Science & Technology

Blue Planet

Kepler-186F is first Earth-like planet discovered in a nearby star's habitable zone

Kepler 186F

Kepler 186F compared to Earth
For the past three decades, the SETI Institute has been participating in a number of scientific explorations to answer the question "Are we alone?" Today, my co-authors and I are announcing the achievement of another milestone in the exploration. We have confirmed the first Earth-sized planet orbiting in the habitable zone of a star other than the Sun.

This planet is named Kepler-186f and it is one of five planets that have thus far been detected by NASA's Kepler space telescope in orbit about the star Kepler-186. This star is smaller and cooler than the Sun, of a type called an M-dwarf or red dwarf, and all its known planets are small as well, with sizes less than 1.5 times the size of Earth. The planet Kepler-186f is the smallest, being within 10% of the size of Earth and orbits furthest from the host star, within the habitable zone. This is the region around a star within which a planet can sustain liquid water on its surface given the right atmospheric conditions. The Kepler-186 planetary system lies in the direction of the constellation Cygnus, about 500 light-years away.

Jupiter's 'great red spot' shows true colors in new infrared image, glows "white"

infrared jupiter
Pretty in pink!
The largest planet in the Solar System, Jupiter, is known for its giant red storm, the "Great Red Spot" twice the size of the Earth. In a new infrared image by the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan the massive storm appears surprisingly white.

Although detailed images are usually taken by planetary probes or space-based telescopes, Jupiter was photographed by IRCS (Infrared Camera and Spectrograph) mounted on the Subaru Telescope, an 8.2-meter optical-infared instrument at the summit of Mauna Kea volcano on Hawaii's Big Island.

White spot on Jupiter
Enhanced techniques on Jupiter image.
According to National Astronomical Observatory of Japan, it succeeded in capturing the details of Jupiter with a level of precision equal to planetary probe missions or the Hubble Space Telescope thanks to the adaptive optics which correct for turbulence in the Earth's atmosphere.

Apart from the Great Red Spot the image also shows Ganymede, a satellite of Jupiter and the largest moon in the Solar System, in the upper right. Moving relative to Jupiter, it appears stretched into a "rainbow" in the image, because Ganymede moved during the time required to take the picture.

Comment: The Great Red Spot is as tall as the Earth and almost three times as wide. At its narrowest point it is still six times the diameter of the largest hurricane measured on Earth. Despite being 1300 times the volume of earth, Jupiter completes a rotation in about 10 hours, which magnifies the Coriolis Effect responsible for cyclones on planets with atmosphere. Smaller turbulence adds up to produce a giant storm. The Great Red Spot never comes to land so it has no friction or change in temperature due to land mass to weaken the storm. The pressure and temperature variations in Jupiter's atmosphere is huge - up to 10 times that of Earth with massive gas reservoirs that can support such a large storm for a very long time.


Quantum world: Where the future affects the past

Kater Murch

Kater Murch
We're so used to murder mysteries that we don't even notice how mystery authors play with time. Typically the murder occurs well before the midpoint of the book, but there is an information blackout at that point and the reader learns what happened then only on the last page.

If the last page were ripped out of the book, physicist Kater Murch, PhD, said, would the reader be better off guessing what happened by reading only up to the fatal incident or by reading the entire book?

The answer, so obvious in the case of the murder mystery, is less so in world of quantum mechanics, where indeterminacy is fundamental rather than contrived for our reading pleasure.

Even if you know everything quantum mechanics can tell you about a quantum particle, said Murch, an assistant professor of physics in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, you cannot predict with certainty the outcome of a simple experiment to measure its state. All quantum mechanics can offer are statistical probabilities for the possible results.

The orthodox view is that this indeterminacy is not a defect of the theory, but rather a fact of nature. The particle's state is not merely unknown, but truly undefined before it is measured. The act of measurement itself that forces the particle to collapse to a definite state.

In the Feb. 13 issue of Physical Review Letters, Kater Murch describes a way to narrow the odds. By combining information about a quantum system's evolution after a target time with information about its evolution up to that time, his lab was able to narrow the odds of correctly guessing the state of the two-state system from 50-50 to 90-10.

