Saturday, July 31, 2010

Solar cycle may drive Venice's floods

Spots on the sun? You're risking a wet one (Image: Jodi Cobb/NGS/Getty)

If you want to see Venice while keeping your feet dry, don't go when the sun has lots of spots. Peaks in solar activity cause the city to flood more often, apparently by changing the paths of storms over Europe.

Several times a year, but most commonly between October and December, Venice is hit by an exceptional tide called the acqua alta.

David Barriopedro at the University of Lisbon, Portugal, and colleagues were intrigued by studies showing the tides followed an 11-year cycle, just like the sun, showing peaks when the sunspots were most abundant.

They looked at hourly observations of sea level between 1948 and 2008, which confirmed that the number of extreme tides followed peaks in the solar cycle (Journal of Geophysical Research Atmospheres, DOI: 10.1029/2009JD013114).

Large Megallenic Cloud - LMC

Astronomy photography competition

The Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC) is a nearby irregular galaxy, and is a satellite of the Milky Way.

It is visible as a faint "cloud" in the night sky of the southern hemisphere, straddling the border between the constellations of Dorado and Mensa.

At a distance of slightly less than 50 kiloparsecs (≈160,000 light-years), the LMC is the third closest galaxy to the Milky Way, with the Sagittarius Dwarf Spheroidal (~ 16 kiloparsecs) and Canis Major Dwarf Galaxy (~ 12.9 kiloparsecs) lying closer to the center of the Milky Way.

It has a mass equivalent to approximately 10 billion times the mass of our Sun (1010 solar masses), making it roughly 1/10 as massive as the Milky Way, and a diameter of about 14,000 light-years.

The LMC is the fourth largest galaxy in the Local Group, the first, second and third largest places being taken by Andromeda Galaxy (M31), our own Milky Way Galaxy, and the Triangulum Galaxy (M33), respectively.

While the LMC is often considered an irregular type galaxy (the NASA Extragalactic Database lists the Hubble sequence type as Irr/SB(s)m), the LMC contains a very prominent bar in its center, suggesting that it may have previously been a barred spiral galaxy.

The LMC's irregular appearance is possibly the result of tidal interactions with both the Milky Way, and the Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC).

Moon over Temple of Poseidon - Greece

Astronomy photography competition

Solstice Full Moon Rising at Sounion, 6 June 2010. The rising full moon against the Temple of Poseidon (450-440 BC) in southern Greece.

The Sword and The Rose - Orion's Belt

Astronomy photography competition

The Sword and The Rose, 10 January 2010. Lying just south of the three stars that form Orion's belt, Orion's sword contains the Great Orion Nebula. This hotbed of star formation lies about 1350 light years away, making it the brightest and closest star forming region to Earth.

Friday, July 30, 2010

SES: Satellite Fleet Operator on the expansion trail

Satellite fleet operator SES on July 30 said it is weighing expansion in Latin America, Asia and even Canada and has not ruled out using its huge cash flow starting in 2012 to purchase growth, whether by acquisition or by securing new orbital slots.

In a conference call with investors, Luxembourg-based SES reconfirmed that its spending on new satellites, which is peaking this year at 820 million euros ($1.07 billion), will start to fall in 2011 and then drop sharply in the following years, averaging 250 million euros starting in 2014.

Asked whether the increased free cash flow might be used for a special, one-time dividend for SES shareholders, or for share buybacks, Bausch cautioned that SES is still hungry.

In what some investors may view as a threat, and others as a promise, Bausch said the company would above all seek to invest its cash in new growth. He said there are investment opportunities in Latin America and parts of Asia.

Bausch said Telesat of Canada, the world’s fourth-largest provider of fixed satellite services, also may be viewed as an acquisition target.

SES owns a 70 percent economic stake and has 40 percent of the voting rights to Ciel of Canada, whose one satellite is leased to Dish Network of the United States for direct-broadcast television. Because Ciel does not provide television or telecommunications services in Canada, SES’s ownership of it might not be a barrier to an eventual purchase of Telesat, Bausch said.

Bausch said that Telesat’s owners — New York-based Loral and Canada’s PSP pension fund — may be looking for an exit in the next year. The same, he said, is likely true for the private-equity owners of Intelsat of Luxembourg and Washington.

An SES purchase of Intelsat would almost certainly be rejected by U.S. regulators given that Intelsat and SES World Skies are the two dominant satellite telecommunications operators in the United States.

Depending on how Canadian regulators view the market, they may consider that an SES purchase of Telesat would not result in undue industry consolidation.

SES reported revenue of 844.9 million euros for the six months ending June 30, up 4.5 percent from the same period a year ago. EBITDA, or earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization, was up 3.3 percent and equivalent to 74.9 percent of revenue.

Lightning filmed at 9,000 frames per second – Telegraph Blogs

Tom A Warner has filmed lightning in slow motion at an astonishing frame rate of 9,000 images per second. When slowed down like this the forks snake across the sky properly, just as you always thought they should if only your eye could keep up.

Using Fluorescent dyes to detect parasitic infections

Using fluorescent dyes and a simple ultraviolet flashlight, Ellen Beaulieu, a medicinal chemist at SRI International has created a test to detect parasitic infections in human beings. The new test will make it easier to stop the spread of diseases, such as Chagas, Leshmaniasis and African Sleeping Sickness by providing a low cost, low technology diagnostic for medical personnel in developing countries.

Themis on MARS Odyssey captures spectacular Mars map ever

A camera aboard NASA's Mars Odyssey spacecraft has helped develop the most accurate global Martian map ever.

Researchers and the public can access the map via several websites and explore and survey the entire surface of the Red Planet.

The map was constructed using nearly 21,000 images from the Thermal Emission Imaging System, or THEMIS, a multi-band infrared camera on Odyssey. Researchers at Arizona State University's Mars Space Flight Facility in Tempe, in collaboration with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., have been compiling the map since THEMIS observations began eight years ago.

The pictures have been smoothed, matched, blended and cartographically controlled to make a giant mosaic. Users can pan around images and zoom into them.

At full zoom, the smallest surface details are 100 meters (330 feet) wide. While portions of Mars have been mapped at higher resolution, this map provides the most accurate view so far of the entire planet.

The new map is available at:

MARS Dust Devil image captured by Opportunity

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell University/Texas A and M

This is the first dust devil that NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity has observed in the rover's six-and-a-half years on Mars.

The whirlwind appeared in a routine drive-direction image taken by Opportunity's panoramic camera right after a drive during the 2,301st Martian day, or sol, of the rover's mission on Mars (July 15, 2010).

Contrast has been stretched, and the image has been carefully calibrated to make the dust devil easier to see against the Martian sky.

Opportunity's twin, Spirit, has observed dozens of dust devils at its location in Gusev Crater halfway around Mars from Opportunity's location in the Meridian Planum region.

Opportunity conducted systematic searches for dust devils in past years without seeing any. A rougher and dustier surface at Gusev makes dust devils form more readily there than at Meridiani.

Cassini radar sees sand dunes on Saturn's giant moon Titan

Image credit: NASA/JPL (upper photo); NASA/JSC (lower photo)

Cassini radar sees sand dunes on Saturn's giant moon Titan (upper photo) that are sculpted like Namibian sand dunes on Earth (lower photo).

The bright features in the upper radar photo are not clouds but topographic features among the dunes.

The answer to the mystery of dune patterns on Saturn's moon Titan did turn out to be blowing in the wind. It just wasn't from the direction many scientists expected.

Basic principles describing the rotation of planetary atmospheres and data from the European Space Agency's Huygens probe led to circulation models that showed surface winds streaming generally east-to-west around Titan's equatorial belt.

But when NASA's Cassini spacecraft obtained the first images of dunes on Titan in 2005, the dunes' orientation suggested the sands - and therefore the winds - were moving from the opposite direction, or west to east.

