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New expedition to probe Mariana trench's deepest secrets

© NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research
The remotely operated vehicle Deep Discoverer exploring the Mariana Trench at a depth of 6000 meters in 2016. A new effort aims to understand the trench's unusual geodynamics.
The Mariana Trench "is a little crazy," Jian Lin says. The scythe-shaped cleft in the western Pacific sea floor, 2550 kilometers long, plunges nearly 11 kilometers, deeper than any other place in the oceans. But what wows Lin, a marine geophysicist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, is the zany topography. The trench marks a subduction zone, where one slab of crust slides beneath another. But whereas many other subducting plates slope gradually downward, in the Mariana the Pacific Plate dives nearly vertically.

Scientists have long wondered what accounts for that precipitous dive, and why the massive earthquakes that generate long-ranging tsunamis at other subduction zones have not been recorded in the trench. Now, a Chinese-U.S. team has planted an array of seismometers on the Mariana's slopes. By listening for seismic waves, says Lin, a project co-leader, the 5-year, $12 million Mariana Trench initiative aims to image in fine detail the warped rock layers in and around the trench, looking for clues as to what shapes them.

Comment: See also:

Scientists may have identified mysterious, metallic sound coming from the Mariana Trench
Deep-sea audio recordings reveal Pacific Ocean's noisy Mariana Trench, surprising scientists
Researchers find microbial life at the bottom of the Mariana Trench


Evil Rays

Amazon seeking permission to run experimental wireless technology tests in rural Washington

© Getty / Drew Angerer
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.
Amazon is preparing to test experimental wireless communications technology, including mobile devices and fixed-base stations, in rural Washington and Seattle, the company disclosed in government filings this week.

The filings do not specify what the tests would be for, but they hint at a new type of technology or wireless service, noting that the project would involve prototypes designed to support "innovative communications capabilities and functionalities."

Even more intriguing is that Amazon listed Neil Woodward as the main contact on the filings. Woodward, a retired NASA astronaut who joined Amazon in 2008, is now a senior manager for Prime Air, the team in charge of Amazon's drone-delivery effort, according to his LinkedIn page.

That suggests the tests could involve some kind of communications system to control Amazon's delivery drones. But the details in the filings could also point to a wireless service designed to work with mobile handsets, such as Amazon's Kindle tablets, or perhaps the Echo home speakers that Amazon sells.

Comment: Further reading:


Galaxy

Mystery object spotted in Cygnus A Galaxy

Astronomers have discovered an object in the active galaxy Cygnus A that wasn't there before.

© NRAO/AUI
The galaxy Cygnus A "shines" in radio frequencies (seen here), coming from relativistic electrons zipping along jets shot out from the central black hole and deposited in giant "radio lobes." (The lobes extend outward roughly 10 times farther than the galaxy itself, which is invisible in this image.)
Last week at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Grapevine, Texas, astronomers made an announcement that's caught the interest of several researchers: a very bright something has appeared in a well-known galaxy.

That galaxy is the elliptical Cygnus A. Cygnus A is one of the brightest radio sources in the sky. It lies approximately 800 million light-years from us (redshift of 0.056). In its core sits a supermassive black hole madly eating and cocooned in gas, while two jets shoot out to either side and light up the intergalactic medium. This activity produces the radio radiation that makes Cygnus A so bright.

Using the recently upgraded Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA) in New Mexico, Rick Perley (NRAO) and colleagues took a gander at Cygnus A — the first time the instrument has looked at the galaxy since 1989. (Apparently astronomers spent so much VLA time observing the galaxy in the 1980s that they didn't feel the need to look again, Perley joked January 6th in his AAS presentation.) The new observations showed a surprise: a new, secondary object just southwest of the central black hole. This object wasn't in the 1989 radio image. Additional, higher-resolution observations with the Very Long Baseline Array also picked up the object, clearly distinct from the galaxy's nucleus. It's roughly 1,300 light-years from the center.

The whatever-it-is is about twice as bright as the brightest known supernova at these frequencies. In fact, it's much brighter than just about any transitory radio signal known, except for accreting supermassive black holes and tidal disruption events, outbursts created when a black hole eats a star.

The team scoured other archives and found the object in 2003 Keck infrared observations and, more iffily, in some images from Hubble. (The object is so red that it doesn't show up well at optical wavelengths, and in this range the space telescope's resolution isn't as good as that of Keck's adaptive optics.)

Fireball 2

Are we next? Researchers reconstruct the dark and frozen conditions on Earth after asteroid megastrike

The apocalyptic time that many believe wiped out the dinosaurs has been reconstructed by scientists in unprecedented detail. They found tiny droplets of sulfuric acid formed high up in the air after the well-known impact of a large asteroid 66 million years ago, blocking the sunlight for several years.

They say this 'big chill' had far more catastrophic effects that first thought, causing global temperatures to plummet for three years, even mixing oceans and killing off sea life.
'The big chill following the impact of the asteroid that formed the Chicxulub crater in Mexico is a turning point in Earth history,' says Julia Brugger from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), lead author of the study to be published today in the Geophysical Research Letters.

'We can now contribute new insights for understanding the much debated ultimate cause for the demise of the dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous era.'

Question

The link between creative problem solving and finding hidden pictures

© Wikimedia commons
Rabbit or duck?
Information analysis, followed by step-by-step logical deduction is often our go-to method to solve problems we encounter in life. Yet, for some problems we seem to suddenly gain insight - we realize the solution in an "Aha!" kind of moment. Known as 'insight problems', they can seem impossible or unsolvable until creative insight appears and a solution is unexpectedly realized.

