Monday, June 30, 2014

Arecibo observatory: Two New Programs Launching to Listen for Aliens

The 305-meter telescope at Arecibo Observatory is just one of a collection that SETI will use to search nearby stars for electronic signals that could indicate intelligent life. 

If such a civilization was utilizing a similar dish to image exoplanets, SETI's team should be able to detect it.

Credit: Arecibo Observatory

SETI is stepping up its search for alien lifeforms on far off worlds.

The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) program recently announced two new methods to search for signals that could come from life on other planets.

In the Panchromatic SETI project, multiple telescopes will scan a variety of wavelengths from 30 stars near the sun; the project will look for powerful signals beamed into space, potentially by intelligent extraterrestrials.

SETI is also launching an interplanetary eavesdropping program that is expected to search for messages beamed between planets in a single system.

"If we are polluting space, perhaps other extraterrestrials are leaking signals," Dan Werthimer, director of the Berkley SETI Research Center, told an audience during the Smithsonian Magazine's "The Future is Here" Festival in May. "Maybe they're sending something our way."

'Everything we've got'
Since humans made their first FM radio and television transmissions, signals from Earth have been spilling out into space, announcing the presence of intelligent life to any group that might be searching for it.

According to Werthimer, signals from the 1950s television show "I Love Lucy" have reached thousands of stars, while the nearest suns have already enjoyed the "The Simpsons."

If Earth has unintentionally leaked signs of its presence, other alien civilizations may have done the same thing.

SETI's new Panchromatic project will utilize a variety of telescopes covering a range of frequencies to scour the nearest stars.

"We're going to throw everything we've got at it," Werthimer added.

The panchromatic project will examine a sample of the 30 stars that lie within 5 parsecs (16 light-years) from the sun. The list includes 13 single stars, seven binary systems and one triple system.

Most of the stars are smaller than the sun, but the project will also examine two white dwarfs and one moderately evolved F star. No confirmed exoplanets have been found around any of the stars.

By setting distance as the criteria, the SETI team hopes to alleviate any bias that might otherwise result from focusing on systems similar to that of Earth. The team selected stars for study based only on how far they lie from the sun.

According to SETI-Berkeley's Andrew Siemion, chief scientist of the eavesdropping project, the search will also probe a diverse stellar population already well studied at many wavelengths.

"In the event of a non-detection, these attributes of the sample will allow us to place strong and broadly applicable limits on the presence of technology," Siemion told via email.

Observations from the Low Frequency Array (LOFAR) telescope in Europe and the Green Bank Telescope (GBT) in West Virginia will begin over the summer and fall of 2014.

Instrument development and commissioning is still in progress for the Infrared Spatial Interferometer (ISI) at Mount Wilson Observatory and the Nickel Telescope at Lick Observatory, both in California.

But according to Siemion, the pair should be ready at about the same time. The Nickel Telescope will conduct the first-ever SETI observations done in the near-infrared.

ESA Rosetta 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko: Comet 'sweats' two glasses of water per second

This artist's impression shows the Rosetta orbiter at comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The image is not to scale. 

Credit: ESA/ATG Medialab

Unprecedented measurement of a deep-space comet has found the icy body to be losing about two small glasses of water every second, the European Space Agency (ESA) said on Monday.

ESA's Rosetta, made the measurements on June 6, when it aimed a microwave sensor at 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, on which it will land a probe in August after a 10-year space trek.

It found the comet lost 300 millilitres (10.5 fluid ounces) of water in vapour every second, even though it was still 583 million kilometres (364 million miles) from the Sun, which it orbits.

The measurement is a technical feat, carried out when Rosetta was still 350,000 km from the comet.

It also indicates that the Sun starts to have a visible impact on comets even when the wanderers are still at a great distance, ESA said in a press release.

"We always knew we would see water vapour outgassing from the comet, but we were surprised at how early we detected it," said Sam Gulkis of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who is in charge of Rosetta's MIRO microwave instrument.

"At this rate, the comet would fill an Olympic-size swimming pool in about 100 days but, as it gets closer to the Sun, the... production rate will increase significantly."

Comets follow elliptical paths around the Sun, spewing spectacular tails of gas, dust and frozen water as heat from the hot star causes surface ice to evaporate.

These tails, illuminated in the Sun's rays, are what makes comets so spectacular when seen from Earth.

Launched in 2004, Rosetta is designed to team up with "67P" in August and follow it on its journey around the Sun.

In November, it will send down a 100-kilogramme (220-pound) refrigerator-sized lander, Philae, which will hook itself to the comet's surface and carry out scientific experiments.

On Monday, the spacecraft was within 72,000 km of its destination, ESA said.

Six manoeuvres will be needed over the coming weeks to ensure that it arrives at a distance of just 100 km from the rock on August 6.

The comet, with Rosetta as its escort, will be at its closest to the Sun in August 2015, when it will be between the orbits of Earth and Mars.

Comets are sometimes called "dirty snowballs"—but cosmologists say their primeval mix of ice and dust forms time capsules that offer insights into how the Solar System formed 4.5 billion years ago.

Some scientists believe comets may have brought much of the water in today's oceans and possibly complex molecules that kickstarted life on Earth.

ESA Athena to study the hot and energetic universe

Artist's impression of an active galaxy. 

Credit: ESA/AOES Medialab

ESA has selected the Athena advanced telescope for high-energy astrophysics as its second 'Large-class' science mission.

The observatory will study the hot and energetic Universe and takes the 'L2' slot in ESA's Cosmic Vision 2015–25 plan, with a launch foreseen in 2028.