It's as if what we did today, changed what we did yesterday. And as this analogy suggests, the experimental results have spooky implications for time and causality -- at least in microscopic world to which quantum mechanics applies.

Tesla unveils batteries that can power entire homes out soon

Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk
© Reuters / Rebecca Cook
Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk
Tesla CEO Elon Musk says the lithium-ion battery technology the company has already developed can be used in the home, although Musk wouldn't say exactly what it would cost or when the company would be able to officially roll it out, but he hinted it would be soon.

The design, Musk added, is already finished and production of the battery could begin as soon as six months from now. Musk told reporters he was very pleased with preliminary tests of the battery, which reportedly could last up to a week before needing to be recharged.

"We are going to unveil the Tesla home battery, the consumer battery that would be for use in people's houses or businesses fairly soon," Musk said during a conference call Wednesday that focused on company earnings and which was first reported by Bloomberg News.
Grey Alien

Researchers call for interstellar messages to alien civilizations

Alien Message
© Arne Nordmann/Creative Commons
A graphic message sent into space by the Arecibo radio telescope in the 1970s.
San Jose, California — Is it time to send deliberate messages to the stars, in the hopes of reaching alien civilizations? Advocates in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) say that moment is long overdue. But other researchers want to take a more cautious approach and seek an international consensus before outing Earth to the rest of the universe. Scientists in both camps faced off today at a debate held at a meeting of AAAS (publisher of Science Insider) here.

Douglas Vakoch, the director of interstellar message composition at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California, doesn't dismiss the need to consider ethical or political issues, but says that it will be tough to achieve a consensus. "It's 'either-or' thinking," he says. "Either we have international discussion, or we transmit. We should be doing both." But David Brin, an astrophysicist and science fiction author here, says that Earth's relative radio quietude should not be changed so radically, so quickly. "If you're going to transform one of the major characteristics ... of our planet, we've learned that small groups shouldn't do that peremptorily."

Since the SETI movement began in the 1960s, it has mostly involved using radio telescopes to listen to bands in the electromagnetic spectrum for something out of the ordinary. In contrast, instances of active SETI, also called Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence, or METI—beaming deliberate messages to the heavens—have been much rarer. In 1974, a radio message was broadcast from the Arecibo telescope in Puerto Rico toward a cluster of stars 25,000 light-years away. Brin says there have been other "stunts." In 2008, for instance, the tortilla chip company Doritos sent an advertisement from a radar station in Norway to a potentially habitable star system 42 light-years away.

The giant salt mine 1200 feet beneath Detroit, Michigan

salt mine
Salt mine tunnel beneath Detroit
Detroit's salt mines are like an underground city within the city. It is a massive expanse of 1,500 acres and over 100 miles of roads right under everyone's feet. It stretches from Dearborn, located in the northwest of Detroit's metropolitan area, and known to automobile lovers as Henry Ford's birthplace, via Melvindale to Allen Park in the southwest.

The Detroit Salt and Manufacturing Company operated the mine until 1983 but then falling salt prices forced the mine to stop production. In its heyday in the 1920s, 1940s and '50s, the mine was open to the public with guided tours - a popular educational trip for school classes. Today, the entrance to the
Michigan basin
The great Michigan Basin
mine at 12841 Sanders Street is only for delivery trucks and public tours have not been conducted since the 1980s.

But first things first. How did the salt get under the city of Detroit in the first place? For an answer to that question, we have to go back about 400 million years when the first humans weren't even a speck on the horizon. An area today known as the Michigan Basin was then separated from the ocean and kept sinking lower and lower into the Earth. Salty ocean water kept pouring into it until gradually, the ocean receded, leaving the water to evaporate and huge salt deposits behind.

Then, through glacial activity, the Niagara Escarpment formed - a basalt rock area including the whole state of Michigan and beyond - and buried the salt layer. Today, the Great Lakes rest on the basalt rock and the salt layer, some 1200 feet below, being the largest salt deposit in the world - some 71 trillion tons of unmined salt remain according to some estimates.

