Wednesday, October 29, 2008

X marks the Spock as scientists claim 'Earth-like' planets may be hidden in solar system where Vulcans 'lived'

By Daily Mail Reporter

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.

Epsilon Eridani

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.

Dr 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.

Babylon 5

TV fame: The Babylon 5 space station took its place in the region of Epsilon Eridani

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Is NASA's Ares doomed?

By Robert Block, Space & Earth science

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, 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."

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Astronauts To Vote From Space

Commander Mike Fincke (right) and Flight Engineer Greg Chamitoff send a special message from the International Space Station urging all Americans to vote. Credit: NASA TV
Commander Mike Fincke (right) and Flight Engineer Greg Chamitoff send a special message from the International Space Station urging all Americans to vote. Credit: NASA TV

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

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Brain has thin line between love and hate, scientists reveal

By Daily Mail Reporter

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.

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Phony Friends? Rejected People Better Able To Spot Fake Smiles

Individuals who are experiencing rejection are better at picking up subtle social cues. Socially rejected people are particularly good at discerning fake smiles from real ones. (Credit: iStockphoto/Dori OConnell)

“There are hundreds of languages in the world, but a smile speaks them all.” It’s true too—next time you are lost in a foreign country, just flash a smile and the locals will be happy to help you find your way. An honest smile can convey a wide range of meanings, from being happy to having fun. Although, not all smiles are genuine. All of us have “faked a smile” at some point.

Now, a new study might make us think twice about sending out a phony grin. It has been shown that individuals who are experiencing rejection are better at picking up subtle social cues and according to a recent study published in the October issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, socially rejected people are particularly good at discerning fake smiles from real ones.

Psychologist Michael J. Bernstein and his colleagues from Miami University wanted to see to what extent rejected individuals would be able to identify the authenticity of a facial expression. The researchers induced feelings of social rejection in a group of the participants by making them think about a time when they felt socially isolated. Conversely, another group of participants were asked to recall times they felt accepted or included in a group.

A control group of participants were asked to recall the previous morning’s activities (resulting in neutral feelings). The participants then viewed videos of people smiling—some of the videos showed people expressing genuine smiles and the rest depicted people with fake smiles. Participants were to indicate which of the videos contained real smiles.

The results show that socially rejected individuals are better at distinguishing fake smiles from real smiles compared to individuals who feel socially accepted or who were in the control group. The authors propose that socially rejected people have an increased motivation to be accepted, thus making them more sensitive to specific social cues indicating opportunities for inclusion. The authors conclude, “It seems essential to detect legitimate signs of positivity that indicate possible reaffiliation with other people. Otherwise, rejected individuals could miss out on new chances for acceptance or ‘waste’ affiliation efforts on people who are not receptive.”

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Climate link to amphibian decline

By Paul Rincon

Colombia spotted frog (Sarah McMenamin)
The Columbia spotted frog is one of four species native to the park

Amphibian populations at Yellowstone - the world's oldest national park - are in steep decline, a major study shows.

The authors link this to the drying out of wetlands where the animals live and breed, which is in turn being driven by long-term climate change.

The results, reported in the journal PNAS, suggest that climate warming has already disrupted one of the best-protected ecosystems on Earth.

The park covers some 9,000 sq km (3,500 sq miles) in the western United States.

It lies mostly within the state of Wyoming, but spills over into Montana and Idaho. The area has been protected for more than a century; US congress granted Yellowstone national park status on 1 March 1872.

There is a pretty substantial signal of climate change in this region
Sarah McMenamin, Stanford University

Visitors flock there to see its geysers, hot springs and bubbling mud pots, fuelled by ongoing volcanism. The park's vast forests and grasslands are also home to grizzly bears, wolves and bison.

But it is to much less conspicuous inhabitants - frogs, toads and salamanders - that scientists look for early indications of environmental degradation.

Four amphibian species are native to the park: the blotched tiger salamander (Ambystoma tigrinum melanostictum), the boreal chorus frog (Pseudacris triseriata maculata), the Columbia spotted frog (Rana luteiventris) and the boreal toad (Bufo boreas boreas).

The lower Lamar Valley in northern Yellowstone harbours countless small, fishless ponds - ideal for amphibian breeding and larval development.

Downward trend

Between 1992 and 1993, researchers surveyed 46 of these "kettle" ponds, which are re-filled in spring by groundwater and snow melt running down from the hills.