By combining a large X-ray telescope with state-of-the-art scientific instruments, Athena will address key questions in astrophysics, including: how and why does ordinary matter assemble into the galaxies and galactic clusters that we see today? How do black holes grow and influence their surroundings?

Scientists believe that black holes lurk at the centre of almost all galaxies and that they play a fundamental role in their formation and evolution.

To investigate this connection, Athena will observe X-ray emission from very hot material just before it is swallowed by a black hole, measuring distortions due to gravitational light-bending and time-delay effects in this extreme environment. Athena will also be able to determine the spin of the black hole itself.

Athena's powerful instruments will also allow unprecedented studies of a wide range of astronomical phenomena.

These include distant gamma-ray bursts, the hot gas found in the space around clusters of galaxies, the magnetic interplay between exoplanets and their parent stars, Jupiter's auroras and comets in our own Solar System.

"Athena will be a state-of-the-art observatory that will provide a significant leap forward in scientific capabilities compared with previous X-ray missions, and will address fundamental open questions in astrophysics," says Alvaro Giménez, ESA's Director of Science and Robotic Exploration.

"Its selection ensures that Europe's success in the field of X-ray astronomy is maintained far beyond the lifetime of our flagship observatory XMM-Newton."

The selection process for L2 began in March 2013, when ESA issued a call to the European science community to suggest the scientific themes to be pursued by the Cosmic Vision programme's second and third Large missions.

In November 2013, the theme of "the hot and energetic Universe" was selected for L2 for a launch in 2028, with "the gravitational Universe" selected for L3 and a planned launch in 2034.

Now officially selected for L2, Athena now moves into a study phase. Once the mission design and costing have been completed, it will eventually be proposed for 'adoption' in around 2019, before the start of construction.

After launch, Athena will travel to its operational orbit around the gravitationally semi-stable location in space some 1.5 million kilometres beyond Earth as seen from the Sun, a position coincidentally known as L2. ESA's Herschel, Planck and Gaia missions have also used L2 orbits.

New Climate Change study shows Indonesia's disastrous deforestation

This photograph taken on February 24, 2014 during an aerial survey mission by Greenpeace in Central Kalimantan province on Indonesia's Borneo Island, shows cleared trees to make way for a palm oil plantation in a Borneo forest

Satellite images have found that Indonesia's ancient forests, a cradle of biodiversity and a buffer against climate change, have shrunk much faster than thought, scientists said on Sunday.

Between 2000 and 2012, Indonesia lost around 6.02 million hectares (14.4 million acres or 23,250 square miles) of primary forest, an area almost the size of Sri Lanka, they reported.

Primary or ancient forests are distinguished from managed forests, which are plantations of trees grown for timber and pulp.

The researchers found that primary forest loss accelerated during the period under review, reaching an annual 840,000 hectares by 2012, nearly twice the deforestation rate of Brazil, which was 460,000 hectares in the same year.

"Indonesia's forests contain high floral and faunal biodiversity, including 10 percent of the world's plants, 12 percent of the world's mammals, 16 percent of the world's reptile-amphibians and 17 percent of the world's bird species," said the study, published in the journal Nature Climate Change.

"Extensive clearing of Indonesian primary forest cover directly results in habitat loss and associated plant and animal extinctions."

Deforestation is also a blow to the fight against climate change, as ancient trees store more carbon emissions from the atmosphere than new ones do, and for a longer period, thus mitigating global warming.

The research, led by geographer Belinda Margono of the University of Maryland, looked at long-term satellite images.

During 2000-2012, total forest cover in Indonesia retreated by 15.79 million hectares, of which 6.02 million, or 38 percent, was primary forest, the investigation found.

Distinguishing between primary and managed forest is vital in the campaign to preserve biodiversity and combat climate change, the paper said.

"It is critically important to know the context of forest disturbance, whether of a high-biomass natural forest or a short-cycle plantation," it said.

"Similarly, the clearing of natural forest has very different implications on the maintenance of biodiversity richness."

It noted that in 2010, the UN's Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) put Indonesia's overall forest loss at 310,000 hectares per year from 2000-2005, and 690,000 hectares annually from 2005-2010.

Indonesia itself, in a report to the UN's Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 2009, estimated forest loss of 1.1 million hectares annually from 2000-2005.

Margono's study found the biggest losers were lowland and wetland forests in Sumatra and Kalimantan, where trees are typically chopped down by loggers for use in farming.

In other islands or island groups, Papua, Sulawesi, Maluku, Java and Bali and Nusa Tenggara, primary forest cover fell back only slightly or remained stable from 2000-2012.

More information: Nature Climate Change,

What is beneath the cracked surface of Pluto's moon Charon?

An artist’s concept of Pluto as viewed from the surface of one its moons. 

Pluto is the large disk at the center of the image. Charon is the smaller disk to the right. 

Credit: NASA, ESA and G. Bacon (STScI)

Is there evidence of an ocean-past or present-waiting to surprise us on Charon?

It isn't impossible. In fact, it might be likely.

What used to be the smallest planet in our solar system has, comparatively, the biggest moon.

Pluto, now classified as a dwarf planet, has a moon, Charon, almost 1/8th its own mass and almost half its physical volume.

Our Moon, by comparison, has about 1% of the Earth's mass and only 2% of its volume.

Charon is so large compared to Pluto that some astronomer's consider the two to be a sort of binary dwarf-planet system, as opposed to a moon-and-planet system.

Both Charon and our Moon are believed to have formed in the same way: when they were knocked off their parent planets.

Enormous collisions liquified parts of the Earth and Pluto. The debris was thrown into orbit where it later cooled.

In the process of cooling into solid bodies around the Earth and Pluto, the Moon and Charon became locked to their parent planets' orbits.

