Science & Technology

Fireball 5

Asteroid 2004 BL86 to sweep close on January 26

It'll be closer than any known asteroid this large until 2027. At its closest, telescopes and binoculars will show it moving rapidly in front of the stars.
Asteroid 2004 BL86
© NASA/JPL-Caltech
NASA caption: This graphic depicts the passage of asteroid 2004 BL86, which will come no closer than about three times the distance from Earth to the moon on Jan. 26, 2015. Due to its orbit around the sun, the asteroid is currently only visible by astronomers with large telescopes who are located in the southern hemisphere. But by Jan. 26, the space rock’s changing position will make it visible to those in the northern hemisphere.
An asteroid, called 2004 BL86 by astronomers, will sweep safely past Earth on January 26, 2015. The flyby is notable because 2004 BL86 will be the closest of any known space rock this large until asteroid 1999 AN10 flies past Earth in 2027. This asteroid is estimated from its reflected brightness to be about 500 meters in diameter (about a third of a mile, or 0.5 km). At the time of its closest approach - January 26, 2015 at 16:20 UTC, or 10:20 a.m. CST - the asteroid will be approximately 745,000 miles (1.2 million kilometers) from Earth, or about three times the moon's distance.

Don Yeomans, who on January 9 retired as manager of NASA's Near Earth Object Program Office after 16 years in the position, said:
Monday, January 26 will be the closest asteroid 2004 BL86 will get to Earth for at least the next 200 years. And while it poses no threat to Earth for the foreseeable future, it's a relatively close approach by a relatively large asteroid, so it provides us a unique opportunity to observe and learn more.
The asteroid is expected to be observable to amateur astronomers with small telescopes and strong binoculars beginning in the evening of January 26 and into the morning of January 27. Its peak brightness will be about magnitude 8.8, meaning it will not be bright enough to view with the unaided eye. The asteroid will be at its most visible over Europe, Africa, and North and South America. Australians and east Asians will have to look a few hours earlier, when the asteroid isn't as bright. The asteroid will be moving about four degrees every hour through the course of the night. That's fast, faster than the moon moves (about half a degree per hour). The asteroid will be whizzing past in front of the constellations Hydra, Cancer, and Leo.


Potentially dangerous asteroid to fly by Earth on January 26


Do viruses lurking in our genes make us smarter? Not really

© Mehmet Pinarci
"Our Viral Inheritance May Make Us Smarter" cries the headline of a news story reporting on a new research study from Lund University in Sweden. "Junk DNA' from million-year-old viruses actually plays vital role in human intelligence: study" claims another, about the same study. The headlines are provocative indeed, suggesting viral gene fragments that are embedded in our genome are linked to intelligence.

But is that what the study really claims? Not really, as it turns out.

Before we go into the study, let me cover a little bit of the background. Mammals and viruses share a long and storied complex genetic history together. As viruses infected mammals again and again over millions of years, they transferred many thousands of viral gene fragments into the genome. Research stemming from the human genome project showed that there are at least 100,000 known viral fragments that are part of the human genome which makes up more than 8 percent of our genetic material. While these sequences were initially thought to be non-functional remnants of infection, we now know that many viral genes and proteins have evolved to become part of normal cellular functions and even serve to regulate the expression of other genes.

The most common of these fragments are known as endogenous retroviruses because they are very similar to a class of viruses known as retroviruses. Retroviruses themselves derive their name because of their ability to RNA back into DNA inside a host cell, reversing the traditional transcription process of converting DNA to RNA and then protein. The reverse transcribed DNA is then integrated into the host genome with the help of a specific viral enzyme known as an integrase and while this helps the virus replicate in the host cell.

The Lund University study sheds light on how some endogenous retroviruses may play a key role in brain function. The research group led by biologist Johan Jakobsson looked at the role of a protein called TRIM28 which had been previously shown by other groups to hold back the expression of endogenous retroviral elements. In a previous study, the same group found that when the TRIM28 gene was deleted in neurons of mice, they showed behavioral changes, particularly a vulnerability to stress. So in this study, Prof Jakobsson and his team wondered whether deleting TRIM28 might have a role to play in how neurons function by affecting expression of endogenous retroviruses.

Comment: See:

On viral 'junk' DNA, a DNA-enhancing Ketogenic diet, and cometary kicks


One of the Milky Way's arms might encircle the entire galaxy

Milky Way
© NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Hurt
Artist’s conception of the Milky Way galaxy as seen from far Galactic North.
Given that our Solar System sits inside the Milky Way Galaxy, getting a clear picture of what it looks like as a whole can be quite tricky. In fact, it was not until 1852 that astronomer Stephen Alexander first postulated that the galaxy was spiral in shape. And since that time, numerous discoveries have come along that have altered how we picture it.

For decades astronomers have thought the Milky Way consists of four arms - made up of stars and clouds of star-forming gas - that extend outwards in a spiral fashion. Then in 2008, data from the Spitzer Space Telescope seemed to indicate that our Milky Way has just two arms, but a larger central bar. But now, according to a team of astronomers from China, one of our galaxy's arms may stretch farther than previously thought, reaching all the way around the galaxy.

