Science & Technology


Comet Snowstorm Engulfs Hartley 2

© Deep Impact, NASA
This contrast-enhanced image obtained during Deep Impact's Nov. 4th flyby of Comet Hartley 2 reveals a cloud of icy particles surrounding the comet's active nucleus.
NASA has just issued a travel advisory for spacecraft: Watch out for Comet Hartley 2, it is experiencing a significant winter snowstorm.

Deep Impact photographed the unexpected tempest when it flew past the comet's nucleus on Nov. 4th at a distance of only 700 km (435 miles). At first, researchers only noticed the comet's hyperactive jets. The icy nucleus is studded with them, flamboyantly spewing carbon dioxide from dozens of sites. A closer look revealed an even greater marvel, however. The space around the comet's core is glistening with chunks of ice and snow, some of them possibly as large as a basketball.

"We've never seen anything like this before," says University of Maryland professor Mike A'Hearn, principal investigator of Deep Impact's EPOXI mission. "It really took us by surprise."

Before the flyby of Hartley 2, international spacecraft visited four other comet cores - Halley, Borrelly, Wild 2, and Tempel 1. None was surrounded by "comet snow." Tempel 1 is particularly telling because Deep Impact itself performed the flyby. The very same high resolution, high dynamic range cameras that recorded snow-chunks swirling around Hartley 2 did not detect anything similar around Tempel 1.

"This is a genuinely new phenomenon," says science team member Jessica Sunshine of the University of Maryland. "Comet Hartley 2 is not like the other comets we've visited."

Scientists claim breakthrough in antimatter hunt

© AP Photo/CERN
Photo released by CERN on Thursday, Nov 18, 2010 shows an image taken by the ALPHA annihilation detector showing untrapped antihydrogen atoms annihilating on the inner surface of the ALPHA trap.
Scientists claimed a breakthrough Thursday toward solving one of the biggest riddles of physics, trapping an "anti-atom" for the first time in a quest to understand what happened to all the antimatter that has vanished since the Big Bang.

An international team of physicists at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN, managed to keep atoms of anti-hydrogen from disappearing long enough to demonstrate that they can be studied in the lab.

"For us it's a big breakthrough because it means we can take the next step, which is to try to compare matter and antimatter," the team's spokesman, American scientist Jeffrey Hangst, told The Associated Press on Thursday.

"This field is 20 years old and has been making incremental progress toward exactly this all along the way," he added. "We really think that this was the most difficult step."

Researchers have puzzled for decades over why antimatter seems to have disappeared from the universe.

Theory posits that matter and its opposite, antimatter - both are defined as having mass and taking up space - were created in equal amounts at the moment of the Big Bang, which spawned the universe some 13.7 billion years ago. While matter went on to become the building block of everything that exists, antimatter has all but disappeared except in the lab.

Another Doomed Comet

For the second time in less than a week, a comet is diving toward the sun. Polish comet hunter Michal Kusiak found it yesterday in coronagraph images from the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory:

Doomed Comet
© Spaceweather
Click here for an UPDATED movie

It's no coincidence that this comet is following the same path as its predecessor on Nov. 14th. They are both fragments of a single giant comet that broke apart about 2000 years ago. Astronomers call them "Kruetz sungrazers" after the 19th century German researcher, Heinrich Kreutz, who studied them in detail.

"November is one of the best months to discover Kreutz comets," notes Kusiak. "It's because the field of view of the SOHO coronagraph covers a larger-than-usual portion of the Kreutz track. December, May, and June are good, too."

With SOHO staring at just the right patch of sky, more sungrazers are probably in the offing. First, however, this one has a date with destiny, and it probably won't survive. Solar heating is expected to obliterate the icy sundiver later today or tomorrow. Stay tuned for movies of the death plunge.

Studies Reveal Brain Underpinnings For Auditory And Visual Illusions And Everyday Experiences

New research indicates that the integration of senses and functions in the brain is common. About two percent of the population has a condition called synesthesia, in which two different sensations, like color and sound, are experienced at once. Although this condition is rare, the new findings suggest the brain is wired in complex and sometimes overlapping ways to help people interpret and understand their environments. The research was presented at Neuroscience 2010, the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience and the world's largest source of emerging news on brain science and health.

