Category: News Posts

Bacteria On Space Station Likely From Germy Humans, Not Aliens

Living bacteria have been found on the outside of the International Space Station, a Russian cosmonaut told the state news agency TASS this week.

Anton Shkaplerov, who will lead Russia’s ISS crew in December, said that previous cosmonauts swabbed the station’s Russian segment during spacewalks and sent the samples back to Earth.

The samples came from places on the station that had accumulated fuel waste, as well as other obscure nooks and crannies.

Their tests showed that the swabs held types of bacteria that were not on the module when it originally launched into orbit, Shkaplerov says.

In his interview with TASS, Shkaplerov says the bacteria “have come from outer space and settled along the external surface“, a claim that sparked some media outlets to issue frenzied reports about aliens colonizing the space station.

For now, though, details about the swabbing experiment are thin on the ground.




Shkaplerov did not note whether the study has been vetted by a peer-reviewed journal, which means it’s unclear exactly when and how the full experiment was conducted, or how the team avoided any contamination from much more mundane bacteria on the cosmonauts or in the Earth-bound lab.

Interview requests with the Russian space agency were unanswered when this article went to press. Up in the vacuum of space, microbes have to deal with turbulent temperatures, cosmic radiation, and ultraviolet light.

But Earth is home to plenty of hardy organisms that can survive in extreme environments, like virtually indestructible tardigrades.

Sometimes, researchers intentionally send terrestrial contaminants, such as E. coli and rocks covered in bacteria, into space to see how it will react.

And TASS reports that on a previous ISS mission, bacteria accidentally hitched a ride to the station on tablet PCs and other materials.

Scientists sent these objects up to see how they would fare in space, and the freeriding organisms managed to infiltrate the outside of the station.

They remained there for three years, braving temperatures fluctuating between -150 and 150 degrees Celsius.

 

These types of discoveries present concerns for scientists trying to limit the spread of human germs on other worlds.

NASA in particular has set strict limits on its interplanetary contamination.

Apollo astronauts were quarantined when they returned from their missions, for example, to prevent extraterrestrial germs from making their way out into the world.

And almost all equipment from Earth is sterilized before it heads skyward, either with extreme heat or an alcohol bath, depending on its intended destination.

These treatments are especially important for missions sent to Mars, which may have once hosted its own life-forms, leaving fossil traces in the rusty rocks.

But all bets may be off when and if we manage to send humans to explore Mars, writes The Planetary Society’s Emily Lakdawalla: “Once we’ve put humans on the surface, alive or dead, it becomes much, much harder to identify native Martian life.”

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Pass it on: Popular Science

The Big Bang Wasn’t The Beginning

What if the Big Bang wasn’t the beginning of the universe, but only one stage in an endlessly repeated cycle of universal expansion and contraction?

So suggests mathematical physicist and string theorist Neil Turok.

He thinks there may be many universes, at once interpolated but separate, like a mixture of gases.

These universes are attracted to each other; every few trillions of trillions of years, they collide, explode, expand and contract, then repeat the sequence all over again.

According to Turok, winner of the first TED Prize of 2008, “The Big Bang theory rests very strongly on Einstein’s theory of general relativity, which combines with nuclear and particle physics and all the other physical laws to describe the contents of the universe.




The theory is that 13.7 billion years ago, there was a singularity, a point of infinite density, and the universe emerged, emerging and very hot, from that singularity.

But the singularity is not describable with Einstein’s theory. The theory fails: everything goes to infinity. The density of the universe goes to infinity.

The curvature of spacetime goes to infinity. All the properties we normally use to describe the universe and its contents just fail.

Experts just say, “Let’s assume the universe sprang into existence, start our decription a tiny fraction of a second after that, run the clock forward and never ask where it came from.”

Turok’s theory:

“Imagine two sheets on a washing line, and they’re very close together, very nearly parallel. Those are two-dimensional sheets; ours are three-dimensional.”

“Think of it as two intimately intertwined objects which are nevertheless able to exert force on each other, a pull. The Big Bang is the touching of those two sheets. When they touch, they release that energy.”

Interestingly, Turok’s theory hasn’t always been well-received by Christians, for whom the Big Bang dovetails neatly with their creation myths.

