Friday, October 31, 2008
- NewScientist.com news service
- Rachel Courtland
The Hubble Space Telescope has reawakened and is taking its first pictures of the sky after a series of glitches left it idle for a full month.
Engineers successfully booted up the probe's main camera, the Wide-Field Planetary Camera 2, on Saturday. The instrument, which is set to be swapped out in 2009 during the telescope's last servicing mission, is now taking its last scheduled images of the sky.
"It is a relief that everything is working well," says Rodger Doxsey, head of the Hubble mission office at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland. "We did a few calibration observations, which worked fine, and then restarted science observing with it over the weekend."
Hubble has been mostly dormant since late September, when a device needed to collect and process data from the telescope's science instruments failed.
In an attempt to revive the probe, NASA successfully switched the device over to a back-up "B-side" about two weeks ago. The switch also involved other devices housed in Hubble's main control unit for science instruments, the Science Instrument Command and Data Handling (SI C&DH) unit.
But problems with the unit sent the telescope back into standby, or "safe", mode on 16 October, before the probe's science instruments could be turned back on.
Now that the Wide-Field Planetary Camera 2 is operating again, mission managers are planning to switch on the telescope's two other cameras.
Engineers will next attempt to restart the telescope's Advanced Camera for Surveys, which shut down last week due to a timing problem between two software routines. The camera's ultraviolet sensor, the Solar Blind Channel, is the only one that still works on the ACS – power problems knocked out the camera's two other channels in 2007.
Testing is currently being conducted on Hubble's infrared camera, called NICMOS (Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer), to see if it can interface with the "B-side" of the instrument control unit, Doxsey told New Scientist.
NICMOS, which is used to observe faint, distant galaxies, has been incapacitated since September, when problems turned up in the spectrometer's cooling unit. If testing goes well, engineers will turn on the cooling unit and start the camera in the next few weeks.
The fifth and final shuttle mission to the telescope was originally scheduled to take off on 14 October, but the mission was put on hold in order to prepare a spare SI C&DH unit to be sent up on the shuttle.
A new launch date for the servicing mission has not been set, but NASA has been eyeing an opening in February. Some officials say that target could be optimistic, as the replacement part may have undiagnosed problems.
Some wines have been found to contain high levels of metals such as copper, zinc and nickel
Having just one glass of wine a day could expose the drinker to potentially dangerous levels of metals linked to cancer, heart attacks and Parkinson's disease, scientists warn.
A study claims that some wines contain dangerously high levels of naturally occurring metals such as copper, zinc and nickel.
The highest levels of contamination were found in wines from Hungary and Slovakia. French wines were third on the list.
However, the wine industry and Britain's food watchdog urged drinkers not to panic, saying that the levels of metals were within recognised safety levels.
The study looked at the reported levels of metal ions - or charged atoms - in around 100 bottles of wines from 16 countries. The metals naturally occur in the soil and are absorbed by growing vines.
Researchers at Kingston University in London used a new technique developed by American experts to measure the risk to regular drinkers over many years.
The tool - called a target hazard quotient (THQ) - gives an indication of risk based on the known safe upper dose for each metal and the likely long-term exposure of someone drinking one glass of wine a day.
Professor Declan Naughton, who reports the findings in Chemistry Central Journal, said the only wines that posed no risk to health were from Argentina, Brazil and Italy.
'If you have a THQ of more than one then you should be concerned,' said Professor Naughton.
'In the past we have seen seafood contaminated with mercury with a THQ level of 20. But here we were seeing levels up to 300. It was astonishing and it gives cause for concern.'
Critics of THQs say the technique exaggerates the risk by assuming that all pollutants in food or drink enter the bloodstream.
However, Professor Naughton said they actually underestimated the risk to older or infirm drinkers who were more vulnerable to contaminants.
Wines from Hungary and Slovakia were found to have the highest levels of metal contamination
The study found high levels of a host of metals including copper, nickel, zinc, chromium, manganese and vanadium in both red and white wine. Levels of lead were below the dangerous levels. Professor Naughton called for more, urgent, research into the risk to health.
'Excess intake of metal ions is credited with pathological events such as Parkinson's disease,' he said.
'In addition to neurological problems, these ions are also believed to enhance oxidative damage, a key component of chronic inflammatory disease which is a suggested initiator cancer'.
He said the wine industry should take 'urgent steps' to remove hazardous metals during production, and that regulatory authorities should consider putting the levels of metals on the labels of wine.
But The Wine and Spirit Trade Association urged drinkers not to panic.
A spokesman said: 'All wine sold in the UK has to comply with European legislation governing ingredients and the wine-making process and UK food safety legislation.
'There is strong scientific evidence testifying to the health benefits of moderate consumption of alcohol.'
The Food Standards Agency said: 'From the information the agency has it would appear that the researchers have used a method that is not widely used in Europe.
'When carrying out research in this area the Agency looks at actual exposure levels and based on previous research into dietary exposure to metals there is no reason for consumers to be concerned.'
Risk list?1. Hungarian, 2. Slovakian, 3. French, 4. Austrian, 5. Spanish, 6. German,
7. Portuguese, 8. Greek, 9. Czech, 10. Jordanian, 11. Macedonian, 12. Serbian
When you see somebody you hate, whether it's an evil ex or a mean colleague, your brain undergoes a rather unexpected transformation. A new study published in PLoS One today reveals that hatred isn't the blind, irrational emotion it might seem. In fact, hate activates the brain regions associated with higher reason and the ability to predict what other people will do.
British neuroscientists did fMRI brain scans of subjects while they looked at pictures of people they claimed to hate. As a baseline, they also showed them pictures of people they felt neutrally about. Not surprisingly, hatred activated the regions of the brain associated with aggression and the motor regions that would translate this aggression into action. And given that love often turns into hate, it's not too surprising that hatred also activates two brain regions, the putamen and the insula, associated with passionate, romantic love.