That locking of the planets to moons results in tides: here on Earth, on the Moon, and, we believe, on Pluto and Charon.

An analysis by scientists at Goddard suggests that tides on Pluto and Charon could have been especially high as Charon cooled.

This is because the part of Pluto knocked into orbit didn't get very far. Charon formed incredibly close to Pluto: only 19,000 km (12,000 miles) away.

By comparison, our Moon is currently 384,000 km (238,855 mi) from Earth. Initially, the orbit might not have been very circular, either: it might have been more eccentric or elliptical-shaped.

Eccentrically-moving, close-by Charon would have pulled on Pluto, and Pluto would have pulled back, resulting in heating of both planets and, maybe, an ocean under Charon's ice shell.

Alyssa Rhoden
Depending on exactly how Charon's orbit evolved, particularly if it went through a high-eccentricity phase, there may have been enough heat from tidal deformation to maintain liquid water beneath the surface of Charon for some time," said Alyssa Rhoden of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

"Using plausible interior structure models that include an ocean, we found it wouldn't have taken much eccentricity (less than 0.01) to generate surface fractures like we are seeing on Europa."

Artist impression of the New Horizons spacecraft as it approached Jupiter en route to Pluto. 

Credit: NASA

On icy moons like Europa and Enceladus, tidal forces exerted by their parent planets cause massive surface cracks to form.

Those cracks are easily appreciated by passing spacecraft. According to Rhoden and colleagues' model, Charon's surface should be similarly cracked.

We expect to see evidence of this fractured surface geology as the New Horizons spacecraft approaches Pluto. New Horizons will pass directly over Pluto and Charon, briefly, on July 15th 2015.

Charon was discovered thirty-five years ago, in 1978, but well-photographed for the first time by New Horizons in 2013.

With the 2015 close-up just around the corner, scientists are working swiftly to make best use of surface photographs returned by the spacecraft.

New Horizons will give us the ability to resolve objects as small as a football field on part of the surface of Pluto and Charon.

With pictures of that detail and models such as this one, we may be able to look backwards in time to determine details about both bodies, such as how thick their ice shells were when they formed.

Studying patterns of fractures in Charon's surface is critical to building accurate models of the ice shell and layers beneath.

"Our model predicts different fracture patterns on the surface of Charon depending on the thickness of its surface ice, the structure of the moon's interior and how easily it deforms, and how its orbit evolved," said Rhoden.

"By comparing the actual New Horizons observations of Charon to the various predictions, we can see what fits best and discover if Charon could have had a subsurface ocean in its past, driven by high eccentricity."

The oceans of certain icy moons with surface fractures are considered to be places where extraterrestrial life might be found.

Like Charon, Europa and Enceladus are very cold and very distant from the sun. In all three cases, the formation and maintenance of life would depend upon a reliable energy source as well as elements that can participate in the chemistry of life, such as carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus.

New Horizons Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) composite image showing the detection of Pluto’s largest moon, Charon. 

When these images were taken on July 1 and July 3, 2013, the New Horizons spacecraft was still about 550 million miles (880 million kilometers) from Pluto.

On July 14, 2015, the spacecraft is scheduled to pass just 7,750 miles (12,500 kilometers) above Pluto’s surface, where 
LORRI will be able to spot features about the size of a football field. 

Credit: NASA /Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory /Southwest Research Institute (SRI)

It is unknown if a potential ocean on Charon may have harbored these ingredients or if the ocean there existed for long enough for life to form.

The same questions apply to any ancient ocean on any moon in our Solar System or any other. The first step on Charon is to find the fractures, and then go looking for the warmth that liquid water.

"Since it's so easy to get fractures, if we get to Charon and there are none, it puts a very strong constraint on how high the eccentricity could have been and how warm the interior ever could have been," said Rhoden.

"This research gives us a head start on the New Horizons arrival, what should we look for and what can we learn from it. We're going to Pluto and Pluto is fascinating, but Charon is also going to be fascinating."

ESA ATV-5 George Lemaitre: Robotic Resupply spacecraft set for July 24 launch

ESA ATV-5 George Lemaitre, the last of five robot resupply ships Europe was scheduled to provide for the International Space Station will be taken aloft on July 24, launch firm Arianespace said on Thursday.

Known as an Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV), the freighter will be launched from Kourou, French Guiana, at 10:41 pm on July 24 (0141 GMT on July 25), it said in a statement in Paris.

The European Space Agency (ESA) was contracted to provide five ATVs for the first phase of manned operations by the US-led orbital platform.

The size of a double-decker bus, the cylindrical ATV modules are launched by a heavy Ariane 5 ES rocket, and use onboard motors and starlight navigation to rendezvous and dock with the ISS.

They bring water, food, fuel, oxygen, experiments and treats for the crew and provide much-appreciated additional living space.

At the end of a mission usually lasting several months, they undock from the ISS and burn up in the atmosphere in a controlled de-orbit.

The fifth ship is named the George Lemaitre, after the Belgian cosmologist who fathered the concept of the Big Bang which created the Universe.

The previous four ATVs were rated as very successful testbeds for automated space flight, and their technology is being considered for future US manned missions.

After the last ATV flight, the ISS will continue to be resupplied by the less sophisticated Russia's Progress freighter and fledgling US private contractors e.g. SpaceX

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Will NASA Recover Apollo 13's Plutonium 238?

Apollo 13 Astronaut Fred Haise extracts the fuel element for the SNAP-26 RTG during training

Credits: NASA

Somewhere among the jagged trenches of the South Pacific sits a graphite fuel cask containing 3.9 kg of plutonium from Apollo 13.