This arm is known as Scutum - Centaurus, which emanates from one end of the Milky Way bar, passes between us and Galactic Center, and extends to the other side of the galaxy. For many decades, it was believed that was where this arm terminated.
Blue Planet

NASA: Satellite to get the dirt on soil moisture

SMAP: Soil Moisture Active-Passive
A new NASA satellite that will peer into the topmost layer of Earth's soils to measure the hidden waters that influence our weather and climate is in final preparations for a Jan. 29 dawn launch from California.

The Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) mission will take the pulse of a key measure of our water planet: how freshwater cycles over Earth's land surfaces in the form of soil moisture. The mission will produce the most accurate, highest-resolution global maps ever obtained from space of the moisture present in the top 2 inches (5 centimeters) of Earth's soils. It also will detect and map whether the ground is frozen or thawed. This data will be used to enhance scientists' understanding of the processes that link Earth's water, energy and carbon cycles.

"With data from SMAP, scientists and decision makers around the world will be better equipped to understand how Earth works as a system and how soil moisture impacts a myriad of human activities, from floods and drought to weather and crop yield forecasts," said Christine Bonniksen, SMAP program executive with the Science Mission Directorate's Earth Science Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "SMAP's global soil moisture measurements will provide a new capability to improve our understanding of Earth's climate."

Globally, the volume of soil moisture varies between three and five percent in desert and arid regions, to between 40 and 50 percent in saturated soils. In general, the amount depends on such factors as precipitation patterns, topography, vegetation cover and soil composition. There are not enough sensors in the ground to map the variability in global soil moisture at the level of detail needed by scientists and decision makers. From space, SMAP will produce global maps with 6-mile (10-kilometer) resolution every two to three days.

Comment: SMAP antenna's active radar beams down microwaves that penetrate a few inches of soil in swaths a mile wide, and measures the backscatter [PDF] to determine how much water is interfering with the signal. The radiometer will pick up microwaves emitted naturally from the planet caused by wet soil, which will be compared to the active radar's results.

Previous NASA microwave experiments:

In 1994: NASA's Airborne Synthetic Aperture Radar (AIRSAR) and Pushbroom Microwave Radiometer (PBMR) collected data over corn fields during the summer of 1990. During these flights, measurements were made on the ground of soil moisture and plant parameters.

Data collected by satellite instruments is used to illustrate spatiotemporal variability in snow accumulation on the Greenland ice sheet. Microwave radar backscatter images of Greenland are derived using the scatterometer image reconstruction (SIR) method at 3-day intervals over the periods 1991 - 1998 and 1996 - 1997 for EScat and NSCAT, respectively.

Data were acquired by the Passive and Active L- and S-band airborne sensor (PALS) during the 1999 Southern Great Plains (SGP99) experiment in Oklahoma to study remote sensing of soil moisture in vegetated terrain using low-frequency microwave radiometer and radar measurements. The data provide information on the sensitivities of multichannel low-frequency passive and active measurements to soil moisture for vegetation conditions including bare, pasture, and crop surface cover with field-averaged vegetation water contents. Precipitation occurring during the experiment provided an opportunity to observe wetting and drying surface conditions.


Japanese bank to introduce robots that provide customer service

© Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
Programmers work on NAO, a humanoid robot developed by Aldebaran Robotics at the 2014 IEEE-RAS International Conference on Humanoid Robots in Madrid in November.
Customers at some branches of Bank of Tokyo Mitsubishi UFJ in Tokyo will soon be greeted by a robot, in what the bank says will be a first for any major financial institution in the world.

The 58-centimeter robots, named NAO, can answer most basic customer-service questions in 19 languages, as well as analyze customers' facial expressions and behavior, the bank says.

"We can ramp up communication with our customers by adding a tool like this," said Kazunobu Takahara, a bank spokesman. The bank will start by placing the robots in one or two branches, likely in April, and then proceed according to customer feedback.

Video of customers recorded by the robot's forehead-mounted camera can also help the bank develop new financial services in the future, Mr. Takahara said.

NAO was developed by the French company Aldebaran Robotics, which is owned by Japanese telecom and technology giant SoftBank Corp. It costs around $8,000 and has been mainly used at schools and research institutes.

His bigger brother Pepper, also developed by Aldebaran, started working in a similar role at SoftBank's Tokyo stores last year. Softbank placed Pepper, which has a 120-centimeter body, in around 90 stores.

Pepper is more mobile, but NAO is a better communicator and is more skilled at reading people's facial expressions, BTMU said.

Comment: How long before even more jobs are taken by robots in place of humans? The human race is fascinated with advancing technology, but at what cost?


New report: Robo-advisors will manage $255 billion within 5 years

© Flickr/Toshihiro Oimastsu
Assets managed by robo-advisors are growing.
You may have heard of robo-advisors, the nickname for online investment platforms that use algorithms to manage clients' money.

Robo-advisors suffer from what we could call Bitcoin syndrome: It sounds cool, but who actually uses it?

