First ever black hole photo


This 10 April 2019 video says about itself:

First-Ever Black Hole Image Released

The Event Horizon Telescope captured an image of the black hole at the center of the Milky Way galaxy.

From USA Today today:

It’s our first glimpse of one of the weirdest spectacles in the universe. Astronomers on Wednesday released humanity’s first-ever image of a black hole.

The picture reveals the black hole at the center of Messier 87, a massive galaxy in the nearby Virgo galaxy cluster. It looked like a flaming orange, yellow and black ring.

“We have seen what we thought was unseeable. We have seen and taken a picture of a black hole,” said Sheperd Doeleman, Event Project Horizon project director of Harvard University. “This is an extraordinary scientific feat accomplished by a team of more than 200 researchers.”

This black hole resides 55 million light-years from Earth and has a mass 6.5 billion times that of the Sun.

The image helps confirm Einstein’s general relativity theory. Einstein a century ago even predicted the symmetrical shape that scientists just found.

See also here. And here.

Black hole image validates imagining the unimaginable. Long dreamed of yet unseen, invisible stars intrigued scientists and the public as well, by Tom Siegfried. 6:00am, April 12, 2019

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Astronomers help counting orangutans


This 9 April 2019 video says about itself:

How to count orangutans | WWF from the field

Borneo is home to the critically endangered Orangutan. With population numbers around 100,000 there are huge conservation efforts being made to combat their two main threats; forest loss and hunting.

Traditionally, orangutan numbers are estimated by counting their nests from the ground, but this can be costly, and very time consuming. Our collaboration with Liverpool John Moores University tested how effective new thermal imaging drone technology would be to count the critically endangered orangutan.

Read more here.

From the British Ecological Society:

Astro-ecology: Counting orangutans using star-spotting technology

A collaboration between astrophysicists, conservationists and ecologists aims to save rare and endangered animals

April 9, 2019

A ground-breaking scientific collaboration is harnessing technology used to study the luminosity of stars, to carry out detailed monitoring of orangutan populations in Borneo. Liverpool John Moores University, WWF and HUTAN came together to examine better ways of detecting the great apes in the Bornean forest canopy, by using drones fitted with thermal-imaging cameras.

Orangutans, like all great apes, build a sleeping nest in trees. Traditionally orangutan numbers are estimated by counting these nests from the ground. However, this method is costly and time consuming due to the large areas that need to be surveyed.

Drones can cover large areas of difficult ground quickly and monitor endangered wildlife from above. The addition of thermal-imaging cameras has even more benefits, as a new study shows: They can detect difficult to find animals at any time of day or night because of their heat signatures. The field team conducted 28 flights at two sites over six days and successfully spotted 41 orangutans from the air, all of which were confirmed by ground observers.

“All orangutan species are critically endangered and monitoring their numbers is crucial for their conservation,” said Professor Serge Wich, Liverpool John Moores University’s expert in primate behavioural ecology.

By combining drone technology with thermal-imaging cameras, which are usually used by astronomers, researchers were able to spot and classify the animals’ heat signatures. To distinguish the primates from their surroundings, they performed flights before 9 a.m. or after 7 p.m. local time.

Dr Claire Burke, an astro-ecologist at the university, who will present the findings at the ‘Unifying Tropical Ecology’ conference in Edinburgh today said:

“We tested the technology on orangutans in the dense tropical rainforest of Sabah in Malaysia. In thermal images, animals shine in a similar way to stars and galaxies, so we used techniques from astronomy to detect and distinguish them. We were not sure at all whether this would work, but with the thermal-infrared camera we could see the orangutans quite clearly because of their body heat, even during fog or at night.”

Dr Burke added:

“The biggest difficulties occur when the temperature of the ground is very similar to that of the animal we are trying to detect, so the images from morning or evening flights are more reliable. Absolute surface temperatures cannot be used to differentiate species as animal body temperatures change with that of their environment.”

This innovative technology could potentially be used to understand and monitor population numbers of orangutans or other endangered primate species.

