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 on: Jun 29, 2016, 05:33 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
CS Monitor

Does California shutdown mean the end of nuclear power? Not so fast.

The debate around the closing of the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant in San Luis Obispo County, Calif., signals a broader conversation around power sources that could be crucial to the nation's energy future.   

By Jessica Mendoza, Staff writer June 28, 2016   

LOS ANGELES — When California’s largest electric utility announced last week that it would close the state’s last operational nuclear power plant, supporters were quick to call the moment a potential game changer for America’s energy future.

The basic message, after all, is that officials in America’s most populous state, while eager to battle against climate change, have decided that nuclear reactors aren’t needed in the fight.

And the move, in which state regulators nudged Pacific Gas & Electric Co. toward a plan to close its Diablo Canyon reactor, comes as other states have also been closing nuclear plants or planning to do so. Solar and wind power are surging, and PG&E said the Diablo Canyon power will be replaced by renewables.

Could the end of the line be coming into view for a power source that used to be hailed by some as the future of clean power?

Actually, it looks far too early to draw that conclusion. The reality is that a battle still rages and may go on for some time. Some new reactors are being built. Some governors even in other politically liberal states are trying to save old reactors rather than scrap them. And though cheap natural gas may have called the economics of nuclear plants into question, environmentalists are divided over whether a nuclear phaseout would be wise.

“I think the stakes are becoming higher as these closures are happening,” says Jesse Jenkins, a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Energy Initiative. “We have a pretty big decision to make as a country about whether or not we’re going to give up this source of power or to build on that foundation. That could be one of the biggest decisions we’ll have when it comes to our targets and climate goals.”

Opponents of nuclear power point to the plants’ safety risks, the problem of their radioactive waste, and the fast-falling costs of cleaner alternatives.

The other side says there’s still a key hurdle in deploying more solar arrays and wind turbines: They only provide power when the sun is shining or the wind blowing – unless it gets much cheaper to store that power to be used on demand.

For his part, Mr. Jenkins recently published a paper, with co-authors from the Argonne National Laboratory, noting this challenge of bringing storage costs down.

“The least-cost generation mix includes a diverse mix of resources,” they write, envisioning a future in which “wind, solar, and flexible nuclear technologies co-exist.”

Another argument made by supporters of nuclear power: Today’s reactors aren’t the same as yesterday’s. Newer ones can be smaller, less costly, and leave behind less radioactive waste.

This battle, in short, is far from settled by the move to close Diablo Canyon. The news has simply brought the debate into sharper relief.

A nuclear-free future?

Proponents of the shutdown plan say it’s a step toward ending both nuclear hazards and carbon emissions – and a model of long-term planning.

The landmark Diablo Canyon proposal, supported by a coalition of environmental groups and labor unions, calls for replacing the plant’s 2,200-megawatt capacity with a blend of renewable sources, efficiency upgrades, and energy storage. It includes a commitment from PG&E to source 55 percent of its overall energy sales from renewables. It also provides $350 million for existing workers’ severance, retention, and retraining, as well as $49.5 million to compensate the county for lost taxes and jobs.

Though still subject to approval by the state land commission, the agreement represents “a big step in the transition in California’s clean energy future, in which the grid is dominated by [power] generation from renewables,” says Peter Miller, senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the groups that has lobbied for the Diablo Canyon shutdown.

“It shows it’s possible to develop [renewable] sources at a scale and speed that allow states to replace retiring resources,” he says.

The deal’s success, Mr. Miller and others contend, would make a strong case for the existing shift away from nuclear power – a movement that has gained momentum over the past few years.

Between 2013 and 2014, energy companies across the country pulled the plug on four nuclear power plants. This month, Exelon Corp. announced plans to shutter two nuclear plants in Illinois by 2017 and 2018, respectively.

In general, companies questioned the economics: The costs of maintaining aging reactors could not hold up against the declining price of natural gas and growing subsidies for renewables. The two Illinois plants ranked among Exelon’s top performers, for instance, yet they lost a combined $800 million over the past seven years, the company reported.

Safety has also been an issue. Less than two years after the Fukushima accident in Japan in 2011, a generator leak at the San Onofre nuclear plant in California drew domestic attention to the public health and environmental risks of such facilities.

