Assistant, and Google Assistant is also coming to more TVs, headphones, and even Android Auto.

Google made it clear it was ready to fight Alexa, but Microsoft stayed silent.

Microsoft’s Cortana digital assistant has been largely limited to Windows 10 PCs, after originally launching on Windows Phones back in 2014.

Microsoft may have missed the hardware scenario for a dedicated Cortana device, but the company has invested in pushing Cortana on Windows 10.

Despite a claim of 141 million monthly Cortana users, Amazon looks set to even challenge Microsoft in this area.

HP, Lenovo, Asus, and Acer all plan on integrating an Alexa app on upcoming Windows 10 machines this year, providing a challenge to Cortana on the desktop.

Microsoft has been convincing PC makers to integrate far-field microphones in their devices, and now Amazon is tempting them to use that hardware for Alexa.

Microsoft has previously shown how Cortana can work in speakers, cars, fridges, toasters, and thermostats, but we’ve only seen one dedicated Cortana speaker so far and a single thermostat.

With a lack of hardware supporting Cortana, Microsoft is instead promising that more will come in time.

In fact, Microsoft says it’s playing the long game with Cortana, something it also unsuccessfully attempted with Windows Phone.

It’s a long journey to making a real assistant that you can communicate with over a longer period of time to really be approachable and interesting and better than the alternative,” explains Andrew Shuman, corporate vice president of Cortana engineering, in an interview with GeekWire.

“That is our journey, to make some make some great experiences that shine through, and recognize that long haul.”

Microsoft has announced new partnerships with Ecobee, Geeni, Honeywell, IFTTT, LIFX, and TP-Link, but we now need to see the hardware evidence of Microsoft’s long haul.

While Alexa and Google Assistant appear on more and more devices, Cortana is being left behind. Microsoft’s Cortana isn’t the only digital assistant being left behind, though.

Apple’s Siri, which debuted long before Alexa, Cortana, and Google Assistant, has remained firmly on the company’s iPhone devices.

Apple has been pushing its HomeKit platform instead of Siri, but there are signs this isn’t working for Apple’s ecosystem.

As analyst Ben Bajarin points out, Apple usually has an indirect presence at CES, but this year it was Alexa and Google Assistant dominating the platform wars.

Apple delayed its HomePod speaker to “early 2018,” and we’re waiting to see if the company will ever create a Siri platform outside of its own devices.

While HomeKit has broad support for smart home devices, it’s clear that millions of people are using voice-activated smart speakers to control smart home devices, music playback, and access online information like weather forecasts.

It’s a segment that’s growing, and both Apple and Microsoft are both far behind the competition.

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Pass it on: New Scientist

Scientists Discover Massive Ice Sheets On Mars

Scientists have discovered large sections of underlying water ice on Mars, opening new possibilities for future exploration of the planet.

On Friday’s issue of journal Science, a team of researchers led by U.S. Geological Survey planet geologist Colin Dundas have presented eight Martian regions where erosion has occurred.

Using HiRise, a powerful camera installed on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the scientists have found thick ice sheets at the red planet’s mid-latitudes.

The large deposits of water ice are believed to be buried a meter or two below the surface at unexpectedly low latitudes and extend up to 100 meters tall.




What’s more, the deposits found appear to be made of pure ice.

Moreover, researchers believe it’s possible that the layers of subterranean ice could be holding a record of Mars’ past climate.

More importantly, the large deposits of ice could potentially be a huge source of water for future human exploration of the red planet.

A few years ago, the Mars Reconnaissance beamed back data and high-resolution images showing a pale sliver of blue among the red dust covering the planet.

Upon looking at the images, Dundas and his team discovered eight steep cliffs of what appears to be pure ice.

This kind of ice is more widespread than previously thought,” Dundas said.

This is not the first time that ice was found on Mars. It’s long been known that ice covers the poles, and MRO’s radar instruments have detected signs of thick, buried ice across the red planet’s belly.

Some researchers suspect that these ice deposits are remnants of glaciers that existed millions of years ago when Mars’ spin axis and orbit were different.

The main difference is that back then, scientists have no way of determining the ice’s depth and properties.

Now that scientists have more leads as to the properties of the ice found underneath the planet’s surface, future Mars explorers will have more to go on as soon as they are able to land on it.

