Friday, April 30, 2010

Triclosan and Ubiquitous Antibiotics freely used in Personal Care Products

Earlier this month, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a press release about triclosan - an ubiquitous antibiotic found in tons of personal care products, including deodorant, toothpaste, hand and facial cleansers, mouthwash, and other household cleaners.

It can't be good for our environment to be flushing lots of antibiotics down the drain. In the press release, the FDA stated that:

For some consumer products, there is clear evidence that triclosan provides a benefit. For other consumer products, FDA has not received evidence that the triclosan provides an extra benefit to health. At this time, the agency does not have evidence that triclosan in antibacterial soaps and body washes provides any benefit over washing with regular soap and water.

After reading the press release, I am sure you are curious what kinds of research have been done on the safety of triclosan, as well as the utility of antibiotics in common household products. Go to the primary literature sources so you can see for yourself what scientists have been researching, and if their research is published in reputable peer-reviewed journals, and first investigate the safety aspects of triclosan.

It isn't hard to find a number of papers that implicated triclosan as problematic in animal studies. One paper (The bactericidal agent triclosan modulates thyroid hormone-associated gene expression and disrupts postembryonic anuran development) found that when bullfrog tadpoles were exposed the levels of triclosan that are typically found in our environment, the tadpoles did not develop normally.

Another paper (Short-term in vivo exposure to the water contaminant triclosan: Evidence for disruption of thyroxine) studying rats found that very low levels of triclosan disrupted thyroid hormone regulation. This has long been a concern about triclosan, as the structure of triclosan is very similar to that of thyroid hormones.

If there is a serious positive influence on our daily lives through the use of triclosan containing products, to some it may be worth the environmental cost. However, this arguement quickly falls apart when looking for evidence to support the claim that triclosan makes our lives better.

In a comprehensive review of the scientific literature published in 2007 (Consumer antibacterial soaps: effective or just risky?). Quoting from their abstract, it says it all:

Soaps containing triclosan within the range of concentrations commonly used in the community setting (0.1%-0.45% wt/vol) were no more effective than plain soap at preventing infectious illness symptoms and reducing bacterial levels on the hands.

So, if you want to avoid contaminating the environment without sacrificing personal hygiene, please check the labels of any household products before you purchase them to see if they contain triclosan (which also is marketed as Microban, Irgasan DP-300, Lexol 300, Ster-Zac, Cloxifenolum, or Biofresh ref).

Not only is this product unnecessary in most circumstances, but it looks like it could have a very negative impact in our environment. So, if it's not really helping you, you might as well find an alternative product that doesn't contain triclosan.

German Government Defy European Space Agency

The German government has informed the European Space Agency (ESA) in writing that it will remain opposed to the award of a $1.7 billion meteorological satellite contract to a French-led consortium regardless of the findings of an independent review board tasked to audit the contract procedures, according to European government and industry officials.

The apparent hardening of Germany’s position with respect to the six-satellite Meteosat Third Generation (MTG) contract makes it less likely that ESA and its MTG partner, the Eumetsat meteorological satellite organisation, will be able to move forward on the program in the coming weeks.

The 18-nation ESA had hoped that German reservations about the MTG contract would abate once a six-member Procurement Review Board rendered its conclusions April 30. The German argument is centred on the fact that although the bid was led by Astrium’s German division, it was not selected and there are claims of unfair and preferential treatment being given to the French bid, by Jean-Jacques Dordain, ESA director general.

The board of enquiry was hired to shed light on the MTG bid-evaluation process, and to clear the air of suspicion that had surrounded the project and vendor selection process, for months.

The procurement review team began work just before Eumetsat’s 26 member nations met March 26 to begin the year-long MTG implementation process but Germany, joined by Portugal, declined to approve the project at the Eumetsat meeting because of procedural and economic discrepancies.

Satellites, DNA and dolphins

Satellites, DNA and dolphins

Using DNA samples and images from Earth-orbiting satellites, conservationists from Columbia University, the Wildlife Conservation Society, the American Museum of Natural History, and Fundación AquaMarina, are gathering new insights about the franciscana -- a poorly known coastal dolphin species of eastern South America -- in an effort to understand populations and conserve them.

The study, one of the first to combine molecular data along with range-wide environmental information for a marine species, is helping researchers to understand how seemingly monotonous marine environments actually contain significant habitat differences that are shaping populations of this threatened species, which averages between 5-6 feet in length and around 80-90 pounds in weight. According to findings published in the most recent edition of Molecular Ecology, genetic differences between dolphins from different sites correlate to measurable differences in water temperature, turbidity and chlorophyll levels, a tantalizing indication of how largely hidden oceanographic variables could drive population structure of marine animals.

The authors of the study are: Martin Mendez of Columbia University, the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), and the Wildlife Conservation Society; Howard Rosenbaum of the Wildlife Conservation Society; Ajit Subramaniam of Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University; Charles Yackulic of Columbia University; and Pablo Bordino of Fundación AquaMarina and the Wildlife Trust Alliance.

"The availability of both genetic and environmental data provided us with a rare opportunity to examine how ecological factors affect population structure in a marine species," said Martin Mendez, the study's lead author. "In this instance, the study subject is possibly the most endangered cetacean in South America, so delineating populations and the factors that create them certainly plays an important role in conservation measures."