What is surprising is the degree to which hatred is associated with logic and planning. The researchers write in their paper:
What seems not to be in doubt is that this cortical zone involves the premotor cortex, a zone that has been implicated in the preparation of motor planning and its execution. We hypothesize that the sight of a hated person mobilizes the motor system for the possibility of attack or defense. In addition, the involvement of the frontal pole consider to be critical in predicting the action of others, arguably an important feature when confronted by a hated person . . . it is more likely that in
the context of hate the hater may want to exercise judgment in calculating moves to harm, injure or otherwise extract revenge.
So basically, hating somebody heightens your judgment and your ability to assess what other people are likely to do next. The researchers note that in this way hatred is neurologically unlike love, which tends to deactivate judgment.
Semir Zeki, one of the authors, suggested that they are on the path to developing tools that might allow researchers to figure out how much somebody hates another person just by doing a brain scan. Somehow, he imagines this might be used in court:
Interestingly, the activity in some of these structures in response to viewing a hated face is proportional in strength to the declared intensity of hate, thus allowing the subjective state of hate to be objectively quantified. This finding may have legal implications in criminal cases, for example.
Given that hate crimes lead to tougher sentences many states, Zeki might well be right. If a court can prove that somebody committed an act of violence while under the influence of hate, that person might go to jail for a much longer time than they would otherwise.
A new survey has found that men think blondes are better as girlfriends, but brunettes are the best for settling down with.
Almost one in five say blondes are sexier than other girls, with just under half saying they had more outgoing personalities.
When it comes to marriage, however, more than half said they would rather wed a dark-haired woman because they were more dependable and sensible.
Hairdresser Andrew Collinge's company carried out the poll.
"It's always been said that blondes have more fun and men obviously enjoy going out for dates with blondes as well as upgrading them to girlfriend status," he said.
"But when it comes to marriage, men seem to opt for brunettes as they see them as more dependable and down-to-earth.
"This is really surprising when you think we're in 2008 and the blonde versus brunette debate is still rumbling on - I'm surprised as I thought men were more modern than this! I'm obviously in the minority as I married a blonde."
Out of a poll of 3,000 men, almost half said dark-haired women were the most loving.
Mr Collinge added: "This just goes to show how important first impressions are to men, however it doesn't mean it's time to rush to the salon for a drastic image change - at the end of the day, men marry a person not just a head of hair.
"It's more important that women are happy and confident in who they are and how they look, and make the most of what they have.
"It's all about having a good relationship with yourself that makes you attractive."
Men also felt brunettes were the best homemakers with 51 per cent thinking they were best at organising the home, while 48 per cent thought they were the best cooks.Original here
Physicists get CSI on the LHC.
Physicists are close to finalizing a repair plan for the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the world's most powerful particle accelerator located at CERN, near Geneva in Switzerland.
The LHC has been out of commission since mid-September after an electrical fault destroyed part of the machine and caused several tonnes of liquid helium to leak into the tunnel (see 'Eight month delay for LHC'). The incident damaged up to 29 of the LHC's superconducting magnets and contaminated the pristine 'beam pipe' that carries protons around the collider's ring. Physicists hope to have the machine repaired and ready for first collisions by May or June 2009.
But simply replacing the damaged magnets will not be enough — physicists and engineers at CERN must also ensure that a similar accident cannot occur in the future. "The real question is how did this happen?" says Lucio Rossi, a CERN physicist who's helping to oversee the repairs.
The heart of the problem
The answer lies at the heart of the LHC's cutting-edge technology. The collider steers fast-moving protons around its 27-kilometre ring using magnetic fields of more than 8 Tesla — roughly a hundred thousand times that of Earth. High fields require high currents, and if the LHC used standard copper coils it would need its own 1,000-megawatt power station. So, to save energy and money, physicists use superconducting niobium–titanium cables. These cables, each as wide as a finger, can carry thousands of amps of current without any resistance — but only when cooled to 1.9 kelvin (–271.3°C).
“It's like a killing, the victim cannot talk.”
The physicists investigating the failure are focusing on a faulty connection between the cables that make up the LHC's electrical 'bus' — the route for supplying current to the magnets.
During a power test on 19 September, a section of bus where two cables were spliced together began to warm up. As soon as it crossed the superconducting temperature barrier, the joint became unable to support the 8,700 amps passing through it. The connection melted and the current arced to other parts of the machine, punching a hole through the vacuum vessel and the beam pipe. Six tonnes of liquid helium escaped through the hole, doing further damage to nearby magnets.
The current was so powerful that it vaporized much of the wire, so there's no way to tell for sure what happened, Rossi says: "It's like a killing, the victim cannot talk." But Lyn Evans, who heads up the LHC project, says that physicists and engineers "are sure" that a faulty splice caused the accident. The high current probably led the defective connection to gradually come undone, raising the resistance until the bus lost its superconductivity.
All the king's horses
The key to preventing a similar disaster will be detecting faults in time, Rossi says. The enormous currents inside the LHC cannot simply be switched off, as it takes around a minute for heating coils and bypass circuits to dissipate the power contained inside the magnets. In order to have sufficient stopping time, he says, "we will have to detect the effect when a precursor appears."
Fortunately, it seems that early detection will be possible. On the basis of tests conducted on 24 October, Rossi says he is confident that LHC operators will be able to detect millivolt changes in the electrical bus — indicative of an impending failure — soon enough to divert the thousands of amps coursing through the machine's cables. Engineers are also looking at the possibility of detecting tiny increases in the temperature of liquid helium around the wire, another warning sign.
The improved detection system alone should be enough to prevent a future accident of this type, says Jim Strait, a physicist consulting for CERN from the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, America's high-energy physics laboratory in Batavia, Illinois. "I'm highly confident that an event of the same sort will not happen again," he says.
CERN physicists and engineers are also hoping to minimize the damage from future failures by providing more emergency outlets for the liquid helium inside the machine. In the minutes following the accident, the liquid helium around the bus vaporized and rapidly expanded into the surrounding vacuum vessel with such force that it was able to push magnets off their concrete stands. The damage occurred in part because the relief valves meant to prevent a pressure build-up were overwhelmed by the surge.