Since large reserves can be found a meter or two beneath the planet’s surface, it could be easier for human explorers to mine the ice content and then use it to support further missions.

Once humans are able to use Mars’ large reserves of water ice for drinking, for growing crops, and for generating fuel, the idea of a sustainable human base doesn’t seem too far-fetched.

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Pass it on: New Scientist

The Universe May Be Expanding Faster Than We Thought. Does It Mean Something?

At the beginning of time, all the matter in the universe was compressed into an infinitesimally small point. That tiny speck of everything then exploded and formed the universe.

In some sense, it’s still exploding, expanding at an accelerating rate.

In the past, scientists have looked to the radiation left behind from the Big Bang — its smoking gun — to calculate what the rate of the expanding universe ought to be today.

But new evidence, soon to be published in The Astrophysical Journal, suggests these estimates may be wrong, or at least incomplete.

New observations from the Hubble Space Telescope have indicated that the universe may be expanding 5 to 9 percent faster than predicted by the Big Bang.




But how?

Using the Hubble, scientists from across the US were able to painstakingly measure the distance to stars and supernovae in many galaxies.

They then used this data to refine what’s known as the “Hubble constant,” the rate by which the universe expands, as measured by direct observations.

But when this new “Hubble constant” was compared with the estimates from the Big Bang inferences, the numbers just didn’t match.

You start at two ends, and you expect to meet in the middle if all of your drawings are right and your measurements are right,” Adam Riess, the Nobel laureate at the Space Telescope Science Institute and Johns Hopkins University, who led the project, explained Thursday in a statement.

“But now the ends are not quite meeting in the middle and we want to know why.”

Add this to the long list of questions physicists still have about the universe

The prediction based on the Big Bang “should match our measurement,” Lucas Macri, a Texas A&M physicist and one of the study’s co-authors, tells me.

“If they don’t … there must be a physical reason why these two things are not agreeing.”

So what accounts for the discrepancy?

Either there’s something about the Big Bang that previous estimates have not accounted for or there are factors that come into play after the Big Bang that scientist don’t yet understand.

Macri highlights four possible explanations.

The first is related to the Big Bang.

)We’re seeing evidence of a previously unknown subatomic particle that was abundant right after the Big Bang (a.k.a. ‘dark radiation’),” he says.

If you change the assumptions about what was in the primordial soup, things will have shifted a bit.

The other possibilities are related to “dark energy” and “dark matter,” the substances that make up most of the universe yet can’t be directly observed.

2) Dark energy — the mysterious force that opposes gravity and is causing the universe to accelerate — “is growing in strength and ‘pushing’ galaxies apart faster than it did before,” he says.

3) Dark matter — matter that we can’t see but that is theorized to exist and make up most of the matter in the universe — “is even weirder than we thought.

Or it could not so simply be:

4)Our theory of gravity is incomplete.”

He also mentions that their results aren’t set in stone. “There’s one chance in 1,000 that we got this measurement by accident,” he says.

Physics requires a one in 4 million chance for results to be considered truth. More observations will need to be made.

Macri says he and other researchers will know more soon, especially if they get to use the James Webb Space Telescope, which will replace Hubble in the year 2018.

The James Webb will be able to look much deeper into space than Hubble and can refine the Hubble constant estimate further.

A modest amount of time with James Webb will allow us to make a very significant improvement on our measurement,” Macri says.

Overall, he says, it’s important to know the exact rate of universal expansion because it will yield a more accurate age of the universe.

To get the age of the universe you need to have the Hubble constant,” he says. Right now the uncertainty of their estimate is 2.4 percent, which is the best yet. But not good enough.

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Pass it on: New Scientist

Light Your Home With These Fascinating Fire-Imitating LED Lights

Add some ambiance to your home or yard with this creative LED flame 🔥 bulb that looks almost like magic.

Emitting a 1300K True Fire Color temperature, this simple bulb puts a new spin on typical lighting by appearing as a fully lit torch.




The Flame Flicker emits a 1300K True Fire Color, which maker CMB Technology designed to replicate a fully lit torch.

Once installed, you can orient the fiery light bulb to flicker upward or downward, as well as dim or intensify its output.

If you’re not into the fidgety look of the flame flickering, you can also set the bulb to burn in a stable lighting mode.

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Pass it on: Popular Science