Glacial landscape at Yellowstone (Sarah McMenamin)
The "kettle" ponds are ideal habitats for amphibians

When a team from Stanford University in California repeated this survey between 2006 and 2008, the number of permanently dry ponds had increased four-fold.

Of the ponds that remained, the proportion supporting amphibians had declined significantly.

In addition, three of the four native amphibian species had suffered major declines in numbers. The number of species found in each location - the "species richness" - had also dropped off markedly.

Amphibians lay jelly-coated eggs that are unsuited to development on land, so they must return to water in order to spawn.

"They go through an aquatic period and a terrestrial period during their lives so they are very susceptible to changes in both types of environment," said co-author Sarah McMenamin, from the department of ecology and evolution at Stanford.

Changing landscape

The scientists saw no change in numbers of the boreal toad - which the IUCN conservation body lists as threatened. But this species was rare in 1992, as it is now, making it difficult to extract population trends.

Blotched tiger salamander (Sarah McMenamin)
The tiger salamander is among the affected species

Ms McMenamin, along with her colleagues Elizabeth Hadly and Christopher Wright, also analysed monthly temperature and precipitation data from Yellowstone, as well as satellite images of the park taken between 1988 and 2008.

These data revealed that decreasing rainfall and increasing temperatures during the warmest months of the year have significantly altered the landscape.

Drought is now more common and more severe than at any time in the past century, the researchers say.

"There is a pretty substantial signal of climate change in this region," Ms McMenamin told BBC News.

Old Faithful Geyser (NPS)
Yellowstone is famous for its geysers, such as Old Faithful

"Snow pack during the winter is decreasing - which other studies have documented - and the regional aquifer is drying up as a result of these large-scale climate changes.

"These ponds are changing, the environment is changing, the landscape is drying up and the amphibians no longer have a place to breed. It's disturbing."

Amphibian populations are in crisis worldwide: pollution, diseases such as chytrid fungus and rana virus, invasive species, UV radiation and habitat destruction all contribute to the problem.

Climate change might affect amphibian populations in numerous ways. In addition to drying out aquatic breeding habitats - preventing spawning - it could also make the land environment inhospitable to them.

Evidence suggests that a warming climate could also predispose amphibians to infection, particularly to chytrid fungus.

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Climate Change Destroying Walden Pond's Flowers

By Alexis Madrigal

Climate change is devastating the flowers of Walden Pond, picking off those species that cannot react to rising temperatures.

Comparing data meticulously gathered by Henry David Thoreau more than a century and a half ago with more recent observations, Harvard biologists report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that more than a quarter of Walden's plant species have already been lost. And an additional 36 percent are in imminent danger, including lilacs, roses and buttercups.

"It had been thought that climate change would result in uniform shifts across plant species, but our work shows that plant species do not respond to climate change uniformly or randomly," said co-author Charles Davis, a biologist at Harvard, in a release.

The Walden study shows that even small changes in temperature can have outsized impacts on plants that are evolutionarily adapted to fulfill ecological niches. Together with changes seen in other locations, like the unprecedented pine beetle damage in the West, the new work suggests that finely tuned biological systems are having a difficult time keeping up with the rapid pace of human-induced climate change.

The average temperature around Walden has risen by more than four degrees over the last century as increasing greenhouse gas concentrations from burning fossil fuels changed the earth's climate.

But the warming is not just mowing the forest down, it's shaping it as some plant species thrive under the new global conditions.

The earth is not a mere fragment of dead history, stratum upon stratum like the leaves of a book, to be studied by geologists and antiquaries chiefly, but living poetry like the leaves of a tree, which precede flowers and fruit — not a fossil earth, but a living earth.
Henry David Thoreau -- Walden

"Most strikingly, species with the ability to track short-term seasonal temperature variation have fared significantly better under recent warming trends," the authors write.

Although the design of the Walden study is simple, it depends on the value of Thoreau's rare pre-industrial data.

"Whenever you have an opportunity to get a dataset where someone who has made very careful efforts to observe things in a systematic way, it gives you a snapshot of a particular time period and lets you make comparisons," said Mark Schwartz, a world expert in phenology, the field of seasonal changes in living things, at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.

Unfortunately, very few ecosystems have been recorded in such excruciating detail.

"We don't have a large number of datasets of this sort," Schwartz said. "Most of them are concentrated in Europe and in Asia. There are very few in North America."

