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Mon, 25 Jul 2016
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Science & Technology


Asteroids increase: NASA confirms Earth has acquired second moon

© Skymet Weather
NASA has officially confirmed that Earth has a second moon that has been around longer than you think.

It's been confirmed that the moon is no longer Earth's only cosmic companion.

NASA reported this month that a mini-moon, affectionately named asteroid 2016 HO3, has been orbiting Earth for only about 100 years and may stick around for a few centuries.

Paul Chodas, manager of NASA's Center for Near-Earth Object (NEO) Studies, said of the asteroid,


Developments in quantum computing could simulate beginnings of the universe

© IQOQI/Harald Ritsch
Researchers simulated the creation of elementary particle pairs out of the vacuum by using a quantum computer.
Quantum mechanics suggest that seemingly empty space is actually filled with ghostly particles that are fluctuating in and out of existence. And now, scientists have for the first time made an advanced machine known as a quantum computer simulate these so-called virtual particles.

This research could help shed light on currently hidden aspects of the universe, from the hearts of neutron stars to the very first moments of the universe after the Big Bang, researchers said.

Quantum mechanics suggests that the universe is a fuzzy, surreal place at its smallest levels. For instance, atoms and other particles can exist in states of flux known as superpositions, where they can seemingly each spin in opposite directions simultaneously, and they can also get entangled — meaning they can influence each other instantaneously no matter how far apart they are separated. Quantum mechanics also suggests that pairs of virtual particles, each consisting of a particle and its antiparticle, can wink in and out of seemingly empty vacuum and influence their surroundings. [Beyond Higgs: 5 Elusive Particles That May Lurk in the Universe]


Asleep somewhere new? One brain hemisphere keeps watch

Have trouble sleeping on your first night in a new place? A new study explains what's going on in the brain during that "first-night effect."

© Michael Cohea/Brown University
Detection in detail
A rich array of electrodes in the sleep lab allowed for widespread but sensitive sensing of brain activity.
People who go to bed wary of potential danger sometimes pledge to sleep "with one eye open." A new Brown University study finds that isn't too far off. On the first night in a new place, the research suggests, one brain hemisphere remains more awake than the other during deep sleep, apparently in a state of readiness for trouble.

The study in Current Biology explains what underlies the "first-night effect," a phenomenon that poses an inconvenience to business travelers and sleep researchers alike. Sleep is often noticeably worse during the first night in, say, a hotel or a sleep lab. In the latter context, researchers usually have to build an "adaptation night" into their studies to do their experiments. This time around, the team at Brown investigated the first-night effect, rather than factoring it out.


Morning milky way shines over summer triangle in stunning photo

© Matt Pollock
Minutes before clouds gathered over the night sky, astrophotographer Matt Pollock took this image of the Milky Way on March 3, 2016, from Cherry Plain State Park in Petersburg, New York.
Minutes before clouds gathered over the night sky, astrophotographer Matt Pollock caught this snapshot of the Milky Way.

Pollock took the image on March 3, 2016 from Cherry Plain State Park in Petersburg, New York.

"Despite gathering clouds and the rapid approach of dawn, I managed to hike in, set up my tripod and align my Astro Track to the north star and get the 3 shots spaced 60 degrees apart necessary to capture the full arch of our home galaxy with its core peeking out through the haze, clouds and incoming fog," Pollock wrote in an email to Space.com.


Previously unknown global ecological disaster discovered

Approximately 500,000 years after the major natural disaster at the boundary between the Permian and the Triassic another event altered the vegetation fundamentally and for longer.
There have been several mass extinctions in the history of the earth. One of the largest known disasters occurred around 252 million years ago at the boundary between the Permian and the Triassic. Almost all sea-dwelling species and two thirds of all reptiles and amphibians died out. Although there were also brief declines in diversity in the plant world, they recovered in the space of a few thousand years, which meant that similar conditions to before prevailed again.

Change in flora within a millennia

Researchers from the Institute and Museum of Paleontology at the University of Zurich have now discovered another previously unknown ecological crisis on a similar scale in the Lower Triassic. The team headed by Peter A. Hochuli and Hugo Bucher revealed that another event altered the vegetation fundamentally and for longer approximately 500,000 years after the major natural disaster at the boundary between the Permian and the Triassic.

The scientists studied sediments towering over 400 meters high from North-Eastern Greenland. Carbon isotope curves suggest that the prevalent seed ferns and conifers were replaced by spore plants in the space of a few millennia. To this day, certain spore plants like ferns are still famous for their ability to survive hostile conditions better than more highly developed plants.

Bizarro Earth

Calm before the storm: Restless volcanoes undergo periods of seismic quiet immediately before eruptions

© Diana Roman
Photo of Tilca volcano in Nicaragua erupting.
When dormant volcanoes are about to erupt, they show some predictive characteristics--seismic activity beneath the volcano starts to increase, gas escapes through the vent, or the surrounding ground starts to deform. However, until now, there has not been a way to forecast eruptions of more restless volcanoes because of the constant seismic activity and gas and steam emissions. Carnegie volcanologist Diana Roman, working with a team of scientists from Penn State, Oxford University, the University of Iceland, and INETER has shown that periods of seismic quiet occur immediately before eruptions and can thus be used to forecast an impending eruption for restless volcanoes. The duration of the silence can indicate the level of energy that will be released when eruption occurs. Longer quiet periods mean a bigger bang.

The research is published in Earth and Planetary Science Letters.

