Monday, October 31, 2011

Web mapping tool models Climate Change (video)

At UC Berkeley’s Geospatial Innovation Facility software developers are building a Web-based mapping tool to help scientists prepare for the changing climate conditions in California.

The team has culled data from various climate research organizations to get projection data of what different climates might look like over a 150-year period. SmartPlanet visits the lab to see a demo of how the tool works.

ESA Hubble: Bright new Star

The pearly wisps surrounding the central star IRAS 10082-5647 in this Hubble image certainly draw the eye towards the heavens.

The divine-looking cloud is a reflection nebula, made up of gas and dust glowing softly by the reflected light of nearby stars, in this case a young Herbig Ae/Be star.

The star, like others of this type, is still a relative youngster, only a few million years old. It has not yet reached the so-called main sequence phase, where it will spend around 80% of its life creating energy by burning hydrogen in its core.

Until then the star heats itself by gravitational collapse, as the material in the star falls in on itself, becoming ever denser and creating immense pressure which in turn gives off copious amounts of heat.

Stars only spend around 1% of their lives in this pre-main sequence phase. Eventually, gravitational collapse will heat the star’s core enough for hydrogen fusion to begin, propelling the star into the main sequence phase, and adulthood.

The Advanced Camera for Surveys aboard the Hubble Space Telescope captured the whorls and arcs of this nebula, lit up with the light from IRAS 10082-5647. Visible (555 nm) and near-infrared (814 nm) filters were used, coloured blue and red respectively. The field of view is around 1.3 by 1.3 arcminutes.

Credit:ESA/Hubble, NASA

Planets smashed into dust near supermassive black holes

Collisions between these rocky objects would occur at colossal speeds as large as 1000 km per second, continuously shattering and fragmenting the objects, until eventually they end up as microscopic dust.

Fat doughnut-shaped dust shrouds that obscure about half of supermassive black holes could be the result of high speed crashes between planets and asteroids, according to a new theory from an international team of astronomers.

The scientists, led by Dr. Sergei Nayakshin of the University of Leicester, publish their results in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Supermassive black holes reside in the central parts of most galaxies. Observations indicate that about 50% of them are hidden from view by mysterious clouds of dust, the origin of which is not completely understood.

The new theory is inspired by our own Solar System, where the so-called zodiacal dust is known to originate from collisions between solid bodies such as asteroids and comets.

The scientists propose that the central regions of galaxies contain not only black holes and stars but also planets and asteroids.

Collisions between these rocky objects would occur at colossal speeds as large as 1000 km per second, continuously shattering and fragmenting the objects, until eventually they end up as microscopic dust.

Dr. Nayakshin points out that this harsh environment - radiation and frequent collisions - would make the planets orbiting supermassive black holes sterile, even before they are destroyed.

"Too bad for life on these planets", he says, "but on the other hand the dust created in this way blocks much of the harmful radiation from reaching the rest of the host galaxy. This in turn may make it easier for life to prosper elsewhere in the rest of the central region of the galaxy."

He also believes that understanding the origin of the dust near black holes is important in our models of how these monsters grow and how exactly they affect their host galaxies.

"We suspect that the supermassive black hole in our own Galaxy, the Milky Way, expelled most of the gas that would otherwise turn into more stars and planets", he continues, "Understanding the origin of the dust in the inner regions of galaxies would take us one step closer to solving the mystery of the supermassive black holes".

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Soyuz ISS Progress 45 Cargo Uplift Lift-off

The unpiloted ISS Progress 45 cargo craft launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 6:11 a.m. EDT Sunday.

Less than nine minutes later, the Progress reached its preliminary orbit and deployed its solar arrays and navigational antennas.

The Russian cargo craft is scheduled to dock with the International Space Station on Wednesday at 7:40 a.m.

It contains 2.8 tons of food, fuel and supplies for the Expedition 29 crew, including 1,653 pounds of propellant, 110 pounds of oxygen and air, 926 pounds of water and 3,108 pounds of spare parts, experiment hardware and other supplies.

It replaces the trash-filled ISS Progress 42 cargo craft which undocked from the station’s Pirs docking compartment Saturday. (See below)

The unpiloted Progress 42, which arrived at the station in late April, was deorbited for a destructive re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere a few hours after undocking.

Once the station crew members have unloaded the cargo, Progress 45 will be filled with trash and station discards, then undocked from the station in late January.

Following its departure, controllers in Mission Control, Moscow, will raise its orbit to 310 miles (500 kilometers) so that they can deploy a microsatellite called Chibis.

Once the microsatellite is deployed, Progress 45 will be deorbited for a destructive re-entry into Earth's atmosphere.

› Read more about Progress resupply vehicles

NASA's Astronaut Mike Fossum: Image of Earth's Aurora

Soyuz Progress cargo ship burns up in Earth's atmosphere

Mike Fossum (@Astro_Aggie): I Enjoy this picture taken from the ISS, of the Soyuz Progress cargo ship burning up in the atmosphere.

The Soyuz docking station on the ISS is now standing vacant and awaits the arrival of the new Progress supply vessel, launched today 29th Oct 2011.

NASA Wise: 'Pacman' Nebula Grows Teeth

In visible light, the star-forming cloud catalogued as NGC 281 in the constellation of Cassiopeia appears to be chomping through the cosmos, earning it the nickname the "Pacman" nebula after the famous Pac-Man video game of the 1980s.

A new view of the "Pacman" nebula reveals a gaping mouth and a set of sharp-looking teeth taking a bite out of space.

The Pacman nebula is a giant cloud of dust and gas located approximately 9,200 light-years away within our own Milky Way galaxy.

It's official name is NGC 281, but the nebula earned a more popular nickname because of its resemblance to the character from the hugely popular Pac-Man video game that was first released in 1980.

When the nebula is viewed through visible-light telescopes, the large star-forming cloud appears to be chomping its way through the cosmos, NASA scientists said in a statement.

HyQ - IIT's Hydraulic Quadruped Robot - YouTube

This video shows HyQ in some serious action.

It's not quite an invasion, but in recent years we've seen a small parade of quadruped robots strutting out of labs around the world.

In the United States, Boston Dynamics has introduced its now-famous BigDog and, more recently, a bigger bot named AlphaDog.

Early this year, we wrote about FROG, a prototype built in China, and just a few weeks ago we described the SQ1 robot, a South Korean project.

Now it's time to unveil the latest addition to this pack: HyQ is a robot developed at the Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia (IIT), in Genoa.

The machine, built by a team led by Professor Darwin Caldwell, is a hydraulic quadruped (Hence, hy-q) designed to perform highly dynamic tasks such as running and jumping.