The persistence of such concerns, along with unease around the use of a power source that could double as a weapon of mass destruction, suggests that the time is ripe to put an end to nuclear energy, some environmentalists say. And with renewables becoming cheaper than ever, a carbon-free and nuclear-free energy future may be within the nation’s grasp, they say.

The nuclear industry “is in reverse, it’s going down the drain,” says Daniel Hirsch, director of the environmental and nuclear policy program at the University of California, Santa Cruz. “Diablo Canyon shows that we can get rid of the risks of nuclear [power] without adding to the risk of global warming. It tells the world what we all need to do.”

'A viable option'

But that worldview on energy, if gaining in California, isn’t necessarily sinking in nationwide. In another politically liberal state, New York, Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) has been trying to save some of the state’s economically squeezed reactors 

Indeed, plans to launch reactors that use safer, more efficient technology are already under way in Georgia and South Carolina – though concerns over delays and cost remain.

Innovators around the country have also been working on even more advanced nuclear technology that would address problems associated with traditional reactors, such as size, inflexibility, and cost. The engineers behind Silicon Valley-based Oklo, for instance, envision a nuclear reactor small enough to manufacture in a factory – like cars or prefab houses.

“We want to get the cost down, get them out the door really quickly,” says nuclear engineer Jacob DeWitte, the company’s co-founder and chief executive. “We want to show that this is a viable option.”

“Nationally, it’s a mixed bag,” notes Ali Mosleh, a professor of engineering at the University of California, Los Angeles and a former appointee of the US Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board. “Plants are shutting down, but there’s also construction here and there. And there’s momentum for small reactors and next-generation reactors.”

And maybe, some say, that’s the way it needs to be.

Nuclear energy provides 20 percent of the nation’s power, while renewables – wind, solar, geothermal, biomass, and hydroelectricity – produce 13 percent combined. Cutting nuclear from the equation could leave the US with a bigger challenge in terms of achieving its climate goals, says Kerry Emanuel, a climate scientist and meteorologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

“The numbers just don’t add up,” he says. “In the last two years we have shut down prematurely more nuclear energy than we have added solar and wind.”

At the same time, the need for carbon-free energy is growing. To prevent dangerous levels of global warming, the world’s nations must achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions between 2060 and 2075, the United Nations reports. As the world’s second-largest energy consumer, the US plays a key role in implementing practices toward that goal.

And so some advocate the need to consider the use of multiple sources of clean energy – including the nation’s existing fleet of nuclear power – at least until the necessary climate targets are achieved.

“The way I view it, the best way of success is by thinking about deploying all those things,” says Armond Cohen, co-founder and executive director of the Clean Air Task Force, a Boston-based research and public advocacy nonprofit. “That’s the future we want to create. We want to have those options.”

 on: Jun 29, 2016, 05:30 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
Buoys in the deep geared to listen for singing whales near shipping lanes

Scientists hope that by monitoring the presence of whales in real-time off the coast of New England they can protect them from colliding with shipping vessels.

By Frank Eltman, Associated Press June 28, 2016   

MINEOLA, N.Y. — Scientists have deployed a buoy 22 miles off the coast of New York's Fire Island to monitor several species of great whales in "near real-time." The high-tech acoustic device will eavesdrop on the songs of the whales to better understand and safeguard their movements near two busy shipping lanes entering New York Harbor.

"We know they're there, but we know very little about them," said Dr. Howard Rosenbaum, director of Wildlife Conservation Society's Ocean Giants Program. His New York-based organization has teamed with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts on the research project.

Scientists last week deployed the buoy, which is four feet in diameter with a mast standing six feet above the sea surface south of Long Island. The buoy is connected by "stretch hoses" to a weighted frame that sits 125 feet below on the sea floor. The frame features high-tech listening devices connected to an underwater microphone.

The devices will focus on obtaining data on the sounds of several species of baleen whales because they are endangered, said Dr. Mark Baumgartner of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. The data will be transmitted back to scientists in near real-time, for analysis within about two hours, Rosenbaum said.

The buoy also will collect the sounds of other whales, but that information will be archived in the listening devices at the bottom of the sea and analyzed when the buoy is retrieved after a year, Baumgartner said.

The scientists noted that all whales rely on their acoustic environment to socialize and navigate, and they are vulnerable to underwater noise, ship strikes and fishing gear entanglements.

The research collected could help prevent ship strikes, and may be helpful as the federal government and New York state consider placing a massive wind energy farm offshore in the coming years.