The team monitored a sequence of eruptions at the Telica Volcano in Nicaragua in 2011. It is a so-called stratovolcano, with a classic-looking cone built up by many layers of lava and ash. They started monitoring Telica in 2009 with various instruments and by 2011 they had a comprehensive network within 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) of the volcano's summit.


Human hair, bird feathers shown to come from reptile scales

© Fastfun23/iStock
Hair, scales, and feathers seem to have very little in common. But these structures appear to have evolved from a single ancestor—a reptile that lived 300 million years ago—according to new research.

The study could end a long and contentious debate in evolutionary biology, says Leopold Eckhart, a dermatology researcher at the Medical University of Vienna, who was not involved in the work. "This really closes some important questions."

Hair in mammals and feathers in birds have long been known to develop from placodes—patches of thickened skin in embryos that are created by special cells known as columnar cells. These patches had not been seen in reptile embryos, leading scientists to believe that scales were unrelated to hair and feathers. Because birds and mammals evolved from separate lineages, scientists had two hypotheses: Placodes evolved two separate yet identical times in birds and mammals, respectively, or reptiles lost them over time, whereas birds and mammals didn't.

"People were imagining very complex hypotheses to explain the absence of placodes in reptiles," says University of Geneva geneticist Michel Milinkovitch in Switzerland.

Milinkovitch unwittingly waded in to this decades-long debate after seeing a rare, scaleless reptile—an Australian bearded dragon—at a pet market. After purchasing the animal, he investigated its DNA and found that a mutation of the geneectodysplasin-A (EDA) led to the scalelessness. Mutations on this gene are also known to cause baldness, along with deformed teeth and nails, in mice and humans. This discovery led Milinkovitch and his colleague, University of Helsinki biologist Nicolas Di-Poï, to wonder whether there might be a relation between hair and scale development.


Dormant black hole awakens to devour star

AQ artist's rendering, a thick accretion disk has formed around a supermassive black hole following the tidal disruption of a star that wandered too close on June 23, 2016.
A sleeping giant at the center of a galaxy has awoken: A normally dormant, monster black hole has been found shredding a star that ventured too close to the cosmic beast.

This stellar slaughter was spotted by scientists who study the X-rays bouncing around the swirling disk of matter surrounding the giant black hole. The method used to analyze this event — named Swift J1644+57 — could help solve the mystery of how the largest black holes in the universe grew to such enormous sizes, the authors of the new research said.

At the core of almost every galaxy lies a monster black hole — in some cases, the largest black holes in the universe, millions to billions of times the mass of the sun. Astronomers think vast amounts of energy from these supermassive black holes can influence the evolution of the galaxies in which they live. [The Strangest Black Holes in the Universe]

Although nothing can escape a black hole after falling inside, not even light, it's possible for material around a black hole to radiate light that astronomers can see. Violent motion within the so-called accretion disks, the expanses of gas and dust swirling around black holes, can generate bright flares of light, as well as jets of material that shoot away from the black hole at nearly the speed of light.

Most of what astronomers know about supermassive black holes comes from studying black holes that are actively devouring or accreting matter. However, these active giants make up only about 10 percent or less of supermassive black holes, the authors of the new paper told Space.com. In contrast, about 90 percent of known supermassive black holes are dormant, meaning that they are not actively consuming matter and, consequently, do not give off any detectable radiation.


NASA's new find indicates Mars more Earth-like than previously thought

© NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS
Curiosity selfie at Martian Dune
High levels of manganese oxides discovered by NASA's Curiosity rover on Mars may indicate that oxygen was once abundant there. With last year's discovery that the red planet may have been home to ancient lakes, it now seems more akin to our blue one.

"The only ways on Earth that we know how to make these manganese materials involve atmospheric oxygen or microbes," said Nina Lanza, a planetary scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, while commenting on the potentially groundbreaking discovery.

The researchers point out that, judging by the geological setting in which the oxides were found, water and oxygen likely existed on Mars at the same time, particularly in the Gale Crater, where the Mars rover landed on August 6, 2012. The new discovery shows that, at some point in its development, Mars may have been rather similar to Earth.

"These high manganese materials can't form without lots of liquid water and strongly oxidizing conditions. Here on Earth, we had lots of water but no widespread deposits of manganese oxides until after the oxygen levels in our atmosphere rose," added Lanza, discarding arguments that microbes may have played a role in producing the compounds.

Although the researchers don't know exactly how oxygen ended up in the Martian atmosphere, Lanza suggests it was produced as water was split into hydrogen and oxygen when Mars's protective magnetic field was disappearing. The light hydrogen atoms disappeared due to Mars's low gravity, while oxygen was stored in the rocks, giving them the rusty red color that is Mars' signature - and apparently forming manganese oxides. Interestingly, the amount of oxygen needed to make manganese oxides far exceeds the amount needed to turn the planet red. The new finding brings previous estimates of the quantities of oxygen that had been on Mars into question.


Injectable micro-camera could change the future of health imaging - and clandestine surveillance

© Timo Gissibl
Regular arrangement of doublet lenses directly fabricated on a CMOS image sensor.
German engineers have created a camera no bigger than a grain of salt that could change the future of health imaging—and clandestine surveillance.

Using 3-D printing, researchers from the University of Stuttgart built a three-lens camera, and fit it onto the end of an optical fibre the width of two hairs.

Such technology could be used as minimally-intrusive endoscopes for exploring inside the human body, the engineers reported in the journal Nature Photonics.

It could also be deployed in virtually invisible security monitors, or mini-robots with "autonomous vision".