The fate of the radioactive plutonium-238 has long been overshadowed by the successful return of the three NASA astronauts on board the ill-fated mission.

The plutonium was supposed to fuel the System for Nuclear Auxiliary Power, or SNAP-27 Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (RTG), designed to power a set of experiments on the lunar surface but after an explosion crippled the craft and forced the crew to abandon plans of a lunar landing, the plutonium became yet another problem for mission control.

Officials from NASA confidently told The New York Times that the biggest risk was that the 40-pound generator might hit someone when it fell to Earth.

“It will keep a few fish warm,” a NASA official said. The Atomic Energy Commission, on the other hand, conceded the slight possibility that it could become ground into dust and dispersed.

NASA learned its lessons about engineering the fuel casks the hard way: in 1964, the Transit-5-BN mission aborted and the RTG burned up upon reentry above Madagascar, in keeping with its design.

Traces of plutonium were found in the area months later. In 1968, the Nimbus B-1 weather satellite was aborted soon after takeoff from Vandenberg Air Force Base and the plutonium from the SNAP-19B2 RTG plunged into 300 feet of water off the California coast, with no release of radiation.

Apollo 13’s SNAP-27 fuel, as far as we know, slipped beneath the waves and came to rest 6 to 9 kilometers deep in the Tonga Trench, one of the deepest areas in the ocean.

Subsequent testing by the U.S. Department of Energy has shown no spike in background radiation.

Not surprisingly, NASA has no desire to go looking for the small cask, even with advances in submersible technology that would make such a mission at least technically feasible.

“I don’t think that anyone has seriously considered that because of the cost of recovery,” said Leonard Dudzinski, a NASA program executive who deals with radioisotope power systems.

President Nixon (right) presenting the nation’s highest civilian award to the Apollo 13 crew (left to right, J. L. Swigert, F. W. Haise, J. A. Lovell) 

Credits: NASA

Indeed, NASA is trying to source additional plutonium 238 for its future deep space missions, the U.S. no longer produces the isotope and Russia has proved to be an unreliable source, but the useful life of the Apollo 13’s plutonium has expired.

The plutonium poses little danger to the environment: the corrosion resistant cladding should withstand seawater for approximately 870 years, ten times the plutonium’s half life.

According to NASA, the plutonium itself was in oxide form and was both chemically and biologically inert when it plunged into the ocean.

Over the years, the plutonium cask, far out of sight, has fueled two contradictory positions on the safety of RTGs for deep space missions.

For NASA, its safe return to Earth proved the effectiveness of their safety engineering. “We recognize that the Apollo 13 [RTG system] worked,” Dudzinski said. “Follow on RTGs were based on that design and improved on that design.”

Critics have taken different lessons from the untimely plunges of the RTGs. In 1997, a group of safety experts, including physicist Dr. Michio Kaku, warned that 32 kg of plutonium contained in the Saturn-bound Cassini satellite posed a greater danger than NASA would acknowledge, but ultimately, their warnings did not prevented the mission from happening.

NASA test Mars LDSD 'flying saucer' vehicle on Earth

This image taken from video provided by NASA shows the launch of the high-altitude balloon carrying the LDSD, a saucer-shaped vehicle for NASA, to test technology that could be used to land on Mars, Saturday June 28, 2014 in Kauai, Hawaii. 

Saturday's experimental flight high in Earth's atmosphere is testing a giant parachute designed to deliver heavier spacecraft and eventually astronauts. (AP Photo/NASA)

LDSD, A saucer-shaped NASA vehicle testing new technology for Mars landings made a successful rocket ride over the Pacific, but its massive descent parachute only partially unfurled.

The Low Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) was lifted by balloon 120,000 feet (36,575 meters) into the air from the Hawaiian island of Kauai.

The vehicle then rocketed even higher before deploying a novel inflatable braking system.

But cheers rapidly died Saturday as a gigantic chute designed to slow its fall to splashdown in the ocean emerged tangled.

Still, NASA officials said it's a pretty good test of technology that might one day be used to deliver heavy spacecraft, and eventually astronauts, to Mars. NASA planned a news conference on the flight Sunday.

After several weather delays, NASA will finally launched it's "flying saucer" (LDSD) into Earth's atmosphere Saturday to test technology that could be used to land on Mars.

The attempt off the coast of the Hawaiian island of Kauai tested the disc-shaped vehicle and a giant parachute.

Since the 1970s, NASA has used the same parachute design to slow landers and rovers as they streak through the thin Martian atmosphere.

With plans to send heavier spacecraft and eventually astronauts, the space agency needs a much stronger parachute.

NASA tested the technology high in Earth's atmosphere because conditions there are similar to that of Mars.

High winds at the Kauai military range forced NASA to miss its original two-week launch window in June.

NASA's OCO-2 Satellite on the Launch Pad

The launch gantry surrounding the Delta II rocket with the second Orbiting Carbon Observatory satellite onboard is seen in this black and white infrared view of Space Launch Complex 2 at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.

The satellite will measure the global distribution of carbon dioxide, the leading human-produced greenhouse gas driving changes in Earth’s climate. 

OCO-2 is set for a July 1, 2014,launch.

Photo Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Women Android Robots look strangely human

Japanese android expert Hiroshi Ishiguro, second left, and National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation Miraikan Chief Executive Director Mamoru Mohri, second right, pose with a female-announcer robot called Otonaroid, right, and a girl robot called Kodomoroid during a press unveiling of the museum's new guides in Tokyo Tuesday, June 24, 2014. 

The latest creations from Osaka University Prof. Hiroshi Ishiguro are the Otonaroid, the Kodomoroid and Telenoid, a hairless mannequin head with pointed arms that serves as a cuddly companion. 

