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Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Hot Blue Stars Of Messier 47

Messier 47 is located approximately 1600 light-years from Earth, in the constellation of Puppis (the poop deck of the mythological ship Argo). It was first noticed some time before 1654 by Italian astronomer Giovanni Battista Hodierna and was later independently discovered by Charles Messier himself, who apparently had no knowledge of Hodierna's earlier observation.

This spectacular image of the star cluster Messier 47 was taken using the Wide Field Imager camera, installed on the MPG/ESO 2.2-meter telescope at ESO's La Silla Observatory in Chile. This young open cluster is dominated by a sprinkling of brilliant blue stars but also contains a few contrasting red giant stars.

Credit: ESO

Although it is bright and easy to see, Messier 47 is one of the least densely populated open clusters. Only around 50 stars are visible in a region about 12 light-years across, compared to other similar objects which can contain thousands of stars.

Messier 47 has not always been so easy to identify. In fact, for years it was considered missing, as Messier had recorded the coordinates incorrectly. The cluster was later rediscovered and given another catalogue designation -- NGC 2422. The nature of Messier's mistake, and the firm conclusion that Messier 47 and NGC 2422 are indeed the same object, was only established in 1959 by Canadian astronomer T. F. Morris.

The bright blue-white colours of these stars are an indication of their temperature, with hotter stars appearing bluer and cooler stars appearing redder. This relationship between colour, brightness and temperature can be visualised by use of the Planck curve. But the more detailed study of the colours of stars using spectroscopy also tells astronomers a lot more -- including how fast the stars are spinning and their chemical compositions. There are also a few bright red stars in the picture -- these are red giant stars that are further through their short life cycles than the less massive and longer-lived blue stars [1].

By chance Messier 47 appears close in the sky to another contrasting star cluster -- Messier 46. Messier 47 is relatively close, at around 1600 light-years, but Messier 46 is located around 5500 light-years away and contains a lot more stars, with at least 500 stars present. Despite containing more stars, it appears significantly fainter due to its greater distance.

Messier 46 could be considered to be the older sister of Messier 47, with the former being approximately 300 million years old compared to the latter's 78 million years. Consequently, many of the most massive and brilliant of the stars in Messier 46 have already run through their short lives and are no longer visible, so most stars within this older cluster appear redder and cooler.

This image of Messier 47 was produced as part of the ESO Cosmic Gems programme

Contacts and sources:
Richard Hook
ESO

Seen From Space: City Lights Shine Brighter During the Holidays

Even from space, holidays shine bright.

With a new look at daily data from the NOAA/NASA Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (Suomi NPP) satellite, a NASA scientist and colleagues have identified how patterns in nighttime light intensity change during major holiday seasons – Christmas and New Year's in the United States and the holy month of Ramadan in the Middle East.

Around many major U.S. cities, nighttime lights shine 20 to 50 percent brighter during Christmas and New Year's when compared to light output during the rest of the year, as seen in the satellite data. In some Middle Eastern cities, nighttime lights shine more than 50 percent brighter during Ramadan, compared to the rest of the year.

Suomi NPP, a joint NASA/National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) mission, carries an instrument called the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS). VIIRS can observe the dark side of the planet – and detect the glow of lights in cities and towns worldwide. In 2012, NOAA scientists released "Earth at Night" maps, created from VIIRS data. These well-known images are composites – based on monthly long-term averages of data collected on nights with no clouds or moonlight.

The new analysis of holiday lights uses an advanced algorithm, developed atNASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, that filters out moonlight, clouds and airborne particles in order to isolate city lights on a daily basis. The data from this algorithm provide high-quality satellite information on light output across the globe, allowing scientists to track when – and how brightly – people illuminate the night.

Christmas and New Year's in the United States

In the United States, the lights started getting brighter on "Black Friday," the day after Thanksgiving, and continued through New Year's Day, said Miguel Román, a research physical scientist at NASA Goddard and member of the Suomi NPP Land Discipline Team, who co-led this research. He and his colleagues examined the light output in 2012 and 2013 in 70 U.S. cities, as a first step in determining patterns in urban energy use – a key factor in greenhouse gas emissions.

City lights shine brighter during the holidays in the U.S. when compared with the rest of the year, as shown using a new analysis of daily data from the NASA-NOAA Suomi NPP satellite. Dark green pixels are areas where lights are 50 percent brighter, or more, during December.

Image Credit: NASA's Earth Observatory/Jesse Allen
More "holiday lights" images on Flickr

In most suburbs and outskirts of major cities, light intensity increased by 30 to 50 percent. Lights in the central urban areas did not increase as much as in the suburbs, but still brightened by 20 to 30 percent.

"It's a near ubiquitous signal. Despite being ethnically and religiously diverse, we found that the U.S. experiences a holiday increase that is present across most urban communities," Román said. "These lighting patterns are tracking a national shared tradition."

Because snow reflects so much light, the researchers could only analyze snow-free cities. They focused on the U.S. West Coast from San Francisco and Los Angeles, and cities south of a rough imaginary line from St. Louis to Washington, D.C. The team also examined lighting patterns across 30 major towns in Puerto Rico, known for its vibrant nocturnal celebrations and for having one of the longest Christmas holiday periods.

It’s official — our holiday lights are so bright we can see them from space. Thanks to the VIIRS instrument on the Suomi NPP satellite, a joint mission between NASA and NOAA, scientists are presenting a new way of studying satellite data that can illustrate patterns in holiday lights.


Image Credit:  NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

"Overall, we see less light increases in the dense urban centers, compared to the suburbs and small towns where you have more yard space and single-family homes," said Eleanor Stokes, a NASA Jenkins Graduate Fellow and Ph.D. candidate at Yale University's School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, New Haven, Connecticut, who co-led the study with Román.

These new results, illustrating holidays in lights, were presented at the American Geophysical Union's Fall Meeting in San Francisco.

Ramadan in the Middle East

The idea to look at holiday light-use patterns stemmed from one of the first analyses of the new daily lights algorithm, Román said. Colleagues from NASA Goddard and Yale were looking data of Cairo in 2012 and noticed a large discrepancy.

In several cities in the Middle East, city lights brighten during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, as seen using a new analysis of daily data from the NASA-NOAA Suomi NPP satellite. Dark green pixels are areas where the lights are 50 percent brighter, or more, during Ramadan.

Image Credit: NASA's Earth Observatory/Jesse Allen

"'Either you have something going on with your data that's wrong, or there's a real signal there that you have to look into,'" Román recalls them saying. When the team investigated the satellite record, they found that the large increase in light output in Egypt's capital corresponded with the holy month of Ramadan. During Ramadan, Muslims fast during the day, pushing meals and many social gatherings, markets, commerce and more to nighttime hours.

To confirm that the nighttime signal was not merely an instrument artifact, they examined three consecutive years worth of data from 2012 through the fall of 2014. They found that the peaks in light use closely tracked the Islamic calendar, as Ramadan shifted earlier in the summer.

But not all Middle Eastern cities responded the same as Cairo. Light use in Saudi Arabian cities, such as Riyadh and Jeddah, increased by about 60 to 100 percent through the month of Ramadan. Light use in Turkish cities, however, increased far less. Some regions in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon did not have an increase in light output, or even demonstrated a moderate decrease, possibly due to unstable electrical grids or conflict in the region.

"Even within majority Muslim populations, there are a lot of variations," Stokes said. "What we've seen is that these lighting patterns track cultural variation within the Middle East."

With the high resolution provided by VIIRS, that variation even appears at the neighborhood level. Román and Stokes used data from Cairo to divide the city’s neighborhoods into different socioeconomic groups, based on available records of voting patterns, access to public sanitation, and literacy rates. Some of the poorest and most devout areas observed Ramadan without significant increases in light use throughout the month, choosing – whether for cultural or financial reasons – to leave their lights off at night. But during the Eid al-Fitr celebration that marks of the end of Ramadan, light use soared across all study groups, as all the neighborhoods appeared to join in the festivities. This is telling researchers that energy is providing services that enable social and cultural activities, Stokes said, and thus energy decision-making patterns are reflecting social and cultural identities.

"Whether you're rich or poor, or religious or not, everybody in Egypt is celebrating the Eid, or the end of Ramadan," Román said. This demonstrates that the drivers of demand for energy services aren't just controlled by individual factors, like price; they are also influenced by the beliefs, statuses, and routines of a city's inhabitants, he added.

