Sunday, March 31, 2013

ESA Hubble Image: Jonckheere 900 Masquerading as a Double Star

The object in this image is Jonckheere 900 or J 900, a planetary nebula - glowing shells of ionized gas pushed out by a dying star. 

Discovered in the early 1900s by astronomer Robert Jonckheere, the dusty nebula is small but fairly bright, with a relatively evenly spread central region surrounded by soft wispy edges.

Despite the clarity of this Hubble image, the two objects in the picture above can be confusing for observers. 

J 900's nearby companion, a faint star in the constellation of Gemini, often causes problems for observers because it is so close to the nebula - when observation conditions are bad, this star seems to merge into J 900, giving it an elongated appearance. 

Hubble's position above the Earth's atmosphere means that this is not an issue for the space telescope.

Astronomers have also mistakenly reported observations of a double star in place of these two objects, as the planetary nebula is quite small and compact.

J 900's central star is only just visible in this image, and is very faint - fainter than the nebula's neighbor. 

The nebula appears to display a bipolar structure, where there are two distinct lobes of material emanating from its center, enclosed by a bright oval disk. 

Credit: Hubble/European Space Agency

Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Dutch Plan to Grow plants on Mars

Concrete plans for a one-way ticket to Mars have been forged. Food will have to be grown on location.

Wieger Wamelink, ecologist at Alterra Wageningen UR, will be researching whether or not it is possible to grow plants on the moon.

We have been to the moon several times.

Next time, we may go back for a considerable period and concrete plans for a one-way ticket to Mars have already been forged.

Will plants survive in Martian soil or moon dust? This question was initially prompted by Dutch plans to establish a colony on Mars.

As the plan does not include a return trip, the basic necessities would have to be satisfied on location. "Mars is still a long way off," says Wieger Wamelink, explaining his plans.

"But the moon is closer, so it would be more realistic to establish a colony there. What's more, we already know the mineral composition of the soil on the moon, and of moon dust. "

"So what I'm aiming to find out now is whether plants will grow in moon substrate, or whether certain essential elements are lacking. "

"This has never been done before. We are gradually discovering more about Mars, which is why the planet has been included in this research."

Wamelink's research will compare the requirements of certain species of plants with the mineral composition of the soil on the moon and Mars.

Alterra Holland
Alterra has a database that can analyse 25 abiotic preconditions per species and calculate whether a plant species will survive or not.

The database also stores information about heavy metals and minerals, although as yet, there are no fixed preconditions for these elements.

Using this data, he will be able to determine which plant species would theoretically be capable of growing in moon dust or Martian soil.

Wieger Wamelink: "We will then allow certain species of wild plants and agricultural crops to germinate in pots of artificial moon and Martian soil supplied by NASA.

"The growth of these plants will be compared with that of the same species in ordinary soil from the Earth. Preconditions relating to heavy metals and minerals will be derived from our findings. "

"Our research is based on the premise that an atmosphere will be available to the colony, perhaps in domes or buildings. "

"We are also assuming the presence of water, either from the moon or Mars or transported from Earth. The plants would produce oxygen and recycle carbon dioxide, ultimately creating a kind of ecosystem."

At a later stage, Wamelink also wants to look into the food safety of agricultural crops grown in human-made conditions on the moon in moon soil. The first trial crops will be planted in greenhouses on 2 April.

Brain Scans: Predicting Future Criminal Behavior?

A new study shows that neuroimaging data can predict the likelihood of whether a criminal will reoffend following release from prison. 

Credit: © jinga80 / Fotolia

The paper, which is to be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), studied impulsive and antisocial behaviour and centered on the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), a portion of the brain that deals with regulating behavior and impulsivity.

The study demonstrated that inmates with relatively low anterior cingulate activity were twice as likely to reoffend than inmates with high-brain activity in this region.

Dr Kent Kiehl
"These findings have incredibly significant ramifications for the future of how our society deals with criminal justice and offenders," said Dr Kent Kiehl, who was senior author on the study and is director of mobile imaging at MRN and an associate professor of psychology at the University of New Mexico.

"Not only does this study give us a tool to predict which criminals may reoffend and which ones will not reoffend, it also provides a path forward for steering offenders into more effective targeted therapies to reduce the risk of future criminal activity."

The study looked at 96 adult male criminal offenders aged 20-52 who volunteered to participate in research studies.

This study population was followed over a period of up to four years after inmates were released from prison.

Walter Sinnott-Armstrong
"These results point the way toward a promising method of neuroprediction with great practical potential in the legal system," said Dr. Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, Stillman Professor of Practical Ethics in the Philosophy Department and the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University, who collaborated on the study.

"Much more work needs to be done, but this line of research could help to make our criminal justice system more effective."

The study used the Mind Research Network's Mobile Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) System to collect neuroimaging data as the inmate volunteers completed a series of mental tests.

"People who reoffended were much more likely to have lower activity in the anterior cingulate cortices than those who had higher functioning ACCs," Kiehl said.

"This means we can see on an MRI a part of the brain that might not be working correctly -- giving us a look into who is more likely to demonstrate impulsive and anti-social behavior that leads to re-arrest."

"The anterior cingulate cortex of the brain is "associated with error processing, conflict monitoring, response selection, and avoidance learning," according to the paper.

"People who have this area of the brain damaged have been shown to produce changes in 'dis-inhibition' (the inability to be inhibited by their socially unacceptable actions), apathy, and aggressiveness. "

"Indeed, ACC-damaged patients have been classed in the 'acquired psychopathic personality' genre." Kiehl says he is working on developing treatments that increase activity within the ACC to attempt to treat the high-risk offenders.

Neuroprediction of future rearrest. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2013; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1219302110

Robotic ants: Mimic real colony behaviour

This image shows the robot ants (Alices) pursuing a light trail around the constructed maze. 

Credit: Simon Garnier: Garnier S, Combe M, Jost C, Theraulaz G (2013)

Scientists have successfully replicated the behaviour of a colony of ants on the move with the use of miniature robots, as reported in the journal PLOS Computational Biology.