The buoy has been placed inside what is called the New York Bight, which features busy shipping lanes and lucrative fishing grounds. The Bight is home to seven species of great whales, including the humpback whale – known for its acrobatics and long, haunting songs – and the blue whale. The highly endangered North Atlantic right whale – one of the world's rarest whale species – migrates through New York waters, and fin, sei, minke and sperm whales also have been seen or heard, the scientists said.

Similar buoys were deployed off the coasts of Massachusetts and Maine earlier this year, and a Cornell University project has deployed near real-time buoys in shipping lanes near Boston to help protect the animals from ship strikes in that area, Baumgartner said.

Scientists around the world deploy listening devices to study whales, but the projects off New York and New England are the only known projects that relay information in near real-time, he added.


CS Monitor

Mariners can track presence of whales with a phone app

As whale watching season approaches, more boat captains are finding that a new smartphone app is better at helping them avoid hitting whales than outdated equipment.

By Patrick Whittle, Associated Press May 26, 2016   

Portland, Maine — With summer whale watching season fast approaching, conservation advocates and government agencies who want to protect whales say a mobile app designed to help mariners steer clear of the animals is helping keep them alive.

The Whale Alert app provides a real-time display of the ocean and the position of the mariner's ship, along with information about where whales have been seen or heard recently. It also provides information on speed restrictions and restricted areas, and recommends routes shippers can take to avoid endangered species such as the blue whale and the North Atlantic right whale.

New England whale watching companies are gearing up for summer, and more than a quarter of the entire North Atlantic right whale population visited Cape Cod Bay this season. That means conditions are perfect to get more mariners and the public on board with protecting whales, said Patrick Ramage, whale program director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

Andy Hammond, of Martha's Vineyard, is one such mariner. He has used the tool aboard pilot boats to avoid whales in Boston Harbor.

"It's all about making sure people understand the regulations and how to operate in certain areas," Hammond said. "It takes the guesswork out."

Collisions with high speed ships are one of the leading causes of death for some species of whales, and many mariners often try to navigate around them using outdated equipment.

Despite the legend spawned by Herman Melville's "Moby Dick," it is ships that sink whales, and not the other way around as Lucy Schouten reported for The Christian Science Monitor,

    Scientists were skeptical of the ramming theory because the forehead [of sperm whales] contains some fairly delicate structures. For example, scientists already knew the forehead's echolocation abilities helped whales navigate during deep dives. They also had no reliable record of whales ramming anything, much less a wooden ship.

IFAW collaborated with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on the app, which provides information on both US coasts. Alaskan cruise ships began using it this month.

Ramage said more than 33,000 users have downloaded the app, which first came out four years ago, and recent changes – such as giving civilians the ability to report whale sightings – have made it more popular.

"It is literally a situation where the sort of fog of incomplete data or outmoded equipment can be lifted for the mariner," Ramage said.

The app shows a broad area where the whales are located as opposed to a pinpointed location because of concerns about the possibility of recreational boaters attempting to get close to the animal, Ramage said.

The app was funded by donations to IFAW, which raised more than $500,000, he said. It's free and can be downloaded by anyone with an iPhone or Android.

 on: Jun 29, 2016, 05:26 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
CS Monitor

See how NASA simulates year on Mars...on Earth's largest volcano

In a dome on Hawaii's Mauna Loa volcano, a group of would-be astronauts is simulating living on Mars to test the psychological effects of a long-duration future mission to the Red Planet.

By Lonnie Shekhtman, Staff June 28, 2016   

Ten months ago, six people volunteered to go off the grid in Hawaii for one year in the name of science. They've been living together, isolated from the world, in a two-story dome on Mauna Loa, the world's largest volcano.

Powered by solar panels, their home and lab is a simulation of what the first human explorers of Mars might set up on the Red Planet, possibly in the next couple of decades. The dome is 36 feet in diameter, with a volume of 13,570 cubic feet that allow for two floors. The kitchen, dining area, bathroom, lab, exercise area, and common spaces are on a 993-square-foot ground floor. The crew bedrooms make up 424-square-feet of the top floor; and a 160-square-foot workshop, converted from a steel shipping container, is attached to the outside of the dome.