Legged locomotion remains one of the biggest challenges in robotics, and the Italian team hopes that their robot can become a platform for research and collaboration among different groups a kind of open source BigDog.

HyQ's trunk is made of stainless steel and a folded, 3mm thick sheet of aluminum alloy. The 1 m (3.28 feet) long, 50 cm (1.64 feet) wide and 98 cm (3.21 feet) tall robot weighs 90 kg with the hydraulic power supply on board, and 70 kg with external hydraulics.

Hydraulic actuation offers high power density, high torque output and velocity. It also allows for high bandwidth torque control.

The downside is that the components are still rather bulky and not very energy efficient, but that is something the researchers at IIT's Department of Advanced Robotics intend to change.

They also want to make HyQ power-autonomous, endow it with a head with a built in stereo camera and a laser range finder and give it an arm with a gripper.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Hobby-Eberly Telescope Finds Three planets - each orbiting its own giant, dying star

Three planets - each orbiting its own giant, dying star - have been discovered by an international research team led by Alex Wolszczan, an Evan Pugh Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics at Penn State, using the Hobby-Eberly Telescope.

Penn State is a major partner in the design, construciton, and operation of this telescope, which is one of the largest in the world. In 1992, Wolszczan became the first astronomer ever to discover planets outside our solar system. 

Credit: Marty Harris/McDonald Obs./UT-Austin

One of the massive, dying stars has an additional mystery object orbiting it, according to team leader Alex Wolszczan, an Evan Pugh Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics at Penn State, who, in 1992, became the first astronomer ever to discover planets outside our solar system. 

The new research is expected to shed light on the evolution of planetary systems around dying stars. It also will help astronomers to understand how metal content influences the behavior of dying stars.
The research will be published in December in the Astrophysical Journal. The first author of the paper is Sara Gettel, a graduate student from Penn State's Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics, and the paper is co-authored by three graduate students from Poland.

The three newly-discovered planetary systems are more evolved than our own solar system. "Each of the three stars is swelling and has already become a red giant - a dying star that soon will gobble up any planet that happens to be orbiting too close to it," Wolszczan said.

"While we certainly can expect a similar fate for our own Sun, which eventually will become a red giant and possibly will consume our Earth we won't have to worry about it happening for another five-billion years." 

Wolszczan also said that one of the massive, dying stars - BD +48 738 - is accompanied not only by an enormous, Jupiter-like planet, but also by a second, mystery object.

According to the team, this object could be another planet, a low-mass star, or - most interestingly - a brown dwarf, which is a star-like body that is intermediate in mass between the coolest stars and giant planets.

"We will continue to watch this strange object and, in a few more years, we hope to be able to reveal its identity," Wolszczan said.

UFO Alien Encounters are Only Dreams?

American researchers are claiming that supposed human encounters with aliens and unidentified flying objects (UFO) may just be dreams based on results of a sleep experiment.

The researchers from the Out-Of-Body Experience Research Center in Los Angeles made the findings after subjecting 20 volunteers to out-of-body experiences when they are half-awake at night and asking them to meet aliens during that dream-like state.

Out of those volunteers, more than half were able to achieve out-of-body experiences with seven or 35 percent dreaming of alien or UFO encounters at their home as instructed, according to lead researcher Michael Raduga.

Raduga has a theory that people claiming to encounter aliens or see UFOs are just dreaming, so he conducted the study to prove it.

"When people experience alien abductions in the night, they usually don't know they are actually in REM sleep and having an out-of-body experience," Raduga told Life's Little Mysteries.

The volunteers had varying response to the instructions. Raduga said there were some who needed more attempts to separate from their sleeping bodies while others failed to do so out of fear.

There were also some who never proceeded to looking for aliens while dreaming also due to fear.

Those who encountered aliens described their dreams to the researchers. One described the aliens as resembling the creatures from the movie "The Thing."

The volunteered told Raduga the three aliens that appeared before him scared him so much that he regained consciousness.

NASA ISS: Orbital Boost from inside the Space station - video

As the International Space Station is boosted into a higher orbit, Expedition 29 Commander Mike Fossum and Flight Engineers Satoshi Furukawa and Sergei Volkov float freely to demonstrate the acceleration of the orbiting complex.

NASA Orion: Capsule dropped in pool at Langley

The intensity in Steven Gayle’s voice grew as NASA’s 18,000-pound Orion test capsule landed in the pool.

“Don’t flip over, don’t flip over, don’t flip over,” he said as the spacecraft lurched forward.

It didn’t flip over — a sign that astronauts could make a similar plunge into the ocean and remain safe.

“Whooo,” said Gayle, one of several engineers at NASA Langley Research Center leading Thursday’s experiment. “Now we’ll start going over the test data.”

Tests of the capsule, officially called the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, have been ongoing at Langley for months. Aside from a few videos NASA posted online, it kept the operation largely under wraps.

“There’s some new elements here,” said Langley engineer Paresh Parikh, referring to the 115-foot long pool, which NASA calls its Hydro Impact Basin. “We wanted to make sure everything works.”

NASA hoisted Orion about 25 feet in the air with a large crane called the gantry, which Mercury astronauts used during the 1960s to mimic landing on the moon.

NASA released the capsule from its straps following a 15-second countdown. It skidded into the pool with a loud pop, creating a killer whalelike splash that sent water spilling over the concrete toward dozens of onlookers.

Unlike NASA’s recently retired space shuttle, Orion will re-enter Earth’s atmosphere and land in water. The capsule, which resembles a gigantic Hershey Kiss that holds four astronauts, will be slowed by parachutes during its descent.

“We call this configuration ‘Apollo on steroids,’” said Gayle, noting it weighs roughly 9,000 pounds more than its 1960s-era predecessor.

Engineers designed Thursday’s experiment to replicate landing in the Pacific Ocean, off southern California. A previous test mimicked landing in the north Atlantic Ocean amid rougher seas.

Instruments aboard Orion track its speed, if any water seeps into the capsule, how it responds to the pressure of the landing and numerous other measurements, Gayle said. Engineers will spend days comparing the results to computer projections.

The idea, Parikh said, is to test every conceivable scenario, which will help NASA better predict where and how the capsule lands. That’s important considering the astronauts may be floating in the ocean for hours waiting for a helicopter to arrive and bring them to a nearby ship, he said.

Tests of the capsule were not certain until earlier this year when President Barack Obama and Congress reached a compromise on NASA’s human spaceflight program.

Recycled Pacemakers: Safe for use in developing world

Recycled pacemakers donated from U.S. funeral homes could offer a safe way to get the heart devices to people in the developing world who otherwise might not be able to afford them, a U.S. study said.

