New earth-like planet discovery

Kepler-186F and earth

Translated from NOS TV in the Netherlands:

Planet like Earth found

Thursday 17 April 2014, 16:00 (Update: 17-04-14, 16:19)

Astronomers have found a planet which looks like Earth. Kepler-186F is rocky, only 10 percent larger than Earth and is the right distance from its star. Scientists call it a major discovery in the search for extraterrestrial life.

The planet was found in March 2009 with the space telescope Kepler. From minor fluctuations in the light of a star, scientists infer that there is a planet circling beyond the star, they write in the scientific journal Science. In this galaxy four other planets were discovered earlier this way.

Thanks to Kepler in this way a total of almost 2000 exoplanets have been discovered. That also included earth-like planets, but none of them looks so much like our earth as Kepler-186F.

Goldilocks zone

The distance of the planet from the star is just right to make liquid water possible. The planet is on the edge of the so-called Goldilocks zone. Like in the fairy tale of the three bears, it is not so hot there that water evaporates and not so cold that it freezes.

Whether anything actually lives on the planet, astronomers cannot say. The star around which the planet orbits may be a spoilsport.

For Kepler-186F orbits around a different kind of star than our sun, being a red dwarf. Such a star is smaller than our sun, but also more active. This might expose the planet to too much radiation to make life possible.

More time

The chances of life are improved on the other hand by dwarf stars living longer than their larger counterparts. This would give more time to develop life. Also maybe on the planet there is an atmosphere filtering the radiation.

The planet is 500 light years away from our solar system in the constellation Cygnus. It turns around its star once every 130 days.

Most Earth-like planet yet discovered: here.

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Total lunar eclipse in North America

This video from the USA is called NASA – Skywatchers’ Delight – Multiple Lunar Eclipses expected in April 2014.

From eNature Blog in the USA:

Watch The Moon Disappear Before Your Eyes—Don’t Miss Tonight’s Total Lunar Eclipse!

Posted on Monday, April 14, 2014 by eNature

There’s a total lunar eclipse happening across all of North America LATE tonight and early tomorow morning (the 15th). A total lunar eclipse occurs when the full Moon passes through the dark inner core of the Earth’s shadow, which is called the umbra.

North America hasn’t experienced a total eclipse of the Moon since 2011. But that dearth ends in the early morning hours of April 15th (or late on April 14th for the West Coast), when the full Moon passes through the umbra and all but disappears. In fact, we’re due to see three more eclipses over the next two years, a bounty of lunar eclipses that won’t occur again until 2032.

While it may be happening a little late for folks on the East Coast, you’ll find that a total eclipse is worth staying up for.

The eclipse will start to be noticeable around 1:00 AM ET when the Moon’s leading edge enters Earth’s penumbra, the outer portion of its shadow.

Initially the affect is not especially noticeable — you won’t start to see a dusky fringe along the Moon’s leading edge (known to astronomers as its “celestial east”) until the the moon intrudes about halfway across the penumbra. As the Moon glides deeper into the penumbra and approaches the umbra, the shading effect of the Earth’s shadow on the appearance of the moon becomes much more obvious.

The total eclipse begins at 3:07 AM ET when the moon is completely within the Earth’s shadow. From the Moon’s perspective, the Sun remains completely hidden for 1 hour 18 minutes. From Earth’s perspective, the lunar disk isn’t completely blacked out but instead remains dimly lit by a deep orange or red glow— but it’s easy to think the moon’s completely missing if you don’t look closely.

You can do the math and see the timing is a little more friendly for folks on the west coast.

Regardless of how late the hour, you’ll not regret staying up to catch one of nature’s best shows!

Sky and Telescope magazine provided much of the info in this entry and has LOTS more great detail about the eclipse.

‘Blood Moon’ Eclipse: Best Pictures Of Amazing Sight Above America: here.

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Cosmos, science and media from Carl Sagan to today

This video is called Cosmos: A SpaceTime Odyssey (Part 1).

By Bryan Dyne in the USA:

Cosmos reboot falls short of the mark

14 April 2014

Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey (Cosmos) is a remake of the 1980 series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, hosted by astronomer Carl Sagan. Hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson, the new series comes after three and a half decades of scientific advances—sequencing of the human genome, discovery of the Higgs boson, quantification of conditions in the first moments of the Big Bang, and detailed spacecraft exploration of parts of the solar system. Yet, beyond some scientific generalities, little of this enormous progress would be apparent from watching the new series.

Alongside Tyson, the new series is being produced by Seth MacFarlane in collaboration with Ann Druyan (Sagan’s widow) and astronomer Steven Soter, both of whom worked on the original Cosmos series. It is being aired on ten 21st Century Fox networks and on the National Geographic Channel and being distributed across 170 countries and in 45 languages—one of the widest television distributions to date. So far, six out of 13 episodes have been aired, with an estimated 27 million viewers in the US.