A new paper by Tetsuya Tokano in press with the journal Aeolian Research seeks to explain the paradox. It explains that seasonal changes appear to reverse wind patterns on Titan for a short period. These gusts, which occur intermittently for perhaps two years, sweep west to east and are so strong they do a better job of transporting sand than the usual east-to-west surface winds.

Those east-to-west winds do not appear to gather enough strength to move significant amounts of sand.

A related perspective article about Tokano's work by Cassini radar scientist Ralph Lorenz, the lead author on a 2009 paper mapping the dunes, appears in this week's issue of the journal Science.

"It was hard to believe that there would be permanent west-to-east winds, as suggested by the dune appearance," said Tokano, of the University of Cologne, Germany. "The dramatic, monsoon-type wind reversal around equinox turns out to be the key."

The dunes track across the vast sand seas of Titan only in latitudes within 30 degrees of the equator. They are about a kilometer (half a mile) wide and tens to hundreds of kilometers (miles) long. They can rise more than 100 meters (300 feet) high.

The sands that make up the dunes appear to be made of organic, hydrocarbon particles. The dunes' ridges generally run west-to-east, as wind here generally sheds sand along lines parallel to the equator.

Scientists predicted winds in the low latitudes around Titan's equator would blow east-to-west because at higher latitudes the average wind blows west-to-east. The wind forces should balance out, based on basic principles of rotating atmospheres.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

First Sign Language Message from Space - Tracy Caldwell Dyson

Click on the picture to play the video!

More Than 1,300 Space Shuttle Workers Get Layoff Notices

More than 1,300 space shuttle workers received layoff notices this week from United Space Alliance – a NASA contractor that is cutting 15 percent of its 8,100-person workforce ahead of the shuttle fleet's retirement next year.

Layoff notices were issued to 1,394 USA employees in all, company spokesperson Kari Fluegel told

The layoffs take effect Oct. 1 and were announced earlier this month by USA officials.

"Our workforce has known for several years that the Space Shuttle Program has been scheduled to end, but layoffs are always difficult for everyone involved," said Virginia Barnes, USA president and chief executive, said in a July 6 statement. "We are committed to making this transition as smooth as possible."

Shuttle program ending
The Houston-based United Space Alliance is a partnership between Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin that has operated the space shuttle fleet for NASA since 1995.

Fluegel said 902 layoff notices were issued to USA workers in Florida, which is home to NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral that serves as both launch site and home port for the agency's three shuttles.

Another 478 layoffs were issued for Texas, which is home to NASA's shuttle mission operations, with 14 more in Alabama, where NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center is based.

About one-third of those recieving layoffs in each division nominated themselves for the cutbacks, Fluegel said.

NASA's space shuttle fleet is set to retire next year after 30 years of launching astronauts into low-Earth orbit. The shuttles began flying in 1981 and have flown on 132 missions so far.

Two final shuttle missions are currently scheduled (in November and February, respectively) to complete the International Space Station, which has been under construction since 1998 by a consortium of 16 countries.

Congress is discussing the possible addition on a third and final shuttle mission. If approved, that extra flight would likely launch next summer, NASA officials have said.

Fluegel said that if the extra shuttle flight is approved, it will not affect the impending Oct. 1 layoffs. But there could be repercussions for more layoffs ahead.

"This plan wouldn't be affected at all, but it would affect the timing, obviously, of when we would do layoffs, and how we'd do layoffs, next year," Fluegel said.

Massive Black Hole Bends Light to Magnify Distant Galaxy

Credit: F. Courbin/S. G. Djorgovski/G. Meylan/Caltech/EPFL/WMKO

This labeled image of the first-ever foreground quasar (blue) lensing a background galaxy (red) was taken with the Keck II telescope and its NIRC-2 instrument using laser guide star adaptive optics.

Discovering more of these lenses will allow astronomers to determine the masses of quasars’ host galaxies.

A giant black hole spouting energy from inside a galaxy is acting like a cosmic magnifying glass, giving astronomers a clear view of an even more distant galaxy behind it.

It is the first time a quasar – the central region of a galaxy dominated by an energy-spewing black hole – has been discovered acting as a gravitational lens. The cosmic lens phenomenon was first predicted by Albert Einstein's theory of general relativity.

The discovery gives astronomers a glimpse at two galaxies at once, allowing researchers to photograph the distant object while weighing and measuring the intervening galaxy and the bright powerhouse at its core.

Credit: F. Courbin/S. G. Djorgovski/G. Meylan/Caltech/EPFL/WMKO

This graphic shows how quasars can serve as great cosmic lenses forming a gravitational lens that magnifies more distant galaxies and objects.

CubeSats: Tiny Satellites Can Do Big Science

Tiny Satellites Can Do Big Science

When it comes to laptop computers and cell phones, bigger isn't better. The same logic applies to satellites: the bulkier the satellite, the more time it takes to design and build, and the more expensive it is to put into orbit.

Researchers are now taking advantage of the electronics technologies that have made personal gizmos compact and affordable to make satellites that weigh and cost a fraction of their predecessors. These pocket- and backpack-sized satellites are changing the way astrobiology research is done.

Conventional satellites used for communications, navigation or research can be as large as a school bus and weigh between 100 and 500 kilograms. Universities, companies and NASA are now building small satellites that weigh less than one kilogram (picosatellites) or up to 10 kilograms (nanosatellites).

These small satellites can be considered miniature versions of full-size counterparts. They contain the same components—battery, orbital control and positioning systems, radio communication systems, and analytical instruments—except everything is smaller, less expensive and sometimes less complicated.

"That's the beauty of this technology," says Orlando Santos, an astrobiologist at NASA Ames Research Center. "We can make these things small and still get meaningful science out of them."

The Rise of the Cube
Two decades ago, Bob Twiggs and his students at Stanford University developed the first picosatellite the size of a Klondike ice cream bar. The Aerospace Corporation launched these picosatellites as part of a mission to demonstrate the feasibility of building little satellites that communicate with each other.

Twiggs then worked on CubeSat, a 10-centimeter cube. "I got a 4-inch beanie baby box and tacked on some solar cells to see how many would fit on the surface," Twiggs says. "I had enough voltage for what I needed so I decided that would be the size."

Jordi Puig-Suari at California Polytechnic State University built a deployment mechanism called the poly picosatellite orbital deployer, or P-POD, that could pack up to three CubeSats. One of these is typically the satellite bus, the brains of the satellite containing positioning and radio equipment, while the other cubes carry the scientific experiments. In 2004, the researchers sent the first three-cube nanosatellite into orbit.

Six years later, CubeSats have become the world-wide standard for small satellites. They are being used for everything from environmental sensing and fundamental biology research to testing new spaceflight systems.

Over 60 universities and high schools are part of the CubeSat Project based at Cal Poly. The National Science Foundation and the U.S. Air Force have programs that funds CubeSats for atmospheric and space weather research. Aerospace companies such as Lockheed Martin and Boeing have also built and flown CubeSats.

Kentucky-based NanoRacks LLC provides a platform to take CubeSat experiments as cargo aboard the Space Shuttles to the International Space Station for periods of 30 or 60 days, after which they bring the cubes back.

The goal of NASA's new CubeSat Launch Initiative is to radically open up the flight opportunities for nanosatellites. This Initiative should also make it easier for universities to compete for launch access on NASA launch vehicles.

There are probably between 35 and 40 small satellites orbiting the Earth right now, of which about a quarter might still be working, says Twiggs, now a professor at Morehead State University's Space Science Center in Kentucky.

Mechanism uncovered behind Salmonella virulence and drug susceptibility

Researchers have discovered a novel mechanism in Salmonella that affects its virulence and its susceptibility to antibiotics by changing its production of proteins in a previously unheard of manner. This allows Salmonella to selectively change its levels of certain proteins to respond to inhospitable conditions.

Although the mechanism had not been recognized before, the scientists were intrigued to find evidence of a similar mechanism in all five kingdoms of life — animals, plants, fungi, protista, and monera.