The researchers, based at the New Jersey Institute of Technology (Newark, USA) and at the Research Centre on Animal Cognition (Toulouse, France), aimed to discover how individual ants, when part of a moving colony, orient themselves in the labyrinthine pathways that stretch from their nest to various food sources.

The study focused mainly on how Argentine ants behave and coordinate themselves in both symmetrical and asymmetrical pathways.

In nature, ants do this by leaving chemical pheromone trails. This was reproduced by a swarm of sugar cube size robots, called "Alices," leaving light trails that they can detect with two light sensors mimicking the role of the ants' antennae.

In the beginning of the experiment, where branches of the maze had no light trail, the robots adopted an "exploratory behaviour" modelled on the regular insect movement pattern of moving randomly but in the same general direction.

This led the robots to choose the path that deviated least from their trajectory at each bifurcation of the network. If the robots detected a light trail, they would turn to follow that path.

One outcome of the robotic model was the discovery that the robots did not need to be programmed to identify and compute the geometry of the network bifurcations.

They managed to navigate the maze using only the pheromone light trail and the programmed directional random walk, which directed them to the more direct route between their starting area and a target area on the periphery of the maze.

Individual Argentine ants have poor eyesight and move too quickly to make a calculated decision about their direction.

Therefore the fact that the robots managed to orient themselves in the maze in a similar fashion than the one observed in real ants suggests that a complex cognitive process is not necessary for colonies of ants to navigate efficiently in their complex network of foraging trails.

"This research suggests that efficient navigation and foraging can be achieved with minimal cognitive abilities in ants," says lead author Simon Garnier.

"It also shows that the geometry of transport networks plays a critical role in the flow of information and material in ant as well as in human societies."

Do Ants Need to Estimate the Geometrical Properties of Trail Bifurcations to Find an Efficient Route? A Swarm Robotics Test Bed. PLOS Comput Biol 9(3): e1002903. doi:10.1371/journal.pcbi.1002903. CC

ROCKET SCIENCE XCOR Aerospace Announces Significant Propulsion Milestone on Lynx Suborbital Vehicle

67 second engine test featuring XCOR's 2,500 lb-thrust Lynx main engine (one out of four engines). 

This engine is fed entirely by XCOR's revolutionary rocket propellant piston pumps, which are far more cost effective and manufacturable than turbopumps. 

Both the liquid oxygen oxydizer and kerosene fuel are being pumped into the engine using this techonology. For more information, see our press release at XCOR

XCOR Aerospace has announced a first in aviation and space history, the firing of a full piston pump-powered rocket engine. This breakthrough is the foundation for fully reusable spacecraft that can fly multiple times per day, every day.

It is a game changing technology that has the power to fundamentally alter the way we as a society view, visit, and utilize the abundant resources around our planet and in our solar system.

The initial portion of XCOR's pump test program culminated in a 67-second engine run with the propulsion system mated to the flight weight Lynx fuselage.

After the installation of the flight sized liquid oxygen tank, the next test sequence will extend the engine run duration to the full powered flight duration of the Lynx Mark I suborbital vehicle.

"Through use of our proprietary rocket propellant piston pumps we deliver both kerosene and liquid oxygen to our rocket engines and eliminate the need for heavy, high-pressure fuel and oxidizer tanks. It also enables our propulsion system to fly multiple times per day and last for tens of thousands of flights," said XCOR Chief Executive Officer Jeff Greason.

"This is one more step toward a significant reduction in per-flight cost and turnaround time, while increasing overall flight safety."

Boeing provided additional funding to complete the XCOR test sequence and advance low-cost rocket propulsion technology. The demonstrated results of the full pump fed engine firing for extended periods helps to ensure the technology migrates into broader global applications.

"Unlike the expensive and finicky turbopumps on today's rocket propulsion systems, XCOR's piston pumps are designed to be as powerful in their thrust class as turbines, but as easy to manufacture, maintain and operate as an automotive engine," said XCOR Chief Operating Officer Andrew Nelson.

"This is the culmination of a 12 year program to develop this unique technology. The kerosene piston pump has been successfully flight-proven during our 40-flight test program on the X-Racer aircraft. We'll be entering another flight test program soon with Lynx and these pumps and engines will power XCOR and the industry to the next level."

Friday, March 29, 2013

Expedition 35 Launch

The Soyuz TMA-08M rocket launches from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Friday, March 29, 2013 (Thursday, March 28, U.S. Eastern Time) carrying Expedition 35 Soyuz Commander Pavel Vinogradov, NASA Flight Engineer Chris Cassidy and Russian Flight Engineer Alexander Misurkin to the International Space Station. 

Credit: NASA/Carla Cioffi

Soyuz Progress spacecraft docks at ISS after just six hours

Soyuz Progress space capsule has docked at the International Space Station (ISS) after a journey of less than six hours.

The three-man crew is the first to take the quicker route, involving just four orbits.

The journey normally takes two days for a Russian spacecraft. The arrival of Russians Pavel Vinogradov and Alexander Misurkin and Chris Cassidy of the US brings the number of crew at the ISS to six.

The crew launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. After lift-off at 20:43 GMT, the Soyuz capsule then entered orbit and, using intricate ballistics manoeuvres, succeeded in cutting out around 30 orbits and 45 hours from the flight time to the ISS.

Prior to the flight, the shortened route had been successfully tested three times by Russian Progress cargo ships, which are unmanned versions of the Soyuz that transport supplies to the ISS.

The three new arrivals are due to return to Earth in September. The other three members of the ISS crew arrived in December and will leave in May.

Over the next six months the crew will perform 137 investigations on the US operating segment of the station, and 44 on the Russian segment, according to a statement from the US space agency, Nasa.

Nasa said that the investigations will cover human research, biological and physical sciences, technology development, Earth observation, and education.

NASA and Rocosmos: Expedition 35-36 Crew Members

(L to R) Expedition 35/36 Flight Engineer Chris Cassidy of NASA, Expedition 35 Soyuz Commander and Expedition 36 Commander Pavel Vinogradov of Roscosmos and Expedition 35/36 Flight Engineer Alexander Misurkin of Roscosmos are seen during a break in training. 