In itself, the production of this new Cosmos is a welcome development. Almost without exception, US television is dominated by series promoting the police and military, the occult and mystical, and sometimes all of them at the same time. In contrast, Cosmos sets as its task the socially progressive work of portraying the world as it is objectively, examining natural laws before a mass audience, and placing human society within the context of the development of the universe.

This video is called Cosmos: A Personal Voyage – Episode 1 (Carl Sagan).

The original Cosmos derived much of its strength from its seriousness and the internal consistency and fidelity to the scientific method which the show promoted and defended. At times, the new series follows the original in that respect. The second episode features a wonderful sequence showing the development of the eye, as part of its discussion on natural selection. Using a split-screen technique, viewers see ocean life evolve over hundreds of millions of years on the left and a view of what those creatures actually saw on the right, starting with patches of light and dark and slowly getting clearer as each modification of the eye came along. Throughout the segment, Tyson explains that by tracing these developments through the fossil record, we can rule out claims of an “intelligent designer” for the eye. It evolved.

William Herschel

In another animated sequence, viewers are introduced to astronomer William Herschel (1738-1822), who observationally described binary stars in apparent orbit about one another, generalizing Newton’s theory of gravity from the movement of bodies within the Solar System to all celestial bodies. This was one of the critical demonstrations that established that natural laws discovered on Earth can be extrapolated to areas of the universe beyond direct human experience.

Another sequence worth noting revolved around the life of Giordano Bruno, who was burned at the stake by the Catholic Church. The Church has always asserted that this was for his heretical theology. Cosmos, on the other hand, explains that the true reason for Bruno’s execution was his ideas about scientific inquiry and how to understand the world. His methods led him to expand on Copernicus’ idea that the Earth revolved around the Sun, to say that the Sun and all the stars were the same, that the stars also had planets and that those planets could have life. To this day, Bruno’s writings are still on the Vatican’s list of forbidden texts.

But beyond a few such exceptions, the show is largely lacking in describing the development of science as a social process, or even in providing concrete examples of momentous discoveries and how they came about. A segment describing the development of Newton’s theory of gravity took as its focus petty personal frictions between Newton, Robert Hooke and Edmund Halley, rather than the vast upheavals of Enlightenment Europe, or the meticulous work of Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler in acquiring the observational data which could be unified by Newton into a single theoretical framework.

Albert Einstein is discussed equally ahistorically, but in the opposite way: rather than his inspiration coming from conflicts, he is presented as the isolated genius who arrives at his unifying idea by virtue of his alienation. In reality, Einstein’s work temporarily sealed a rupture in physics which had erupted in the 1860s and which attracted work from many of its best minds. Taking as his point of departure the surprising results of Michelson and Morley in 1887 that the speed of light appeared to be the same to both stationary and moving observers, Einstein worked out the implications of a fixed speed of light using mathematics developed by Riemann, Lorentz, Poincare, and Weyl. That his most productive years occurred in Europe between 1905 and 1917, spanning a World War and two Russian revolutions, should be worthy of notice, but the news Cosmos makes no reference to this background.

Christiaan Huygens by Bernard Vaillant, Museum Hofwijck, Voorburg

In contrast, the original series depicted Christiaan Huygens, one of the foremost astronomers of the 1600s, as a product of his time. While viewers were given a glimpse of his work, such as early (and quite accurate) initial estimates of the distances from Earth to nearby stars, the focus was on the time and place in which he lived. One got a flavor of Huygens’ contemporaries, the character of 17th century Holland, the proliferation of free thought, the science and technology being done, the architecture, i.e. the culture as a whole.

The production also includes segments which are factually incorrect, misleading or empty. Tyson describes the proteins that help DNA to operate as “creatures” rather than molecules, which is what they actually are. His “ship of the imagination” dodges rocks in the asteroid belt per the science-fiction norm. Rather than discussing what is known about how life developed, Tyson blithely states that the origins of life are unknown, as if the decades of research into this topic have produced nothing. And the momentous imagery produced by robotic probes throughout the solar system (Voyager, Cassini, Galileo, numerous Mars missions, etc.) is by and large dispensed with in favor of computer graphics manufactured to order.

Tyson’s career may play a role in these weaknesses. He is not a full-time scientific researcher and has published little, serving mainly as a media popularizer involved in publishing books, TV appearances, the Hayden Planetarium and sitting on science panels for the Bush and Obama administrations. He seems somewhat disconnected from the science he once practiced. However, it is not simply that Tyson the media figure is missing something essential compared to Sagan the working scientist. Rather, there has been a shift in intellectual life over the past 35 years, particularly among the liberal intelligentsia. No longer is Western society, and science along with it, flush with resources and expanding at a high rate. American capitalism is on the decline, and this is felt in the official treatment of science. The new Cosmos had a chance to challenge its audience, seeking to raise popular understanding of science. Instead, Tyson largely appeals to the lowest common denominator.