Understanding Energy Decisions

"Having a daily global dynamic dataset of nighttime lights is a new way for researchers to understand the broad societal forces impacting energy decisions," Stokes said. And with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change noting that greenhouse gas reductions are going to come from energy efficiency and conservation, scientists and policy makers will need to better understand the driving forces behind energy use.

"More than 70 percent of greenhouse gas emissions come from urban areas," Román said. "If we're going to reduce these emissions, then we'll have to do more than just use energy-efficient cars and appliances. We also need to understand how dominant social phenomena, the changing demographics of urban centers, and socio-cultural settings affect energy-use decisions."

The VIIRS data also provide a new way of looking at how people use cities, from an energy perspective, Román said. Earth-observing satellites like the Landsat series have mapped the footprints and the built infrastructure within urban boundaries for decades – but the presence of buildings doesn't reveal whether people are actually using them. The new daily dynamic data is a step in that direction, he said.

"What's really difficult to do is to try and track people's activity patterns and to understand how this shapes the demand for energy services," Román said. "We can now see pieces of these patterns from space – when, where and how often we turn on the lights."

For more information about the Suomi NPP satellite and VIIRS monthly city lights produced at NOAA, visit: www.nasa.gov/NPP
http://www.ngdc.noaa.gov/eog/viirs.html​

More Holiday Lights Views from Suomi NPP

City lights shine brighter during the holidays in the United States when compared with the rest of the year, as shown using a new analysis of daily data from the NASA-NOAA Suomi NPP satellite. Dark green pixels are areas where lights are 50 percent brighter, or more, during December.

Image Credit: NASA's Earth Observatory/Jesse Allen
More "holiday lights" images on Flickr

City lights shine brighter during the holidays in the United States when compared with the rest of the year, as shown using a new analysis of daily data from the NASA-NOAA Suomi NPP satellite. Dark green pixels are areas where lights are 50 percent brighter, or more, during December.

Image Credit: NASA's Earth Observatory/Jesse Allen
More "holiday lights" images on Flickr

In several cities in the Middle East (such as in Riyadh and Jeddah, in Saudi Arabia) city lights brighten during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, as seen in a new analysis of daily data from Suomi NPP. Dark green pixels are areas where the lights are 50 percent brighter, or more, during Ramadan.

Image Credit:  NASA's Earth Observatory/Jesse Allen

NASA's Fermi Mission Brings Deeper Focus To Thunderstorm Gamma-rays

Each day, thunderstorms around the world produce about a thousand quick bursts of gamma rays, some of the highest-energy light naturally found on Earth. By merging records of events seen by NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope with data from ground-based radar and lightning detectors, scientists have completed the most detailed analysis to date of the types of thunderstorms involved.

"Remarkably, we have found that any thunderstorm can produce gamma rays, even those that appear to be so weak a meteorologist wouldn't look twice at them," said Themis Chronis, who led the research at the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH).

New research merging Fermi data with information from ground-based radar and lightning networks shows that terrestrial gamma-ray flashes arise from an unexpected diversity of storms and may be more common than currently thought.

Image Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

The outbursts, called terrestrial gamma-ray flashes (TGFs), were discovered in 1992 by NASA's Compton Gamma-Ray Observatory, which operated until 2000. TGFs occur unpredictably and fleetingly, with durations less than a thousandth of a second, and remain poorly understood.

In late 2012, Fermi scientists employed new techniques that effectively upgraded the satellite's Gamma-ray Burst Monitor (GBM), making it 10 times more sensitive to TGFs and allowing it to record weak events that were overlooked before.

"As a result of our enhanced discovery rate, we were able to show that most TGFs also generate strong bursts of radio waves like those produced by lightning," said Michael Briggs, assistant director of the Center for Space Plasma and Aeronomic Research at UAH and a member of the GBM team.

Previously, TGF positions could be roughly estimated based on Fermi's location at the time of the event. The GBM can detect flashes within about 500 miles (800 kilometers), but this is too imprecise to definitively associate a TGF with a specific storm.
Credit: NASA

Ground-based lightning networks use radio data to pin down strike locations. The discovery of similar signals from TGFs meant that scientists could use the networks to determine which storms produce gamma-ray flashes, opening the door to a deeper understanding of the meteorology powering these extreme events.

Chronis, Briggs and their colleagues sifted through 2,279 TGFs detected by Fermi's GBM to derive a sample of nearly 900 events accurately located by the Total Lightning Network operated by Earth Networks in Germantown, Maryland, and the World Wide Lightning Location Network, a research collaboration run by the University of Washington in Seattle. These systems can pinpoint the location of lightning discharges -- and the corresponding signals from TGFs -- to within 6 miles (10 km) anywhere on the globe.

From this group, the team identified 24 TGFs that occurred within areas covered by Next Generation Weather Radar (NEXRAD) sites in Florida, Louisiana, Texas, Puerto Rico and Guam. For eight of these storms, the researchers obtained additional information about atmospheric conditions through sensor data collected by the Department of Atmospheric Science at the University of Wyoming in Laramie.

"All told, this study is our best look yet at TGF-producing storms, and it shows convincingly that storm intensity is not the key," said Chronis, who will present the findings Wed., Dec. 17, in an invited talk at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco. A paper describing the research has been submitted to the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society.

Scientists suspect that TGFs arise from strong electric fields near the tops of thunderstorms. Updrafts and downdrafts within the storms force rain, snow and ice to collide and acquire electrical charge. Usually, positive charge accumulates in the upper part of the storm and negative charge accumulates below. When the storm's electrical field becomes so strong it breaks down the insulating properties of air, a lightning discharge occurs.

Under the right conditions, the upper part of an intracloud lightning bolt disrupts the storm's electric field in such a way that an avalanche of electrons surges upward at high speed. When these fast-moving electrons are deflected by air molecules, they emit gamma rays and create a TGF.

About 75 percent of lightning stays within the storm, and about 2,000 of these intracloud discharges occur for each TGF Fermi detects.

The new study confirms previous findings indicating that TGFs tend to occur near the highest parts of a thunderstorm, between about 7 and 9 miles (11 to 14 kilometers) high. "We suspect this isn't the full story," explained Briggs. "Lightning often occurs at lower altitudes and TGFs probably do too, but traveling the greater depth of air weakens the gamma rays so much the GBM can't detect them."

Based on current Fermi statistics, scientists estimate that some 1,100 TGFs occur each day, but the number may be much higher if low-altitude flashes are being missed.

While it is too early to draw conclusions, Chronis notes, there are a few hints that gamma-ray flashes may prefer storm areas where updrafts have weakened and the aging storm has become less organized. "Part of our ongoing research is to track these storms with NEXRAD radar to determine if we can relate TGFs to the thunderstorm life cycle," he said.



Contacts and sources:`
Francis Reddy
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

NASA Makes First Detection Of Organic Matter On Mars

The team responsible for the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument suite on NASA's Curiosity rover has made the first definitive detection of organic molecules at Mars. Organic molecules are the building blocks of all known forms of terrestrial life, and consist of a wide variety of molecules made primarily of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms. 


However, organic molecules can also be made by chemical reactions that don't involve life, and there is not enough evidence to tell if the matter found by the team came from ancient Martian life or from a non-biological process. Examples of non-biological sources include chemical reactions in water at ancient Martian hot springs or delivery of organic material to Mars by interplanetary dust or fragments of asteroids and comets.

The surface of Mars is currently inhospitable to life as we know it, but there is evidence that the Red Planet once had a climate that could have supported life billions of years ago. For example, features resembling dry riverbeds and minerals that only form in the presence of liquid water have been discovered on the Martian surface. The Curiosity rover with its suite of instruments including SAM was sent to Mars in 2011 to discover more about the ancient habitable Martian environment by examining clues in the chemistry of rocks and the atmosphere.

Daniel Glavin of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center discusses the discovery of organic matter on Mars and other recent results from the MSL Curiosity rover.
Image Credit: NASA Goddard 

The organic molecules found by the team were in a drilled sample of the Sheepbed mudstone in Gale crater, the landing site for the Curiosity rover. Scientists think the crater was once the site of a lake billions of years ago, and rocks like mudstone formed from sediment in the lake. Moreover, this mudstone was found to contain 20 percent smectite clays. On Earth, such clays are known to provide high surface area and optimal interlayer sites for the concentration and preservation of organic compounds when rapidly deposited under reducing chemical conditions.