Evans says that the group is planning to add more relief valves to the machine. And Rossi says that they are also looking at replacing some steel bolts on the vacuum vessel with plastic ones that will fail when pressure builds up, allowing still more outlets through which helium can escape.
"That doesn't mean that there won't be faults one hasn't foreseen," warns Strait. "But improvements in vacuum relief will limit collateral damage." Making the necessary repairs and modifications to the machine in time for a restart in May 2009 will be a "big job", he adds. But, he says, "I have seen CERN do other things where the naysayers said that it couldn't be done. And they did it."
Psychologists have found that while both parents influence the attractiveness of their daughters, male attractiveness is not inherited.
Handsome men with masculine looks are likely to pass on masculine features, but not facial attractiveness.
Prof David Perrett and Prof Elisabeth Cornwell, of the University of St Andrews, also said that a mother's beauty made no difference to the attractiveness of her sons as adults.
The theory suggests it is not unusual for attractive parents to produce a beautiful daughter while failing to pass on the same good looks to a son.
While many celebrity mothers produce stunning daughters - such as Goldie Hawn and her daughter Kate Hudson or Jerry Hall and her daughter Georgia - the same is not necessarily true of celebrity fathers.
Sean Stewart, the son of Rod Stewart and his first wife Alana, would probably be judged less attractive than his model sister Kimberly.
Prof Perrett said it has previously been suggested that a woman could increase her own reproductive success by choosing a "sexy" mate whose genes would be passed on to male offspring, making them irresistible to the next generation.
But the new study, published in the current edition of the journal Animal Behaviour, contradicts the theory.
He said: "We checked to see if male and female facial traits are inherited. For the male line, we find that facial masculinity conforms to the rule 'like father - like son'. Masculine dads have masculine sons.
"But we did not find any evidence that facial attractiveness is passed from father to son.
"We are perplexed as to why we did not find any evidence for the inheritance of attractiveness in males, through either the female or male parent.
"The answer may be because women vary considerably in the extent to which they find masculinity attractive.
"We know that attractive feminine women show a strong preference for masculine male faces for long-term partners."
The researchers studied the family photo albums of students, collecting images of over 100 females and 100 males and their respective biological parents taken over several years.
The photos of each student, father and mother were rated separately for attractiveness, and for femininity/masculinity.
They found evidence that attractiveness passed from both father and mother to daughter, and also that attractive fathers were more likely to produce attractive, feminine daughters, whether the mother was attractive or not.
Earlier research in America found that attractive parents were 26 per cent more likely to have a daughter than a son as their first child - a statistic apparently borne out by Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie's first child.
In that study the researches concluded that "beautiful parents have more daughters than ugly parents".Original here
Dogs are the only animals that can read emotion in faces much like humans, cementing their position as man's best friend, claim scientists.
Research findings suggest that, like an understanding best friend, they can see at a glance if we are happy, sad, pleased or angry.
When humans look at a new face their eyes tend to wander left, falling on the right hand side of the person's face first.
This "left gaze bias" only occurs when we encounter faces and does not apply any other time, such as when inspecting animals or inanimate objects.
A possible reason for the tendency is that the right side of the human face is better at expressing emotional state.
Researchers at the University of Lincoln have now shown that pet dogs also exhibit "left gaze bias", but only when looking at human faces. No other animal has been known to display this behaviour before.
A team led by Dr Kun Guo showed 17 dogs images of human, dog and monkey faces as well as inanimate objects.
Film of the dogs' eye and head movement revealed a strong left gaze bias when the animals were presented with human faces. But this did not occur when they were shown other images, including those of dogs.
"Guo suggests that over thousands of generations of association with humans, dogs may have evolved the left gaze bias as a way to gauge our emotions," New Scientist magazine reported.
"Recent studies show that the right side of our faces can express emotions more accurately and more intensely than the left, including anger. If true, then it makes sense for dogs - and humans - to inspect the right hand side of a face first."
Surprisingly, when the dogs in the study were shown an upside-down human face, they still looked left. In contrast, humans lose their left gaze bias altogether when shown an inverted face.
This may be because the right side of a dog's brain, which processes information from the left visual field, is better adapted to interpreting human facial emotion than the left side, the scientists believe.
Science correspondent, BBC News
The research has plugged a gap, say the researchers
The rise in temperatures at Earth's poles has for the first time been attributed directly to human activities, according to a study.
The work, by an international team, is published in Nature Geoscience journal.
In 2007, the UN's climate change body presented strong scientific evidence the rise in average global temperature is mostly due to human activities.
This contradicted ideas that it was not a result of natural processes such as an increase in the Sun's intensity.
At the time, there was not sufficient evidence to say this for sure about the Arctic and Antarctic.
We really can't claim anymore that it's natural variations that are driving these very large changes
Peter Stott, Met Office
Their study indicates that humans have indeed contributed to warming in both regions.
Researchers expected this result for the Arctic - because of the recent sharp increase in the melting of sea ice in the summer in the region - but temperature variations in the Antarctic have until now been harder to interpret.
Today's study, according to the researchers, suggests for the first time that there's a discernable human influence on both the Arctic and Antarctica.
The research team took the temperature changes over the polar regions of the Earth and compared them with two sets of climate models.
One set assumed that there had been no human influence the other set assumed there had.
The best fit was with models that assumed that human activities including the burning of fossil fuels and depletion of ozone had played a part.
According to one of the researchers involved with the study, Peter Stott, head of climate monitoring and attribution at the Met Office, formally showing that the Antarctic was being influenced by human activities was the key development
"In the recent IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report for example," he said, "it wasn't possible to make a statement about the Antarctic because such a study had not been done at that point.
"But nevertheless when you do that you see a clear human fingerprint in the observed data. We really can't claim anymore that it's natural variations that are driving these very large changes that we are seeing in our in the climate system."
Professor Phil Jones, director of the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, said: "Our study is certainly closing a couple of gaps in the last IPCC report.