Image released March 4, 2013.

Credit: Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center

Sprial galaxy: Hidden depths of Messier 77 revealed

The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has captured this vivid image of spiral galaxy Messier 77 -- a galaxy in the constellation of Cetus, some 45 million light-years away from us. 

The streaks of red and blue in the image highlight pockets of star formation along the pinwheeling arms, with dark dust lanes stretching across the galaxy's starry center. 

The galaxy belongs to a class of galaxies known as Seyfert galaxies, which have highly ionized gas surrounding an intensely active center. (Credit: NASA, ESA and A. van der Hoeven)

Messier 77 is a galaxy in the constellation of Cetus, some 45 million light-years away from us. Also known as NGC 1068, it is one of the most famous and well-studied galaxies. It is a real star among galaxies, with more papers written about it than many other galaxies put together.

Despite its current fame and striking swirling appearance, the galaxy has been a victim of mistaken identity a couple of times; when it was initially discovered in 1780, the distinction between gas clouds and galaxies was not known, causing finder Pierre Mechain to miss its true nature and label it as a nebula. It was misclassified again when it was subsequently listed in the Messier Catalogue as a star cluster.

Now, however, it is firmly categorised as a barred spiral galaxy, with loosely wound arms and a relatively small central bulge. It is the closest and brightest example of a particular class of galaxies known as Seyfert galaxies -- galaxies that are full of hot, highly ionised gas that glows brightly, emitting intense radiation.

Strong radiation like this is known to come from the heart of Messier 77 -- caused by a very active black hole that is around 15 million times the mass of our Sun.

 Material is dragged towards this black hole and circles around it, heating up and glowing strongly. This region of a galaxy alone, although comparatively small, can be tens of thousands of times brighter than a typical galaxy.

Although no competition for the intense centre, Messier 77's spiral arms are also very bright regions. Dotted along each arm are knotty red clumps -- a signal that new stars are forming.

These baby stars shine strongly, ionising nearby gas which then glows a deep red colour as seen in the image above.

The dust lanes stretching across this image appear as a rusty, brown-red colour due to a phenomenon known as reddening; the dust absorbs more blue light than red light, enhancing its apparent redness.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Measuring Mars Anomalies: The MAVEN Magnetometer

When you navigate with a compass you can orient yourself thanks to Earth's global magnetic field. 

But on Mars, if you were to walk around with a compass it would haphazardly point from one anomaly to another, because the Red Planet does not possess a global magnetosphere. 

Scientists think that this lack of a protective magnetic field may have allowed the solar wind to strip away the Martian atmosphere over billions of years, and now NASA's MAVEN spacecraft will study this process in detail with its pair of ring core fluxgate magnetometers. 

To download the original video please go here. Credit: NASA/Goddard/Dan Gallagher

When the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) mission begins its journey to the Red Planet in 2013, it will carry a sensitive magnetic-field instrument built and tested by a team at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

Scheduled for launch in late 2013, MAVEN will be the first mission devoted to understanding the Martian upper atmosphere.

The goal of MAVEN is to determine the history of the loss of atmospheric gases to space through time, providing answers about Mars' climate evolution.

By measuring the current rate of escape to space and gathering enough information about the relevant processes, scientists will be able to infer how the planet's atmosphere evolved.

The trip to Mars takes 10 months, and MAVEN will go into orbit around the planet in September 2014.

The Goddard-built MAVEN magnetometer will be a sensitive tool investigating what remains of the Red Planet's magnetic "shield." It will play a key role in studying the planet's atmosphere and interactions with solar wind, helping answer the question of why a planet once thought to have an abundance of liquid water became a frozen desert.

"The MAVEN magnetometer is key to unraveling the nature of the interactions between the solar wind and the planet," said MAVEN principal investigator Bruce Jakosky from University of Colorado at Boulder's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (CU/LASP).

The magnetometer will measure the planet's magnetic field through a series of coils, each containing a magnetic ring wrapped around a metal core. The sensors, known as "flux gates," are driven in and out of saturation by applied magnetic fields.

If there is no ambient magnetic field, the sensors remain balanced. If there is an ambient field present, the sensors will go into saturation more quickly in one direction than the other. It's the imbalance that reveals the presence of an ambient field.

"A magnetometer is like an electronic compass," said Jack Connerney, mission co-investigator at Goddard. "But we measure the strength, as well as the direction, of the magnetic field."

The importance of studying the planet's magnetic field is rooted in the theory that Mars lost its global magnetic field billions of years ago, allowing the solar wind to strip the atmosphere and dry out the planet.

Unlike Earth's global magnetic field, which surrounds the entire planet, Mars only has patches of magnetic field left in its crust. This can create pockets of atmosphere that are protected against solar wind and others that are left vulnerable.

By measuring sections of the planet's magnetic field, the magnetometer could help scientists create a bigger picture of the planet's overall atmosphere.

"The magnetometer helps us see where the atmosphere is protected by mini-magnetospheres and where it's open to solar wind," Connerney said. "We can study the solar wind impact and how efficient it is at stripping the atmosphere."

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

NASA James Webb Telescope: Super-Speed Look at Progress

A full-scale model of the James Webb Space Telescope was built by the prime contractor, Northrop Grumman, to provide a better understanding of the size, scale and complexity of the observatory. 

The model is constructed mainly of aluminum and steel, weighs 12,000 lb., and is approximately 80 feet long, 40 feet wide and 40 feet tall. 

The model requires 2 trucks to ship it and assembly takes a crew of 12 approximately four days.

Credit: Bobby Bradley/NASA

NASA released a new sped-up, 32-second video that shows engineers working on some of the James Webb Space Telescope's flight components to integrate them together to ensure they will work perfectly together in space.

The "NASA Webb Clean Room at Super-speed" video was filmed in the giant clean room at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., and produced at Goddard.

Testing of the two flight instruments that have been delivered to Goddard has been ongoing in the past several months.