An estimated 1 million to 2 million people around the world die each year because they have no access to a pacemaker, an implanted device that uses electrical pulses to the heart to maintain a normal heartbeat.

One potential, largely untapped source of pacemakers for the world's poor could be the significant number of people in the U.S. who die with a still-functioning device - some 19 per cent of the deceased, according to one survey of morticians in Michigan and Illinois.

The majority of those are buried with the body or, if removed, thrown away as medical waste but a small percentage are donated to developing nations through charities.

"Implantation of donated permanent pacemakers can not only save lives but also improve quality of life of needy poor patients," wrote study leader Bharat Kantharia, of the University of Texas Health Science Center, in the American Journal of Cardiology.

Kantharia and his team collected 122 pacemakers, half of which had enough battery life left - more than three years - to be used again. They were partially sterilized, then sent to a hospital in Mumbai, India, where they were sterilized again and implanted in 53 heart patients.

New pacemakers in India cost $2,200 to $6,600, not including doctor and hospital fees or the cost of the wires connected to the pacemaker.

All of the patients survived the surgery and fared well immediately afterwards, with no cases of infection or pacemaker malfunctions over an average follow-up of nearly two years.

All but two of the 40 patients reported a marked improvement in their symptoms and quality of life. Four died, but their deaths were not linked to the pacemakers.

A number of significant hurdles remain. One of the biggest is simply getting pacemakers from the U.S. to impoverished patients who need them.

Another is the need for further safety studies.

British Astronomical Association - Britain's leading organisation for observational astronomy

Friday, October 28, 2011

NASA NPP Satellite Launch video - YouTube

At the public viewing site we had a terrific view of SLC-2, the launchpad where NPP sat on it’s Delta II rocket, 3 miles away. As promised, the sky was clear, the Milky Way visible in the sky, and not even a hint of fog.

Early arrivals were entertained by the Air Force guys who had set up streaming video of NASA TV projected onto the side of a white truck. There was music, swag give-aways for the people who could name NPP’s five instruments, and more details on the CubeSats from the university teams that built them. Someone from the crowd shouted, “Give us more physics!”

The buzz through the crowd transmitted the various launch countdown updates as wireless was intermittent but at T-30 seconds the whole crowd of at least a hundred grew silent.

Camera phones went up, the true photographers got ready. Before the countdown no one spoke. T-10 seconds.

Then the rocket lit up!

A bright light in the darkness that slowly rose as gasps and cheers rose from the crowd. It was incredible to watch.

Himalayas: Mount Everest at sunset

The last light of the day sets on Mount Everest in the Himalayas

Picture: Kevin Frayer

NASA Messenger: Mercury Dominici crater

This NASA Messenger Satellite colour image shows the Dominici Crater on the planet Mercury.

Picture: AFP/NASA

UFO Pod: Theme room

Make your childhood fantasies come true by staying in a UFO for a night. 

The flying-saucer-shaped pod hovers above the ground in a forest at Treehotel near the Lule River in Harads, Sweden. 

The UFO room is one of five free-standing treehouse rooms, which also include the Bird's Nest, Mirrorcube and the Blue Cone.
Picture: Peter Lundstrom WDO/ Features

The Ghostly image of X-ray-emitting central region of the Crab Nebula.

This blue ghost is an image from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory revealing the complex X-ray-emitting central region of the Crab Nebula. 

This image is 9.8 light-years across. 
Picture: NASA/Rex Features

Constellation Puppis: The Stern

This ghoulish skull with glowing eyes is actually the area surrounding the stellar cluster NGC 2467, located in the southern constellation of Puppis - "The Stern"

Picture: NASA / Rex Features

Solar Orbiter EUCLID: Space mission scientists share their cosmic vision

Imperial scientists are planning to take physics to new limits with two missions given the rubber stamp by the European Space Agency (ESA) this month, known as Solar Orbiter and Euclid.

The Solar Orbiter mission will travel closer to the Sun than any other, measuring our star's magnetic field and improving our understanding of how solar activity and the harsh solar wind affect the Earth.

Professor Tim Horbury from Imperial's Space and Atmospheric Physics Group, who leads Solar Orbiter's magnetometer team, said: "Solar Orbiter will give us our first good view of the Sun's polar regions and a unique close-up view of the Sun's atmosphere and how it blows past the Earth and out to the far solar system."

In the interview below, Professor Horbury and lead engineer Helen O'Brien from the Solar Orbiter mission show off the prototype kit in their mission lab and explain why it won't be possible to send a manned mission to the sun just yet.

Watch a video of the planned Solar Orbiter mission at the ESA website.

The Euclid mission will address key questions of dark energy and dark matter, which are fundamental to physics and cosmology, and search for clues to the early expansion of the universe.

Through a massive 'near-infrared digital camera', Euclid will survey far distant parts of space using faint light that started its journey shortly after the event of the Big Bang.

Professor Steve Warren from Imperial's Astrophysics Group, who coordinates the Legacy Science teams of Euclid, said: "Euclid's highly detailed deep space maps will contain images of more than a billion galaxies and a treasure trove of rare and fascinating objects like brown dwarfs, faint halo stars, luminous giant galaxies and quasars."

In the interview below, Professor Warren discusses what we can learn about the early universe from the deep near-infrared survey of the sky to be undertaken by Euclid.

ESA announced funding for the Solar Orbiter and Euclid projects on 5 October. They will be designed, tested and built across the continent, and launched between 2017 and 2019.

Scientists and engineers from Imperial's Department of Physics have been closely involved in the development of both projects, which draw on academic expertise and collaborations with high-tech industries.

The Solar Orbiter and Euclid missions won financial backing after being selected from over 50 other proposals in ESA's Cosmic Vision strategy. Both are also supported by the UK Space Agency.

Further Information sources:

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NASA NPP Satellite: Launched

The Delta II arcs into the night sky carrying NASA's NPP Environmental satellite into orbit from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

Magnetic tongue to produce tastier tinned tomatoes

Factories could use a tongue-like detector to test flavour during production (Image: KeystoneUSA-ZUMA/Rex Features)
Talk about a metal mouth. A "magnetic tongue" can predict the taste of tinned tomatoes.

The sensor could help food manufacturers tweak their production methods to maximise flavour.

Experienced taste tasters rate flavours, texture and consistency on a numerical scale. Anders Malmendal, at the University of Copenhagen, and his colleagues wanted to replicate this human-like flavour detection with an artificial sensor.

They analysed the chemical composition of 18 different types of tinned tomatoes by examining hydrogen atoms with nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy. The proton in the nucleus of a hydrogen atom acts like a tiny magnet.