As a result of the study, the researchers recommend that the genetically distinct population of franciscanas to the north of Buenos Aires -- probably created in part by oceanographic conditions?should be protected as part of a larger effort to save the species.

NASA's Quest for space life a focus for the future

US space agency NASA is pondering 28 potential missions focusing on finding life beyond Earth inside our solar system, a US researcher said Wednesday.

"Astrobiology and the search for life is really central to what we should be doing next in the exploration of the solar system," Steve Squyres, a researcher at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, said in a telephone press briefing.

"We are looking for a total of 28 different missions.... They cover everything from Mercury landers to fly-by of objects in deep outer space of the solar system -- and they are particularly relevant to looking for life," he explained.

Among other objects of interest: a three-stage Martian mission that would bring Martian soil samples back to Earth, said Squyres, who worked on the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, still active six years after their arrival on the Red Planet.

"Those samples might reveal a great deal of whether Mars once or today (has) forms of life," he said.

Another part of the mission would be to look at the origin of methane in the planet's atmosphere, and whether or not it is organic, he said.

Methane breaks down quickly in the Martian atmosphere, but scientists discovered plumes of methane on Mars in 2003, raising the prospect that the planet is not entirely dead.

"So we will send a mission potentially to look at the sources of the methane and consider the possibility that they could be from biological origins," Squyres added.

Further out in the solar system, scientists are very interested in Europa, a moon of Jupiter, he said.

"It's believed that Europa may have an ocean of liquid water underneath its icy crust. And we are looking at a Europa robot mission that would have, among other things, the capability to use a radar system that can penetrate through that ice, find the ocean if it exists, identify places where you might go to the surface to learn more" about the ocean, Squyres said.

Likewise Titan, a moon of Saturn, has scientists' attention.

It is "a moon we know to be very rich in organic materials. We are looking long term at a mission that will study Titan in great deal, including an orbiter, a balloon in Titan atmosphere and a lander to land in some of the lakes of liquid methane," the Cornell scientist added.

Another mission under consideration is one to return samples from a comet, the researcher said. "Comets are believed to be rich in organic materials, rich in building blocks of life. Most of the organic material on earth was probably delivered to earth by comets."

The number of projects needs to be whittled down, he said, before a recommendation will be made on what missions NASA should prioritise.

Meeting and Greeting the Nearest Aliens Will Take Centuries

Although our telescopes will likely become good enough to detect signs of life on exoplanets within the next 100 years, it would probably take many centuries before we could ever get a good look at the aliens.

"Unfortunately, we are perhaps as far away from seeing aliens with our own eyes as Epicurus was from seeing the first other worlds when, 23 centuries ago, he predicted the existence of these planets," said astrobiologist Jean Schneider at the Paris Observatory at Meudon. He and his colleagues discussed the difficulties of studying distant alien life in the journal Astrobiology.

Schneider and his colleagues say that in the next 15 to 25 years, there will likely be two generations of space missions able to analyze exoplanets in greater detail. The first generation will feature 1.5-to-2.5-meter-wide coronagraphs to block out the direct light from a star to help search for giant planets and nearby super-Earths.

The second generation will feature interferometers, coronagraphs and other equipment to better analyze the light reflected off these exoplanets. These missions could reveal what the planets might look like, and what they might have in their atmospheres or on their surfaces. At the same time, there will likely be coronagraphic cameras on extremely large ground-based telescopes.

After these projects, future missions could search for more potentially habitable planets either by peering at more distant stars more than 50 parsecs away or at rocky moons of giant planets seen in the habitable zones of nearby stars. The follow-up missions also could deeply investigate any exoplanets that display potential signs of life.

Such missions will require much larger arrays in space - for instance, taking a 100-pixel image of a planet twice the width of Earth some 16.3 light years away would require the elements making up a space telescope array to be more than 43 miles apart.

Such pictures of exoplanets could make out details such as rings, clouds, oceans, continents, and perhaps even hints of forests or savannahs. Long-term monitoring could reveal seasonal shifts, volcanic events, and changes in cloud cover. One might even detect the presence of moons by shadows they project on the planets.

More sensitive instruments could hunt for the wavelengths of infrared light associated with carbon dioxide, which could tell a lot about the atmosphere.

Beyond conventional signs of life as we know it, such as oxygen in atmospheres, another type of signal could be "technosignatures," features that cannot be explained simply by complex organic chemistry. Technosignatures could include laser light, chlorofluorocarbon gases, or even artificial constructions.

"Looking for aliens is philosophically important - it would tell us what is essential in the human condition," Schneider said.

However, if scientists actually detect signs of life, it will frustratingly take many centuries before humanity can realize the hope of seeing what these aliens might actually look like, Schneider and his colleagues explained.

"It is very disappointing," Schneider said.

Survivor Black Holes May Be Mid-Sized

New evidence from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and ESA's XMM-Newton strengthens the case that two mid-sized black holes exist close to the center of a nearby starburst galaxy.

These "survivor" black holes avoided falling into the center of the galaxy and could be examples of the seeds required for the growth of supermassive black holes in galaxies, including the one in the Milky Way.

For several decades, scientists have had strong evidence for two distinct classes of black hole: the stellar-mass variety with masses about ten times that of the Sun, and the supermassive ones, located at the center of galaxies, that range from hundreds of thousands to billions of solar masses.