The video is available on a NASA website in HD at:

› Larger image Engineers and scientists at Goddard have begun assembling the four science instruments together. In a recently released video from NASA clean room personnel are shown installing the Fine Guidance Sensor (FGS) instrument into a larger structure called the Integrated Science Instrument Module (ISIM) structure.

The ISIM structure is the larger skeletal structure in the video, and the FGS is the object on the end of a balance beam being moved by a crane.

"This is the integration of the FGS/NIRISS instrument onto the ISIM structure," said Scott Lambros, Webb Instrument systems manager at Goddard.

"This is the first of the four instruments to be integrated on the structure and is a very exciting time. It clearly shows we are moving into a new phase, from development, into the integration and then testing phase."

The FGS is actually one half of a combination instrument with the Near-Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph (NIRISS) science instrument.

The FGS will enable the telescope to accurately and precisely point at the correct, intended objects for it to observe.

"The Webb telescope fine guidance sensor which provides pointing stability, or image stabilizer control, has been installed and being readied for testing together with other instruments in the ISIM," said Ray Lundquist, ISIM systems engineer at Goddard.

The FGS is packaged together as a single unit with the NIRISS science instrument and is developed and provided by the Canadian Space Agency and its prime contractor, COM DEV.

The ISIM is the whole integrated system of instruments on the Webb. It's one of four major elements that comprise the Webb Observatory flight system.

It contains the four science instruments that will detect light from distant stars and galaxies, and planets orbiting other stars.

The ISIM itself provides electrical, computational and heat management services for the science instruments.

"The MIRI instrument will be the next to be integrated onto the structure within the next month, with the NIRCam and NIRSpec instruments to follow later this year," Lambros said.

Another video was released last year produced by the Space Science Telescope Institute of Baltimore, Md., in the "Behind the Webb" series.

That video, called "Canada's Dynamic Duo," took viewers behind the scenes where the instruments were created, and is on-line.

The most powerful space telescope ever built, Webb is the successor to NASA's Hubble Space Telescope. Webb's four instruments will reveal how the universe evolved from the big bang to the formation of our solar system. Webb is a joint project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency.

To download the "NASA Webb Cleanroom at Super-speed" HD video, visit:

To see a related "Behind the Webb" video on FGS and NIRISS

To learn more about the ISIM.

ESA Herschel Image: How to Build a Very Large Star

This image does not show any stars because the Herschel Space Observatory’s cameras record far-infrared light instead of visible light. 

Gas is not visible either, even though it makes up most of the 400,000 solar masses of matter in this cloud: dust amounts to only about one percent of the mass. 

Credit: ESA/PACS Array SPIRE consortium, A. Rivera-Ingraham and P. G. Martin, University of Toronto, HOBYS Key Programme (F. Motte)

Stars ten times as massive as the Sun, or more, should not exist: as they grow, they tend to push away the gas they feed on, starving their own growth.

Scientists have been struggling to figure out how some stars overcome this hurdle.

Now, a group of researchers led by two astronomers at the University of Toronto suggests that baby stars may grow to great mass if they happen to be born within a corral of older stars –with these surrounding stars favorably arranged to confine and thus feed gas to the younger ones in their midst.

The astronomers have seen hints of this collective feeding, or technically “convergent constructive feedback,” in a giant cloud of gas and dust called Westerhout 3 (W3), located 6,500 light years from us.

Their results are published in the upcoming month in The Astrophysical Journal.

Alana Rivera-Ingraham
“This observation may lift the veil on the formation of the most massive stars which remains, so far, poorly understood,” says Alana Rivera-Ingraham, who led the study while she was a graduate student in the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of Toronto, Canada, and is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the Institut de Recherche en Astrophysique et Planétologie in Toulouse, France.

To study the formation of high-mass stars, Rivera-Ingraham and collaborators used high-quality and high-resolution far-infrared images from a space telescope launched by the European Space Agency in 2009 —the Herschel Space Observatory.

This telescope’s two cameras recorded light that is not visible to the naked eye, spanning a range from infrared radiation partway to the microwave region.

Peter Martin
Exploiting these cameras, scientists including Peter Martin, Professor in the Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics at the University of Toronto, created the HOBYS Key Programme to study the birth of very massive stars in nearby giant clouds of gas and dust in our own Galaxy, including W3.

Research on HOBYS at the University of Toronto is supported in part by the Canadian Space Agency and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.

Scientists track the regions of the gas cloud where stars are about to form by mapping the density of dust and its temperature, looking for the most dense regions where the dust is shielded and cold.

“We can now see where stars are about to be born before it even happens, because we can detect the cold dust condensations,” says Martin. “Until Herschel, we could only dream of doing that.”

Stars are born in the denser parts of gas clouds, where the gas gets compressed enough by gravity to trigger nuclear fusion. The more massive the newborn star, the more visible and ultraviolet light it emits, heating up its surroundings —including the dust studied by Herschel.

“The radiation during the birth of high-mass stars is so intense that it tends to destroy and push away the material from which they need to feed for further growth,” says Rivera-Ingraham.

Scientists have modeled this process and found that stars about eight times the mass of our Sun would stop growing because they run out of gas.

Herschel Observations of the W3 GMC: Clues to the Formation of Clusters of High-Mass Stars. The Astrophysical Journal, 2013

Xenoturbella bocki worm Keeps Its Position as Progenitor of Humankind

Xenoturbella bocki worm. 

Credit: Hiroaki Nakano

Researchers are arguing about whether or not the Xenoturbella bocki worm is the progenitor of humankind, but new studies indicate that this is actually the case.

Swedish researchers from the University of Gothenburg and the Gothenburg Natural History Museum are involved in the international study.

The results have been published in the journal of Nature Communications.

The Xenoturbella bocki worm is a one-centimetre long worm with a simple body plan that is only found regularly by the west coast of Sweden.

The worm lacks a brain, sexual organs and other vital organs.

Zoologists have long disagreed about whether or not the Xenoturbella bocki worm holds a key position in the animal tree of life.