"But I still think that a number of people, including some politicians, are reluctant to accept the evidence or to do anything about it until we specifically come down to saying that one particular event was caused by humans like a serious flood somewhere or even a heatwave.
"Until we get down to smaller scale events in both time and space I still think there will be people doubting the evidence."
Generation We is new to me. Have you heard of it? It’s the Millennial Generation of Americans born between the years 1978 and 2000. They are being hailed as the next “greatest generation.” I take just a little offense to that statement, being GenX myself.
In an effort to mobilize, organize and propel Generation WE to their world changing destiny, author Eric Greenberg has launched a new website and video created by award winning producers. They accompany his book Generation We: How Millennial Youth are Taking Over America and Changing our World Forever.
Well, good for them. Really. It’s a dirty job that no one else wants to take responsibility for, so I suppose they’re welcome to it. I’m not bitter. My oldest daughter was born in 1999 (I’m not that old, you know) so she is one of them. A world changing Gen-We kid. I believe she could single handedly change the world. She’s planning on it already. So I’m going to try to put my GenX pessimism aside.
Here’s what Greenburg has to say about the video that has made quite a splash:
As this video shows, those of the Millenial Generation are optimists. They see beyond party lines and partisan politics and much more concerned with ideas that help the greater good….They want to protect the environment, lower the federal deficiet, create affordable health care and reduce our dependence on foriegn oil, all issues that already affect Democrats and Republicans alike.
Hey! I want all those things too! Don’t we all? I have always been able to see across party lines. I’m greening up all over the place. Affordable health care? Heck yeah.
Well, the goal is good. I love what Greenburg is trying to put into action for the youngsters (there’s a word I’ve never used before).
His website Gen-we.org serves as base camp for the Generation We Movement. A non-partisan stop for information and activism for the newest generation of voters. Greenburg hopes that young people will put their newfound political power to good use and help our country achieve energy independence the clean green way.
Here’s the video that Launched the Generation We Movement:
Wow. I’m kind of inspired here. Did you see that? I think they really are different, more diverse and (hopefully) less selfish and greedy than the generations before them. I’ll drink the Kool-Aid they’re passing around.
It does seem unfair to sweep GenX under the rug and chalk us up as the lemon generation of the century. Really. It’s not like we’re all still sitting around wearing flannel listening to Pearl Jam like it was 1993. We have moved on. Just because GenX looked at reality and declared it bites, doesn’t mean we aren’t doing our to make it better. Apparently, we are lacking in numbers. We aren’t organized, but that is mostly because we see through leaders who are driven by their own interests. And that pretty much covers everyone.
And what happened to GenY? And who comes up with these designations? And shouldn’t we all just work together? You know, crossing generational gaps to save the world from the consequences of greed now in our face?
Is it the fault of the Baby Boomers as implied in the video? I spoke to one of those Boomers recently and he said, “no one really cares about air quality and global warming. They are just looking for a way to make money off of it.” I do wonder if others in his generation feel that way.
It doesn’t really matter which generation changes the world. It just matters that the job gets done. Don’t you think? Truthfully, I think the world IS changing.
Right here, right now, there is no other place I want to be.
Come on, I had to do it!
What do you think of Generation WE? Are they all that and more?
Bioethanol is increasingly used in cars, but its production from food crops such as corn is controversial because it uses valuable land resources and threatens food security. In addition, it makes use of only a small part of the whole crop. By contrast, extracting energy from olive stones uses food industry by-products.
The olive stone, produced in processing of olive oil and table olives, makes up around a quarter of the total fruit. It is rich in polysaccharides (cellulose and hemicellulose) that can be broken down into sugar and then fermented to produce ethanol.
"This research raises the possibility of using of olive stones, which would otherwise be wasted, in producing energy. In this way we can make use of the whole food crop," says Sánchez.
The team pre-treated olive stones using high-pressure hot water (essentially a pressure cooker) then added enzymes which degrade plant matter and generate sugars. The hydrolysate obtained from this process was then fermented with yeasts to produce ethanol. Yields of 5.7kg of ethanol per 100kg of olive stones have been reached,
The quantities of stones produced are relatively small in comparison with other agricultural and forestry wastes. However, if similar principles were employed across all agricultural industries, energy gains would be significant.
The crown jewel of Greenpeace’s naval arm, the Rainbow Warrior, pulled in to the harbor alongside the Kingsnorth coal-fired power plant today before six activists stormed the facility to prepare to project video of impacts of global warming onto the plant’s giant smokestack.
The action comes mere months after a jury acquitted Greenpeace protesters who had vandalized the same smokestack. The court ruled that the activists were acting in the public’s interest because the power plant will cause property destruction in the future due to its release of climate-changing greenhouse gases.
So far, Greenpeace says there have been no arrests.
The activists hope to prevent the owners of the plant, E.ON, from going through with their plan to build another coal plant nearby. Greenpeace says the new plant would spew as much greenhouse gas as the world’s 30 least-polluting countries combined. To symbolize this, 30 volunteers carried the flags of those countries into the power plant.
Two of the protesters were among the original ‘Kingsnorth Six,’ who were acquitted of all wrongdoing amid controversy this summer. Police have not reported whether the activists will face charges for today’s action.
You can follow any developments through Greenpeace UK’s website.
Photo courtesy of Greenpeace UK.
Thursday, October 30, 2008
The definition of a professional astronomer is one who gets paid to do it. But the difference between that and an amateur, who technically does it for fun, is getting hard to tell.
Take this image of Pluto and its moon Charon taken by so-called amateur astronomers Antonello Medugno and Daniele Gasparri from Italy:
The bright blob on the right is Pluto, and Charon is on the left. The separation is 0.7 arcseconds, an incredible feat (the Moon is 2500 times wider than this in the sky). This is definitely Charon; it’s at the correct position, separation, and brightness. They nailed it.
Mind you, Charon wasn’t even discovered until 1978 by a pro, using a 61 inch telescope! The image above was using a 14″ telescope, and is in fact much better than the discovery image. In 30 years of progress, a much smaller commercial telescope can do better than a professional setup could. Wow.