The robots with silicon skin and artificial muscles were shown to reporters at Miraikan museum on Tuesday.

Credit Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi

The new robot guides at a Tokyo museum look so eerily human and speak so smoothly they almost outdo people, almost.

Japanese robotics expert Hiroshi Ishiguro, an Osaka University professor, says they will be useful for research on how people interact with robots and on what differentiates the person from the machine.

"Making androids is about exploring what it means to be human," he told reporters Tuesday, "examining the question of what is emotion, what is awareness, what is thinking."

In a demonstration, the remote-controlled machines moved their pink lips in time to a voice-over, twitched their eyebrows, blinked and swayed their heads from side to side. They stay seated but can move their hands.

In a clear triumph, Kodomoroid read the news without stumbling once and recited complex tongue-twisters glibly.

The robot, designed with a girlish appearance, can use a variety of voices, such as a deep male voice one minute and a squeaky girly voice the next.

The speech can be input by text, giving them perfect articulation, according to Ishiguro.

There were some glitches, such as the lips not moving at all while the robot spoke, or the Otonaroid announcer robot staying silent twice when asked to introduce itself.

National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation Miraikan Chief Executive Director Mamoru Mohri hands a female-announcer robot called Otonaroid a letter of appointment to assign as a guide at the museum as a girl robot called Kodomoroid, second left, looks on during a press event in Tokyo Tuesday, June 24, 2014. 

The latest creations from Japanese android expert Hiroshi Ishiguro are Otonaroid, Kodomoroid and Telenoid, a hairless mannequin head with pointed arms that serves as a cuddly companion.

AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi

But glitches are common with robots because they are delicate gadgetry sensitive to their environment.

Kodomoroid and the woman robot Otonaroid were joined at the demonstration by the minimally designed Telenoid, a mannequin head with pointed arms that serves as a cuddly companion.

The two life-size robots, which have silicon skin and artificial muscles, will be on display starting Wednesday, at Miraikan museum, or the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation, in Tokyo, allowing the public to interact with them extensively.

Android robot Kodomoroid speaks during a press event at the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation Miraikan in Tokyo Tuesday, June 24, 2014. 

The latest creations from Japanese android expert Hiroshi Ishiguro are a female-announcer robot called Otonaroid, a girl robot called Kodomoroid and Telenoid, a hairless mannequin head with pointed arms that serves as a cuddly companion. 

Kodomoroid read the news without stumbling once and regurgitated complex tongue-twisters glibly.

Credit Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi

Reflecting widespread opinion, Ishiguro said Japan leads the world in playful companion robots. But he acknowledged the nation was behind the U.S. in military robots.

Developing robots for more than 20 years, Ishiguro has made a point of creating robots that approximate the human appearance, including creatures that look like him. He has sent them to give overseas lectures.

His approach differs from some robotics scientists who say human appearance is pointless, perhaps creepy, and robots can look like machines, such as taking the form of a TV screen or a portable device.

Russia Next-Generation Angara Rocket: Maiden Launch Scrubbed

Artist's concept of Russia's new Angara rocket on the launchpad.

Credit: Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Center

A glitch has forced Russia to postpone today's (June 27) highly anticipated first flight of its new Angara rocket, according to media reports.

The Angara was scheduled to blast off today from Plesetsk Cosmodrome in northwestern Russia, but automated control systems detected a problem of some sort and aborted the launch during the final countdown, the news agency Reuters reported.

The launch has been delayed by at least 24 hours.

Russia has been working on the Angara rocket for more than 20 years, with the goal of securing the nation's access to space with a truly homegrown rocket.

"This is the first launch vehicle that has been developed and built from scratch in Russia," said Igor Lissov, an expert with the trade journal Novosti Kosmonovatiki, according to Reuters.

"Everything else we have is a modernization of our Soviet legacy."

Angara is designed to lift off from Plesetsk as well as Vostochny Cosmodrome, a facility now under construction in the Russian Far East. Russia wants to reduce its dependence on Kazakhstan's Baikonur Cosmodrome, currently the site of all of the nation's manned space launches and many of its unmanned efforts. (Russia has had to rent Baikonur since the Soviet Union dissolved in the early 1990s.)

NASA STEREO: Giant Waves Reveal True Size of Sun's Atmosphere

These observations, taken by NASA's Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory (STEREO) on Aug. 5, 2007, helped scientists define the outer limit of the sun's atmosphere.


The sun's volatile atmosphere is even bigger than expected, a NASA spacecraft revealed through observations of gigantic waves.

While the sun itself is 864,938 miles (1.392 million kilometers) wide, NASA's Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory (STEREO), found that the solar atmosphere, known as the corona, stretches 5 million miles (8 million km) above the sun's surface.

"We've tracked sound-like waves through the outer corona and used these to map the atmosphere," Craig DeForest of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, said in a statement from NASA. "We can't hear the sounds directly through the vacuum of space, but with careful analysis we can see them rippling through the corona."

These waves, called magnetosonic waves, are a cross between sound waves and magnetic waves called Alfven waves.

They oscillate only about once every four hours and span 10 times the width of Earth, NASA officials said.

When magnetosonic waves erupt from solar storms and other disturbances, they can ripple up to 5 million miles away from the sun's surface, DeForest and colleagues found.

Beyond this boundary, solar material separates from the corona and flows out into space in a steady stream known as the solar wind.

NASA officials say the findings will help researchers prepare for the space agency's Solar Probe Plus mission, scheduled to launch in 2018.

That mission will send a spacecraft closer to the sun that any man-made object has ever ventured, within 4 million miles (6.4 million km) of the sun's surface.

Now, scientists know the probe will actually be traveling through the corona during its historic trip.

