Sabtu, 28 Januari 2012

The 51st State Should be The Moon


At the sunset of Newt Gingrich’s putative presidency, the moon would be the 51st state, colonized by permanent American settlers. Tourists would honeymoon in low-Earth orbit, space factories would manufacture goods in microgravity, and America would have a rocket powerful enough to send us to Mars.

This is all according to a discussion Gingrich hosted Wednesday in Florida, which holds its presidential primary next Tuesday and which lost thousands of jobs as the space shuttle program drew to a close last year. But this is Gingrich talking, so it’s safe to say this isn’t all politics. A self-professed space nut and fan of science, Gingrich has dreamt of a lunar colony for decades. Even if this dream is inherently irrational:

“The reason you have to have a bold and large vision is you don't arouse the American nation with trivial, bureaucratically rational objectives,” Gingrich said.

It's odd for a politician to trump his own ideas as grandiose and not rational. But hey, going back to the moon sure fires up the patriots! So America's space goals are once again a political football — one, incidentally, that seems to rev up Republicans more than it does Democrats. Gingrich has a long list of space dreams, which we'll get to in a minute. But this debate brings to light an interesting volley since the Reagan administration, between Democratic presidents who seem not to really dwell on America’s space ambitions and Republican presidents (and would-be presidents) who just love the idea of Americans on the moon.


Dubbing himself a “visionary” for his space plans, the former House speaker and GOP presidential hopeful compared himself to John F. Kennedy, Abraham Lincoln and the Wright brothers. But he didn’t compare himself to another conservative Republican, George W. Bush, who also wanted the U.S. to go back to the moon as a launch pad for Mars. His new vision was gestated in the wake of the Columbia disaster, and centered on the retirement of the aging shuttles, but it also sought a more ambitious future for the space agency. The Constellation program never really got off the ground, however, and critics found plenty of faults.


But contrast this with Bill Clinton's presidency. While he was in the Oval Office, the U.S. partnered with Russia to build the International Space Station — certainly a major achievement, but it was arguably more impressive for its geopolitics than its science scope. Both countries already had space stations before, and the ISS took way more time and money to build than anyone had anticipated. Otherwise, Clinton apparently didn’t have much to say about the space program, even in his autobiography “My Life.”

Then, a while after taking office and organizing a blue-ribbon NASA review commission, President Obama harrumphed at the idea of returning to the moon — “we’ve been there before,” he famously said — and charted a bumpy course for a future NASA that will eventually visit an asteroid and someday Mars.
Now Gingrich has set his sights back on our natural satellite, with a much tighter timeline. But there is one catch — he favors private development, not necessarily NASA leadership.

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As Charles Houmans notes in Foreign Policy, the space program presents a conundrum for dedicated conservatives. It’s the most unassailably awesome achievement in American history, and as such it’s fertile ground for jingoists. But it’s also plagued by huge federal spending overruns, a risk-averse bureaucracy and — let us not forget — scientists, whose findings do not always comport with the conservative worldview. Gingrich seems able to toe this boundary carefully, coupling his love of science and space with his free-market beliefs. 


In a debate earlier this week, he said privately funded prizes spurred Charles Lindbergh and Burt Rutan to reach new milestones, and private incentives could do the same for lunar settlement and Mars exploration.

For his part, his rival Mitt Romney has been a little more vague and a little more NASA-centric, discussing a space agency with more partnerships with universities and commercial enterprises.


Wednesday’s talk is just the latest in a long list of Gingrich’s space ideas, some of which are wackier than others. In 1981 he sponsored an unsuccessful bill called the National Space and Aeronautics Policy Act, which set forth “provisions for the government of space territories, including constitutional protections, the right to self-government and admission to statehood,” the New York Times reported in 1995. He proposed a lunar mirror network that would illuminate highways and dark alleyways. He envisions space factories creating new opportunities for the unemployed. 


“If we’d spent as much on space as we’ve spent on farm programs, we could have taken all the extra farmers and put them on space stations working for a living ... in orbiting factories,” he told a science fiction convention in 1986.

