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Sunday, July 24, 2016

With a Few Strokes You Can Create 3D Animations from 2D Sketches Without Sophisticated Training

Mosketch, a software developed by Moka Studio and EPFL, lets you generate 3D animation without sophisticated training. It’s professional-grade software that can be used by anyone, from independent artists to animation studios.


Soon budding artists will be able to create animated films without a Hollywood-sized budget. That’s thanks to Mosketch, software being developed jointly by EPFL and start-up Moka Studio. With just a few pen strokes, artists can make cartoon characters, animals, and other figures jump, run, swim, and dance. And even though Mosketch delivers performance on par with the most expensive animation applications, it doesn’t require any advanced 3D know-how.
 “The strength of our software is that it easily transforms 2D sketches into 3D, letting artists create 3D animation seamlessly and naturally,” said Benoît Le Callennec, co-founder and CEO of Moka Studio.
Ronan Boulic and Benoît Le Callennec 

Credit:  © 2016 EPFL / Alain Herzog

Mosketch works by bringing together and improving two major animation methods: direct kinematics, in which artists change each of a character’s joints individually; and inverse kinematics, in which artists can guide any part of a character’s body. The software lets artists transparently switch from one method to another – unlike the current market heavyweights – and model a complete posture with just a few sketches.
What’s more, most applications out there lack flexibility because they require arduous preparation for each specific character. “Thanks to our advanced mathematical models, artists can animate any 3D character without a lot of up-front work. That makes our software much easier to use,” said Ronan Boulic, head of the immersive interaction research group at EPFL.

Credit: Moka Studio

Another Mosketch innovation is the enhanced algorithm used to calculate 3D characters’ postures. The algorithm runs in parallel – making it 10 to 150 times faster and letting artists shape a character’s posture in real-time. And it has potential for use in other research applications, such as virtual reality and robotics. 
“A key challenge in virtual reality is shortening the time lapse between a user’s movement and the corresponding shift in what he sees. The algorithm we developed for Mosketch can speed up interactions in complex modelling environments, such as virtual prototypes for manufacturing or complicated tasks for robotics, or even for developing humanoid robots,” Boulic said.

Tutorial: Creating a Fall animation with Mosketch in 12 minutes from Moka Studio on Vimeo.

For more information, see www.mokastudio.com

Contacts and sources:
by Sarah Bourquenoud
École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL)

Osmotic Power: Water, Salt and a 3 Atoms Thick Membrane Generate Electricity

École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) researchers have developed a system that generates electricity from osmosis with unparalleled efficiency. Their work, featured in Nature, uses seawater, fresh water, and a new type of membrane just three atoms thick.



Proponents of clean energy will soon have a new source to add to their existing array of solar, wind, and hydropower: osmotic power. Or more specifically, energy generated by a natural phenomenon occurring when fresh water comes into contact with seawater through a membrane.

Researchers at EPFL’s Laboratory of Nanoscale Biology have developed an osmotic power generation system that delivers never-before-seen yields. Their innovation lies in a three atoms thick membrane used to separate the two fluids. The results of their research have been published in Nature.

The concept is fairly simple. A semipermeable membrane separates two fluids with different salt concentrations. Salt ions travel through the membrane until the salt concentrations in the two fluids reach equilibrium. That phenomenon is precisely osmosis.

If the system is used with seawater and fresh water, salt ions in the seawater pass through the membrane into the fresh water until both fluids have the same salt concentration. And since an ion is simply an atom with an electrical charge, the movement of the salt ions can be harnessed to generate electricity.

A 3 atoms thick, selective membrane that does the job

Credit;  © Steven Duensing / National Center for Supercomputing Applications, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

EPFL’s system consists of two liquid-filled compartments separated by a thin membrane made of molybdenum disulfide. The membrane has a tiny hole, or nanopore, through which seawater ions pass into the fresh water until the two fluids’ salt concentrations are equal. As the ions pass through the nanopore, their electrons are transferred to an electrode – which is what is used to generate an electric current.

Thanks to its properties the membrane allows positively-charged ions to pass through, while pushing away most of the negatively-charged ones. That creates voltage between the two liquids as one builds up a positive charge and the other a negative charge. This voltage is what causes the current generated by the transfer of ions to flow.

“We had to first fabricate and then investigate the optimal size of the nanopore. If it’s too big, negative ions can pass through and the resulting voltage would be too low. If it’s too small, not enough ions can pass through and the current would be too weak,” said Jiandong Feng, lead author of the research.

What sets EPFL’s system apart is its membrane. In these types of systems, the current increases with a thinner membrane. And EPFL’s membrane is just a few atoms thick. The material it is made of – molybdenum disulfide – is ideal for generating an osmotic current. “This is the first time a two-dimensional material has been used for this type of application,” said Aleksandra Radenovic, head of the laboratory of Nanoscale Biology

Powering 50’000 energy-saving light bulbs with 1m2 membrane
The potential of the new system is huge. According to their calculations, a 1m2 membrane with 30% of its surface covered by nanopores should be able to produce 1MW of electricity – or enough to power 50,000 standard energy-saving light bulbs. And since molybdenum disulfide (MoS2) is easily found in nature or can be grown by chemical vapor deposition, the

system could feasibly be ramped up for large-scale power generation. The major challenge in scaling-up this process is finding out how to make relatively uniform pores.

Until now, researchers have worked on a membrane with a single nanopore, in order to understand precisely what was going on. '' From an engineering perspective, single nanopore system is ideal to further our fundamental understanding of 8=-based processes and provide useful information for industry-level commercialization'', said Jiandong Feng.

The researchers were able to run a nanotransistor from the current generated by a single nanopore and thus demonstrated a self-powered nanosystem. Low-power single-layer MoS2 transistors were fabricated in collaboration with Andras Kis’ team at at EPFL, while molecular dynamics simulations were performed by collaborators at University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign

Harnessing the potential of estuaries
EPFL’s research is part of a growing trend. For the past several years, scientists around the world have been developing systems that leverage osmotic power to create electricity. Pilot projects have sprung up in places such as Norway, the Netherlands, Japan, and the United States to generate energy at estuaries, where rivers flow into the sea. For now, the membranes used in most systems are organic and fragile, and deliver low yields. Some systems use the movement of water, rather than ions, to power turbines that in turn produce electricity.

Once the systems become more robust, osmotic power could play a major role in the generation of renewable energy. While solar panels require adequate sunlight and wind turbines adequate wind, osmotic energy can be produced just about any time of day or night – provided there’s an estuary nearby.

---

Contacts and sources:
by Laure-Anne Pessina
Lionel Pousaz, EPFL
Aleksandra Radenovic, EPFL researchre
École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL)

This research is being carried out jointly by the Laboratory of Nanoscale Biology and the Laboratory of Nanoscale Electronics and Structures; the simulation work is done in a collaboration with the Narayana Aluru group of University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign. The work was funded by the SNSF Consolidator Grant Bionic.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Medical Microrobot Looks and Moves Like a Bacterium

For the past few years, scientists around the world have been studying ways to use miniature robots to better treat a variety of diseases. The robots are designed to enter the human body, where they can deliver drugs at specific locations or perform precise operations like clearing clogged-up arteries. By replacing invasive, often complicated surgery, they could optimize medicine.
Credit: EPFL

École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) scientist Selman Sakar teamed up with Hen-Wei Huang and Bradley Nelson at ETHZ to develop a simple and versatile method for building such bio-inspired robots and equipping them with advanced features. They also created a platform for testing several robot designs and studying different modes of locomotion. 

Their work, published in Nature Communications, produced complex reconfigurable microrobots that can be manufactured with high throughput. They built an integrated manipulation platform that can remotely control the robots' mobility with electromagnetic fields, and cause them to shape-shift using heat.

A robot that looks and moves like a bacterium


École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL)

Unlike conventional robots, these microrobots are soft, flexible, and motor-less. They are made of a biocompatible hydrogel and magnetic nanoparticles. These nanoparticles have two functions. They give the microrobots their shape during the manufacturing process, and make them move and swim when an electromagnetic field is applied.