A pulse of energy flips the proton's magnetic field, and the proton releases energy as it relaxes back to its original orientation.

A hydrogen atom's location in a complex molecule like a sugar influences how quickly it relaxes, giving each hydrogen atom a unique signal based on its relaxation speed.

Using these signals, the scientists identified several common sugars and protein building blocks called amino acids in each tomato sample.

Statistical analysis correlated collections of these compounds with flavours like saltiness, sweetness, and bitterness, as ranked by trained tasters. The "magnetic tongue" tastes tomato liquid practically straight from the can.

Manufacturers could sample tomatoes during production with this sensor and quickly adjust their methods to create better tasting products, Malmendal says.

Other artificial taste and smell sensors recognize patterns of compounds connected with certain flavors as well. Electronic tongues sample wine and electronic noses sniff out insects, cancer and human skin .

Journal reference: Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, DOI: 10.1021/jf203803q

ESA ENVISAT Image: Icy waters of Ilulissat Fjord

This Envisat image, acquired on 21 July 2011, shows part of Greenland’s west coast – home to one of the fastest and most active glaciers in the world, Sermeq Kujalleq. 

At the centre of the image the glacier’s sea mouth is visible: the Ilulissat fjord, with icebergs bursting out from it and speckling the surrounding waters.

Credits: ESA

UK Prospero satellite: Space surveillance system takes birthday snap

Starbrook image of Prospero streaking at 27,000 kph (17,000 mph) across the constellation of Pegasus

This week marks the 40th anniversary of Britain as a spacefaring nation.

On the 28th of October 1971, the UK launched Prospero - a science and technology demonstration satellite - on top of a Black Arrow rocket at Woomera, Australia.

This made the UK the 6th nation to demonstrate a working orbital launch capability.

In celebration of this anniversary, space scientists at UCL are attempting to re-establish contact with Prospero and UK space surveillance company Space Insight has captured a new image of the satellite.

This new image was taken just a month after Space Insight celebrated an anniversary of its own - 5 years of tracking objects like Prospero with their space surveillance sensor Starbrook.

The Starbrook image shows Prospero streaking at 27,000 kph (17,000 mph) across the constellation of Pegasus, in a near-polar orbit which varies in height from 500 to 1300 km (300 to 700 miles).

Since initial development five years ago, Space Insight's Starbrook sensors have played a key part in the UK's contribution to European and international space surveillance programmes and initiatives, including ESA's first co-ordinated space tracking campaign.

The UK Space Agency uses the company to provide a wide range of scientific and technical support.

Staff from the Agency and Space Insight are members of the UK delegation to the Inter-Agency Debris Committee, providing support to, and analysis of, technology and strategy options for the surveillance of space, contributing to observation campaigns and predicting satellite re-entry events.

During 1971, when Prospero was launched aboard the UK-developed and built Black Arrow rocket, there were just 3000 objects orbiting the Earth, owned by just a dozen countries.

Many of the satellites, like Prospero, were performing experiments to investigate the effects of the space environment, about which little was known at the time.

It would be another seven years before Don Kessler and Burton Cour-Palais would publish their seminal paper, 'Collision Frequency of Artificial Satellites: The Creation of a Debris Belt', in which they foresaw the rise of the space debris problem.

At that time, with just a few hundred satellites in Earth orbit, it was relatively straightforward and viable to track each one individually using radar or telescope.

Today, satellites and debris crowd all Earth orbits. Nearly 40,000 objects overall have been tracked in orbit, with many millions of mm-sized debris estimated.

SETI: Rethinking the Search for Alien 'Footprints'

Any intelligent extraterrestrial life that exists probably won't announce itself by blowing up the White House, or win over the hearts of children as a lovable alien with a glowing finger.

Many scientists simply hope to find evidence of them by scanning the skies for a radio signal from a distant star's alien civilization but such efforts may also risk overlooking clues of past alien activity right here on Earth.

If aliens did leave their mark on Earth by some wild chance, we could search for the possible "footprints" of alien technology or even analyze the DNA of terrestrial organisms for signs of intelligent messages or tinkering.

Such a CSI-style forensics search could complement, rather than replace, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) astronomers who continue to look skyward, said Paul Davies, a physicist and cosmologist at Arizona State University in Tempe, Ariz.

"My proposals aim to spread the burden from a small band of heroic radio astronomers to the entire scientific community," Davies said. "Projects like genomic SETI are an attempt to complement radio SETI, not undermine it."

Photos of Pluto and Fourth Moon

Fourth Moon Discovered Around PlutoCredit: NASA, ESA, and M. Showalter (SETI institute)

Two labeled images of the Pluto system, released on July 20, 2011, taken by the Hubble Space Telescope's Wide Field Camera 3 ultraviolet visible instrument with newly discovered fourth moon P4 circled.

The image on the left was taken on June 28, 2011. The image of the right was taken on July 3, 2011.

Illustration of the Pluto satellite system orbits with newly discovered moon P4 highlighted, released July 20, 2011.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

NASA NEEMO: Undersea Asteroid Mission Halted Due to Hurricane Rina

The 15th NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO) ended ahead of schedule due to the predicted path of Hurricane Rina.

In a preparation for future space exploration, the six aquanaut crew lived in the Aquarius underwater research laboratory at Key Largo, Florida for five days.

Usually the mission is for 10 days, but due to the Hurricane Rina which heads towards Key Largo, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which operates the lab, determined Rina posed a risk to the safety of the mission taking place near the area.

"Despite the length, we accomplished a significant amount of research," said NEEMO project manager Bill Todd. "We're already learning lessons from working in this environment."

The six-member NEEMO crew -- Commander and NASA astronaut Shannon Walker, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Takuya Onishi, Canadian Space Agency astronaut David Saint-Jacques, Steven Squyres of Cornell University and James Talacek and Nate Bender of the University of North Carolina Wilmington, kicked off this year's mission Oct. 20, after an initial delay caused by another storm in the area.

The aquanauts conducted six underwater spacewalks and one day of scientific research inside the Aquarius habitat.

The crew completed four days of scientific asteroid exploration analog operations using the deep worker submersibles that stood in for the Space Exploration Vehicle.

This year's mission was the first NEEMO to focus on operational concepts that would be used in human exploration of an asteroid.

NASA said the remainder of NEEMO 15 will not be rescheduled, and all media events are canceled. The NEEMO 16 mission is tentatively set for the summer of 2012.

The NEEMO crew focused on three different aspects of a mission to an asteroid surface. The first is anchoring to the surface of the asteroid.