The findings were published today, July 29, in Molecular Cell. The senior author of the study is Dr. Ferric C. Fang, professor of microbiology, laboratory medicine, and medicine at the University of Washington (UW). Fang also directs the Clinical Microbiology Laboratory at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. The lead author is William Wiley Navarre, who began the study as a postdoctoral fellow in the Fang lab and is now an assistant professor at the University of Toronto.

Salmonella enters the gut when people eat contaminated food, and can sometimes spread to other parts of the body. Illness outbreaks and grocery recalls related to Salmonella are often in the news. Babies, young children, the elderly, and people with cancer or HIV are especially prone to severe illness from Salmonella.

Salmonella is adaptable and can withstand many of the body’s attempts to fight it. The bacteria live and multiply in a special compartment inside the cells of an infected person or animal. Salmonella can alter its physiology as it moves from a free-swimming life to its residence in a host cell. Salmonella’s metabolism also changes over time to make use of the nutrients available in the host cell, and to survive damage from the build-up of oxidants and nitric oxide in the infected cell.

While screening mutant Salmonella that were resistant to a form of nitric oxide that normally stops the bacteria from dividing, Navarre, Fang and their research collaborators found mutations in two little-known genes. These are the closely linked poxA and yjeK genes. In a number of bacteria, these two genes are associated with a third gene that encodes the Bacterial Elongation Factor P, which is involved in protein production.

The researchers discovered that these three genes operate in a common pathway that is critical for the ability of the Salmonella bacteria to cause disease and resist several classes of antibiotics. Salmonella with mutations in either the poxA gene or the yjeK genes, the study noted, appear to be nearly identical and show similar changes in proteins involved in metabolism. Strains with mutations in both genes resemble the single mutant strains, an observation that suggests the two genes work in the same pathway.

The mutant strains exhibited many abnormalities under stressful conditions.

New pathway to Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases

Although their genetic underpinnings differ, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and Huntington’s disease are all characterised by the untimely death of brain cells. What triggers cell death in the brain?

According to a new study published by researchers at Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute (Sanford-Burnham) in the July 30 issue of Molecular Cell, the answer in some cases is the untimely transfer of a gaseous molecule (known as nitric oxide, or NO) from one protein to another.

“We and other researchers have shown that NO and related molecules can contribute to either nerve cell death or nerve cell survival. However, these new findings reveal that NO can actually jump from one protein to another in molecular pathways that lead to cellular suicide,” explained Stuart A. Lipton, M.D., Ph.D., senior author of the study and director of the Del E. Web Center for Neuroscience, Aging and Stem Cell Research at Sanford-Burnham.

“Now that we have this molecular clue to the cause of nerve cell death in Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and Huntington’s diseases, we can figure out how to use it to better diagnose and treat these diseases.” Dr. Lipton is also a Harvard-trained neurologist who sees many of these patients in his own clinical practice.

In this study, Dr. Lipton and his colleagues, led by Tomohiro Nakamura, Ph.D., found that NO-like molecules are transferred from caspases, proteins that normally initiate cell death, to XIAP, a protein that normally inhibits cell death. In other words, caspases pass NO to XIAP like a ‘hot potato.’

This process occurs by a chemical reaction known as transnitrosylation. When XIAP is left holding NO, the result is a double whammy for brain cells, since cells are programmed to self-destruct when either XIAP has NO attached to it or when caspases don’t.

Hence, both brain cell-destroying events occur at the same time. The researchers then found that XIAP holding the NO ‘hot potato’ was much more common in brains of human patients with neurodegenerative diseases than in normal brains, solidifying their suspicion that this protein modification leads to cell damage.

To calculate which protein is more likely to end up with the NO ‘hot potato,’ caspases or XIAP, the researchers created a new version of the Nernst equation — a 19th century mathematical equation taught in every general chemistry class.

This power of prediction might allow doctors to diagnose neurodegenerative disorders like Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s disease earlier.

“We are currently analysing cerebro-spinal fluid and brain tissue from Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and other patients to determine if we can use the NO-tagged proteins as biomarkers for the disease,” Dr. Lipton said.

To develop therapies to treat Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s diseases based on their new findings, Dr. Lipton’s laboratory is also applying the robotic technology in Sanford-Burnham’s Conrad Prebys Center for Chemical Genomics to screen thousands of chemicals for potential drugs that prevent the aberrant or excessive transfer of NO from one protein to another, and thus to prevent nerve cell injury and death.

17,500mph Space Debris threatening the crew of the Space Station

More than 500,000 pieces of debris, or “space junk,” are tracked as they orbit the Earth. They all travel at speeds up to 17,500 mph, fast enough for a relatively small piece of orbital debris to damage a satellite or a spacecraft.

The rising population of space debris increases the potential danger to all space vehicles, but especially to the International Space Station, space shuttles and other spacecraft with humans aboard.

NASA takes the threat of collisions with space debris seriously and has a long-standing set of guidelines on how to deal with each potential collision threat. These guidelines, part of a larger body of decision-making aids known as flight rules, specify when the expected proximity of a piece of debris increases the probability of a collision enough that evasive action or other precautions to ensure the safety of the crew are needed.

Orbital Debris

Space debris encompasses both natural (meteoroid) and artificial (man-made) particles. Meteoroids are in orbit about the sun, while most artificial debris is in orbit about the Earth. Hence, the latter is more commonly referred to as orbital debris.

Orbital debris is any man-made object in orbit about the Earth which no longer serves a useful function. Such debris includes nonfunctional spacecraft, abandoned launch vehicle stages, mission-related debris and fragmentation debris.

There are more than 20,000 pieces of debris larger than a softball orbiting the Earth. They travel at speeds up to 17,500 mph, fast enough for a relatively small piece of orbital debris to damage a satellite or a spacecraft. There are 500,000 pieces of debris the size of a marble or larger. There are many millions of pieces of debris that are so small they can’t be tracked.

Even tiny paint flecks can damage a spacecraft when traveling at these velocities. In fact a number of space shuttle windows have been replaced because of damage caused by material that was analyzed and shown to be paint flecks.

“The greatest risk to space missions comes from non-trackable debris,” said Nicholas Johnson, NASA chief scientist for orbital debris.

With so much orbital debris, there have been surprisingly few disastrous collisions.

In 1996, a French satellite was hit and damaged by debris from a French rocket that had exploded a decade earlier.

On Feb. 10, 2009, a defunct Russian satellite collided with and destroyed a functioning U.S. Iridium commercial satellite. The collision added more than 2,000 pieces of trackable debris to the inventory of space junk.

China's 2007 anti-satellite test, which used a missile to destroy an old weather satellite, added more than 3,000 pieces to the debris problem.

Satellite quantum-communication circles

Communications protected by quantum encryption systems offer unconditional security – if you know which way is up.

A new quantum protocol is the first that promises to work independently of orientation, which will prove vital if quantum communications are ever to be sent via satellites.

Many quantum encryption protocols work by measuring the "up" or "down" spins on pairs of entangled photons shared between a sender, conventionally called Alice, and a receiver called Bob.

The two members of an entangled pair of photons always have an opposite spin from one another. If an eavesdropper were to intercept one, the very act of reading it would affect the entangled pair in a detectable way.

The distance record for quantum encrypted communications between two sites on Earth is 144 kilometres. If quantum encryption is to go global the data must be sent via satellite links, and here the conventional method hits a snag: a spinning satellite's sense of up and down changes over time, making it harder to interpret a photon's spin and establish a key.

Clockwise corkscrew
A team at the University of Bristol in the UK has invented a protocol independent of orientation that exploits the fact that photons can have an entangled circular polarisation as well as entangled spin.

Circularly polarised light can be imagined to corkscrew either clockwise or anticlockwise along its axis of travel. The two forms are readily identified regardless of the receiver's orientation.

Some modern 3D-movie projector systems already polarise light in this way to differentiate the two images used to form the 3D illusion. Doing so ensures that a cinemagoer wearing polarised glasses sees the 3D effect even if they tilt their head.