But a mystery has remained: what about black holes that are in between? Evidence for these objects has remained controversial, and until now there were no strong claims of more than one such black hole in a single galaxy. Recently, a team of researchers has found signatures in X-ray data of two mid-sized black holes in the starburst galaxy M82 located 12 million light years from Earth.

"This is the first time that good evidence for two mid-sized black holes has been found in one galaxy," said Hua Feng of the Tsinghua University in China, who led two papers describing the results. "Their location near the center of the galaxy might provide clues about the origin of the Universe's largest black holes - supermassive black holes found in the centers of most galaxies."

One possible mechanism for the formation of supermassive black holes involves a chain reaction of collisions of stars in compact star clusters that results in the buildup of extremely massive stars, which then collapse to form intermediate-mass black holes. The star clusters then sink to the center of the galaxy, where the intermediate-mass black holes merge to form a supermassive black hole.

Space Balloon Launch Disaster - Lives in Danger

The launch of a giant space balloon went terribly wrong Thursday in the Australian Outback when a heavy payload of scientific equipment broke from its mooring and dragged across the desert, slamming into a vehicle and narrowly missing bystanders.

One witness said she felt lucky to be alive after the car-sized, unmanned gondola hanging beneath the balloon careened out-of-control into the vehicle parked next to hers at the launch site near Alice Springs, in central Australia.

As the huge balloon filled with air, the bundle of equipment was ripped from its mounting and dragged across the desert, crashing into and upturning a parked four-wheel-drive vehicle and strewing debris across a wide area before coming to a halt.

No one was injured in the incident, which was captured on video by an Australian Broadcasting Corp. television film crew.

Cassini and Amateur Astronomers Chase massive Storm On Saturn

With the help of amateur astronomers, the composite infrared spectrometer instrument aboard NASA's Cassini spacecraft has taken its first look at a massive blizzard in Saturn's atmosphere. The instrument collected the most detailed data to date of temperatures and gas distribution in that planet's storms.

The data showed a large, turbulent storm, dredging up loads of material from the deep atmosphere and covering an area at least five times larger than the biggest blizzard in this year's Washington, D.C.-area storm front nicknamed "Snowmageddon."

"We were so excited to get a heads-up from the amateurs," said Gordon Bjoraker, a composite infrared spectrometer team member based at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. Normally, he said, "Data from the storm cell would have been averaged out."

Cassini's radio and plasma wave instrument and imaging cameras have been tracking thunder and lightning storms on Saturn for years in a band around Saturn's mid-latitudes nicknamed "storm alley." But storms can come and go on a time scale of weeks, while Cassini's imaging and spectrometer observations have to be locked in place months in advance.

The radio and plasma wave instrument regularly picks up electrostatic discharges associated with the storms, so team members have been sending periodic tips to amateur astronomers, who can quickly go to their backyard telescopes and try to see the bright convective storm clouds.

Amateur astronomers including Anthony Wesley, Trevor Barry and Christopher Go got one of those notices in February and were able to take dozens of pictures over the next several weeks.

In late March, Wesley, an amateur astronomer from Australia who was actually the first person to detect the new dark spot caused by an impact on Jupiter last summer, sent Cassini scientists an e-mail with a picture of the storm.

"I wanted to be sure that images like these were being seen by the Cassini team just in case this was something of interest to be imaged directly by Cassini or the Hubble Space Telescope," Wesley wrote.

Scientists Finds Evidence Of Water Ice On Asteroid's Surface

Scientists Finds Evidence Of Water Ice On Asteroid's Surface

This image shows the Themis Main Belt which sits between Mars and Jupiter. Asteroid 24 Themis, one of the largest Main Belt asteroids, was examined by University of Tennessee scientist, Josh Emery, who found water ice and organic material on the asteroid's surface. His findings were published in the April 2010 issue of Nature. Credit: Josh Emery/University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

Asteroids may not be the dark, dry, lifeless chunks of rock scientists have long thought.

Josh Emery, research assistant professor with the earth and planetary sciences department at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, has found evidence of water ice and organic material on the asteroid 24 Themis. This evidence supports the idea that asteroids could be responsible for bringing water and organic material to Earth.

The findings are detailed in the journal "Nature." Using NASA's Infrared Telescope Facility on Hawaii's Mauna Kea, Emery and Andrew Rivkin of Johns Hopkins University in Laurel, Md., examined the surface of 24 Themis, a 200-kilometer wide asteroid that sits halfway between Mars and Jupiter.

By measuring the spectrum of infrared sunlight reflected by the object, the researchers found the spectrum consistent with frozen water and determined that 24 Themis is coated with a thin film of ice. They also detected organic material.

"The organics we detected appear to be complex, long-chained molecules. Raining down on a barren Earth in meteorites, these could have given a big kick-start to the development of life," Emery said.

Emery noted that finding ice on the surface of 24 Themis was a surprise because the surface is too warm for ice to stick around for a long time.

Radar Clicks Asteroid Images

Radar Clicks Asteroid Pic

Near-Earth asteroid 2005 YU55 was "imaged" by the Arecibo Radar Telescope in Puerto Rico on April 19. Data collected during Arecibo's observation of 2005 YU55 allowed the Near-Earth Object Program Office at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory to refine the space rock's orbit, allowing scientists to rule out any possibility of an Earth impact for the next 100 years.

