Science & Technology


The perfume of the comet

How does a comet smell? Since early August, the Rosetta Orbiter Sensor for Ion and Neutral Analysis (ROSINA) is sniffing the fumes of the comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko with its two mass spectrometers. The detected chemistry in the coma of the comet is surprisingly rich already at more than 400 million kilometers from the Sun.

© ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM
Image taken on 26 September from a distance of 26.3 km from Comet "Chury." The image shows the spectacular region of activity at the « neck » of the comet with ices sublimating and gases escaping from inside the comet.
The perfume of this comet is quite strong, with the odour of rotten eggs (hydrogen sulphide), of horse stable (ammonia) and the pungent, suffocating odour of formaldehyde. This is mixed with the faint, bitter, almond-like aroma of hydrogen cyanide. Add some whiff of alcohol (methanol) to this mixture paired with the vinegar like aroma of sulphur dioxide and a hint of the sweet aromatic scent of carbon disulphide and you arrive at the perfume of our comet.

While this doesn't probably make a very attractive perfume, remember that the density of these molecules is still very low and that the main part of the coma is made up of sparkling water (water and carbon dioxide molecules) mixed with carbon monoxide. "This all makes a scientifically enormously interesting mixture in order to study the origin of our solar system material, the formation of our Earth and the origin of life," says Kathrin Altwegg from the Center of Space and Habitability (CSH) of the University of Bern. "And after all: it seems like comet Churyumov was indeed attracted by comet Gerasimenko to form Churyumov-Gerasimenko, even though its perfume may not be Chanel No 5, but comets clearly have their own preferences"

Florida lizards evolve rapidly, within 15 years and 20 generations

© Yoel Stuart/U. of Texas at Austin
The left hind foot of the green anole after evolution. Toe pad measurements were taken on the expanded scales at the end of the longest toe.
Scientists working on islands in Florida have documented the rapid evolution of a native lizard species -- in as little as 15 years -- as a result of pressure from an invading lizard species, introduced from Cuba.

After contact with the invasive species, the native lizards began perching higher in trees, and, generation after generation, their feet evolved to become better at gripping the thinner, smoother branches found higher up.

The change occurred at an astonishing pace: Within a few months, native lizards had begun shifting to higher perches, and over the course of 15 years and 20 generations, their toe pads had become larger, with more sticky scales on their feet.

"We did predict that we'd see a change, but the degree and quickness with which they evolved was surprising," said Yoel Stuart, a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Integrative Biology at The University of Texas at Austin and lead author of the study appearing in the Oct. 24 edition of the journal Science.

North America to experience spectacular sunset due to partial solar eclipse October 23

solar eclipse
© Reuters / Abdel-Halim Shahaby
Much of North America will experience a solar eclipse on Thursday, with the moon covering up to 70 percent of the sun in the late afternoon. Along most of the East Coast and Midwest, the event will occur during sunset, allowing for dramatic photography.

"Sunsets are always pretty. One sunset this month could be out of this world. On Thursday, Oct. 23rd, the setting sun across eastern parts of the USA will be red, beautiful and... crescent-shaped," NASA Science wrote. The alignment of the two orbs on the East Coast at the end of the day "will be especially beautiful... transforming the usual sunset into something weird and wonderful."

The farther north viewers are, the deeper the eclipse they'll see, and the farther west they are, the higher the sun and moon will be in the sky. Thus the comparatively later dusk of the Midwest may provide the most spectacular views of sunset-enhanced phenomenon.

"Observers in the Central Time zone have the best view because the eclipse is in its maximum phase at sunset," longtime NASA eclipse expert Fred Espenak said. "They will see a fiery crescent sinking below the horizon, dimmed to human visibility by low-hanging clouds and mist."

New study suggests 21-day Ebola quarantine is off-base, virus could incubate longer

Hospital workers and public health officials in the U.S. have come under fire for a series of missteps in their response to the Ebola crisis, from initially misdiagnosing Thomas Eric Duncan to allowing a nurse who cared for him at a Dallas hospital to fly on a commercial airliner shortly before she too was diagnosed with the deadly illness.