A 3D system that uses horizontally and vertically polarised light to differentiate the two images only works if the viewer's glasses are orientated in the same up-and-down direction as the theatre projector – in other words, only if the glasses and the projector share the same physical frame of reference.

Alzheimer's unlocked? New keys to unlocking a cure

Attempts to treat the world's most common form of dementia may have been attacking its symptoms, not its root cause

I HAVE lost myself," cried Auguste Deter to her physician. Deter was trying to write her name, scrawling "Mrs" in a spidery script, only to forget the rest every time.

"What are you eating?" the doctor asked Deter on her second day at the hospital for the mentally ill in Frankfurt, Germany, as the confused 51-year-old lunched on cauliflower and pork. "Potatoes," she replied.

That was in 1901. When Deter died five years later, an autopsy revealed that her brain was riddled with strange tangles and plaques of a fibrous material containing the remnants of dead brain cells. She became the first described case of a form of dementia now known by the name of her doctor - one Alois Alzheimer.

Over a century later, research into Alzheimer's disease still revolves around efforts to understand those mysterious plaques and tangles. Despite decades of work, no effective treatment exists, never mind a cure.

The world's population is ageing, so that search is becoming more urgent. Alzheimer's disease is now recognised as the most common form of dementia, with over 25 million people living with the disease worldwide, and that number is expected to pass 100 million by 2050 (see diagram).

Yet today, even definitively diagnosing the disease can still only be done at autopsy.

The situation is starting to change, however. Thanks to a new imaging technique, the plaques can now be seen in the brains of living people. Not only could this allow early diagnosis, it is helping to overturn the long-standing orthodoxy over the causes of Alzheimer's and paving the way for effective treatments.

For the past two decades, Alzheimer's research has been dominated by the "amyloid cascade hypothesis": the idea that it is the plaques themselves that lead to the cognitive problems of Alzheimer's.

They are aggregations of a protein called amyloid beta, which forms naturally in the brain, but whose production somehow goes into overdrive during Alzheimer's disease (see "Brain defence gone wrong?"). The proteins clump together to form plaques, which are toxic to neurons, eventually killing them, or so the theory goes (Science, vol 256, p 184).

Drug developers immediately grasped the implication of the theory, that medicines able to block or break up the plaques should slow, or even reverse, the progression of the disease. This idea has guided millions of dollars' worth of drug development effort. Just about every potential Alzheimer's drug in the pipeline targets amyloid and its supposed toxicity

NASA MODIS Image: Fires in Eastern Siberia

Fires raged in eastern Siberia in late July 2010, sending a plume of thick smoke hundreds of kilometers wide over the Bering Sea. News sources attributed fires in the Russian Federation to drought, heat, and human activity.

The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite captured this natural-color image on July 25, 2010. Red outlines indicate areas with unusually high surface temperatures associated with actively burning fires.

This image shows the region north of the Kamchatka Peninsula. The largest collection of fires is clustered around a river that feeds into the Penzhinskaya Guba, part of the Sea of Okhotsk.

Smaller clusters of fires also burn in the northwest, northeast, and south. Most of the fires send their smoke toward the northeast, but east of the burning fires, winds carry the smoke toward the southeast. Off the coast, the smoke plume is thick enough to completely hide parts of the Bering Sea.
Severe fires also burned over other areas of eastern Siberia throughout July 2010.

NASA MODIS Image: Moscow fires

Smoke from peat fires hovered over a sweltering Moscow in late July 2010, the BBC reported.

As firefighters tried to put out some 60 fires in the surrounding countryside, authorities advised Muscovites with breathing difficulties to stay inside or wear gauze masks.

As peat bogs burned, officials urged employers to give workers siesta breaks during the hottest part of the day, and urged farmers to harvest at night, according to Bloomberg.

The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite captured this natural-color image of Moscow and the surrounding region on July 27, 2010.

A cloudbank stops short of hiding the city from the satellite’s view, and north of the clouds, a dull blue-gray haze hangs over the area. East-southeast of Moscow, multiple fires (marked by red outlines) send thick plumes of smoke toward the northwest.

The Moscow heat wave arrived amid a severe drought that threatened to raise grain prices. The Russian Federation’s agriculture ministry declared weather-related emergencies in more than 20 crop-producing regions.

Severe fires also burned in eastern Siberia throughout July 2010

DLR Investigates The Existence Of Liquid Salt Solutions On Mars

DLR Investigates The Existence Of Liquid Salt Solutions On Mars

Is it possible that there are salt solutions on Mars that remain liquid despite the extremely low temperatures - a class of fluids known as cryobrines? Research findings at the German Aerospace Center have shown that this is a theoretical possibility.

Experiments and modelling have indicated that the required conditions exist, especially during the Martian northern summer at higher latitudes. Prof. Diedrich Mohlmann of the DLR Institute of Planetary Research presented these initial findings on Friday 23 July and Saturday 24 July 2010 at the international COSPAR (Committee on Space Research) 2010 conference in Bremen.

"Our research was triggered by the findings of NASA's Phoenix Mars mission," explained Prof. Mohlmann: "In 2009, scientists showed, with images of salt solution droplets on the Phoenix probe, that cryobrines could exist on Mars. Since there is no liquid water on Mars' surface, cryobrines could possibly be a fluid medium that supports life."

Prof. Mohlmann and his team have discovered that it is possible for the liquefaction of cryobrines during the northern summer at high northern latitudes to last all day. At middle latitudes, the phenomenon occurs over several hours during the morning and evening; this is due to the salts absorbing atmospheric humidity to liquefy - a process known to as deliquescence. A higher degree of humidity prevails during the northern summer, which declines further south.

ESA Envisat to become bigest piece of Space Debris

The European Space Agency is set to become the owner of what could become the most dangerous piece of space debris orbiting the Earth, officials say.

The agency will take control of the Envisat satellite, at more than 17,000 pounds the biggest non-military Earth observation satellite ever built, reported Tuesday.

When the Envisat mission ends in 2013, the retired satellite will become a huge "space junk" problem that will not go away for 150 years, experts say.

That is how long it will take for Envisat to be gradually pulled into the Earth's atmosphere, they predict.

In January, the upper stage of a Chinese rocket almost collided with Envisat, and ground controllers had to use the satellite's thrusters to move it out of the way.

Once Envisat is retired in three years, such maneuvers will no longer be possible, scientists say.

Had the collision happened, it would have polluted a highly populated portion of low-Earth orbit with large amounts of space debris, Heiner Klinkrad of ESA's space debris office said.

IceCube Spies Unexplained Pattern Of Cosmic Rays

Photo: courtesy IceCube collaboration

This "skymap," generated in 2009 from data collected by the IceCube Neutrino Observatory, shows the relative intensity of cosmic rays directed toward the Earth's Southern Hemisphere.

Researchers from UW-Madison and elsewhere identified an unusual pattern of cosmic rays, with an excess (warmer colors) detected in one part of the sky and a deficit (cooler colors) in another.

Though still under construction, the IceCube Neutrino Observatory at the South Pole is already delivering scientific results - including an early finding about a phenomenon the telescope was not even designed to study.

IceCube captures signals of notoriously elusive but scientifically fascinating subatomic particles called neutrinos. The telescope focuses on high-energy neutrinos that travel through the Earth, providing information about faraway cosmic events such as supernovas and black holes in the part of space visible from the Northern Hemisphere.

However, one of the challenges of detecting these relatively rare particles is that the telescope is constantly bombarded by other particles, including many generated by cosmic rays interacting with the Earth's atmosphere over the southern half of the sky.

For most IceCube neutrino physicists these particles are simply background noise, but University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers Rasha Abbasi and Paolo Desiati, with collaborator Juan Carlos Diaz-Velez, recognized an opportunity in the cosmic ray data.

"IceCube was not built to look at cosmic rays. Cosmic rays are considered background," Abbasi says. "However, we have billions of events of background downward cosmic rays that ended up being very exciting."

