Science & Technology


Monster Earth-facing Sunspot - solar flare alert with possible solar storm brewing

solar flare

The sun on Oct. 23 as seen by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory. The dark sunspot cluster in AR2192 is obvious in the HMI Intensitygram (left), which represents the sun's photosphere -- known, colloquially, as the solar 'surface' -- whereas the EUV images to the right (at wavelengths 171A -- top -- and 304A) show emissions from the multimillion degree solar corona (where coronal loops shine bright) and chromosphere.
Just as the US prepares to watch the partial solar eclipse today, nearly 100 million miles away on the sun a possible solar storm is brewing. Amateur astronomers have been wowed by a vast sunspot that has rotated to face Earth, the largest since this solar cycle began in 2008, and solar observatories (on the ground and orbiting Earth) are closely monitoring the region.

The sunspot, a dark patch in the sun's photosphere, represents intense solar magnetism bursting from the sun's interior known as an active region. This particular active region, designated AR2192, has been rumbling with intense flare activity, recently exploding with 2 X-class flares, causing some short-lived high-frequency (HF) radio black outs around the globe.

Comment: Interesting that the Sun had been so quiet until around the time of Comet Siding Spring passing so close to Mars. Earth Changes and the Human-Cosmic Connection


Electrical charge build-up drives molecular rearrangements

Schematic of the electrochemical cel
© Credit: Berkeley Lab
Schematic of the electrochemical cell – a silicon nitride (Si3N4) membrane separates the liquid from vacuum region of the x-ray source; a 20nm thin-film gold electrode is deposited on liquid side of the membrane. Detection of x-ray absorption is via fluorescence emission on the vacuum side or electron emission at the gold electrode.
When a solid material is immersed in a liquid, the liquid immediately next to its surface differs from that of the bulk liquid at the molecular level. This interfacial layer is critical to our understanding of a diverse set of phenomena from biology to materials science. When the solid surface is charged, just like an electrode in a working battery, it can drive further changes in the interfacial liquid. However, elucidating the molecular structure at the solid-liquid interface under these conditions has proven difficult.

Now, for the first time, researchers at the US Department of Energy's (DOE) Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) have observed the molecular structure of liquid water at a gold surface under different charging conditions.

Miquel Salmeron, a senior scientist in Berkeley Lab's Materials Sciences Division (MSD) and professor in UC Berkeley's Materials Science and Engineering Department, explains this in the context of a battery. "At an electrode surface, the build-up of electrical charge, driven by a potential difference (or voltage), produces a strong electric field that drives molecular rearrangements in the electrolyte next to the electrode."

Berkeley Lab researchers have developed a method not only to look at the molecules next to the electrode surface, but to determine their arrangement changes depending on the voltage.

NASA's Fermi satellite finds hints of starquakes in magnetar "storm"

NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope detected a rapid-fire "storm" of high-energy blasts from a highly magnetized neutron star, also called a magnetar, on Jan. 22, 2009. Now astronomers analyzing this data have discovered underlying signals related to seismic waves rippling throughout the magnetar.

neutron star
© NASA/S. Wiessinger
A rupture in the crust of a highly magnetized neutron star, shown here in an artist's rendering, can trigger high-energy eruptions. Fermi observations of these blasts include information on how the star's surface twists and vibrates, providing new insights into what lies beneath.
Such signals were first identified during the fadeout of rare giant flares produced by magnetars. Over the past 40 years, giant flares have been observed just three times -- in 1979, 1998 and 2004 -- and signals related to starquakes, which set the neutron stars ringing like a bell, were identified only in the two most recent events.

"Fermi's Gamma-ray Burst Monitor (GBM) has captured the same evidence from smaller and much more frequent eruptions called bursts, opening up the potential for a wealth of new data to help us understand how neutron stars are put together," said Anna Watts, an astrophysicist at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands and co-author of a new study about the burst storm. "It turns out that Fermi's GBM is the perfect tool for this work."

Neutron stars are the densest, most magnetic and fastest-spinning objects in the universe that scientists can observe directly. Each one is the crushed core of a massive star that ran out of fuel, collapsed under its own weight, and exploded as a supernova. A neutron star packs the equivalent mass of half-a-million Earths into a sphere about 12 miles across, roughly the length of Manhattan Island in New York City.

Hinode satellite captures X-ray footage of solar eclipse

solar eclipse
© Center for Astrophysics
The moon passed between the Earth and the sun on Thursday, Oct. 23. While avid stargazers in North America looked up to watch the spectacle, the best vantage point was several hundred miles above the North Pole.

The Hinode spacecraft was in the right place at the right time to catch the solar eclipse. What's more, because of its vantage point, Hinode witnessed a "ring of fire" or annular eclipse.

An annular eclipse occurs when the moon passes directly in front of the sun but doesn't cover it completely because the moon appears too small. (The apparent size of the moon depends on its distance from Earth or, in this case, the spacecraft.) About one-third of all solar eclipses are annular.

"This is only the second annular eclipse Hinode has witnessed since it launched in 2006," says astrophysicist Patrick McCauley of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

Europe postpones next month's launch of first 'space plane'

ESA's space plane

A replica of the ESA's space plane IXV is on display during the presentation at the European Space Research and Technology Centre in Noordwijk, on September 9, 2014
Europe said Friday it was postponing the launch next month of its first-ever "space plane" to give scientists time to finetune the mission's flight plan.