The space rock was about 2.3 million kilometers (1.5 million miles) from Earth at the time this image of the radar echo was generated.

The ghostly image has a resolution of 7.5 meters (25 feet) per pixel. It reveals 2005 YU55 as a spherical object about 400 meters (1,300 feet) in size.

Not only can the radar provide data on an asteroid's dimensions, but also on its exact location in space. Using Arecibo's high-precision radar astrometry capability, scientists were able to reduce orbit uncertainties for YU55 by 50 percent.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Japan to launch 'space yacht' propelled by solar particles

Japan is to launch a "space yacht" propelled by solar particles that bounce off its kite-shaped sails, the country's space agency said Tuesday.

A rocket carrying the Ikaros -- an acronym for Interplanetary Kite-craft Accelerated by Radiation of the Sun -- will blast off from the Tanegashima space centre in southern Japan on May 18.

"Ikaros is a 'space yacht' that gets propulsion from the pressure of sunlight particles bouncing off its sail," Yuichi Tsuda, space systems expert at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), told journalists.

The flexible sails, which are thinner than a human hair, are also equipped with thin-film solar cells to generate electricity to create "a hybrid technology of electricity and pressure", Tsuda said.

"Solar sails are the technology that realises space travel without fuel as long as we have sunlight. The availability of electricity would enable us to navigate farther and more effectively in the solar system."

Ikaros, which has cost 1.5 billion yen (16 million dollars) to develop, will be the first use of the technology in deep space, as past experiments have been limited to unfolding its sails in orbits around the Earth, said Tsuda.

JAXA plans to control the path of Ikaros by changing the angle at which sunlight particles bounce off the silver-coloured sail.

Ikaros will be a short cylindrical shape when it is released into space and will then extend its 14-metre (46 foot) sail, JAXA said.

The name of the spacecraft alludes to Icarus, the figure from Greek mythology who flew too close to the sun and fell into the sea, but Tsuda promised that "this Ikaros will not fly into the sun".

The same rocket will also launch Japan's first satellite bound for Venus, called the Akatsuki, or PLANET-C, which will work closely with Venus Express, a satellite sent earlier by the European Space Agency.

In coming years, JAXA may launch other bold projects.

NASA Study Sheds Light On Ozone Hole Chemistry

NASA Study Sheds Light On Ozone Hole Chemistry

A new NASA study of Earth's polar ozone layer reinforces scientists' understanding of how human-produced chlorine chemicals involved in the destruction of ozone interact with each other.

A team of scientists led by Michelle Santee of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., examined how nighttime temperatures affect chlorine monoxide, a key chemical involved in ozone destruction.

Combining NASA satellite measurements with a state-of-the-art chemical model, they found this relationship to be more consistent with recent laboratory work than with some older laboratory and field observational data.

This verification is important, because scientists have not been able to conduct appropriate laboratory experiments relevant to understanding how polar chlorine monoxide behaves at night at the lowest temperatures of the stratosphere, Earth's second lowest atmospheric layer.

Santee and her team published their findings this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The data came from the Microwave Limb Sounder instrument on NASA's Aura satellite.

"Our comprehensive study uses multiple years of Arctic and Antarctic satellite observations to quantify the nighttime balance of ozone-destroying chlorine chemical compounds," said Santee.

"By gaining a better knowledge of this balance, scientists will be able to make more accurate predictions of polar ozone loss, especially in twilight and in the Arctic, where conditions are often only marginally favorable for ozone destruction."

At night, chlorine monoxide molecules combine to form chlorine peroxide, and the balance between these two chemicals is highly temperature-sensitive. Studying this balance quantitatively is challenging.

Previous studies in the laboratory and using aircraft and satellites had found significantly different degrees of balance. The Microwave Limb Sounder's very large number of measurements has quantified this balance far better than before.

The new research contributes to scientific understanding of the phenomenon more commonly known as the "ozone hole." Each year in late winter and early spring in the southern hemisphere, chlorine and bromine from human-produced compounds cause the nearly total destruction of ozone in Earth's stratosphere in a layer about 20 kilometers (12 miles) above Antarctica.

These source gases that are responsible for the greatest destruction of the ozone layer are now declining in response to the 1985 Montreal Protocol and its amendments.

Since its launch in 2004, the Microwave Limb Sounder has monitored most of the polar regions of both hemispheres daily, compiling tens of thousands of measurements of nighttime chlorine monoxide levels, along with various other chemicals, including ozone.

These data are allowing scientists to test their understanding of chlorine-related chemistry on an unprecedented scale.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Ischia volcano eruption concerns

Ischia volcano eruption concerns
The volcano of Ischia, a resort island famed for its thermal waters off the coast of Naples, could potentially erupt, Italian disaster experts said.

Guido Bertolaso, the head of Italy's civil protection agency, said that while Vesuvius was more commonly considered the nation's most worrisome volcano, Ischia, which last erupted 700 years ago, was experiencing a build-up of magma.

No eruption is imminent, but "if I had to say which is the volcano with the most loaded gun barrel, I'd say it's not Vesuvius but the island of Ischia", Mr Bertolaso said in Rome.