Also, an amateur used an iPhone (and a telescope) to capture this image of Jupiter:
Sure, it’s not the best, but c’mon, it was taken with an iPhone.
We live in the future. Still no flying cars, but we live in the future.
Edited to add: I did not include any of the technical descriptions of the Charon image, and I should have.
Equipment: Meade L200GPS 14″ at f/25, with a Starlight Xpress SXV-H9 CCD
Image scale: 0.15″/pixel, unbinned
Exposure: 6 seconds/frame
Filters: R +Ir (Baader)
Final image: 21 frames, median combined, deconvolved to enhance sharpness
At the time, Pluto was 31 AU away, at a mag of 13.9 and Charon was mag 15.5. The images were taken on August 19, 2008.
iJupiter credit: Mac Observer.
Tip o’ the dew shield to Davide De Martin and Anthony Bossuyt.
for National Geographic News
Recently identified electrical activity on Saturn's largest moon bolsters arguments that Titan is the kind of place that could harbor life. At a brisk -350 degrees Fahrenheit (-180 Celsius), Titan is currently much too cold to host anything close to life as we know it, scientists say.
But a new study reports faint signs of a natural electric field in Titan's thick cloud cover that are similar to the energy radiated by lightning on Earth.
Lightning is thought to have sparked the chemical reactions that led to the origin of life on our planet.
"As of now, lightning activity has not been observed in Titan's atmosphere," said lead author Juan Antonio Morente of the University of Granada in Spain.
But, he said, the signals that have been detected "are an irrefutable proof for the existence of electric activity."
Frozen, Prebiotic Casserole
Morente's team studied data returned from the European Space Agency's Huygens probe, which broke away from NASA's Cassini spacecraft in 2005 to become the first probe to go below Titan's clouds. (Read "Voyage to Saturn" in National Geographic magazine.)
As soon as the probe entered the moon's atmosphere, a strong wind tilted the device about 30 degrees.
This accidental motion enabled Huygens to detect the Earthlike electrical resonances that it otherwise would have missed, which Morente and colleagues describe their study, published in a recent issue of the journal Icarus.
Jeffrey Bada, of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, believes the process that allowed lightning to spark life on Earth is universal and could happen in many environments—including on Titan.
Confirmation earlier this year of Titan's hydrocarbon lakes makes the Saturnian moon the first place other than Earth where open bodies of liquid have been found.
Hydrocarbons are organic molecules, and the fact that they exist in large quantities on Titan suggests that life could take root there under the right conditions. "If you had lightning taking place in the atmosphere of Titan, you could make what we call precursor molecules," said Bada, who was not involved with Morente's study.
"To go any further than that," he said, "you need liquid water."
Titan's water is currently frozen into chunks as hard as granite. If those ice "rocks" were to melt, however, the environment could become more hospitable to the building blocks of life.
With liquid water, the planet could host the formation of amino acids and then full proteins, which drive all biochemistry and set the stage for more complex molecules.
"I look at Titan as a big, frozen, prebiotic casserole," Bada said, referring to the state before the emergence of life.
"The idea that life could be widespread in the universe, I think, is very credible."
A Field of Its Own
Advocates of theories about life on Titan note that various celestial events could temporarily warm up the moon enough to melt its ice into water.
Perhaps this happened in the past, they say—or it could happen in the future.
But study author Morente said it's impossible to precisely assess such possibilities with the scientific knowledge available today.
What astronomers do know is that Titan does not have its own magnetic field, he said. The moon instead orbits within Saturn's magnetosphere at differing distances from the planet.
This means that the strength of Titan's magnetic field is constantly changing, leaving its surface more vulnerable to damaging cosmic rays.
Without stable protection from radiation, Morente said, "the existence of life is very unlikely."
Image: Jim’s outside photos
It is one of the most sought after answers in modern science: where did life come from? How did those first molecules put themselves together in such a way as to form molecular machinery capable of reproducing itself and thereby fueling the creation of the vast and amazing diversity we see on this planet today? Up until recently it was assumed that life first arose on this planet, and on any other where it might exist, in water. It’s a very sensible assumption. Water is critical to all forms of life and almost all the biological functioning that we know of would be impossible without it. But what if we were looking at the wrong type of water, what if life arose in solid ice?
This counterintuitive hypothesis has a small but growing representation in the scientific community. The notion that life may have formed in ice instead of liquid water is significant in that there is ice almost everywhere in the solar system, while water seems to be rare. Lots of planets and many of their moons have plenty of observable ice, and if solid H2O proves to be the most hospitable place for the formation of the precursors to modern life then our chances of encountering biology of some form or another somewhere else in our solar system increase significantly.
To understand this theory we need to go back to basic chemistry. Solid water - ice - can be compared to a highly polished military unit on parade review, all the H2O molecules know exactly where and how to stand in relation to each other and they do their best not deviate from that pattern. Now imagine injecting impurities (say a bunch of drunks and anarchists) into that regiment of soldiers at attention; the drunks are probably going to have a hard time fitting in.
The sots and anarchists in this analogy are a mix of metals and organics and basically any molecule that isn’t good old H2O. What happens, in both ice and imaginary military units analogous to ice, is that all the impurities end up slowly trudging through the ranks until they run into other impurities. Eventually all of the interesting oddball molecules are forced together into millions of little pockets; this even causes some of the surrounding solid H2O to break ranks and turn into liquid water. What you then end up with is essentially millions of discrete test tubes surrounded by solid ice, stuffed chock full of every interesting atom in the vicinity. The close confines then constantly force the molecules to run into (react) with one another in ways not really possible in any other natural setting. On top of that you even have a supply of liquid water. Sounds like the perfect recipe for organic life if there ever was one.
So far there have only been a few laboratory experiments testing the foundations of this hypothesis, but the results have been encouraging. While it will likely be a very long time before anybody figures out exactly how life first arose, if solid ice is where it first happened, alien life might be much closer than we think.