Dubbed the IXV, for Intermediate eXperimental Vehicle, the plane had been scheduled for launch on November 18 by a Vega light rocket from Kourou, French Guiana.

"The European Space Agency (ESA), in conjunction with the French space agency CNES, has decided to carry out additional flight trajectory analyses," said Arianespace, which markets services by ESA's launchers.

"A new launch date will be announced as soon as possible," it said in a press release..

Ebola's evolutionary roots are more ancient than previously thought

Ebola virus
© Credit: Frederick A. Murphy, via the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
A colorized transmission electron micrograph (TEM) of the Ebola virus.
A new study is helping to rewrite Ebola's family history. The research shows that filoviruses - a family to which Ebola and its similarly lethal relative, Marburg, belong - are at least 16-23 million years old.

Filoviruses likely existed in the Miocene Epoch, and at that time, the evolutionary lines leading to Ebola and Marburg had already diverged, the study concludes.

The research was published in the journal PeerJ in September. It adds to scientists' developing knowledge about known filoviruses, which experts once believed came into being some 10,000 years ago, coinciding with the rise of agriculture. The new study pushes back the family's age to the time when great apes arose.

"Filoviruses are far more ancient than previously thought," says lead researcher Derek Taylor, PhD, a University at Buffalo professor of biological sciences. "These things have been interacting with mammals for a long time, several million years."

According to the PeerJ article, knowing more about Ebola and Marburg's comparative evolution could "affect design of vaccines and programs that identify emerging pathogens."

The research does not address the age of the modern-day Ebolavirus. Instead, it shows that Ebola and Marburg are each members of ancient evolutionary lines, and that these two viruses last shared a common ancestor sometime prior to 16-23 million years ago.

Do quantum effects emerge from many interacting [classical] worlds?

many worlds bizarre
© Elena Kulikova/Getty Images
Parallel universes - worlds where the dinosaur-killing asteroid never hit, or where Australia was colonised by the Portuguese - are a staple of science fiction. But are they real?

In a radical paper published this week in Physical Review X, we (Dr Michael Hall and I from Griffith University and Dr Dirk-André Deckert from the University of California) propose not only that parallel universes are real, but that they are not quite parallel - they can "collide".

In our theory, the interaction between nearby worlds is the source of all of the bizarre features of quantum mechanics that are revealed by experiment.
Fireball 4

Asteroid 2014 SC324 zips by Earth Friday afternoon

Asteroid 2014 SC324
© Gianluca Masi/Software Bisque
Here comes another asteroid! 2014 SC324 will miss Earth by 1.5 times the distance to the Moon early Friday afternoon October 24, 2014.
What a roller coaster week it's been. If partial eclipses and giant sunspots aren't your thing, how about a close flyby of an Earth-approaching asteroid? 2014 SC324 was discovered on September 30 this year by the Mt. Lemmon Survey high in the Catalina Mountains north of Tucson, Arizona.

Based on brightness, the tumbling rock's size is estimated at around 197 feet (60-m), on the large side compared to the many small asteroids that whip harmlessly by Earth each year.

Illusions in the cosmic clouds: New image of spinning neutron star

Pareidolia is the psychological phenomenon where people see recognizable shapes in clouds, rock formations, or otherwise unrelated objects or data. There are many examples of this phenomenon on Earth and in space.

Do you see any recognizable shapes in this nebulous region captured by NASA's WISE and Chandra missions?
When an image from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory of PSR B1509-58 -- a spinning neutron star surrounded by a cloud of energetic particles --was released in 2009, it quickly gained attention because many saw a hand-like structure in the X-ray emission.

In a new image of the system, X-rays from Chandra in gold are seen along with infrared data from NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) telescope in red, green and blue. Pareidolia may strike again as some people report seeing a shape of a face in WISE's infrared data. What do you see?

NASA's Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array, or NuSTAR, also took a picture of the neutron star nebula in 2014, using higher-energy X-rays than Chandra.

PSR B1509-58 is about 17,000 light-years from Earth.

NASA identifies ice cloud above cruising altitude on Titan

NASA scientists have identified an unexpected high-altitude methane ice cloud on Saturn's moon Titan that is similar to exotic clouds found far above Earth's poles.

This cloud in the stratosphere over Titan's north pole (left) is similar to Earth's polar stratospheric clouds (right). NASA scientists found that Titan's cloud contains methane ice, which was not previously thought to form in that part of the atmosphere. Cassini first spotted the cloud in 2006.
This lofty cloud, imaged by NASA's Cassini spacecraft, was part of the winter cap of condensation over Titan's north pole. Now, eight years after spotting this mysterious bit of atmospheric fluff, researchers have determined that it contains methane ice, which produces a much denser cloud than the ethane ice previously identified there.

"The idea that methane clouds could form this high on Titan is completely new," said Carrie Anderson, a Cassini participating scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and lead author of the study. "Nobody considered that possible before."

Methane clouds were already known to exist in Titan's troposphere, the lowest layer of the atmosphere. Like rain and snow clouds on Earth, those clouds form through a cycle of evaporation and condensation, with vapor rising from the surface, encountering cooler and cooler temperatures and falling back down as precipitation. On Titan, however, the vapor at work is methane instead of water.