Ischia, a short hydrofoil trip from the port of Naples and the chic vacation island of Capri, is often overrun with Italian and foreign visitors seeking to ease their aches and pains in pools filled with thermal waters pumped in from the sea.

Ischia's "magma chamber is loading up", said Mr Bertolaso, whose agency's mandate includes both disaster relief and prevention. An eruption on Ischia "could be worse than a hypothetical Vesuvius eruption", he said.

While scientists detect no sign of an eruption, Ischia's volcanic potential is being monitored along with that of Vesuvius, the mountain that looms over Naples and destroyed Pompeii when it blew in 79 AD.

SDO Observes Massive Eruption And Scorching Coronal Rain

SDO Observes Massive Eruption And Scorching Rain

Just last week, scientists working with NASA's new Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) released the most astonishing movies of the sun anyone had ever seen. Now, they're doing it again.

"SDO has just observed a massive eruption on the sun-one of the biggest in years," says Lika Guhathakurta of NASA headquarters in Washington DC. "The footage is not only dramatic, but also could solve a longstanding mystery of solar physics."

Karel Schrijver of Lockheed Martin's Solar and Astrophysics Lab is leading the analysis. "We can see a billion tons of magnetized plasma blasting into space while debris from the explosion falls back onto the sun surface. These may be our best data yet."

The movie, recorded on April 19th, spans four hours of actual time and more than 100,000 km of linear space. "It's huge," says Schrijver. Indeed, the entire planet Earth could fit between the plasma streamers with room to spare.

Astronomers have seen eruptions like this before, but rarely so large and never in such fluid detail. As science team member Alan Title of Lockheed Martin pointed out at last week's press conference, "no other telescope comes close to the combined spatial, temporal and spectral resolution of SDO."

Schrijver says his favorite part of the movie is the coronal rain. "Blobs of plasma are falling back to the surface of the sun, making bright splashes where they hit," he explains. "This is a phenomenon I've been studying for years."

Coronal rain has long been a mystery. It's not surprising that plasma should fall back to the sun. After all, the sun's gravity is powerful. The puzzle of coronal rain is how slowly it seems to fall. "The sun's gravity should be pulling the material down much faster than it actually moves. What's slowing the descent?" he wonders.

For the first time, SDO provides an answer.

"The rain appears to be buoyed by a 'cushion' of hot gas," says Schrijver. "Previous observatories couldn't see it, but it is there."

One of SDO's game-changing capabilities is temperature sensing. Using an array of ultraviolet telescopes called the Atmospheric Imaging Assembly (AIA), the observatory can remotely measure the temperature of gas in the sun's atmosphere. Coronal rain turns out to be relatively cool-"only" 60,000 K. When the rains falls, it is supported, in part, by an underlying cushion of much hotter material, between 1,000,000 and 2,200,000 K.

The movie is available here

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Long-lost lunar rover successfully zapped with laser

Long-lost lunar rover successfully zapped with laser

Mirror mirror, on the moon, whose discovery has been a boon? The answer: a long-lost lunar rover. Now that we have a fix on its location, the rover's reflectivity could come in particularly handy for studying the moon's wobble.

Astronomers measure the moon's distance from Earth by bouncing laser beams off reflectors delivered to the surface by lunar missions. Three were left behind by Apollo astronauts and one is attached to the back of a Soviet-built robotic rover, Lunokhod 2.

Now, astronomers have managed to bounce laser light off another Soviet rover, Lunokhod 1, after a hiatus of nearly 40 years.

Lunokhod 1 landed on the moon in 1970 and last communicated with Earth by radio in 1971. It also has a reflector on its back but could not be targeted as its exact location was not known.

That changed in March when NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter spotted Lunokhod 1. On 22 April, a team led by Tom Murphy of the University of California, San Diego, fired a laser at the new coordinates and got a reflected signal back. "We found it within minutes of our first attempt," Murphy says. "Once we knew where it was, it popped right out."

Lunokhod 1 is closer to the edge of the moon's Earth-facing side than any other reflector. That makes it useful for measuring slight wobbles in the moon's orientation, which could help reveal its internal structure. It could also allow precise tests of general relativity, which predicts how the moon should move in response to the gravity of Earth, the sun, and other solar system bodies.

ESA’s Envisat monitors oil spill

ESA Portal - ESA’s Envisat monitors oil spill

These ESA Envisat images capture the oil that is spilling into the Gulf of Mexico after a drilling rig exploded and sank off the coasts of Louisiana and Mississippi, USA, on 22 April.

In the black-and-white radar image the oil spill is visible as a dark grey whirl in the bottom right, while in the optical image it is seen as a white whirl. The Mississippi Delta is at top left, and the Delta National Wildlife Refuge extends out into the Gulf.
Officials report that about 1000 barrels of oil a day is escaping from a damaged oil well located 1.5 km under the drilling rig. By yesterday afternoon, the spill was covering an area some 77 km long and 63 km wide.

NASA Hubble IMAX Views

Saturday, April 24, 2010

NASA Hubble Space Telescope (HST) at 20

More Fantastic Hubble videos and images are available at the website and the Hubble website.