Building one of these microrobots involves several steps. First, the nanoparticles are placed inside layers of a biocompatible hydrogel. Then an electromagnetic field is applied to orientate the nanoparticles at different parts of the robot, followed by a polymerization step to "solidify" the hydrogel. After this, the robot is placed in water where it folds in specific ways depending on the orientation of the nanoparticles inside the gel, to form the final overall 3D architecture of the microrobot.

Once the final shape is achieved, an electromagnetic field is used to make the robot swim. Then, when heated, the robot changes shape and "unfolds". This fabrication approach allowed the researchers to build microrobots that mimic the bacterium that causes African trypanosomiasis, otherwise known as sleeping sickness. This particular bacterium uses a flagellum for propulsion, but hides it away once inside a person's bloodstream as a survival mechanism.

The researchers tested different microrobot designs to come up with one that imitates this behavior. The prototype robot presented in this work has a bacterium-like flagellum that enables it to swim. When heated with a laser, the flagellum wraps around the robot's body and is "hidden".

A better understanding of how bacteria behave

"We show that both a bacterium's body and its flagellum play an important role in its movement," said Sakar. "Our new production method lets us test an array of shapes and combinations to obtain the best motion capability for a given task. Our research also provides valuable insight into how bacteria move inside the human body and adapt to changes in their microenvironment."

For now, the microrobots are still in development. "There are still many factors we have to take into account," says Sakar. "For instance, we have to make sure that the microrobots won't cause any side-effects in patients."

The other scientists involved in this work are Andrew Petruska and Salvador Pane.



Contacts and sources:
École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL)

Publication in Nature Communications: Soft micromachines with programmable motility and morphology

Infierno Exotic Car 245 MPH in 3 Seconds: New Super Elastic Metal Foam Construction Absorbs Impacts, Will Reduce Injuries in Auto Accidents

The automotive industry in Mexico is in constant growth. The use of national technology applied to the development of new materials represents an opportunity to get a place in the international market. 

For this, Mexican scientists have developed products derived of the combination of metals which are characterized for their porous qualities and its “super elastic” capacity which represents an innovation in the automobile creation, because they reduce the risks of injury in case of car accidents. 

The component used for the creation of the Infierno Exotic Car is denominated metal foam return to its original form as well as be "educated."  The foam will have applications in medical implants as well.

Credit: Investigación y Desarrollo

This material is made through a process which implies the transformation from liquid to solid state of a compound obtained by a previous combination of different metals such as copper, silver, and aluminum, creating a porous product. 

Doctor Said Robles Casolco, professor of the Universidad Autonoma del Estado de Morelos (UAEM), mentioned that the products obtained from the alloy of these metals can be “educated”, in other words, they can be managed or manipulated according to the necessary applications, as well as they can be stretched 100 times more than their normal size, and go back to their original state.

Credit: Investigación y Desarrollo

The “super elastic” materials are an example of the geometric expression of nature, which can be replicated in technology. One of the objectives of this development is to make metal alloys with a porous capacity similar to bones, sea corals and some rocks, so the metal foam could absorb a strong impact and go back to its original state.

Furthermore, most of the components of the metal foam are low weight, because the vehicle most avoid a big effort at the moment of burning fuel, this to diminish the emission of pollutants such as oxide and carbon monoxide.

Regarding the Infierno Exotic Car, another of the characteristics that make it different and innovative is its speed, because it can reach the 395 kilometers (245 miles) per hour in three seconds, as well as the complex designs that integrate it, because these position it in an international market of the automotive industry in Mexico.

Doctor Said Robles Casolco
Credit: Investigación y Desarrollo

“The goal is to make designs different to those already known by the international audience. We try to prove that our technology is hand in hand with those of many other countries in the world”, stressed the investigator from the UAEM, who is part of the scientific team working on this project.

The Mexican enterprise that makes the car and the metal foam, which is already patented, is LTM HOT SPOT. Currently they are planning on designing and creating electric cars with the same characteristics as the metal foam. Nevertheless, the metallic material can also be adjusted to the new kind of car or range that is required by the industry.

Doctor Said Robles mentioned that the metal foam can also be applied in the medical area by combining it with hydroxyapatite ceramic, which can be used as an implant. The metal foam becomes biocompatible and can be designed for hips, for example, due to its low density and because it is a cheap material; besides it is thought that it can replace titanium and other heavy and corrosive materials. “This material can be part of the new generation of implants in Mexico, and it would be an excellent industry”, concluded the specialist.


Contacts and sources: 
Investigación y Desarrollo

Friday, July 22, 2016

How Humans and Wild Birds Collaborate To Get Precious Honey and Wax

By following honeyguides, a species of bird, people in Africa are able to locate bees’ nests to harvest honey. Research now reveals that humans use special calls to solicit the help of honeyguides and that honeyguides actively recruit appropriate human partners. This relationship is a rare example of cooperation between humans and free-living animals.



Humans have trained a range of species to help them find food: examples are dogs, falcons and cormorants. These animals are domesticated or taught to cooperate by their owners. Human-animal collaboration in the wild is much rarer. But it has long been known that, in many parts of Africa, people and a species of wax-eating bird called the greater honeyguide work together to find wild bees’ nests which provide a valuable resource to them both.

Honeyguides give a special call to attract people’s attention, then fly from tree to tree to indicate the direction of a bees’ nest. We humans are useful collaborators to honeyguides because of our ability to subdue stinging bees with smoke and chop open their nest, providing wax for the honeyguide and honey for ourselves.

Experiments carried out in the Mozambican bush now show that this unique human-animal relationship has an extra dimension: not only do honeyguides use calls to solicit human partners, but humans use specialised calls to recruit birds’ assistance. Research in the Niassa National Reserve reveals that by using specialised calls to communicate and cooperate with each other, people and wild birds can significantly increase their chances of locating vital sources of calorie-laden food.

Yao honey-hunter Orlando Yassene harvests honeycombs from a wild bees’ nest in the Niassa National Reserve, Mozambique

Credit: Claire Spottiswoode 

In a paper (Reciprocal signaling in honeyguide-human mutualism) published in Sciencetoday (22 July 2016), evolutionary biologist Dr Claire Spottiswoode (University of Cambridge and University of Cape Town) and co-authors (conservationists Keith Begg and Dr Colleen Begg of the Niassa Carnivore Project) reveal that honeyguides are able to respond adaptively to specialised signals given by people seeking their collaboration, resulting in two-way communication between humans and wild birds.

This reciprocal relationship plays out in the wild and occurs without any conventional kind of ‘training’ or coercion. “What’s remarkable about the honeyguide-human relationship is that it involves free-living wild animals whose interactions with humans have probably evolved through natural selection, probably over the course of hundreds of thousands of years,” says Spottiswoode, a specialist in bird behavioural ecology in Africa.

“Thanks to the work in Kenya of Hussein Isack, who electrified me as an 11-year-old when I heard him speak in Cape Town, we’ve long known that people can increase their rate of finding bees’ nests by collaborating with honeyguides, sometimes following them for over a kilometre. Keith and Colleen Begg, who do wonderful conservation work in northern Mozambique, alerted me to the Yao people’s traditional practice of using a distinctive call which they believe helps them to recruit honeyguides. This was instantly intriguing – could these calls really be a mode of communication between humans and a wild animal?”

Yao honey-hunter Orlando Yassene holds a female greater honeyguide temporarily captured for research in the Niassa National Reserve, Mozambique

Credit: Claire Spottiswoode 

With the help of honey-hunters from the local Yao community, Spottiswoode carried out controlled experiments in Mozambique’s Niassa National Reserve to test whether the birds were able to distinguish the call from other human sounds, and so to respond to it appropriately. The ‘honey-hunting call’ made by honey-hunters, and passed from generation to generation, is a loud trill followed by a short grunt: ‘brrr-hm’.

To discover whether honeyguides associate ‘brrr-hm’ with a specific meaning , Spottiswoode made recordings of this call and two kinds of ‘control’ sounds : arbitrary words called out by the honey-hunters and the calls of another bird species. When these sounds were played back in the wild during experimental honey-hunting trips, birds were much more likely respond to the ‘brrr-hm’ call made to attract them than they were to either of the other sounds.

