Science & Technology


Mercury gets a meteoroid shower from Comet Encke

© NASA/Goddard
Mercury appears to undergo a recurring meteoroid shower when its orbit crosses the debris trail left by comet Encke. (Artist's concept.)
The planet Mercury is being pelted regularly by bits of dust from an ancient comet, a new study has concluded. This has a discernible effect in the planet's tenuous atmosphere and may lead to a new paradigm on how these airless bodies maintain their ethereal envelopes.

The findings are to be presented at the annual Meeting of the Division of Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society at National Harbor, Maryland, this week, by Apostolos Christou at the Armagh Observatory in Northern Ireland, Rosemary Killen at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and Matthew Burger of Morgan State University in Baltimore, working at Goddard.

Earthlings are no strangers to the effects of cometary dust on a planet and its environment. On a clear, moonless night we witness the demise of countless such dust grains as they burn up in the Earth's atmosphere in the form of meteors or "shooting stars." At certain times of the year, their numbers increase manyfold, creating a natural fireworks display: a meteor shower. This is caused by the Earth passing through a stream of dust particles left behind by certain comets.

One of the most well-known showers, the August Perseids, originates from comet Swift-Tuttle, which was last seen back in 1992 and won't be back in the inner solar system for another century. But Earth is not the only planet in the solar system to sweep up cometary dust in this fashion. Last year, comet Siding Spring came within 100,000 miles of Mars, loading its upper atmosphere with several tons of cometary material. The aftermath was recorded by instruments onboard several Mars-orbiting spacecraft such as NASA's Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution mission and ESA's Mars Express.


Mars' moon Phobos is slowly falling apart

© NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona
New modeling indicates that the grooves on Mars' moon Phobos could be produced by tidal forces -- the mutual gravitational pull of the planet and the moon. Initially, scientists had thought the grooves were created by the massive impact that made Stickney crater (lower right).
The long, shallow grooves lining the surface of Phobos are likely early signs of the structural failure that will ultimately destroy this moon of Mars.

Orbiting a mere 3,700 miles (6,000 kilometers) above the surface of Mars, Phobos is closer to its planet than any other moon in the solar system. Mars' gravity is drawing in Phobos, the larger of its two moons, by about 6.6 feet (2 meters) every hundred years. Scientists expect the moon to be pulled apart in 30 to 50 million years.

"We think that Phobos has already started to fail, and the first sign of this failure is the production of these grooves," said Terry Hurford of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

The findings by Hurford and his colleagues are being presented Nov. 10, 2015, at the annual Meeting of the Division of Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society at National Harbor, Maryland.


Big Brother: DNA from newborn blood samples being sold for research

© bigstock
Big Brother alive and well in California

Every year millions of newborns throughout the U.S. get a small heel prick in order to take a blood sample which is then screened for congenital abnormalities. But what happens to that blood sample after those tests? If you were born in California in 1983 or later the California Department of Public Health - CDPH (or Big Brother) can tell you exactly what happened.

From the CBS article:
Turns out a non-descript office building in Richmond contains the DNA of every person born in California since 1983. It's a treasure trove of information about you, from the color of your eyes and hair to your pre-disposition to diseases like Alzheimer's and cancer.

Using these newborn blood spots for research, the state is able to screen babies for hereditary diseases. But the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) is not the only agency using the blood spots.
On page 12 of the Newborn Screening Program brochure (found in the papers the hospital sends home with the new mom) is information describing how the state collects blood sample information and stores it in a CDPH database.

2 + 2 = 4

Your job is literally 'killing' you

© John Taggart/Bloomberg News
The Empire State Building stands past the silhouette of a construction worker at 10 Hudson Yards in New York this month.
People often like to groan about how their job is "killing" them. Tragically, for some groups of people in the U.S., that statement appears to be true.

A new study by researchers at Harvard and Stanford has quantified just how much a stressful workplace may be shaving off of Americans' life spans. It suggests that the amount of life lost to stress varies significantly for people of different races, educational levels and genders, and ranges up to nearly three years of life lost for some groups.

