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Monthly Archives: February 2017

Keys to life? Scientists explain how newly-discovered exoplanets could be habitable

About 40 light years from Earth, there is an intriguing system with a dim red star and seven alien worlds rapidly orbiting it.

And what makes the find so exciting is that three of those planets are in the “Goldilocks zone” of the star: the just-right place where liquid water could exist on a planet’s rocky surface.

The announcement of the discovery around the star called TRAPPIST-1, made yesterday by NASA, is a reminder of the ultimate question: is there life in the universe besides what we know of on Earth?

And could any of these TRAPPIST-1 planets— especially the three in the habitable zone— have the right ingredients for it to develop?

“The news is wonderful, and has been since last year, when the first three planets in this system were discovered,” Dimitar Sasselov, a professor of astronomy at Harvard University, and a researcher who focuses on studying the origins of life in his lab, told Fox News. “This just confirms what we started theorizing already in the past two years: [which] is that our galaxy, our universe, is just full of places which could sustain life, and where life could emerge.”

Part of the reason the news is wonderful is that the system lends itself to being studied by astronomers in the next couple years— and not way down the line— Sasselov said. The three planets in the habitable zone of this star are promising because their rocky surfaces could support liquid water, which is essential for life as we know it.

Plus, if the planets are indeed rocky, they could contain the six right elements in the right concentration for life, Sasselov said: stuff like carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen.

David Kipping, an expert on exoplanets and an assistant professor of astronomy at Columbia University, said that his first reaction to the discovery was to be “extremely excited.”

The star that the seven planets are orbiting is a very common one called a red dwarf— it’s small, dim, and cool compared to our own sun, but it could also burn for a very, very long time: somewhere on the order of a trillion years, or even longer, Kipping said.

“When we look for potentially life-bearing planets, there’s really one thing we’re looking for, and that’s liquid surface water,” Kipping told Fox News. Of course, in order to have surface water, the planet needs to have a rocky surface, and he said that the planets seem likely to have that. Another point in their favor? There are three planets in the system that would be at the right temperature for liquid water to exist.

“That doesn’t prove they’re definitely capable of supporting of life,” he said. After all, one or two of the three planets could be like Venus in our solar system, which has nasty conditions. But still, three planets is better than two or one, odds-wise. “With three bites at the cherry, you have to be optimistic that there’s a good shot one of them has the potential to be Earth-like.”

He added: “As far as we know right now, I’d say there are no show-stoppers to stop life from living on these worlds.”

There are a couple factors to consider, though. Astronomers will have to study the star further (it could have emitted a lot of radiation when it was young, for example), as well as the masses of the planets and the shape of their orbits (to see how elliptical they are) to figure out how conducive they could be for life. The next step, Kipping said, will be to look for biosignatures on the planets using a telescope. (The James Webb Space Telescope, launching in 2018, will be an important resource for astronomers.)

Lisa Kaltenegger, as associate professor of astronomy, and the director of the Carl Sagan Institute at Cornell University, said that one aspect to consider with this “small red sun” is that the levels of ultraviolet light could be high, although life could perhaps shelter in a hypothetical ocean.

“I think finding many planets, multiple possible habitats, around one star is great news for the search for life,” she said, pointing out that the news made her feel motivated. “Because that just means we’re getting more places to look. And it’s just a numbers game— we already have a lot of stars with planets, now if we have a couple of planets per star, the odds are ever in our favor, hopefully.”

Follow Rob Verger on Twitter: @robverger

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A farmer’s story of moles could have led to lost city

(Stuart Wilson)

(Stuart Wilson)

Stuart Wilson says people thought he was crazy when he gambled $39,000—his life savings—on a 4.6-acre field in Wales. Having heard a farmer’s story about moles digging up bits of pottery on the land, the amateur archaeologist tells the Guardian he had a hunch that something important lay beneath, and when the parcel went on the market in 2004, he bought it.

Now, it looks like his bet is paying off: He believes his land is sitting atop the lost city of Trellech—Wales’ largest city in the 13th century, reports the BBC—and the Guardian reports his theory is starting to gain traction.

Wilson, a former toll collector who got his undergrad degree in archaeology, estimates the project has cost more than $200,000, funded in part through donations (you can be an archaeologist for a day for $61).

With help from some 1,000 volunteers, Wilson says he has so far discovered eight buildings, and he intends to spend 2017 working on the remains of what he believes is a manor house surrounded by a moat.

In 2006, he told Archaeology.org that excavating the field “will probably take about 50 years, so basically the rest of my life.” As for the history of the site, it was founded by the de Clare family in the 1200s as a hub that produced iron weapons and armor, and its population exploded.

Per Wilson, in just 25 years it grew to 10,000 people—a quarter of London’s size, though Wilson points out it took London 250 years to amass its 40,000 people.