Conversely, New Age types have embraced this scientific picture of a cyclical universe without beginning or end. Turok, for his part, doesn’t want any such attention.

I see religion and science as being two completely different things,” he said.

Science studies how the world operates, not why it?’s here. I think the world is an incredible miracle, and we have to do whatever we can to appreciate it.”

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Pass it on: New Scientist

Leftovers From The Moon’s Formation May Have Tunnelled To The Earth’s Core

The origin of our moon has long been debated.

Now, a scientist has claimed that Earth effectively ‘gave birth‘ to the moon four-and-a-half billion years ago.

A controversial new theory has been proposed that a giant explosion equivalent to 40 billion atomic bombs originating from the Earth’s core somehow led to the formation of the moon.

Planetary scientist Wim van Westrenen believes this violent event took place approximately four-and-a-half billion years ago and could answer the hotly contested question of where our moon comes from.

The scientist, from VU University in Amsterdam said that previous explanations about how the moon came to be simply do not add up.

Charles Darwin’s son, astronomer George Darwin, proposed that the early Earth spun so fast that it fell apart, hurling a part of itself into space that became the moon.





His theory was popular but was then eclipsed by the giant impact hypothesis, or ‘big splat‘, which said that a Mars-sized object crashed into an infant Earth and shattered on impact, the magazine reported.

In this theory, the debris formed the moon. However, it was largely thrown-out when astronauts brought back rocks from the Apollo moon landings.

Chemical analysis of the rocks last year by the University of Chicago found that they shared identical oxygen, silicon and potassium isotopes with Earth, hinting that the Moon shares its origin with the Earth.

Van Westeren said that taken at face value, the findings suggest that the moon was once part of the Earth that was blasted into space by an enormous explosion from the Earth’s fiery core.

To do this, he believes that there must have been a ‘massive energy kick‘ delivered quickly and he calculates that the explosion was the strength of 40 billion atomic bombs the size of those dropped on Hiroshima.

The idea that the Earth’s core harbours a huge nuclear reactor has been around for over 60 years.

There is also evidence of much smaller natural fossil reactors up to 10 metres across in West Africa that were active around 10 billion years ago.

This theory of  an internal nuclear reactor could explain why Earth gives out more energy than it receives from the sun.

However, experts have said that even if evidence of “global georeactors” was found, many scientists would need convincing that they were capable of creating the moon.

There are many conflicting ideas of exactly how the moon came to be and scientists are starting to re-question older theories.

Matija Cuk, a planetary scientist at Harvard University said: “I don’t think you can separate the moon’s formation from a giant impact.”

But he draws upon Darwin’s idea and the big splat and believes that a peculiar alignment of the sun, earth and moon is the reason why the moon orbits the Earth.

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Pass it on: New Scientist

Facebook Is Developing A Harry Potter-Style System That Makes Your Profile Pictures Smile And Wink

Facebook is developing new ‘reactive profile pictures‘ that pull faces like the cheeky portraits at Hogwarts in Harry Potter.

The new feature will make your photo smile and wink in response to likes and comments on your page.

The tool can take a single image of a face and animate it with happy, sad or angry expressions by mapping it to the movement of real people’s faces.

Researchers at Tel Aviv University, Israel, developed the software, called ‘bringing portraits to life‘, alongside Facebook.




While the effect looks slightly bizarre, a study found half of people who saw the animations were tricked into thinking they were real.

The system is improving all the time, the researchers said. “I think eventually they will be completely indistinguishable from real videos,” lead researcher Hadar Averbuch-Elor said.

The tool creates animations using a ‘base‘ video of a completely different person. The ‘model‘ does not have to be the same gender or look anything like the person in the profile photo.

The expression the model makes is mapped directly onto the eyes, mouth, cheeks and other parts of the profile photo’s face so that it looks like animated movement.

But the animations aren’t perfect – when people smile their mouth often goes from tight-lipped to a toothy grin.

But from a single image the software doesn’t know what the subject’s teeth look like.

It therefore has to map the pearly whites of the base video onto the profile photo to match up the expressions.

We found that if we change the teeth people don’t notice too much,” Ms Averbuch-Elor, who is a PhD student at the university, said.

In a set of videos about the new feature, the tam showcased several ways Facebook could use the moving pictures in future.