Comment: Your stressful job may kill you -- especially if you're a woman


Ancient brains turn paleontology on its head

Strongest evidence yet that it's possible for brains to fossilize and, in fact, a set of 520-million-year-old arthropod brains have done just that

© Strausfeld et al. and Current Biology
A: Under a light microscope, the above fossil shows traces of preserved neural tissues in black. B: An elemental scan of this fossil uncovered that carbon (in pink) and iron (in green) do not overlap in the preserved neural tissue.
Science has long dictated that brains don't fossilize, so when Nicholas Strausfeld co-authored the first ever report of a fossilized brain in a 2012 edition of Nature, it was met with "a lot of flack."

"It was questioned by many paleontologists, who thought -- and in fact some claimed in print -- that maybe it was just an artifact or a one-off, implausible fossilization event," said Strausfeld, a Regents' professor in UA's Department of Neuroscience.

His latest paper in Current Biology addresses these doubts head-on, with definitive evidence that, indeed, brains do fossilize.

In the paper, Strausfeld and his collaborators, including Xiaoya Ma of Yunnan Key Laboratory for Palaeobiology at China's Yunnan University and Gregory Edgecombe of the Natural History Museum in London, analyze seven newly discovered fossils of the same species to find, in each, traces of what was undoubtedly a brain.


Complex grammar of the genomic language

© Ulf Sirborn
Researchers Arttu Jolma and Jussi Taipale in the lab at the Department of Biosciences and Nutrition, Karolinska Institutet in Sweden.
A new study from Sweden's Karolinska Institutet shows that the 'grammar' of the human genetic code is more complex than that of even the most intricately constructed spoken languages in the world. The findings, published in the journal Nature, explain why the human genome is so difficult to decipher -- and contribute to the further understanding of how genetic differences affect the risk of developing diseases on an individual level.

"The genome contains all the information needed to build and maintain an organism, but it also holds the details of an individual's risk of developing common diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer," says study lead-author Arttu Jolma, doctoral student at the Department of Biosciences and Nutrition. "If we can improve our ability to read and understand the human genome, we will also be able to make better use of the rapidly accumulating genomic information on a large number of diseases for medical benefits."

The sequencing of the human genome in the year 2000 revealed how the 3 billion letters of A, C, G and T, that the human genome consists of, are ordered. However, knowing just the order of the letters is not sufficient for translating the genomic discoveries into medical benefits; one also needs to understand what the sequences of letters mean. In other words, it is necessary to identify the 'words' and the 'grammar' of the language of the genome.


No surprise: Study shows Corexit dispersant not helpful in degrading Deepwater Horizon oil slick

© Todd Dickey/University of Georgia
Samantha Joye, a professor of marine sciences in the University of Georgia Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, studies the oil plumes generated by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon blowout.
The chemical sprayed on the 2010 BP oil spill may not have helped crucial petroleum-munching microbes get rid of the slick, a new study suggests.

And that leads to more questions about where much of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill went. If the new results are true, up to half the oil can't be accounted for, said the author of a new study on the spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

After the 172 million gallon (650 million liter) spill, the chemical dispersant Corexit 9500 was applied by airplane on the slick to help it go away and help natural microbes in the water eat the oil faster. The oil appeared to dissipate, but scientists and government officials didn't really monitor the microbes and chemicals, said University of Georgia marine scientist Samantha Joye.

So Joye and colleagues recreated the application in a lab, with the dispersant, BP oil and water from the gulf, and found that it didn't help the microbes at all and even hurt one key oil-munching bug, according to a study published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Comment: The government's consent to BP's use of Corexit has caused long-term human and ecological tragedies that may be worse than the original spill. Millions of gallons of the dispersant were used to 'disappear' the gushing oil in the Macondo Prospect. Disappearing the oil actually meant sinking it, after micronizing it, so that both BP and the US Federal Government could be 'applauded' for a successful response. However, the known health risks/dangers and environmental damage caused by Corexit became so well publicized that it has now been banned in those countries which have learned from the BP fiasco.


