Science & Technology


Exoplanet discovered in comet's clothing

© Mark Garlick/University of Warwick
Astronomers have discovered a spectacular comet-like tail around a distant planet the size of Neptune. The findings reported in the journal Nature, could provide new clues as to how some rocky terrestrial planets are formed.

"This is truly incredible, it's the largest atmosphere ever detected around a planet," says one of the study's authors Dr Vincent Bourrier of the University of Geneva Observatory.

"This cloud of hydrogen, which has escaped the planet, is forming a comet like tail trailing behind the planet."

The planet, named Gliese 436b, is in a very close orbit around the small red dwarf star Gliese 436, which is less than half the size of the Sun. The system is located about 33 light-years away in the constellation of Leo.

Earlier studies of Gliese 436b have suggested it has a small rocky core, a mostly water ice mantle, and a thin outer envelope of hydrogen and helium gas. Its size and estimated daytime surface temperature of about 530°C led scientists to classify Gliese 436b as a 'warm Neptune'.

The planet takes just 2.64 Earth days to orbit its host star, circling it at a distance of only about four million kilometres, 15 times closer than Mercury's orbit around the Sun. Because it is so close, the star irradiates the planet's atmosphere, causing it to heat up and expand.

However, the star's stellar winds aren't powerful enough to blow away Gliese 436b's atmosphere. Bourrier and colleagues used an ultraviolet spectrometer aboard the Hubble Space Telescope to analyse and map the chemical signature of the planet's atmosphere.

During three separate Hubble observations of the planet as it transits or moves in front of its host star as seen from Earth, the scientists detected a hugely extended envelope of hydrogen gas surrounding and trailing out far behind the planet.

"Because of the low ionisation from the star, the gas can stay for a long time, trailing for extended distances behind the planet," says Bourrier.

The giant envelope is large enough to cover around 56 per cent of the star's surface.

Eye 2

Your church may be using facial recognition software to spy on you

Dozens of churches in the United States and around the world are using facial recognition software to track their members, according to the company that's selling them the software to do it.

Moshe Greenshpan is the founder and CEO of Skakash, an Israeli company that aims to provide churches with a program called Churchix to scan everyone who walks through their holy halls. The program was covered in a VentureBeat interview with Greenshpan back in February, and enjoyed a string of recent coverage in European outlets like Der Spiegel and The Times. It sounded wild, so I called Greenshpan to find out more.

But, when I asked Greenshpan in our interview if he could provide the names of some of his clients so that I could speak with them about their use of facial recognition, he was reticent—a theme that would develop throughout our conversation as he refused to confirm numerous details about his operation.

"I can tell you in general that churches also don't like to be described as privacy invaders," Greenshpan told me. "Most of them would like to keep this confidential. We try to encourage churches to make Churchix more visible, so it will become like a checkpoint for registration. Of course, so far we haven't had great success in doing that."

Comment: It seems there is no remaining place outside your own home that you cannot be spied upon without your knowledge or consent, and now you can add your local house of worship to the list of places where you are tracked.

Eye 1

Google under fire over covert installations of eavesdropping tool in Chrome web browser

© Reuters / Stephen Lam
Open source developers and privacy campaigners are raising concerns over the automatic installation of a shady "eavesdropping tool" designed to enable 'OK Google' functionality but potentially capable of snooping on any conversation near the computer.

When one installs an open source Chromium browser, as it turns out, it "downloads something" followed by a status report that says "Microphone: Yes" and "Audio Capture Allowed: Yes," according to an article by Rick Falkvinge, Swedish Pirate Party founder, published on the website Privacy Online News.

While the Chromium, the open source basis for Google's browser, at least shows the code and allows user to notice it and turn it off, the same installation is included by default in the most popular browser Chrome, used by over 300 million people.

The code was designed to enable the new "OK, Google" hot word detection, which lets the computer do things like search or create reminders in response to human voice. Yet, some users are worried that the service could be activated without their permission, eventually sending recorded data to Google. The worried users describe the Chrome Hotword Shared Module as an audio-snooping "black box", with only the corporation that provided it fully aware of what the injected pre-compiled code is capable of.