But other predictions and desires have borne out. A quarter-century ago he said “space tourism is coming,” predicting Hiltons and Marriotts of the solar system. There are no space hotels yet, but space tourism is likely just around the corner.


So does anyone really think a president Gingrich would set up a successful moon base? Not really, especially given this country's economic situation and (depending on whose hyperbole you believe) debt crisis. Gingrich has given no indications of how he'd pay for it, incentives or otherwise, and the details are sparse. And most of the reaction from space observers has been tepid at best.


Space policy expert John Logsdon, professor emeritus at George Washington University, called it a "fantasy," according to Space.com. "It would be much better to set realistic goals, but that is not Mr. Gingrich's strong suit," he said.


But you can hand Gingrich one thing: At least he's talking about American leadership in space, something that's been sorely lacking of late. Maybe his grandiose visions will start a real conversation.

Cold Fusion Boiling Competition


It seems Defkalion is serious about independent testing. In a press release this week, the company invited "requests from internationally recognised and reputable scientific and business organisations interested to conduct their independent tests."


Would-be testers will have to visit Defkalion's laboratory in Athens, where the company is making available two Hyperion power units, one "live" and the other inert, for comparison. Defkalion say that the live unit will achieve a coefficient of performance of at least 20, in other words putting out 20 times as much energy as goes in to heat it. It's a bold move, especially compared to Andrea Rossi who has kept independent testers at arm's length from his demonstrations. It remains to be seen whether the tests really will dispel doubts or if they will raise more questions than they answer.

It's been an exciting few weeks since Andrea Rossi demonstrated his one-megawatt E-Cat power plant with apparent success. Critics still believe that the test was a sham, the mystery customer is a fake, and there is no concrete evidence the technology works. Rossi has been busy since then, and the E-Cat bandwagon is rolling onwards. But now he has rivals in the cold fusion business. Is this evidence that the technology is real and can be replicated? Or just that someone else wants a piece of a possible scam of the decade?



Cold fusion, otherwise known as "low energy nuclear reaction" (LENR) technology has yet to gain any scientific respectability. This hasn't stopped Greek company Defkalion Green Technologies launching its own range of cold fusion power plants, rivals to Rossi's E-Cat. In a press release (.pdf), the company announced they would be selling a range of units under the name Hyperion, from small domestic boilers to industrial power plants.
They have a detailed specification document for its product (.pdf) and say the launch is due early 2012. Unlike Rossi, it invites independent third parties to test its products and report the findings "under agreed protocol." Its customers will not be bound by non-disclosure agreements, whereas Rossi's dealings have been highly secretive.

Defkalion used to have a close working relationship with Rossi. Originally the company was to produce thousands of E-Cats a year from a factory on Xanthi using Rossi's design under licence. The relationship broke up in August, for reasons which have never been fully disclosed. The company has persevered with a cold fusion device of its own, which it insists has been developed independently and also that Hyperion is more stable than Rossi's E-Cat.


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Like the E-Cat, Hyperion will initially be used for producing heat only, with electricity generation following. The first will be a one-megawatt device, the same scale as the one in Rossi's demonstration in October.

Curiously, Rossi does not accuse Defkalion of stealing intellectual property. Instead, he insists that it has never known the details how the E-Cat works. He says it cannot make its device operate without his secret catalyst, which it was hoping to acquire. "There are clowns saying they have a technology copied from us, actually they have just a moke up (sic), waiting for the piece of info they need to make a real copy," Rossi wrote in his Journal of Nuclear Physics blog, congratulating himself for outwitting them.

However, Defkalion spokesman Alexandros Xanthoulis told Swedish science magazine NyTeknik that they know exactly what the catalyst is. In a piece of subterfuge, a spectroscopic examination was carried out on an E-Cat being while it was being tested without Rossi's knowledge. However, to maintain "fair play", Defkalion's scientists say they developed their technology without using this information.