CLICK HERE to play

Friday, April 23, 2010

Phobaeticus Chani, a newly discovered stick insect in Borneo jungle

A Phobaeticus Chani, a stick insect which is more than half a metre long, one of dozens of new species recently discovered in a stretch of "irreplaceable" rainforest on the island of Borneo

I also have to introduce little Noah, the gibbon and to recommend that you check out his amazing story at Chanee's blog.

Chanee Kalaweit is the remarkable man that runs the Gibbon sanctuary in Borneo

He is supported by the Brigitte Bardot animal foundation to name but a few but the gibbon sanctuary needs all the support they can get.

It's an uplifting story of successful conservation, through one man's determination and commitment.
Picture: WWF / PA

Buddhist temples looted in the aftermath of Tibet Earthquake.

Paramilitary police carry a Buddhist statue excavated from a destroyed temple in the earthquake-hit Gyegu town in Tibet. Concerns continue to mount of the destruction and looting of Tibetan Buddhist temples by Chinese troops and paramilitary troops.

Picture: REUTERS

The volcano in Eyjafjallajokul, Iceland

Lightning streaks across the sky as lava flows from a volcano in Eyjafjallajokul, Iceland.

Friction between the ash particles in the volcanic cloud creates enormous amounts of electricity that sparks and discharges around the crater.

The same electrical build-up is a danger to aircraft flying through volcanic ash and can cause the aircraft fuselage to glow. This effect is similar to St Elmo's fire.

Danger to Aircraft Engines
The other danger to aircraft engines is the adverse effect that volcanic ash has inside the modern aero engine, primarily in jet engines. The high temperatures and compression that is essential for propulsion in jet engines, melts the silica in the ash and converts into a sticky goo that clogs essential fuel jets, inlets and outlets.

The struggling engines can generate excess amounts of unburnt fuel, which escapes and ignites as it leaves the engine. This gives the impression of an engine fire but it is really a fire in the exhaust jet.

The next stage occurs when the jet engine becomes so clogged with sticky volcanic ash that it 'flares out' or extinguishes and shuts down. This can happen to all onboard aircraft engines within a very short space of time.

Re-starting a Jet Engine
Re-starting a jet engine in mid-flight is a standard procedure for aircraft pilots but when all your engines are out, it becomes much more stressful. Especially, if the engines are so clogged with sticky goo that the fuel cannot get through to the combustion chambers.

The problem with this scenario is that the sticky ash goo that clogged and stalled the engines is still present and it will continue to prevent the engine from re-igniting.

BA Flight
In the, now infamous, BA flight in which this scenario happened, the passengers and crew were fortunately saved by a number of lucky coincidences.

Once all the engines 'flared out', the outside temperature at high altitude quickly cooled the inside structure and the sticky goo quickly became brittle, causing pieces of it to break off, leaving a sufficient number of fuel jets clear to re-start the engines.

Once the aircraft was clear of the volcanic ash cloud and with the engines restarted, they were able to make a safe landing.

NASA's new Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO)

This still from an April 12-13 video recorded by NASA's new Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) shows an eruptive prominence blasting away from the sun. The prominence appears to stretch almost halfway across the sun, about 500,000 miles

Picture: AP / NASA

ESA: TTP2 - New navsat sensor, Oceanpal improves water monitoring

The start-up company Star2Earth, reared in the ESA Business Incubation Centre in the Netherlands, has developed the Oceanpal sensor based on ESA technology that uses navigation satellite signals reflected from a water surface to measure water levels and wave heights.

Oceanpal is already operational in Barcelona’s harbour, on Scheveningen pier in the Netherlands and at the LaBaells water reservoir in the Pyrenees.

Latest installation is on Lake Laja in Chile where Oceanpal will be used by the Energy company Endesa to plan its electricity production better.

Oceanpal is Star2Earth response to sea and lake surface monitoring.

It is a passive system using any available signals from navigation satellites such as GPS, EGNOS and future Galileo to deliver information about surface height and surface state.

The above figure illustrates the Oceanpal principle of measuring direct and indirect navigation satellite signals.

The final constellation of Europe's Galileo satellite navigation system Galileo will consist of 30 satellites

Credits: Star2EarthCredits: ESA / Starlab / Star2Earth / Google Earth

Japan Discovers new Superconductor Mechanisms

Japanese scientists say they've experimentally determined the mechanism underlying electron pair formation in iron-based, high-temperature superconductors.

The landmark finding by Riken Institute researchers involves the classical theory that superconductivity occurs when two electrons are bound together to form a pair, known as a Cooper pair, by lattice vibrations. That pairing mechanism has never been confirmed for high-temperature superconductors.

"The iron-based superconductors investigated by the research team Â… offer the greatest chance of solving this enigma," Riken said in a statement, noting the discovery breaks new ground by supporting a mechanism for electron pairing based not on lattice vibrations, as in other forms of superconductivity, but on magnetism.

"In providing a powerful constraint on theoretical models, the finding thus marks a major advance toward unraveling the mystery of high-temperature superconductivity," the company said.

US military launches top-secret robotic spacecraft

US military launches top-secret robotic spacecraft

A US Air Force unmanned spacecraft blasted off on Thursday from Florida, amid a veil of secrecy about its military mission.

The robotic space plane, or X-37B, lifted off from Cape Canaveral atop an Atlas V rocket at 7:52 pm local time (2352 GMT), according video released by the military.

