Tag Archives: science

Most distant galaxy ever seen

Using a deep field image taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers at the European Southern Observatory have identified one galaxy in that image as the most distant ever seen, with a record-setting redshift of 8.6 and thus an rough distance of about 13 billion light years, only about 600 million years after the Big Bang.

Whoops! Last sentence corrected, thanks to my readers.


Closing caves for the convenience and power of the government

A variety of federal government agencies are moving aggressively to shut down human access to all American caves, including those on private property. Key quote:

In Wisconsin, where white nose syndrome has not yet appeared, wildlife managers want to get a jump on the disease by declaring G. destructans [the fungus associated with the syndrome] an invasive species, and declaring four species of bats threatened. Those designations would give wildlife agencies access to new sources of funds. They would also “give police power to the agencies to go onto private land to prevent damage to these newly named threatened species,” said [Peter] Youngbaer, [white nose syndrome liaison for the National Speleological Society]. “We fear that private landowners will be fearful of allowing even inadvertent access to caves, and thus move to seal caves shut. They’ll be causing more damage to the bats that they’re ostensibly trying to protect.” [emphasis mine]

As a caver, I not only have a strong personal interest in this story, I know a lot about bats and caves from personal experience. As a science writer who has also written about white nose syndrome for Science, I am also very familiar with the present state of the science. Based on this background, I find the actions of these government officials unconscionable. As one commenter to this article very correctly noted:

“There is currently *no* evidence that humans have spread this disease, but mountains of evidence for bat-to-bat transmission. The possibility does exist that humans *could* spread it, but even at its worst a human vector would be quite statistically insignificant in comparison to the bat-to-bat transmission.

In other words, closing all caves to human access can accomplish no good, and a great deal of harm. Yet, this is exactly what these government officials and environmental bureaucrats wish to do.

Back in March 2008, soon after white nose syndrome was discovered, I wrote the following:

I am beginning to believe strongly that the situation has worrisome political overtones linked to the unstated desire of some people to limit access to caves. . . . Some people are distorting the situation for their own purposes, either consciously or unconsciously. . . . Some of those people might have an agenda (closing caves to cavers) that is entirely irrelevant to the issue of white nose.

The article above only serves to confirm my opinions from 2008. The government officials who are demanding the indiscriminate closure of caves and the unfettered control over caves on private property are not really interested in protecting or saving the bats. In fact, their actions might actually do great harm to the bats, as the closures, the regulatory restrictions, and the threat to private property will antagonize both cavers and landowners, thus guaranteeing their unwillingness to cooperate with scientists.

So what do these government officials want? As far as I can tell, what they really want is power. And they are using white nose syndrome as a hammer to gain it.

Sadly, I fear that they are going to succeed. Today’s environmental laws are rigged to their advantage. The press is generally on their side. And the opposition to this power grab is diffuse and weak.

Once again, we see the death of freedom. And it dies, not by a single devastating blow, but by the death of a thousand cuts.


Hubble marches on: Pinwheel of star formation

Despite its age (20 plus years), the Hubble Space Telescope continues to produce amazing images. The mosiac below shows the beautiful pinwheel galaxy NGC 3982. From the caption:

NGC 3982 is located about 68 million light-years away in the constellation Ursa Major. The galaxy spans about 30,000 light-years, one-third of the size of our Milky Way galaxy. . . .The arms are lined with pink star-forming regions of glowing hydrogen, newborn blue star clusters, and obscuring dust lanes that provide the raw material for future generations of stars. The bright nucleus is home to an older population of stars, which grow ever more densely packed toward the center.

Pinwheel galaxy


Have global warming scientists admitted that carbon dioxide is not the main greenhouse gas?

In a paper published on Saturday in the Journal of Geophysical Research – Atmospheres of the American Geophysical Union, scientists from the Goddard Institute of Space Studies (where scientists have generally been strong advocates of human-caused global warming) outlined the key atmospheric molecules that contribute to the greenhouse effect. Key quote from the abstract:

We find that water vapor is the dominant contributor (∼50% of the effect), followed by clouds (∼25%) and then CO2 with ∼20%. All other absorbers play only minor roles.