The tight quarters reflect the living conditions of future Mars explorers, who will have to spend several years together, including at least six months of travel both to and from Mars. The good news for them, so far, is that of the three men and three women scientists living in the Hawaiian dome since August 28, none has had to go home for psychological reasons yet.

"If things are going to go wrong, they're going to go wrong by the eight month point," Kim Binsted, a University of Hawaii professor who leads the experiment, called HI-SEAS (Hawai'i Space Exploration Analog and Simulation), told The Christian Science Monitor at the eight-month point in May.

"Though we don't know that for sure," she cautions.

The goal of this fourth and longest of the HI-SEAS missions, which are funded by NASA, is to learn how group dynamics play out under stressful conditions, such as the ones that explorers will one day encounter on Mars. This fourth planet from the sun is an inhospitable desert, with an average temperature of -81 degrees Fahrenheit, massive dust storms, and harsh radiation from the sun that can't be deflected by the planet's weak magnetic field, nor absorbed by its flimsy atmosphere.

Physically, exploring Mars will be a challenge. Psychologically, too. Astronauts venturing into deep space together for the first time could grapple with feelings of isolation, depression, and personality conflicts. This is why choosing a resilient crew will be key, says Dr. Binsted.

"Every crew is going to have its conflict, but I don't think it's possible to select a crew that over these long durations never has any conflict," she told the Monitor. "That's one of the morals of the story that we’re going to come away with," she says.

Though conditions on the active Mauna Loa, which rises nearly 14,000 feet over the Big Island, are not nearly as extreme as they are on Mars, the volcano is rugged and remote. Its surface is bare of plants or animals, and it's covered in volcanic basalt rock, as is Mars. Three other crews have already lived on the volcano in previous Mars simulations, two of them lasting for four months and the other for eight. Despite roommate quarrels, no one has abandoned the dome, says Binsted, except for one person who left for medical reasons.

Members of the current crew, some of whom are aspiring astronauts, spend their days much like the astronauts on Mars will: working on science experiments, preparing meals while the sun shines and powers the oven, and exercising to counter the effects of (pretend) minimal gravity. To relax during their free time, team members soak up sun on the "beach," an activity made possible by a heat lamp and a virtual reality headset. On weekends, they dance salsa.

To talk to the ground-control crew, or their friends and family, the Hawaiian astronauts have to endure at least a 20-minute delay in communications, as they would on far-away Mars. At the closest point possible given the orbits of the two planets, Earth and Mars are nearly 34 million miles apart.

Though HI-SEAS crew members do get outside on geological excursions, they have to leave the dome through an airlock to simulate depressurization, and with spacesuits on. A "ground crew" of 40 volunteers from around the world helps them with logistics.

Given that there isn't real-time communication, one of the ways researchers keep track of crew dynamics is by monitoring the distance between crew members and the volume of their voices through badges that everyone must wear.

"If two people never go near each other, maybe they're avoiding each other," says Binsted. A spike in the voice volume between two crew members could indicate they're fighting.

But it appears that the HI-SEAS group is gelling, at least according to one team member.

"I think we've done remarkably well, compared to a lot of research I did for my Master's about what can happen in environments like this," crew architect Tristan Bassingthwaighte, a doctor of architecture candidate at University of Hawaii at Mānoa told the Monitor in a recorded video interview in March. "We don't have nearly as many of the reclusive tendencies that I thought would happen."

The final results of crew dynamics on this one-year psychological study will be published in about a year, says Binsted. Meanwhile, the next two HI-SEAS experiments, which are already funded, will focus on picking the right crew members.

 on: Jun 29, 2016, 05:24 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
CS Monitor

What can ancient amber-encased bird wings say about flight?

Two chunks of amber preserved the wings of baby birds 99 million years ago.

By Eva Botkin-Kowacki, Staff writer June 28, 2016   

Dinosaurs were roaming the Earth and flowering plants were just beginning to flourish when two tiny baby birds lived their short lives.

These walnut-brown, toothed hatchlings hadn't grown larger than today's hummingbirds when they encountered wads of sticky, goopy tree resin. Perhaps the newborn enantiornithes were taking their first flights, stumbling out of a nest, clambering around the treetops, or maybe they fell into the sticky trap when a wing became ensnared in the resin and the little birds weren't able to pull it loose.

Now, 99 million years later, that resin has hardened into amber around those tiny wings, preserving them, bones, tissue, feathers and all. And they're offering scientists a glimpse back in time.