The new findings show that:
  • Researchers have pinpointed the brain region responsible for the McGurk Effect, an auditory phenomenon in which viewing lips moving out of sync with words creates the perception of other words. A brain area known to play a role in language and eye gaze processing is the hub of the sensory overlap (Michael Beauchamp, PhD, abstract 400.2).
  • People adjust the perceived location of sensory stimuli faster than previously thought. Results show that exposure to light for only a fraction of a second alters the perceived source of a subsequent sound. The findings have implications for the development of hearing aids and rehabilitation from brain injury (Ladan Shams, PhD, abstract 125.1).
Other recent findings discussed show that:

A New Ancient Crystal Skull Discovered!

© unk
The Mitchell-Hedges Crystal Skull is no longer unique! Out of Africa - by way of California - emerges another ancient skull, "Compassion", with a detachable jaw. Already, this skull is re-carving the crystal skull landscape!

With the 2008 release of "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull", crystal skulls attained a far higher level of exposure than ever before. Before, crystal skulls had only become somewhat famous in the 1980s, particularly in New Age circles. Today, there are hundreds of crystal skulls, almost all of them of modern fabrication (most made in China) and used in various New Age-type seminars. Only a handful of skulls are suspected of having ancient origins, including the most famous of all crystal skulls: the Mitchell-Hedges crystal skull.

"Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" makes scant references to the Mitchell-Hedges crystal skull. It stands out for it is by far the most complex, and the only skull with a detachable jaw, meaning that whomever made this, was a master artist in carving crystal - able to create a feat that modern carvers have been unable to accomplish. Gerald Leandro De Souza, a master skull carver from Brazil with 25 years of experience behind him, notes that "the process of cutting the jaw from a skull causes the jaw to break and is almost impossible for skull carvers to accomplish."

WISE Captures a Glowing Cylinder in Space

Glowing Cylinder_1
NGC 1514, sometimes called the 'Crystal Ball' nebula shows a new double ring feature in an image from WISE.

It's not like we've never seen the planetary nebula NGC 1514 before, but we've never seen it though WISE's infrared eyes, until now. And in a stunning surprise, cylindrical rings appear to be encircling the dying star, like a neon-lit carousel, or perhaps like rolling tire surrounding a glowing blob. "I just happened to look up one of my favorite objects in our WISE catalogue and was shocked to see these odd rings," said Michael Ressler, a member of the WISE science team at JPL. "This object has been studied for more than 200 years, but WISE shows us it still has surprises.

Space Station
© Universe Today
Space station from the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey.

At first glance the rings look like the double-ringed space station in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. (Too bad the Bad Astronomer beat me to that likeness. He also compared it to a tuna can.)

Other people see different things in this image.

"I am reminded of the jellyfish exhibition at the Monterey Bay Aquarium - beautiful things floating in water, except this one is in space," said Edward (Ned) Wright, the principal investigator of the WISE mission at UCLA, and a co-author of a paper on the findings, reported in the Astronomical Journal.

Antihydrogen trapped for first time

Antihydrogen Atom
© Katie Bertsche
An octupole magnet was critical to trapping antihydrogen atoms by using their small magnetic moments. This simplified version shows how the north and south poles of strategically arranged magnets can immobilize a neutral antihydrogen atom that has a magnetic moment equivalent to a tiny bar magnet.
Physicists working at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva, Switzerland, have succeeded in trapping antihydrogen - the antimatter equivalent of the hydrogen atom - a milestone that could soon lead to experiments on a form of matter that disappeared mysteriously shortly after the birth of the universe 14 billion years ago.

The first artificially produced low energy antihydrogen atoms - consisting of a positron, or antimatter electron, orbiting an antiproton nucleus - were created at CERN in 2002, but until now the atoms have struck normal matter and annihilated in a flash of gamma-rays within microseconds of creation.

The ALPHA (Antihydrogen Laser PHysics Apparatus) experiment, an international collaboration that includes physicists from the University of California, Berkeley, and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL), has now trapped 38 antihydrogen atoms, each for more than one-tenth of a second.

While the number and lifetime are insufficient to threaten the Vatican - in the 2000 novel and 2009 movie "Angels & Demons," a hidden vat of potentially explosive antihydrogen was buried under St. Peter's Basilica in Rome - it is a starting point for learning new physics, the researchers said.

"We are getting close to the point at which we can do some classes of experiments on the properties of antihydrogen," said Joel Fajans, UC Berkeley professor of physics, LBNL faculty scientist and ALPHA team member. "Initially, these will be crude experiments to test CPT symmetry, but since no one has been able to make these types of measurements on antimatter atoms at all, it's a good start."

