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Tag Archives: discovery news

Could scientists soon detect alien ‘plant’ life on exoplanets?

An artist's rendition of an exoplanet.

An artist’s rendition of an exoplanet. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Now we’re detecting dozens of exoplanets within the habitable zones of their stars — and even one world that has similar characteristics as Earth — the next big question will be: do any of these promising worlds host life?

Unfortunately, the answer will remain elusive for some time to come, but that hasn’t stopped scientists from formulating plans to seek out alien biomarkers that could be ripe for detection.

GALLERY: Top 10 Places To Find Alien Life

In a new paper submitted to the arXiv preprint service, astrophysicists Timothy Brandt and David Spiegel of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University, New Jersey, focused on the hunt for the chemical signature of oxygen, water and chlorophyll in the atmospheres of Earth-like exoplanetary atmospheres. Oxygen and water are essential for life as we know it, and chlorophyll is a biomolecule vital for photosynthesis on Earth. Photosynthesis is the extraction of energy from sunlight, a process employed by plants and some microbes, such as cyanobacteria.

So the logic goes: If we can detect these molecules on an Earth-sized alien world, there could be some not-so-unfamiliar form of extraterrestrial life that has evolved to produce chlorophyll to extract energy from their star.

But the challenges to detect such signals are overwhelming, at least for the technology we have today. So the researchers have constructed some computer models in an effort to create hypothetical “second Earths” and the chemical signatures we may detect from afar.

Earth-Likenesses: Have We Discovered Earth 2.0?

The key issue facing any future space telescope set up to search for “Earth 2.0″ is that of contrast. Although analyzing the spectroscopic signature of large exoplanets has been done, often these worlds have wide orbits (well outside the habitable zone) or they are very large (like “hot-Jupiters”). Extracting a spectroscopic signal from a small world within the habitable zone of their star is tough, as the light from the star will overwhelm any reflected starlight signal from the exoplanet. The signal-to-noise ratio will be, basically, horrible.

This is where sophisticated models come in handy; if you can model an exoplanetary atmosphere with components similar to that of Earth, we know what chemical fingerprints to look for in observational data.

Brandt and Spiegel’s models created an ice world, a desert world and a world not so dissimilar to Earth (including oceans and vegetation). All their models assumed cloud cover of 50 percent. Then they simulated what chemical fingerprints could be detected in the spectroscopic signal. By far the easiest signal to detect would be that of water, a goal that could be achieved with technology we have today. But the detection of oxygen would be hard. But what of chlorophyll?

ANALYSIS: Bathing in the Sunset of an ‘Earth-Like’ Alien World

“Finally, we show that the ‘red edge’ of chlorophyll absorption … will be extremely difficult to detect, unless the cloud cover is much lower and/or the vegetation fraction is much higher than on Earth,” the researchers write. “Assuming extraterrestrial chlorophyll to have the same optical properties as the terrestrial pigments, and assuming Earth-like cloud and vegetation coverings, detecting chlorophyll will require a SNR (signal-to-noise ratio) 6 times higher than for diatomic oxygen…”

They point out that chlorophyll will only have as strong a signal as oxygen if the cloud cover is zero or if the planet has a higher proportion of its landmass covered in vegetation.

Although we may be waiting for some time until we can overcome the technological challenges to detect chlorophyll on an alien planet’s surface, it’s fascinating to think that the first hint of alien life could be through the detection of the signature of something that resembles terrestrial flora.

NEWS: Most ‘Earth-Like’ Alien World Discovered

But just because this hypothetical form of extraterrestrial life may extract energy from their host star using a form of photosynthesis, this doesn’t mean we’d necessarily be detecting vegetation as we know it. There could be an entirely different kind of life we won’t fully comprehend until we can view it up-close.

And who knows? Should we detect a nearby exoplanet rich in biomarkers, that could be the motivation we need to mount a future interstellar mission.

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Archaeologists find rare writing, and then it vanishes

RareInscription.jpg

Inscriptions on the walls of the ritual bath. (Shai Halevy, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority)

Archaeologists digging for ruins ahead of a new construction project in Jerusalem made an incredible discovery—that immediately began to vanish. During the last hours of a “salvage excavation” two months ago, the Israel Antiquities Authority stumbled upon a 2,000-year-old ritual bath when a stone suddenly disappeared into a black hole, reports Haaretz.

That hole turned out to be the remains of the bath, accessible by a stone staircase, which includes an anteroom with benches and a winepress. Carved into a natural stone cave, the bath itself wasn’t so unusual, but the graffiti that covered the plaster walls was.

Archaeologists were therefore horrified to find the Aramaic inscriptions and paintings in mud and soot, dating to the Second Temple era from 530BC to 70AD, per Discovery News, disappearing within hours of their discovery.