Scientists at the University of Calgary and the Royal Tyrrell Museum are providing new insight into the sense of smell of carnivorous dinosaurs and primitive birds in a research paper published in the British journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
The study, by U of C paleontologist Darla Zelenitsky and Royal Tyrrell Museum curator of dinosaur palaeoecology François Therrien, is the first time that the sense of smell has been evaluated in prehistoric meat-eating dinosaurs. They found that Tyrannosaurus rex had the best nose of all meat-eating dinosaurs, and their results tone down the reputation of T. rex as a scavenger.
The researchers looked at the importance of the sense of smell among various meat-eating dinosaurs, also called theropods, based on the size of their olfactory bulbs, the part of the brain associated with the sense of smell. Although the brains of dinosaurs are not preserved, the impressions they left on skull bones or the space they occupied in the skull reveals the size and shape of the different parts of the brain. Zelenitsky and Therrien CT-scanned and measured the skulls of a wide variety of theropod dinosaurs, including raptors and ostrich-like dinosaurs, as well as the primitive bird Archaeopteryx.
"T. rex has previously been accused of being a scavenger due to its keen sniffer, although its nose may point to alternative lifestyles based on what we see in living animals" says Zelenitsky, the lead investigator on the study. "Large olfactory bulbs are found in living birds and mammals that rely heavily on smell to find meat, in animals that are active at night, and in those animals that patrol large areas. Although the king of carnivorous dinosaurs wouldn't have passed on scavenging a free dead meal, it may have used its sense of smell to strike at night or to navigate through large territories to find its next victim."
In addition to providing clues about the biology and behavior of the ancient predators, the study also reveals some surprising information about the sense of smell in the ancestors of modern birds.
Therrien and Zelenitsky found that the extinct bird Archaeopteryx, known to have evolved from small meat-eating dinosaurs, had an olfactory bulb size comparable to most theropod dinosaurs. Although sight is very good in most birds today, their sense of smell is usually poor, a pattern that does not hold true in the ancestry of living birds.
"Our results tell us that the sense of smell in early birds was not inferior to that of meat-eating dinosaurs," says Therrien. "Although it had been previously suggested that smell had become less important than eye sight in the ancestors of birds, we have shown that this wasn't so. The primitive bird Archaeopteryx had a sense of smell comparable to meat-eating dinosaurs, while at the same time it had very good eye sight. The sense of smell must have become less important at some point during the evolution of those birds more advanced than Archaeopteryx."
The Penn State researchers speculated that siRNA could turn off the two cancer-causing genes and potentially treat the deadly disease more effectively. “siRNA checks the expression of the two genes, which then lowers the abnormal levels of the cancer causing proteins in cells,” explained Dr. Robertson. This research appears in the journal Cancer Research.
In recent years, researchers have zeroed in on two key genes—B-Raf and Akt3—that play key roles in the development of melanoma. Mutations in the B-Raf gene, the most frequently mutated gene in melanoma, lead to the production of a mutant form of the B-Raf protein, which then helps mole cells survive and grow. B-Raf mutations alone, however, do not trigger melanoma development. That event requires a second protein, called Akt3, that regulates the activity of the mutated B-Raf, which aids the development of melanoma. The siRNA agents used in this study specifically target Akt3 and the mutant B-Raf and therefore do not affect normal cells.
However, although knocking out specific genes may seem like a straightforward task, delivering the siRNA drug to cancerous cells is another story, because not only do protective layers in the skin keep drugs out but also chemicals in the skin quickly degrade the siRNA. To clear these two hurdles, Dr. Robertson and his team engineered lipid-based nanoparticles that can incorporate siRNA into their hollow interiors. The researchers then used a portable ultrasound device to temporarily create microscopic holes in the surface of the skin, allowing the drug-filled particles to leak into tumor cells beneath.
When the researchers exposed lab-generated skin containing early cancerous lesions to the treatment 10 days after the skin was created, the siRNA reduced the ability of cells containing the mutant B-Raf to multiply by nearly 60 to 70 percent and more than halved the size of lesions after 3 weeks. “This is essentially human skin with human melanoma cells, which provides an accurate picture of how the drug is acting,” said Dr. Robertson.
Mice with melanoma that underwent the same treatment had their tumors shrink by nearly 30 percent when only the mutant B-Raf was targeted. There was no difference in the development of melanoma when the Akt3 gene alone was targeted, although existing tumors shrank by about 10 to 15 percent in 2 weeks. However, when the researchers targeted both Akt3 and mutant B-Raf at the same time, they found that tumors in the mice shrank about 60 to 70 percent more than when either gene was targeted alone.
“If you knock down each of these two genes separately, you are able to reduce tumor development somewhat,” Dr. Robertson said. “But knocking them down together leads to synergistic reduction of tumor development.”
This work, which was supported in part by the National Cancer Institute, was detailed in the paper “Targeting V600EB-Raf and Akt3 Using Nanoliposomal-Small Interfering RNA Inhibits Cutaneous Melanocytic Lesion Development.” An abstract of this paper is available at the journal’s Web site (http://dx.doi.org/doi:10.1158/0008-5472.CAN-07-6614).
Provided by National Cancer Institute
By Wesley Loy | Anchorage Daily News
BP's old bugaboo, corrosion, might have struck again in the giant Prudhoe Bay oil field.
The oil company suspects corrosion contributed to a pressurized natural gas pipeline blowing apart on Sept. 29, BP spokesman Steve Rinehart said.
No one was hurt, though some workers were in the vicinity when the line ruptured violently, hurling a length of pipe across the tundra.
Automated safety systems and field workers rushed to shut down the pipeline, which was 8 inches in diameter and carried gas for shooting underground, part of a technique to help coax out additional crude oil.
The incident forced the shutdown of two well pads producing about 5,000 barrels of oil per day -- less than 1 percent of total North Slope oil output. The pads remained out of service on Friday.
BP will do a metallurgical analysis of the failed pipe before declaring corrosion as the culprit for the rupture, Rinehart said. Some possibilities have been ruled out, he said, such as a bad weld.