"The launch is a go," Air Force Major Angie Blair told AFP.

Resembling a miniature space shuttle, the plane is 8.9 meters (29 feet) long and has a wing-span of 4.5 meters.

The reusable space vehicle has been years in the making and the military has offered only vague explanations as to its purpose or role in the American military's arsenal.

The vehicle is designed to "provide an 'on-orbit laboratory' test environment to prove new technology and components before those technologies are committed to operational satellite programs," the Air Force said in a recent release.

Icelandic Volcano

Aurora Bolearis crosses the skies above the Icelandic volcano

NASA Hubble image of Carina Nebula

NASA's Hubble Space Telescope image captures the chaotic activity atop a three-light-year-tall pillar of gas and dust that is being eaten away by the brilliant light from nearby bright stars.

The pillar is also being assaulted from within, as infant stars buried inside it fire off jets of gas that can be seen streaming from towering peaks.

This turbulent cosmic pinnacle lies within a tempestuous stellar nursery called the Carina Nebula, located 7,500 light-years away in the southern constellation Carina.

The image celebrates the 20th anniversary of Hubble's launch and deployment into an orbit around Earth. Hubble was launched April 24, 1990

Picture: AP / NASA

Volcanic Ash images

The outflow of volcanic ash has had a devastating effect on the local islanders, trying to sustain a normal life at the base of an erupting volcano.
An Icelandic farmer dressed in protection gear to try and ensure the safety of his livestock.
National Geographic photography team filming close-up shots of the volcano.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Missing Link Between Solar Activity and The UK's Cold Winters

A link between low solar activity and jet streams over the Atlantic could explain why, despite global warming trends, people in regions North East of the Atlantic Ocean might need to brace themselves for more frequent cold winters in years to come.

A new report published in IOP Publishing's Environmental Research Letters describes how we are moving into an era of lower solar activity which is likely to result in UK winter temperatures more like those seen at the end of the seventeenth century.

Lead author Mike Lockwood of the University of Reading said: "This year's winter in the UK has been the 14th coldest in the last 160 years and yet the global average temperature for the same period has been the 5th highest. We have discovered that this kind of anomaly is significantly more common when solar activity is low."

The new paper, 'Are cold winters in Europe associated with low solar activity?', differs from previous efforts to explain the UK's recent cold winters by comparing the most comprehensive, but regionally specific, temperature dataset available (the Central England Temperature dataset) to the long-term behaviour of the Sun's magnetic field, and to trends across the entire Northern Hemisphere.

The paper is being published now as the researchers have just had the opportunity to put this year's data to the test and found that this year's results fit well with the trends they have discovered.

Aerodrag Exercise: Surfing An Alien Atmosphere

Venus Express has completed an 'aerodrag' campaign that used its solar wings as sails to catch faint wisps of the planet's atmosphere. The test used the orbiter as an exquisitely accurate sensor to measure atmospheric density barely 180 km above the hot planet.

During five aerodrag measurements last week, Venus Express' solar arrays and control systems were operated as one big flying sensor, with the solar arrays rotated at various angles to the direction of flight.

The special configuration exposed the wings to the vanishingly faint wisps of atmosphere that reach to the boundary of space around Venus, generating a tiny but measurable aerodynamic torque, or rotation, on the satellite.

This torque can be measured very accurately based on the amount of correction that must be applied by reaction wheels, which counter-rotate inside the spacecraft to maintain its orientation in space.

VISTA Captures Celestial Cat’s Hidden Secrets

Cat's Paw Nebula Click for More Pictures
ESO image taken with the Visible and Infrared Survey Telescope for Astronomy (VISTA) at the Paranal Observatory in Chile, the glowing gas and dust clouds obscuring the view are penetrated by infrared light and some of the Cat’s hidden young stars are revealed.

Towards the heart of the Milky Way, 5500 light-years from Earth in the constellation of Scorpius (the Scorpion), the Cat’s Paw Nebula stretches across 50 light-years. In visible light, gas and dust are illuminated by hot young stars, creating strange reddish shapes that give the object its nickname.

A recent image by ESO’s Wide Field Imager (WFI) at the La Silla Observatory (eso1003) captured this visible light view in great detail. NGC 6334 is one of the most active nurseries of massive stars in our galaxy.

VISTA, the latest addition to ESO’s Paranal Observatory in the Chilean Atacama Desert, is the world’s largest survey telescope (eso0949). It works at infrared wavelengths, seeing right through much of the dust that is such a beautiful but distracting aspect of the nebula, and revealing objects hidden from the sight of visible light telescopes. Visible light tends to be scattered and absorbed by interstellar dust, but the dust is nearly transparent to infrared light.

Japan JAXA spacecraft to land in Wommera Australia

An Japanese spacecraft which has journeyed to an asteroid is expected to return to Earth at a remote site in the Australian outback in June, the government said Wednesday.

The unmanned Hayabusa craft, launched by the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) in 2003, is expected to touch down near Woomera in South Australia, Defence Minister John Faulkner said.

"This has been an historic mission," Faulkner said of the Hayabusa, which reached the Itokawa asteroid in late 2005.

"It is the first time a spacecraft has made contact with an asteroid and returned to earth."

Australian authorities will assist JAXA in recovering the Hayabusa spacecraft and are involved in preparations for its final flight path, he said.

