Archive for May, 2012

Nine-Planet Star System Discovered

May 31, 2012

A star about 127 light-years from Earth may have even more planets than the sun, which would make the planetary system the most populated yet found.

According to a new study, HD 10180—a sunlike star in the southern constellation Hydrus—may have as many as nine orbiting planets, besting the eight official planets in our solar system.

The star first made headlines in 2010 with the announcement of five confirmed planets and two more planetary candidates.

Now, reanalysis of nearly a decade’s worth of data has not only confirmed the existence of the two possible planets but also uncovered the telltale signals of two additional planets possibly circling the star, bringing the total to nine. Learn more here.


How Folding Paper Can Get You to the Moon

May 30, 2012

Can folding a piece of paper 45 times get you to the moon? By seeing what happens when folding just one piece of paper, we see the unbelievable potential of exponential growth. This lesson will leave you wanting to grab a piece of paper to see how many times you can fold it!

Incredible Satellite Images of Earth From Space

May 29, 2012

The view of Earth from space has transformed our understanding of, as well as our admiration for, the planet. The data and images collected by Earth-observing satellites have been used in thousands of scientific papers, helped us better respond to natural disasters, improved weather and climate forecasts, enlightened us about our impact on Earth and captivated us with beauty.

One of the stars of NASA’s fleet of satellites is Aqua. The satellite is named for its ability to measure water vapor in the atmosphere, water in the oceans, as well as ice and snow. When it was launched on May 4, 2002, scientists expected it to work for three to five years. But its six instruments have been functioning perfectly for 10 years, gathering 29 million gigabytes of data in that time. Some of that data has been some awesome pictures.

For example, Mount Etna is Europe’s most active volcano. Aqua captured this image of Etna erupting on Oct. 28, 2002.

Learn more here.

Arctic methane leaks threaten climate

May 28, 2012

As Arctic sea ice breaks apart, massive amounts of methane could be released into the atmosphere from the cold waters beneath.

High concentrations of the greenhouse gas have been recorded in the air above cracks in the ice. This could be evidence of yet another positive feedback on the warming climate – leading to even faster Arctic warming.

The Arctic is home to vast stores of methane – there are billions of tonnes of methane in permafrost alone. It is a potent greenhouse gas, so a major methane release would greatly accelerate climate change. The gas is found in icy crystals called hydrates beneath the shallow seas that flood some areas of the continental crust, as well as in permafrost. It is also being released from Arctic wetlands.

The question now is: how significant will this new effect on warming be? It might be small or it could be another serious problem. Learn more here or here.

What can’t science do?

May 27, 2012

Making a balloon in the shape of a bunny normally involves a rubber tube, a bit of deft twisting and a high tolerance for squeakiness. Now 3D printing means you can create any balloon shape you please.

But wait, you can’t just turn a digital 3D model into an uninflated balloon and expect it to look right when blown up – inflating the balloon deforms the initial shape.

Not to worry, scientists have taken desired 3D shapes and calculated what empty balloon shape should be needed to produce the inflated-balloon design. The system models the way a rubber balloon stretches as it inflates, then inverts this model to find the deflated shape that will most closely resemble the balloon when blown up. Learn more here.

Synthetic DNA Created, Evolves on Its Own

May 26, 2012

All of a sudden, DNA has no reason to feel special. For decades it seemed that only a handful of molecules could store genetic information and pass it on. But now synthetic biologists have discovered that six others can pull off the same trick, and there may be many more to find.

The ability to copy information from one molecule to another is fundamental to all life. Organisms pass their genes to their descendants, often with small changes, and as a result life can evolve over the generations. All known organisms use DNA as the information carrier.

A host of alternative nucleic acids have been made in labs over the years, but no one has made them work like DNA.

Now new synthetic compounds called XNAs can also store and copy genetic information.

And, in a big advancement, these artificial compounds can also be made to evolve in the lab. This is the first time artificial molecules have been made to pass genes on to their descendants. Because the XNAs can do this, they are capable of evolution. Learn more here or here.

Billions of Earth-Like Planets May Exist in Our Galaxy

May 25, 2012

About 40 percent of red dwarf stars may have Earth-sized planets orbiting them that have the right conditions for life, that is, their surface water would be liquid.

Red dwarfs – which are smaller and cooler than our sun – are extremely common, making up 80 percent of stars in the galaxy. Considering that about 80%, or 160 billion, of the Milky Way’s stars are red dwarfs, there are likely more than 65 billion stars in our galaxy with a habitable super-Earth and about 100 of them lie within 10 parsecs, or 32.6 light-years, of Earth. Learn more here or here.

The Beauty of Pollination

May 24, 2012

This video was shown at the TED conference in 2011, with scenes from “Wings of Life”, a film about the threat to essential pollinators that produce over a third of the food we eat. The seductive love dance between flowers and pollinators sustains the fabric of life and is the mystical keystone event where the animal and plant worlds intersect that make the world go round.

Counting Penguins From Space

May 23, 2012

Counting penguins isn’t as hard as it might sound. (Hey, hold still!) Someone snaps a photograph of a colony and then marks up the picture to make sure that they aren’t missing or double counting anybody. What is hard is getting to remote places, especially Antarctica. So a new approach is to use satellite images, and recently researchers reported the results of the first such comprehensive study. Scientists have found twice as many emperor penguins (Aptenodytes forsteri) as previously thought to exist, roughly 595,000 (plus or minus 81,000). They also came across seven new colonies (one shown below), bringing the total to 44.

To get the new number of birds, they had to enhance the images with a technique called pansharpening, which allowed them to distinguish between shadows, poo, and actual penguins. This is a leap forward but it doesn’t change the conservation concern about emperor penguins and many other species. Learn more here, here or here.

Oldest Alien Planets Found

May 22, 2012

Two huge planets found orbiting a star 375 light-years away are the oldest alien worlds yet discovered, scientists say.

With an estimated age of 12.8 billion years, the host star—and thus the planets—most likely formed at the dawn of the universe, less than a billion years after the big bang.

The Milky Way itself was not completely formed yet at that time!

Despite the newfound planets’ longevity, it’s unlikely the worlds will survive for another 13 billion years.

The parent star will soon transform into a red giant, one of the last stages of a sunlike star’s life. During this stage, the star will swell in size and most likely engulf any nearby planets. Learn more here.