“The traditional ‘brrr-hm’ call increased the probability of being guided by a honeyguide from 33% to 66%, and the overall probability of being shown a bees’ nest from 16% to 54% compared to the control sounds. In other words, the ‘brrr-hm’ call more than tripled the chances of a successful interaction, yielding honey for the humans and wax for the bird,” says Spottiswoode.

“Intriguingly, people in other parts of Africa use very different sounds for the same purpose – for example, our colleague Brian Wood’s work has shown that Hadza honey-hunters in Tanzania make a melodious whistling sound to recruit honeyguides. We’d love to know whether honeyguides have learnt this language-like variation in human signals across Africa, allowing them to recognise good collaborators among the local people living alongside them.”

Yao honey-hunter Orlando Yassene chops open a bees’ nest in a felled tree in the Niassa National Reserve, Mozambique

Credit: Claire Spottiswoode 

The greater honeyguide is widely found in sub-Saharan Africa, where its unassuming brown plumage belies its complex interactions with other species. Its interactions with humans to obtain food are mutually beneficial, but to obtain care for its young it is a brutal exploiter of other birds.

“Like a cuckoo, it lays its eggs in the nests of other birds, and its chick hatches equipped with sharp hooks at the tips of its beak. Only a few days old, the young honeyguide uses these built-in weapons to kill its foster siblings as soon as they hatch,” says Spottiswoode. “So the greater honeyguide is a master of deception and exploitation as well as cooperation – a proper Jekyll and Hyde of the bird world.”

Human cooperation is crucial to honeyguides because bees’ nests are often hidden in inaccessible crevices high up in trees – and honeybees sting ferociously. Therefore the honeyguide waits while an expert human undertakes the dangerous tasks of subduing the bees (by smoking them out using a flaming bundle of twigs and leaves hoisted high into the tree) and extracting the honey from within, usually by felling the entire tree. There is no competition for the prize: the honey-hunters harvest the honey and honeyguides devour the wax combs left behind.

Yao honey-hunter Orlando Yassene holds a wax comb (honeyguide food) from a wild bees’ nest harvested in the Niassa National Reserve, Mozambique
Credit: Claire Spottiswoode 

Co-author Dr Colleen Begg adds: “The Niassa National Reserve is as much about people as it is about wildlife, and this is really exemplified by these human-honeyguide interactions that have been forged over thousands of years of coexistence. While many people consider wilderness not to have people in it, at Niassa people are an essential part of the landscape.”

This foraging partnership was recorded in print as early as 1588, when a Portuguese missionary in what is now Mozambique observed a small brown bird slipping into his church to nibble his wax candles. He described how this bird had another remarkable habit: it led men to bees’ nests by calling and flying from tree to tree. Once the nest was located, he wrote in his account of life on the eastern African coast in the 17th century, Ethiopia Oriental, the men harvested the honey and the bird fed on the wax.

“What João dos Santos described was what we now call a mutualism between species. Mutualisms are crucial everywhere in nature, but to our knowledge, the only comparable foraging partnership between wild animals and our own species involves free-living dolphins who chase schools of mullet into fishermen’s nets and in so doing manage to catch more for themselves. It would be fascinating to know whether dolphins respond to special calls made by fishermen, as Pliny the Elder asserted nearly two thousand years ago,” says Spottiswoode.

Claire Spottiswoode interviewing honey-hunter Issufo "Kambunga"

Credit: Jaime Romina Gaona


“Back in Africa, we’re fascinated by the evolution of the honeyguide-human mutualism and, as a next step, we want to test whether young honeyguides learn to recognise local human signals, creating a mosaic of honeyguide cultural variation that reflects that of their human partners. Sadly, the mutualism has already vanished from many parts of Africa. The world is a richer place for wildernesses like Niassa where this astonishing example of human-animal cooperation still thrives.”

The project was funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) in the UK and the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence at the FitzPatrick Institute in South Africa.



Contacts and sources:
Alex Buxton
University of Cambridge

For further information on this and other projects go to www.africancuckoos.com andwww.niassalion.org

 


Ancient Dung Provides Earliest Evidence of Infectious Disease Being Carried on Silk Road


An ancient latrine near a desert in north-western China has revealed the first archaeological evidence that travelers along the Silk Road were responsible for the spread of infectious diseases along huge distances of the route 2,000 years ago.

Cambridge researchers Hui-Yuan Yeh and Piers Mitchell used microscopy to study preserved feces on ancient ‘personal hygiene sticks’ (used for wiping away feces from the anus) in the latrine at what was a large Silk Road relay station on the eastern margins of the Tamrin Basin, a region that contains the Taklamakan desert. The latrine is thought to date from 111 BC (Han Dynasty) and was in use until 109 AD.

2,000-year-old personal hygiene sticks with remains of cloth, excavated from the latrine at Xuanquanzhi

Credit: Hui-Yuan Yeh

They found that eggs from four species of parasitic worm (helminths) were present: roundworm (Ascaris lumbricoides), whipworm (Trichuris trichiura), tapeworm (Taenia sp.), and Chinese liver fluke (Clonorchis sinensis).

Chinese liver fluke is a parasitic flatworm that causes abdominal pain, diarrhea, jaundice and liver cancer. It requires well-watered, marshy areas to complete its life cycle. Xuanquanzhi relay station was located at the eastern end of the arid Tamrin Basin, an area that contains the fearsome Taklamakan Desert. The liver fluke could not have been endemic in this dry region.

In fact, based on the current prevalence of the Chinese liver fluke, its closest endemic area to the latrine’s location in Dunhuang is around 1,500km away, and the species is most common in Guandong Province – some 2,000km from Dunhuang.

Researchers from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Archaeology and Anthropology, who conducted the study, suggest that the traveller infected with this liver fluke must have journeyed an enormous distance, and suggest the discovery provides the first reliable evidence for long distance travel with an infectious disease along the Silk Road.

The findings are published today in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.

“When I first saw the Chinese liver fluke egg down the microscope I knew that we had made a momentous discovery,” said Hui-Yuan Yeh, one of the study’s authors. “Our study is the first to use archaeological evidence from a site on the Silk Road to demonstrate that travellers were taking infectious diseases with them over these huge distances.”

The Silk Road (or Silk Route) came to prominence during the Han Dynasty in China (202 BC – AD 220) as merchants, explorers, soldiers and government officials journeyed between East Asia and the Middle East/Mediterranean region.


Egg of Chinese liver fluke discovered in the latrine at Xuanquanzhi, viewed using microscopy.

Credit: Hui-Yuan Yeh

Researchers have previously suggested that diseases such as bubonic plague, anthrax and leprosy might have been carried by ancient travelers along the legendary trading route, as similar strains have been found in China and Europe.

“Until now there has been no proof that the Silk Road was responsible for the spread of infectious diseases. They could instead have spread between China and Europe via India to the south, or via Mongolia and Russia to the north,” says study lead Piers Mitchell.

The Cambridge team worked alongside Chinese researchers Ruilin Mao and Hui Wang from the Gansu Institute for Cultural Relics and Archaeology, who originally excavated the ancient latrine and relay station in Ganzu Province.

The stop was a popular one on the Silk Road with travelers staying there and government officials using the facility to change their horses and deliver letters. While excavating the latrine, the Chinese team found the personal hygiene sticks with cloth wrapped round one end.

Added Mitchell: “Finding evidence for this species in the latrine indicates that a traveler had come here from a region of China with plenty of water, where the parasite was endemic. This proves for the first time that travelers along the Silk Road really were responsible for the spread of infectious disease along this route in the past.”


Contacts and sources: 
University of Cambridge

NASA’s Hubble Looks to the Final Frontier

Celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, the TV series "Star Trek" has captured the public’s imagination with the signature phrase, "To boldly go where no one has gone before." NASA's Hubble Space Telescope doesn't "boldly go" deep into space, but it is "boldly peering" deeper into the universe than ever before to explore the warping of space and time and uncover some of the farthest objects ever seen.

When "Star Trek" was first broadcast in 1966, the largest telescopes on Earth could only see about halfway across the universe - the rest was uncharted territory. But Hubble's powerful vision has carried us into the true "final frontier."