One of the many ways this has manifested is in the exposition of the scientific method. To the show’s credit, Cosmos explains the relationship between observations and theories that model those observations and make predictions. In the third episode, it shows how the observations of comets over centuries transformed them in common understanding from harbingers of doom to predictable celestial phenomena, based on the work of Halley, Hooke and Newton.

But rather than asserting the growing superiority of science over religion in explaining how the world works, the show muddles the two. There are constant concessions to religious language. The highly accurate predictions of the astronomers are referred to constantly in the program as “prophecies.” In the fourth episode, Tyson similarly refers to the fact that the speed of light is always constant as a “commandment” of the universe, rather than explaining the underlying physics.

Given the advances since 1980, it is long past time for the presentation of what has been learned and the process of how this has been learned to a mass audience. Sadly, the weaknesses of the new Cosmos in this respect overshadow its strengths.

The author also recommends:

Carl Sagan (1934-1996): An appreciation
[13 January 1997]

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Polar aurora lights on planet Saturn

This video says about itself:

Dance of Saturn’s Auroras

11 Feb 2014

Ultraviolet and infrared images from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft and Hubble Space Telescope show active and quiet auroras at Saturn‘s north and south poles.

Saturn’s auroras glow when energetic electrons dive into the planet’s atmosphere and collide with hydrogen molecules. Sometimes a blast of fast solar wind, composed of mostly electrons and protons, creates an active aurora at Saturn, as occurred on April 5 and May 20, 2013.

The first set of images, as seen in the ultraviolet part of the spectrum by Hubble, shows an active aurora dancing around Saturn’s north pole on April 5. The movie then shows a relatively quiet time between April 19 to 22 and between May 18 and 19. The aurora flares up again in Hubble images from May 20. This version, shown in false-color, has been processed to show the auroras more clearly.

A second set of ultraviolet images shows a closer view of an active north polar aurora in white. This set comes from Cassini ultraviolet imaging spectrograph observations on May 20 and 21.

The last set of images, in the infrared, shows a quiet southern aurora (in green) in observations from Cassini‘s visual and infrared mapping spectrometer on May 17. Saturn’s inner heat glows in red, with dark areas showing where high clouds block the heat.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Colorado/Central Arizona College and NASA/ESA/University of Leicester and NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/Lancaster University.


Hubble, Cassini See Auroras on Saturn

Feb 15, 2014

Detailed images of auroras at Saturn’s north and south poles have been captured by astronomers using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and Cassini spacecraft.

Saturn’s auroras glow when energetic electrons dive into the planet’s atmosphere and collide with hydrogen molecules.

Sometimes a blast of fast solar wind, composed of mostly electrons and protons, creates an active aurora at the sixth planet from the Sun.

“The auroras at Saturn are some of the planet’s most glamorous features – and there was no escaping NASA’s paparazzi-like attention,” said Dr Marcia Burton from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

“Saturn’s auroras can be fickle – you may see fireworks, you may see nothing,” said team leader Dr Jonathan Nichols from the University of Leicester, UK.

Dr Nichols and his colleagues used Hubble telescope to observe the northern auroras in ultraviolet wavelengths and NASA’s Cassini spacecraft to capture images of the north and south in infrared, visible-light and ultraviolet wavelengths.

While the curtain-like auroras we see at Earth are green at the bottom and red at the top, NASA's Cassini spacecraft has shown astronomers similar auroras at Saturn that are red at the bottom and purple at the top. Image credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / SSI

The Hubble and Cassini images help shed light on an unsolved mystery about the atmospheres of giant outer planets.

“Scientists have wondered why the high atmospheres of Saturn and other gas giants are heated far beyond what might normally be expected given their distance from the Sun,” said Dr Sarah Badman from Lancaster University.

“We know there must be other energy interactions going on to cause this heating, but we can’t yet say for sure what they are.”

“From the Earth, we can only see part of the picture, but by looking at these amazing new movies from the vantage points of both Cassini and the Hubble Space Telescope, we can see exactly where the aurora is heating Saturn’s atmosphere and for how long.”

“Being able to track the aurora all around Saturn’s poles is vital if we are to discover how its atmosphere is heated.”

The new images also help astronomers figure out the colors of Saturn’s auroras.