Nicola Loweth, Asian Programme Manager at WWF, who was on the Bornean study said:

“As ever more species are decimated, due to human activity such as deforestation, we must embrace and scale up innovative approaches to monitoring wildlife populations, to better protect them for generations to come.

Our collaboration with Liverpool John Moores University to test the feasibility of thermal-imaging and drone technology to monitor orangutan populations in Sabah has proven promising and could have a wide range of applications, benefiting wildlife conservation as a whole.”

The team also spotted a troop of proboscis monkeys during the field trial, which they were able to distinguish from orangutans based on their smaller size. Besides that, proboscis monkeys are generally found in groups, whereas orangutans tend to be solitary or in pairs. Pygmy elephants were also captured on a night-time forage through an oil palm plantation.

The astro-ecologists are now developing a machine learning algorithm to tell animal species apart, based on their unique thermal fingerprint.

“In the future, we hope to be able to track, distinguish and monitor large numbers of different species of animals in real time, all around the globe, so that this technology can be used to make a real impact on conservation and stop poaching before it happens,” Dr Burke concluded.

The group previously tested the technology with spider monkeys in Mexico and riverine rabbits in South Africa and will soon be embarking on a field study with the Lac Alaotra bamboo lemurs in Madagascar.

The ‘Unifying Tropical Ecology’ conference in Edinburgh is organised by the British Ecological Society and Society for Tropical Ecology (gtö). There will be an entire session on the use of drones for animal and plant monitoring, including a presentation of the ‘Orangutan Nest Watch’ project where citizen scientists can help researchers look through images to spot orangutans and fig trees.

Astronomical and spaceflight update


This video says about itself:

JAXA’s Asteroid Explorer “Hayabusa2” collected a sample from asteroid Ryugu on 22 February 2019. The touchdown was captured using the onboard small monitor camera (CAM-H). The image of the site immediately after touchdown was taken with the Optical Navigation Camera – Wide angle (ONC-W1) on 22 February 2019.

Ryugu is probably a chip off one of these two other asteroids. Japan’s Hayabusa2 team has narrowed down the asteroid’s origins based on its color. By Lisa Grossman, 3:20pm, March 20, 2019.

This video says about itself:

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission returned the first scientific observations, revealing that asteroid Bennu is an active asteroid. OSIRIS-REx (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer) is the first U.S. mission to sample an asteroid (near-Earth asteroid Bennu), retrieve surface material and return it to Earth for study in September 2023. Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator, explained the findings in a media teleconference.

Surprising astronomers, Bennu spits plumes of dust into space. It’s the first time astronomers have seen such activity on an asteroid. By Lisa Grossman, 2:55pm, March 19, 2019.

X-ray ‘chimneys’ connect the Milky Way to mysterious gamma-ray bubbles. Two glowing columns hundreds of light-years long extend from the center of the galaxy. By Emily Conover, 2:00pm, March 20, 2019.

Dwarf planet Ultima Thule flatter than thought


This 8 February 2019 video says about itself:

Ultima Thule is Flatter Than Previously Thought

NASA New Horizons‘ imagery of the Kuiper Belt Object has revealed its true shape.

Ultima Thule is shaped like two lumpy pancakes. New images reveal the skinny side of the Kuiper Belt object. By Emily Conover, 6:00pm, February 8, 2019.

Ultima Thule may be a frankenworld, Astronomers are closer to uncovering the distant space rock’s origin story. By Lisa Grossman, 5:35pm, March 18, 2019.

Saturn’s rings, younger than dinosaurs?


This March 2016 video says about itself:

Saturn’s Moons and Rings May Be Younger Than the Dinosaurs

Some of Saturn‘s icy moons may have been formed after many dinosaurs roamed the Earth. New computer modeling of the Saturnian system suggests the rings and moons may be no more than 100 million years old.

