Science & Technology


Mysterious X-rays could mark stellar graveyard

Astronomers are baffled by the discovery of a mysterious fog of high energy X-rays blasting out of the centre of our galaxy.

The discovery, reported in the journal Nature, challenges our understanding of the physics taking place in the galactic centre.

The astronomers speculate the mysterious cloud could be generated by a vast graveyard of thousands of stellar remnants clustered in the shadow of the supermassive black hole.

But the source still eludes them.

"This is something that has never been seen before, I only wish we knew what it is that we discovered," says one of the study's authors Professor Chuck Hailey of the University of Columbia in New York.

"We have quite a few theories of what it could be, but none of them fits the facts, so at this point it's something of a mystery."

The international team of scientists discovered the huge X-ray cloud during observations using the NuSTAR X-ray Observatory to study a region 30 light-years wide around the supermassive black hole at the centre of the Milky Way galaxy.

"There really was no evidence to suggest that there should be this diffused foggy type of high energy X-rays in the region around the central black hole," says Hailey.


Chernobyl forests aren't decaying properly - significant risk of fires further spreading radiation

© T.A.Mousseau & A.P. Møller
Fallen trees in Chernobyl's infamous red forest.
It wasn't just people, animals and trees that were affected by radiation exposure at Chernobyl, but also the decomposers: insects, microbes, and fungi

Nearly 30 years have passed since the Chernobyl plant exploded and caused an unprecedented nuclear disaster. The effects of that catastrophe, however, are still felt today. Although no people live in the extensive exclusion zones around the epicenter, animals and plants still show signs of radiation poisoning.

Birds around Chernobyl have significantly smaller brains that those living in non-radiation poisoned areas; trees there grow slower; and fewer spiders and insects - including bees, butterflies and grasshoppers - live there. Additionally, game animals such as wild boar caught outside of the exclusion zone - including some bagged as far away as Germany - continue to show abnormal and dangerous levels of radiation.

However, there are even more fundamental issues going on in the environment. According to a new study published in Oecologia, decomposers - organisms such as microbes, fungi and some types of insects that drive the process of decay - have also suffered from the contamination. These creatures are responsible for an essential component of any ecosystem: recycling organic matter back into the soil. Issues with such a basic-level process, the authors of the study think, could have compounding effects for the entire ecosystem.

The team decided to investigate this question in part because of a peculiar field observation. "We have conducted research in Chernobyl since 1991 and have noticed a significant accumulation of litter over time," the write. Moreover, trees in the infamous Red Forest - an area where all of the pine trees turned a reddish color and then died shortly after the accident - did not seem to be decaying, even 15 to 20 years after the meltdown.

Comment: April 29, 2015: It is burning right now.

Chernobyl forest fires may result in large scale re-release of radiation
Forest fires heading for Chernobyl nuclear plant - Ukraine Interior Ministry

Edit: Chernobyl NPP wildfire fully put out — Ukraine's Emergencies State Service


Scientists find evidence of large hydrologic network under Antarctica's 'bleeding glacier'

© Peter Rejcek, National Science Foundation
Antarctica's Bleeding Glacier
Antarctica's Dry Valleys are the most arid places on Earth, but underneath their icy soils lies a vast and ancient network of salty, liquid water filled with life, a new study finds.

The Dry Valleys are almost entirely ice-free, except for a few isolated glaciers. The only surface water is a handful of small lakes. Inside the canyons, the climate is extremely dry, cold and windy; researchers have stumbled upon mummified seals in these gorges that are thousands of years old.

Yet there is life in this extreme landscape. For instance, bacteria living under Taylor Glacier stain its snout a deep blood red. The rust-colored brine, called Blood Falls, pours into Lake Bonney in the southernmost of the three largest Dry Valleys. The dramatic colors offer shocking relief to senses overwhelmed by the glaring white ice and dull brown rocks.

Now, for the first time, scientists have traced the water underneath Taylor Glacier to learn more about the mysterious Blood Falls. In the process, the researchers discovered that briny water underlies much of Taylor Valley. The subsurface network connects the valley's scattered lakes, revealing that they're not as isolated as scientists once thought. The findings were published today (April 28) in the journal Nature Communications.


Astonishing images of Mercury captured by NASA's Messenger probe before it smashes into planet

© Reuters / NASA / Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory / Carnegie Institution of Washington / Handout
As Judgment Day approaches for NASA's Messenger probe, stunning new pictures have emerged of the planet it is set to crash into on Thursday: Mercury.

The incredible close-up shots show our solar system's smallest planet as never before.

The psychedelic appearance is explained by NASA overlaying the pictures from the spacecraft's Visual and Infrared Spectrometer (Virs) onto a black and white mosaic in order to accentuate features such as craters and volcanic vents.


Gecko-inspired robots can lift items 100 times their weight

© Screenshot from video
Tiny robots can climb kilometers of walls carrying objects over 100 times their own weight. They are to be presented by their creators, Stanford engineers at an international conference to take place in the US next month.