Unlike the Moon or Mars, an asteroid would have little, if any, gravity to hold astronauts or vehicles to its surface, so an anchor would be necessary.
Mike Gernhardt (NASA) pilots the DeepWorker to a location that will allow Zeb Scoville (NASA) to capture an interesting specimen.

Source: NASA
It will require a method of connecting multiple anchors to form pathways to move around on the surface of an asteroid.

The best way to connect these anchors was the second aspect of a near-Earth asteroid mission addressed by NEEMO 15.

Finally, since NASA's purpose in visiting an asteroid would be for scientific research, the third aspect of this mission investigated by NEEMO 15 was different methods of sample collection.

Take a glimpse of more NEEMO 15 asteroid research under the sea.

ESA Rosetta: Asteroid Lutetia: postcard from the past

Landslides on Lutetia are thought to have been caused by the vibrations created by impacts elsewhere on the asteroid dislodging pulverised rocks.


ESA's Rosetta spacecraft has revealed asteroid Lutetia to be a primitive body, left over as the planets were forming in our Solar System. Results from Rosetta's fleeting flyby also suggest that this mini-world tried to grow a metal heart.

Rosetta flew past Lutetia on 10 July 2010 at a speed of 54 000 km/hr and a closest distance of 3170 km.

At the time, the 130 km-long asteroid was the largest encountered by a spacecraft. Since then, scientists have been analysing the data taken during the brief encounter.

All previous flybys went past objects, which were fragments of once-larger bodies. However, during the encounter, scientists speculated that Lutetia might be an older, primitive 'mini-world'.

Several images have been combined into a map of the asteroid.

This image represents the total area viewed by the spacecraft during the flyby, which amounted to more than 50% of Lutetia’s surface.


Now they are much more certain. Images from the OSIRIS camera reveal that parts of Lutetia's surface are around 3.6 billion years old. Other parts are young by astronomical standards, at 50–80 million years old.

Astronomers estimate the age of airless planets, moons, and asteroids by counting craters. Each bowl-shaped depression on the surface is made by an impact.

The older the surface, the more impacts it will have accumulated. Some parts of Lutetia are heavily cratered, implying that it is very old.

On the other hand, the youngest areas of Lutetia are landslides, probably triggered by the vibrations from particularly jarring nearby impacts.

Debris resulting from these many impacts now lies across the surface as a 1 km-thick layer of pulverised rock.

This map of Lutetia is centred on the north pole. 

The number of craters in the asteroid's various regions have been used to date the surface. 

Some parts of the surface are 3.6 billion years old, while others are just 50–80 million years old.


There are also boulders strewn across the surface: some are 300–400 m across, or about half the size of Ayers Rock, in Australia. 

Some impacts must have been so large that they broke off whole chunks of Lutetia, gradually sculpting it into the battered wreck we see today. 

"We don't think Lutetia was born looking like this," says Holger Sierks, Max-Planck-Institut für Sonnensystemforschung, Lindau, Germany. "It was probably round when it formed."

Rosetta's VIRTIS spectrometer found that Lutetia's composition is remarkably uniform across all the observed regions.

"It is striking that an object of this size can bear scars of events so different in age across its surface while not showing any sign of surface compositional variation," says Fabrizio Capaccioni, INAF, Rome, Italy.
This is just the start of the mystery.

Read further 

China's Preparation: China Tiangong 1 Shenzhou 8 Docking

Photo of the Shenzhou 8 spacecraft undergoing testing earlier in 2011.
CREDIT: China Manned Space Engineering Office.

China will launch an unmanned spacecraft in November to make the country's first in-space docking, state media reported.

The Shenzhou 8 mission is set to launch early next month Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China.

The spacecraft is due to dock with the robotic Tiangong-1 module, which was launched separately in September.

That craft is a prototype space lab, part of China's long-term goal of building its own manned space station in orbit.

The Tiangong 1-Shenzhou 8 maneuver will be China's first spacecraft docking. It's a necessary step toward assembling a larger space station.


ESA Rosetta: Most pristine known asteroid is denser than granite

The Rosetta spacecraft swung by asteroid 21 Lutetia on 10 July 2010 (Image: ESA 2010 MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/RSSD/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA)

Asteroids are generally regarded as the solar system's scrap heap, the battered bits that broke off and were left behind when the planets were forming but the lumpy asteroid 21 Lutetia may be a whole, unbroken building block left nearly untouched since the solar system's birth.

"We think planets were built of things like Lutetia," says Ben Weiss of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. "We're getting a chance to see one of the building blocks of the solar system up close."

The European spacecraft Rosetta zipped past Lutetia at 50,000 kilometres per hour in July 2010, snapping photos of a cratered world about 121 kilometres long.

That makes it the second-largest asteroid ever visited by a spacecraft, next to 560-kilometre-wide Vesta.

Violent mêlée

Most of the asteroids to get visits from spacecraft are rubble piles, chunks of debris that were loosely held together by gravity. But Lutetia is so dense that it appears to have survived the violent mêlée of collisions in the early solar system intact.

"The real new thing is that it's not a rubble pile, it's a solid block of rock," said Holger Sierks of the Max-Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Germany, lead author of a new paper reporting the observations. "It's really a remnant from the early days."

Even more surprisingly, the spacecraft's measurements suggested the rock has one of the highest asteroid densities ever measured, at 3.4 tonnes per cubic metre.

That is denser than granite and suggests Lutetia might have heavy metals in its core.

NASA: NPP Polar Orbiting Environmental /Weather Satellite

The launch of a new polar-orbiting environmental satellite enables NOAA to continue issuing accurate
forecasts and provide advance warning for severe weather, such as deadly tornado outbreaks, blistering
heat waves, floods, snowfall and wildfires.

The satellite, NASA’s NPOESS Preparatory Project (NPP), orbits Earth every 102 minutes, flying 512 miles above the surface, and capturing data from the Earth’s land, oceans, and atmosphere.

The data is used by NOAA forecasters to detect the potential for dangerous weather conditions days – even several weeks, in advance.

For example, data from polar-orbiting satellites helped NOAA meteorologists predict, 5 days in
advance, the major snowstorms that struck the Atlantic Coast in February 2010 (“Snowmageddon”) and
paralysed New York City in December 2010.

For more information on NOAA and NPP click on the link  here

ESA Mars500: Final video from Diego and Romain - YouTube

The Mars500 experiment is about to end after almost 1.5 years. Six men have been isolated in their interplanetary spacecraft mockup since early June 2010, faithfully simulating a mission to Mars.

During the whole trip and, even before the crew has been conducting a suite of science experiments, with themselves as subject, and they will continue doing these for some time after the end of their isolation.