Abbasi saw an unusual pattern when she looked at a "skymap" of the relative intensity of cosmic rays directed toward the Earth's Southern Hemisphere, with an excess of cosmic rays detected in one part of the sky and a deficit in another. A similar lopsidedness, called "anisotropy," has been seen from the Northern Hemisphere by previous experiments, she says, but its source is still a mystery.

"At the beginning, we didn't know what to expect. To see this anisotropy extending to the Southern Hemisphere sky is an additional piece of the puzzle around this enigmatic effect - whether it's due to the magnetic field surrounding us or to the effect of a nearby supernova remnant, we don't know," Abbasi says.

Brilliant Star In A Colourful Neighbourhood of Carina Nebula

This image of part of the Carina Nebula was created from images taken through red, green and blue filters with the Wide Field Imager on the MPG/ESO 2.2-metre telescope at ESO's La Silla Observatory in Chile.

It is centred on the unusual hot massive young star WR 22, a member of the rare class of Wolf-Rayet stars.

The field of view is 0.55 x 0.55 degrees, covering a 72 x 72 light-year region at the distance of the nebula.

Credit: ESO

Very massive stars live fast and die young. Some of these stellar beacons have such intense radiation passing through their thick atmospheres late in their lives that they shed material into space many millions of times more quickly than relatively sedate stars such as the Sun.

These rare, very hot and massive objects are known as Wolf-Rayet stars, after the two French astronomers who first identified them in the mid-nineteenth century, and one of the most massive ones yet measured is known as WR 22.

It appears at the centre of this picture, which was created from images taken through red, green and blue filters with the Wide Field Imager on the MPG/ESO 2.2-metre telescope at ESO's La Silla Observatory in Chile. WR 22 is a member of a double star system and has been measured to have a mass at least 70 times that of the Sun.

WR 22 lies in the southern constellation of Carina, the keel of Jason's ship Argo in Greek mythology. Although the star lies over 5000 light-years from the Earth it is so bright that it can just be faintly seen with the unaided eye under good conditions.

WR 22 is one of many exceptionally brilliant stars associated with the beautiful Carina Nebula (also known as NGC 3372) and the outer part of this huge region of star formation in the southern Milky Way forms the colourful backdrop to this image.

The subtle colours of the rich background tapestry are a result of the interactions between the intense ultraviolet radiation coming from hot massive stars, including WR 22, and the vast gas clouds, mostly hydrogen, from which they formed

Hypatia - 4th Century Woman Astronomer

Hypatia - 4th Century Woman Astronomer

The death of Hypatia, and the loss of the world's largest collection of scientific and mathematic writings, were factors that contributed to the halt of scientific advances in the West halt for nearly a thousand years.

The new movie Agora chronicles the life, challenges and death of Hypatia, a 4th Century woman astronomer whose contribution influenced and shaped modern science and our understanding of the world and the universe. Mabel Armstrong, author of the award-winning book Women Astronomers: Reaching for the Stars, tells Hypatia's story with the joy that a great science teacher (which she was) can bring to an old subject.

When Hypatia was born, her father, Theon, was a professor of mathematics and astronomy in Alexandria. He believed, as many Greeks did, that it was possible to raise a perfect human being. So he gave his daughter the best possible education, including studies in mathematics, languages, rhetoric, and natural philosophy-or science.

Upper-class women of the time were usually secluded, expected to devote themselves solely to their husband and children, but Hypatia found a job at the most famous institution in the ancient world, the library at Alexandria. She taught mathematics, physics, and astronomy, and wrote many books about these subjects-thirteen books on algebra, her favorite subject, and another eight books on geometry.

She also designed an astrolabe, an instrument used to measure the positions of the stars, another important tool for sailors, which let them locate specific stars and use the stars' positions for navigation. She used her astrolabe to calculate the positions of specific stars, and then published her data in tables. Sailors and astronomers used her tables of positions of the stars, Astronomical Canon, for the next 1200 years.

In her classes and public lectures, Hypatia exhorted people to think critically. "Reserve your right to think," she said. "For even to think wrongly is better than not to think at all."

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

NASA - Into the Looking Glass of James Webb Space Telescope (JWST)

Recently, technicians at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., completed a series of cryogenic tests on six James Webb Space Telescope beryllium mirror segments at the center's X-ray & Cryogenic Facility.

During testing, the mirrors were subjected to extreme temperatures dipping to -415 degrees Fahrenheit, permitting engineers to measure in extreme detail how the shape of the mirror changes as it cools.

The Webb telescope has 18 mirrors, each of which will be tested twice in the Center's X-ray & Cryogenic Facility to ensure that the mirror will maintain its shape in a space environment -- once with bare polished beryllium and then again after a thin coating of gold is applied.

The cryogenic test gauges how each mirror changes temperature and shape over a range of operational temperatures in space. This helps predict how well the telescope will image infrared sources.

The mirrors are designed to stay cold to allow scientists to observe the infrared light they reflect using a telescope and instruments optimized to detect this light. Warm objects give off infrared light, or heat.

If the Webb telescope mirror is too warm, the faint infrared light from distant galaxies may be lost in the infrared glow of the mirror itself. Thus, the Webb telescope's mirrors need to operate in a deep cold or cryogenic state, at around -379 degree Fahrenheit.

Image Credit: NASA

Boeing announce late arrival of 787 Dreamliner

Boeing said Wednesday that its 787 Dreamliner, a composite aircraft designed to cut fuel costs, is on track to be delivered to its first customers at the end of 2010, but that schedule could slip “a few weeks” and bleed into 2011.

In a statement highlighting Boeing’s second quarter earnings, the company provided the following update on the Dreamliner. Boeing said:

The 787 program continued flight test during the quarter, as a fifth airplane joined the four airplanes already in the flight test program. The Dreamliner completed key flight test milestones, including extreme weather, icing and cruise performance testing. On July 1, the program completed another key milestone with the completion of 787-9 firm configuration. First delivery continues to be planned for the end of this year, although there is added pressure to the schedule and risk that initial delivery may move a few weeks as the company completes flight test and certification requirements. Total firm orders for the 787 program at quarter-end were 863 airplanes from 56 customers.

Boeing’s Dreamliner update comes a week after a bevy of orders were announced at the 2010 Farnborough International Airshow.

Boeing’s second quarter earnings were better than expected. Boeing reported earnings of $1.06 a share, a nickel better than Wall Street estimates. Second quarter revenue of $15.57 billion was down 9.2 percent from a year ago.

Russias Energia To Own 95 Percent of New Sea Launch

Commercial launch-service provider Sea Launch Co. expects to receive final U.S. government approval of its post-bankruptcy reorganization plan by September, an event that will trigger the investment by its new Russian owner of $140 million in operating capital and $15 million for a creditors’ trust account, Sea Launch President Kjell Karlsen said July 28.

The Delaware Bankruptcy Court managing the Long Beach, Calif.-based company’s Chapter 11 proceedings July 27 approved the company’s proposed debt restructuring and return to operations.

The new Sea Launch will be 95 percent owned by affiliates of RSC Energia of Korolev, Russia, a large space-system manufacturer that already had been a Sea Launch shareholder and provides the upper stage for Sea Launch’s Zenit-3SL rocket.

Energia will replace Boeing Co. as Sea Launch’s general contractor, a shift that will require the approval of the interagency Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), which reviews acquisitions that may have national security implications.

Karlsen said CFIUS representatives have been kept informed of Sea Launch’s status and plans throughout the 13-month bankruptcy proceedings. He said he anticipated no serious obstacles that would delay CFIUS approval of the new Sea Launch ownership structure.

Energia has secured $140 million in cash to be invested in Sea Launch as the company refurbishes its sea-based operation after being idle since April 2009. As part of the agreement with the Delaware Bankruptcy Court, Energia also will be setting aside $15 million for Sea Launch’s creditors, including Boeing.

In a July 28 interview as he was preparing to leave Wilmington, Del., for what he said he assumed was the last time, Karlsen said Sea Launch’s operating expenses are less than $2 million a month. “The Energia investment will last us for quite some time,” he said, adding that once it returns to full operation, the company’s operating costs will total less than $50 million per year.