Saturn hosts 62 known moons. All of them are influenced not only by the gravity of the planet, but also by each other’s gravities. A new computer model suggests that the Saturnian moons Tethys, Dione and Rhea haven’t seen the kinds of changes in their orbital tilts that are typical for moons that have lived in the system and interacted with other moons over long periods of time. In other words, these appear to be very young moons.

“Moons are always changing their orbits. That’s inevitable,” Matija Cuk, principal investigator at the SETI Institute and one of the authors of the new research, said in a statement. “But that fact allows us to use computer simulations to tease out the history of Saturn’s inner moons. Doing so, we find that they were most likely born during the most recent 2 percent of the planet’s history.”

The age of Saturn’s rings has come under considerable debate since their discovery in the 1600s. In 2012, however, French astronomers suggested that some of the inner moons and the planet’s well-known rings may have recent origins. The researchers showed that tidal effects — which refer to “the gravitational interaction of the inner moons with fluids deep in Saturn’s interior,” according to the statement — should cause the moons to move to larger orbits in a very short time.

“Saturn has dozens of moons that are slowly increasing their orbital size due to tidal effects. In addition, pairs of moons may occasionally move into orbital resonances. This occurs when one moon’s orbital period becomes a simple fraction of another. For example, one moon could orbit twice as fast as another moon, or three times as fast. Once an orbital resonance takes place, the moons can affect each other’s gravity, even if they are very small. This will eventually elongate their orbits and tilt them from their original orbital plane. By looking at computer models that predict how extended a moon’s orbit should become over time, and comparing that with the actual position of the moon today, the researchers found that the orbits of Tethys, Dione and Rhea are “less dramatically altered than previously thought,” the statement said.

The moons don’t appear to have moved very far from where they were born. To get a more specific value for the ages of these moons, Cuk used ice geysers on Saturn’s moon Enceladus. The researchers assumed that the energy powering those geysers comes from tidal interactions with Saturn and that the level of geothermal activity on Enceladus has been constant, and from there, inferred the strength of the tidal forces from Saturn.

Using the computer simulations, the researchers concluded that Enceladus would have moved from its original orbital position to its current one in just 100 million years — meaning it likely formed during the Cretaceous period. The larger implication is that the inner moons of Saturn and its gorgeous rings are all relatively young. (The more distant moons Titan and Iapetus would not have been formed at the same time.)

“So the question arises — what caused the recent birth of the inner moons?” Cuk said in the statement. “Our best guess is that Saturn had a similar collection of moons before, but their orbits were disturbed by a special kind of orbital resonance involving Saturn’s motion around the sun. Eventually, the orbits of neighboring moons crossed, and these objects collided. From this rubble, the present set of moons and rings formed.” The research is being published in the Astrophysical Journal.

From Space.com:

Saturn’s Rings May Be Younger Than the Dinosaurs

By Charles Q. Choi, Space.com Contributor | January 17, 2019 02:01pm ET

Saturn has not always had rings — the planet’s haloes may date only to the age of dinosaurs, or after it, a new study finds.

The age of Saturn’s rings has long proven controversial. Some researchers had thought the iconic features formed along with the planet about 4.5 billion years ago from the icy rubble left in orbit around it after the formation of the solar system. Others suggested the rings are very young, perhaps originating after Saturn’s gravitational pull tore apart a comet or an icy moon.

One way to solve this mystery is to weigh Saturn’s rings. The rings were initially made of bright ice, but over time have become contaminated and darkened by debris from the outer reaches of the solar system. A few years back, NASA’s Saturn-orbiting Cassini mission determined that the rings are only about 1 percent impure. If scientists could weigh Saturn‘s rings, they could estimate the amount of time it would take for them to accumulate enough contaminants to get 1 percent impure and thus calculate their age, lead study author Luciano Iess, a planetary scientist at the Sapienza University of Rome, told Space.com. [Saturn’s Glorious Rings in Pictures]

Iess and his colleagues relied on more Cassini data. Before the spacecraft plunged to its death into Saturn’s atmosphere in September 2017, it coasted between the planet and its rings and let their gravitational pulls tug it around. The strength of a body’s gravity depends on its mass, and by analyzing how much Cassini was pulled one way or the other during the “grand finale” phase of its mission, the mission team could measure the gravity and mass of both Saturn and its rings.