"Enantiornithines, these strange, toothed birds, had plumage that looked a lot like adult bird plumage, even when they were just hatchlings," says Ryan McKellar, curator of invertebrate paleontology at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum who helped analyze the new fossils for a paper published Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications.

Looking at the bones of these amber-encased wings, the scientists were able to tell that these birds were quite young. But their adult-like feathers suggested these tiny hatchlings may have been able to fly "right out of the egg, or right out of the nest," Dr. McKellar tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview.

"They were ready for action as soon as they hatched," lead author Lida Xing, of China University of Geosciences in Beijing, said in a press release. "These birds did not hang about in the nest waiting to be fed, but set off looking for food, and sadly died perhaps because of their small size and lack of experience."

When you think of fossils you might picture a compression fossil, in which an animal's skeleton has been preserved in a layer of sedimentary rock. Occasionally the tissues, fur, or feathers of an animal leaves some sort of imprint in the rock around the bones.

"The problem we face there is that more often than not it's a sort of tangled mess," McKellar says. "It's hard to pick out the finer details of the feathers within this mat, or carbon film."

That's where amber fossils come in. As tree resin turns into amber over time, it preserves an organism in place, tissue and all. The resin contains natural preservatives, entomologist George Poinar, known for studying amber fossils, previously explained to the Monitor.

"Amber can be a really valuable supplement to these compression fossils" because it can preserve animals in such lifelike detail, McKellar says.

In life, these little birds had walnut-brown coloring on the upper side of their wings, with a paler band running across their wings. The wings' underside was very pale, perhaps even white. Two long, ribbon-like tail feathers trailed behind the tiny birds' bodies. In their beaks, these young enantiornithines had teeth, hinting at their dinosaur ancestry.

"They're thought to be some of the closest relatives to modern birds," McKellar says. Today enantiornithines are extinct.

"The fact that well-preserved plumage is now being found in 100-million-year old amber is remarkable, and very cool, but the [new] information in these two specimens is limited," Luis Chiappe, director of the Dinosaur Institute at the National History Museum of Los Angeles County who was not part of this study, tells the Monitor in an email.

"Fossils that are 25 million years older than these amber pieces (i.e., fossils from 125 million year old rocks in Spain and China) provide the same information about the plumage of enantiornithines: differentiation among the wing feathers (alula, secondaries, primaries, and coverts) as well as details of their color patterns."

"The authors are correct to highlight the high degree of development of the feathers and how the presence of fully formed flight feathers in hatchlings suggest a high degree of precociality," the extent to which a young organism shows mature features and behaviors, such as mobility. But "this has already been mentioned, many times, based on the presence of similar feathers in traditional fossils as well as osteological studies correlating bone formation (ossification) with precociality," Dr. Chiappe says.

McKellar agrees that these fossils confirm previous descriptions of enantiornithines based on compression fossils. But he hopes that this study will encourage scientists to turn to amber fossils more readily to find new insights into ancient organisms.

The larger specimen, DIP-V-15101 ("Rose"), showing overlapping flight feathers erupting from amber where they have been cross-cut by amber polishing. Courtesy of R.C. McKellar/Royal Saskatchewan Museum   

These chunks of amber are about the size of ping-pong balls, McKellar says. And the wings embedded in this amber are just fragments, a few bones of the tip of the bird's wing with feathers fanning across them.

"It can be really difficult working with these specimens because a lot of the feathers are overlapping each other," he says. "In one of the specimens they're nicely splayed out, but in the other, they're actually piled on top of each other, so it's hard to tease out details."

McKellar, who used strong lighting and magnification to peer into the amber fossils at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum, says, "it's just sort of a mass of brown in the specimens until you get the right light on them."

 on: Jun 29, 2016, 05:17 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
CS Monitor

Could ancient wheat species play a big role in the future of food?

Modern agriculture favors just a handful of crops, but a bewildering array of diversity remains locked away in gene banks.

By Jason Thomson, Staff June 29, 2016   

Einkorn, emmer, and spelt are ancient species of wheat that were integral to the diets of our ancestors, but have largely faded into memory, replaced by a select number of crops that dominate fields the world over.

In fact, of the 30,000 edible plant species known to science, a mere 30 represent the crops that feed the world. Of those, five cereals (rice, wheat, maize, millet and sorghum) provide 60 percent of mankind’s energy intake.