Now an engineering professor with expertise in assessing the risks posed by pathogens claims he's identified another big problem with authorities' response to the crisis.

In a paper published Oct. 14 in the journal PLOS Currents: Outbreaks, Drexel University's Dr. Charles N. Haas argues that there's not enough evidence to support the recommended 21-day quarantine period for people suspected of harboring the virus.

Genomic remnants from ancient viruses play a prominent role in embryonic development

ancient viruses
© Credit: A*STAR Genome Institute of Singapore
Genomic remnants from ancient viruses may help human embryonic stem cells maintain the flexibility needed to form the full spectrum of tissues in the body.
Like fossils buried beneath a modern landscape, the human genome is littered with sequences that originated from ancient viral DNA insertion events. Scientists have long assumed that these 'transposable elements' are, like fossils, biologically inactive and primarily interesting as a window into evolutionary history. However, researchers at the A*STAR Genome Institute of Singapore have now uncovered evidence that some of these sequences play a prominent role in early embryonic development.

Huck-Hui Ng and colleagues embarked on this project in collaboration with Guillaume Bourque at Canada's McGill University. Bourque's group had discovered that one particular class of sequences of transposable elements - known as human endogenous retrovirus subfamily H (HERV-H) - appears to be specifically expressed in human embryonic stem cells (hESCs). Indeed, these HERV-H sequences are actively transcribed in hESCs, producing enigmatic RNA strands that do not encode a protein but nevertheless appear to serve some function.

Ng and Bourque set out to clarify the role of this RNA by performing experiments in which they selectively depleted it from stem cells. hESCs are actively maintained in a so-called 'pluripotent' state, from which they are capable of developing into any cell type in the human body (see image). In the absence of HERV-H RNA, hESCs rapidly lost their pluripotency; the researchers noted that the loss of HERV-H expression considerably altered the activity of many genes associated with cell development and proliferation.

Solar-system-wide 'climate' change: More galactic cosmic rays are reaching Earth than normal

New space weather observations continue to stun scientists reared on the Aristotelian 'uniformitarian' model, where nothing dynamic ever (or very rarely) happens in space. This is from
In a recently published paper in Space Weather, associate professor Nathan Schwadron of the UNH Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans, and Space (EOS) says that due to a highly abnormal and extended lack of solar activity, the solar wind is exhibiting extremely low densities and magnetic field strengths, which in turn is causing dangerous levels of hazardous radiation to pervade the space environment.
While the study notes that "human beings face a variety of consequences ranging from acute effects (radiation sickness) to long-term effects including cancer induction and damage to organs including the heart and brain," the funding angle for this study was to assess the impact of increased radiation on astronauts travelling to Mars (ha! like that will ever happen in today's global economic depression). That's not what interests us here at What we're interested in is the trend of reducing solar output and the high radiation levels seen during the sun's last minimum cycle... in terms of the immediate, present effects of increased cosmic rays reaching the planet's surface.

Jewelry that harvests energy from your veins

© Naomi Kizhner
Naomi Kizhner, an industrial designer and graduate student from Hadassah College in Jerusalem, has designed jewelry that theoretically extracts energy from the wearers own body. The 'speculative' jewelry is embedded into the person's veins and uses their blood to turn small wheels inside the device.

Earth at risk after cuts close comet-spotting program that spotted the Siding Spring

© Nasa, JPL-Caltech, UCLA/AAP
A Nasa infrared image of Comet Siding Spring. The comet, also known by the less catchy name of C/2007 Q3, was discovered in 2007 by astronomers at the Siding Spring Observatory.
The Earth has been left with a huge blind spot for potentially devastating comet strikes after the only dedicated comet-spotting program in the southern hemisphere lost its funding, leading astronomers have warned.