For example, Isabelle Chuine at France's Center for Evolutionary and Functional Ecology, published a paper in Nature using detailed grape harvest records in Burgundy dating from as far back as 1370. Schwartz also noted that many European weather services record phenological data along with their weather measurements, while American weather stations do not. As a result, Americans know less about when our plants bloom than many other countries.

But Schwartz is trying to change that by empowering Americans to contribute their own Thoreau-style data. He's the chair of the National Phenology Network, a new organization attempting to incorporate data from ecological stations, citizen scientists and other types of fieldwork.

Already, one of the NPN's efforts — Project BudBurst — has marshaled several thousand people to track the timing of plant flowerings in their backyards as they shift due to climate change.

Their data could not only benefit scientists of the present and future, but could aid in providing Americans with direct evidence of climate change, helping to create the political will necessary to address the nation's greenhouse gas emissions.

"When someone asks me about climate change, I say, 'You can go observe it in your own backyard,'" Schwartz said. "If you want to see what's happening, start taking records and see for yourself."

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Arctic Sea Ice Is Suddenly Getting Thinner As Well As Receding

Last winter, the thickness of sea ice in large parts of the Arctic fell by nearly half a metre (19 per cent) compared with the average thickness of the previous five winters. This followed the dramatic 2007 summer low when Arctic ice extent dropped to its lowest level since records began. (Credit: ESA)

Last winter, the thickness of sea ice in large parts of the Arctic fell by nearly half a metre (19 per cent) compared with the average thickness of the previous five winters. This followed the dramatic 2007 summer low when Arctic ice extent dropped to its lowest level since records began.

Up until last winter, the thickness of Arctic sea ice showed a slow downward trend during the previous five winters, but after the summer 2007 record low extent, the thickness of the ice also nose-dived. What is concerning is that sea ice is not just receding but it is also thinning.

Some scientists blamed the record summer 2007 ice extent low on unusually warm weather conditions over the Arctic, but this summer, sea ice extent reached the second lowest level since records began, even though the Arctic had a relatively cool summer. Dr Katharine Giles, who led the study and is based at the Centre for Polar Observation and Modelling at University College London – part of the National Centre for Earth Observation, says: “This summer’s low ice extent doesn’t seem to have been driven by warm weather, so the question is, was last winter’s thinning behind it?”

The team of researchers, including Dr Seymour Laxon and Andy Ridout, used satellites to measure sea ice thickness over the Arctic from 2002 to 2008. Winter sea ice in the Arctic is around two and half metres thick on average. Ice thickness can be calculated from the time it takes a radar pulse to travel from a satellite to the surface of the ice and back again.

The research - reported in Geophysical Research Letters - showed that last winter the average thickness of sea ice over the whole Arctic fell by 26cm (10 per cent) compared with the average thickness of the previous five winters, but sea ice in the western Arctic lost around 49cm of thickness. This region of the Arctic saw the North-West passage become ice free and open to shipping for the first time in 30 years during the summer of 2007.

The team is the first to measure ice thickness throughout the Arctic winter, from October to March, over more than half of the Arctic, using the European Space Agency’s Envisat satellite. Before this, Christian Haas of the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research in Bremerhaven, Germany, had discovered thinner ice in a small region around the North Pole. Whilst the overall loss of older, thicker ice led researchers to speculate that Arctic sea ice had probably thinned, this is the first time scientists have been able to say for definite that the ice thinning was widespread and occurred in areas of both young and old ice.

“The extent of sea ice in the Arctic is down to a number of factors, including warm weather melting it as well as currents and the wind blowing it around, so it’s important to know how ice thickness is changing as well as the extent of the ice,” added Giles.

The team will continue to monitor the thickness of the ice over this coming winter. Laxon says: “We’ll be keeping our eyes on the ice thickness this winter as it’ll be interesting to see what happens after a second summer of low ice extent.”

The Envisat satellite that provided the UCL scientists with their data doesn’t cover the whole of the North Pole. Because of the satellite’s orbit, there’s a hole north of 81.5 degrees, which is about 600 miles shy of the North Pole. But a team, including Laxon, at the Centre for Polar Observation and Modelling has designed a satellite – CryoSat-2 – to plug this hole.

CryoSat-2 is the first radar satellite specifically designed to measure ice thickness. It will do this with greater resolution than is possible with Envisat and so will give scientists a much more detailed picture of what is happening to ice in the Arctic. CryoSat-2 is being prepared for launch at the end of 2009.

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