"This research provides confidence that Solar Probe Plus, as designed, will be exploring the inner solar magnetic system," Marco Velli, a Solar Probe Plus scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, said in a statement.

"The mission will directly measure the density, velocity and magnetic field of the solar material there, allowing us to understand how motion and heat in the corona and solar wind are generated."

The findings, which were published last month in The Astrophysical Journal, should also help astronomers define the inner boundary of the heliosphere, the giant bubble enveloping the solar system, created by the solar wind and solar magnetic field.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Physicist suggests speed of light might be slower than thought

This image shows the remnant of Supernova 1987A seen in light of very different wavelengths. ALMA data (in red) shows newly formed dust in the centre of the remnant. 

Hubble (in green) and Chandra (in blue) data show the expanding shock wave. 


Physicist James Franson of the University of Maryland has captured the attention of the physics community by posting an article to the peer-reviewed New Journal of Physics in which he claims to have found evidence that suggests the speed of light as described by the theory of general relativity, is actually slower than has been thought.

The theory of general relativity suggests that light travels at a constant speed of 299,792,458 meters per second in a vacuum.

It's the c in Einstein's famous equation after all, and virtually everything measured in the cosmos is based on it, in short, it's pretty important. But, what if it's wrong?

Franson's arguments are based on observations made of the supernova SN 1987A, it exploded in February 1987.

Measurements here on Earth picked up the arrival of both photons and neutrinos from the blast but there was a problem, the arrival of the photons was later than expected, by 4.7 hours.

Scientists at the time attributed it to a likelihood that the photons were actually from another source.

But what if that wasn't what it was, Franson wonders, what if light slows down as it travels due to a property of photons known as vacuum polarization, where a photon splits into a positron and an electron, for a very short time before recombining back into a photon.

That should create a gravitational differential, he notes, between the pair of particles, which, he theorizes, would have a tiny energy impact when they recombine, enough to cause a slight bit of a slowdown during travel.

If such splitting and rejoining occurred many times with many photons on a journey of 168,000 light years, the distance between us and SN 1987A, it could easily add up to the 4.7 hour delay, he suggests.

If Franson's ideas turn out to be correct, virtually every measurement taken and used as a basis for cosmological theory, will be wrong.

Light from the sun for example, would take longer to reach us than thought, and light coming from much more distant objects, such as from the Messier 81 galaxy, a distance of 12 million light years, would arrive noticeably later than has been calculated, about two weeks later.

The implications are staggering, distances for celestial bodies would have to be recalculated and theories that were created to describe what has been observed would be thrown out. In some cases, astrophysicists would have to start all over from scratch.

More information: Apparent correction to the speed of light in a gravitational potential, J D Franson 2014 New J. Phys. 16 065008 DOI: 10.1088/1367-2630/16/6/065008 

Clumped galaxies give General Relativity its toughest test

More than 600 000 galaxies from the BOSS survey were utilized to measure the strength of gravitational interactions of galaxies extremely far away from each other. 

This is a visual representation of that measurement; the amount that the circles are distorted, or squashed from perfect concentric rings, indicates the velocity that galaxies are falling towards each other and hence the strength of the gravitational interactions. 

Credit: BOSS/U. Portsmouth

Nearly 100 years since Albert Einstein developed general relativity, the theory has passed its toughest test yet in explaining the properties of observable Universe.

The most precise measurements to date of the strength of gravitational interactions between distant galaxies show perfect consistency with general relativity's predictions.

The results will be presented by Dr Lado Samushia at the National Astronomy Meeting 2014 in Portsmouth on Wednesday 25 June.

Using the observed distortions in galaxy positions, the team were able to measure the strength of gravity with a precision of 6 per cent, the strongest constraint of its kind as yet.

The measurements turned out to be perfectly consistent with the predictions of Einstein's general relativity theory.

"Gravity is the main driving force behind the growth of structure in the Universe. According to general relativity, gravity is a manifestation of the space-time curvature, massive objects curve the space-time around them, which affects the movement of other objects around them."

"It's a very elegant theory that has been successful in explaining the outcomes of many experiments, however it is not the only theory of gravity," explained Samushia.

"Theoretical physicists have proposed many alternative theories and modifications of general relativity and the challenge for observational physicists is to test the alternative theories with ever increasing precision."

Each point on the left panel represents a galaxy, while a right panel is an actually image of one of the patches of the sky observed by SDSS

Credit: SDSS.

More information: The research has been published in Samushia et al, "The Clustering of Galaxies in the SDSS-III Baryon Oscillation Spectroscopic Survey (BOSS): measuring growth rate and geometry", Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society vol. 439, p. 3504, 2014. 

A preprint of the paper is available.

Mysterious X-ray signal intrigues astronomers

Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO/E.Bulbul, et al.

A mysterious X-ray signal has been found in a detailed study of galaxy clusters using NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and ESA's XMM-Newton.

One intriguing possibility is that the X-rays are produced by the decay of sterile neutrinos, a type of particle that has been proposed as a candidate for dark matter.

While holding exciting potential, these results must be confirmed with additional data to rule out other explanations and determine whether it is plausible that dark matter has been observed.

Astronomers think dark matter constitutes 85% of the matter in the Universe, but does not emit or absorb light like "normal" matter such as protons, neutrons and electrons that make up the familiar elements observed in planets, stars, and galaxies. Because of this, scientists must use indirect methods to search for clues about dark matter.

The latest results from Chandra and XMM-Newton consist of an unidentified X-ray emission line, that is, a spike of intensity at a very specific wavelength of X-ray light.

Astronomers detected this emission line in the Perseus galaxy cluster using both Chandra and XMM-Newton.