3-mile high 'pyramid peak' spotted on mysterious Ceres dwarf planet

A variety of craters and other geological features can be found on dwarf planet Ceres. NASA's Dawn spacecraft took this image of Ceres from an altitude of 2,700 miles (4,400 kilometers) on June 5, 2015.
The mystery surrounding the dwarf planet Ceres continues to thicken: New images taken by the Dawn probe have revealed a three-mile high pyramid shaped peak, while also giving updated photographs of the planet's puzzling bright spots.

The craft took the photographs on June 9 from a distance of 2,700 miles (4,300 kilometers). It revealed a number of new geographical characteristics, in particular, the high peak that juts out from the surrounding landscape.

"The surface of Ceres has revealed many interesting and unique features. For example, icy moons in the outer solar system have craters with central pits, but on Ceres central pits in large craters are much more common. These and other features will allow us to understand the inner structure of Ceres that we cannot sense directly," said Carol Raymond, deputy principal investigator for the Dawn mission, based at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

Blue Planet

Major geomagnetic storm hits Earth, triggering incredible northern lights

© Reuters / Fred Thornhill
A major solar explosion and geomagnetic storm resulted in incredible northern lights on Monday night, mainly seen across northern Europe and North America.

The geomagnetic storm was classified G4, the second-highest possible degree - the last on such a scale happened in March, when auroras were seen as far south as New Mexico.


Survival genes: Scientists find DNA mutations that helped Russians during Leningrad siege

© RIA Novosti/Boris Kudoyarov
Leningradians leaving their houses destroyed by Nazi bombings.
Analysis of the genome structure of Leningrad siege survivors and their contemporaries has allowed Russian scientists to spot specific DNA mutations that helped people to live through one of the most tragic chapters of the WWII.

A team of researchers took blood samples from Leningrad siege survivors to analyze the structure of the genes involved in metabolism and cell activity when facing severe food shortages. They compared their findings with genetic samples of elderly Russians who did not live through similar horrors.

Many siege survivors who suffered the worst turned out to have a completely different structure of two genes related to PPAR (peroxisome proliferator-activated receptors) proteins, and one from the UCP (uncoupling proteins) gene family, which play major roles in development, metabolism and thermogenesis of higher organisms.

The inhabitants of the besieged city, now known as St. Petersburg, had these genes undergo a mutation that increased the efficiency of the cells' activities and reduced the loss of energy invested in keeping the body warm, according to an article, recently published in the journal Science.

Comment: About 20 to 30 percent of the population has those markers? We wonder if a similar percent of the population had better chances of survival during the past cataclysms, like the Ice Age.


Babies in womb prefer a Mother's touch to her voice, study finds

© Getty Images
A new study shows fetuses respond to touch more than noise

When it comes to mother-baby connections, new research suggests a mother's touch during pregnancy elicits the greatest response.

In a recent study published in the journal PLOS ONE, researchers looked at what behaviors resulted in the greatest response from fetuses: a mother's voice, a mother's touch or nothing. The researchers brought 23 healthy pregnant women who were between the 21st and 33rd week of gestation into a dark room, and had them try three different behaviors.

Comet 2

Comet day, anyone?

On this day 245 years ago - July 1, 1770 - humanity had its closest known encounter with extinction (with the possible exception of the Cuban Missile Crisis).

Two weeks before that date the French astronomer Charles Messier had discovered a faint comet in the constellation Sagittarius, which thereafter rapidly brightened and began moving swiftly across the sky. At its peak it was naked-eye, and its coma, according to various observers, the apparent size of from 5 to 16 full moons across. Lexell's Comet, so named after another astronomer who subsequently calculated its orbit, was then under one-and-a-half million miles from Earth, or less than six times the distance of the Moon, and thus the nearest a comet has ever approached us in recorded history. (Kronk n.d.)

It was also larger than any asteroid known to have come that close, and in fact large enough to have wrought global consequences had it impacted our planet. The comet's nucleus is estimated to have been 5 kilometers in diameter, or approximately half that of the comet or asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs.