The scientists also noted that even if carbon dioxide in the atmosphere were to double, these percentages would not change significantly.

Does this mean that carbon dioxide is a minor player in creating global warming? This remains unclear. First, the above research is essentially only modeling, not actual data. Second, the scientists themselves note that the interplay of any two of these molecules (such as water and carbon dioxide or water and cloudiness) can have a greater effect than just one molecule alone, which makes these percentages by themselves incomplete.

Nonetheless, these results are important politically. These global warming scientists have placed themselves on record as admitting that cloudiness appears more significant that carbon dioxide in creating the greenhouse effect. And since the combination of water and clouds can have an even greater influence on the climate than either alone, the scientists are also admitting that water is by far the most important greenhouse molecule. Any future climate models as well as political action must take this fact into consideration.


IPCC meeting ends with few changes or reforms

You call this reform? At the just completed annual meeting of the IPCC in South Korea, the panel refused to remove its controversial chairman, Rajendra Pachauri, while recommending a few minor reforms in how the panel writes its reports. This quote indicates just how unserious the IPCC is about reform:

In the past, he said, IPCC reports sometimes projected the likelihood of potential climate-change effects, such as melting glaciers, without enough evidence. “There were some weaknesses in the application,” said [Chris Field, a U.S. scientist and a leader of the panel’s 2014 report].


Two German radar mapping satellites to produce three-dimensional imagery of Earth

Two German radar mapping satellites, flying in orbital formation, are now about to produce the first three-dimensional radar imagery of Earth. Key quote:

The combined mission’s data will produce gridded maps with a spatial resolution of 12 meters, or 39 feet. The maps will show elevation with a precision of less than 2 meters, or 6 feet.


Dried up lake beds on Mars?

A paper published on Saturday in the Journal of Geophysical Research – Planets of the American Geophysical Union, scientists suggest that the polygonal shaped cracks seen in the crater floors on many Martian craters could be evidence of ancient lakes. The evidence also suggests that the lakes were formed by the impact that created the crater. The energy of the impact melted underground ice to form a temporary lake inside the crater, which eventually dries out, leaving behind the polygons. From the abstract:

We propose desiccation to be a dominant mechanism for the formation of Crater Floor Polygons without ruling out thermal contraction as a possible contributor in some cases. This implies that lakes or water-rich sediments occupied the craters in the past. Many such aqueous environments have no apparent external source of water, and thus, hydrothermal processes occurring shortly after the impact event may be viable explanations for the observed evidence.

Crater floor polygons on Mars


A wish list of spectacular future planetary missions

Steve Squyres of Cornell University and the project scientist of the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity spoke today at an astrobiology symposium in Arlington, Virginia. He described several spectacular planetary missions that might be flown in the coming decade. All are being considered. None have yet been chosen or funded.

  • A mission to grab a sample from a comet and return it to Earth.

  • A mission to put a rover or lander on one of the poles of Mars to study the frozen layers of water under the icecap.

  • Mars sample return mission. This mission is so difficult and expensive that it probably would be broken down into three parts:
    • Two rovers on the surface to gather and cache sample material.

    • A lander/rover mission to grab the samples and bring them up to Mars orbit. “Putting into orbit a precious cargo the size of a coconut,” Squyres said.

    • A mission to grab the sample cargo in Martian orbit and return it to Earth.

  • An orbiter to study both Jupiter and its moon Europa.

  • An orbiter to Enceladus, the moon of Saturn, to study the water and organic chemistry in its mysterious plumes.

  • An orbiter to Titan, with balloon to probe the atmosphere as well as a “lake lander, a boat” to study Titan’s lakes.

  • A variety of landers and rovers to go to Venus. One of the more astonishing mission concepts would land, then take off again to visit different places on the surface.

Squyres is the co-chair of a committee of the National Science Foundation that is right now putting together a decadal survey for outlining unmanned planetary research for the next decade. This survey is expected to be released in March, which is when we will find out which of the above missions the planetary science community prefers.