Most powerful explosion since Big Bang detected

© NASA/CXC/Univ. of Waterloo/A.Vantyghem/STScI/NRAO/VLA
This combined X-ray, radio and visible light image of galaxy cluster MS 0735.6+7421 shows the continuing eruption of the most powerful explosion since the big bang.
Bathed in bright blue and fluorescent pink light, the galaxy cluster in this image is home to the most powerful explosion since the big bang. What's more, the explosion is ongoing and has been continuing for the last 100 million years, releasing as much energy as hundreds of millions of gamma ray bursts.

The blast is generated by the largest black hole in the known universe, a gravitational monster over 10 billion times the mass of our sun. Astronomers calculate this behemoth has consumed almost 600 million times the mass of the sun in order to generate such a powerful explosion.

To create the image, X-ray and radio wave data was combined with optical images from the Hubble Space Telescope. The X-rays are shown in blue and were detected by NASA's Chandra X-Ray Observatory. They indicate the hot gas that makes up most of the mass of this enormous galaxy cluster.

Shown in pink are vast cavities each over 600,000 light-years in diameter, blasted out by powerful supersonic jets from the gargantuan galaxy at the very heart of this image. These cavities have displaced a trillion suns' worth of mass and have been filled with magnetized, extremely high-energy electrons emitting radio waves, which were detected by the Very Large Array radio telescope.

Most, if not all, galaxies are thought to contain supermassive black holes at their centers. Astronomers are still trying to determine which forms first — the black hole, or the galaxy around it.

Galaxy cluster MS 0735.6+7421 is located 2.6 billion light-years away in the constellation Camelopardalis, the Giraffe.


Pluto's surprises continue

OUT-OF-THIS-WORLD LANDSCAPE The latest data from the New Horizons mission has helped create topographical maps of Pluto (blue shows lower elevations, brown, higher elevations) that have revealed surprises such as these two possible ice volcanoes, the first of their kind in the outer solar system.
Spinning moons, possible ice volcanoes detected on dwarf planet

At this point, the only thing unsurprising about Pluto is that it continues to offer up surprises. A wide variety of landscapes, ongoing surface transformations and a family of wildly spinning moons are among the riddles reported by the New Horizons mission team November 9 at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society's Division for Planetary Sciences.

Terrains both new and old sit side-by-side on Pluto's surface. Some heavily cratered regions are roughly 4 billion years old, about as old as Pluto itself. Others, like the now famous heart, appear to have been laid down within the last 10 million years, judging by the total lack of craters.

Two mountains look strangely similar to shield volcanoes back on Earth. On Pluto, though, the volcanoes would spew ice, not rock. "There's nothing like this seen in the outer solar system," says Oliver White, a planetary scientist at the NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif. The mountains aren't definitely volcanoes, but researchers aren't sure what else to call them. "Whatever they are, they're definitely weird," says White.

Whirling far above Pluto, four tiny satellites — Nix, Hydra, Kerberos and Styx — are also behaving unexpectedly (SN Online: 11/2/15). Pluto's gravity should have slammed on the brakes and slowed down their spins. But the rapidly twirling moons seem to be unfazed. Hydra, the outermost moon, whips around its axis about 89 times during each loop around Pluto and Charon. Nix, meanwhile, appears to be flipped nearly upside down while the other three tiny moons might be spinning on their sides. "This is unprecedented," says planetary scientist Mark Showalter of the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif., who discovered Kerberos and Styx several years after New Horizons launched. "We've never seen anything like this before, and we still don't know what to make of it."

Published on Nov 9, 2015 Most inner moons in the solar system keep one face pointed toward their central planet; this animation shows that certainly isn't the case with the small moons of Pluto, which behave like spinning tops. Pluto is shown at center with, in order, from smaller to wider orbit: Charon, Styx, Nix, Kerberos, Hydra.

Comment: See also:
'New Horizon' sends back stunning images of Pluto's atmosphere, giant ice mountains
NASA probe New Horizons sends puzzling, unexpected photos from Pluto


Generate electric to power your house with a daily workout

Just imagine that you can workout for one hour at home, and that workout will generate enough power to supply your house of electricity for 24 hours. Now that is what I call great.

Comment: We have been unconscious users and wasters of electricity and water for the total period of late-modern man, with perhaps the exception of the late 1800's. A big reality check is coming.