Karlsen said Sea Launch, now freed of the substantial debt as a result of the Chapter 11 reorganization, will be profitable with as few as two launches per year, although it expects to ramp up activity to perform four launches in 2012 and five in 2013.

Dimitar Sasselov: How we discovered hundreds of exoplanets

Astronomer Dimitar Sasselov and his colleagues search for exoplanets that may, someday, help us answer centuries-old questions about the origin and existence of biological life elsewhere (and on Earth). How many such planets have they found already? Several hundreds.

About Dimitar Sasselov

Dimitar Sasselov works on uniting the physical and life sciences in the hunt for answers to the question of how life began. Full bio and more links

Meteorite strikes at county cricket match

Two cricket fans had a narrow escape when a meteorite crashed to earth next to them as they supped pints on the boundary last week. The 4.5 billion-year-old rock came hurtling out of the sky as Jan Marszel and Richard Haynes watched Sussex bat against Middlesex in a county game at Uxbridge.

It is thought to be the first meteor to land in Britain since 1992 and the stellar projectile could hardly have chosen a more incongruous landing site than the pastoral surroundings of an English cricket ground.

Marszel and Haynes were watching Monty Panesar and Luke Wright bat for Sussex on Wednesday when they saw the object. They could have been forgiven for thinking it was a cricket ball, but in fact it turned out to be a rock from outer space, which ploughed into the turf in front of them.

Marszel, 51, said: "We were sitting at the boundary edge when all of a sudden, out of a blue sky, we saw this small dark object hurtling towards us. It landed five yards inside the boundary and split into two pieces.

"One piece bounced up and hit me in the chest and the other ended up against the boundary board. It came across at quite a speed – if it had hit me full on it could have been very interesting."

Haynes, who is retired, said he was in no doubt that the rock came from space. "If it had come from the other direction we might have suspected someone had thrown it," he told the Brighton Argus. "But we saw it come in straight over the ground from quite a way out – it was definitely a meteorite."

Dr Matthew Genge, a meteorite expert at Imperial College, London, said that if the rock was verified as a meteorite then it was "very exciting".

"Potentially it contains secrets as to the formation of our solar system," he explained.

Shields up! Force fields could protect Mars missions

Shields up! Force fields could protect Mars missions

NASA is nervous about sending astronauts to Mars - and understandably so. Six months' exposure to the wind of high-energy particles streaming from the sun could indeed prove deadly. But a team of researchers at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL) near Oxford, UK, has hit upon a phenomenon that might just solve the problem.

They have shown that a magnet no wider than your thumb can deflect a stream of charged particles like those in the solar wind. It gives new life to an old idea about shielding spacecraft, and might just usher in a new era of space travel. "Space radiation has been called the only showstopper for the crewed exploration of space," says Ruth Bamford of RAL. "Our experiment demonstrates there may be a way the show can go on."

The inspiration behind the idea is as old as the Earth. Life thrives on our planet because its core is a churning cauldron of molten iron. The result is our magnetosphere, the magnetic field that wraps itself around the Earth and deflects the solar wind.

Without this shield some of the particles spat out by the sun would charge through our bodies, shattering the machinery of our cells. In the absence of our protective magnetic field, complex life on Earth would probably be unsustainable.

Scottish Clyde Space builds innovative CubeSat

Scottish Clyde space firm builds CubeSat

A Glasgow-based company is to build a miniature satellite that will allow the UK to test new space technologies.

Clyde Space will develop a spacecraft platform for the cube-shaped satellite as part of a one-year pilot programme announced by the UK Space Agency.

It will be the first time a CubeSat, as it is known, has been assembled in the United Kingdom.

Space officials said the tiny satellite would carry out new space research relatively cheaply and quickly.

The satellite will measure just 10cm x 10cm x 34cm, according to Clyde Space.

Companies and academics are being asked to come up with innovative ideas for CubeSat payloads as part of the pilot programme.

The winning payloads will be launched on the satellite, possibly from India, in the middle of next year.

Craig Clark, chief executive of Clyde Space, said the launch of the CubeSat programme was a "tremendous opportunity" for his company.

He said: "As with all space-related business, the best way to market space products is through their successful demonstration in orbit.

"By providing the CubeSat platform, we will benefit immensely from the opportunity and so it is vital to the growth of Clyde Space as a leading CubeSat company.

"I feel also that this programme is vital for the UK's commercial exploitation and export of CubeSat technology in this rapidly growing market."

Dr David Williams, chief executive of the UK Space Agency, commented: "These satellites may be smaller than your home computer, but with the payloads that our skilled scientists will add to them, they are sure to make up in innovation what they lack in size."

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

New Horizons: LORRI Looks Back At "Old Friend" Jupiter

New Horizons had an exciting flyby encounter with Jupiter in early 2007, and the spacecraft has been rapidly moving away from the giant planet ever since.

The New Horizons team looked back at Jupiter during Annual Checkout (ACO) 4 to test the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI)'s ability to image targets close, in angle, to the Sun.

This image was taken on June 24, when New Horizons was 16.3 astronomical units (about 1.5 billion miles) from Jupiter, at a spacecraft-Sun-planet angle of only 17 degrees.

Looking like Earth's moon at a quarter phase, Jupiter is clearly resolved, with an apparent diameter of nearly 12 LORRI pixels.

LORRI also picks up the moons Ganymede and Europa, even though the exposure time was only nine milliseconds and these Galilean satellites are extremely faint in comparison to Jupiter.

ISS Russian cosmonauts Complete First Expedition 24 Spacewalk

Flight Engineers Fyodor Yurchikhin and Mikhail Kornienko concluded a six-hour, 42-minute spacewalk Tuesday at 6:53 a.m. EDT.

The cosmonauts began their spacewalk when they opened the hatches of the Pirs docking compartment at 12:11 a.m.

This was the 147th spacewalk overall in support of International Space Station assembly and maintenance.

The cosmonauts wore their Russian Orlan spacesuits to outfit the new Rassvet module for a Kurs automated rendezvous system capability for future dockings of Russian vehicles arriving at the station to link up to Rassvet. They also routed and mated Command and Data Handling cables on the Zvezda and Zarya modules.

A video camera was removed and replaced on the aft end of Zvezda then successfully tested. The old camera was safely jettisoned away from the station. The new camera will be used to provide television views of the final approach and docking of future European Automated Transfer Vehicles carrying cargo to the complex.

During the spacewalk, two objects were detected floating away from the station. One was tentatively identified as a cable clamp, left outside the station from a previous Russian spacewalk. That object and another, not conclusively identified, both departed well below the vicinity of the complex and pose no threat to the orbiting laboratory.

This was Kornienko's first spacewalk and Yurchikhin's fourth. Yurchikhin's first three spacewalks occurred when he was commander of Expedition 15 in 2007.

The second spacewalk of Expedition 24 is planned for August 5 by Flight Engineers Doug Wheelock and Tracy Caldwell Dyson in U.S. spacesuits out of the Quest airlock. They will install
a power cable to the Unity module in preparation for the installation of the Permanent Multipurpose Module during the STS-133 mission in November.

NASA Themis Cluster discovers magnetic Spacequakes

Researchers using NASA's fleet of five THEMIS spacecraft have discovered a form of space weather that packs the punch of an earthquake and plays a key role in sparking bright Northern Lights. They call it "the spacequake."

A spacequake is a temblor in Earth's magnetic field. It is felt most strongly in Earth orbit, but is not exclusive to space. The effects can reach all the way down to the surface of Earth itself.

"Magnetic reverberations have been detected at ground stations all around the globe, much like seismic detectors measure a large earthquake," says THEMIS principal investigator Vassilis Angelopoulos of UCLA.

It's an apt analogy because "the total energy in a spacequake can rival that of a magnitude 5 or 6 earthquake," according to Evgeny Panov of the Space Research Institute in Austria. Panov is first author of a paper reporting the results in the April 2010 issue of Geophysical Research Letters (GRL).