Ahead of the project’s Facebook collaboration, in future the tool could be linked with AI language processing when you are messaging someone.

This means that, rather than a static image, your recipient will see an animated version of the person reacting to what’s being said.

The software will be presented at the Conference on Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques in Bangkok, Thailand later this month.

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Pass it on: New Scientist

Europa: Facts About Jupiter’s Icy Moon And Its Ocean

Europa is one of the Galilean moons of Jupiter, along with Io, Ganymede and Callisto. Astronomer Galileo Galilei gets the credit for discovering these moons, among the largest in the solar system.

Europa is the smallest of the four but it is one of the more intriguing satellites.

The surface of Europa is frozen, covered with a layer of ice, but scientists think there is an ocean beneath the surface. The icy surface also makes the moon one of the most reflective in the solar system.

Water plumes were spotted jetting from the moon in 2013, although those observations have not been repeated.

Several spacecraft have done flybys of Europa (including Pioneers 10 and 11 and Voyagers 1 and 2 in the 1970s).

The Galileo spacecraft did a long-term mission at Jupiter and its moons between 1995 and 2003.

Both NASA and the European Space Agency plan missions to Europa and other moons in the 2030s.




Galileo Galilei discovered Europa on Jan. 8, 1610. It is possible that German astronomer Simon Marius (1573-1624) also discovered the moon at the same time.

However, he did not publish his observations, so it is Galileo who is most often credited with the discovery. For this reason, Europa and Jupiter’s other three largest moons are often called the Galilean moons.

Galileo, however, called the moons the Medicean planets in honor of the Medici family.

It is possible Galileo actually observed Europa a day earlier, on Jan. 7, 1610. However, because he was using a low-powered telescope, he couldn’t differentiate Europa from Io, another of Jupiter’s moons.

It wasn’t until later that Galileo realized they were two separate bodies.

The discovery not only had astronomical, but also religious implications. At the time, the Catholic Church supported the idea that everything orbited the Earth, an idea supported in ancient times by Aristotle and Ptolemy.

Galileo’s observations of Jupiter’s moons as well as noticing that Venus went through “phases” similar to our own moon gave compelling evidence that not everything revolved around the Earth.

As telescopic observations improved, however, a new view of the universe emerged.

The moons and the planets were not unchanging and perfect; for example, mountains seen on the moon showed that geological processes happened elsewhere. Also, all planets revolved around the sun.

Over time, moons around other planets were discovered and additional moons found around Jupiter.

Marius, the other “discoverer,” first proposed that the four moons be given their current names, from Greek mythology.

But it wasn’t until the 19th century that the moons were officially given the so-called Galilean names we know them by today.

All of Jupiter’s moons are named for the god’s lovers (or victims, depending on your point of view).

In Greek mythology, Europa was abducted by Zeus, who had taken the form of a spotless white bull to seduce her.

She decorated the “bull” with flowers and rode on its back to Crete. Once in Crete, Zeus then transformed back to his original form and seduced her.

Europa was the queen of Crete and bore Zeus many children.

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Pass it on: New Scientist

“Nightmare” Star Flares Dim Odds For Alien Life?

According to a new study, Jupiter-size planets in close orbits around their stars can make their middle-age stellar parents unexpectedly regain the violence of youth.

Such stars produce gigantic flares, which could shower otherwise habitable planets with dangerous radiation, searing blasts of heat, and ozone-destroying ultraviolet light.

In a related study, astronomers also found that old, dim stars in tight-knit pairs appear to be experiencing a similar effect, producing mega-flares that quickly and suddenly brighten the stars by up to 10 percent.

Young stars are often spinning very rapidly shortly after birth, creating strong magnetic fields.

Various forces on the star’s surface cause magnetic field lines to get tied into knots, which produce flares and other types of radiation bursts.




An extreme example is the red dwarf star YZ CMi, a young star that’s probably only a few hundred million years old. By contrast, our sun is considered middle aged, at 4.5 billion years old.

YZ CMi rotates on its axis once every 2.8 days, nearly ten times faster than the sun. This spin is fast enough to produce stunningly violent flares, said Adam Kowalski, a graduate student at the University of Washington.