Is it possible to increase the likelihood of the arrival of such creative insight? PhD candidate Ruben Laukkonen along with Dr. Jason Tangen at the University of Queensland in Australia, have recently published a study in the journal Consciousness and Cognition suggesting that it is.
"We might be taking a walk, riding a bike, or having a shower, when we finally understand something we've been struggling with. One goal of this study, and ongoing research, is to understand what it is about those situations that evoke epiphanies," Laukkonen says.

Eye 1

Looking at the world in early life sculpts the brain's visual circuitry

© wolfdragon
Scientists have found more clues about what happens in the brains of baby mammals as they try to make visual sense of the world.

The study in mice is part of an ongoing project in the lab of Spencer Smith, assistant professor of cell biology and physiology at the UNC School of Medicine, to map the functions of the brain areas that play crucial roles in vision. Proper function of these brain areas is likely critical for vision restoration.
"There's this remarkable biological operation that plays out during development," Smith says. "Early on, there are genetic programs and chemical pathways that position cells in the brain and help wire up a 'rough draft' of the circuitry. Later, after birth, this circuitry is actively sculpted by visual experience: simply looking around our world helps developing brains wire up the most sophisticated visual processing circuitry the world has ever known.

Even the best supercomputers and our latest algorithms still can't compete with the visual processing abilities of humans and animals. We want to know how neural circuitry does this."

Brain

Mind control lasers turn mice into killer rodents with the flip of a switch

© imagebroker / Alfred Schauhuber / www.globallookpress.com
Scientists have transformed the harmless mouse into a killing machine with the flip of a switch, using lasers to manipulate the rodent's brain circuit and turn on their predatory instinct.

Mice, which usually serve as prey for larger mammals, became threatening predators when researchers used a laser light to activate two sets of neurons in the amygdala - the area of the brain involved in emotions, behavior and motivation.

The study, led by Ivan de Araujo, a neurobiologist at Yale University, and published in Cell, set out to find whether the amygdala actually controls hunting behaviors using a process called optogenetics. This involved adapting neurons so they could be activated by laser light.

Comet 2

Asteroid or Comet? NASA detects two space rocks heading towards Earth

© 123RF
An unknown object will approach Earth's orbit, passing at a distance of nearly 32 million miles.
This week a comet that started life in the outer reaches of our solar system will be visible from Earth for the first time, as it approaches our planet's orbit.

The comet will be 66 million miles (106 million km) from Earth at its closest approach.

Another recently-discovered object, called 2016 WF9, has also been taking a scenic tour of our solar system, approaching Jupiter's orbit at its greatest distance from the sun, Daily Mail reports.

On 25 February this year, it will approach Earth's orbit, passing at a distance of nearly 32 million miles (51 million kilometers) from Earth. But Nasa still doesn't know whether the object is an asteroid or a comet.

The comet, C/2016 U1 NEOWISE, "has a good chance of becoming visible through a good pair of binoculars, although we can't be sure because a comet's brightness is notoriously unpredictable," said Paul Chodas, manager of Nasa's Center for Near-Earth Object (NEO) Studies at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

Comment: Here is the short list of fireballs during the last year.




Sherlock

How baboons make five vowel-like sounds, just like humans: Discovery could mean the origin of speech is much older than we think

Human speech is thought to have come about relatively recently, within the last 70,000 to 100,000 years. Because of this, there has been little research into the links between the sounds made by non-human primates and the way we speak.

But a new study has shown baboons can make five of the vowel noises thought unique to humans, meaning the origin of language could stretch back much older than we thought - to 25 million years ago.


A new study has shown baboons (pictured) can make five of the vowel noises thought unique to humans
Researchers from Grenoble Alpes University in France, along with other colleagues, studied 1,335 spontaneous sounds produced by 15 male and female Guinea baboons. They found surprising similarities that dates the origin of speech back to our common ancestors, 25 million years ago.

'Similarities between humans and baboons suggest that the vowels of human speech probably evolved from ancient articulatory precursors that were passed on and refined all along the hominid line,' said co-author Joel Fagot from the Université d'Aix in Marseilles. The researchers performed an acoustical analysis of the grunts, barks, wahoos, copulation calls, and yaks from baboons. They found, like people who use several vowels during speech, the non-human primates make five distinct vowel-like sounds.

Sun

If Planet Nine exists, it was recently captured by our sun say researchers

© Flickr/Kevin Gill
Hypothetical Planet Nine.
A pair of researchers have presented new simulations on Planet Nine, a theoretical planet far beyond Pluto. The simulations suggest that, if it does exist, it could be described as a rogue planet, indicating that it was not originally born in our solar system, but at some point drifted too close to our star and was captured by gravity.

Paul Mason and his student James Vesper, astronomers with New Mexico State University, presented the results of simulations on the mysterious planet at this year's American Astronomical Science meeting. The simulations show that a planet of Nine's size and distance from the Sun would likely be a rogue planet. Rogues are planets not beholden to a star's gravity, interstellar nomads who freely wander through space.

When rogues enter the gravitational pull of a star, according to Mason and Vesper, they can be captured and remain in the star's orbit. This is what occurred in 40 percent of their simulations, and what they believe was the fate of Planet Nine. The rest of the time, a rogue enters a solar system and leaves soon after. Mason and Vesper believe rogues to be far more abundant than previously thought, but rare in our own solar System.