This self-portrait of NASA's Mars rover Curiosity combines dozens of exposures taken by the rover's Mars Hand Lens Imager on Feb. 3, 2013 plus three exposures taken May 10, 2013 to show two holes (in lower left quadrant) where Curiosity used its drill on the rock target "John Klein".
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

While the team can't conclude that there was life at Gale crater, the discovery shows that the ancient environment offered a supply of reduced organic molecules for use as building blocks for life and an energy source for life. Curiosity's earlier analysis of this same mudstone revealed that the environment offered water and chemical elements essential for life and a different chemical energy source.

"We think life began on Earth around 3.8 billion years ago, and our result shows that places on Mars had the same conditions at that time – liquid water, a warm environment, and organic matter," said Caroline Freissinet of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. "So if life emerged on Earth in these conditions, why not on Mars as well?" Freissinet is lead author of a paper on this research submitted to the Journal of Geophysical Research-Planets.

The organic molecules found by the team also have chlorine atoms, and include chlorobenzene and several dichloroalkanes, such as dichloroethane, dichloropropane and dichlorobutane. Chlorobenzene is the most abundant with concentrations between 150 and 300 parts-per-billion. Chlorobenzene is not a naturally occurring compound on Earth. It is used in the manufacturing process for pesticides (insecticide DDT), herbicides, adhesives, paints and rubber. Dichloropropane is used as an industrial solvent to make paint strippers, varnishes and furniture finish removers, and is classified as a carcinogen.

It's possible that these chlorine-containing organic molecules were present as such in the mudstone. However, according to the team, it's more likely that a different suite of precursor organic molecules was in the mudstone, and that the chlorinated organics formed from reactions inside the SAM instrument as the sample was heated for analysis. Perchlorates (a chlorine atom bound to four oxygen atoms) are abundant on the surface of Mars. It's possible that as the sample was heated, chlorine from perchlorate combined with fragments from precursor organic molecules in the mudstone to produce the chlorinated organic molecules detected by SAM.

In 1976, the Gas Chromatograph Mass Spectrometer instrument on NASA's Viking landers detected two simple chlorinated hydrocarbons after heating Martian soils for analysis (chloromethane and dichloromethane). However they were not able to rule out that the compounds were derived from the instrument itself, according to the team. While sources within the SAM instrument also produce chlorinated hydrocarbons, they don't make more than 22 parts-per-billion of chlorobenzene, far below the amounts detected in the mudstone sample, giving the team confidence that organic molecules really are present on Mars.

The SAM instrument suite was built at NASA Goddard with significant elements provided by industry, university, and national and international NASA partners.

SAM's three instruments are visible in this view taken before installation of its side panels: the tunable laser spectrometer (TLS) at lower left, the quadrupole mass spectrometer (QMS) at upper right, and the gas chromatograph (GC) at lower right.

Image Credit: NASA

For this analysis, the Curiosity rover sample acquisition system drilled into a mudstone and filtered fine particles of it through a sieve, then delivered a portion of the sample to the SAM laboratory. SAM detected the compounds using its Evolved Gas Analysis (EGA) mode by heating the sample up to about 875 degrees Celsius (around 1,600 degrees Fahrenheit) and then monitoring the volatiles released from the sample using a quadrupole mass spectrometer, which identifies molecules by their mass using electric fields. 

SAM also detected and identified the compounds using its Gas Chromatograph Mass Spectrometer (GCMS) mode. In this mode, volatiles are separated by the amount of time they take to travel through a narrow tube (gas chromatography – certain molecules interact with the sides of the tube more readily and thus travel more slowly) and then identified by their signature mass fragments in the mass spectrometer.

The first evidence for elevated levels of chlorobenzene and dichloroalkanes released from the mudstone was obtained on Curiosity Sol 290 (May 30, 2013) with the third analysis of the Cumberland sample at Sheepbed. The team spent over a year carefully analyzing the result, including conducting laboratory experiments with instruments and methods similar to SAM, to be sure that SAM could not be producing the amount of organic material detected.

"The search for organics on Mars has been extremely challenging for the team," said Daniel Glavin of NASA Goddard, a co-author on the paper. "First, we need to identify environments in Gale crater that would have enabled the concentration of organics in sediments. Then they need to survive the conversion of sediment to rock, where pore fluids and dissolved substances may oxidize and destroy organics. Organics can then be destroyed during exposure of rocks at the surface of Mars to intense ionizing radiation and oxidants. Finally, to identify any organic compounds that have survived, we have to deal with oxychlorine compounds and possibly other strong oxidants in the sample which will react with and combust organic compounds to carbon dioxide and chlorinated hydrocarbons when the samples are heated by SAM."

As part of Curiosity's plan for exploration, an important strategic goal was to sample rocks that represent different combinations of the variables thought to control organic preservation. "The SAM and Mars Science Laboratory teams have worked very hard to achieve this result," said John Grotzinger of Caltech, Mars Science Laboratory's Project Scientist. "Only by drilling additional rock samples in different locations, and representing different geologic histories were we able to tease out this result. At the time we first saw evidence of these organic molecules in the Cumberland sample it was uncertain if they were derived from Mars, however, additional drilling has not produced the same compounds as might be predicted for contamination, indicating that the carbon in the detected organic molecules is very likely of Martian origin."

NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Project is using Curiosity to assess ancient habitable environments and major changes in Martian environmental conditions. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, a division of Caltech, built the rover and manages the project for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

NASA provided support for the development and operation of SAM. SAM-Gas Chromatograph was supported by funds from the French Space Agency (CNES). Individual team members were supported by the NASA Postdoctoral Program and the Mars Science Laboratory Participating Scientist Program. Data from these SAM experiments are archived in the Planetary Data System (pds.nasa.gov).


Contacts and sources:
Bill Steigerwald
NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

Ancient, Hydrogen-Rich Waters Discovered Deep Underground At Locations Around The World

A quantum change in our understanding of how much of Earth's crust may be habitable

 
A team of scientists, led by the University of Toronto's Barbara Sherwood Lollar, has mapped the location of hydrogen-rich waters found trapped kilometres beneath Earth's surface in rock fractures in Canada, South Africa and Scandinavia.

Energy-rich waters discharge kilometers below the surface in a South African mine.

Credit: G. Borgonie, 2014

Common in Precambrian Shield rocks - the oldest rocks on Earth - the ancient waters have a chemistry similar to that found near deep sea vents, suggesting these waters can support microbes living in isolation from the surface.

The study, to be published in Nature on December 18, includes data from 19 different mine sites that were explored by Sherwood Lollar, a geoscientist at U of T's Department of Earth Sciences, U of T senior research associate Georges Lacrampe-Couloume, and colleagues at Oxford and Princeton universities.

The scientists also explain how two chemical reactions combine to produce substantial quantities of hydrogen, doubling estimates of global production from these processes which had previously been based only on hydrogen coming out of the ocean floor.

"This represents a quantum change in our understanding of the total volume of Earth's crust that may be habitable," said Sherwood Lollar.

"Until now, none of the estimates of global hydrogen production sustaining deep microbial populations had included a contribution from the ancient continents. Since Precambrian rocks make up more than 70 per cent of the surface of Earth's crust, Sherwood Lollar likens these terrains to a "sleeping giant", a huge area that has now been discovered to be a source of possible energy for life," she said.

One process, known as radiolytic decomposition of water, involves water undergoing a breakdown into hydrogen when exposed to radiation. The other is a chemical reaction called serpentization, a mineral alteration reaction that is common in such ancient rocks.

This study has important implications for the search for deep microbial life. Quantifying the global hydrogen budget is key to understanding the amount of the Earth's biomass that is in the subsurface, as many deep ecosystems contain chemolithotrophic - so-called "rock-eating" - organisms that consume hydrogen. In the deep gold mines of South Africa, and under the sea, at hydrothermal vents where breaks in the fissure of Earth's surface that release geothermally heated waters - hydrogen-rich fluids host complex microbial communities that are nurtured by the chemicals dissolved in the fluids. This study identifies a global network of sites with hydrogen-rich waters that will be targeted for exploration for deep life over the coming years.