The secret of a series of the super-strong robots, created by mechanical engineers at Stanford University in California, is in their feet, the design of which was inspired by geckos - or rather their well-known climbing skills, New Scientist reported.

Eye 2

The rocks are watching you: US Police departments using 'spy rocks'

An article on an annual border security expo for the so-called US "border-industrial complex" over at the London Guardian starts off by featuring spy rocks.

Yes. Exactly as it sounds.

Spy rocks.

Fake rocks with tiny cameras inside.

If it sounds like a lame episode of Inspector Gadget, that's because it is like that, only this is real life, modern day Surveillance State USA.

Comment: It's finally gotten to the point where we have no privacy anywhere, even in our own homes. Wonder why the elites are so scared that they feel the necessity of watching ALL of us ALL of the time? Maybe they know that something BIG is about to happen that may finally push the masses to actually do something to overcome their captive state.


Beyond genes: Are centrioles carriers of biological information?

© Pierre Gönczy/EPFL
An electron micrograph of a centriole.
Centrioles are barrel-shaped structures inside cells, made up of multiple proteins. They are currently the focus of much research, since mutations in the proteins that make them up can cause a broad range of diseases, including developmental abnormalities, respiratory conditions, male sterility and cancer. Publishing in Cell Research, EPFL scientists show that the original centrioles of a fertilized egg, which only come from the father, persist across tens of cell divisions in the developing embryo. The surprising finding raises the possibility that centrioles may actually be carriers of information, with profound implications for biology and disease treatment.

Perhaps best known for their role in cell division, centrioles ensure that chromosomes are properly passed on to the new daughter cells. However, they are also found in cilia, the long eyelash-like structures that allow many cells in the body to signal to their neighbors and other cells to exhibit motility, e.g. in cells that line the respiratory tracts. During reproduction, both parents equally contribute genetic material, while the female egg donates most of the cell organelles, such as mitochondria. However, the centrioles of the newly fertilized embryo come exclusively from the male's sperm, bringing with them any malfunctions to the first embryo cells.


Mergers of galaxy clusters drive new star formation and rebirth of comatose galaxies

© Andra Stroe
A radio image highlighting the shock wave (seen here as the bright arc running from bottom left to top right) in the 'Sausage' merging cluster, made using the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope. The shock wave was generated 1 billion years ago, when the two original clusters collided, and is moving at a very high speed of 9 million kilometres per hour.
Galaxies are often found in clusters, which contain many 'red and dead' members that stopped forming stars in the distant past. Now an international team of astronomers, led by Andra Stroe of Leiden Observatory and David Sobral of Leiden and the University of Lisbon, have discovered that these comatose galaxies can sometimes come back to life. If clusters of galaxies merge, a huge shock wave can drive the birth of a new generation of stars -- the sleeping galaxies get a new lease of life. The scientists publish their work on 24 April in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Galaxy clusters are like cities, where thousands of galaxies can be packed together, at least in comparison to the sparsely-populated space around them. Over billions of years, they build up structure in the universe -- merging with adjacent clusters, like growing cities absorb nearby towns. When this happens, there is a huge release of energy as the clusters collide. The resulting shock wave travels through the cluster like a tsunami, but until now there was no evidence that the galaxies themselves were affected very much.


Liquid mercury could lead to royal tomb in Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent

© Reuters / INAH / Files / Handout via Reuters
Tunnel that may lead to a royal tombs discovered underneath the Quetzalcoatl temple in the ancient city of Teotihuacan.
An archaeologist has made the startling discovery of liquid mercury beneath an ancient pyramid in Mexico, which predates the Aztecs. This could mean the presence of a royal tomb right below one of the most cryptic cities in the Americas.

Local researcher Sergio Gomez announced the discovery on Friday of "large quantities" of the element underneath the Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent - the third largest in the ancient ruined city of Teotihuacan, which is shrouded in mystery and was once one of the largest in the hemisphere.

"It's something that completely surprised us," he told Reuters, standing at the entrance to the ancient pyramid, located about 30 miles (50 km) northeast of Mexico City.


Leading seismologist: California's 'Big One' could trigger super cycle of destructive quakes


A major earthquake - the Big One - is statistically almost certain in California in the coming decades, and there is even worse news below the ground: it is likely to be followed by a series of similar-sized temblors, according to a leading seismologist.

The current relatively quiet seismic period - in which "far less" energy is being released in earthquakes than it is being stored from tectonic plate motions "cannot last forever," said University of Southern California earth sciences professor James Dolan while delivering a new paper during the Seismological Society of America conference in Pasadena.

"At some point, we will need to start releasing all of this pent-up energy stored in the rocks in a series of large earthquakes," Dolan stressed.

The earthquake could spark a "super cycle," meaning "a flurry of other Big Ones, as stresses related to the original San Andreas fault earthquake are redistributed on other faults throughout Southern California," he said.

Comment: Given the amount of tectonic and volcanic activity we've been seeing in the region of the ring fire recently, it may not be decades before we see something absolutely catastrophic occur in California and the surrounding area.

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