In 2007, THEMIS discovered the precursors of spacequakes. The action begins in Earth's magnetic tail, which is stretched out like a windsock by the million mph solar wind. Sometimes the tail can become so stretched and tension-filled, it snaps back like an over-torqued rubber band. Solar wind plasma trapped in the tail hurtles toward Earth.

On more than one occasion, the five THEMIS spacecraft were in the line of fire when these "plasma jets" swept by. Clearly, the jets were going to hit Earth. But what would happen then? The fleet moved closer to the planet to find out.

"Now we know," says THEMIS project scientist David Sibeck of the Goddard Space Flight Center. "Plasma jets trigger spacequakes."

According to THEMIS, the jets crash into the geomagnetic field some 30,000 km above Earth's equator. The impact sets off a rebounding process, in which the incoming plasma actually bounces up and down on the reverberating magnetic field. Researchers call it "repetitive flow rebuffing."

It's akin to a tennis ball bouncing up and down on a carpeted floor. The first bounce is a big one, followed by bounces of decreasing amplitude as energy is dissipated in the carpet.

"We've long suspected that something like this was happening," says Sibeck. "By observing the process in situ, however, THEMIS has discovered something new and surprising."

Brain activity in speakers and listeners

When two people experience a deep connection, they’re informally described as being on the same wavelength. There may be neurological truth to that.

Brain scans of a speaker and listener showed their neural activity synchronising during storytelling. The stronger their reported connection, the closer the coupling.

The experiment was the first to use fMRI, which measures blood flow changes in the brain, on two people as they talked. Different brain regions have been linked to both speaking and listening, but “the ongoing interaction between the two systems during everyday communication remains largely unknown,” wrote Princeton University neuroscientists Greg Stephens and Uri Hasson in the July 27 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

They found that speaking and listening used common rather than separate neural subsystems inside each brain. Even more striking was an overlap between the brains of speaker and listener. When post-scan interviews found that stories had resonated, scans showed a complex interplay of neural call and response, as if language were a wire between test subjects’ brains.

The findings don’t explain why any two people “click,” as synchronisation is a result of that connection, not its cause and while the brain regions involved are linked to language, their precise functions are not clear.

But even if the findings are general, they support what psychologists call the “theory of interactive linguistic alignment” — a fancy way of saying that talking brings people closer by making them share a common conceptual ground.

“If I say, ‘Do you want a coffee?’ you say, ‘Yes please, two sugars.’ You don’t say, ‘Yes, please put two sugars in the cup of coffee that is between us,’” said Hasson. “You’re sharing the same lexical items, grammatical constructs and contextual framework. And this is happening not just abstractly, but literally in the brain.”

The researchers didn’t test brain synchronization during phone calls or video conferencing, but Hasson speculates that “coupling would be stronger face-to-face.” He also thinks dialogue will produce especially strong forms of synchronization, and plans to run scans of people engaged in deep conversation, rather than telling or listening to long stories.

“But first, we’ll look at cases where there’s a failure to communicate,” said Hasson.

Potentially hazardous asteroid identified - It will collide with the Earth in 2182

“The total impact probability of asteroid ‘(101955) 1999 RQ36′ can be estimated in 0.00092 — approximately one-in-a-thousand chance-, but what is most surprising is that over half of this chance (0.00054) corresponds to 2182,” explains to SINC MarĂ­a Eugenia Sansaturio, co-author of the study and researcher of Universidad de Valladolid (UVA).

The research also involved scientists from the University of Pisa (Italy), the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (USA) and INAF-IASF-Rome (Italy).

Scientists have estimated and monitored the potential impacts for this asteroid through 2200 by means of two mathematical models (Monte Carlo Method and line of variations sampling). Thus, the so called Virtual Impactors (VIs) have been searched.

VIs are sets of statistical uncertainty leading to collisions with the Earth on different dates of the XXII century. Two VIs appear in 2182 with more than half the chance of impact.

Asteroid ‘(101955) 1999 RQ36′ is part of the Potentially Hazardous Asteroids (PHA), which have the possibility of hitting the Earth due to the closeness of their orbits, and they may cause damages. This PHA was discovered in 1999 and has around 560 meters in diameter.

The Yarkovsky effect
In practice, its orbit is well determined thanks to 290 optical observations and 13 radar measurements, but there is a significant “orbital uncertainty” because, besides gravity, its path is influenced by the Yarkovsky effect.

Such disturbance slightly modifies the orbits of the Solar System’s small objects because, when rotating, they radiate from one side the radiation they take from the sun through the other side.

The research, which has been published in Icarus journal, predicts what could happen in the upcoming years considering this effect.
  • Up to 2060, divergence of the impacting orbits is moderate;
  • between 2060 and 2080 it increases 4 orders of magnitude because the asteroid will approach the Earth in those years;
  • then, it increases again on a slight basis until another approach in 2162, it then decreases,
  • 2182 is the most likely year for the collision.
“The consequence of this complex dynamic is not just the likelihood of a comparatively large impact, but also that a realistic deflection procedure (path deviation) could only be made before the impact in 2080, and more easily, before 2060,” stands out Sansaturio.

The scientist concludes: “If this object had been discovered after 2080, the deflection would require a technology that is not currently available.

Therefore, this example suggests that impact monitoring, which up to date does not cover more than 80 or 100 years, may need to encompass more than one century.

Thus, the efforts to deviate this type of objects could be conducted with moderate resources, from a technological and financial point of view.”

Waste chip fat fuels hydrogen economy

Don’t pour that dirty fat from the frier down the sink — it could be used to make the fuel of the future.

Hydrogen has been tipped as a cleaner, greener alternative to fossil fuels. But scientists have struggled to find a way to make it that doesn’t consume vast amounts of energy, use up scarce natural resources, or spew out high levels of greenhouse gas.

Researchers at the University of Leeds have now found an energy-efficient way to make hydrogen out of used vegetable oils discarded by restaurants, takeaways and pubs. Not only does the process generate some of the energy needed to make the hydrogen gas itself, it is also essentially carbon-neutral.

“We are working towards a vision of the hydrogen economy,” said Dr Valerie Dupont, who is leading the Leeds-based project. “Hydrogen — based fuel could potentially be used to run our cars or even drive larger scale power plants, generating the electricity we need to light our buildings, run our kettles and fridges, and power our computers. But hydrogen does not occur naturally, it has to be made. With this process, we can do that in a sustainable way by recycling waste materials, such as used cooking oil.”

Hydrogen can already be made quite easily from simple fossil fuels, such as natural gas. The fuel is mixed with steam in the presence of a metal catalyst then heated to above 800 degrees centigrade to form hydrogen and carbon dioxide.

However when much more complex fuels are used, such as waste vegetable oil, it is difficult to make very much hydrogen using this method without raising the temperature even further. The reactions could be run at lower temperatures but the catalysts would quickly become poisoned by residues left over from the dirty oil. In short, the process is not only expensive but also environmentally unsound.

Dr Dupont and colleagues have perfected a two-stage process that is essentially self-heating. To begin, the nickel catalyst is blasted with air to form nickel oxide — an ‘exothermic’ process that can raise the starting temperature of 650 degrees by another 200 degrees. The fuel and steam mixture then reacts with the hot nickel oxide to make hydrogen and carbon dioxide.

The researchers also added a special ’sorbent’ material to trap all the carbon dioxide produced, leaving them with pure hydrogen gas. This trick eliminated the greenhouse gas emissions and also forced the reaction to keep running, increasing the amount of hydrogen made.

“The hydrogen starts to be made almost straight away, you don’t have to wait for all of the catalyst to be turned into pure nickel,” Dr Dupont said. “So as well as the generation of heat, this is another way that makes the process very efficient.”

The researchers have shown that the two-stage process works well in a small, test reactor. They now want to scale-up the trials and make larger volumes of hydrogen gas over longer periods of time.