CPT (charge-parity-time) symmetry is the hypothesis that physical interactions look the same if you flip the charge of all particles, change their parity - that is, invert their coordinates in space - and reverse time. Any differences between antihydrogen and hydrogen, such as differences in their atomic spectrum, automatically violate CPT, overthrow today's "standard model" of particles and their interactions, and may explain why antimatter, created in equal amounts during the universe's birth, is largely absent today.

The team's results will be published online Nov. 17 in advance of its print appearance in the British journal Nature.

LASCO Coronagraphs Obtain the First Complete Solar Cycle Set of CME Observations

Washington -- Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) scientists have analyzed and developed the first comprehensive empirical characterization of solar Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs) size, speed, mass, and kinetic energy. CMEs are the most energetic phenomena in the solar system and the major drivers of geomagnetic storms. They were discovered in 1971 by scientists in the Space Science Division (SSD), Solar Physics Branch. NRL's subsequent sustained basic and applied research on CMEs and their effects on the ionosphere, thermosphere, and the nation's space assets led to a progressively fuller physics-based understanding of space weather phenomena and contributed materially to the space weather forecasting capabilities used by the Air Force Weather Agency to support U.S. warfighters.

To analyze this solar cycle set, NRL researchers have studied the uniquely long-term and comprehensive CME observations obtained by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) sponsored and NRL's SSD-developed and -operated Large Angle Spectrometric Coronagraph (LASCO) coronagraph aboard the NASA-European Space Agency (ESA) Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) mission.

The continuous operation of the LASCO coronagraph since 1996 has resulted in the longest and most complete database of CME properties ever assembled. The CME properties such as size, speed, mass, and kinetic energy have been measured and catalogued for 13,587 CMEs (as of December 2009) from 130,000 calibrated LASCO images. This unique database was compiled by SSD researchers Drs. Angelos Vourlidas, Russell Howard, and outside collaborators. Their data analysis, soon to be reported in the Astrophysical Journal, provides a robust understanding of the dynamic properties of CMEs and their long-term trends, information important for understanding the geoeffective potential of CMEs and improving space weather forecasting capabilities.

Danish Astronomer's Remains Exhumed in Prague

© Petr David Josek/AP Photo
A tin box with remains of the famous Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe is seen in its tomb at the Church of Our Lady in front of Tyn, at the Old Town Square in Prague, Czech Republic, Monday, Nov. 15, 2010.
Prague - Astronomer Tycho Brahe uncovered some of the mysteries of the universe in the 16th century - and now modern-day scientists are delving into the mystery of his sudden death.

On Monday, an international team of scientists opened his tomb in the Church of Our Lady Before Tyn near Prague's Old Town Square, where Brahe has been buried since 1601. After eight hours of work, they lifted from the tomb a tin box like a child's coffin in which Brahe's remains were placed after the only previous exhumation, in 1901.

Brahe's extraordinarily accurate stellar and planetary observations, which helped lay the foundations of early modern astronomy, are well documented but the circumstances surrounding his death at age 54 are murky.

It has been long thought that he died of a bladder infection: Legend said it was the result of his reluctance to breach court etiquette during a reception by leaving for a toilet. Kidney disease was another suspect.

Ancient Roman Village Discovered in Parkland Around Stately Home

Skeletons were found buried in ditches at the site but may date from long before the Romans arrived.
A farming village established almost 2,000 years ago beside the Roman road leading westward out of London has been uncovered in the parkland around a stately home, now in deepest suburbia.

Extensive remains of the road and village, burials - including skeletons in ditches that are still puzzling archaeologists - and thousands of artefacts including pre-Roman jewellery were found at Syon House near the Thames in Isleworth. The mansion has been the London home of the Dukes of Northumberland for 400 years.

The finds were on the Brentford side of their land on a site being cleared for a new hotel. They were discovered only a few hundred yards from the spot where, according to passionately held local tradition, Julius Caesar crossed the Thames in 54 BC, defeating the British chieftain Cassivellaunus and his alliance of local tribes.

The haul includes pottery, a lava stone quern, coins, a dagger, jewellery including shale bangles and a gold Bronze Age bracelet, in addition to the foundations of huts and a stretch of Roman road.

The strange ditch burials, like the jewellery, may date from long before the Romans arrived, and are still being studied at the Museum of London.