NASA's Hubble Space Telescope used gravitational lensing to create this image of distant galaxies.

Credits: NASA/Goddard/Katrina Jackson

This is epitomized in the latest Hubble image released today in time for the new motion picture "Star Trek Beyond." The Hubble image unveils a very cluttered-looking universe filled with galaxies near and far. Some are distorted like a funhouse mirror through a warping-of-space phenomenon first predicted by Einstein a century ago.

In the center of the image is the immense galaxy cluster Abell S1063, located 4 billion light-years away, and surrounded by magnified images of galaxies much farther.

Thanks to Hubble's exquisite sharpness, the photo unveils the effect of space warping due to gravity. The huge mass of the cluster distorts and magnifies the light from galaxies that lie far behind it due to an effect called gravitational lensing. This phenomenon allows Hubble to see galaxies that would otherwise be too small and faint to observe. This "warp field" makes it possible to get a peek at the very first generation of galaxies. Already, an infant galaxy has been found in the field, as it looked 1 billion years after the big bang.

This view of a massive cluster of galaxies unveils a very cluttered-looking universe filled with galaxies near and far. Some are distorted like a funhouse mirror through a "space warp" phenomenon first predicted by Einstein a century ago.

Credits: NASA, ESA, and J. Lotz (STScI)

This frontier image provides a sneak peak of the early universe, and gives us a taste of what the James Webb Space Telescope will be capable of seeing in greater detail when it launches in 2018.

The cluster contains approximately 100 million-million solar masses, and contains 51 confirmed galaxies and perhaps over 400 more.

The Frontier Fields program is an ambitious three-year effort, begun in 2013, that teams Hubble with NASA's other Great Observatories - the Spitzer Space Telescope and the Chandra X-ray Observatory - to probe the early universe by studying large galaxy clusters. Identifying the magnified images of background galaxies within these clusters will help astronomers to improve their models of the distribution of both ordinary and dark matter in the galaxy cluster. This is key to understanding the mysterious nature of dark matter that comprises most of the mass of the universe.

The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and the European Space Agency. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, manages the telescope. The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Maryland, conducts Hubble science operations. STScI is operated for NASA by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy in Washington, D.C.


Contacts and sources:
Lynn Chandler
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center 

Digitizing Every Fsh Species in the World

Nearly 25,000 species of fish live on our planet, and a University of Washington professor wants to scan and digitize them all.



That means each species will soon have a high-resolution, 3-D visual replica online, available to all and downloadable for free. Scientists, teachers, students and amateur ichthyologists will be able to look at the fine details of a smoothhead sculpin’s skeleton, or 3-D print an exact replica of an Arctic alligatorfish.


“These scans are transforming the way we think about 3-D data and accessibility,” said Adam Summers, a UW professor of biology and aquatic and fishery sciences who is spearheading the project.

Summers, who is based at the UW’s Friday Harbor Laboratories, uses a small computerized tomography (CT) scanner in the back room of a lab to churn out dozens of fish scans from specimens gathered around the world. The machine works like a standard CT scanner used in hospitals: A series of X-ray images is taken from different angles, then combined using computer processing to create three-dimensional images of the skeleton.

A scan of the spotfin hatchetfish (Thoracocorax stellatus).

fish scan

Credit; University of Washington

The goal is to make it possible for scientists to examine the morphology of a particular species, or try to understand why a group of fish all have similar physical characteristics such as bony head “armor” or the ability to burrow into the sand.

“It’s been so fun to throw this data up on the web and have people actually use it,” Summers said.

Until now, there hasn’t been an easy — or cheap — way for scientists to get detailed, three-dimensional scans of critters. Summers recalls having to beg hospitals to scan his specimens, including a sting ray that in 2000 was the first CT-scanned fish to appear on the cover of a biology journal.

Over the years, Summers and colleagues have developed more efficient ways to scan specimens in larger batches at hospitals, but each scan was still very expensive — anywhere from $500 to $2,000 each.

Summers saw the need for an in-house scanner and raised $340,000 to purchase themachine last November that now lives at Friday Harbor Laboratories. His policy is that it’s free and open to anyone who wants to use it, and the fish must come from museum-accessioned collections.

Students, postdoctoral researchers and professors from around the world have taken Summers up on the offer and come to the labs on San Juan Island to scan their favorite specimens. They also send boxes of fish specimens in the mail for Summers’ lab to scan and post online. Fish from museum collections are trackable with numbers, and the online database now houses scans of fish from the UW’s Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, the National Academy of Sciences in Philadelphia, Ohio State University, Western Australian Museum and many others.



“We just make it a group effort to get everything done,” Summers said. “Having this scanner has made it clear to me the incredible power of this system if you think about it the right way.”

Most scientists using the 3-D fish data appear to be interested in measuring morphology — the length of a particular bone, for example — or looking for an aspect of anatomy never seen before. The scans allow you to zoom in digitally at many different angles, or print life-sized or larger plastic replicas of a fish.

Summers has fine-tuned and expedited the process by scanning multiple fish at once. He first packs and rolls the specimens together like a burrito in a cylinder that is then placed directly in the scanner. After the machine makes one scan, Summers then digitally separates each 3-D fish into its own file.

Additionally, he doesn’t scan at the highest-possible resolution, because few scientists actually need that much detailed data. This saves more time and digital space — and makes it possible for people to access the files more easily online.

“The way transformative ideas do, these just instantly changed the way we think about scanning specimens,” Summers said. “We went from, ‘Is this possible?’ to scanning whole series of fishes quickly.”

So far about 515 species have been scanned and many are posted online to Open Science Framework, an open-source, sharing website for scholarly projects. Summers expects to finish scanning all of the fish species in the world in two-and-a-half to three years.

His next project is to scan all 50,000 vertebrate species on Earth — an undertaking he thinks is possible within a few years using half a dozen CT scanners like the one at Friday Harbor Laboratories. Colleagues at museums around the U.S. are writing a grant proposal to accomplish this feat.



Contacts and sources:
Michelle Ma
University of Washington

Dreambit Predicts What Toddlers Will Look Like at Subsequent Ages from Childhood to Old Age, Video

When we go to the hair stylist, we can browse magazines with pictures of models and point to a photo we'd like to try. Actors change appearances all the time to fit a role. Missing people are often disguised by changing their hair color and style.

But how can we predict if an appearance change will look good without physically trying it? Or explore what missing children might look like if their appearance is changed?

Dreambit can predict what a 1-year-old boy (top) and a 4-year-old girl (bottom) will look like at subsequent ages.

Credit: Ira Kemelmacher-Shlizerman, University of Washington

A new system developed by a University of Washington computer vision researcher called Dreambit lets a person imagine how they would look a with different a hairstyle or color, or in a different time period, age, country or anything else that can be queried in an image search engine.

Credit: Dreambit 

After uploading an input photo, you type in a search term -- such as "curly hair," "India" or "1930s." The software's algorithms mine Internet photo collections for similar images in that category and seamlessly map the person's face onto the results.

Initial results will be presented July 25 at SIGGRAPH 2016, the world's largest annual conference on computer graphics and interactive techniques. Plans are underway to make the system publicly available later this year.

Dreambit draws on previous research conducted at the UW and elsewhere in facial processing, recognition, three-dimensional reconstruction and age progression, combining those algorithms in a unique way to create the blended images.

The new software can also help show what a missing child or person evading the law might look like if their appearance has been purposefully disguised, or even how they would look at an advanced age if years have passed.

Developer Ira Kemelmacher-Shlizerman, UW assistant professor of computer science and engineering, and her team previously developed automated age progression software that focused only on a person's face. The new system adds varied hairstyle options and other contextual elements.

These new features enable one to imagine what a child might look five or 10 years into the future under different circumstances -- with red hair, curly hair, black hair or even a shaved head.

"It's hard to recognize someone by just looking at a face, because we as humans are so biased towards hairstyles and hair colors," said Kemelmacher-Shlizerman. "With missing children, people often dye their hair or change the style so age-progressing just their face isn't enough. This is a first step in trying to imagine how a missing person's appearance might change over time."