They also found the line in a combined study of 73 other galaxy clusters with XMM-Newton.

"We know that the dark matter explanation is a long shot, but the pay-off would be huge if we're right," said Esra Bulbul of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) in Cambridge, Mass. who led the study. "So we're going to keep testing this interpretation and see where it takes us."

The authors suggest this emission line could be a signature from the decay of a "sterile neutrino." Sterile neutrinos are a hypothetical type of neutrino that is predicted to interact with normal matter only via gravity. Some scientists have proposed that sterile neutrinos may at least partially explain dark matter.

"We have a lot of work to do before we can claim, with any confidence, that we've found sterile neutrinos," said Maxim Markevitch, a co-author from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. "But just the possibility of finding them has us very excited."

One source of uncertainty is that the detection of this emission line is pushing the capabilities of the two observatories in terms of sensitivity. Also, there may be explanations other than sterile neutrinos if this X-ray emission line is deemed to be real.

There are ways that normal matter in the cluster could have produced the line, although the team's analysis suggested that all of these would involve unlikely changes to our understanding of physical conditions in the galaxy cluster or the details of the atomic physics of extremely hot gases.

The authors note that even if the sterile neutrino interpretation is correct, their detection does not necessarily imply that all of dark matter is composed of these particles.

More information: The paper describing the new Chandra and XMM-Newton observations appears in the June 20, 2014, issue of The Astrophysical Journal:

Mars Rover Curiosity Self-Portrait at 'Windjana' Drilling Site

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

NASA's Curiosity Mars rover used the camera at the end of its arm in April and May 2014 to take dozens of component images combined into this self-portrait where the rover drilled into a sandstone target called "Windjana."

The camera is the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI), which previously recorded portraits of Curiosity at two other important sites during the mission: "Rock Nest" and "John Klein"

Winjana is within a science waypoint site called "The Kimberley," where sandstone layers with different degrees of resistance to wind erosion are exposed close together.

The view does not include the rover's arm. It does include the hole in Windjana produced by the hammering drill on Curiosity's arm collecting a sample of rock powder from the interior of the rock.

 The hole is surrounded by grayish cuttings on top of the rock ledge to the left of the rover. The Mast Camera (Mastcam) atop the rover's remote sensing mast is pointed at the drill hole.

The Mastcam image of the drill hole from that perspective. The hole is 0.63 inch (1.6 centimeters) in diameter. The rover's wheels are 20 inches (0.5 meter) in diameter.

Most of the component frames of this mosaic view were taken during the 613th Martian day, or sol, of Curiosity's work on Mars (April 27, 2014).

 Frames showing Windjana after completion of the drilling were taken on Sol 627 (May 12, 2014). The hole was drilled on Sol 621 (May 5, 2014).

MAHLI was built by Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the Mars Science Laboratory Project for the NASA Science Mission Directorate, Washington. JPL designed and built the project's Curiosity rover.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

VLBI Network: Trio of Huge Black Holes in Distant Galaxy's Core

Two closely orbiting black holes in a galaxy about 4.2 billion light-years from Earth emit wavy jets while the third black hole in the trio is more distant, emitting linear jets. 

Research shows these kinds of systems are more common than originally believed. Image released June 25, 2014.

Credit: : © Roger Deane (large image); NASA Goddard (inset bottom left; modified from original)

Scientists have just discovered a distant galaxy with not one but three supermassive black holes at its core.

The new finding suggests that tight-knit groups of these giant black holes are far more common than previously thought, and it potentially reveals a new way to easily detect them, researchers say.

Supermassive black holes millions to billions of times the mass of the sun are thought to lurk at the hearts of virtually every large galaxy in the universe.

Most galaxies have just one supermassive black hole at their center. However, galaxies evolve through merging, and merged galaxies can sometimes possess multiple supermassive black holes.

Astronomers observed a galaxy with the alphabet soup name of SDSS J150243.09+111557.3, which they suspected might have a pair of supermassive black holes.

It lies about 4.2 billion light-years away from Earth, about "one-third of the way across the universe," said lead study author Roger Deane, a radio astronomer at the University of Cape Town in South Africa.

To investigate this galaxy, the scientists combined the signals from large radio antennas separated by up to 6,200 miles (10,000 kilometers), a technique called Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI).

Using the European VLBI Network, the researchers could see details 50 times finer than is possible with the Hubble Space Telescope.

The astronomers unexpectedly discovered that the galaxy was actually not home to two supermassive black holes, but three.

Two of the black holes in this trio are very close together, which previously made them look like one black hole.

"All three of the black holes have masses around 100 million times that of the sun," Deane told reporters.

Scientists had previously known of four triple black-hole systems. However, the closest pairs of black holes in those triplets are about 7,825 light-years apart.

In this newfound trio of supermassive black holes, the closest pair of black holes is only about 455 light-years apart, "a very close pair of black holes," Deane said, the second-closest pair of supermassive black holes known.

The researchers found this "tight pair" of black holes after searching only six candidate galaxies. This suggests that tight pairs of supermassive black holes "are far more common than previous observations have found," Deane said.

Knowing how often supermassive black holes merge is key to discovering how they might influence their galaxies, the researchers noted. Supermassive black holes can shape the evolution of their galaxies with blasts of energy given off by turbulent matter, which gets sucked toward the black holes.

Although tight pairs of supermassive black holes might previously have been difficult to tell apart, the researchers discovered that the pair they saw left a helical or corkscrew-like pattern in the large jets of radio waves they emitted.

This suggests that twisted jets may serve as easy-to-find signals of tight pairs without the need for extremely high-resolution telescopic observations, such as those from the European VLBI Network.