Further, because Mars - like the Precambrian crust - consists of billions-of-year-old rocks with hydrogen-producing potential, this finding has ramifications for astrobiology. "If the ancient rocks of Earth are producing this much hydrogen, it may be that similar processes are taking place on Mars," said Sherwood Lollar.




Contacts and sources:
Kim Luke
University of Toronto

Ancient Earth Made Its Own Water - Geologically - And Still Does Says Study


Evidence that rock circulating in the mantle feeds world’s oceans even today
A new study is helping to answer a longstanding question that has recently moved to the forefront of earth science: Did our planet make its own water through geologic processes, or did water come to us via icy comets from the far reaches of the solar system?

The answer is likely “both,” according to researchers at The Ohio State University— and the same amount of water that currently fills the Pacific Ocean could be buried deep inside the planet right now.

At the American Geophysical Union (AGU) meeting on Wednesday, Dec. 17, they report the discovery of a previously unknown geochemical pathway by which the Earth can sequester water in its interior for billions of years and still release small amounts to the surface via plate tectonics, feeding our oceans from within.
Wendy Panero
Credit: OSU

In trying to understand the formation of the early Earth, some researchers have suggested that the planet was dry and inhospitable to life until icy comets pelted the earth and deposited water on the surface.

Wendy Panero, associate professor of earth sciences at Ohio State, and doctoral student Jeff Pigott are pursuing a different hypothesis: that Earth was formed with entire oceans of water in its interior, and has been continuously supplying water to the surface via plate tectonics ever since.

Researchers have long accepted that the mantle contains some water, but how much water is a mystery. And, if some geological mechanism has been supplying water to the surface all this time, wouldn’t the mantle have run out of water by now?

Because there’s no way to directly study deep mantle rocks, Panero and Pigott are probing the question with high-pressure physics experiments and computer calculations.

“When we look into the origins of water on Earth, what we’re really asking is, why are we so different than all the other planets?” Panero said. “In this solar system, Earth is unique because we have liquid water on the surface. We’re also the only planet with active plate tectonics. Maybe this water in the mantle is key to plate tectonics, and that’s part of what makes Earth habitable.”

Central to the study is the idea that rocks that appear dry to the human eye can actually contain water—in the form of hydrogen atoms trapped inside natural voids and crystal defects. Oxygen is plentiful in minerals, so when a mineral contains some hydrogen, certain chemical reactions can free the hydrogen to bond with the oxygen and make water.

Stray atoms of hydrogen could make up only a tiny fraction of mantle rock, the researchers explained. Given that the mantle is more than 80 percent of the planet’s total volume, however, those stray atoms add up to a lot of potential water.

In a lab at Ohio State, the researchers compress different minerals that are common to the mantle and subject them to high pressures and temperatures using a diamond anvil cell—a device that squeezes a tiny sample of material between two diamonds and heats it with a laser—to simulate conditions in the deep Earth.

They examine how the minerals’ crystal structures change as they are compressed, and use that information to gauge the minerals’ relative capacities for storing hydrogen. Then, they extend their experimental results using computer calculations to uncover the geochemical processes that would enable these minerals to rise through the mantle to the surface—a necessary condition for water to escape into the oceans.

This plate tectonics diagram from the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center shows how mantle circulation delivers new rock to the crust via mid-ocean ridges. New research suggests that mantle circulation also delivers water to the oceans.

Credit: OSU

In a paper now submitted to a peer-reviewed academic journal, they reported their recent tests of the mineral bridgmanite, a high-pressure form of olivine. While bridgmanite is the most abundant mineral in the lower mantle, they found that it contains too little hydrogen to play an important role in Earth’s water supply.

Another research group recently found that ringwoodite, another form of olivine, does contain enough hydrogen to make it a good candidate for deep-earth water storage. So Panero and Pigott focused their study on the depth where ringwoodite is found—a place 325-500 miles below the surface that researchers call the “transition zone”—as the most likely region that can hold a planet’s worth of water. From there, the same convection of mantle rock that produces plate tectonics could carry the water to the surface.

One problem: If all the water in ringwoodite is continually drained to the surface via plate tectonics, how could the planet hold any in reserve?

For the research presented at AGU, Panero and Pigott performed new computer calculations of the geochemistry in the lowest portion of the mantle, some 500 miles deep and more. There, another mineral, garnet, emerged as a likely water-carrier—a go-between that could deliver some of the water from ringwoodite down into the otherwise dry lower mantle.

If this scenario is accurate, the Earth may today hold half as much water in its depths as is currently flowing in oceans on the surface, Panero said—an amount that would approximately equal the volume of the Pacific Ocean. This water is continuously cycled through the transition zone as a result of plate tectonics.
“One way to look at this research is that we’re putting constraints on the amount of water that could be down there,” Pigott added.

Panero called the complex relationship between plate tectonics and surface water “one of the great mysteries in the geosciences.” But this new study supports researchers’ growing suspicion that mantle convection somehow regulates the amount of water in the oceans. It also vastly expands the timeline for Earth’s water cycle.

“If all of the Earth’s water is on the surface, that gives us one interpretation of the water cycle, where we can think of water cycling from oceans into the atmosphere and into the groundwater over millions of years,” she said. “But if mantle circulation is also part of the water cycle, the total cycle time for our planet’s water has to be billions of years.

Contacts and sources:
Pam Frost Gorder
Ohio State University

Swarms Of Pluto-Size Objects Kick Up Dust Around Adolescent Sun-Like Star

Astronomers using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) may have detected the dusty hallmarks of an entire family of Pluto-size objects swarming around an adolescent version of our own Sun.

By making detailed observations of the protoplanetary disk surrounding the star known as HD 107146, the astronomers detected an unexpected increase in the concentration of millimeter-size dust grains in the disk's outer reaches. This surprising increase, which begins remarkably far -- about 13 billion kilometers -- from the host star, may be the result of Pluto-size planetesimals stirring up the region, causing smaller objects to collide and blast themselves apart.

Artist impression of the debris disk around HD 107146. This adolescent star system shows signs that in its outer reaches, swarms of Pluto-size objects are jostling nearby smaller objects, causing them to collide and "kick up" considerable dust. 
Credit: A. Angelich (NRAO/AUI/NSF)

Dust in debris disks typically comes from material left over from the formation of planets. Very early in the lifespan of the disk, this dust is continuously replenished by collisions of larger bodies, such as comets and asteroids. In mature solar systems with fully formed planets, comparatively little dust remains. In between these two ages -- when a solar system is in its awkward teenage years -- certain models predict that the concentration of dust would be much denser in the most distant regions of the disk. This is precisely what ALMA has found.

"The dust in HD 107146 reveals this very interesting feature -- it gets thicker in the very distant outer reaches of the star’s disk," said Luca Ricci, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and lead author on a paper accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal. At the time of the observations, Ricci was with the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. 

ALMA image of the dust surrounding the star HD 107146. Dust in the outer reaches of the disk is thicker than in the inner regions, suggesting that a swarm of Pluto-size planetesimals is causing smaller objects to smash together. The dark ring-like structure in the middle portion of the disk may be evidence of a gap where a planet is sweeping its orbit clear of dust. 

Credit: L. Ricci ALMA (NRAO/NAOJ/ESO); B. Saxton (NRAO/AUI/NSF)

"The surprising aspect is that this is the opposite of what we see in younger primordial disks where the dust is denser near the star. It is possible that we caught this particular debris disk at a stage in which Pluto-size planetesimals are forming right now in the outer disk while other Pluto-size bodies have already formed closer to the star," said Ricci.

According to current computer models, the observation that the density of dust is higher in the outer regions of the disk can only be explained by the presence of recently formed Pluto-size bodies. Their gravity would disturb smaller planetesimals, causing more frequent collisions that generate the dust ALMA sees.

The new ALMA data also hint at another intriguing feature in the outer reaches of the disk: a possible "dip" or depression in the dust about 1.2 billion kilometer wide, beginning approximately 2.5 times the distance of the Sun to Neptune from the central star. Though only suggested in these preliminary observations, this depression could be a gap in the disk, which would be indicative of an Earth-mass planet sweeping the area clear of debris. Such a feature would have important implications for the possible planet-like inhabitants of this disk and may suggest that Earth-size planets could form in an entirely new range of orbits than have ever been seen before.