Another potential application is to envision how a certain actor or actress might appear in a role. For example, the system can marry internet photographs of the actress Cate Blanchett and Bob Dylan to predict how she would appear playing the Dylan role in the movie "I'm Not There."

"This is a way to try on different looks or personas without actually changing your physical appearance," said Kemelmacher-Shlizerman, who co-leads the UW Graphics and Imaging Laboratory (GRAIL). "While imagining what you'd look like with a new hairstyle is mind blowing, it also lets you experiment with creative imaginative scenarios."

The software system analyzes the input photo and searches for a subset of internet photographs that fall into the desired category but also match the original photo's face shape, pose and expression.

Its ability to accurately and automatically synthesize two photographs stems from the combination of algorithms that Kemelmacher-Shlizerman assembled, as well as the sheer volume of photos available on the internet.

"The key idea is to find a doppelgänger set -- people who look similar enough to you that you can copy certain elements of their appearance," said Kemelmacher-Shlizerman. "And because the system has hundreds of thousands of photos to choose from, the matching results are spellbinding."



Contacts and sources:
Jennifer Langston
University of Washington

A Year on Earth – Recorded From 1 Million Miles

On July 20, 2015, NASA released to the world the first image of the sunlit side of Earth captured by the space agency's EPIC camera on NOAA's DSCOVR satellite. The camera has now recorded a full year of life on Earth from its orbit at Lagrange point 1, approximately 1 million miles from Earth, where it is balanced between the gravity of our home planet and the sun.


EPIC takes a new picture every two hours, revealing how the planet would look to human eyes, capturing the ever-changing motion of clouds and weather systems and the fixed features of Earth such as deserts, forests and the distinct blues of different seas. EPIC will allow scientists to monitor ozone and aerosol levels in Earth’s atmosphere, cloud height, vegetation properties and the ultraviolet reflectivity of Earth. 


The primary objective of DSCOVR, a partnership between NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. Air Force, is to maintain the nation’s real-time solar wind monitoring capabilities, which are critical to the accuracy and lead time of space weather alerts and forecasts from NOAA.

The journey has been a long one for the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR). Once known as Triana, the satellite was conceived in 1998 to provide continuous views of Earth, to monitor the solar wind, and to measure fluctuations in Earth’s albedo. The mission was put on hold in 2001, and the partly-built satellite ended up in storage for several years with an uncertain future. In 2008, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), NASA, and the U.S. Air Force decided to refurbish and update the spacecraft for launch.

America’s first operational deep space satellite orbits one million miles from Earth. Positioned between the sun and Earth, it is able to maintain a constant view of the sun and sun-lit side of Earth. This location is called Lagrange point 1. (Illustration is not to scale)
 Credit: NOAA

On February 11, 2015, DSCOVR was finally lofted into space by a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. After journey of about 1.6 million kilometers (1 million miles) to the L1 Lagrange Point, the satellite and its Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera (EPIC) has returned its first view of the entire sunlit side of Earth. At L1—four times farther than the orbit of the Moon—the gravitational pull of the Sun and Earth cancel out, providing a stable orbit and a continuous view of Earth. 

The image was made by combining information from EPIC’s red, green, and blue bands.(Bands are narrow regions of the electromagnetic spectrum to which a remote sensing instrument responds. When EPIC collects data, it takes a series of 10 images at different bands—from ultraviolet to near infrared.)
An EPIC New View of Earth

This first public image showed the effects of sunlight scattered by air molecules, giving the disk a characteristic bluish tint. The EPIC team is developing data processing techniques that will emphasize land features and remove this atmospheric effect. Once the instrument begins regular data acquisition, new images will be available every day, 12 to 36 hours after they are acquired by EPIC.

Images are posted to a dedicated web page. Data from EPIC will be used to measure ozone and aerosol levels in Earth’s atmosphere, as well as cloud height, vegetation properties, and the ultraviolet reflectivity of Earth. NASA will use this data for a number of Earth science applications, including dust and volcanic ash maps of the entire planet.


Contacts and sources:
NASA

Green Energy Rescue: Sunlight, Catalyst and Fescue Yield Cheap Hydrogen

Garden grass could become a source of cheap and clean renewable energy, scientists have claimed.

A team of UK researchers, including experts from Cardiff University's Cardiff Catalysis Institute, have shown that significant amounts of hydrogen can be unlocked from fescue grass with the help of sunlight and a cheap catalyst.

It is the first time that this method has been demonstrated and could potentially lead to a sustainable way of producing hydrogen, which has enormous potential in the renewable energy industry due to its high energy content and the fact that it does not release toxic or greenhouse gases when it is burnt.


Credit: Cardiff University

Co-author of the study Professor Michael Bowker, from the Cardiff Catalysis Institute, said: "This really is a green source of energy.

"Hydrogen is seen as an important future energy carrier as the world moves from fossil fuels to renewable feedstocks, and our research has shown that even garden grass could be a good way of getting hold of it."

The team, which also includes researchers from Queen's University Belfast, have published their findings in the Royal Society journal Proceedings A.

Hydrogen is contained in enormous quantities all over in the world in water, hydrocarbons and other organic matter.

Up until now, the challenge for researchers has been devising ways of unlocking hydrogen from these sources in a cheap, efficient and sustainable way.

A promising source of hydrogen is the organic compound cellulose, which is a key component of plants and the most abundant biopolymer on Earth.

In their study, the team investigated the possibility of converting cellulose into hydrogen using sunlight and a simple catalyst -- a substance which speeds up a chemical reaction without getting used up.

This process is called photoreforming or photocatalysis and involves the sunlight activating the catalyst which then gets to work on converting cellulose and water into hydrogen. The researchers studied the effectiveness of three metal-based catalysts -- Palladium, Gold and Nickel.

Nickel was of particular interest to the researchers, from a practical point of view, as it is a much more earth-abundant metal than the precious metals, and is more economical.

In the first round of experiments, the researchers combined the three catalysts with cellulose in a round bottom flask and subjected the mixture to light from a desk lamp. At 30 minutes intervals the researchers collected gas samples from the mixture and analysed it to see how much hydrogen was being produced.

To test the practical applications of this reaction, the researchers repeated the experiment with fescue grass, which was obtained from a domestic garden.

Professor Michael Bowker continued: "Up until recently, the production of hydrogen from cellulose by means of photocatalysis has not been extensively studied.

"Our results show that significant amounts of hydrogen can be produced using this method with the help of a bit of sunlight and a cheap catalyst.

"Furthermore, we've demonstrated the effectiveness of the process using real grass taken from a garden. To the best of our knowledge, this is the first time that this kind of raw biomass has been used to produce hydrogen in this way. This is significant as it avoids the need to separate and purify cellulose from a sample, which can be both arduous and costly."



Contacts and sources:
Michael Bishop
Cardiff University

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

World's Greatest Concentration of Unique Mammal Species Is on Philippine Island

Where is the world's greatest concentration of unique species of mammals? A team of American and Filipino authors have concluded that it is Luzon Island, in the Philippines. Their 15-year project, summarized in a paper published in the scientific journal Frontiers of Biogeography, has shown that out of 56 species of non-flying mammal species that are now known to live on the island, 52 live nowhere else in the world. Of those 56 species, 28 were discovered during the course of the project. Nineteen of the species have been formally described in scientific journals, and nine are currently "in the works."

This tree-dwelling mouse, which has whiskers that reach all the way to its ankles, is one of the 28 new species unique to Luzon discovered by Larry Heaney and his team in the course of this study.
Credit: Larry Heaney, The Field Museum


"We started our study on Luzon in 2000 because we knew at the time that most of the native mammal species on the island were unique to the island, and we wanted to understand why that is the case. We did not expect that we would double the number already known," said Lawrence Heaney, the project's leader, who is the Negaunee Curator of Mammals at The Field Museum in Chicago.

Luzon is the largest island in the Philippines; at about 40,000 square miles, it's a bit larger than Indiana. According to the authors, Luzon has never been connected to any continental land--the species have been isolated, like the animals that live in Hawaii. But Luzon is much larger and at least five times older than the oldest island in Hawaii, and so has had time for the few species that arrived from the Asian mainland to evolve and diversify greatly.

