Science & Technology

Fireball 4

Another huge asteroid to fly by Earth at 37,000 kph on Friday

© Reuters / NASA / ESA / Handout via Reuters
A 1,000 meter-wide asteroid is heading towards Earth this week - and its course will reach its closest point to our planet on Friday, according to NASA.

Traveling at a speed exceeding 37,000 kph, the 2014-YB35 asteroid is set to approach Earth from a distance of 4,473,807 km - some 11.7 times further away than the moon - according to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

But should the asteroid's orbit be closer, the impact of collision could be devastating - and trigger earthquakes and tsunamis, as well as climate changes. For an asteroid of its size, it would not be difficult to beat the Tunguska Event of 1908, which left some 80 million trees knocked down in Siberia and sent a shock wave measuring 5.0 on the Richter scale.

"Smaller scale events like Tunguska are absolutely a real risk, largely they are undiscovered and so we are unprepared," Bill Napier, professor of astronomy at the University of Buckinghamshire, told the Daily Express. "With something like YB35, we are looking at a scale of global destruction, something that would pose a risk to the continuation of the planet. These events are however very rare, it is the smaller yet still very damaging impacts which are a very real threat."

Comment: There seems to be more and more incidents every day. Suspicious too, is how many 'new moons' are being discovered around Jupiter, Saturn and other solar system planets. Could it be they are sweeping up some of the material of a dangerous, debris-strewn part of space we have recently entered into?


Puzzling layer of 'stiff' rock may lurk deep inside Earth

© Johan Swanepoel/Shutterstock.
A new layer of stiff rock may unexpectedly exist deep inside Earth, researchers say.

This layer may explain why slabs of Earth's tectonic plates, which make up the outer shell of the planet, can stall as they sink.

Earth is made up of a core of metal, an overlying mantle layer of hot rock and a thin crust on top. Within these layers are divisions; for instance, the core is divided into a solid inner center and a liquid outer layer, and the crust and the upper mantle form a rigid lithosphere 60 to 90 miles (95 to 145 kilometers) deep that is broken up into tectonic plates.

Oceanic plates collide with continental plates in areas such as the Pacific Rim, triggering earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. In these regions, the leading edges of the oceanic plates can bend into slabs that dive or "subduct" under the continental plates and descend into the mantle. Subduction is a slow process, with a slab taking about 300 million years on average to descend, said study co-author Lowell Miyagi, a mineral physicist at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.

Mysteriously, prior research that scanned Earth's interior found that many slabs appear to slow down and pool together in the upper part of the lower mantle, at depths of about 930 miles (1,500 km). This has been seen under Indonesia and South America's Pacific coast, the researchers said.

"These observations have been puzzling seismologists for a while, but the consensus in the last year or so is that this is really happening," Miyagi told Live Science.


Perseids, Lyrids, Geminids, Leonids, Draconids, Orionids, Aquarids, Taurids - Meteor showers in 2015

2015 is looking set to be a good year for meteor showing watching — with good peak-rates and nice dark skies being likely for most of the major showers of the year.

As a result I've compiled the below list outlining the best dates and times for watching the various major meteor showers of the year — the Geminids, Perseids, Draconids, Taurids, Lyrids, Orionids, Leonids, and Aquarids. As well as creating a handy inforgraphic (posted directly below). Enjoy.

Lyrids — April 22, 2015, Before Dawn

The Lyrid meteor shower is often one of the better meteor showers of the year — with typical years seeing roughly 10-20 meteors-per-hour at the peak. Outburst years that see that number climb as high as 100+ meteors-an-hour aren't uncommon though — so something to keep in mind The Lyrid meteors themselves are often quite striking as well — being very bright usually, and often leaving trails behind.

The radiant point where the meteors seem to originate from is right next to the bright star Vega in the constellation of Lyra — which rises in the northeast portion of the sky during the month of April sometime after ~10pm. The meteor shower typically lasts from around April 16 until April 25.

In 2015 the morning that'll see the meteor shower peak is the morning of April 22 — though either of the days/nights surrounding that date should put on a good show as well. Owing to the fact that the Moon will be setting in the early-evening hours around the time of the peak, 2015 should be a pretty good year for the Lyrids — with nice dark skies expected.

Fireball 5

World's largest asteroid impact zone believed uncovered by ANU researchers in central Australia

© Supplied
Rock features showing shock metamorphic deformation in the mineral quartz from the Warburton Basin impact.
Australian scientists have uncovered what is believed to be the largest asteroid impact zone ever found on Earth, in central Australia.

A team lead by Dr Andrew Glikson from the Australian National University (ANU) said two ancient craters found in central Australia were believed to have been caused by one meteorite that broke in two.

"They appear to be two large structures, with each of them approximately 200 kilometres," Dr Glikson said.

"So together, jointly they would form a 400 kilometre structure which is the biggest we know of anywhere in the world.

"The consequences are that it could have caused a large mass extinction event at the time, but we still don't know the age of this asteroid impact and we are still working on it."

The material at both impact sites appears to be identical which has led researchers to believe they are from the same meteorite.

Treasure Chest

Feces to fortune: US sewage may contain billions in precious metals

© Heather Lowers, USGS Denver Microbeam Laboratory
Microscopic gold-rich and lead-rich particles in a municipal biosolids sample.
Scientists are perusing poop at America's wastewater treatment facilities for gold, silver, copper and other useful metals. The sewage from one million people could net $13 million in metals each year, all while making fertilizer more efficient.