During six of Cassini’s crossings between Saturn and its rings at altitudes about 1,615 miles to 2,425 miles (2,600 to 3,900 kilometers) above the planet’s clouds, scientists monitored the radio link between the spacecraft and Earth. Much as how an ambulance siren sounds higher pitched as the vehicle drives toward you and lower pitched as it moves away, the radio signals would lengthen in wavelength as their source moved away Earth and shorten as their source moved toward it — an effect called the Doppler shift.

“I’m astonished by the fact that we were able to measure the velocity of a distant spacecraft 1.3 billion kilometers [807 million miles] away from Earth with an accuracy that is a hundredth or a thousandth the speed of a snail — a few hundreds of millimeters per second,” Iess said.

Previous estimates based on data from the Voyager flybys of Saturn suggested the rings’ mass was about 28 million billion metric tons. The new data from Cassini now suggests the rings’ mass is only about 15.4 million billion metric tons. (The largest asteroid, Ceres, has a mass of about 939 million billion metric tons.)

All in all, the researchers suggest the rings formed between 10 million to 100 million years ago. In comparison, the age of dinosaurs ended about 66 million years ago.

Cassini’s grand finale also revealed key details about the internal structure of Saturn. For example, it found that jet streams seen around Saturn’s equator — the strongest measured in the solar system, with winds of up to 930 mph (1,500 km/h) — extend to a depth of at least 5,600 miles (9,000 km), rotating a colossal amount of mass around the planet about 4 percent faster than the layer below it.

“The discovery of deeply rotating layers is a surprising revelation about the internal structure of the planet,” Cassini project scientist Linda Spilker at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, who did not participate in the study, said in a statement. “The question is, What causes the more rapidly rotating part of the atmosphere to go so deep, and what does that tell us about Saturn’s interior?”

The new findings also suggest that Saturn’s rocky core is about 15 to 18 times the mass of Earth, similar to prior estimates.

The scientists detailed their findings online Jan. 17 in the journal Science.

What Adélie penguins eat, study with spacecraft


This 12 December 2018 video from the USA says about itself:

2018 Fall Meeting Press Conference: Penguins! From space

The science team that led the expedition to document the supercolony of penguins on the remote Danger Islands in Antarctica will present new results from their research conducted on the expedition, including new, unpublished information on the age of the supercolony.

NASA satellite imagery of the penguins’ bright pink poop, or guano, helped the scientists first pinpoint the location of the supercolony of Adélie penguins.

In this press conference, the scientists will report new findings from the refined tools and techniques they’ve developed since the expedition to study penguins from space.

Participants: Heather Lynch, Stony Brook University, Stony Brook, New York, U.S.A.; Michael Polito, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, U.S.A.; Casey Youngflesh, University of Connecticut, Storrs, Connecticut, U.S.A.

By Sarah Zielinski, 7:00am, January 2, 2019:

Poop provides a link in determining penguin diet from space

The best way to find out what an Adélie penguin is eating is to catch it and make it regurgitate its meal. This is about as pleasant for bird and researcher as you might think. It’s also invasive, time-consuming and expensive to do on a large scale, so scientists need other ways to determine diet. Now they have one; it relies on images taken by Landsat satellites.

The satellites don’t reveal individual penguins, let alone what they are consuming underwater. What those images do show, though, is poop. Lots of it. Because Adélie penguins cluster together at a predictable rate, researchers have figured out how to count penguin colonies just from their huge poop stains. Last year, for instance, a group led by Stony Brook University ecologist Heather Lynch reported finding a supercolony of 1.5 million Adélie penguins on the Danger Islands, off the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula, from their feces.

Figuring out dietary preferences from those images is a bit more complicated — but it also starts with poop.