While the curtain-like auroras we see at Earth are green at the bottom and red at the top, Cassini’s imaging cameras have shown us similar curtain-like auroras at Saturn that are red at the bottom and purple at the top

The color difference occurs because auroras on our planet are dominated by excited nitrogen and oxygen molecules, and Saturn’s auroras are dominated by excited hydrogen molecules.

“While we expected to see some red in Saturn’s aurora because hydrogen emits some red light when it gets excited, we also knew there could be color variations depending on the energies of the charged particles bombarding the atmosphere and the density of the atmosphere. We were thrilled to learn about this colorful display that no one had seen before,” explained team member Dr Ulyana Dyudina from the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California.

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Whales counted from space

This video is called Breeding Southern Right Whales – Attenborough – Life of Mammals – BBC.

From the BBC:

12 February 2014 Last updated at 23:04 GMT

Scientists count whales from space

By Jonathan Amos, Science correspondent, BBC News

Scientists have demonstrated a new method for counting whales from space.

It uses very high-resolution satellite pictures and image-processing software to automatically detect the great mammals at or near the ocean surface.

A test count, reported in the journal Plos One, was conducted on southern right whales in the Golfo Nuevo on the coast of Argentina.

The automated system found about 90% of creatures pinpointed in a manual search of the imagery.

This is a huge improvement on previous attempts at space-borne assessment, and could now revolutionise the way whale populations are estimated.

Currently, such work is done through counts conducted from a shore position, from the deck of a ship or from a plane. But these are necessarily narrow in scope.

An automated satellite search could cover a much larger area of ocean and at a fraction of the cost.

“Our study is a proof of principle,” said Peter Fretwell from the British Antarctic Survey.

“But as the resolution of the satellites increases and our image analysis improves, we should be able to monitor many more species and in other types of location.

“It should be possible to do total population counts and in the future track the trajectory of those populations,” he told the Inside Science programme on BBC Radio 4.

The breakthrough is in part down to the capability of the latest hi-res satellites.

In this study, Mr Fretwell and colleagues used DigitalGlobe’s WorldView-2 platform.

This is among the most powerful commercial Earth observation platforms in operation today, and can see surface features down to 50cm in size in its panchromatic mode (black and white).

The team selected as their test area a 113-sq-km segment of the Golfo Nuevo on the Peninsula Valdes, a location famed for its gatherings of calving southern right whales.

Even though these are large animals, they still only take up a few pixels in the satellite picture.

Nonetheless, a manual search of the scene found 55 probable whales, 23 possible whales and 13 sub-surface features.

Several automated methods where then trialled, with the best results coming from a combination of the very hi-res panchromatic view and a narrow band of wavelengths in the violet part (400-450 nanometres) of the light spectrum.

This coastal band, as it is known, penetrates 15m or so into the water column in good conditions.

The automated approach found 89% of probable whales identified in the manual count.

Different bands

WorldView-2 has spectral bands that allow scientists to pull out specific information in the imagery

Mr Fretwell cautions that there are limitations to the technique. For example, rough seas or murky waters will confound a search. But he believes, on the basis of the trial study, that satellite counting can become a very useful conservation tool.

“In this type of automated analysis you have to balance two types of errors – errors where you miss whales, and errors where you misidentify whales. If you push too hard one way, like trying to catch all the whales, you’ll increase the number of false positives. With our 90%, we had almost no misidentifications,” the researcher explained.

Southern right whales were a very appropriate target for the study.

These animals were driven to near-extinction in the early 20th Century. Recognised as slow, shallow swimmers, they were the “right” whales to hunt.

Their numbers have seen something of a recovery, but without the means to carry out an accurate census, it is hard to know their precise status.

Concern has also been raised of late because of the sightings of many dead calves in the nursery grounds around the Peninsula Valdes.

Prof Vicky Rowntree from the University of Utah is the director of the Ocean Alliance’s Southern Right Whale Program, and has spent many years studying the Valdes whales.

She said the new method would be a huge boon to her field of research.

“It’s going to be absolutely amazing. The other dimension of it is that many marine mammal researchers have been killed flying in small planes while surveying whales. So my great desire is to get us out of small planes circling over whales and to be able to do it remotely. Satellite data is wonderful.”

To hear more about southern right whales and satellite counting, listen to Inside Science with Lucie Green on BBC Radio 4 on Thursday at 1630 GMT.

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Martians did not build Egyptian pyramids, Mayan tombs

This video from the USA says about itself:

Orson WellesWar Of The Worlds – Radio Broadcast 1938 – Complete Broadcast.

The War of the Worlds was an episode of the American radio drama anthology series Mercury Theatre on the Air. It was performed as a Halloween episode of the series on October 30, 1938 and aired over the Columbia Broadcasting System radio network. Directed and narrated by Orson Welles, the episode was an adaptation of H. G. Wells‘ novel The War of the Worlds.