Yet a bewildering array of those outmoded varieties remain accessible, many lying frozen in gene banks. A new research paper, published Monday in Trends in Plant Science, advocates their resurrection, suggesting that the reintroduction of more diversity could bring many benefits.

“Extreme focus on few species and accessions has led to a large loss of biodiversity,” write the authors, “with negative consequences such as the extinction of species, vulnerability of ecosystems, and difficulties to meet future agricultural demands, because genetic variability to provide climatic and pest adaptation is lost.”

Moreover, the researchers suggest that the time is ripe for such a reintroduction, considering the burgeoning demand for high-quality, healthy food.

"People are interested in diversity, in getting something with more taste, with healthier ingredients, and ancient grains deliver interesting things," said co-author Friedrich Longin in a press release.

Many people’s attitudes today, particularly in the United States and Europe, give primary consideration to characteristics other than cost, making such proposals realistic in a way that they may not have been in decades past. Niche markets for small farmers, bakers and millers have become feasible again.

Already, multi-grain products such as breads and baked goods are popular, containing ingredients such as oats, millet, and barley, but the wheat flour employed is almost exclusively from bread wheat, just one of three species, 20 subspecies and thousands of varieties of wheat that have been cultivated and consumed over the millenniums.

Globalization and the explosion of industrial agriculture in the 20th century narrowed the range of crops being grown, ever seeking those that provided the highest yields, the shortest stalks – to prevent collapsing – and the best resistance to pests. Any varieties that failed to meet these criteria fell from favor.

In determining which plants make suitable candidates for reintroduction, these qualities would still be important, but a more holistic approach would be required, say the authors, incorporating other factors such as taste and nutrition. Their own research has demonstrated the importance of considering the whole range of variables.

"When you look at einkorn, it is really fantastic looking in the field,” said Dr. Longin, “but when you get the agronomic performance, it is low yielding and it falls down in the rain. But then we found there were so many healthy ingredients, and you taste and even see it in the end product."

Spelt serves as an illustration of how such reintroduction can breed success. In southern Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, it was the dominant cereal crop until the early 20th century, when it all but disappeared. Its rediscovery in the 1970s met with a slow beginning, as all but a handful of millers and bakers were still familiar with traditional spelt recipes.

Spelt had originally fallen out of fashion in no small part due to agronomic problems centered round its long stem, resulting in "lodging" – the collapse of the stem when it can no longer support its own weight – which in turn had a negative impact on the harvest. A breeding program beginning in the late 20th century sought to address this, and by 2000, spelt was producing 20 percent higher yields than original varieties. Marketing and research then contributed to boosting spelt's appeal, highlighting "an enormous richness of the spelt breads in texture and flavor," as the authors describe it, emphasizing the diversity it could contribute to our diet.

Today, the crop blankets more than 100,000 hectares of land in and around Germany, provides an annual turnover of €1 billion ($1.1 billion) and an annual growth rate of five percent.

But if other varieties are to meet with similar success, say the researchers, there will need to be an interdisciplinary approach, with cooperation all along the supply chain, from plant breeders and nutritionists, to marketing and vendors.

"It would be worthwhile to look a bit more in the gene banks at what diversity is sleeping there that has been forgotten by the industry," said Longin.

 on: Jun 29, 2016, 05:15 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
June 29, 2016

New pear-shaped nucleus could ruin time travel forever

by Susanna Pilny
Red Orbit

A new form of atomic nuclei has been confirmed, and its very existence may change what we thought were the fundamental aspects of physics—and could put a nail in the coffin of time travel, according to a new paper in Physical Review Letters.

Unlike all other known forms of atomic nuclei, this one is pear-shaped—meaning it’s not symmetrical. To understand what this means and why it’s important, we need to go back a few billion years, to the Big Bang.
Currently, the general thought is that the Big Bang created equal amounts of matter and antimatter—a symmetry which probably would have just resulted in them cancelling each other out. In our current times, though, matter won out, meaning all of us have the pleasure of existing.

This of course begs the question: Where the heck is all the antimatter?

Which is where our new pear-shaped form comes in. Up until now, the forms of the nuclei of atoms have been symmetrical in shape, which happens to pair nicely with a theory known as CP-Symmetry. CP-Symmetry involves a symmetry of charge and coordinates in space in the universe.