More than seven million dry tons biosolids (read: poop) are generated in the US annually by more than 16,500 municipal wastewater treatment facilities. And that sewage contains metals that people ingest and otherwise flush down the toilet, or rinse out in the laundry and shower.

"There are metals everywhere," Dr. Kathleen Smith of the US Geological Survey (USGS) said in a statement, noting that they are "in your hair care products, detergents, even nanoparticles that are put in socks to prevent bad odors."

Comment: Are people going to start waste diving for gold?


New viruses discovered in deep ocean methane seeps

© Blair Paul
Graphic of viruses attempting to "dock" on a microbial mat, using the tips of their tails.
The intraterrestrials, they might be called.

Strange creatures live in the deep sea, but few are odder than the viruses that inhabit deep ocean methane seeps and prey on single-celled microorganisms called archaea.

The least understood of life's three primary domains, archaea thrive in the most extreme environments on the planet: near hot ocean rift vents, in acid mine drainage, in the saltiest of evaporation ponds and in petroleum deposits deep underground.

Virus in the deep blue sea

While searching the ocean's depths for evidence of viruses, scientists have found a remarkable new one, a virus that seemingly infects archaea that live beneath the ocean floor.

The researchers were surprised to discover that the virus selectively targets one of its own genes for mutation, and that this capacity is also shared by archaea themselves.

The findings appear today in a paper in the journal Nature Communications.

The project was supported by a National Science Foundation (NSF) Dimensions of Biodiversity grant to characterize microbial diversity in methane seep ecosystems. Dimensions of Biodiversity is supported by NSF's Directorates for Biological Sciences and Geosciences.

New information about life in ocean depths

© Karin Lemkau
Scientist Blair Paul prepares a sediment core for further sampling on the research vessel Atlantis.
"Life far beneath the Earth's subsurface is an enigma," said Matt Kane, program director in NSF's Division of Environmental Biology. "By probing deep into our planet, these scientists have discovered new information about Earth's microbes and how they evolve."

"Our study uncovers mechanisms by which viruses and archaea can adapt in this hostile environment," said David Valentine, a geoscientist at the University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB) and co-author of the paper.

The results, he said, raise new questions about the evolution and interaction of the microbes that call the planet's interior home.

"It's now thought that there's more biomass inside the Earth than anywhere else, just living very slowly in this dark, energy-limited environment," said paper co-author Sarah Bagby of UCSB.


Potentially habitable Earth-like planets in the Milky Way Galaxy

Artist's representation of an ideal exoplanet.
Scientists have found thousands of Earth-like alien worlds, called exoplanets, revolving around remote stars, since the first one was discovered in 1988.
Planetary Habitability Laboratory (PHL)
The Earth Similarity Index (ESI) is a measure of Earth-likeness for exoplanets: 1.0 means identical to Earth. Zero means no similarity.

Any exoplanet with an ESI value above 0.8 can be considered Earth-like, which means that it has a similar size and composition to Earth with a temperate atmosphere that might potentially support terrestrial life forms.


The Ronin Institute for wayward academics

© Ronin Institute
What were once quiet concerns whispered among peers at American universities have become a steady drumbeat of angst ringing out across the proverbial quad. Everyone, it seems, is aware of the woeful state of the academic job market for newly minted PhDs. Graduate students who've dedicated five, even seven, years of their lives in training for their chosen fields—even at top universities—often face a stark absence of professorial prospects. A fresh-faced PhD in, say, history, biology, or the classics might get only a couple of job interviews, even zero, never mind an actual job offer in academia.

Without a university position in hand, these highly educated would-be professors generally have two options: bounce from one part-time teaching job to another or take a job doing something else entirely. And while some—those with engineering and science doctorates, mostly—have the option of well-paid work in the private sector, others do not, and admit to feeling shame and frustration that they didn't make it in academia. At conferences and in the higher-education press, they bemoan a broken system: one that generates experts with training they cannot use without that all-important title of professor.

What if there was an alternative? The Ronin Institute, a three-month-old experiment founded by one of these would-be academics, is asking that question, hoping to revolutionize academia by connecting unaffiliated scholars to research funding and giving them credibility at the same time—no university required.


Running on autopilot: Tesla will launch software to power driverless cars

© Reuters / Stephen Lam
Seeing a Tesla is about to get a lot more wild, as the company is preparing to install its self-driving software in the Model S fleet. The autopilot feature will only work on highways... as the technology may not yet be legal in the US.

Tesla will roll out an auto-steering software update for the Model S in the next three or four months, and owners won't even have to go into a Tesla store for the upgrade, founder Elon Musk said at a Thursday press conference.

Drivers will only be able to engage the autonomous system while on highways, despite having the technical ability to do a lot more.

"It is technically capable of going from parking lot to parking lot," Musk said. "But we won't be enabling that for users with this hardware suite, because we don't think it's likely to be safe in suburban neighborhoods," he continued, noting that such streets often lack posted speed limit signs and pose obstacles like children playing in the street.


The 'Carolina butcher' croc that ruled the world before the dinosaurs

© Jorge Gonzales
Scientists in the US have discovered a terrifying land-living crocodile, which lived in what is now North Carolina 230 million years ago.

The crocodile, called Carnufex carolinensis, which literally means the Carolina butcher, was a very early member of the crocodile family, but unlike its modern ancestors it was not aquatic, nor a quadruped but prowled around on two legs.

It was about 3 meters (10 feet) long and about 1.5 meter (3 feet) tall and had blade-like teeth and a long skull.