The BBC reports the de Clares’ settlement is thought to have been destroyed in 1296. (Read about the seven biggest archaeology finds of 2016.)

This article originally appeared on Newser: Man Follows Hunch, Says He Has Uncovered Lost City

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Cosplay Pictures for Your Enjoyment!

Cosplayers and their cosplay for your fun…

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Medieval sin-washing well is uncovered

(Historic England)

(Historic England)

In medieval times, pilgrims flocked to England in quest of St. Anne’s Well, which was said to cure ailments and wash away sins. Archaeologists now say they’ve rediscovered that large sandstone well on a private farm near Liverpool using only a 1983 photo and a description, reports the Liverpool Echo.

When archaeologists arrived at the site, there was little evidence of the well at all as “it had become completely filled with earth,” says a rep for Historic England.

Once excavated, however, it was “found to be in reasonable condition,” per an archaeologist. Legend has it that the supposed mother of the Virgin Mary herself descended the medieval well’s three steps and bathed in its 4-foot-deep pool, located near a priory of monks, reportedly giving the water the ability to cure eye and skin diseases, per Seeker and ScienceAlert.

 

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But the well—believed to have healing properties into the 19th century—also features in a more ominous legend suggesting it’s cursed. During a dispute over the well in the 16th century, the prior reportedly cursed the estate manager of a neighboring landowner, whom he believed had a hand in the monastery being seized by the king.

The prior said a “year and a day shall not pass ere St. Anne thy head shall bruise”—then the prior himself collapsed and died, according to an 1877 newspaper recounting of the legend.

The estate manager is said to have disappeared after a night of drinking, only to be found dead in the well with “his head crushed in.” ScienceAlert points out the discovery has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal.

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Bronze sword, gold-decorated spearhead unearthed at Scottish construction site

Lifting the Bronze Age sword (© GUARD Archaeology Ltd).

Lifting the Bronze Age sword (© GUARD Archaeology Ltd).

Archaeologists in Scotland have unearthed a hoard of stunning prehistoric artifacts, including a bronze sword and rare gold-decorated spearhead.

The trove was found prior to the construction of two soccer fields in Carnoustie by experts from GUARD Archaeology, working on behalf of the local government. A spokesman for  GUARD Archaeology told Fox News that excavations at the site have just finished.

The artifacts, which date to around 1,000 B.C. to 800 BC, have delighted archaeologists. “It is very unusual to recover such artefacts in a modern archaeological excavation, which can reveal so much about the context of its burial,”said GUARD Archaeology Project Officer Alan Hunter, who directed the excavation, in a statement.

 

The excavation site contains a host of archaeological features, including 12 circular houses that probably date the Bronze Age, as well as two halls likely dating to the Neolithic period, one of which is the largest of its type ever found in Scotland, estimated to be 6,000 years old. Clusters of large pits were also discovered, one of which contained the haul of metalwork.

In addition to the bronze spearhead and sword, archaeologists also found a lead and tin pommel from the end of a sword’s hilt, a bronze scabbard mount and chape (the metal point of a scabbard), and a bronze pin.

Archaeologists say that the spearhead’s gold ornament is particularly noteworthy, with the precious metal likely used to enhance the weapon’s visual impact.

The Carnoustie excavation also unearthed rare organic remains, such as a wooden scabbard that encased the sword blade, fur skin around the spearhead and textile around the pin and scabbard.

‘Organic evidence like Bronze Age wooden scabbards rarely survive on dryland sites so this just underlines how extraordinary these finds are,’ said GUARD Project Officer, Beth Spence, in the statement.

Because the remains discovered at Carnoustie are so fragile, archaeologists removed the entire pit and its surrounding subsoil and transported it to GUARD Archaeology’s lab, where it was CT scanned and X-rayed by the School of Veterinary Medicine at Glasgow University. Scan and X-ray data helped experts remove the artifacts from the block of soil. The bronze sword, pin, and scabbard fittings were unearthed near the spearhead.

This is just the latest fascinating archaeological discovery in Scotland. Experts, for example, have spent the last few years piecing together the history of a long-lost early medieval kingdom in southern Scotland.

Follow James Rogers on Twitter @jamesjrogers

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Biologists find weird cave life that may be 50,000 years old

  • FILE - In this July 3, 2008, file photo, New Mexico Tech professor Penny Boston crawls through the Mud Turtle Passage on the way to the Snowy River formation during an expedition in Fort Stanton Cave, N.M. Boston, who discovered extreme life in New Mexico caves in 2008, presented new findings on Friday, Feb. 17, 2017 of microbes trapped in crystals in Mexico that could be 50,000 years old. (AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan)

    FILE – In this July 3, 2008, file photo, New Mexico Tech professor Penny Boston crawls through the Mud Turtle Passage on the way to the Snowy River formation during an expedition in Fort Stanton Cave, N.M. Boston, who discovered extreme life in New Mexico caves in 2008, presented new findings on Friday, Feb. 17, 2017 of microbes trapped in crystals in Mexico that could be 50,000 years old. (AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan)  (The Associated Press)

In a Mexican cave system so beautiful and hot that it is called both Fairyland and hell, scientists have discovered life trapped in crystals that could be 50,000 years old.

