Category: News Posts

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

Sky Watching Tips And Tricks For Cold Northern Nights

For much of the contiguous United States this winter has been marked by perpetual ice, snow as well as the now infamous polar vortex.

Such conditions might make even the most committed stargazer think twice before venturing outdoors.

Stepping outside to enjoy a view of the constellation Orion, Jupiter or even just the waxing moon these frosty nights takes only a minute or two, but if you plan to stay outside longer, remember that enjoying the starry winter sky requires protection against the cold temperatures.




The best garments are a hooded ski parka and ski pants, both of which are lightweight and provide excellent insulation. And remember your feet.

Two pairs of warm socks in loose-fitting shoes are quite adequate; for protracted observing on bitter-cold nights wear insulated boots.

Reach for the binoculars

In weather like this, one quickly will realize the advantage of using a pair of good binoculars over a telescope.

A person who attempts to set even a so-called “portable” scope up in bitter temperatures or blustery winds might give up even before he or she got started.

But binoculars can be hand-held and will produce some quickly magnified images of celestial objects before rushing back inside to escape the frigidity.

Transparency

In their handy observing guide, “The Stars” (Golden Press, N.Y.), authors Herbert Zim and Robert Baker write that “the sky is never clearer than on cold, sparkling winter nights.

“It is at these times that the fainter stars are seen in great profusion. Then the careful observer can pick out dim borderline stars and nebulae that cannot be seen when the sky is less clear.

What Zim and Baker were referring to is sky transparency, which is always at its best during the winter season. That’s because Earth’s atmosphere is not as hazy because it is less moisture laden.

Cold air has less capacity to hold moisture, therefore the air is drier and thus much clearer as opposed to the summer months when the sky appears hazier.

But this clarity can also come at a price.

Seeing through the twinkles

If you step outside on one of those “cold, sparkling nights” you might notice the stars twinkling vibrantly.

This is referred to as scintillation, and to the casual observer looking skyward, they might think of such a backdrop as the perfect night for an astronomer, but it isn’t.

This is because when looking skyward, skywatchers are trying to see the sky through various layers of a turbulent atmosphere.

Were we to train a telescope on a star, or a bright planet like Mars, what we would end up with is a distorted image that either seems to shake or quiver or simply “boils” to the extent that you really can’t see very much in terms of any detail.

Forecasting sky conditions

If you own a telescope, you don’t need to wait for balmy summer nights to get good views. Usually, a few days after a big storm or frontal passage, the center of a dome of high pressure will build in to bring clear skies and less wind.

And while the sky might not seem quite as “crisp” or “pristine” as it was a few days earlier, the calming effect of less winds will afford you a view of less turbulent and clearer images through your telescope.

More comfortable nights ahead

If you plan on heading out on a cold winter’s night — and if you’re doing it while under a dome of high pressure — the fact that there is less wind means not only potentially good seeing, but also more comfort viewing conditions.

The end of winter is in sight though. The Northern Hemisphere is officially halfway through the winter season and milder, more comfortable nights are within reach.

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Pass it on: Popular Science

 

Ocado’s Collaborative Robot Is Getting Closer To Factory Work

Retailer Ocado is getting closer to creating an autonomous humanoid robot that can help engineers fix mechanical faults in its factories.

The firm’s latest robot, ARMAR-6, has a human-looking torso, arms with eight degrees of freedom, hands that can grip and a head with cameras inside. But it doesn’t have legs and is equipped with a large wheeled base that lets it move around.

To this end, ARMAR-6 uses a three camera systems inside its head to help it detect and recognize humans and objects; speech recognition helps it understand commands; and its hands are able to pick-up and grasp objects.




At present, the robot is still a prototype but getting to this point has taken two and a half years. Four European universities have been working to create each of the systems, under the EU’s Horizon2020 project.

The retailer has already automated large parts of its warehouse operation. Its 90,000-square-metre Dordon warehouse, near Birmingham, has 8,000 crates moving around it at any one time, across 35 kilometers of conveyor belts.

However, components can break and require maintenance. This is where future versions of the ARMAR-6 robot will come in.

Other training tasks that have been worked on include getting it to find a spray bottle, pick it up, and then handing it across to a human.

 

At the moment, this is a prescribed sequence,” Deacon says. “But the ultimate aim is for the robot to be able to recognize where in a maintenance task the technician is and understand from its behavioral repertoire what will be a good thing for it to do in order to assist the technician.”

Ocado’s humanoid project runs under the banner of Secondhands and involves engineers and computer scientists from EPFL, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, Sapienza Università di Roma, and University College London.

Each university has developed individual elements of the ARMAR-6 system.

The firm first laid out the ambitious plans for the collaborative robot in 2015. Since then, it has worked on a number of robotics projects.

Most recently, it revealed its robotic arm that can pick-up items using suction. It’s planned the gripper will be used in the company’s factories to lift and place thousands of different items into the shopping of its customers.

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Pass it on: New Scientist

Is Yoga Good Exercise?

From CrossFit to Insanity workouts, exercise has lately trended toward the extreme. But physical activity doesn’t always have to be vigorous to be effective.

While it may seem mellow compared to most training programs, yoga’s health benefits keep pace—and often outdistance—what many people would call “traditional” forms of exercise.

For starters, research shows regular yoga practice lowers your risk for heart disease and hypertension. Yoga may also lessen symptoms of depression, headaches, diabetes, some forms of cancer and pain-related diseases like arthritis.




Yoga also seems to combat weight gain.

One 4-year study from Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center found middle-aged adults who practiced yoga at least once a week gained 3 fewer pounds than those who stuck with other forms of exercise.

The same study found overweight adults who practice yoga lost 5 pounds, while a non-yoga group gained 13 pounds. Those results held even when the authors accounted for different eating habits.

How can a little bending and stretching do all that? Unlike exercises like running or lifting weights—both of which crank up your heart rate and stimulate your nervous system—yoga does just the opposite.

It puts you in a parasympathetic state, so your heart rate goes down and blood pressure goes down,” says Dr. Tiffany Field, director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine.

Field has published an in-depth review of yoga’s potential health benefits. She says the types and varieties of movement involved in yoga stimulate pressure receptors in your skin, which in turn ramp up your brain and body’s vagal activity.

Your vagus nerve connects your brain to several of your organs, and it also plays a role in hormone production and release.

All of this may explain yoga’s research-backed ties to a healthier heart, as well as its ability to slash your stress, improve your mood, quell your appetite and help you sleep more soundly, Field says.

When you consider the health perks linked to each of those brain and body benefits—lower inflammation, lower body weight, lower disease risk—you could make an argument that few activities are as good for you as yoga.

One thing yoga doesn’t do, though, is burn loads of calories. Even hot forms of yoga like Bikram result in modest energy expenditures—roughly the number of calories you’d burn during a brisk walk.

While more and more research suggests calories shouldn’t be your sole focus when it comes to diet and exercise, there’s no question that running, swimming, lifting weights and other more-vigorous forms of exercise are great for your brain and body.

Yoga is unquestionably good for you, Field says, but it should be done in tandem with traditional forms of physical activity—not in place of them.

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Pass it on: New Scientist