The first two thirds of the 60-minute broadcast were presented as a series of simulated “news bulletins”, which suggested to many listeners that an actual alien invasion by Martians was currently in progress. Compounding the issue was the fact that the Mercury Theatre on the Air was a ‘sustaining show’ (it ran without commercial breaks), thus adding to the program’s quality of realism.

Although there were sensationalist accounts in the press about a supposed panic in response to the broadcast, the precise extent of listener response has been debated. In the days following the adaptation, however, there was widespread outrage. The program’s news-bulletin format was decried as cruelly deceptive by some newspapers and public figures, leading to an outcry against the perpetrators of the broadcast, but the episode secured Orson Welles’ fame.

So, according to recent research, it is possible that long ago, simple forms of life could live on planet Mars.

However, there is no evidence (yet) that any simple living beings used that opportunity.

Still far less than zero evidence exists of not so simple beings, like the Martians described in H.G. Wells’ science fiction book War of the Worlds, living on the red planet or elsewhere in outer space and going to planet Earth.

From the Columbus Dispatch in the USA:

Archaeology | No evidence of aliens helping ancient cultures

Sunday January 26, 2014 10:20 AM

Did aliens visit Earth in ancient times? It’s possible.

The late Carl Sagan once argued that there was a “statistical likelihood that Earth was visited by an advanced extraterrestrial civilization at least once during historical times.”

A statistical likelihood is one thing. Is there any reliable evidence that any such thing ever actually happened?

None whatsoever.

So why do 2 out of 4 Americans believe there are signs that aliens have visited Earth in the past? I think there are two reasons. First and most fundamentally, when most people see a wonder of the ancient world, such as the Egyptian pyramids, they can’t imagine how our so-called primitive ancestors possibly could have built it.

Second, there are charlatans out there willing to take advantage of that lack of imagination by making exuberant claims that various cultural achievements in antiquity could have been accomplished only with the help of friendly aliens.

In the current issue of Skeptic magazine, documentary filmmaker Chris White shoots down a few of the most popular claims of past alien intervention.

For example, ancient alien enthusiasts find it unbelievable that Egyptians could have carved the huge stone blocks used to build the pyramids, especially since they didn’t have iron tools. Yet there is abundant archaeological evidence that shows teams of stonemasons used simple hammer stones to shape the blocks.

But fans of ancient aliens say that even if Egyptians somehow shaped the enormous blocks of stone, no mere humans could have moved them into place.

The truth, however, is indeed out there.

White explains that there are many ancient carvings that show “Egyptians using wooden sleds to move … blocks the size and shape of the ones used for the pyramids.” It is amazing what our ancestors could achieve with creativity, determination and a large workforce.

Believers in ancient aliens frequently point to an engraved stone slab from a Mayan tomb, which they claim depicts an astronaut at the controls of a spacecraft.

If you take the time to study the symbolism of the Mayan religion, however, it is clear that the “spacecraft” actually is the primordial world tree with a celestial bird perched in its upper branches. And the barefoot “astronaut” really is the deceased Mayan king descending into the underworld.

These examples are typical of what is offered as evidence of ancient aliens. The purveyors of this nonsense assume our ancestors were ignoramuses. If they accomplished some great thing, then aliens must have helped them.

Champions of ancient astronauts look through volumes of prehistoric art and cherry-pick images that bear — at best — only a superficial resemblance to something that could be construed as alien technology.

They give no thought to what those images represented in their original cultural contexts. Using this method, an Egyptian carving of a lotus flower can be reinterpreted as an electric light bulb, and a South American sculpture of a sucker-mouth catfish can be imagined to be a delta-wing fighter jet.

Archaeologists don’t take these views seriously, but by ignoring them, we allow 3 out of 4 Americans to buy into a fantasy.

Bradley T. Lepper is curator of archaeology at the Ohio Historical Society.

Unbelievable story: A man is suing NASA for (allegedly) failing to investigate alien life: here.

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‘Mars was habitable long ago’

This video says about itself:

12 March 2013

NASA’s Curiosity rover found oxygen, water, sulfate and other elements in a rock sample from Mars.


Ancient Mars May Have Been Habitable for Hundreds of Millions of Years

by Mike Wall, Senior Writer | January 23, 2014 02:01pm ET

Mars may have been capable of supporting microbial life for hundreds of millions of years in the ancient past, new findings from a long-lived Red Planet rover suggest.

NASA’s Opportunity rover, which celebrates 10 years of Mars exploration on Friday (Jan. 24), has uncovered evidence that benign, nearly neutral-pH water flowed on the Red Planet around 4 billion years ago.