"In particle physics, if you have a particle spinning clockwise and decaying upwards, its antiparticle should spin counterclockwise and decay upwards 100 percent of the time if CP is conserved," Ethan Siegel from It Starts With a Bang explained to Forbes. "If not, CP is violated.”

Pear-shaped nucleus shakes up our view of physics and time travel

Up until now, the thought has been that CP was law and balance existed—a notion carried through in the shape of nuclei. Symmetry ruled the universe throughout. Well, it did until 2013 anyway, when the first pear-shaped nucleus in the isotope Radium-224 was discovered by physicists at CERN.

"The protons enrich in the bump of the pear and create a specific charge distribution in the nucleus," Marcus Scheck from the University of the West of Scotland told BBC News. "This violates the theory of mirror symmetry and relates to the violation shown in the distribution of matter and antimatter in our Universe."

Now, Scheck and his team were able to directly observe this distortion, thus confirming CERN’s previous findings. This time, it was seen in the nucleus of the isotope Barium-144—and the distortion was even more pronounced than predicted, which leads Scheck to believe that this little pear indicates time travel is a no-go.

"We've found these nuclei literally point towards a direction in space. This relates to a direction in time, proving there's a well-defined direction in time and we will always travel from past to present," said Scheck.

Of course, whether that holds true or not is a topic for the future.

 on: Jun 29, 2016, 05:12 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
June 29, 2016

Massive new helium source is a ‘life saver’

by Chuck Bednar
Red Orbit

While helium may be best known as the gas people use to fill up balloons and inhale to make their voices sound funny, it is actually a critically important element that has been in short supply as of late, but the discovery of a massive new helium gas field could change everything.

Helium is the second most abundant element in the universe and it's used in important applications such as MRI scanners, welding, and nuclear energy. Helium is the second most abundant gas in the universe, yet reserves of the element are running out here on Earth, and there may soon be a catastrophic shortage, according to Oxford and Durham University researchers.

However, using a new approach to gas exploration, Durham University Ph.D. student Diveena Danabalan, Oxford Earth Sciences Professor Chris Ballentine and their colleagues have found a potential new source of helium in Tanzanian East African Rift Valley, making this the first time that a cache of this rare gas has ever been intentionally discovered.

Once perfected, new technique could be a ‘game changer’

The UK-based researchers discovered that volcanic activity provides enough heat to release helium from ancient rocks, and that volcanic activity in the Rift Valley has released helium from said rocks, then trapped it in shallower gas fields. The team presented their findings as part of the ongoing Goldschmidt Geochemistry Conference in Yokohama, Japan.

“We show that volcanoes in the Rift play an important role in the formation of viable helium reserves,” Danabalan said in a statement. “Volcanic activity likely provides the heat necessary to release the helium accumulated in ancient crustal rocks. However, if gas traps are located too close to a given volcano, they run the risk of helium being heavily diluted by volcanic gases such as carbon dioxide, just as we see in thermal springs from the region.”

As such, their current goal is to identify the so-called “goldilocks-zone” that exists between the ancient rocks and the modern volcanoes in order to perfectly balance helium release and volcanic dilution. Once they do, independent projections have calculated that they will be able to obtain as much as 45 billion cubic feet (BCf) of helium from just one part of the rift valley. Ballentine said such a haul would be enough to completely fill more than one million MRI scanners.

“To put this discovery into perspective,” the Oxford professor added, “global consumption of helium is about 8 BCf per year and the United States Federal Helium Reserve, which is the world’s largest supplier, has a current reserve of just 24.2 BCf. Total known reserves in the USA are around 153 BCf. This is a game changer for the future security of society’s helium needs and similar finds in the future may not be far away.”

 on: Jun 29, 2016, 05:11 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
June 29, 2016

Mars used to have an Earth-like atmosphere

by Brett Smith
Red Orbit

An analysis of Martian rocks by NASA's Curiosity rover has indicated the Red Planet used to have a higher level of oxygen in its atmosphere than it currently does, according to a new report in Geophysical Research Letters.

Scientists discovered high amounts of manganese oxides using a laser device on the rover. This telltale sign of higher oxygen amounts in Mars' early atmosphere adds to other Curiosity findings that revealed how Earth-like the nearby planet used to be.