On islands, scientists sometimes see a "sped-up" version of evolution--when animals are closed off from the rest of the world, in places where there are few or no predators or competitors, they are able to branch out into special adaptations, eventually forming new species. And not only is the island of Luzon isolated, but it's covered in mountains. The mountaintops form what scientists call "sky islands"--little pockets of distinctive habitat that the animals further adapt to. "The animals are isolated high on the scattered mountains, so they inevitably diverge. Given enough time, you begin to see huge biodiversity," explained Heaney. "In the process of trying to understand how that happens, we doubled the number of known species on Luzon."

Among the 28 new species discovered by the team are four species of tiny tree-mice with whiskers so long they reach nearly to their ankles, and five species of mice that look like shrews and feed primarily on earthworms. Most of the new species live in tropical cloud forest high in the mountains, where frequent typhoons can drop four or five meters (12 to 15 feet) of rain per year.

This is a forest in Luzon. Forests like this are home to the greatest concentration of unique mammal species in the entire world, but Luzon is heavily deforested.

Credit: Larry Heaney, The Field Museum

"All 28 of the species we discovered during the project are members of two branches on the tree of life that are confined to the Philippines," according to Eric Rickart, a team member who is based at the Natural History Museum of Utah. "There are individual mountains on Luzon that have five species of mammals that live nowhere else. That's more unique species on one mountain than live in any country in continental Europe. The concentration of unique biodiversity in the Philippines is really staggering."

Luzon also supports 57 species of bats; most live in the hot, humid lowlands. These include the golden-crowned flying fox, which is one of the heaviest bats in the world at up to two and a half pounds. Another, the lesser flat-headed bat, is so tiny that it can roost inside the hollow spaces inside bamboo stems.

Cloud rats like these are just some of the 93 percent of Luzon land mammals that are found nowhere else in the world. The cloud rats in this image were drawn with colored pencil by The Field Museum's scientific illustrator Velizar Simeonovski.
Credit: Velizar Simeonovski, The Field Museum

"We also wanted to learn more about the conservation status of these wonderful animals," said Danny Balete, a Research Associate at the Field Museum who is based in the Philippines. "The Philippines is one of the most heavily deforested countries in the tropics; only about seven percent of the old-growth tropical forest is left. We learned that quite a few of the species are seriously threatened by habitat loss and over-hunting, but none are yet extinct." Luzon has a human population of about 50 million, including about 23 million in greater Manila, the country's capital. "Protecting all of these species from extinction is going to be a big challenge. The good news is that when the native forest is allowed to regenerate, the native mammals move back in, and the pest rats get kicked out."

Other co-authors of the paper are based at the University of the Philippines, the University of Minnesota, and Florida State University. Heaney, Balete, and Rickart are also authors of a book about the mammals of Luzon Island, just published by Johns Hopkins University Press, that will be used in the Philippines as a college-level textbook. The team works closely with conservation organizations and the Philippine government, and many of their recommendations regarding expanded and new national parks have been adopted.

"Learning about the tremendous diversity of mammal species present on Luzon is crucial to conservation efforts," explained Heaney. "In order to be effective at conserving an environment, we have to know what's out there."



Contacts and sources:
Kate Golembiewski
Field Museum

Green' Electronic Materials Produced with Synthetic Biology


Scientists at UMass Amherst report in the current issue of Small that they have genetically designed a new strain of bacteria that spins out extremely thin and highly conductive wires made up solely of non-toxic, natural amino acids.

Researchers led by microbiologist Derek Lovely say the wires, which rival the thinnest wires known to man, are produced from renewable, inexpensive feedstocks and avoid the harsh chemical processes typically used to produce nanoelectronic materials.

Synthetic biowire are making an electrical connection between two electrodes. Researchers led by microbiologist Derek Lovely at UMass Amherst say the wires, which rival the thinnest wires known to man, are produced from renewable, inexpensive feedstocks and avoid the harsh chemical processes typically used to produce nanoelectronic materials.

Credit:  UMass Amherst

Lovley says, "New sources of electronic materials are needed to meet the increasing demand for making smaller, more powerful electronic devices in a sustainable way." The ability to mass-produce such thin conductive wires with this sustainable technology has many potential applications in electronic devices, functioning not only as wires, but also transistors and capacitors. Proposed applications include biocompatible sensors, computing devices, and as components of solar panels.

This advance began a decade ago, when Lovley and colleagues discovered that Geobacter, a common soil microorganism, could produce "microbial nanowires," electrically conductive protein filaments that help the microbe grow on the iron minerals abundant in soil. These microbial nanowires were conductive enough to meet the bacterium's needs, but their conductivity was well below the conductivities of organic wires that chemists could synthesize.

"As we learned more about how the microbial nanowires worked we realized that it might be possible to improve on Nature's design," says Lovley. "We knew that one class of amino acids was important for the conductivity, so we rearranged these amino acids to produce a synthetic nanowire that we thought might be more conductive."

The trick they discovered to accomplish this was to introduce tryptophan, an amino acid not present in the natural nanowires. Tryptophan is a common aromatic amino acid notorious for causing drowsiness after eating Thanksgiving turkey. However, it is also highly effective at the nanoscale in transporting electrons.

"We designed a synthetic nanowire in which a tryptophan was inserted where nature had used a phenylalanine and put in another tryptophan for one of the tyrosines. We hoped to get lucky and that Geobacter might still form nanowires from this synthetic peptide and maybe double the nanowire conductivity," says Lovley.

The results greatly exceeded the scientists' expectations. They genetically engineered a strain of Geobacter and manufactured large quantities of the synthetic nanowires 2000 times more conductive than the natural biological product. An added bonus is that the synthetic nanowires, which Lovley refers to as "biowire," had a diameter only half that of the natural product.

"We were blown away by this result," says Lovley. The conductivity of biowire exceeds that of many types of chemically produced organic nanowires with similar diameters. The extremely thin diameter of 1.5 nanometers (over 60,000 times thinner than a human hair) means that thousands of the wires can easily be packed into a very small space.

The added benefit is that making biowire does not require any of the dangerous chemicals that are needed for synthesis of other nanowires. Also, biowire contains no toxic components. "Geobacter can be grown on cheap renewable organic feedstocks so it is a very 'green' process," he notes. And, although the biowire is made out of protein, it is extremely durable. In fact, Lovley's lab had to work for months to establish a method to break it down.

"It's quite an unusual protein," Lovley says. "This may be just the beginning" he adds. Researchers in his lab recently produced more than 20 other Geobacter strains, each producing a distinct biowire variant with new amino acid combinations. He notes, "I am hoping that our initial success will attract more funding to accelerate the discovery process. We are hoping that we can modify biowire in other ways to expand its potential applications."




Contacts and sources
Janet Lathrop
University of Massachusetts Amhert 

This research was supported by the Office of Naval Research, the National Science Foundation's Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center and the UMass Amherst Center for Hierarchical Manufacturing.

Plant Eating Dinosaurs More Successful Than Meat Eating Relatives

There has been a long debate about why dinosaurs were so successful. Say dinosaur, and most people think of the great flesh-eaters such as Tyrannosaurus rex, but the most successful dinosaurs were of course the plant-eaters.

A new study from the University of Bristol, led by Masters of Palaeobiology student Eddy Strickson, has presented clear evidence about how plant-eating dinosaurs evolved.

In the rich dinosaur deposits of North America, hundreds of skeletons of plant-eaters are found for every T. rex. But how did they survive and proliferate? Was it down to innovation or stimulus by plant evolution?

One of the most successful dinosaur plant-eaters, Parasaurolophus from the Late Cretaceous of North America, showing the skull, with long crest, the multiple rows of teeth, and body outline. Hadrosaurs were specialist feeders on confiers and other tough plants, and they were hugely diverse and abundant

Credit: School of Earth Sciences © University of Bristol

Eddy Strickson said: "The plant-eating ornithopods showed four evolutionary bursts; one in the middle of the Jurassic, and the other three in a cluster around 80 million years ago in the Late Cretaceous. This was down to innovation in their jaws and improved efficiency."