The star HD 107146 is of particular interest to astronomers because it is in many ways a younger version of our own Sun. It also represents a period of transition from a solar system's early life to its more mature, final stages where planets have finished forming and have settled into their billions-of-years-long journeys around their host star.

"This system offers us the chance to study an intriguing time around a young, Sun-like star," said ALMA Deputy Director and coauthor Stuartt Corder. "We are possibly looking back in time here, back to when the Sun was about 2 percent of its current age."

The star HD 107146 is located approximately 90 light-years from Earth in the direction of the constellation Coma Berenices. It is approximately 100 million years old. Further observations with ALMA’s new long baseline, high resolution capabilities will shed more light on the dynamics and composition of this intriguing object.


Contacts and sources:
Charles E. Blue
NRAO

Luca Ricci
Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics
 

'Perfect Storm' Quenching Star Formation Around A Supermassive Black Hole

High-energy jets powered by supermassive black holes can blast away a galaxy’s star-forming fuel, resulting in so-called "red and dead" galaxies: those brimming with ancient red stars yet containing little or no hydrogen gas to create new ones.

Artist impression of the central region of NGC 1266. The jets from the central black hole are creating turbulence in the surrounding molecular gas, suppressing star formation in an otherwise ideal environment to form new stars. 
Credit: B. Saxton (NRAO/AUI/NS

Now astronomers using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) have discovered that black holes don’t have to be nearly so powerful to shut down star formation. By observing the dust and gas at the center of NGC 1266, a nearby lenticular galaxy with a relatively modest central black hole, the astronomers have detected a “perfect storm” of turbulence that is squelching star formation in a region that would otherwise be an ideal star factory.

This turbulence is stirred up by jets from the galaxy’s central black hole slamming into an incredibly dense envelope of gas. This dense region, which may be the result of a recent merger with another smaller galaxy, blocks nearly 98 percent of material propelled by the jets from escaping the galactic center.

Artist illustration of the central region of NGC 1266 near its central black hole with jet and gas motions indicated (yellow and white arrows, respectively). The large-scale gas motions induce turbulence on smaller scales, preventing star formation. 
Credit: B. Saxton (NRAO/AUI/NSF)

“Like an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object, the particles in these jets meet so much resistance when they hit the surrounding dense gas that they are almost completely stopped in their tracks,” said Katherine Alatalo, an astronomer with the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and lead author on a paper published in theAstrophysical Journal. This energetic collision produces powerful turbulence in the surrounding gas, disrupting the first critical stage of star formation. “So what we see is the most intense suppression of star formation ever observed,” noted Alatalo.
 
A combined Hubble Space Telescope / ALMA image of NGC 1266. The ALMA data (orange) are shown in the central region. 
Credit: NASA/ESA Hubble; ALMA (NRAO/ESO/NAOJ)

Previous observations of NGC 1266 revealed a broad outflow of gas from the galactic center traveling up to 400 kilometers per second. Alatalo and her colleagues estimate that this outflow is as forceful as the simultaneous supernova explosion of 10,000 stars. The jets, though powerful enough to stir the gas, are not powerful enough to give it the velocity it needs to escape from the system.

“Another way of looking at it is that the jets are injecting turbulence into the gas, preventing it from settling down, collapsing, and forming stars,” said National Radio Astronomy Observatory astronomer and co-author Mark Lacy.

The region observed by ALMA contains about 400 million times the mass of our Sun in star-forming gas, which is 100 times more than is found in giant star-forming molecular clouds in our own Milky Way. Normally, gas this concentrated should be producing stars at a rate at least 50 times faster than the astronomers observe in this galaxy. 

A combined Hubble/CARMA image of NGC 1266. The zoom-in section shows the molecular gas being propelled by the black hole's jets (red and blue), the central CARMA data (yellow) indicate the dense molecular gas. 
Credit: NASA/ESA Hubble; CARMA; Katey Alatalo

Previously, astronomers believed that only extremely powerful quasars and radio galaxies contained black holes that were powerful enough to serve as a star-forming “on/off” switch.

“The usual assumption in the past has been that the jets needed to be powerful enough to eject the gas from the galaxy completely in order to be effective at stopping start formation,” said Lacy.

To make this discovery, the astronomers first pinpointed the location of the far-infrared light being emitted by the galaxy. Normally, this light is associated with star formation and enables astronomers to detect regions where new stars are forming. In the case of NGC 1266, however, this light was coming from an extremely confined region at the center of the galaxy. “This very small area was almost too small for the infrared light to be coming from star formation,” noted Alatalo.

With ALMA’s exquisite sensitivity and resolution, and along with observations from CARMA (the Combined Array for Research in Millimeter-wave Astronomy), the astronomers were then able to trace the location of the very dense molecular gas at the galactic center. They found that the gas is surrounding this compact source of far-infrared light.

Under normal conditions, gas this dense would be forming stars at a very high rate. The dust embedded within this gas would then be heated by young stars and seen as a bright and extended source of infrared light. The small size and faintness of the infrared source in this galaxy suggests that NGC 1266 is instead choking on its own fuel, seemingly in defiance of the rules of star formation.

The astronomers also speculate that there is a feedback mechanism at work in this region. Eventually, the black hole will calm down and the turbulence will subside so star formation can begin anew. With this renewed star formation, however, comes greater motion in the dense gas, which then falls in on the black hole and reestablishes the jets, shutting down star formation once again.

NGC 1266 is located approximately 100 million light-years away in the constellation Eridanus. Leticular galaxies are spiral galaxies, like our own Milky Way, but they have little interstellar gas available to form new stars.


Contacts and sources:
Charles Blue
National Radio Astronomy Observatory

The National Radio Astronomy Observatory is a facility of the National Science Foundation, operated under cooperative agreement by Associated Universities, Inc.

The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), an international astronomy facility, is a partnership of Europe, North America and East Asia in cooperation with the Republic of Chile. ALMA is funded in Europe by the European Organization for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere (ESO), in North America by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) in cooperation with the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) and the National Science Council of Taiwan (NSC) and in East Asia by the National Institutes of Natural Sciences (NINS) of Japan in cooperation with the Academia Sinica (AS) in Taiwan and the Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute (KASI).

ALMA construction and operations are led on behalf of Europe by ESO, on behalf of North America by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), which is managed by Associated Universities, Inc. (AUI) and on behalf of East Asia by the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ). The Joint ALMA Observatory (JAO) provides the unified leadership and management of the construction, commissioning and operation of ALMA.





Thursday, December 11, 2014

Tidal Turbine Success Signals Buoyant Future For Ocean-Based Energy

The installation of a floating tidal turbine brings EU researchers one step closer towards achieving a viable marine-based energy sector.


© Thinkstock

A scaled down floating tidal turbine has been successfully put to sea off the Orkney Islands in Scotland, an achievement that represents a significant milestone in the development of a viable European marine-based energy sector. This pilot scheme will enable researchers to better understand the maintenance needs of offshore turbines and gain operational experience at sea.

The initiative, made possible through the FP7-funded MARINET project, is the first step towards testing a full-scale prototype – a turbine 42 metres in length and 350 tonnes in weight – which is currently under construction. Deployment of this is scheduled for next year.

The EU is ploughing significant resources into renewable energy – such as wave energy and tidal-stream converters as well as offshore-wind turbines – in order to reduce the environmental impact of using fossil fuels and to better ensure security of energy supply. Both of these issues are high on the political agenda. Researchers involved in the MARINET project are confident that ocean-based energy sources can help answer both of these challenges, and at the same time, create new jobs.

One issue however is that this sector is still largely at the pre-commercial stage. The resources required to properly develop the sector – and the financial risks involved – are significant. The goal of the MARINET project, which is receiving almost EUR 9 million in EU funding, is to bring together partners from across Europe in a coordinated research effort that avoids duplication, speeds up development and supports high-quality research.

The deployment of this floating turbine, which was carried out by Spanish tidal turbine company Magallanes, is a case in point. This initiative would not have been possible without assistance from partners in other Member States.

For example, the 1:10 scale prototype has been installed at the European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC)’s Shapinsay Sound test site in the UK (EMEC is one of the MARINET project partners). The project aims to streamline and facilitate testing – especially for smaller organisations – by offering access to world-class test facilities such as this free-of-charge.