The bizarre and ancient microbes were found dormant in caves in Naica, Mexico, and were able to exist by living on minerals such as iron and manganese, said Penelope Boston, head of NASA’s Astrobiology Institute.

“It’s super life,” said Boston, who presented the discovery Friday at the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in Boston.

If confirmed, the find is yet another example of how microbes can survive in extremely punishing conditions on Earth.

Though it was presented at a science conference and was the result of nine years of work, the findings haven’t yet been published in a scientific journal and haven’t been peer reviewed. Boston planned more genetic tests for the microbes she revived both in the lab and on site.

The life forms — 40 different strains of microbes and even some viruses — are so weird that their nearest relatives are still 10 percent different genetically. That makes their closest relative still pretty far away, about as far away as humans are from mushrooms, Boston said.

The Naica caves — an abandoned lead and zinc mine — are half a mile (800 meters) deep. Before drilling occurred by a mine company, the mines had been completely cut off from the outside world. Some were as vast as cathedrals with crystals lining the iron walls. They were also so hot that scientists had to don cheap versions of space suits — to prevent contamination with outside life — and had ice packs all over their bodies.

Boston said the team could only work about 20 minutes at a time before ducking to a “cool” room that was about 100 degrees (38 Celsius).

NASA wouldn’t allow Boston to share her work for outside review before Friday’s announcement so scientists couldn’t say much. But University of South Florida biologist Norine Noonan, who wasn’t part of the study but was on a panel where Boston presented her work, said it made sense.

“Why are we surprised?” Noonan said. “As a biologist I would say life on Earth is extremely tough and extremely versatile.”

This isn’t the oldest extreme life. Several years ago, a different group of scientists published studies about microbes that may be half a million years old and still alive. Those were trapped in ice and salt, which isn’t quite the same as rock or crystal, Boston said.

The age of the Naica microbes was determined by outside experts who looked at where the microbes were located in the crystals and how fast those crystals grow.

It’s not the only weird life Boston is examining. She is also studying microbes commonly found in caves in the United States, Ukraine and elsewhere that eat copper sulfate and seem to be close to indestructible.

“It’s simply another illustration of just how completely tough Earth life is,” Boston said.

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Long-hidden Winston Churchill essay on aliens surfaces

Winston Churchill is seen with his trademark cigar in this file photo.

Winston Churchill is seen with his trademark cigar in this file photo.  (AP)

A fascinating essay that lay hidden for decades reveals Winston Churchill’s views on alien life.

The never-published essay has been in the archive of the National Churchill Museum in Fulton, Missouri since the 1980s, when it was given to the museum by the wife of Churchill’s publisher, who had died. Last year the museum invited Israeli astrophysicist Mario Livio to review the essay, which he discusses in an article published in the science journal Nature.

Livio notes the British wartime leader’s passion for science and technology in the 1939 essay, as well as Churchill’s thoughts on extraterrestrials.

Apparently influenced by events unfolding at the time, Churchill voices his concern about human progress and describes the possibility of aliens. “I, for one, am not so immensely impressed by the success we are making of our civilization here that I am prepared to think we are the only spot in this immense universe which contains living, thinking creatures, or that we are the highest type of mental and physical development which has ever appeared in the vast compass of space and time,” he wrote.

The original version of the 11-page essay is held in Churchill Archives Centre in Cambridge, U.K. Churchill, however, revisited the essay in the late 1950s and made some minor typographical changes – he also changed the essay’s title from “Are we alone in space?” to “Are we alone in the universe?” This second draft, which is now in the possession of the U.S. National Churchill Museum, was reviewed by Livio.

Timothy Riley, the director and chief curator of the National Churchill Museum, told Fox News that the essay provides an incredible insight into Churchill’s personality. “I think it reveals the incredibly curious mind of Winston Churchill and the breadth and scope of his interests,” he said. “We know that he had a keen interest in science and valued science and thought that science would lead to progress.”

In the journal Nature, Livio explains that, during the 1920s and 1930s, Churchill wrote popular-science essays for newspapers and magazines on topics such as evolution and cells. He also points to the politician’s friendship with the physicist Frederick Lindemann, who later became science adviser to the British government. The prime minister also created a science-friendly environment that spurred progress in areas like molecular genetics and X-ray crystallography, according to Livio.

Copyright issues, however, are currently preventing publication of the essay, something which the National Churchill Museum hopes to eventually resolve.

Follow James Rogers on Twitter @jamesjrogers

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