The lack of a patent means that (if this is not a hoax) the secret is potentially worth billions. Hence Rossi does not want anyone to repeat his results or see the kernel of the E-Cat. So long as he has paying customers he is happy for the rest of the world to dismiss the technology as not worth investigating.

Magnetic Soap that can Mop up Oil Spills


A team of chemists at the University of Bristol has developed a liquid soap that can be controlled by magnets. It's hoped that the controllable soap could be used to clean up oil spills at sea.

The soap is composed of iron-rich salts dissolved in water, which respond to a magnetic field when placed in solution. The crucial thing is that the soap could be removed from the water after an oil spill, calming concerns from environmentalists over the use of surfactants in clean-up operations.

The breakthrough -- detailed in German chemistry journal Angewandte Chemie -- is the world's first soap sensitive to a magnetic field. The team at the University of Bristol have previously worked on soaps that are sensitive to light, carbon dioxide or changes in pH, temperature and pressure.



Ionic liquid surfactants -- made up of mostly water with some heavy metals such as iron bound to halides such as bromine or chlorine -- have been suggested as potentially controllable by magnets for some time, but it's always been assumed that their metallic centres would be too isolated within the solution, preventing the long-range interactions required to be magnetically active.


The Bristol team -- led by Professor Julian Eastoe -- created their magnetic soap by dissolving iron in a range of inert surfactants composed of chloride and bromide ions -- very similar to those found in everyday mouthwash or fabric conditioner. This created soap particles with metallic centres. The soap was found to be able to overcome both gravity and the surface tension between water and oil in order to rise up through the organic solvent and reach the magnet, allowing it to be controlled.

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Magnetic soaps have a wide range of potential applications. Their ability to respond to external stimuli means that a range of properties -- such as their electrical conductivity and how easily they dissolve in water -- could be altered by turning a magnet on or off. Traditionally, these factors can only be controlled by adding an electrical charge to the soap or changing the pH, temperature, or pressure of the system.

They could also be easily removed from a system after being added -- ideal for environmental cleanups and water treatment. One of the problems with using soaps to remove oil from the sea after oil spills is that you might remove the oil, but you replace it with loads of soap -- which can also disrupt ecosystems. Furthermore, they could be helpful in scientific experiments which require precise control of liquid droplets.

Professor Julian Eastoe, University of Bristol, explained: "As most magnets are metals, from a purely scientific point of view these ionic liquid surfactants are highly unusual, making them a particularly interesting discovery."
He added, "while these exact liquids aren't yet ready to appear in any household product, proving that magnetic soaps can be developed means that future work can reproduce the same phenomenon in more commercially viable liquids for a range of applications from water treatment to industrial cleaning products."

Women's Menstrual Cycles Decode by Men



“Are you on your period?” It’s a question most women have been asked at one point or another by their boyfriend or spouse during a disagreement. It turns out that some men actually can tell when it’s a woman’s time of the month—and it’s not because of bratty behavior.

In a study published online last month in the journal Ethology, psychologists Nathan Pipitone at Adams State College and Gordon Gallup at SUNY Albany asked three groups of men to listen to voice recordings of 10 women counting from one to five. Each woman was recorded four times over the course of one full menstrual cycle. (For those who aren’t familiar with the ins and outs of the female reproductive cycle, women are most fertile during ovulation, when their ovaries release an egg, and least fertile during menstruation, when they shed the unfertilized egg and the lining of the uterus.)

After the first group of men listened to all four recordings from each woman, played in random order, they were asked to guess which recordings were made during the women’s periods. The men had a one in four chance of guessing correctly, but they actually did so 35 percent of the time, a significant difference, the researchers say.




In 2008, Pipitone and Gallup showed that men find the voices of ovulating women more attractive than voices recorded during other points in the cycle, so for the second group in the new study, the researchers replaced the recording made closest to ovulation with one from a less fertile day. Even after the potentially telltale contrast was eliminated, the men pinpointed the voice recorded during menstruation 34 percent of the time.
Perhaps the most telling element of the study was the third experiment, in which a new group of men were not told that the research had anything to do with menstrual cycles. Instead they were asked to choose the most “unattractive” voice recording for each woman. They chose the menstrual recording significantly more often than was predicted by chance—again, 34 percent of the time.