In this final video Diego and Romain describe what were the best and least liked experiments for the crew. Then the European crewmembers say their bittersweet goodbye to Mars500's video diary followers.

Veterinary researchers discover first U.S. strains of hepatitis E virus from rabbits |

Researchers in the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine at Virginia Tech have identified the first strains of hepatitis E virus from farmed rabbits in the United States.

It is unknown whether the virus can spread from rabbits to humans.

Caitlin Cossaboom of Salisbury, Md., a second-year student in the combined Doctor of Veterinary Medicine and Ph.D. program in the Department of Biomedical Sciences and Pathobiology, is the first author of a publication entitled “Hepatitis E Virus in Rabbits, Virginia, USA” in the November issue of Emerging Infectious Diseases, published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Although researchers found hepatitis E virus in rabbits in China in 2009, this is the first time the virus has been identified in rabbits in the United States or anywhere outside of China,” Cossaboom said.

Dr. X.J. Meng, professor of biomedical sciences and pathobiology in the veterinary college, Cossaboom’s graduate advisor, and senior author of the study, identified the first animal strains of hepatitis E virus — swine hepatitis E virus from pigs — in 1997.

Following the landmark study on swine hepatitis E virus by Meng and his colleagues at the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, researchers began to consider hepatitis E virus a zoonotic virus.

“Since 1997, researchers have found hepatitis E virus in pigs essentially in every swine-producing country and shown that the virus from pigs can infect humans,” said Meng.

He added that his lab also identified avian hepatitis E virus from chickens in the United States and that other researchers later discovered strains of the virus in other animal species, including rats, mongoose, deer, and wild boars.

Hepatitis E is an acute hepatic disease caused by infection with an RNA virus that has a fecal-oral transmission route.

The disease is mainly prevalent in developing countries, though sporadic cases have been reported in industrialized countries such as the United States.

The mortality rate associated with hepatitis E virus infection in humans is generally less than 1 percent, but it can reach up to 28 percent in infected pregnant women.

The virus has at least four distinct genotypes. Genotypes 1 and 2 infect only humans and typically occur in developing countries with poor sanitation conditions.

Meanwhile, genotypes 3 and 4 are zoonotic, can spread from animals to humans, and are found in both industrialised and developing countries.

“It is worth noting that the strains of the virus found in rabbits in the U.S. and China closely relate to genotype 3, a genotype that has been shown to transfer from animals to humans,” Meng said.

“The question is, ‘Do the strains of hepatitis E virus in rabbits infect humans?’ We don’t know, but the possibility is there and more research is needed to address this potential concern.”

She added that pigs can serve as “animal reservoirs” for genotypes 3 and 4 hepatitis E virus. In other words, the pigs can carry and shed the virus, and occasionally the virus may transmit to humans.

“However, it is unknown if the virus from rabbits can infect across species or serve as a reservoir,” Cossaboom said.

There are five known types of viral hepatitis: Hepatitis A transmits from person to person from ingesting contaminated food and water. Hepatitis B and C spread by blood-to-blood contact; the hepatitis C virus can also cause chronic infection and, in some cases, liver cancer.

Hepatitis D occurs in individuals who already have hepatitis B. Although all of these viruses, including hepatitis E virus, target the liver, none of them are genetically related.

Careless disposal of antibiotics can create aquatic superbugs

A wastewater treatment plant can provide the perfect mating ground for carelessly disposed of antibiotics to form superbugs that are eventually discharged into streams and lakes, says a University of Michigan researcher.

It’s not the fault of the wastewater treatment plants, says Chuanwu Xi, assistant professor at the UM School of Public Health.

His research team sampled water at five sites in and near Ann Arbor’s Waste Water Treatment Plant and found that the water contained the superbug Acinetobacter, a multidrug-resistant bacterium.

The results were first reported by Xi’s group in 2009, and the research is ongoing.

Treatment plants across the country face the same problem due to the overuse of antibiotics and because people improperly flush them down the toilet, whereby the drugs enter the wastewater treatment systems where they can breed, Xi says.

“When we monitored the survival of these bugs in the Huron River, the downstream level dropped quickly to the level of upstream,” Xi said.

“More robust risk-assessment research is needed to assess the exact risk. This study, along with many other studies, alerts us to proper use and handling of antibiotics.”

The Ann Arbor wastewater plant recently installed technology that enhances the removal of bio-solids from the water, which in turn, will help prevent superbugs from forming.

People with unused antibiotics should not flush them down the toilet but should dispose of them properly, Xi says.

NASA Astronomers: Merging Galaxies' Collision Rate

Galactic Wrecks Far from Earth: These images from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope's ACS in 2004 and 2005 show four examples of interacting galaxies far away from Earth. 

The galaxies, beginning at far left, are shown at various stages of the merger process. 

The top row displays merging galaxies found in different regions of a large survey known as the AEGIS. 

More detailed views are in the bottom row of images. (Credit: NASA; ESA; J. Lotz, STScI; M. Davis, University of California, Berkeley; and A. Koekemoer, STScI)

A new analysis of Hubble surveys, combined with simulations of galaxy interactions, reveals that the merger rate of galaxies over the last 8 billion to 9 billion years falls between the previous estimates.

The galaxy merger rate is one of the fundamental measures of galaxy evolution, yielding clues to how galaxies bulked up over time through encounters with other galaxies and yet, a huge discrepancy exists over how often galaxies coalesced in the past.

Measurements of galaxies in deep-field surveys made by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope generated a broad range of results: anywhere from 5 percent to 25 percent of the galaxies were merging.

The study, led by Jennifer Lotz of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Md., analyzed galaxy interactions at different distances, allowing the astronomers to compare mergers over time.

Lotz’s team found that galaxies gained quite a bit of mass through collisions with other galaxies.

Large galaxies merged with each other on average once over the past 9 billion years. Small galaxies were coalescing with large galaxies more frequently.

In one of the first measurements of smashups between dwarf and massive galaxies in the distant universe, Lotz’s team found these mergers happened three times more often than encounters between two hefty galaxies.

“Having an accurate value for the merger rate is critical because galactic collisions may be a key process that drives galaxy assembly, rapid star formation at early times, and the accretion of gas onto central supermassive black holes at the centers of galaxies,” Lotz explains.

The team’s results are accepted for publication appeared in The Astrophysical Journal.

The problem with previous Hubble estimates is that astronomers used different methods to count the mergers.

“These different techniques probe mergers at different ‘snapshots’ in time along the merger process,” Lotz says. “It is a little bit like trying to count car crashes by taking snapshots.