This is one example of how MARINET, which runs until 2015, is bringing together research facilities and technical expertise from across Europe. In parallel to offering free-of-charge access, MARINET has also facilitated industry networking and training through user workshops, staff exchanges and free-of-charge training courses, in order to provide opportunities for collaboration, joint ventures and expertise development.

The end result is a coordinated network of pan-European resources and experts, readily available for ocean-based energy research. Coordinated by University College Cork in Ireland, MARINET involves a total of 44 specialist marine research facilities from 29 partners spread across 11 EU countries and one FP7 partner-country, Brazil.

Resources are divided into four specific research groups - wave energy, tidal energy, offshore-wind energy and environmental data and cross-cutting issues. Ultimately, the long term objective is to ensure the development of a viable European marine-based renewable energy sector.



Contacts and sources:
CORDIS
MARINET

World’s First Time-controlled Molecular Self-Organization

At the National Institute for Materials Science (Sukekatsu Ushioda, president), Senior Researcher Kazunori Sugiyasu and co-workers (Polymer Materials Unit [Izumi Ichinose, unit director], Advanced Key Technologies Division) developed a method for preprogramming the timing of molecules to initiate self-organization by mixing molecules with modified side chains. 

(a) Previously reported porphyrin molecule 1; (b) two kinds of self-organization in which porphyrin molecule 1 is able to take part. A particulate structure is formed early, but that disappears with time and then a fibrous structure is formed; (c) self-organization involving molecule 1 to form a fibrous structure begins in about four hours
Credit: National Institute for Materials Science (NIMS)

The results of this research will be published in the German Chemical Society’s journal “Angewandte Chemie International Edition” in the near future.

Molecular self-organization is widely observed in nature, and is a critical phenomenon in terms of developing systems that perform complex functions as seen in such natural mechanisms as photosynthesis and neurocircuits. Attempts have been made to develop new materials capable of executing advanced functions using the principle behind the phenomenon of molecular self-organization. 

However, due to the spontaneous nature of molecular self-organization, it is extremely difficult to control the phenomenon by design. In particular, almost no research had been conducted to control the timing of the self-organization phenomenon including control of when to initiate it.

Recently, they conducted research using a molecule that can form two types of self-organized structures. One type of the self-organized structures was quickly formed but was energetically unstable; therefore, after a certain period of time elapsed, the other type of the self-organized structures, which was energetically more stable, was eventually formed. 

By modifying the side chains of the molecule, thereby inverting the energy stability levels between the two types of self-organized structures, researchers were able to synthesize a new type of molecule that only forms the former self-organized structure. By changing the mixing ratios between the original and new molecules, they succeeded for the first time in the world in controlling the timing at which an energetically stable self-organized structure begins to form. 

Controlling such timing is similar to the mechanism behind the biological clock in organisms from the viewpoint that in both cases, such time-controlling process is carried out by a network of molecules consisting of several chemical species.

Self-organization is a vital concept in diverse fields such as materials science, nanotechnology and biotechnology, and is attracting much attention as a new method of synthesizing materials. By applying the method we developed in this research, we intend to develop advanced systems that are capable of emitting light or changing electrical conductivity at desirable timings. In the future, we hope to develop smart materials that autonomously function corresponding to the passing of time, like biomolecular systems do.

This research was funded by the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science’s grant-in-aid for scientific research on innovative areas, “dynamical ordering of biomolecular systems for creation of integrated functions” (Koichi Kato, Project Leader, National Institutes of Natural Sciences), and “π-system figuration” (Takanori Fukushima, Project Leader, Tokyo Institute of Technology).



Contacts and sources:
National Institute for Materials Science (NIMS)

Citation:  (S. Ogi, T. Fukui, M. L. Jue, M. Takeuchi, K. Sugiyasu, Article title: “Kinetic control over pathway complexity in supramolecular polymerization through modulating the energy landscape by rational molecular design” Angew. Chem. Int. Ed., http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/anie.201407302)

Evidence Of Life On Mars?

In 2012 the Mars Science Laboratory landed in the fascinating Gale crater. The Gale crater is of such great interest because of the 5.5 km high mountain of layered materials in the middle. This material tells an intricate story of the history of Mars, perhaps spanning much of the existence of this mysterious planet.

 Gale crater

Credit:  NASA

Once positioned, the Curiosity rover began field studies on its drive toward Aeolis Mons (also unofficially known as Mount Sharp), the central peak within the crater. Curiosity has travelled more than 9.4 km so far and during its trip up the mountain, Curiosity has begun taking samples of the mountain’s lower slopes.

CheMin is one of ten instruments on or inside Curiosity, all designed to provide detailed information on the rocks, soils and atmosphere. [Bish et al. (2014). IUCrJ, 1, 514-522; doi:10.1107/S2052252514021150] CheMin is actually a miniaturised X-ray diffraction/X-ray fluorescence (XRD/XRF) instrument, approximately the size of a shoebox, that uses transmission geometry with an energy-discriminating CCD detector to obtain unparalleled results in quite challenging conditions.

Five samples have been analysed by CheMin so far, namely a soil sample, three samples drilled from mudstones and a sample drilled from a sandstone. Rietveld and full-pattern analysis of the XRD data have revealed a complex mineralogy, with contributions from parent igneous rocks, amorphous components and several minerals relating to aqueous alteration, for example clay minerals and hydrated sulphates. 

In addition to quantitative mineralogy, Rietveld refinements also provide unit-cell parameters for the major phases, which can be used to infer the chemical compositions of individual minerals and, by difference, the composition of the amorphous component. Coincidentally CheMin’s first XRD analysis on Mars coincided with the 100th anniversary of the discovery of XRD by von Laue.

So far CheMin has returned excellent diffraction data comparable in many respects with data available on Earth. It has managed this even though several aspects of the instrument, particularly its small size limit the quality of the XRD data. These limitations could, however, be improved through modification of the instrument geometry. 

One of the most significant issues limiting remote operation is the requirement for powder XRD of a finely powdered sample. CheMin largely surmounts this difficulty through the use of its unique sample vibration device.

Data obtained so far has already provided new insights into processes on Mars, and the instrument promises to return data that will answer numerous questions and shed further light on the history of the Gale crater.

Work is already progressing in developing an upgraded instrument with changes in the reflection geometry. Coupled with data-processing software interface advances, we may see future improvements to non-contact diffraction analysis of the surfaces of planetary bodies.

A video of Professor David L. Bish presenting work from the Mars science mission can be viewed here. The lecture was part of a series of talks organised by the University of Liverpool as part of their Science & Society Lecture Series.








Contacts and sources:
Jonathan Agbenyega
International Union of Crystallography

Clothes That Can Monitor And Transmit Biomedical Info On Wearers


Researchers at Université Laval's Faculty of Science and Engineering and Centre for Optics, Photonics and Lasers have developed smart textiles able to monitor and transmit wearers' biomedical information via wireless or cellular networks. 

This technological breakthrough, described in a recent article in the scientific journal Sensors, clears a path for a host of new developments for people suffering from chronic diseases, elderly people living alone, and even firemen and police officers.

Bio-sensing multi-material fibers weaved into textiles can be used for health and life-science applications via wireless networks 
Credit: Stepan Gorgutsa, Universite Laval

A team under the supervision of Professor Younès Messaddeq created the smart fabric by successfully superimposing multiple layers of copper, polymers, glass, and silver. "The fiber acts as both sensor and antenna. It is durable but malleable, and can be woven with wool or cotton. And signal quality is comparable to commercial antennas," explained Professor Messaddeq, Canada Excellence Research Chair in Photonic Innovations. 

The smart fabric developed at Universite Laval is durable, malleable, and can be woven with cotton or wool.

Credit: Stepan Gorgutsa, Universite Laval

The surface of the fiber can also be adjusted to monitor a range of information such as glucose levels, heart rhythm, brain activity, movements, and spatial coordinates.

A patent application has already been filed, though certain elements still need to be fine-tuned before the innovation is ready for commercialization. "Of course, the technology will have to be connected to a wireless network, and there is the issue of power supply to be solved," notes Professor Messaddeq. We have tested a number of solutions, and the results are promising. We will also have to make sure the fabric is robust, and can stand up to chemicals found in laundry detergent."