NASA Themis Solar Probes Dispatched to Moon

A pair of NASA science satellites that have been studying how solar geomagnetic storms impact Earth are being dispatched to the moon for a new mission.

The probes are part of a constellation of five satellites collectively known as THEMIS, an acronym for Time History of Events and Macroscale Interactions during Substorms, which was launched in February 2007.

The spacecraft, which were carefully positioned in orbit for coordinated measurements downstream of Earth, surpassed their two-year design life and remain operational. But over time, the two outer satellites' orbits would have been in Earth's shadow for prolonged periods, leading to cold temperatures that likely would have been fatal.

"When we realized that the satellites would be going into very deep shadows, we started thinking of different methods for saving them -- even before they were launched," lead scientist Vassilis Angelopoulos, at the University of California, Berkeley, told Discovery News. "We realized that if we had enough fuel to change their orbits, the moon's gravity would start pulling them up."

Funding for the new mission is still pending NASA's approval, but the satellites already are on their way. The first probe is slated to slip into a preliminary orbit around the moon in August; the second one is due to follow in October.

The orbits will be tweaked until April when the recycled spacecraft would be properly positioned for their new mission, called ARTEMIS for Acceleration Reconnection and Turbulence and Electrodynamics of the Moon's Interaction with the Sun.

"This will be the first time we have two identical satellites with full instrumentation to do space physics experiments," Angelopoulos said. "It was actually not difficult to come up with fantastic new science that could be gotten out of this pair."

Scientists want to put the spacecraft as close as about 100 kilometers (62 miles) in front of and behind the moon. From that vantage point, the probes could see what's coming toward the moon from the sun, what's coming out the other side and how the environment of the moon varies in response.

ESA Envisat Images: Improve safety in icy Southern Ocean

An award-winning new website is using realtime imagery from ESA's Envisat satellite to provide a wealth of information on sea ice to aid safe passage through the treacherous waters of the Antarctic.

Although remote, the Southern Ocean is an increasingly busy route for sea traffic.

These seas are used more and more to conduct scientific research, transport freight, harvest fertile fishing grounds and carry tourists to experience one of Earth's last wildernesses.

However, ever-changing pack ice and icebergs pose a serious danger to marine safety – as demonstrated by the loss of the MS Explorer tourist ship in 2007

Owing to the remote and inhospitable nature of the Southern Ocean, satellite imagery offers the only real practical means of obtaining timely information on sea ice required for the safe passage of marine traffic. While safety may be a primary concern, so is cost, as sea ice can significantly delay passage times.

For some years, ESA has been providing these key data to aid navigation – but the 'Polar View' ice-monitoring service in the Antarctic has recently been greatly improved by a wealth of satellite images made accessible through a new interactive website.

Ariane 5 Is Ready: Thales Alenia Space-produced spacecraft: NILESAT 201 and RASCOM-QAF1R

The Ariane 5 for Arianespace's third mission in 2010 is ready to enter the final launch preparation phase, during which this heavy-lift vehicle will receive its dual-satellite payload.

Scheduled for liftoff from the Spaceport on August 4, this Ariane 5 ECA will carry a pair of Thales Alenia Space-produced spacecraft: NILESAT 201 and RASCOM-QAF1R.
Both satellites have been undergoing processing following their June arrival in French Guiana.

The upcoming mission is designated V196, signifying the 196th launch of an Ariane family vehicle. The Ariane 5 for this flight was delivered to Arianespace earlier this month by EADS Astrium, which is the heavy-lift vehicle's industrial prime contractor.

Astrium performed the Ariane 5's build-up in the Spaceport's Launcher Integration Building, and then transferred it to the Final Assembly Building, where it was received by Arianespace.

Riding as the flight's upper passenger for the August 4 mission, NILESAT 201 will be deployed first in the launch sequence - to ultimately be positioned at an orbital slot of 7 degrees West longitude.

The satellite will deliver digital Direct-to-Home (DTH) TV and radio broadcasting - along with high-speed data transmission services - to North Africa and the Middle East at the service of Egyptian satellite operator Nilesat. Utilizing a Spacebus 4000B2 platform, this relay platform is equipped with 24 Ku-band and 4 Ka-band transponders. NILESAT 201 will weigh nearly 3,200 kg. at launch.

NILESAT 201 is to be installed atop the Ariane 5 SYLDA dual-payload dispenser system, positioning it over this mission's lower passenger, RASCOM-QAF1R.

NASA ISS: Expedition 24 space walk

Expedition 24 Flight Engineer Shannon Walker works on the Smoke Aerosol Measurement Experiment inside the Microgravity Science Glovebox in the International Space Station's Columbus laboratory. Credit: NASA.

The members of the International Space Station's Expedition 24 crew shifted their sleep schedule Monday in preparation for their mission's first spacewalk, waking up at about 2:40 p.m. EDT.
Flight Engineers Fyodor Yurchikhin, a veteran of three spacewalks in 2007 during Expedition 15, and Mikhail Kornienko, a spacewalk rookie, will perform the six-hour spacewalk. The pair will exit the Pirs docking compartment and work outside the Zarya and Zvezda modules. The Pirs Docking Compartment hatch is slated to open at 11:45 p.m. to begin the excursion.

The pair will outfit the Rassvet module's Kurs automated rendezvous system, install cables and remove and replace a video camera. Kurs is a Russian radio telemetry system that allows automated dockings of unmanned spacecraft such as the Progress resupply vehicle.

The new video camera will document the rendezvous and docking of future Automated Transfer Vehicles to the aft end of the Zvezda service module.

The next spacewalk will take place Aug. 5 with Flight Engineers Tracy Caldwell Dyson and Doug Wheelock. The astronauts will exit the Quest airlock and install a Portable Data Grapple Fixture (PDGF) on the Zarya module extending the reach of Canadarm2, the station's robotic arm, and increasing a spacewalker's capabilities.

Scottish Engineers prove space communications theory

When American space pioneer, Dr Robert L Forward, proposed in 1984 a way of greatly improving satellite telecommunications using a new family of orbits, some claimed it was impossible.
But now engineers at the University of Strathclyde's Advanced Space Concepts Laboratory have proved that Forward was right.

The late Dr Forward - a renowned physicist who worked in the United States and from his second home in Scotland - believed it was possible to use 'displaced orbits' to deploy more satellites to the north or south of the Earth's equator, helping to meet the growing demand for communications.

He proposed that the orbit of a geostationary satellite could be pushed above - or below - the usual geostationary ring around the Earth, which follows the line of the equator, by using a large solar sail propelled by the pressure of sunlight. However, critics later claimed that such 'displaced orbits' were impossible due to the unusual dynamics of the problem.

Now graduate student Shahid Baig and Professor Colin McInnes, Director of the Advanced Space Concepts Laboratory, have shown that Forward was in fact correct, in a new paper published in the Journal of Guidance, Control and Dynamics.

Professor McInnes said:"Satellites generally follow Keplerian Orbits, named after Johannes Kepler - the scientist who helped us understand orbital motion 400 years ago. Once it's launched, an unpowered satellite will 'glide' along a natural Keplerian orbit.

"However, we have devised families of closed, non-Keplerian orbits, which do not obey the usual laws of orbital motion. Families of these orbits circle the Earth every 24 hours, but are displaced north or south of the Earth's equator. The pressure from sunlight reflecting off a solar sail can push the satellite above or below geostationary orbit, while also displacing the centre of the orbit behind the Earth slightly, away from the Sun."

Although the displacement distance above or below the equator is small - of the order of 10 to 50 km - work on hybrid solar sails, which use both light pressure and thrust from a conventional electric propulsion system, is underway and aims to improve the displacement distance.

Professor McInnes added: "Other work is investigating 'polar stationary orbits', termed 'pole-sitters' by Forward, which use continuous low thrust to allow a spacecraft to remain on the Earth's polar axis, high above the Arctic or Antarctic. These orbits could be used to provide new vantage points to view the Earth's polar regions for climate monitoring."