“The wall paintings are so sensitive that their exposure to the air causes damage to them,” the IAA says, per Ynetnews. Crews quickly removed and sealed the plaster so the graffiti, along with a few carvings, can be preserved.

Archaeologists say the Aramaic inscriptions are particularly special as few such writings have been found, though the script is hardly legible now. They guess at a few words, including what translates to “served” and the name “Cohen.” Still, the inscriptions back up the argument that Aramaic was commonly used at the time and perhaps even the language of Jesus.

The plaster also holds drawings of a boat, palm trees and other plants, and what might be a menorah—portrayals of which were then considered taboo. An IAA rep says graffiti in baths may have been “common, but not usually preserved.” (Another recent find: the remnants of a “treasured landmark” destroyed by the Nazis.)

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NASA eyes crew deep sleep option for Mars mission

  • SpaceWorksEnterprises.jpg

    Artwork by Mark Elwood (SpaceWorks Enterprises, Inc.)

A NASA-backed study explores an innovative way to dramatically cut the cost of a human expedition to Mars — put the crew in stasis.

The deep sleep, called torpor, would reduce astronauts’ metabolic functions with existing medical procedures. Torpor also can occur naturally in cases of hypothermia.

“Therapeutic torpor has been around in theory since the 1980s and really since 2003 has been a staple for critical care trauma patients in hospitals,” aerospace engineer Mark Schaffer, with SpaceWorks Enterprises in Atlanta, said at the International Astronomical Congress in Toronto last week. “Protocols exist in most major medical centers for inducing therapeutic hypothermia on patients to essentially keep them alive until they can get the kind of treatment that they need.”

Coupled with intravenous feeding, a crew could be put in hibernation for the transit time to Mars, which under the best-case scenario would take 180 days one-way.

So far, the duration of a patient’s time in torpor state has been limited to about one week.

“We haven’t had the need to keep someone in (therapeutic torpor) for longer than seven days,” Schaffer said. “For human Mars missions, we need to push that to 90 days, 180 days. Those are the types of mission flight times we’re talking about.”

Economically, the payoff looks impressive. Crews can live inside smaller ships with fewer amenities like galleys, exercise gear and of course water, food and clothing. One design includes a spinning habitat to provide a low-gravity environment to help offset bone and muscle loss.

SpaceWorks’ study, which was funded by NASA, shows a five-fold reduction in the amount of pressurized volume need for a hibernating crew and a three-fold reduction in the total amount of mass required, including consumables like food and water.

Overall, putting a crew in stasis cuts the baseline mission requirements from about 400 tons to about 220 tons.

“That’s more than one heavy-lift launch vehicle,” Schaffer said

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Musk: SpaceX could land humans on Mars in 10 to 12 years

Musk: SpaceX could land humans on Mars in 10 to 12 years

SpaceX founder Elon Musk thinks his private spaceflight company will have the capability to land humans on Mars within 12 years, assuming the availability of funding for the historic mission. Also, once SpaceX starts making steps toward this goal, the company could be floated on the stock market to boost investment for the red planet adventure.

Musk, who also founded the electric car manufacturer Tesla, has always made his interplanetary intentions known, but this recent announcement is a reminder about how far the company has come and how far it is looking into the future.

 During the CNBC interview, Musk said: “I’m hopeful that the first people could be taken to Mars in 10 to 12 years, I think it’s certainly possible for that to occur. But the thing that matters long term is to have a self-sustaining city on Mars, to make life multiplanetary.”

Musk also highlighted NASA’s role in SpaceX’s success, pointing out that without the US space agency’s pioneering work that SpaceX wouldn’t be where it is today. NASA provided funding to help develop SpaceX’s Falcon rocket series and Dragon space capsule, eventually awarding the company a $1.6 billion contract to help resupply the International Space Station.

SpaceX is now competing for the next round of NASA contracts that will be awarded to a private US spaceflight company for commercial crew launches to the space station. Musk unveiled the crewed version of the Dragon capsule — dubbed the Dragon “V2″ (version 2) — at the company’s headquarters in Hawthorn, Calif., last month.

The Dragon V2 will be considered in a 3-way competition to acquire NASA contracts to fly astronauts to the space station (and beyond), ending the US dependence on the Russian Soyuz launch vehicle to get astronauts into space after the Space Shuttle fleet was retired in 2011. Aerospace giant Boeing and spaceflight company Sierra Nevada also have potential “space taxis” in the running, but NASA cannot fund them all.

Should SpaceX not win the commercial crew contract, however, Musk is still confident that his ultimate Mars dream can be fulfilled.

“It’s possible that we may not win the commercial crew contract. … We’ll do our best to continue on our own, with our own money,” he said. “We would not be where we are today without the help of NASA.”