It is a curious fact of history that the celestial spectacle most superstitiously associated with presaging calamity has now been given scientific legitimacy as a major threat to human existence. (Bayle 2000 & Genuth 1997) It is an ironic fact of very recent times that the celestial spectacle most popularly associated in times past with presaging calamity and now known to have this potential in fact, is today looked upon mainly as a showpiece and photo op by much of the public and amateur astronomical community and as a scientific opportunity by the professional astronomical community. I refer in both instances to the appearance of a new comet.

These are thus the best of times and the worst of times for planetary defenders against potential impactors from outer space, since, on the one hand, for the first time since the Earth came into being, some of its inhabitants have an accurate awareness of the nature of this hazard and even the technological potential to do something about it, while, on the other hand, insufficient steps are being taken to protect us from it. What is most needed, I submit therefore, is a raising of comet consciousness among both the general and expert populace, who are currently, to coin a term, cometose.

And how better to do this than to institute a Comet Day? Global recognition has just been rallied for analogous awareness with the first annual Asteroid Day. This took place yesterday, on the anniversary of the largest impact event in recorded history, which occurred on June 30, 1908, in (or over) Tunguska, Siberia. The resulting explosion of the object upon penetration of the atmosphere would have obliterated any major metropolitan area that happened to lie beneath it. Current estimates are of one million objects of this or greater size in the Earth's vicinity, only one percent of which have been discovered and are being tracked to date. The purpose of Asteroid Day is to build a global consensus for finding all the rest as soon as possible, to give us time to devise a suitable defense against any that might be heading our way.


Checkout Laura Knight-Jadczyk's series on comets - Comets and Catastrophe Series

Black Cat 2

Schrödinger's Cat couldn't survive gravity

If the cat in Erwin Schrödinger's famous thought-experiment behaved according to quantum theory, it would be able to exist in multiple states at once: both dead and alive.
If the cat in Erwin Schrödinger's famous thought-experiment behaved according to quantum theory, it would be able to exist in multiple states at once: both dead and alive. Physicists' common explanation for why we don't see such quantum superpositions—in cats or any other aspect of the everyday world—is interference from the environment. As soon as a quantum object interacts with a stray particle or a passing field, it picks just one state, collapsing into our classical, everyday view.

But even if physicists could completely isolate a large object in a quantum superposition, according to researchers at the University of Vienna, it would still collapse into one state—on Earth's surface, at least. "Somewhere in interstellar space it could be that the cat has a chance to preserve quantum coherence, but on Earth, or near any planet, there's little hope of that," says Igor Pikovski. The reason, he asserts, is gravity.

Pikovski and his colleagues' idea, laid out in a paper published in Nature Physics on June 15, is at present only a mathematical argument. But experimenters hope to test whether gravity really does collapse quantum superpositions, says Hendrik Ulbricht, an experimental physicist at the University of Southampton, UK. "This is a cool, new idea, and I'm up for trying to see it in experiments," he says. Assembling the technology to do so, however, may take as long as a decade, he says.

Comment: More interesting stories on gravity:

Post-It Note

Scientists find 'unprecedented' evidence African continent capable of megaquakes

© James Cook University
Lead researcher Hannah Hilbert-Wolf and supervisor Dr. Eric Roberts used innovative methods to examine the ground around Mbeya in Tanzania where a large earthquake occurred some 25,000 years ago.

They found evidence of fluidisation (where soil behaves like quicksand) and upward displacement of material unprecedented in a continental setting, raising questions of how resilient the rapidly growing cities of the region would be in a major shake.

'We can now use this to evaluate how the ground would deform in a modern earthquake,' said Dr. Roberts. 'This is important because the approach is inexpensive and can be used to model how structures might be affected by future events, providing a valuable tool in hazard assessment.'

Hilbert-Wolf said the team found evidence of massive ground deformation and previously unknown styles of liquefaction and fluidisation, caused by past earthquakes. 'This could be a major concern for the growing urban population of East Africa, which has similar tectonic settings and surface conditions,' she said.

The study comes on the back of a series of damaging earthquakes already this year, including in Nepal and Papua New Guinea and the study may be of much use in predicting the effects of earthquakes in those countries.

'What we have shown is that in developing countries in particular, which may lack extensive seismic monitoring, the rock record can be used to not only investigate the timing and frequency of past events, but also provide important insights into how the ground will behave in certain areas to seismic shock,' said Hilbert-Wolf.