In 2009, Kowalski watched as a particularly large flare jacked up YZ CMi’s ultraviolet emissions by a factor of more than 200—enough to totally wreck the ozone layer of any rocky world orbiting within the star’s habitable zone.

As a star ages, its spin will slow, which should tame its violence.

Our sun, for example, still goes through cycles of activity and produces flares—some of which can be powerful enough to disable satellites or knock out power grids—but nothing on the scale of YZ CMi.

Recently, however, Villanova University astronomer Edward Guinan saw giant x-ray flares, large star spots, and powerful coronal mass ejections coming from a star that should be about the same age as the sun.

HD 189733 is an orange dwarf star that’s 80 percent the size of the sun but that spins twice as fast: once every 12 days. Based on its activity levels, the star would seem to be about 600 million years old.

The hyperactive star has a distant, more sedate companion star, which astronomers estimate is at least 4.5 billion years old.

That’s puzzling, since the two stars almost certainly formed at the same time and should be the same age, Guinan said.

Astronomers don’t know if the HD 189733 system hosts any rocky, Earthlike worlds. But thanks to the hot Jupiter, the star’s youthful behavior would likely spell doom for life on any other potential planets.

The stars are so close they are tidally locked, which means that one side of a star always faces its companion, just as one side of the moon always faces Earth.

Some of the tightest pairs orbit each other—and therefore spin on their axes—once every three days, Kowalski said, “which is really fast.”

And the intense activity coming from such rapidly spinning stars would put a serious damper on the chances of life existing on nearby planets.

According to UC Berkeley’s Marcy, “it’s interesting that the most numerous stars in our galaxies pose these risks.”

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Pass it on: New Scientist

Voyager 1 Just Fired Up its Backup Thrusters For The 1st Time In 37 Years

NASA’s far-flung Voyager 1 spacecraft has taken its backup thrusters out of mothballs.

Voyager 1 hadn’t used its four “trajectory correction maneuver” (TCM) thrusters since November 1980, during the spacecraft’s last planetary flyby — an epic encounter with Saturn.

But mission team members fired them up again Tuesday (Nov. 28), to see whether the TCM thrusters were still ready for primetime.

The little engines passed the test with flying colors, NASA officials said.

The Voyager team got more excited each time with each milestone in the thruster test,” Todd Barber, a propulsion engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, said in a statement.

The mood was one of relief, joy and incredulity after witnessing these well-rested thrusters pick up the baton as if no time had passed at all.




As Barber’s words suggest, the mission team didn’t do this out of idle curiosity.

Voyager 1 which in August 2012 became the first human-made object ever to enter interstellar space has long been using its standard attitude-control thrusters to orient itself into the proper position to communicate with Earth.

But the performance of these thrusters has been flagging for at least three years, so mission team members wanted to find an alternative option.

A successful test was far from guaranteed. Not only was the long layoff a potential issue, but the TCM thrusters were designed to burn continuously for relatively long stretches.

They had never been fired in the very short bursts employed for attitude control, NASA officials said.

The Voyager flight team dug up decades-old data and examined the software that was coded in an outdated assembler language, to make sure we could safely test the thrusters,” Chris Jones, chief engineer at JPL, said in the same statement.

The plan is now to press the TCM engines into service in the attitude-control role, beginning in January. This should make a big difference for the mission, team members said.

But the four TCM thrusters will likely be retired again at some point in the future.

Each one requires a heater to operate, which in turn uses power.

When Voyager 1’s power supply gets too low, the probe’s handlers will switch back to the attitude-control thrusters, NASA officials said.

Voyager 1 and its twin, Voyager 2, launched a few weeks apart in 1977 to conduct an unprecedented “grand tour” of the solar system’s giant planets Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.

The spacecraft accomplished this goal, and then kept on flying. Voyager 2 is expected to join its sibling in interstellar space in the next few years, NASA officials said.

The mission team will probably do a similar TCM test on Voyager 2 at some point, but that spacecraft’s attitude-control thrusters are in better shape than those of Voyager 1, NASA officials said.

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Pass it on: Popular Science

Smartphone Addiction Can Lead To Chemical Imbalance In Brain

Smartphone and internet addiction can cause a chemical imbalance in the brain, especially in young people, according to new research released this week at the Radiological Society of North America.