According to a new report from Swiss research company MyPrivateBanking Research, a lot of people do - and more of us will get on board in the near future. By the end of 2014, the report finds, robo-advisors may be managing $14 billion, 83% of that in the US. In the next five years, that number is expected to skyrocket to about $255 billion worldwide.

Comment: Most Americans are living on minimum wage or food stamps and have no savings to invest. This is only useful for the wealthiest few who create and maintain the Wall Street illusion.


Almost success: Space X landed a rocket on a platform in the ocean

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket
© space X
This morning's launch of SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.
Elon, we have touch down!

Today, SpaceX launched and landed a Falcon 9 rocket in a game-changing event that is paving the way for a new era of reusable rocket technology.

After several delays and reschedulings, SpaceX successfully launched a Falcon 9 rocket with a Dragon spacecraft full of cargo destined for the International Space Station (ISS) this morning, January 10, at 4:47 a.m. EST.

What was most exciting about this was the Falcon 9 rocket's descent onto the floating platform of a drone ship floating a couple hundred miles off the northeast coast of Florida in the Atlantic Ocean.

Using GPS tracking, the rocket made it to the drone ship, a pretty amazing feat!

But sadly it landed too hard, Musk announced shortly after the landing attempt.

Comment: This is one of those rare scientific innovations, a private American company spearheading a project useful to space travel.See: Elon Musk uses this ancient critical-thinking strategy to outsmart everybody else


Incoming! Mars pockmarked by over 400 recent meteor impact craters

Impact crater on Mars
Impact crater on Mars.
The surface of Mars is a well worn place in the Solar System, heavily pounded by countless meteor impacts. And some of these craters are hundreds of millions of years old. So it's unusual for there to be a completely fresh impact on the surface of Mars: but that's just what NASA scientists discovered looking through a recent batch of images returned from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

You're looking at an image taken by the Mars Context Camera, an instrument on board the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. In an older photograph taken of the region in February 2012, there was just a bunch of old craters. And then, in the newer image, taken June 2014, this fresh scar on the surface of Mars is clearly visible.

Comment: The only reason we haven't seen over 400 recent impact craters on Earth too is because our planet's dense atmosphere, which Mars doesn't have, is decimating the space rocks currently pelting our planet. At least, it is for now:

A Puzzling Collapse of Earth's Cooling Upper Atmosphere

Earth's magnetic field is weakening 10 times faster now

Better Earth

Kepler discovery: The 1000th exoplanet

Kepler search space
As far as the eye can see!
How many stars like our sun host planets like our Earth? NASA's Kepler Space Telescope continuously monitored more than 150,000 stars beyond our solar system, and to date has offered scientists an assortment of more than 4,000 candidate planets for further study -- the 1,000th of which was recently verified.

Using Kepler data, scientists reached this millenary milestone after validating that eight more candidates spotted by the planet-hunting telescope are, in fact, planets. The Kepler team also has added another 554 candidates to the roll of potential planets, six of which are near-Earth-size and orbit in the habitable zone of stars similar to our sun.

Three of the newly-validated planets are located in their distant suns' habitable zone, the range of distances from the host star where liquid water might exist on the surface of an orbiting planet. Of the three, two are likely made of rock, like Earth.

"Each result from the planet-hunting Kepler mission's treasure trove of data takes us another step closer to answering the question of whether we are alone in the Universe," said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate at the agency's headquarters in Washington. "The Kepler team and its science community continue to produce impressive results with the data from this venerable explorer."

Comment: It's nice to have options, well, sort of. However, maybe we should first learn how to take care of the one we've got.


Super-massive black hole pair on course for cosmic collision

In a galaxy far, far away, a pair of supermassive black holes appear to be spiraling together toward a cosmic collision of unimaginable scale, astronomers said on Wednesday.

The final act of this mating dance, perhaps a mere million years from now, could release as much energy as 100 million of the violent supernova explosions in which stars end their lives, and wreck the galaxy it is in, said S. George Djorgovski of the California Institute of Technology.

Most of that energy would go into gravitational waves, the violent ripples of space-time that are predicted but not yet directly detected by Einstein's theory of general relativity, Dr. Djorgovski said. And there could be electromagnetic fireworks as well.
black holes collide
© Santiago Lombeyda/Center for Data-Driven Discovery, Caltech
An artist’s conception of two black holes in close orbit. In the distant future, scientists expect two black holes to collide and give off a huge amount of energy.
According to theory, he explained in an email, the interactions of the black holes would drive nearby stars away, like shingles in a tornado. "However," he added, "I think that the nature is never so neat."

Dr. Djorgovski, one of the authors of a paper published in the journal Nature on Wednesday, will discuss the research at a meeting in Seattle. The lead author is Matthew Graham, a computational scientist at Caltech's Center for Data-Driven Discovery.

The merging black holes manifested as a regular flicker in a quasar - a mass of light and energy - in a remote galaxy known as PG 1302-102. The most logical explanation, Dr. Graham and his colleagues wrote, is a pair of black holes circling each other less than a light-year apart.

Comment: The Electric Universe theory gives an interesting alternative to mainstream science's view of black holes.