These results, reported today (Jan. 23) in the journal Science, complement the recent work of NASA’s bigger, newer Curiosity rover, which discovered a potentially habitable lake and groundwater system in a different Martian locale dating from about 3.7 billion years ago.

“These [benign] water conditions existed over a long period of time,” said Ray Arvidson, lead author of the new study and Opportunity deputy principal investigator.

Therefore, primitive organisms may have been able to survive on Mars for long stretches during a period when life was getting a foothold on Earth, said Arvidson, director of the Earth and Planetary Remote Sensing Laboratory at Washington University in St. Louis.

“That wouldn’t be a surprise,” he told “Maybe not globally; [habitable environments] could have occurred here and there regionally. And it may not have been for the whole time continuously. We don’t know.”

Studying ancient rocks

The golf-cart-size Opportunity touched down on Jan. 24, 2004, three weeks after its twin, Spirit. Both robots were tasked with 90-day missions to seek out signs of past water activity on Mars. Spirit was declared dead in 2011, but Opportunity is still going strong.

The rover made the new discovery at an outcrop on the rim of Endeavour Crater, a 14-mile-wide (22 kilometers) hole in the ground that Opportunity reached in August 2011.

NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spotted evidence of exposed, aluminum-rich clay minerals at a site along the rim called Matijevic Hill. Such clays generally form in the presence of benign, mildly acidic water, so the rover team commanded Opportunity to go check out the rock formation.

When Opportunity got there, the rover encountered the oldest rocks it has ever studied on Mars. Fine-grained, layered rocks in the Matijevic outcrop date from Mars’ Noachian period, making them perhaps 4 billion years old, Arvidson said. (It’s tough to date Mars rocks and formations definitively, so such numbers have large uncertainties associated with them, he stressed.)

These clay-enriched rocks are studded with BB-size “spherules” and cut by numerous fractures, through which liquid water flowed long ago, Arvidson said.

“The groundwaters that moved through those fractures were only mildly acidic, and mildly oxidizing to reducing,” he said. “So, the earlier you go, the more clement the conditions were.”

These ancient rocks predate the asteroid or comet impact that created Endeavour Crater, and they’re covered in most places by younger material that bears the signature of hypersalty and much more acidic water — the signature, in other words, of a much less hospitable Mars.

Teaming up with Curiosity

Opportunity’s new results take on deeper meaning when combined with the observations of the 1-ton Curiosity rover, which touched down on a different part of Mars in August 2012.

Curiosity was designed to extend and advance the discoveries of Spirit and Opportunity. It sports 10 different science instruments — a suite crafted specifically to determine if the Red Planet could ever have supported microbial life.

Last month, the Curiosity team announced that an area near the rover’s landing site harbored a large, shallow and potentially habitable lake system during Mars‘ Hesperian era, which follows the Noachian in Red Planet chronology. This lake and its feeder streams likely existed about 3.7 billion years ago, or perhaps even a bit more recently, mission scientists said.

So researchers are starting to get a better idea of the Martian surface’s window of habitability, Arvidson said. It appears that window might have been open — off and on, perhaps, and here and there — for hundreds of millions of years in the distant past.

Liquid water cannot exist for long periods on the surface of present-day Mars, whose atmosphere is just 1 percent as thick as that of Earth. That atmosphere was likely thicker long ago, if lakes and river systems were, indeed, stable for lengthy stretches, Arvidson said.

“One way to do it is to have massive impacts, and to have a [temporarily thicker] atmosphere,” he said. “So it could be that you have multiple impacts over that extended period of time, and collectively they made for a sustained presence of water on the surface and in the shallow subsurface. But we don’t know, at this point, with just two examples.”

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Students discover new supernova

The new supernova discovery by University College London

From University College London in England:

Supernova in Messier 82 discovered by UCL students

22 January 2014

Updated 23 Jan 2014 – 9:30am

Students and staff at UCL’s teaching observatory, the University of London Observatory, have spotted one of the closest supernova to Earth in recent decades. At 19:20 GMT on 21 January, a team of students – Ben Cooke, Tom Wright, Matthew Wilde and Guy Pollack – assisted by Dr Steve Fossey, spotted the exploding star in nearby galaxy Messier 82 (the Cigar Galaxy).

The discovery was a fluke – a 10 minute telescope workshop for undergraduate students that led to a global scramble to acquire confirming images and spectra of a supernova in one of the most unusual and interesting of our near-neighbour galaxies.

“The weather was closing in, with increasing cloud,” Fossey says, “so instead of the planned practical astronomy class, I gave the students an introductory demonstration of how to use the CCD camera on one of the observatory’s automated 0.35–metre telescopes.”