If it does have a key position, it is very important for the understanding of the evolutionary development of organs and cell functions, such as stem cells, for example.

The question is therefore not only important in the field of biology, but also for potential biomedical applications.

Matthias Obst
"It's absolutely fantastic that one of the key evolutionary organisms in the animal kingdom lives right on the doorstep of the University of Gothenburg's Centre for Marine Research, and this is actually the only place in the whole world where you can do research on the creature," says Matthias Obst from the Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences at the University of Gothenburg.

Genetic studies indicate that the Xenoturbella bocki worm belongs to the group of deuterostomes, the exclusive group to which human's belongs.

"So maybe we're more closely related to the Xenoturbella bocki worm, which doesn't have a brain, than we are to lobsters and flies, for example," says Matthias Obst.

Even though the worm does not particularly resemble man, development biologists have referred to the fact that the early embryonic development of the worm may display similarities with the group to which man belongs.

But the problem has been that no one has previously been able to see the development of the creature.

But now a group of researchers at the Sven Lovén Centre for Marine Sciences and the Gothenburg Natural History Museum have succeeded in doing what no one else has done before: to isolate newly born little Xenoturbella bocki worms.

"And these new-born worms revealed absolutely no remnants at all of advanced features! Instead, they exhibit similarities with quite simple, ancient animals such as corals and sponges," says Matthias Obst.

The studies also reveal the value of the University of Gothenburg's marine stations for important basic research.

"The Lovén Centre at the University of Gothenburg is the only place in the whole world where you can study this paradoxical animal (in Swedish called 'Paradox worm'). That's one reason why researchers come from all over the world to Gullmarsfjorden to solve one of the great mysteries in the evolution of animal life," says Matthias Obst.

Xenoturbella bocki exhibits direct development with similarities to Acoelomorpha. Nature Communications, 2013; 4: 1537 DOI: 10.1038/ncomms2556

NASA Turns Up the Heat On Construction of the SLS

An adapter for the Orion spacecraft under construction at the Marshall Center.


Welding engineers at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., have had an extremely busy winter assembling adapters that will connect the Orion spacecraft to a Delta IV rocket for the initial test flight of Orion in 2014.

The adapter later will attach Orion to NASA's Space Launch System (SLS), a new heavy-lift rocket managed and in development at the Marshall Center that will enable missions farther into space than ever before.

The 2014 Orion Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) will provide engineers with important data about the adapter's performance before it is flown on SLS beginning in 2017.

In a high bay of Marshall's Building 4755, expert welders using state-of-the-art friction stir welding machines worked on two separate adapters.

For each adapter, a vertical welding machine stitched panels together to form a conical cylinder, then a circumferential welding machine attached a thicker, structural support ring at the top and the bottom.

"While the adapters are identical and are considered flight articles, only one will actually be used for EFT-1," said Brent Gaddes, Spacecraft & Payload Integration Subsystem manager.

"The other will undergo strenuous structural testing to ensure quality, while its twin will make the trip to NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida for integration into the rest of the test vehicle for launch."

United Launch Alliance (ULA), which makes the Delta IV rocket in nearby Decatur, Ala., will deliver a full-size section of the rocket later this spring for engineers to test the fit of the adapter.

"You really don't have the tools and the resources in one place anywhere else in the world," said Justin Littell, a mechanical engineer with the welding group at the Marshall Center. "The work that we do here is exciting and I get to work with a great team. It's amazing."

See the friction stir welds in action in this video:

NASA Scientists Reveal Moon and Asteroids Share History

Scientists have now discovered that studying meteorites from the giant asteroid Vesta helps them understand the event known as the "lunar cataclysm," when a repositioning of the gas giant planets destabilized a portion of the asteroid belt and triggered a solar-system-wide bombardment. 


NASA and international researchers have discovered that Earth's moon has more in common than previously thought with large asteroids roaming our solar system.

Asteroid Vesta
Scientists from NASA's Lunar Science Institute (NLSI) in Moffett Field, Calif., discovered that the same population of high-speed projectiles that impacted our lunar neighbor four billion years ago, also hit the giant asteroid Vesta and perhaps other large asteroids.

The research unveils an unexpected link between Vesta and the moon, and provides new means for studying the early bombardment history of terrestrial planets. The findings are published in the March issue of Nature Geoscience.

"It's always intriguing when interdisciplinary research changes the way we understand the history of our solar system," said Yvonne Pendleton, NLSI director.

Yvonne Pendleton
"Although the moon is located far from Vesta, which is in the main asteroid belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, they seem to share some of the same bombardment history."

The findings support the theory that the repositioning of gas giant planets like Jupiter and Saturn from their original orbits to their current location destabilised portions of the asteroid belt and triggered a solar system-wide bombardment of asteroids billions of years ago, called the lunar cataclysm.

The research provides new constraints on the start and duration of the lunar cataclysm, and demonstrates that the cataclysm was an event that affected not only the inner solar system planets, but the asteroid belt as well.

The moon rocks brought back by NASA Apollo astronauts have long been used to study the bombardment history of the moon.

Now the ages derived from meteorite samples have been used to study the collision history of main belt asteroids.

In particular, howardite and eucrite meteorites, which are common species found on Earth, have been used to study asteroid Vesta, their parent body.

With the aid of computer simulations, researchers determined that meteorites from Vesta recorded high-speed impacts which are now long gone.

Researchers have linked these two datasets and found that the same population of projectiles responsible for making craters and basins on the moon were also hitting Vesta at very high velocities, enough to leave behind a number of telltale, impact-related ages.

The team's interpretation of the howardites and eucrites was augmented by recent close-in observations of Vesta's surface by NASA's Dawn spacecraft.

In addition, the team used the latest dynamical models of early main belt evolution to discover the likely source of these high velocity impactors.

The team determined that the population of projectiles that hit Vesta had orbits that also enabled some objects to strike the moon at high speeds.