'This Planet Tastes Funny,' According To Spitzer

'This Planet Tastes Funny,' According To Spitzer

NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope has discovered something odd about a distant planet - it lacks methane, an ingredient common to many of the planets in our solar system.

"It's a big puzzle," said Kevin Stevenson, a planetary sciences graduate student at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, lead author of a study appearing tomorrow, April 22 in the journal Nature.

"Models tell us that the carbon in this planet should be in the form of methane. Theorists are going to be quite busy trying to figure this one out."

The discovery brings astronomers one step closer to probing the atmospheres of distant planets the size of Earth. The methane-free planet, called GJ 436b, is about the size of Neptune, making it the smallest distant planet that any telescope has successfully "tasted," or analyzed.

Eventually, a larger space telescope could use the same kind of technique to search smaller, Earth-like worlds for methane and other chemical signs of life, such as water, oxygen and carbon dioxide.

NASA's New Eye On Sun Delivers Stunning First Images

NASA's New Eye On Sun Delivers Stunning First Images

NASA's recently launched Solar Dynamics Observatory, or SDO, is returning early images that confirm an unprecedented new capability for scientists to better understand our sun's dynamic processes.

These solar activities affect everything on Earth. Some of the images from the spacecraft show never-before-seen detail of material streaming outward and away from sunspots.

Others show extreme close-ups of activity on the sun's surface. The spacecraft also has made the first high-resolution measurements of solar flares in a broad range of extreme ultraviolet wavelengths.

"These initial images show a dynamic sun that I had never seen in more than 40 years of solar research," said Richard Fisher, director of the Heliophysics Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "SDO will change our understanding of the sun and its processes, which affect our lives and society. This mission will have a huge impact on science, similar to the impact of the Hubble Space Telescope on modern astrophysics."

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Envisat Images Ash Belching From Eyjafjallajoekull

Envisat Images Ash Belching From Eyjafjallajoekull

In this image taken just under two hours ago (14:45 CET) by ESA's Envisat satellite, a heavy plume of ash from the Eyjafjallajoekull Volcano is seen travelling in a roughly southeasterly direction.

The volcano has been emitting steam and ash since its recent eruptions began on 20 March, and as observable, the emissions continue. The plume, visible in brownish-grey, is approximately 400 km long.

Envisat's Medium Resolution Imaging Spectrometer instrument (MERIS) acquired this image on 19 April, while working in Full Resolution Mode to provide a spatial resolution of 300 m.

The Mysterious Molasses Markings Of Pluto

The Mysterious Molasses Markings Of Pluto

Lonely Pluto floats in the darkness at the edge of our solar system. It's so far away even the Hubble Space Telescope has trouble making out the details. Nevertheless, Pluto is so interesting, even fuzzy images of the dwarf planet are compelling.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Thrillseekers rush to volcanic eruption: Fimmvorduhals volcano on Eyjafjallajokull glacier

This picture taken on March 27, 2010 shows tourists gathered to watch lava spurt out of the site of a volcanic eruption at the Fimmvorduhals volcano near the Eyjafjallajokull glacier some 125 Kms east of Reykjakic.

With lava still gushing, a small Icelandic volcano that initially sent hundreds fleeing from their homes is turning into a boon for the island nation's tourism industry, as visitors flock to catch a glimpse of the eruption.

Volcanic meal cooked over hot lava outside Reykjavik
A group of Icelandic chefs this week offered customers a unique gastronomical experience: a gourmet meal cooked over hot lava and served near an ongoing volcanic eruption, one of the chefs said Wednesday.

"My philosophy is that if someone says that something is impossible, I feel the urge to try it," Fridgeir Eiriksson told AFP. When Eiriksson heard about the eruption at the Fimmvorduhals volcano in the middle of the Eyjafjallajokull glacier in southern Iceland on March 21, he began planning to "cook a delicious dinner at the volcano."

On Tuesday, Eiriksson and three colleagues at the gourmet restaurant of Reykjavik luxury hotel Holt drove supplies and "lots of champagne" up to the foot of the mountain in two four-wheel-drive trucks.

They set up a make-shift dining area near a lava field with a red carpet, a small table and two bolstered chairs for a couple of restaurant regulars flown up by helicopter.

"We did not know what to expect when we would approach the volcano, so we brought welder masks and gloves since we wanted to cook the food on the lava itself," Eiriksson said.

"We did not use any of the gear since we were never dangerously close to the glowing lava, but it was hot around the lava field and we even had to take off our winter coats when we started cooking on the lava itself," he added.

With wind-chill, temperatures at the mountain have in recent days dropped as low as minus 30 degrees Celsius (minus 22 degrees Fahrenheit), and despite the glowing fresh lava around them the diners remained bundled up throughout the meal.

On the menu: lobster soup, ollowed by flaming lobster and monkfish and lava-cooked shallot onions, swafllowed down with Veuve Clicquot champagne.

The chefs had intended to exclusively serve their two customers, who each shelled out around 60,000 kronur (350 euros, 470 dollars) for the helicopter trip and meal, but had also offered some curious tourists a taste of the lava-cooked food, Eiriksson said.

The chefs had not planned any more volcanic cooking expeditions, but Eiriksson said a Hollywood television producer had called to ask if they would give a repeat performance.