Investigators found the corrosion had attacked the outside surface of the above-ground pipe at a point where insulation that normally jackets the line was missing, Rinehart said.
Moisture had wicked beneath the exposed insulation and come into contact with the steel, causing corrosion that can eat through metal and weaken a pipeline, he said.
As a safety measure, BP workers will look for any pipes that might be in a similar condition, Rinehart said.
State and federal pipeline regulators are investigating the pipeline rupture.
BP runs Prudhoe, the nation's largest oil field, on behalf of itself and other owners including Conoco Phillips and Exxon Mobil.
Corrosion has bedeviled BP since 2006, when oil leaks from major Prudhoe pipelines drew intense regulatory and congressional scrutiny of the London-based company. The lines were found to be riddled with corrosion.
Wednesday, October 29, 2008
X marks the Spock as scientists claim 'Earth-like' planets may be hidden in solar system where Vulcans 'lived'
Scientists searching for 'Earth-like' planets say that a nearby solar system similar to our own may contain as-yet undiscovered planets.
The star at the centre of the system, which is just 10.5 light years away from Earth, is called Epsilon Eridani.
Astronomers think unseen planets must have confined and shaped the three rings of material surrounding Epsilon Eridani, which is the third closest star visible to the naked eye.
Unseen planets: Epsilon Eridani is just 10.5 light years away from the Earth
Because the star is so close and similar to the sun, it is a popular location in science fiction.
The television series Star Trek and Babylon 5 referenced Epsilon Eridani, the former using it as the location of Vulcan, the planet that gave us Mr Spock.
Popular: Star Trek used Epsilon Eridani as the location of Vulcan, the planet of Mr Spock
Only 850 million years old, a fifth the age of Earth's sun, Epsilon Eridani resembles a younger twin to our solar system.
At about 62 trillion miles away, it is the closest known solar system while it was also one of the first to be searched for signs of advanced alien life using radio telescopes in 1960.
It possesses a rocky asteroid belt identical to the one that lies between Mars and Jupiter.
It also features an outer ring of icy material similar to the Kuiper Belt at the edge of our Solar System and has a second outer belt of asteroids containing 20 times more space rock than the inner one.
One candidate planet near the innermost asteroid belt has already been detected from the "wobble" effect of its gravity on the star.
A second planet is thought to lurk near the second asteroid belt and a third near the inner edge of the Kuiper Belt.
Epsilon Eridani's asteroid belts were found using the Spitzer space telescope.
Dr Massimo Marengo, from the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, one of the astronomers who made the discovery, said: 'Studying Epsilon Eridani is like having a time machine to look at our solar system when it was young.'
Co-author Dr Dana Backman, from the SETI (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) Institute, said: 'This system probably looks a lot like ours did when life first took root on Earth.'
The new finds are reported today in The Astrophysical Journal.
TV fame: The Babylon 5 space station took its place in the region of Epsilon EridaniOriginal here
First was the discovery that it lacked sufficient power to lift astronauts in a state-of-the-art capsule into orbit. Then engineers found out that it might vibrate like a giant tuning fork, shaking its crew to death.
Now, in the latest setback to the Ares I, computer models show the ship could crash into its launch tower during liftoff.
The issue is known as "liftoff drift." Ignition of the rocket's solid-fuel motor makes it "jump" sideways on the pad, and a southeast breeze stronger than 12.7 mph would be enough to push the 309-foot-tall ship into its launch tower.
Worst case, the impact would destroy the rocket. But even if that doesn't happen, flames from the rocket would scorch the tower, leading to huge repair costs.
"We were told by a person directly involved (in looking at the problem) that as they incorporate more variables into the liftoff-drift-curve model, the worse the curve becomes," said one NASA contractor, who asked not to be named because he wasn't authorized to discuss Ares.
"I get the impression that things are quickly going from bad to worse to unrecoverable."
NASA says it can solve - or limit - the problem by repositioning and redesigning the launchpad.
Engineers say that would take as much as a year and cost tens of millions of unbudgeted dollars.
What happens with Ares I is crucial to the future of the U.S. manned space program - and of Kennedy Space Center. KSC is looking at thousands of layoffs after the space shuttle is retired in 2010. Its work force won't grow again until a new rocket launches.
In addition, huge expenditures on the rocket could bankrupt the agency's moon plans and prompt a new president to halt the program, delaying America's return to space.
NASA officials are now looking at ways to speed up the development of Ares and are reluctant to discuss specific problems. But they insist none is insurmountable.
"There are always issues that crop up when you are developing a new rocket and many opinions about how to deal with them," said Jeff Hanley, manager of the Constellation program, which includes Ares, the first new U.S. rocket in 35 years.
"We have a lot of data and understanding of what it's going to take to build this."
Still, Ares' woes have created unprecedented rifts inside the agency.
Now several engineers are speaking out, saying Ares should be canceled because it's expensive and potentially dangerous.
"It's time for a rethink," said Jeff Finckenor, an award-winning NASA engineer who last month quit the Ares program in frustration over the way the program is being managed.
Internal documents and studies obtained by the Orlando Sentinel appear to support concerns expressed by Finckenor and others. Nonetheless, NASA's leaders maintain that Ares will be ready for launch in 2015.
"At the highest levels of the agency, there seems to be a belief that you can mandate reality, followed by a refusal to accept any information that runs counter to that mandate," said Finckenor, whose farewell letter to his colleagues denouncing NASA management was posted (without his permission) on NASAWatch.com, an independent Web site.
The Sentinel reviewed more than 800 pages of NASA documents and internal studies and interviewed more than a dozen engineers, technicians and NASA officials involved with the project. Most, fearing retribution from NASA management, spoke on condition that their names would not be used.
All agreed that, eventually, NASA would be able to get Ares I to fly. The real question, they said, is whether the agency will be able to build it on time and on budget. What's more, they said, it will never be the robust, simple rocket that NASA intended.
"If they push hard enough, yes, it will fly," said one NASA engineer working on Ares. "But there are going to be so many compromises to be able to launch it, and it will be so expensive and so behind schedule, that it may be better if didn't fly at all."