SpaceX is hoping to see the maiden flight of the powerful Falcon Heavy rocket within the next year, a booster that could launch heavy components for a Mars mission into space.

A potential route to funding a Mars mission could come if SpaceX went public and floated on the stock market. But with investors comes pressure for the company to be constantly growing and being profitable, momentum that can be difficult to maintain over a multi-year effort toward the one Mars goal.

“We need to get where things a steady and predictable,” Musk said. “Maybe we’re close to developing the Mars vehicle, or ideally we’ve flown it a few times, then I think going public would make more sense.”

While commenting on Tesla’s pioneering work into driving down the cost of electric cars, Musk joked that a mission to Mars may be an easier task than driving down the cost of electric car batteries to less than $5000. He was, however, optimistic that Tesla could start producing a “compelling” mass-market electric car within the next 3 years.

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Chunk of Africa found underneath Southeastern US

GEOLOGY

Chunk of Africa found underneath Southeastern US

chunk-of-africa-us.jpg

This is an aeromagnetic map of the eastern margin of North America showing, among other things, Brunswick magnetic anomaly (BMA) and East Coast magnetic anomaly (ECMA).COURTESY OF THE GEOLOGICAL SOCIETY OF AMERICA

Geoscientists have identified a chunk of Africa stuck onto the southeastern United States.

A long mysterious zone of unusual magnetism that stretches from Alabama through Georgia and offshore to the North Carolina coast appears to be the suture between ancient rocks that formed when parts of Africa and North America were pressed together 250 million years ago. If so, Africa could have left a lot more behind in the American southeast when the conjoined continents rifted apart and formed the Atlantic Ocean.

“There are some large faults in the magnetic data,” said geologist Robert Hatcher of the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, regarding what is called the Brunswick Magnetic Anomaly and other magnetic features in the region. “They have not been active for a very long time. They are strike-slip faults like the San Andreas today. But there’s also younger fall with opposite direction.”

The faults appear to be the remains of the collision and then messy divorce of Africa and North America.

“There was an attempt to rip away Florida and southern Georgia,” said Hatcher. “So you have a failed rift there. We know there’s a suture there between African crust and newer crust from the Appalachians. There are pieces of crust that started in Africa.”

A rift is what happens when the crust is pulled apart. When that happened 200 million years ago, 50 million years after African and North America collided, it appears to have started near the old collision zone, but then shifted to weaker crust to the east.

That rift zone split open and caused volcanic eruptions which created new oceanic crust — what is today the crust of the Earth under the Atlantic Ocean. The rifting continues today at what’s called the Mid-Atlantic Ridge.

“The age of the suture zone is believed to be about 250 million years old, but that’s not very well constrained,” said geologist Elias Parker, Jr., of the University of Georgia in Athens. He published a paper reviewing what’s known about the Brunswick Magnetic Anomaly in the latest issue of GSA Today.

The big challenge in sorting out the history of the southeast U.S. is that there are intriguing magnetic signals, as well as gravimetric measurements, but there is not enough deep borehole studies or seismic data to confirm the faults and the proposed scenarios.

“There are deeper faults and more shallow features,” said Parker. “It makes the interpretation really challenging.”

Among the seismic projects that could help increase the resolution of the structures, said Parker, is the Southeastern Suture of the Appalachian Margin Experiment (SESAME) and the Suwanee Suture and Georgia Rift Basin Experiment.

“This is just the start to understanding the structure of the southeast U.S.,” said Parker. “What I’m trying to do is come up with a simple explanation for this.”

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Lost da Vinci artwork unearthed beneath paint

Lost da Vinci artwork unearthed beneath paint

By Rossella Lorenzi

Published October 28, 2013

Discovery News
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    A mural on the roof of the Milan castle where Da Vinci work was recently recovered. The mural is made up of 16 mulberry trees bound together by a knotted rope. (COMUNE DI MILANO)

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    Known as Sala delle Asse, or Room of the Planks, after the wood panels that lined it, the room contains one of most original paintings of the  15th Century. (COMUNE DI MILANO)

Drawings sketched by Leonardo da Vinci are emerging from the walls of an Italian castle, announced restorers working on an elaborate fresco devised by the Renaissance master.

One of most original paintings of the 15th century, the mural covers the vault and walls of the Sala delle Asse in the Sforza Castle in Milan. It depicts a garden pergola made of 16 mulberry trees bound together by a golden, knotted rope. The trunk of each tree rises as a column supporting 16 half-moon-shaped spaces above a Gothic vault, producing an evocative, fictive grove.

‘This restoration is extremely important to fully understand Leonardo’s work.’

– Milan culture councillor Filippo Del Corno

Now restorers might be able to bring to light extra sections of the original work, possibly providing further insights into Da Vinci’s vision of the highly symbolic decoration.