The students chose M 82, a bright and photogenic galaxy as their target, as it was in one of the shrinking patches of clear sky. While adjusting the telescope’s position, Fossey noticed a ‘star’ overlaid on the galaxy which he did not recognise from previous observations.

They inspected online archive images of the galaxy, and it became apparent that there was indeed a new star-like object in M 82. With clouds closing in, there was hardly time to check: so they switched to taking a rapid series of 1 and 2 minute exposures through different coloured filters to check that the object persisted, and to be able to measure its brightness and colour.

Meanwhile, they started up a second telescope to obtain a second source of data, to ensure the object was not an instrumental artefact. By about 19:40 GMT, the cloud cover was almost complete, but it was just possible to make out the new object in the second data set: this was a real astronomical source.

There were no online reports of any prior discoveries of this object, so it seemed clear that this was a new transient source, such as a supernova. It was important to move quickly to alert astronomers worldwide to confirm the discovery, and most importantly, to obtain a spectrum – which would confirm whether or not it was a supernova, rather than some other phenomenon, such as an asteroid that happened to lie in front of the galaxy.

Fossey prepared a report for the International Astronomical Union’s Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams, the organisation that catalogues supernovae. He also alerted a US-based supernova search team who have access to spectroscopic facilities.

Spectra collected by astronomers at other observatories around the world suggest that it is a Type Ia supernova, caused by a white dwarf star pulling matter off a larger neighbouring star until it becomes unstable and explodes.

The IAU’s official report last night (UK time; daytime 22 January in the US), confirms that Fossey was the first to report the new supernova, and gives the supernova the designation SN 2014J.

The two images here show the Cigar Galaxy before and during the event. Above, an image taken on 10 December 2013, and below the image taken by the students on 21 January 2014. A bright spot of light (labelled) is clearly visible, even though the exposure is shorter and the rest of the galaxy appears darker.

The supernova is one of the nearest to be observed in recent decades. The closest by far since the invention of the telescope was Supernova 1987A (the remnant of which was recently studied by UCL astronomers) in February 1987, located at a distance of 168 000 light years. This discovery is more distant at around 12 million light years, about the same as the 1993 discovery of a supernova in nearby Messier 81.

The students said:

Ben Cooke: “The chances of finding anything new in the sky is astronomical but this was particularly astounding as it was one of the first images we had taken on this telescope. My career plan had been to continue my studies in astrophysics. It’s going to be hard to ever top this though!“

Guy Pollack: “It was a surreal and exciting experience taking images of the unidentified object as Steve ran around the observatory verifying the result. I’m very chuffed to have helped in the discovery of the M 82 Supernova.“

Tom Wright: “One minute we’re eating pizza then five minutes later we’ve helped to discover a supernova. I couldn’t believe it. It reminds me why I got interested in astronomy in the first place.”

Matt Wilde: “To be honest it was just a really odd experience. We were expecting a standard quick look through the telescope and a chance to use the camera for the first time before the clouds moved in, that’s all. When we started looking and Steve began getting a bit more excited none of us could really believe what was going on. I can’t wait to get back on a telescope next week now.“


Magnitudes of the supernova were measured from discovery images in R and V filters, obtained in poor sky conditions, with reference to the nearby star BD +70 587. The object’s magnitude is estimated to be: V=11.7 (2014 Jan 21.818), R=10.5 (2014 Jan 21.805). This is bright enough to see with a good quality amateur telescope.

Astronomers for the first time have imaged the core of a supernova in its final minutes: here.

Ceres, the largest asteroid in the solar system, lets off steam: here.

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Ants in outer space, new research

This video says about itself:

Space Station Live: Science Aboard Cygnus

10 Jan 2014

Associate International Space Station Program Scientist Tara Ruttley talks with NASA Public Affairs Officer Josh Byerly about the science being carried to the station aboard Orbital Sciences’ Cygnus spacecraft.

After butterflies in space, now ants in space.

From Science, Space & Robots:

Ant Farms Sent to International Space Station to Study Microgravity Conditions

Orbital’s Antares rocket launched from NASA’s Wallop’s Flight Facility in Virginia on Thursday, January 9. reports that there are ant farms aboard this latest mission to the International Space Station (ISS). The Ants in Space experiments will help students will compare how ants‘ behavior differs in space and on Earth. The experiment is similar to one in 2012, in which Nerfertiti [sic; Nefertiti], the Spidernaut, spent 100 days in space.

HD cameras will record the ants living on the International Space Station. Software will analyze their movement patterns and interaction rates. Students in grades K-12 will get to observe the videos in near real-time and conduct their own classroom experiments.

There will be eight different ant habitats containing three areas: nest area, Forage Area 1 and Forage Area 2. Each area is separated by a sealed doorway. Each nest area contains about 100 Tetramorium caespitum or pavement ants.