Hubble tracks the aftermath of a possible asteroid collision

Using the Hubble Space Telescope over the last ten months, astronomers have tracked the decaying aftermath of a possible asteroid collision. Key quote:

Astronomers think a smaller rock, perhaps 10 to 15 feet wide, slammed into the larger one. The pair probably collided at high speed, about 11,000 mph, which smashed and vaporized the small asteroid and stripped material from the larger one. Jewitt estimates that the violent encounter happened in February or March 2009 and was as powerful as the detonation of a small atomic bomb.

The image sequence below, taken from the original paper describing the discovery [pdf], shows the slow changes that have occurred since January. At the moment scientists do not have an satisfactory explanation for the nucleus’s X-shaped pattern in the earliest images.

sequence of images of disrupted asteroid


APS responds to Harold Lewis’s resignation letter

The American Physical Society has responded to Harold Lewis’s resignation letter.

It appears from their response that they are feeling some pressure about their past position, which stated “The evidence is incontrovertible: Global warming is occurring.” Compare that with what they say now, in their response to Lewis:

APS continues to recognize that climate models are far from adequate, and the extent of global warming and climatic disruptions produced by sustained increases in atmospheric carbon loading remain uncertain.

How nice. A science organization recognizing the uncertainty of science!


Physicist resigns for American Physical Society over climategate

Physicist resigns from the American Physical Society over climategate. Key quote:

It is of course, the global warming scam, with the (literally) trillions of dollars driving it, that has corrupted so many scientists, and has carried APS before it like a rogue wave. It is the greatest and most successful pseudoscientific fraud I have seen in my long life as a physicist.


Asteroids of note

At today’s press conference at the 42nd meeting of the AAS Division for Planetary Sciences, the topic was asteroids, including one which holds the possibility of hitting the Earth.

  • 65 Cybele has been found to have water ice and organic molecules on its surface, the second such asteroid so found. Key quote from the abstract:

    We conclude that 65 Cybele is covered by fine anhydrous silicate grains, with a small amount of water-ice and complex organic solids. This is similar to comets where non-equilibrium phases coexist, e.g. water-ice and anhydrous silicates; thus we conclude that this is a very primitive object.

    According to Humberto Campins of the University of Central Florida, this combination of water and organics could become hospitable to life should some form of energy be added, such as an impact to the asteroid.

  • The origin of the asteroid Phaethon, cause of the Geminids meteor shower, has been traced to the Pallas family of asteroids, a family created by the debris thrown out during a crater impact on the large asteroid Pallas. Campins also noted that this proves Phaethon is an asteroid and not a comet, a question that astronomers had been debating beforehand. Read the abstract here.
  • Asteroid 1999 RQ36, which has a 1 in a 1000 chance hitting the Earth in 2182 and is also the prime target of a proposed NASA sample return mission, has now been determined to be a member of the Polana family of asteroids. This makes 1999 RQ36 a very primitive asteroid from the very beginnings of the solar system. Moreover, this suggests that the Polana family could be the “most important” source of many near Earth asteroids. The abstract can be found here.

The basic ingredients of life might exist in Titan’s atmosphere

Big news! In a simulation of the upper atmosphere of Titan at about 600 miles altitude, scientists have discovered the basic ingredients of life are quickly synthesized when exposed to the kind of hard radiation found there. Key quote from the press release, issued today at the 42nd meeting of the AAS Division for Planetary Sciences:

The molecules discovered include the five nucleotide bases used by life on Earth (cytosine, adenine, thymine, guanine and uracil) and the two smallest amino acids, glycine and alanine.

For those who don’t remember their high school biology, these nucleotides are the building blocks of DNA.

The abstract of the scientist’s work can be found here.

What the scientists did was recreate the basic ingredients of Titan’s upper atmosphere, comprised of nitrogen, methane and carbon monoxide. Cassini data has shown that within this atmosphere are very large molecules, as yet unidentified.

The scientists then bathed their recreation in the kind of intense radiation expected at that altitude, and amazingly produced the complex organic molecules that are basic to life. Moreover, the experiment was the first to produce these complex molecules without the presence of water, something that scientists have previously thought was required. These results suggest that in addition to forming in the oceans, life could also form in the upper atmospheres of planets.

This result also suggests strongly that it is incredibly easy to produce the basic building blocks of life, almost anywhere in the universe where organic molecules are present.

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