The program, which discovered the Siding Spring comet that narrowly missed Mars on Sunday, was shut down last year after losing funding.

"It's a real worry," Bradley Tucker, an astronomer at the Australian National University (ANU) and University of California Berkeley, told Guardian Australia.

"There could be something hurtling towards us right now and we wouldn't know about it."

Comment: Indeed, something wicked this way comes, and SOTT has been warning about it for years.

The Siding Spring survey - named after the observatory near Coonabarabran in central New South Wales, where the Mars comet was first spotted - was the only program in the southern hemisphere actively searching for potentially hazardous comets, asteroids and meteors.

Comment: Don't say we didn't warn you. As was mentioned above, SOTT has been talking about the cosmic threat for years now, and how this knowledge is being purposefully concealed and distorted by the Powers that Be. Considering the recent anti-Putin charade and continuous bloodshed in the Middle East, Victor Clube, author of The Cosmic Serpent and The Cosmic Winter was right when he said in the report commissioned by the U.S. Air Force:
We do not need the celestial threat to disguise Cold War intentions; rather we need the Cold War to disguise celestial intentions!


Cell biology research shakes up mitochondrial mystery


A volume rendering of mitochondria
Elvis did it, Michael Jackson did it, and so do the mitochondria in our cells. They shake. While Elvis and Michael shook for decades before loud and appreciative audiences, mitochondrial oscillations have quietly bewildered scientists for more than 40 years.

Now, a team of scientists at National Institutes of Health's National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR) has imaged mitochondria for the first time oscillating in a live animal, in this case, the salivary glands of laboratory rats. The report, published online today in the journal Cell Reports, shows the oscillations occur spontaneously and often in the rodent cells, which leads the researchers to believe the oscillations almost surely also occur in human cells.

"The movements could last from tens of seconds to minutes, which was far longer and frequently at a faster tempo than observed previously in cell culture," said Roberto Weigert, Ph.D., an NIDCR scientist and senior author on the study. The mitochondria also appear to synchronize their movements not only in an individual cell but, quite unexpectedly, into a linked network of oscillators vibrating throughout the tissue.

"You look through the microscope, and it almost looks like a synchronized dance," said Weigert. "The synchronization, to borrow an old cliché, tells us that we need to differentiate the forest from the trees - and vice versa - when studying mitochondria. It may be that the forest holds the key to understanding how mitochondria function in human health and disease."

Heavy metal frost? A new look at a Venusian mystery

This is a radar image of one of the areas sampled on Ovda. There is a smooth ramp across the map going from higher to lower elevations, shown as a gradual transition in radar brightness up the ramp. (The top of the ramp is brighter than the bottom of the ramp in the lower right corner). The bright areas to either side of the ramp are highland plateaus, and the curious dark spots are the mysterious areas at the highest elevations that the researchers are investigating.
Venus is hiding something beneath its brilliant shroud of clouds: a first order mystery about the planet that researchers may be a little closer to solving because of a new re-analysis of twenty-year-old spacecraft data.

Venus's surface can't be seen from orbit in visible light because of the planet's hot, dense, cloudy atmosphere. Instead, radar has been used by spacecraft to penetrate the clouds and map out the surface - both by reflecting radar off the surface to measure elevation and by looking at the radio emissions of the hot surface. The last spacecraft to map Venus in this way was Magellan, two decades ago. One of the Venusian surprises discovered at that time is that radio waves are reflected differently at different elevations on Venus. Also observed were a handful of radio dark spots at the highest elevations. Both enigmas have defied explanation.

"There is general brightening upward trend in the highlands and then dark spots at the highest locations," explained Elise Harrington, an Earth sciences undergraduate at Simon Fraser University, in British Columbia, who revisited the Venus data during her internship at the Lunar and Planetary Institute, under the direction of Allan Treiman. Brightening, in this case, means the radio waves reflect well. Dark means the radio waves are not reflected. In other words, the higher you go on Venus, the more radio reflective the ground gets until it abruptly goes radio black.