If you look for cars on a collision course, you will only see a few of them. If you count up the number of wrecked cars you see afterwards, you will see many more.

Studies that looked for close pairs of galaxies that appeared ready to collide gave much lower numbers of mergers than those that searched for galaxies with disturbed shapes, evidence that they’re in smashups.”

To figure out how many encounters happen over time, Lotz needed to understand how long merging galaxies would look like “wrecks” before they settle down and begin to look like normal galaxies again.

That’s why Lotz and her team turned to highly detailed computer simulations to help make sense of the Hubble photographs.

The team made simulations of the many possible galaxy collision scenarios and then mapped them to Hubble images of galaxy interactions.

Prosthetic Limb With An Embedded Smartphone Dock Built In

Trevor Prideaux was having trouble texting. Prideaux, who was born without his left forearm, used to have to balance his smartphone on his prosthetic arm or lay it on a flat surface to text, dial, or otherwise take advantage of the technology.

So with some help form the Exeter Mobility Center in Devon, UK, the 50-year-old Prideaux has become the first person to have a smartphone dock embedded in his prosthetic limb.

With some design help from Nokia and the prosthetics team at EMC, Prideaux’s Nokia C7 is now fixed within his prosthetic forearm (he went to Apple first hoping to mount an iPhone, but Cupertino declined to participate in his project).

He can now easily text by using his one hand, or field calls either by putting his prosthetic forearm up to his ear or by using speakerphone, leaving his biological limb free.

The very idea of it gets the idea mill churning. Right now, the prosthesis is a prosthesis and the phone is simply a phone, but the idea of integrating the two opens the door to some unique possibilities.

Aside from being able to record data on how the limb is used to help designers better customize the prosthesis to the person, the limb could also be augmented to make better use of the phone/computer.

Maybe some extra battery on board the limb? Some speakers for better speaker phone usage (and for the wearer’s listening pleasure, should he or she require some tunes).

Call it primitive cyborg tech with a lot of potential.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Axolotl: Most vertebrates descended from ancestor with sixth sense

Using the Mexican axolotl as a model to represent the evolutionary lineage leading to land animals, and paddlefish as a model for the branch leading to ray-finned fishes, the researchers found that electrosensors develop in precisely the same pattern from the same embryonic tissue in the developing skin, confirming that this is an ancient sensory system.

People experience the world through five senses but sharks, paddlefishes and certain other aquatic vertebrates have a sixth sense: They can detect weak electrical fields in the water and use this information to detect prey, communicate and orient themselves.

A study in Nature Communications that caps more than 25 years of work finds that the vast majority of vertebrates - some 30,000 species of land animals (including humans) and a roughly equal number of ray-finned fishes - descended from a common ancestor that had a well-developed electroreceptive system.

This ancestor was probably a predatory marine fish with good eyesight, jaws and teeth and a lateral line system for detecting water movements, visible as a stripe along the flank of most fishes. It lived around 500 million years ago. The vast majority of the approximately 65,000 living vertebrate species are its descendants.

"This study caps questions in developmental and evolutionary biology, popularly called 'evo-devo,' that I've been interested in for 35 years," said Willy Bemis, Cornell professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and a senior author of the paper. Melinda Modrell, a neuroscientist at the University of Cambridge who did the molecular analysis, is the paper's lead author.

Hundreds of millions of years ago, there was a major split in the evolutionary tree of vertebrates. One lineage led to the ray-finned fishes, or actinopterygians, and the other to lobe-finned fishes, or sarcopterygians; the latter gave rise to land vertebrates, Bemis explained.

Some land vertebrates, including such salamanders as the Mexican axolotl, have electroreception and, until now, offered the best-studied model for early development of this sensory system. As part of changes related to terrestrial life, the lineage leading to reptiles, birds and mammals lost electrosense as well as the lateral line.

Some ray-finned fishes - including paddlefishes and sturgeons - retained these receptors in the skin of their heads. With as many as 70,000 electroreceptors in its paddle-shaped snout and skin of the head, the North American paddlefish has the most extensive electrosensory array of any living animal, Bemis said.

Until now, it was unclear whether these organs in different groups were evolutionarily and developmentally the same.

Using the Mexican axolotl as a model to represent the evolutionary lineage leading to land animals, and paddlefish as a model for the branch leading to ray-finned fishes, the researchers found that electrosensors develop in precisely the same pattern from the same embryonic tissue in the developing skin, confirming that this is an ancient sensory system.

The researchers also found that the electrosensory organs develop immediately adjacent to the lateral line, providing compelling evidence "that these two sensory systems share a common evolutionary heritage," said Bemis.

Researchers can now build a picture of what the common ancestor of these two lineages looked like and better link the sensory worlds of living and fossil animals, Bemis said.

NASA: Explorer 1 The First US Explorer

An exploded view of the first successful U.S. satellite launched in 1958, Explorer I. Credit: NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center Collection.

On September 29, 2011, NASA announced the short list for five potential new "Explorer class" spacecraft.

These missions are by definition small and relatively inexpensive, designed to be led by a small team.

The Explorer class missions are numbered at 92 so far, with more constantly planned. Explorer class spacecraft recorded the signature left over from the big bang.

They mapped out the complex geometry of Earth's magnetic environment. They found gamma rays coming from everywhere in the sky. They help warn scientists of incoming radiation from solar flares.

"The neat thing about the Explorers is that they're tailored to a specific problem," says Wilt Sanders the program scientist for the Explorer's Program.

"That's their strength. They're relatively inexpensive but they've come up with game changing results."

And it all began over five decades ago.

The First Explorer
It was January 31, 1958 and a Juno 1 rocket was almost ready to launch. It carried precious cargo - a satellite called Explorer 1, that everyone hoped would be the first U.S. satellite in space.

The mood among those at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. was tense. Not only had the Soviets already successfully launched Sputnik into space, but three months earlier, a rocket attempting to launch a U.S. satellite had flown a mere four feet before tumbling back to the ground.

The familiar countdown began: "10 . . . 9 . . . 8 . . . " and at 10:48 p.m. EDT, the Juno shot up, climbed over 200 miles into the sky, and released Explorer 1 into space.

It wasn't until some two hours later, when the satellite had made its first complete orbit of Earth and was in close enough range to send a signal that it was operational, that the observers rejoiced. The very first U.S. satellite was officially a success.

For many, the tale of Explorer 1 stops here, a triumph of human ingenuity in reaching space. But, truly, that's only the beginning of the story. "Explorer 1 was also a science mission," says Willis Jenkins, the program executive for NASA's Explorer program.

"This wasn't just launched to get a satellite up in space, it was meant to bring science data back."