NASA had to quell near-revolts by astronauts and scientists who last month took issue during a preliminary design review of Ares I. In the end, they were cajoled into backing the review.
The review graded the rocket against 10 criteria from NASA's program-management handbook. Seven of the marks were the equivalent of a C or a D. Overall, the project earned a grade-point average of 2.1, a low C.
The reasons for the low grades included concerns that its electronics and control systems could be shaken apart on liftoff and the launch-drift issue.
Astronauts, whose prime concern is safety, are still not happy.
Leroy Chiao, a former space-station commander who retired in 2005, stays in touch with his colleagues.
"I would say that I have heard various concerns," he said. "If I were still in the corps, I'd be skeptical about when is this thing going to fly and will we be able to put all the fixes in place."
One reason the astronauts are angry, Chiao and others say, is because NASA earlier this year relaxed its own safety requirements when it realized that Ares I could not meet rigid rules demanding triple redundancy on all critical systems.
The extra systems added too much weight. So, engineers said, NASA rewrote the rules to allow managers to decide how many backup systems each component needed. At one point, according to Finckenor, NASA considered throwing out all redundant systems in the launch-abort system, the emergency escape for the astronauts in case something goes wrong on liftoff.
Ares is in many ways the brainchild of NASA Administrator Michael Griffin.
In 2004, President Bush called on NASA to retire the shuttle and design a new rocket system capable of returning humans to the moon by 2020 and Mars by 2030.
At the time, Griffin was the highly respected head of the Space Department at Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory and had written a scholarly paper proposing a rocket design similar to the Ares I. It was revolutionary, with a first stage created by stacking the shuttle's solid rocket boosters, a liquid-fueled second stage and a manned capsule on top.
In April 2005, Griffin was appointed NASA administrator with a mandate to get the moon program moving. Within months, he organized a study that passed over other proven rockets and chose the Ares I as safe, simple and relatively inexpensive because it used lots of parts from the shuttle.
Experts say its problems stem from changes to the original design. These modifications, such as changing the engines and making the solid rocket boosters longer, created unexpected problems, including excessive shaking and the launch drift.
In a recent interview, Griffin defended NASA's process.
"We have been doing design work and development the way it has always been done. I mean, this is among the very hardest things that human beings do," he said.
"There has never been an aerospace system developed without problems, and there likely never will be. In the end NASA has always fixed them, and we will fix them this time."
Commander Edward Michael Fincke and Flight Engineer and Science Officer Greg Chamitoff are living and working onboard the International Space Station. Though they are 220 miles above Earth and orbiting at 17,500 miles per hour, they will still be able to participate in the upcoming election. A 1997 bill passed by Texas legislators sets up a technical procedure for astronauts -- nearly all of whom live in Houston -- to vote from space.
A secure electronic ballot, generated by the Harris and Brazoria County Clerk's office, is uplinked by NASA's Johnson Space Center Mission Control Center. An e-mail with crew member-specific credentials is sent from the County Clerk to the crew member. These credentials allow the crew member to access the secure ballot.
The astronauts will cast their votes and a secure completed ballot is downlinked and delivered back to the County Clerk’s Office by e-mail to be officially recorded.
Provided by NASA
There really is a thin line between love and hate - at least in the brain, scientists have shown.
A new study reveals that the brain's "love" and "hate" circuits share identical structures.
Both include regions known as the putamen and insula which are linked to aggression and distress.
Thin line: Hate can also be an all-consuming passion, just like love, explaining why some couples can swing between the two emotions, like Madonna and Guy Ritchie
Professor Semir Zeki, who carried out the brain scan study at University College London, said: "Hate is often considered to be an evil passion that should, in a better world, be tamed, controlled, and eradicated.
"Yet to the biologist, hate is a passion that is of equal interest to love.
"Like love, it is often seemingly irrational and can lead individuals to heroic and evil deeds. How can two opposite sentiments lead to the same behaviour?"
In an attempt to find out, Prof Zeki's team scanned 17 male and female volunteers while they looked at pictures of individuals they hated, as well as familiar "neutral" faces.
Viewing a hated person activated distinct areas of the brain described by the scientists as the "hate circuit".
Previously, the same team had carried out a similar study of people shown pictures of their romantic partners.
The "hate circuit" was found to include structures important for generating aggressive behaviour, and translating angry thought into action.
It also involved a part of the frontal cortex critical to predicting the actions of others.
The putamen and insula are two distinct structures in the sub-cortex, which lies behind the cerebral cortex, or "thinking" region.
Earlier work has implicated the putamen in the perception of contempt and disgust and it may also be part of the motor system that is mobilised to take action. The insula controls the brain's distress response.
Prof Zeki said: "Significantly, the putamen and insula are also both activated by romantic love. This is not surprising. The putamen could also be involved in the preparation of aggressive acts in a romantic context, as in situations when a rival presents a danger.
"Previous studies have suggested that the insula may be involved in responses to distressing stimuli, and the viewing of both a loved and a hated face may constitute such a distressing signal.
"A marked difference in the cortical pattern produced by these two sentiments of love and hate is that, whereas with love large parts of the cerebral cortex associated with judgment and reasoning become de-activated, with hate only a small zone, located in the frontal cortex, becomes de-activated.
"This may seem surprising since hate can also be an all-consuming passion, just like love. But whereas in romantic love, the lover is often less critical and judgmental regarding the loved person, it is more likely that in the context of hate the hater may want to exercise judgment in calculating moves to harm, injure or otherwise extract revenge."
The activity of some of the structures varied according to how much "hate" a volunteer said he or she felt.
A state of hate could therefore be objectively quantified, said Prof Zeki, whose research is reported in the online journal PLoS One.
He added: "This finding may have legal implications in criminal cases, for example."
There remains one big difference between love and hate. While romantic love is directed at just one person, hate can target numbers of individuals or groups defined by their race, gender, social or cultural background or political beliefs.
Prof Zeki now plans to investigate these different varieties of hate.Original here