"It appears that the asteroidal meteorites show signs of the asteroid belt losing a lot of mass four billion years ago, with the escaped mass beating up on both the surviving main belt asteroids and the moon at high speeds" says lead author Simone Marchi, who has a joint appointment between two of NASA's Lunar Science Institutes, one at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo., and another at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston.

"Our research not only supports the current theory, but it takes it to the next level of understanding."

High-velocity collisions from the lunar cataclysm recorded in asteroidal meteorites. Nature Geoscience, 2013; DOI: 10.1038/ngeo1769

Carnegie Astronomers Discover New Kind of Supernova; Type Iax

This artist's conception shows the suspected progenitor of a new kind of supernova called Type Iax. 

Material from a hot, blue helium star at right is funneling toward a carbon/oxygen white dwarf star at left, which is embedded in an accretion disk. In many cases the white dwarf survives the subsequent explosion. 

Credit: Image is provided courtesy of Christine Pulliam (CfA)

Supernovae were always thought to occur in two main varieties but a team of astronomers including Carnegie's Wendy Freedman, Mark Phillips and Eric Persson is reporting the discovery of a new type of supernova called Type Iax.

This research has been accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal.

Previously, supernovae were divided into either core-collapse or Type Ia categories. Core-collapse supernovae are the explosion of a star about 10 to 100 times as massive as our sun. Type Ia supernovae are the complete disruption of a tiny white dwarf.

Wendy Freedman
This new type, Iax, is fainter and less energetic than Type Ia. Although both types come from exploding white dwarfs, Type Iax supernovas may not completely destroy the white dwarf.

Ryan Foley
"A Type Iax supernova is essentially a mini supernova," says lead author Ryan Foley, Clay Fellow at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA). "It's the runt of the supernova litter."

The research team, which also included Max Stritzinger identified 25 examples of the new type of supernova.

Max Stritzinger
None of them appeared in elliptical galaxies, which are filled with old stars. This suggests that Type Iax supernovas come from young star systems.

Based on a variety of observational data, the team concluded that a Type Iax supernova comes from a binary star system containing a white dwarf and a companion star that has lost its outer hydrogen, leaving it helium dominated. The white dwarf collects helium from the normal star.

Researchers aren't sure what triggers a Type Iax. It's possible that the outer helium layer ignites first, sending a shock wave into the white dwarf.

Alternatively, the white dwarf might ignite first due to the influence of the overlying helium shell.

Either way, it appears that in many cases the white dwarf survives the explosion, unlike in a Type Ia supernova where the white dwarf is completely destroyed.

Mark Phillips
The team calculates that Type Iax supernovae are about a third as common as Type Ia supernovae. The reason so few have been detected is that the faintest are only one-hundredth as bright as a Type Ia supernova.

"The closer we look, the more ways we find for stars to explode," Mark Phillips said.

The Large Synoptic Survey Telescope could discover thousands of Type Iax supernovas over its lifetime.

Type Iax Supernovae: A New Class of Stellar Explosion. The Astrophysical Journal, 2013; 767 (1): 57 DOI: 10.1088/0004-637X/767/1/57

SpaceX Dragon capsule returns from International Space Station

The SpaceX Dragon capsule is captured by the crew of the International Space Station using its robotic arm in this screen capture from NASA handout video released March 3, 2013. 

Credit REUTERS/NASA/Handout

A Space Exploration Technologies' Dragon cargo capsule splashed down in the Pacific Ocean on Tuesday, bringing back science experiments and gear from the International Space Station (ISS).

The spacecraft left the orbital outpost at 6:56 a.m. ET, and parachuted into the ocean about 225 miles west of Mexico's Baja California at 12:34 p.m. ET.

"Recovery ship just heard the sonic booms from Dragon re-entry and has data transmission lock," Elon Musk, founder and chief executive of the privately held company known as SpaceX, wrote on Twitter just before splashdown.

A minute later, recovery ship personnel reported seeing Dragon's parachutes, Musk said.

"Recovery ship has secured Dragon," Musk wrote. "Cargo looks A-OK."

The ship will take the capsule to the Port of Los Angeles, near the company's Hawthorne, California, headquarters, a journey expected to take about 30 hours.

Dragon's return began 252 miles above Earth when astronauts aboard the station used a robotic crane to pluck the capsule from its berthing port and set it into orbit.

SpaceX flight controllers then stepped in and remotely commanded Dragon to fire its steering thrusters and begin the 5.5-hour journey home.

Thomas Marshburn
"It looks beautiful from here," station flight engineer Thomas Marshburn radioed to Mission Control in Houston as the capsule flew away.

"Sad to see the Dragon go. Performed her job beautifully, heading back to her lair. Wish her all the best for the splashdown today," Marshburn said.

The Dragon cargo ship reached the station on March 3 with more than 2,300 pounds (1,043 kg) of science equipment, spare parts, food and supplies. It was the second of 12 planned cargo runs for NASA under a $1.6 billion contract.

A second freighter, built and operated by Orbital Sciences Corp, is expected to debut this year.

The U.S. space agency hired both firms to fill the gap left by the retirement of its space shuttle fleet in 2011.

Dragon's arrival was delayed a day while SpaceX engineers grappled with a thruster pod problem that had threatened to derail the mission.

"I don't want to go through that again. That was hard-core," Musk said during a keynote speech at the South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas, earlier this month.

Engineers believe the glitch was caused by a blockage in a pressurisation line or a stuck valve. It was cleared and the capsule made a precision rendezvous with the station with no problems.

Dragon returned to Earth with 2,668 (1,210 kg) of cargo, including a freezer filled with biological samples from the crew for medical research.

While Russian (Progress), European (ATV) and Japanese (HTV) freighters also service the station, only the SpaceX vessel is designed to return cargo to Earth, a critical transportation link that had been lost with the retirement of the shuttles.

SpaceX is working to upgrade the Dragon capsule to fly people as well. A test flight with company astronauts is targeted for 2016.

Metascreen: Metamaterial research into light transparency

Researchers have now developed a cloak that is just micrometers thick and can hide three-dimensional objects from microwaves in their natural environment, in all directions and from all of the observers’ positions. 