Casey Youngflesh is a quantitative ecologist at the University of Connecticut in Storrs. Until a few months ago, he was a graduate student in Lynch’s lab. During that time, he made several trips to the Antarctic Peninsula, visiting Adélie penguin colonies by boat from either the tip of South America or the Falkland Islands. That required crossing some of the roughest waters on the high seas, and, he says, “it can get a little bit hairy sometimes, especially on the smaller vessels.”

Timing was essential. Visit too early and the colonies wouldn’t have started to nest. (The birds spend the dark winters following the sea ice before returning to land to raise chicks during the southern summer.) Visit too late and the colonies would be a mess, with large chicks running amok and poop mixing with mud. “Everything’s a lot cleaner and neater earlier in the season”, he notes.

Youngflesh and the other researchers on these trips gathered lots of data from the penguin colonies they visited. They at times counted birds or checked on packing densities. And sometimes they gathered poop in little smell-proof bags and brought it back to the ship.

To most people, the poop looks pink. (It also stinks, as you might expect.) The guano gets its color from the carotenoids in the carapace of krill the penguins eat. But what a penguin eats can alter that color. And so those subtle changes in color can indicate what a bird has consumed.

Back on the ship, Youngflesh would take each sample and make a “poo patty.” Each patty was “kind of the size of a hamburger patty,” he says (and, from the picture he supplied, looked a bit like one, too). He’d run the patty through a spectrometer, which measures the sample’s colors across the electromagnetic spectrum, even in wavelengths like infrared and ultraviolet that the human eye can’t see. Then the patty went into a dehydrator so it could be shipped back to the lab. There, Youngflesh would measure its nitrogen-15 levels, which correlated with where in the food web the penguin had been eating, higher (fish) or lower (krill).

Once Youngflesh had collected and analyzed poop from a dozen or so colonies along the Antarctic Peninsula, he used statistics to translate the fine spectrometer data to the coarser data in the Landsat imagery. Then each pixel of an image could be connected to the dominant item on the penguin menu: fish or krill. Adélie penguins in West Antarctica tend to eat more krill, and those in East Antarctica eat more fish, Youngflesh reported December 12 at the American Geophysical Union’s fall meeting in Washington, D.C.

Scientists have done diet studies of individual penguin populations, but it’s not easy to do that frequently. The new technique will let researchers get a snapshot of the Adélie penguin diet across the Antarctic continent, year after year, looking both in the past and into the future, Youngflesh notes. Going back through the Landsat archive didn’t reveal any big changes in penguin diet, but now researchers will be able to monitor it as the region changes and provide real data to Antarctic ecosystem managers.

Youngflesh says that researchers might be able to apply this method to other seabirds, “if they’re nesting on the ground and pooping all over the place.” Someone would have to collect more samples, though, to calibrate the satellite data. And if anyone should want more granular data about how a penguin’s diet differs from bird to bird or day to day, there aren’t many good substitutes for going to the bird itself and getting it to give up its lunch.

First ever landing on dark side of moon


This 2 January 2019 video says about itself:

First Photos: China Lands Probe on Dark Side of the Moon

China successfully landed a spacecraft on the far side of the moon Thursday, becoming the first country to ever land on the side of the moon that faces away from Earth.

CHINA LANDS ON THE FAR SIDE OF THE MOON China became the first nation to land a spacecraft on the far side of the moon, the country’s state-run media announced, a milestone that solidifies Beijing’s ambitions to become a world leader in space exploration. [HuffPost]

China’s landing of a scientific probe on the far side of the Moon has led to a rash of media speculation, in the US in particular, about a new international space race amid heightened tensions between the two countries over economic issues, including trade, and a massive American military build-up in Asia against China: here.

Seeds on board China’s Chang’e-4 mission have sprouted, marking the first time any biological matter has grown on the moon.

Israel’s first moon mission lost moments before landing. The spacecraft’s engine cut out just before it was to touch down in the Sea of Serenity. By Maria Temming, 5:06pm, April 11, 2019.