And it certainly did. Explorer 1 contained experiments that turned our understanding of space upside down.

To this day, scientists try to understand the dynamic, seething environment encircling Earth - known as the Van Allen radiation belts - that Explorer 1 helped discover.

NASA: Comet Elenin Gone and Should Be Forgotten

Comet Elenin is no more. Latest indications are this relatively small comet has broken into even smaller, even less significant, chunks of dust and ice.

This trail of piffling particles will remain on the same path as the original comet, completing its unexceptional swing through the inner solar system this fall.

"Elenin did as new comets passing close by the sun do about two percent of the time: It broke apart," said Don Yeomans of NASA's Near-Earth Object Program Office in Pasadena, Calif.

"Elenin's remnants will also act as other broken-up comets act. They will trail along in a debris cloud that will follow a well-understood path out of the inner solar system.

After that, we won't see the scraps of comet Elenin around these parts for almost 12 millennia."

Twelve millennia may be a long time to Earthlings, but for those frozen inhabitants of the outer solar system who make this commute, a dozen millennia give or take is a walk in the celestial park.

Comet Elenin came as close as 45 million miles (72 million kilometers) to the sun, but it arrived from the outer solar system's Oort Cloud, which is so far away its outer edge is about a third of the way to the nearest star other than our sun.

For those broken up over the breakup of what was formerly about 1.2 miles (two kilometers) of uninspiring dust and ice, remember what Yeomans said about comets coming close to the sun - they fall apart about two percent of the time.

"Comets are made up of ice, rock, dust and organic compounds and can be several miles in diameter, but they are fragile and loosely held together like dust balls," said Yeomans.

"So it doesn't take much to get a comet to disintegrate, and with comets, once they break up, there is no hope of reconciliation."

Comet Elenin first came to light last December, when sunlight reflecting off the small comet was detected by Russian astronomer Leonid Elenin of Lyubertsy, Russia.

Astronomers discover complex organic matter in the universe

In the current issue of the journal Nature, astronomers report that organic compounds of unexpected complexity exist throughout the Universe.

The results suggest that complex organic compounds are not the sole domain of life but can be made naturally by stars.

Prof. Sun Kwok and Dr. Yong Zhang of the University of Hong Kong show that an organic substance commonly found throughout the Universe contains a mixture of aromatic (ring-like) and aliphatic (chain-like) components.

The compounds are so complex that their chemical structures resemble those of coal and petroleum.

Since coal and oil are remnants of ancient life, this type of organic matter was thought to arise only from living organisms. The team's discovery suggests that complex organic compounds can be synthesized in space even when no life forms are present.

The researchers investigated an unsolved phenomenon: a set of infrared emissions detected in stars, interstellar space, and galaxies. These spectral signatures are known as "Unidentified Infrared Emission features".

For over two decades, the most commonly accepted theory on the origin of these signatures has been that they come from simple organic molecules made of carbon and hydrogen atoms, called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH) molecules.

From observations taken by the Infrared Space Observatory and the Spitzer Space Telescope, Kwok and Zhang showed that the astronomical spectra have features that cannot be explained by PAH molecules.

Instead, the team proposes that the substances generating these infrared emissions have chemical structures that are much more complex.

By analyzing spectra of star dust formed in exploding stars called novae, they show that stars are making these complex organic compounds on extremely short time scales of weeks.

Not only are stars producing this complex organic matter, they are also ejecting it into the general interstellar space, the region between stars.

The work supports an earlier idea proposed by Kwok that old stars are molecular factories capable of manufacturing organic compounds.

"Our work has shown that stars have no problem making complex organic compounds under near-vacuum conditions," says Kwok. "Theoretically, this is impossible, but observationally we can see it happening."

How an innovative furnace could cut solar costs | SmartPlanet

The U.S. Energy Department’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory has developed an innovative furnace that sharply boosts solar cell efficiency, speeds up the processing time and could ultimately help cut costs.

Within the manufacturing process, solar cells are tested for mechanical strength, oxidized, annealed, purified, diffused, etched and layered. Furnaces are common in large solar cell factories because heat is the primary tool used in each one of those steps.

Until now, factories have relied on rapid-thermal processing furnaces that use radiant or infrared heat to boost the temperature of silicon wafers up to 1,000 degrees Celsius within several seconds, according to the NREL.

The NREL has put a new spin on the furnace by using optics to heat and purify solar cells, which allows greater control and precision. The Optical Cavity Furnace (not the most inviting name) encloses an array of lamps within a reflective chamber. The highly reflective ceramics, which are placed in a complex geometric design, eliminate all energy loss and help keep the temperature consistent and uniform throughout the furnace.

The cavity design uses about half the energy of a conventional thermal furnace because the wafer itself absorbs what would otherwise be energy loss, the NREL said. The furnace operates in the same way a microwave oven does by dissipating energy only on the object and not on the container.

Unlike conventional furnaces, the optical cavity process heats the wafers at a slower rate, which lowers the power requirements and energy loss. Meaning it can boost efficiency and lower costs at the same time.

The upshot? While researchers continue to tweak the furnace and make improvements, they expect to be able to hike efficiency by 4 percentage points — a mammoth leap forward for the industry.

Our calculations show that some material that is at 16 percent efficiency now is capable of reaching 20 percent if we take advantage of these photonic effects, NREL Principal Engineer Bhushan Sopori said in a news feature on its website. That’s huge.

The NREL and AOS Solar also are building a manufacturing-sized optical cavity furnace capable of processing 1,200 wafers an hour.

Brammo: Electric motorcycle maker raises $28 million

US based electric motorcycle manufacturer Brammo announced on Wednesday that it has raised $28 million from investors to boost development of electric powertrain technology.

Leading the charge was investor Polaris Industries, a powersports giant that makes all-terrain vehicles, snowmobiles, motorcycles and road-legal electric vehicles.

This company's innovations are under development, including military vehicles that can shrug off small arms fire and his company’s entry into sustainability, from supply chain simplification to the company’s first electric vehicles, launched in 2009.

“We’re not going to buy something to get bigger; we’re going to buy something to get better, faster,” he said when asked about future acquisitions.

It would appear that time is now.

The deal extends Brammo’s powertrain technology to different vehicle types much in the way that Tesla supplies Toyota with its all-electric powertrain.

It gives Polaris, inventor of the first snowmobile and the market leader for its various segments, a leg up on EV technology that it knows will replace the Swiss-developed four-stroke engines it traditionally uses.

It also gives Brammo more places to reap revenues for its R&D efforts. The company has dabbled in off-road vehicles before, with its Encite motorcycle, but cooperation with Polaris opens the door for more applications.