Credit: Image courtesy of Institute of Physics

Their research, which has so far produced an ultralow profile cloak designed for "scattering suppression of a finite-length rod in free space", has been published in the New Journal of Physics.

Presenting their study today, 26 March, in the Institute of Physics and German Physical Society's New Journal of Physics, the researchers, from the University of Texas at Austin, have used a new, ultra-thin layer called a "metascreen."

The cloak is made of a new kind of material called a metascreen, made up of strips of copper tape attached to a flexible polycarbonate film.

Andrea Alu
The copper strips are only 66 micrometres thick and the polycarbonate film is 100 micrometres thick, and the two combined make a diagonal fishnet pattern.

It works by scattering and cancelling out incoming waves, and the researchers were able to use the cloak to shield an 18 centimetre-tall cylindrical rod from microwaves.

"When the scattered fields from the cloak and the object interfere, they cancel each other out and the overall effect is transparency and invisibility at all angles of observation," said Andrea Alu, one of the physicists.

Journal Reference: 
J C Soric, P Y Chen, A Kerkhoff, D Rainwater, K Melin, A Al. Demonstration of an ultralow profile cloak for scattering suppression of a finite-length rod in free space. New Journal of Physics, 2013; 15 (3): 033037 DOI: 10.1088/1367-2630/15/3/033037

Metaflex: Scottish Scientist develop 'Invisibility Cloak'

The material, called "Metaflex" may in future provide a way of manufacturing fabrics that manipulate light.

Metamaterials have already been developed that bend and channel light to render objects invisible at longer wavelengths.

Visible light poses a greater challenge because its short wavelength means the metamaterial atoms have to be very small.

So far such small light-bending atoms have only been produced on flat, hard surfaces unsuitable for use in clothing.

But scientists at the University of St Andrews in Scotland believe they have overcome this problem. They have produced flexible metamaterial "membranes" using a new technique that frees the meta-atoms from the hard surface they are constructed on.

Metaflex can operate at wavelengths of around 620 nanometres, within the visible light region. Stacking the membranes together could produce a flexible "smart fabric" that may provide the basis of an invisibility cloak, the scientists believe.

Other applications could include "superlenses" that are far more efficient than conventional lenses.

Describing their work in the New Journal of Physics, the researchers write: "Arguably, one of the most exciting applications of Metaflex is to fabricate three-dimensional flexible MMs (metamaterials) in the optical range, which can be achieved by stacking several Metaflex membranes on top of one another...

Dr Andrea Di Falco
"These results confirm that it is possible to realise MMs on flexible substrates and operating in the visible regime, which we believe are ideal building blocks for future generations of three-dimensional flexible MMs at optical wavelengths."

Lead scientist Dr Andrea Di Falco said: "Metamaterials give us the ultimate handle on manipulating the behaviour of light."

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Indonesia’s Mount Lokon volcano erupts spewing ash over villages

The Mount Lokon volcano in Indonesia's Tomohon City has erupted, spewing ash up to 2,000 metres into the air.

Soyuz Rolls Out at Kazakhstan

The Soyuz rocket is rolled out to the launch pad by train on Tuesday, March 26, 2013, at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. 

Launch of the Soyuz rocket is scheduled for March 29.

The Soyuz rocket will send Expedition 35 Soyuz Commander Pavel Vinogradov, and Flight Engineers Chris Cassidy of NASA and Alexander Misurkin of Russia on a five-and-a-half-month mission aboard the International Space Station.

Image Credit: NASA/Carla Cioffi

NASA GRAIL Mission: LRO's LAMP Captures Lunar Impact

These models show the time evolution for hydrogen (left) and mercury (right) as plumes of gas rapidly expand into the vacuum of space following the planned impact of the GRAIL twins onto the lunar surface. 

Data from the Lyman-Alpha Mapping Project (LAMP) aboard NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter accurately constrain such models used to understand the impact event. 


When NASA's twin GRAIL spacecraft made their final descent for impact onto the Moon's surface last December, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter's sophisticated payload was in position to observe the effects.

As plumes of gas rose from the impacts, the Lyman Alpha Mapping Project (LAMP) aboard LRO detected the presence of mercury and hydrogen and measured their time evolution as the gas rapidly expanded into the vacuum of space at near-escape velocities.

NASA intentionally crashed the GRAIL twins onto the Moon on Dec. 17, 2012, following successful prime and extended science missions.

Both spacecraft hit a mountain near the lunar north pole, which was shrouded in shadow at the time.

Developed by Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), LAMP uses a novel method to peer into the darkness of the Moon's permanently shadowed regions, making it ideal for observations of the Moon's night-side and its tenuous atmospheric constituents.

Dr. Kurt Retherford
"While our results are still very new, our thinking is that the hydrogen detected from the GRAIL site might be related to an enhancement at the poles caused by hydrogen species migrating toward the colder polar regions," says Dr. Kurt Retherford, LAMP principal investigator and a principal scientist at SwRI.

"Combining GRAIL results with LCROSS results could tell us more about hydrogen and water near the poles," says Dr. Thomas Greathouse, a LAMP team member and SwRI senior research scientist.

“We have begun to understand that the amount of water ice near the polar regions is higher than was previously thought, but we don't fully understand how it gets there."

LAMP usually observes the night-side lunar surface using light from nearby space (and stars), which bathes all bodies in space in a soft glow.

This Lyman-alpha glow is invisible to human eyes but visible to LAMP as it reflects off the Moon.

However, the new detection of Lyman-alpha emissions from native lunar atomic hydrogen gas released by the impact is a first for LAMP, and for any previous instrument.

Boeing 787 Dreamliner Test Flight 'went to plan'

Boeing has said that a test flight to check the 787 Dreamliner's new battery system "went according to plan".

Boeing redesigned its battery after malfunctions on some planes led to the grounding of the entire 787 fleet.

The firm said it would analyse the data and prepare for another test flight aimed at demonstrating the system to regulators in "coming days".

According to some estimates, Boeing is losing $50m (£33m) per week because of the grounding of the 787 planes.