Associate International Space Station Program Scientist Tara Ruttley talks about the Ants in Space experiment in this video.

Posted on January 12, 2014

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Exoplanets weather astronomical discovery

This video is called Clouds on the Super-Earth Exoplanet GJ 1214b.


GJ 1214b, GJ 436b: Astronomers Reveal Weather on Two Exoplanets

Jan 2, 2014

Scientists using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope have characterized the atmospheres of two nearby exoplanets: the super-Earth GJ 1214b and the Neptune-sized exoplanet GJ 436b.

GJ 436b, or Gliese 436b, orbits a red-dwarf star located in the constellation Leo, about 36 light-years away. Discovered in August 2004, the planet is categorized as a hot Neptune because it is much closer to its star than frigid Neptune is to the Sun.

GJ 1214b is located in the constellation Ophiuchus, some 40 light-years from us. Discovered in 2009, the planet is about 2.7 times Earth’s diameter and is almost 7 times as massive. This super-Earth, also known as Gliese 1214b, orbits a red-dwarf star every 38 hours at a distance of 1.3 million miles, giving it an estimated temperature of 450 degrees Fahrenheit.

Despite numerous studies, the nature of the atmospheres surrounding GJ 436b and GJ 1214b had eluded definitive characterization until now.

The new atmospheric study of GJ 436b, published in the journal Nature, is based on transit observations with Hubble over 2013. The spectra were featureless and revealed no chemical fingerprints whatsoever in the planet’s atmosphere.

“Either this planet has a high cloud layer obscuring the view, or it has a cloud-free atmosphere that is deficient in hydrogen, which would make it very unlike Neptune. Instead of hydrogen, it could have relatively large amounts of heavier molecules such as water vapor, carbon monoxide, and carbon dioxide, which would compress the atmosphere and make it hard for us to detect any chemical signatures,” said study lead author Dr Heather Knutson of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

Previous studies of GJ 1214b yielded two possible interpretations of the planet’s atmosphere. It could consist entirely of water vapor or some other type of heavy molecule, or it could contain high-altitude clouds that prevent the observation of what lies underneath.

But now the astronomers have detected clear evidence of clouds in the atmosphere of GJ 1214b. The Hubble observations also revealed no chemical fingerprints in the planet’s atmosphere, but the data were so precise they could rule out cloud-free compositions of water vapor, methane, nitrogen, carbon monoxide, or carbon dioxide.

This image compares the sizes of exoplanets GJ 436b and GJ 1214b with Earth and Neptune. Image credit: NASA / ESA / A. Feild and G. Bacon, STScI.

This image compares the sizes of exoplanets GJ 436b and GJ 1214b with Earth and Neptune. Image credit: NASA / ESA / A. Feild and G. Bacon, STScI.

“We really pushed the limits of what is possible with Hubble to make this measurement. This advance lays the foundation for characterizing other Earths with similar techniques,” said Laura Kreidberg of the University of Chicago, who is the lead author of a paper on GJ 1214b also appearing in the journal Nature.

“I think it’s very exciting that we can use a telescope like Hubble that was never designed with this in mind, do these kinds of observations with such exquisite precision, and really nail down some property of a small planet orbiting a distant star,” added study co-author Dr Jacob Bean, also from the University of Chicago.

Models of GJ 436b and GJ 1214b predict clouds that could be made out of potassium chloride or zinc sulfide at the scorching temperatures of several hundred degrees Fahrenheit predicted to be found in these atmospheres.

Dr Knutson said: “both planets are telling us something about the diversity of planet types that occur outside of our own Solar System. In this case we are discovering we may not know them as well as we thought.”

“We’d really like to determine the size at which these planets transition from looking like mini-gas giants to something more like a water world or a rocky, scaled-up version of the Earth. Both of these observations are fundamentally trying to answer that question.”


Knutson HA et al. 2014. A featureless transmission spectrum for the Neptune-mass exoplanet GJ 436b. Nature 505, 66–68; doi: 10.1038/nature12887

Kreidberg L et al. 2014. Clouds in the atmosphere of the super-Earth exoplanet GJ 1214b. Nature 505, 69–72; doi: 10.1038/nature12888

As we discover more exoplanets, many are more alien than we can possibly imagine. But occasionally, there’s an air of familiarity about a few of the discoveries. In new research showcased in two papers published in the journal Nature, the atmospheres of two exoplanets are described. Specifically, their cloud cover was observed, revealing that even exotic new worlds have grey days: here.

All of the stars in galaxy NGC 1277 formed in a rapid burst 12 billion years ago: here.

By using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), Japanese astronomers have spotted strong evidence of a massive planet-forming disk around a young star known as HD 142527: here.

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