Comment: The geology of the Great Lakes salt mining area consists of sedimentary deposits of shale, limestone, sandstone, dolomite, gypsum, anhydrite, and rock salt (halite). These formations within the mining area are relatively continuous and generally undisturbed by faults or other forms of sharp ground movements. The Salina Group actually consists of a number of individual salt beds separated by layers of shale, dolomite, and anhydrite. Under Michigan the formation varies from a minimum of approximately 800 ft to a maximum depth of approximately 6800 ft, while the top of the formation under Ohio, near the West Virginia boundary, reaches a maximum depth of approximately 6000 ft.

Comment: The estimates of salt deposits in Michigan are astronomical. Geological studies estimate that 55 counties of the Lower Peninsula cover 30,000 trillion tons of salt. But like much of Michigan's mineral wealth, only a fraction of this salt can be economically recovered.

As winter conditions progressively worsen, rock salt may be upcoming in demand.

Blue Planet

Researchers find oddly behaving 'inner-inner core' at Earth's center

Using the coda waves from earthquakes, geologists have discovered that our planet's core isn't quite what we thought it was.
earth core
© Lachina Publishing Services
The newly discovered core at the center of the Earth has a different polarity than its surrounding core, represented by the purple lines.
Though the seismic waves from earthquakes are best known for their destructive capabilities, in the hands of geologists, they can be powerful tools of discovery. A research team at the University of Illinois has just used the rumbles from quakes to more closely examine the inner core of our planet, and what they found there was quite a surprise. It seems there's another core inside the inner core that measures about half its diameter.

What demarcates this "inner-inner core" is that the iron crystals it contains are oriented on an east-west axis, unlike the iron crystals in the "outer-inner core" which organize along a north-south axis.

Where are we in the universe? Most detailed map yet

Lanikea map
© Nature Video, based on Tully et al 2014
A new study in Nature finds that the Milky Way is part of a broader supercluster of 100,000 galaxies known as Laniakea.
We know that the Earth and the solar system are located in the Milky Way galaxy. But how, exactly, does the Milky Way fit in among the billions of other galaxies in the known universe?

In a fascinating 2014 study for Nature, a team of scientists mapped thousands of galaxies in our immediate vicinity, and discovered that the Milky Way is part of a jaw-droppingly massive "supercluster" of galaxies that they named Laniakea.

Quantum equation predicts universe has no beginning

WMAP Image
This is an artist's concept of the metric expansion of space, where space (including hypothetical non-observable portions of the universe) is represented at each time by the circular sections. Note on the left the dramatic expansion (not to scale) occurring in the inflationary epoch, and at the center the expansion acceleration. The scheme is decorated with WMAP images on the left and with the representation of stars at the appropriate level of development.
The universe may have existed forever, according to a new model that applies quantum correction terms to complement Einstein's theory of general relativity. The model may also account for dark matter and dark energy, resolving multiple problems at once.

The widely accepted age of the universe, as estimated by general relativity, is 13.8 billion years. In the beginning, everything in existence is thought to have occupied a single infinitely dense point, or singularity. Only after this point began to expand in a "Big Bang" did the universe officially begin.

Although the Big Bang singularity arises directly and unavoidably from the mathematics of general relativity, some scientists see it as problematic because the math can explain only what happened immediately after—not at or before—the singularity.

"The Big Bang singularity is the most serious problem of general relativity because the laws of physics appear to break down there," Ahmed Farag Ali at Benha University and the Zewail City of Science and Technology, both in Egypt, told

Ali and coauthor Saurya Das at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada, have shown in a paper published in Physics Letters B that the Big Bang singularity can be resolved by their new model in which the universe has no beginning and no end.
Blue Planet

Surprising 'inner core' of Earth's inner core

inner inner core anisotropy
© Lachina Publishing Services
The earth’s inner core has an inner core of its own, with crystals aligned in a different direction.
Thanks to a novel application of earthquake-reading technology, a research team at the University of Illinois and colleagues at Nanjing University in China have found that the Earth's inner core has an inner core of its own, which has surprising properties that could reveal information about our planet.