"The twisted radio jets associated with close pairs may be a very efficient way to find more of these systems that are even closer together," Deane said.

Raytheon EKV CE-II missile defense system strikes target in test

The Boeing-managed ground-based system intended to shield the continental United States successfully intercepted a simulated incoming missile over the Pacific Ocean for the first time Sunday, the Pentagon said.

The Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system, with a $40 billion price tag, aims to protect against long-range ballistic missiles from so-called rogue states such as North Korea and Iran. But government records show it has failed a series of tests.

President Barack Obama's administration has announced it plans to spend about $1.3 billion on 14 more interceptors, but only if the closely-watched test was successful.

The interceptor missile was fired from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California and struck a dummy intermediate-range ballistic missile launched from the US Army's Reagan Test Site on Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands.

"This is a very important step in our continuing efforts to improve and increase the reliability of our homeland ballistic missile defense system," Missile Defense Agency chief Vice Admiral James Syring said in a statement.

The successful test followed the system's failure to hit a simulated missile in five of eight previous tests since president George W. Bush's administration launched the program in 2004.

The latest version of the warhead flown for the test contained hardware and software upgrades, according to manufacturer Raytheon.

It was the first successful intercept by Raytheon's Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle Capability Enhancement II, or EKV CE-II, which failed in both previous tests conducted in 2010.

"We made the fixes needed to be made from the last test, which was back in December of 2010," Pentagon spokesman Admiral John Kirby told reporters on Friday.

He compared the test to "hitting a BB with a BB... It's pretty significant if it works."

"Testing is critically important to ensuring the advancement of reliable kill vehicles for the protection of the US and its allies," Raytheon Missile Systems president Taylor Lawrence said.

Overall, the test marked the 65th successful intercept out of 81 attempts since 2001 for the Ballistic Missile Defense System, according to the Pentagon.

"This mission met several complex test objectives, including a long-duration flight time for the ground-based interceptor and high velocity closing speeds for intercept," a "proud" Boeing said.

Mars Rover Opportunity: Aluminum-Bearing Site on Mars

With its solar panels their cleanest in years, NASA's decade-old Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity is inspecting a section of crater-rim ridgeline chosen as a priority target due to evidence of a water-related mineral.

Orbital observations of the site by another NASA spacecraft, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, found a spectrum with the signature of aluminum bound to oxygen and hydrogen.

Researchers regard that signature as a marker for a mineral called montmorillonite, which is in a class of clay minerals called smectites.

Montmorillonite forms when basalt is altered under wet and slightly acidic conditions. The exposure of it extends about 800 feet (about 240 meters) north to south on the western rim of Endeavour Crater, as mapped by the orbiter's Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM).

"It's like a mineral beacon visible from orbit saying, 'Come check this out,'" said Opportunity Principal Investigator Steve Squyres, of Cornell University, Ithaca, New York.

Some of the most important findings from Opportunity's long mission came from combining CRISM and rover observations of a site about 2 miles (3 kilometers) farther north on the crater's western rim.

Rocks exposed there contain evidence for an iron-bearing smectite - called nontronite, as well as for montmorillonite.

That site yielded evidence for an ancient environment with water that would have been well-suited for use by microbes, if Mars had any billions of years ago.

Evidence that Opportunity may add about the geological context for different smectites could boost understanding about diversity and changes in ancient wet environments on Mars.

Opportunity reached the northern end of the montmorillonite-bearing exposure last month, at a high spot called "Pillinger Point." Opportunity's international science team chose that informal name in honor of Colin Pillinger (1943-2014).

Pillinger was the British principal investigator for the Beagle 2 project, which attempted to set a research lander on Mars a few weeks before Opportunity's January 2004 landing.

"Colin and his team were trying to get to Mars at the same time that we were, and in some ways they faced even greater challenges than we did," Squyres said.

"Our team has always had enormous respect for the energy and enthusiasm with which Colin Pillinger undertook the Beagle 2 mission. He will be missed."

Though selected as a science destination, Pillinger Point also offers a scenic vista from atop the western rim of Endeavour Crater, which is about 14 miles (22 kilometers) in diameter.

A color view of Pillinger Point from the rover's panoramic camera (Pancam) is available here

Initial measurements at this site with the element-identifying alpha particle X-ray spectrometer at the end of Opportunity's arm indicate that bright-toned veins in the rock contain calcium sulfate.

Scientists deduce this mineral was deposited as water moved through fractures on Endeavour's rim. The rover earlier found veins of calcium sulfate farther north along the rim.

As Opportunity investigates this site and sites farther south along the rim, the rover has more energy than usual.

"The solar panels have not been this clean since the first year of the mission," said Opportunity Project Manager John Callas of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.

"It's amazing, when you consider that accumulation of dust on the solar panels was originally expected to cause the end of the mission in less than a year."

"Now it's as if we'd been a ship out at sea for 10 years and just picked up new provisions at a port of call, topping off our supplies."

Both Opportunity and its rover twin, Spirit, benefited from sporadic dust-cleaning events in past years. However, on the ridge that Opportunity has been navigating since late 2013, winds have removed dust more steadily, day by day, than either rover has experienced elsewhere.

"It's easy to forget that Opportunity is in the middle of a Martian winter right now," said JPL's Jennifer Herman, power-subsystem engineer.

"Because of the clean solar arrays, clear skies and favorable tilt, there is more energy for operations now than there was any time during the previous three Martian summers. Opportunity is now able to pull scientific all-nighters for three nights in a row, something she hasn't had the energy to do in years."

The rover's signs of aging, including a stiff shoulder joint and occasional amnesia events, have not grown more troublesome in the past year, and no new symptoms have appeared.