Plants were evolving fast during the Mesozoic, with the rise of cycads, conifers, and especially the angiosperms or flowering plants in the Cretaceous. However, the evolution of ornithopod dinosaur jaws and teeth did not show any response to these changes in availability of plants.

Dr Albert Prieto-Marquez, Research Associate in the School of Earth Sciences who co-led the research, said: "Some of the immensely successful duck-billed hadrosaurs of the Late Cretaceous might have been eating flowering plants, but their tooth wear patterns, and especially close study of their coprolites - that's fossil poops - shows they were conifer specialists, designed to crush and digest the oily, tough needles and cones."

Incomplete Parasaurolophus walkeri type specimen in the Royal Ontario Museum.

Credit: Wikipedia

Dr Tom Stubbs, another co-leader and Research Associate in Palaeobiology in the School of Earth Sciences: "Our work has been done using new methods of evolutionary analysis. Up to now, many evolutionary studies of this kind have been quite circumstantial, but we have been able to identify times of intensive evolution using objective, numerical methods."

Over 150 million years, many hundreds of dinosaurs came and went, but in the end they all died out 66 million years ago. The new work helps confirm another recently published, and controversial, claim that most dinosaurs were already in decline 40 million years before the meteorite struck and finished them off.

Mike Benton, Professor of Vertebrate Palaeontology in the School of Earth Sciences, explained: "In other numerical work, we had found that nearly all dinosaurs showed a downturn about 100 million years ago, but the exceptions were two herbivore groups, the crested hadrosaurs and the horned ceratopsians. This study of dentition now confirms that hadrosaurs were bucking the overall downturn."

The research is published  in Scientific Reports.



Contacts and sources: 
Joanne Fryer
University of Bristol


Citation: 'Dynamics of dental evolution in ornithopod dinosaurs' by Eddy Strickson, Albert Prieto-Márquez, Michael Benton, and Thomas L. Stubbs, published in Scientific Reports 

Two Potentially Habitable Planets Found Just 40 Light Years Away


On May 2, scientists from MIT, the University of Liège, and elsewhere announced they had discovered a planetary system, a mere 40 light years from Earth, that hosts three potentially habitable, Earth-sized worlds. Judging from the size and temperature of the planets, the researchers determined that regions of each planet may be suitable for life.

Now, in a paper published today in Nature, that same group reports that the two innermost planets in the system are primarily rocky, unlike gas giants such as Jupiter. The findings further strengthen the case that these planets may indeed be habitable. The researchers also determined that the atmospheres of both planets are likely not large and diffuse, like that of the Jupiter, but instead compact, similar to the atmospheres of Earth, Venus, and Mars.

An artist’s depiction of planets transiting a red dwarf star in the TRAPPIST-1 System

Courtesy of NASA/ESA/STScl

The scientists, led by first author Julien de Wit, a postdoc in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, came to their conclusion after making a preliminary screening of the planets’ atmospheres, just days after announcing the discovery of the planetary system.

On May 4, the team pointed NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope at the system’s star, TRAPPIST-1, to catch a rare event: a double transit, the moment when two planets almost simultaneously pass in front of their star. The researchers realized the planets would transit just two weeks before the event, thanks to refined estimates of the planets’ orbital configuration, made by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, which had already started to observe the TRAPPIST-1 system.

“We thought, maybe we could see if people at Hubble would give us time to do this observation, so we wrote the proposal in less than 24 hours, sent it out, and it was reviewed immediately,” de Wit recalls. “Now for the first time we have spectroscopic observations of a double transit, which allows us to get insight on the atmosphere of both planets at the same time.”

Using Hubble, the team recorded a combined transmission spectrum of TRAPPIST-1b and c, meaning that as first one planet then the other crossed in front of the star, they were able to measure the changes in wavelength as the amount of starlight dipped with each transit.

“The data turned out to be pristine, absolutely perfect, and the observations were the best that we could have expected,” de Wit says. “The force was certainly with us.”


Courtesy of NASA/ESA/STScl

A rocky sign

The dips in starlight were observed over a narrow range of wavelengths that turned out not to vary much over that range. If the dips had varied significantly, de Wit says, such a signal would have demonstrated the planets have light, large, and puffy atmospheres, similar to that of the gas giant Jupiter.

But that’s not the case. Instead, the data suggest that both transiting planets have more compact atmospheres, similar to those of rocky planets such as Earth, Venus, and Mars.

“Now we can say that these planets are rocky. Now the question is, what kind of atmosphere do they have?” de Wit says. “The plausible scenarios include something like Venus, with high, thick clouds and an atmosphere dominated by carbon dioxide, or an Earth-like atmosphere dominated by nitrogen and oxygen, or even something like Mars with a depleted atmosphere. The next step is to try to disentangle all these possible scenarios that exist for these terrestrial planets.”

“A rocky surface is a great start for a habitable planet, but any life on the TRAPPIST-1 planets is likely to have a much harder time than life on Earth,” says Joanna Barstow, an astrophysicist at University College London, who was not involved with the research.

As the planets orbit very close to their star, Barstow says that may mean the radiation coming off the star may strip their atmospheres away entirely, making it extremely difficult for organisms to thrive, particularly as both planets are tidally locked, meaning they have permanent day and night sides.

“Of course, our ideas of habitability are very narrow because we only have one planet to look at so far, and life might well surprise us by flourishing in what we think of as unlikely conditions,” Barstow says.

More eyes on the sky

The scientists are now working to establish more telescopes on the ground to probe this planetary system further, as well as to discover other similar systems. The planetary system’s star, TRAPPIST-1, is known as an ultracool dwarf star, a type of star that is typically much cooler than the sun, emitting radiation in the infrared rather than the visible spectrum.

De Wit’s colleagues from the University of Liège came up with the idea to look for planets around such stars, as they are much fainter than typical stars and their starlight would not overpower the signal from planets themselves.

The researchers discovered the TRAPPIST-1 planetary system using TRAPPIST (TRAnsiting Planets and PlanetesImals Small Telescope), a new kind of ground telescope designed to survey the sky in infrared. TRAPPIST was built as a 60-centimeter prototype to monitor the 70 brightest dwarf stars in the southern sky. Now, the researchers have formed a consortium, called SPECULOOS (Search for habitable Planets Eclipsing ULtra-cOOl Stars), and are building four larger versions of the telescope in Chile, to focus on the brightest ultracool dwarf stars in the skies over the southern hemisphere. The researchers are also trying to raise money to build telescopes in the northern sky.

“Each telescope is about $400,000 — about the price of an apartment in Cambridge,” de Wit says.

If the scientists can train more TRAPPIST-like telescopes on the skies, de Wit says, the telescopes may serve as relatively affordable “prescreening tools.” That is, scientists may use them to identify candidate planets that just might be habitable, then follow up with more detailed observations using powerful telescopes such as Hubble and NASA’s James Webb Telescope, which is scheduled to launch in October 2018.

“With more observations using Hubble, and further down the road with James Webb, we can know not only what kind of atmosphere planets like TRAPPIST-1 have, but also what is within these atmospheres,” de Wit says. “And that’s very exciting.”

This research was supported in part by NASA/Space Telescope Science Institute.


Contacts and sources:
Sarah McDonnell
MIT

Moon Struck by Proto Planet To Form Imbrium Basin, the Right Eye of the Man in the Moon

Around 3.8 billion years ago, an asteroid more than 150 miles across, roughly equal to the length of New Jersey, slammed into the Moon and created the Imbrium Basin — the right eye of the fabled Man in the Moon. This new size estimate, published in the journal Nature, suggests an Imbrium impactor that was two times larger in diameter and 10 times more massive than previous estimates.


Credit: Brown University

“We show that Imbrium was likely formed by an absolutely enormous object, large enough to be classified as a protoplanet,” said Pete Schultz, professor of earth, environmental and planetary sciences at Brown University. “This is the first estimate for the Imbrium impactor’s size that is based largely on the geological features we see on the Moon.”

Previous estimates, Schultz said, were based solely on computer models and yielded a size estimate of only about 50 miles in diameter.

These new findings help to explain some of the puzzling geological features that surround the Imbrium Basin. The work also suggests — based on the sizes of other impact basins in the Moon, Mars and Mercury — that the early solar system was likely well stocked with protoplanet-sized asteroids.