Contacts and sources:  
Jean-Francois Huppe
Université Laval

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Enigmatic Fossil Mammals That Lived With Dinosaurs

Mammals that lived during the time of the dinosaurs are often portrayed as innocuous, small-bodied creatures, scurrying under the feet of the huge reptiles. In reality, this wasn’t the case, and a new fossil from Madagascar further underscores this point, revealing fascinating perspectives on the growing diversity of Mesozoic mammals. 

Top: Right lateral (side) view of the actual specimen of Vintana sertichi. Middle: Digitally segmented version of the skull, with individual bones highlighted in unique colors. Bottom: Reconstruction of the head of Vintana sertichi
Credit: Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology

Vintana sertichi had previously been described in a preliminary note in November of this year, but a new memoir in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology delves far deeper into the morphology and paleoecology of this amazing fossil animal. The memoir brings together multiple experts to conduct a range of descriptive and comparative analyses and consists of multiple papers describing the geological setting of the fossil, its cranial anatomy, its dental morphology and function, its braincase, and its sensory abilities.

The cranium of Vintana sertichi in right lateral (A), left lateral (B), dorsal [top] (C), ventral [bottom] (D), anterior [front] (E), and posterior [back] (F) views

Credit: Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology

David W. Krause of Stony Brook University, the editor of the volume and lead investigator on the project, says, "From an organizational perspective, there are two things about this monograph with which I am particularly delighted. First, that I was fortunate enough to be able to assemble such an outstandingly capable mix of specialists, students, and technicians to focus their attention on this amazing specimen. 

Second, the emphasis on micro-CT imaging, and the thousands of hours spent on digital segmentation of each cranial element, was instrumental in allowing us to describe and understand the detailed internal anatomy of the cranium of this bizarre mammal."

A: Right lateral (side) view of the cranium of Vintana sertichi. B. Right lateral (side) view of the cranium, showing internal features, such as the reconstructed endocranial cast (in purple), inner ear region (in pink), and cranial nerves (in green).

Credit: Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology

Vintana is a member of an extinct and, until now, very poorly known group of mammals, the gondwanatherians, which are named based on their geographic distribution on the southern continents, also known as Gondwana. Previously known fossils of gondwanatherians had consisted only of isolated teeth and a few fragmentary lower jaw specimens. 

The new specimen is a nearly complete and only slightly distorted cranium, which was painstakingly removed from a large block of sediment and later micro-CT scanned to provide fine details of both the external and internal anatomy of the animal. These scans also allowed the investigators to digitally separate, or segment, individual cranial bones and allowed them to virtually dissect the specimen without actually destroying it.

These hi-res scans also allowed the authors to include with the memoir, as supplementary material, 3D-interactive PDFs and high-resolution images.

Krause says, "We hope that the memoir will serve as a useful reference for all future discoveries and analyses of gondwanatherian mammals represented by craniodental material."

The cranium displays some bizarre features, like enlarged flanges for attachment of chewing muscles, a strangely tilted braincase, and large eye sockets. Analysis of these features and others reveals that Vintana was a badger-sized, herbivorous animal that was agile and active, with keen senses of smell, vision, and hearing.
John Wible, of the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh and one of the experts on the investigation who analyzed the skull and ear region of the fossil, says "With this monograph, the shroud of mystery over the enigmatic, extinct mammal clade Gondwanatheria is lifted. Through CT scans, the amazingly preserved skull of Vintana sertichi is dissected, described, and reconstructed. The authors breathe life into this fossil by reconstructing its brain, inner ear, jaw musculature, orbit, and nasal cavity, and set the bar high for how such studies will be done in the future."


Contacts and sources:
Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology
David W. Krause, Distinguished Service Professor
Department of Anatomical Sciences
Stony Brook University

Citation: Endocranial and Inner Ear Morphology of Vintana Sertichi (Mammalia, Gondwanatheria) from the Late Cretaceous of Madagascar.   Authors: Simone Hoffmann, Patrick M. O’Connor, E. Christopher Kirk, John R. Wible, David W. Krause. .Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 2014; 34 (sup1): 110 DOI:10.1080/02724634.2014.956878

Ancient Balloon-Shaped Animal Fossil Sheds Light On Earth's Ancient Seas


Nidelric pugio' named in honor of University of Leicester scientist who passed away earlier this year

 
Nidelric pugio fossil dates to half a billion years ago and teaches us about the diversity of life in Earth's ancient seas

In life the animal was a 'balloon' shape and was covered in spines, but the squashed fossil resembles a bird's nest

This image shows the whole of Nidelric pugio, a little over 9 cm long.
Credit: © Prof Derek J Siveter of Oxford University

Named in honour of Professor Richard Aldridge from the University of Leicester

A rare 520 million year old fossil shaped like a 'squashed bird's nest' that will help to shed new light on life within Earth's ancient seas has been discovered in China by an international research team - and will honour the memory of a University of Leicester scientist who passed away earlier this year.

The research team behind the discovery was led by Professor Xianguang Hou from the Yunnan Key Laboratory for Palaeobiology at Yunnan University in China with collaboration from the Universities of Leicester and Oxford.

The fossil, from Chengjiang in southern China, is of a probable 'chancelloriid', a group of bizarre, balloon-shaped animals with an outer skeleton of defensive spines. The animal was flattened during the fossilisation process so that it looks like a squashed bird's nest.

Funded by the National Science Foundation in China and the Royal Society in the UK, the research team named the species Nidelric pugio to honour the late Professor Richard Aldridge, an internationally renowned palaeontologist and keen ornithologist formerly of the University of Leicester's Department of Geology and a scientist who was a world leader in Chengjiang fossil research.


This image shows part of the margin of Nidelric pugio, showing the individual spines each a few mm long.

Credit: © Prof Derek J Siveter of Oxford University

The name of the fossil is derived from the Latin Nidus, meaning 'bird's nest' or 'fancied resemblance to' and adelric, derived from the Old English personal name 'Aedelic' - 'adel' meaning 'noble' and 'ric' meaning 'a ruler'- which is a source for the name Aldridge.

Dr Tom Harvey from the University of Leicester, a co-author of the paper, said: "There is only one fossil of this enigmatic animal after 30 years of collecting by our Chinese colleagues at Chengjiang. It is exceptionally rare, but it shows us just how strange and varied the shapes of early animals could be.

"We are glad the fossil can honour the name of Professor Richard Aldridge, who was a leader in this field and whose research was vital in better understanding the rich tapestry of fossils found at Chengjiang."

In southern China, rocks 520 million years old in Chengjiang County, Yunnan Province yield a diverse array of fossils preserved with traces of their soft anatomy, including their legs, eyes, guts and even brains.

Amongst the fossils are many animals that can be related to modern forms, including distant relatives of arthropods such as crabs and lobsters, and a wide variety of worms.

There are also several enigmatic fossils that don't seem to fit in with anything living today, and amongst these are the chancelloriids.

These fossils provide an unprecedented view of life in Earth's ancient seas.

 
Tom Hearing, a PhD student from the Department of Geology who is working on the skeletons of Cambrian fossils, added: "We usually only get the broken-up remains of ancient animal skeletons. With this specimen we can see how all the different parts of the skeleton stuck together. It tells us much about how early animals functioned, how they might have interacted with other animals, and how they might have protected themselves from predators."




Contacts and sources: Tom Harvey
University of Leicester

The paper, 'A chancelloriid-like metazoan from the early Cambrian Chengjiang Lagerstätte, China', authored by Professor Aldridge's friends and colleagues Xianguang Hou, Mark Williams, David Siveter, Derek Siveter, Sarah Gabbott, David Holwell and Thomas Harvey is published in the journal Scientific Reports on 9 December 2014 and will be available here: http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/srep07340.












Temperature Anomalies Are Warming Faster Than Earth's Average

It's widely known that the Earth's average temperature has been rising. But research by an Indiana University geographer and colleagues finds that spatial patterns of extreme temperature anomalies -- readings well above or below the mean -- are warming even faster than the overall average.

And trends in extreme heat and cold are important, said Scott M. Robeson, professor of geography in the College of Arts and Sciences at IU Bloomington. They have an outsized impact on water supplies, agricultural productivity and other factors related to human health and well-being.

"Average temperatures don't tell us everything we need to know about climate change," he said. "Arguably, these cold extremes and warm extremes are the most important factors for human society."