As scientists continue to evaluate the physical and emotional effects of an increasingly screen-dependent population, researchers in South Korea found that teenagers addicted to their smartphones had increased levels of two types of neurotransmitters involved in a number of emotional and cognitive functions.




They included gamma aminobutyric acid, or GABA, which slows down brain signals and is involved in vision and motor control and helps regulate emotions including anxiety.

The second chemical is glutamate-glutamine (Glx) and is known to cause neurons to fire more rapidly.

The study evaluated 19 young people with an average age of 15, who were diagnosed with an internet or smartphone addiction, compared to 19 healthy-controls.

The addicted youth also reported higher instances of depression, anxiety, insomnia severity and impulsiveness, in comparison with the “healthy” controls.

Using a Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy (MRS) brain scan, researchers found that the addicted youth had higher elevations of both GABA and Glx compared to the controls, although the researchers said more study is needed to understand the exact implications of the imbalance.

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Pass it on: New Scientist

Graphene Could Soon Make Your Computer 1000 Times Faster

Researchers from several universities have teamed up to develop a radical kind of transistor.

Instead of using silicon, the team used graphene to build a logic gate series that uses less power but could work 1,000 times faster than current ones.

The discovery of graphene in 2004 began a flurry of studies to isolate other two-dimensional materials. Graphene was found to be a wonder material, possessing a set of unique and remarkable properties.

One of these is its ability to conduct electricity ten times better than copper, the most commonly used conductor in electronics.

At room temperature, graphene is also capable of conducting electricity 250 times better than silicon, a rate faster than any other known substance.




These properties led a team of researchers from Northwestern University, The University of Texas at Dallas (UT Dallas), University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and University of Central Florida (UCF) to consider developing a graphene-based transistor.

In a study published in the journal Nature Communications, the team found that a graphene-based transistor could actually work better than silicon transistors used in today’s computers.

A quick explanation first: Transistors are key in today’s computer circuits, as these act as on and off switches that allow electronic signals and electrical power through.

When put together, transistors form logic gates — the core of microprocessors, serving as input and output and acting either as 0s or 1s (so-called binary bits).

These are what allow microprocessors to solve logic and computing problems.

If you want to continue to push technology forward, we need faster computers to be able to run bigger and better simulations for climate science, for space exploration, for Wall Street,” co-author Ryan Gelfand, an assistant professor at UCF, said in a press release.

To get there, we can’t rely on silicon transistors anymore.

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Pass it on: New Scientist

Cold War Spy Boat Uncovers Shipwreck From Start Of Alexander The Great Conquest

Archeologists used the spy boat as well as drones to find three shipwrecks on the Mediterranean seabed.

One of the shipwrecks dated back over 2,000 years and suggests there was a vast network of trade during the rise Ancient Greek cities such as Athens.

Ben Ballard, the team leader of the Ocean Exploration Trust (OET), said: “If our dates are correct, this is just as Alexander the Great is beginning his conquest.

Alexander the Great, was a king of the Ancient Greek kingdom of Macedon and a member of the Argead dynasty.

The discovery follows Mr Ballard and his colleagues exploring the Eratosthenes seamount in expeditions backed by the OET in 2010 and 2012.




The technology used to scan the seamount included underwater drones and the OET’s Nautilus vessel which was originally a spy boat built by East Germany in the 1970s.

The team ended up finding two shipwrecks and 70 artifacts in 2010.

Mr Ballard is following in the footsteps of his father, Robert, who discovered the wreck of the Titanic.

News of the discovery has come after archaeologists earlier this year stumbled upon a lost city thought to have been founded by Alexander the Great.

Qalatga Darband in northern Iraq, believed to have been founded in 331 BBC, was discovered by a team of Iraqi and British archaeologists led by experts from the British Museum.

The city was found with the help of drones and declassified satellite photographs taken for military purposes.

John MacGinnis, the archaeologist leading the team in Iraq, told The Times: “It’s early days, but we think it would have been a bustling city on a road from Iraq to Iran.

You can imagine people supplying wine to soldiers passing through.”

The site was first brought to the attention of archaeologists at the British Museum when the declassified CIA satellite photos from the 1960s were released.

The team then used drones equipped with a camera to discover the outlines of buildings hidden beneath fields of wheat and barley.

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Pass it on: New Scientist