Grooves and gashes associated with the Imbrium Basin on the Moon have long been puzzling. New research shows how some of these features were formed and uses them to estimate the size of the Imbrium impactor. The study suggests it was big enough to be considered a protoplanet.
NASA/Northeast Planetary Data Center/Brown University

Imbrium sculpture

The Imbrium Basin — seen from Earth as a dark patch in the northwestern quadrant of the Moon’s face — measures about 750 miles across. The basin is surrounded by grooves and gashes, large enough to be seen with even small telescopes from Earth, created by rocks blasted out of the crater when it was formed. These features, known as the Imbrium Sculpture, radiate out from the center of the basin like spokes on a wheel, but are concentrated on the basin’s southeast side. That suggests that the impactor traveled from the northwest, impacting at an oblique angle rather than straight on.

But in addition to features radiating from the basin’s center, there is a second set of grooves with a different alignment. These appear to come from a region to the northwest, along the trajectory from which the impactor came.

“This second set of grooves was a real mystery,” Schultz said. “No one was quite sure where they came from.”

Through hypervelocity impact experiments performed using the Vertical Gun Range at theNASA Ames Research Center, Schultz was able to show that those grooves were likely formed by chunks of the impactor that sheared off on initial contact with the surface. The grooves created by those chunks enabled Schultz to estimate the size of the impactor.
Laboratory impactsImages from laboratory impacts capture the crumbling impactor in flight following a high-speed impact into a cylinder using the Ames Vertical Gun Range. 

Schultz Lab/Brown University

The Vertical Gun Range employs a 14-foot cannon that fires small projectiles at up to 16,000 miles per hour, while impact plates and high-speed cameras record the ballistic dynamics. During his experiments with low-angle impacts, Schultz noticed that impactors tend to start breaking apart when they first make contact with the surface. That point of initial contact is actually behind or “up-range” of the final crater, where the bulk of the impactor digs into the surface. The chunks that break off up-range of the final crater continue to travel at a high rate of speed, scouring and grooving the surface.

“The key point is that the grooves made by these chunks aren’t radial to the crater,” Schultz said. “They come from the region of first contact. We see the same thing in our experiments that we see on the Moon — grooves pointing up-range, rather than the crater.”

After seeing these features in the lab, Schultz worked with David Crawford of the Sandia National Laboratories to generate computer models showing that the same kind of physics would also happen at the colossal scales of a lunar impact.

With an understanding of how those grooves were created, Schultz could use them to find the Imbrium impact point. And because the fragments would have broken off from the either side of the impactor, the groove trajectories could be used to estimate the impactor’s size.

Those calculations yielded an estimated diameter of 250 kilometers or 150 miles across, large enough for the object to be classified as a protoplanet.

“That’s actually a low-end estimate,” Schultz said. “It’s possible that it could have been as large as 300 kilometers.”

“Lost giants” and the Late Heavy Bombardment

Schultz and his colleagues used similar methods to estimate the sizes of impactors related to several other basins on the Moon created by oblique impacts. Those estimates — for the Moscoviense and Orientale basins on the Moon’s far side — yielded impactor sizes of 100 and 110 kilometers across respectively, larger than some previous estimates.

Combining these new estimates with the fact that there are even larger impact basins on the Moon and other planets, Schultz concludes that protoplanet-sized asteroids may have been common in the early solar system.

“The large basins we see on the Moon and elsewhere are the record of lost giants,” Schultz said.

A laboratory collision on a mock-up Moon using the Ames Vertical Gun Range. 
Schultz Lab/Brown University

The research has several other significant implications, he said. The surviving fragments from these impactors would have littered the ancient surface of the Moon, slowly becoming mixed with native soil and rock. That could help explain why samples returned from the Apollo missions had such a high meteoritic content. That is particularly true of Apollo 16, which landed downrange from the Imbrium impact.

Furthermore, Schultz’s work suggests fragments from these giants could account for a many of the impacts that occurred during a period called the Late Heavy Bombardment, which occurred from about 3.8 billion years ago to around 4 billion years, when scientists think most of the craters we see on the Moon and Mercury were formed.

The impact models Schultz and Crawford developed suggest that thousands of the chunks that crumbled off of the Imbrium impactor and others would have broken and kept going, escaping the Moon’s gravity and flying off into space. On subsequent orbits around the sun, those chunks would have crossed the Earth and Moon orbits again and again, creating a strong possibility of subsequent impacts. Some of those objects would have been a kilometer or two across, large enough to create 20-kilometer craters.

“These chips off the old blocks could have contributed significantly to the impact record we see on the Moon and other terrestrial planets,” Schultz said.

Schultz also said he continues to be amazed by what we can learn just by looking up at the Moon.

“The Moon still holds clues that can affect our interpretation of the entire solar system,” he said. “Its scarred face can tell us quite a lot about what was happening in our neighborhood 3.8 billion years ago.”

The research was funded in part by a grant from NASA (NNX13AB75G).

Contacts and sources:
Kevin Stacey
Brown University


Tuesday, July 19, 2016

New Theory on Dinosaur and Ammonite Extinction: The Killer and the Murder Weapon

A new hypothesis on the extinction of dinosaurs and ammonites at the end of the Cretaceous Period has been proposed by a research team from Tohoku University and the Japan Meteorological Agency's Meteorological Research Institute.

Global climate change caused by soot aerosol at the K-Pg boundary

Credit:  Tohoku University

The researchers believe that massive amounts of stratospheric soot ejected from rocks following the famous Chicxulub asteroid impact, caused global cooling, drought and limited cessation of photosynthesis in oceans. This, they say, could have been the process that led to the mass extinction of dinosaurs and ammonites.

The asteroid, also known as the Chicxulub impactor, hit Earth some 66 million years ago, causing a crater more than 180 km wide. It's long been believed that that event triggered the mass extinction that led to the macroevolution of mammals and the appearance of humans.

Tohoku University Professor Kunio Kaiho and his team analyzed sedimentary organic molecules from two places - Haiti, which is near the impact site, and Spain, which is far. They found that the impact layer of both areas have the same composition of combusted organic molecules showing high energy. This, they believe, is the soot from the asteroid crash.

Soot is a strong, light-absorbing aerosol, and Kaiho's team came by their hypothesis by calculating the amount of soot in the stratosphere estimating global climate changes caused by the stratospheric soot aerosols using a global climate model developed at the Meteorological Research Institute. The results are significant because they can explain the pattern of extinction and survival.

While it is widely accepted that the Chicxulub impact caused the mass extinction of dinosaurs and other life forms, researchers have been stumped by the process of how. In other words, they'd figured out the killer, but not the murder weapon.

Earlier theories had suggested that dust from the impact may have blocked the sun, or that sulphates may have contaminated the atmosphere. But researchers say it is unlikely that either phenomenon could have lasted long enough to have driven the extinction.

The new hypothesis raised by Kaiho's team says that soot from hydrocarbons had caused a prolonged period of darkness which led to a drop in atmospheric temperature. The team found direct evidence of hydrocarbon soot in the impact layers and created models showing how this soot would have affected the climate.
Soot may have killed off the dinosaurs and ammonites
Credit:  Tohoku University

According to their study, when the asteroid hit the oil-rich region of Chicxulub, a massive amount of soot was ejected which then spread globally. The soot aerosols caused colder climates at mid-high latitudes, and drought with milder cooling at low latitudes on land. This in turn led to the cessation of photosynthesis in oceans in the first two years, followed by surface-water cooling in oceans in subsequent years.

This rapid climate change is believed to be behind the loss of land and marine creatures over several years, suggesting that rapid global climate change can and did play a major role in driving extinction.

Kaiho's team is studying other mass extinctions in the hopes of further understanding the processes behind them.



Contacts and sources:
Kunio Kaiho
Tohoku University

Citation: Global climate change driven by soot at the K-Pg boundary as the cause of the mass extinction.  Authors: Kunio Kaiho, Naga Oshima, Kouji Adachi, Yukimasa Adachi, Takuya Mizukami, Megumu Fujibayashi, Ryosuke Saito   Journal: Scientific Reports