The grounding has also led to Boeing being prevented from delivering new Dreamliners to customers.

Battery redesign
The Dreamliner 787 is the first plane in the world to use the lithium-ion batteries, which are lighter, hold more power and recharge more quickly.

But incidents relating to battery malfunction earlier this year raised some concerns over its safety and led to the grounding of the fleet.

Nippon Airways Incident
In January, a fire started in a battery pack in a Japan Airlines 787 in Boston. Meanwhile, an All Nippon Airways flight was forced to make an emergency landing because of a battery malfunction.

Boeing has since submitted a plan to the authorities to redesign the battery to ensure its safety.

Its plan includes improving the battery design to stop faults from occurring as well as enhancing the production, operating and testing processes.

At the same time, Boeing said the plan included a new battery enclosure system to prevent any possible overheating from affecting the plane.

Some analysts said that the redesign was likely to help address the concerns surrounding the battery.

"I will give the Boeing engineers the benefit of the doubt that they have designed a box that will handle what the battery can give it," said John Goglia, a former board member of the US National Transport Safety Board (NTSB).

No quick fix
The battery redesign plan was approved by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) earlier this month.

But the regulator had told Boeing to "conduct extensive testing and analysis".

Deepsea Challenger gifted to Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

The sub that took Hollywood director James Cameron to the deepest place in the ocean is being donated to science.

On the first anniversary of his 10.9km solo descent of the Mariana Trench, Mr Cameron told reporters that he was giving the Deepsea Challenger to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, US.

Initially, parts will be used as add-ons for other subs, but the entire system could dive again in the future.

Mr Cameron said he would like to return to the controls himself at some point.

"I'd like to go dive the sub again," he explained. "There are a number of really, really interesting science targets out there.

I would love to see the Deepsea Challenger dive in the Tonga Trench, the Kermadec Trench and the Sirena Deep (a 10.7km-deep part of the Mariana Trench)."

The director said that the ocean was a vast unexplored frontier, but that funding cuts were now jeopardising research.

WHOI is one of the world's foremost research centres dedicated to ocean science. It already operates a a number of submersibles including the famous Alvin vehicle.

Initially, Woods Hole will use some of the components in Mr Cameron's sub to supplement its own vessels.

The lights and cameras from Deepsea Challenger will be installed on Nereus, an unmanned underwater vehicle that has also explored the Mariana Trench.

Dr Dave Gallo, director of special projects at WHOI, said the next stage would be to work out what other technology might be of use - and whether the submersible could be used again.

He added: "It is for one person, so you would have to have someone trained to do it - and we are looking very closely at every option."

The filmmaker said more money should be put into ocean science - and that it was essential to explore the biology and the chemistry of the deepsea.

The preliminary science results of the dive, which were released at the American Geophysical Union's Fall Meeting in San Francisco, suggest that the team had found many species that are new to science.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Russia's Soyuz TMA-08M spacecraft at Baikonur

Credit: NASA/Victor Zelentsov

The Soyuz TMA-08M spacecraft lowers into place March 22, 2013, during encapsulation into the third stage of a Soyuz booster rocket, at the Integration Facility of the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

Soyuz will launch March 29 (Kazakh time), carrying Expedition 35/36 Flight Engineer Chris Cassidy of NASA, Soyuz Commander Pavel Vinogradov and Flight Engineer Alexander Misurkin to the International Space Station for a 5-½ month mission.

An ISS Astronaut's View of the US Colorado Plateau

The Colorado Plateau spans northern Arizona, southern Utah, northwestern New Mexico, and southwestern Colorado. 

This physiographic province is well known for its striking landscapes and broad vistas—an impression that is enhanced by the view from the orbital perspective of the International Space Station. 

This astronaut photograph highlights part of the Utah-Arizona border region of the Plateau, and includes several prominent landforms.

The Colorado River, dammed to form Lake Powell in 1963, crosses from east to west (which is left to right here because the astronaut was looking south; north is towards the bottom of the image). 

The confluence of the Colorado and San Juan Rivers is also visible. Sunglint—sunlight reflected off a water surface back towards the observer—provides a silvery, mirror-like sheen to some areas of the water surfaces.

The geologic uplift of the Colorado Plateau led to rapid downcutting of rivers into the flat sedimentary bedrock, leaving spectacular erosional landforms. 

One such feature, The Rincon, preserves evidence of a former meander bend of the Colorado River.

Image Credit: NASA

Japan finds rich Rare Earth deposits on seabed

Japanese researchers said Thursday they have found a rich deposit of rare earths on the Pacific seabed, with reports suggesting it could be up to 30 times more concentrated than Chinese reserves.

Mud samples taken from 5,800 metres (19,000 feet) below the waves contained highly concentrated amounts of the precious minerals, which are vital for high-tech manufacturing and used in products including wind turbines and iPods.

The proving of resources is significant for Japan, which currently relies largely on China. China has a near-monopoly hold on Rare Earth elements; around 90 percent of the world's supply of rare earths.

Manufacturers have complained in the past that Beijing restricts exports of the materials at times of tension.

"Rare Earths are necessary for cutting-edge technologies. Japan faces an urgent task to secure stable supplies," said a statement by researchers from the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology and the University of Tokyo.

The samples, taken from the seabed near Minamitori island some 2,000 kilometres (1,250 miles) southeast of Tokyo, were 10 times more concentrated than that of mud collected from the seabed near Hawaii, the researchers said.

The concentration was 20 to 30 times higher than that from Chinese mines, Japanese media said.

Scientists believe the seabed contains about 6.8 million tonnes of the materials, the equivalent of 220 to 230 years worth of rare earths used in Japan.

But despite the desire to move away from dependence on oppressive China, the cost of extracting supplies from such a depth and in such hostile conditions may prove problematic.

In its afternoon edition, the mass-selling news provider Yomiuri Shimbun said there had been no successful commercial mining below 5,000 metres.

The researchers said they plan to continue their survey, which began in January, to further study rare earth resources and find out how extensive the deposits are.