Photos: Da Vinci’s Revealed Sketches – Up Close

The work was commissioned in 1498 by the duke of Milan, Ludovico Maria Sforza, nicknamed il Moro (the Moor) and was executed by Leonardo, who at that time was the court artist, and his assistants.

Experts agree the master’s hand can be detected in a monochrome section of the fresco on the northeast and northwest corner of the room. The apparently unfinished work depicts sturdy roots bursting through rocks.

“Large parts of this mural can be recovered beneath several layers of whitewash,” the Opificio Pietre Dure (OPD) the Florence based institute who is carrying out the restoration, wrote in a report.

Photos: Da Vinci’s Inventions

Preliminary analysis produced “quite interesting results,” lending hope that the work will recover “important parts of the preparatory drawings,” Marco Ciatti, superintendent of the OPD art restoration institute, said.

Leonardo’s work in the Sala delle Asse, or Room of the Planks (after the wood panels that lined it) has remained largely unknown. In 1499 Milan was conquered by the French who stormed the castle. In 1706, when Milan was under the Austrian rule, the castle became soldier barracks and the Sala delle Asse was turned into a stable, its walls covered with abundant layers of whitewash.

The arboreal decoration remained hidden beneath up to 13 layers of paint until 1893, when renovations to the castle revealed traces of frescoes.

In 1901, amid much criticism, the mural was heavily restored.

Only in 1954, the paint applied during the disastrous restoration was finally removed. But damage to Leonardo’s work remained.

Photos: The Face of Da Vinci: An Enduring Mystery

“The mural is covered by a thick layer of grime. However, our cleaning tests indicate that it can be easily removed. Leonardo’s paint won’t be damaged in the procedure,” the restorers wrote.

Meanwhile, archival research also revealed the room’s original name.

It was called “Camera dei Moroni” — a clear allusion to Ludovico il Moro.

Indeed Leonardo’s decoration is filled with punning allusions. The mulberry, or Morus tree, refers to the Duke’s well known nickname, Il Moro, the Moor. The tree is also a symbol for the Milanese silk industry – mulberries were cultivated in the region as food for the silkworm.

“This restoration is extremely important to fully understand Leonardo’s work,” Milan culture councillor Filippo Del Corno said. “The project will last two years, ending just in time for the Milan’s Expo 2015,” he added.

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Smart Bra For Eating Disorders

Doctor knows breast: Microsoft working on a ‘smart bra’ to help stop emotional binge eating

Published December 04, 2013

news.com.au
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    A diagram of the prototype bra. (UNIVERSITY OF ROCHESTER/MICROSOFT RESEARCH.)

Put the Ben and Jerry’s down. Microsoft researchers have been developing a mood-sensing ‘smart bra’ that could prevent overeating when stressed.

Those who head straight to KFC when stressed, anxious, upset or worried will know the feelings of brief satisfaction followed by wallowing guilt. But this vicious cycle could be intervened before it even happens thanks to a ‘smart bra’ from Microsoft that offers “just-in-time-support for emotional eating”.

The ‘smart bra’ is fitted with sensors that monitor real-time bio-signals such as heart rate and respiration, which are key emotional signs Microsoft has identified prior to an emotional binge, and will intervene.

It then streams the data via Bluetooth to a mobile phone, alerting the wearer that the chance of stress-related eating is about to occur.

The study revealed those who were made aware of their eating habit are more likely to think twice about opening the fridge.

High stress can trigger emotional overeating in both women and men, although a Microsoft executive told Discovery News that it was mainly women who succumbed.

In a paper outlining the results of a pilot project involving four women who wore the prototype garments, researchers said information on stress levels delivered in a timely fashion “served as a health intervention to encourage the person to be more active or consume less food”.

One participant of the study noted: “I was eating without being aware of it, but by having to log both my eating habits and my emotions, I became aware of triggers for emotional eating, and also more aware of the health (or lack thereof) in my diet.”

While another stated: “I became more conscious when I was about to eat or drink and self-reflected on why I was consuming something.”

Why Microsoft chose a bra for their high-tech system is because  “the bra form-factor allowed us to collect EKG (electrocardiagram) near the heart,” the researchers stated. However the prototype was limited because its batteries only lasted for four hours at a time, they said.

“We conclude that building a wearable, physiological system (to combat overeating) is feasible.

However, we will continue to explore how to build a robust, real-world system that stands up to every day challenges with regards to battery life, comfortability, and being suitable for both men and women,” the researchers said.

In other news relating to the convergence of technology and undergarments, a Japanese toy manufacturer is reporting strong sales after releasing a series of underwear for mobile phones.

The snug rubber items fit over the base of a mobile phone, protecting the on switch from accidental pressings. They make a phone look less naked – and yet somehow more sexual – at the same time.

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