Robeson is the lead author of the article "Trends in hemispheric warm and cold anomalies," which will be published in the journal Geophysical Review Letters and is available online. Co-authors are Cort J. Willmott of the University of Delaware and Phil D. Jones of the University of East Anglia.

The researchers analyzed temperature records for the years 1881 to 2013 from HadCRUT4, a widely used data set for land and sea locations compiled by the University of East Anglia and the U.K. Met Office. Using monthly average temperatures at points across the globe, they sorted them into "spatial percentiles," which represent how unusual they are by their geographic size.

Their findings include:

Temperatures at the cold and warm "tails" of the spatial distribution -- the 5th and 95th percentiles -- increased more than the overall average Earth temperature.

Over the 130-year record, cold anomalies increased more than warm anomalies, resulting in an overall narrowing of the range of Earth's temperatures.

In the past 30 years, however, that pattern reversed, with warm anomalies increasing at a faster rate than cold anomalies.

"Earth's temperature was becoming more homogenous with time," Robeson said, "but now it's not."

The study records separate results for the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. Temperatures are considerably more volatile in the Northern Hemisphere, an expected result because there's considerably less land mass in the South to add complexity to weather systems.

The study also examined anomalies during the "pause" in global warming that scientists have observed since 1998. While a 16-year-period is too short a time to draw conclusions about trends, the researchers found that warming continued at most locations on the planet and during much of the year, but that warming was offset by strong cooling during winter months in the Northern Hemisphere.

The middle panel illustrates spatial patterns of temperature anomalies for April 1998. The top panel shows locations that are below the 25th percentile, and the bottom panel shows locations that are above the 75th percentile.
Credit: Scott Robeson, Indiana University

"There really hasn't been a pause in global warming," Robeson said. "There's been a pause in Northern Hemisphere winter warming."

Co-author Jones of the University of East Anglia said the study provides scientists with better knowledge about what's taking place with the Earth's climate. "Improved understanding of the spatial patterns of change over the three periods studied are vital for understanding the causes of recent events," he said.

It may seem counterintuitive that global warming would be accompanied by colder winter weather at some locales. But Robeson said the observation aligns with theories about climate change, which hold that amplified warming in the Arctic region produces changes in the jet stream, which can result in extended periods of cold weather at some locations in the mid-northern latitudes.

And while the rate of planetary warming has slowed in the past 16 years, it hasn't stopped. The World Meteorological Organization announced this month that 2014 is on track to be one of the warmest, if not the warmest, years on record as measured by global average temperatures.

In the U.S., the East has been unusually cold and snowy in recent years, but much of the West has been unusually warm and has experienced drought. And what happens here doesn't necessarily reflect conditions on the rest of the planet. Robeson points out that the United States, including Alaska, makes up only 2 percent of the Earth's surface.



Contacts and sources:
Steve Hinnefeld
Indiana University

A Godzilla Of A Problem: Warmer Pacific Ocean could release millions of tons of seafloor methane

Off the West Coast of the United States, methane gas is trapped in frozen layers below the seafloor. New research from the University of Washington shows that water at intermediate depths is warming enough to cause these carbon deposits to melt, releasing methane into the sediments and surrounding water.

Researchers found that water off the coast of Washington is gradually warming at a depth of 500 meters, about a third of a mile down. That is the same depth where methane transforms from a solid to a gas. The research suggests that ocean warming could be triggering the release of a powerful greenhouse gas.

Sonar image of bubbles rising from the seafloor off the Washington coast. The base of the column is 1/3 of a mile (515 meters) deep and the top of the plume is at 1/10 of a mile (180 meters) deep.

Credit:  Brendan Philip / UW

While scientists believe that global warming will release methane from gas hydrates worldwide, most of the current focus has been on deposits in the Arctic. This paper estimates that from 1970 to 2013, some 4 million metric tons of methane has been released from hydrate decomposition off Washington. That’s an amount each year equal to the methane from natural gas released in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon blowout off the coast of Louisiana, and 500 times the rate at which methane is naturally released from the seafloor.

“Methane hydrates are a very large and fragile reservoir of carbon that can be released if temperatures change,” Solomon said. “I was skeptical at first, but when we looked at the amounts, it’s significant.”

Methane is the main component of natural gas. At cold temperatures and high ocean pressure, it combines with water into a crystal called methane hydrate. The Pacific Northwest has unusually large deposits of methane hydrates because of its biologically productive waters and strong geologic activity. But coastlines around the world hold deposits that could be similarly vulnerable to warming.

“This is one of the first studies to look at the lower-latitude margin,” Solomon said. “We’re showing that intermediate-depth warming could be enhancing methane release.”

The yellow dots show all the ocean temperature measurements off the Washington coast from 1970 to 2013. The green triangles are places where scientists and fishermen have seen columns of bubbles. The stars are where the UW researchers took more measurements to check whether the plumes are due to warming water.
Credit:   Una Miller / UW

Co-author Una Miller, a UW oceanography undergraduate, first collected thousands of historic temperature measurements in a region off the Washington coast as part of a separate research project in the lab of co-author Paul Johnson, a UW professor of oceanography. The data revealed the unexpected sub-surface ocean warming signal.

“Even though the data was raw and pretty messy, we could see a trend,” Miller said. “It just popped out.”

The four decades of data show deeper water has, perhaps surprisingly, been warming the most due to climate change.

“A lot of the earlier studies focused on the surface because most of the data is there,” said co-author Susan Hautala, a UW associate professor of oceanography. “This depth turns out to be a sweet spot for detecting this trend.” The reason, she added, is that it lies below water nearer the surface that is influenced by long-term atmospheric cycles.

The warming water probably comes from the Sea of Okhotsk, between Russia and Japan, where surface water becomes very dense and then spreads east across the Pacific. The Sea of Okhotsk is known to have warmed over the past 50 years, and other studies have shown that the water takes a decade or two to cross the Pacific and reach the Washington coast.

“We began the collaboration when we realized this is also the most sensitive depth for methane hydrate deposits,” Hautala said. She believes the same ocean currents could be warming intermediate-depth waters from Northern California to Alaska, where frozen methane deposits are also known to exist.

Researchers used a coring machine to gather samples of sediment off Washington’s coast to see if observations match their calculations for warming-induced methane release. The photo was taken in October aboard the UW’s Thomas G. Thompson research vessel.
Credit: Robert Cannata / UW

Warming water causes the frozen edge of methane hydrate to move into deeper water. On land, as the air temperature warms on a frozen hillside, the snowline moves uphill. In a warming ocean, the boundary between frozen and gaseous methane would move deeper and farther offshore. Calculations in the paper show that since 1970 the Washington boundary has moved about 1 kilometer – a little more than a half-mile – farther offshore. By 2100, the boundary for solid methane would move another 1 to 3 kilometers out to sea.

Estimates for the future amount of gas released from hydrate dissociation this century are as high as 0.4 million metric tons per year off the Washington coast, or about quadruple the amount of methane from the Deepwater Horizon blowout each year.

Still unknown is where any released methane gas would end up. It could be consumed by bacteria in the seafloor sediment or in the water, where it could cause seawater in that area to become more acidic and oxygen-deprived. Some methane might also rise to the surface, where it would release into the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas, compounding the effects of climate change.

Evan Solomon (right) and Marta Torres (left, OSU) aboard the UW’s Thomas G. Thompson research vessel in October, with fluid samples from the seafloor that will help answer whether the columns of methane bubbles are due to ocean warming.
Credit: Robert Cannata / UW

Researchers now hope to verify the calculations with new measurements. For the past few years, curious fishermen have sent UW oceanographers sonar images showing mysterious columns of bubbles. Solomon and Johnson just returned from a cruise to check out some of those sites at depths where Solomon believes they could be caused by warming water.

“Those images the fishermen sent were 100 percent accurate,” Johnson said. “Without them we would have been shooting in the dark.”

Johnson and Solomon are analyzing data from that cruise to pinpoint what’s triggering this seepage, and the fate of any released methane. The recent sightings of methane bubbles rising to the sea surface, the authors note, suggests that at least some of the seafloor gas may reach the surface and vent to the atmosphere.

The research was funded by the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Energy. The other co-author is Robert Harris at Oregon State University.

Contacts and sources:
Hannah Hickey
University of Washington

Citation:  “Dissociation of Cascadia margin gas hydrates in response to contemporary ocean warming”  Geophysical Research Letters | Dec. 5, 2014