This study also adds critical context to other clues regarding atmospheric oxygen levels in Mars' past. The manganese oxides were discovered in mineral veins located within a region the Curiosity mission has focused on to understand the timeline of ancient Martian ecological conditions. Within that context, the greater oxygen level can be associated with a time when groundwater sat in Mars’ Gale Crater, where the rover has been exploring.

"The only ways on Earth that we know how to make these manganese materials involve atmospheric oxygen or microbes," Nina Lanza, a planetary scientist with NASA, said in a news release. "Now we're seeing manganese oxides on Mars, and we're wondering how the heck these could have formed?"

Finding could lead to discovery of microbial life on Mars

While the possibility of microbes evolving on Mars has seemed remote thus far, the new study indicates a significant chance of microbial activity.

"These high manganese materials can't form without lots of liquid water and strongly oxidizing conditions,” Lanza said. “Here on Earth, we had lots of water but no widespread deposits of manganese oxides until after the oxygen levels in our atmosphere rose."

In Earth's geological record, high levels of manganese oxide minerals are a critical marker of the significant change in our atmosphere's composition, from fairly low oxygen to the oxygen-rich atmosphere we see today. The existence of the same kinds of materials on Mars indicates that oxygen amounts rose there, too, before falling to their present levels.

"One potential way that oxygen could have gotten into the Martian atmosphere is from the breakdown of water when Mars was losing its magnetic field," Lanza said. "It's thought that at this time in Mars' history, water was much more abundant."

Without a magnetic field to guard the planet’s surface, ionizing radiation would split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen. Because of Mars' relatively low gravity, the planet wasn't able to retain hydrogen atoms. However, heavier oxygen atoms remained behind, got trapped in rocks and caused the rusty red dust we see on Mars today. While the red iron oxides need just mildly-oxidizing situation to develop, manganese oxides need a strong-oxidizing environment.

"It's hard to confirm whether this scenario for Martian atmospheric oxygen actually occurred,” Lanza said. “But it's important to note that this idea represents a departure in our understanding for how planetary atmospheres might become oxygenated."

 on: Jun 29, 2016, 05:08 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
June 28, 2016

Dwarf planet Makemake has a moon, astronomers find

by Chuck Bednar
Red Orbit

Makemake, a dwarf planet and one of the largest Kuiper Belt objects discovered to date, has a moon, according to a new study led by astronomers at the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) and published in Monday’s edition of Astrophysical Journal Letters.

The elusive, dark satellite was difficult to find, lead author Dr. Alex Parker and his colleagues explained in a statement, as much of its orbit is spent almost directly within the glare of the icy dwarf planet due to a nearly edge-on configuration. The newfound moon is believed to be less than 100 miles wide, while Makemake itself is approximately 870 miles across.

First discovered in 2005, Makemake is a football-shaped planet that has a diameter roughly two-thirds that of Pluto’s and his covered in frozen methane, according to the study authors. The new moon, which has been dubbed MK2, is much 1,300 times darker than the Kuiper Belt object that it orbits, and was found using the Hubble Space Telescope’s Wide Field Camera 3 instrument.

“Makemake’s moon proves that there are still wild things waiting to be discovered, even in places people have already looked,” said Dr. Parker. MK2’s detection means that all four of the currently-designated dwarf planets are home to at least one satellite, according to SwRI.

Research could lead to discovery of other previously undetected moons

The authors of the new study are not the first to search for a moon around Makemake, but previous attempts to locate the satellite proved unfruitful. Now, the successful discovery of MK2 has astronomers hopeful that they may also find previously undetected satellites orbiting other large Kuiper Belt objects (KBOs).

Before findings MK2, researchers believed the fact that Makemake lacked a moon meant that it might have escaped a giant impact event during its past. Now, they plan to investigate its density to see if the moon was formed by such a collision, or if the object has been pulled in by the dwarf planet’s gravity. Based on the abundance of moons orbiting KBOs, the study authors believe that impact events are common among these dwarf planets.

The findings will also prove beneficial in other ways, Dr. Parker explained: “With a moon, we can calculate Makemake’s mass and density. We can contrast the orbits and properties of the parent dwarf and its moon, to understand the origin and history of the system. We can compare Makemake and its moon to other systems, and broaden our understanding of the processes that shaped the evolution of our solar system.”

 on: Jun 28, 2016, 10:20 AM 
Started by frespana - Last post by frespana
What does one person's Pluto conjunct other person's south node mean?

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