In fact, according to the researchers’ calculations, all three groups singled out the voices recorded during menstruation more often than any of the other voices.

So what was it about the women’s voices that gave away their reproductive status? The men in group one who correctly identified the menstrual recordings said they could tell by the mood (bad versus good), quality (harsh versus smooth), pitch (low versus high) and speed (slow versus fast) of the women’s voices. When the second two groups were asked to score the voices based on these characteristics, they reported that menstrual voices sounded lower in mood, quality and pitch. “The men seemed to determine menstrual voices by picking the most unattractive voice,” Pipitone explains.

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There’s already evidence that men subconsciously judge where a woman is in her cycle—lap dancers make 80 percent more money in tips when they’re ovulating compared to when they’re menstruating, according to a 2007 paper—but the new study is the first to demonstrate one way men make that determination.
A subconscious (and often conscious) aversion to menstruation makes sense in evolutionary terms, since males wanting to pass on their genes are better off seeking out females closer to ovulation. Over time, the ability to parse a woman’s menstrual cycle could have proliferated, as more perceptive men reproduced more successfully.

Pipitone says the adaptation is an example of the reproductive arms race known as sexually antagonistic coevolution, a phenomenon seen across living species, from humans to brine shrimp. Males show more interest in females when they’re fertile, so it makes sense that human females—who need a lot of help to raise their particularly helpless infants—hide their fertility status. (Female chimps, by contrast, broadcast their fertility with engorged genitalia.) Theoretically, human males retaliated by developing the ability to detect more subtle fertility cues such as those “leaked” by the female voice.

Hormones induce the vocal changes that give women away. “Vocal production is closely tied to our biology,” Pipitone says of men and women. For example, “Cells from the larynx and vagina are very similar and show similar hormone receptors.” The result is that, “The sound of a person’s voice contains a surprising amount of reproductively relevant information,” Gallup says. The obvious example: By speaking on the phone, we can determine a person’s gender and age. But researchers have also shown that voices alone can be used to directly and indirectly predict characteristics like facial appearance, body type, physical strength and even sexual behavior.

I think one of the most interesting results of the study is that across the board, men chose the menstrual voice around a third of the time. It would seem some men are more perceptive to women’s cycles than others. Pipitone and Gallup plan to investigate this question next.

Aging of Sperm Cells Delayed by Females


A new study, led by Dr. Klaus Reinhardt at the University of Sheffield, shows that females of some species can prolong the lifespan of ordinarily short-lived sperm cells by days, months, or even decades, waiting for the optimal time to use it. The study could have some big implications for the general study of aging, as well.

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 Here's the deal: sperm cells are very short-lived, typically. They have a very high metabolic rate compared to other cells, but the reasons why sperm cells deteriorate so quickly is still not well-understood. It was assumed that part of the problem is that sperm cells produce a comparatively high amount of free radicals, which are damaging to the cells.

The study used a technique called fluorescence-lifetime measurement, more often used in oncology, to examine the sperm cells held in the body of female crickets. They compared the metabolic rate and production of free radicals in the female crickets to sperm stored elsewhere, and found that the females were somehow able to alter both of those attributes--the metabolic rate within the females was a whopping 37 percent lower than the other sperm. 


That process allows many species of females to store sperm cells for a very long time. It's not just insects; birds, fish, and reptiles are also shown to have the same ability to delay aging in the sperm cells. The most impressive creature is an insect, though--queen ants can keep these cells alive for an insane 30 years. 

There are some interesting implications coming from this research. It definitely aligns with the theory that free radicals are a key element to the aging of cells, but it also explains why fertility tests on sperm are so unreliable. Without a female to slow down their rate of death, sperm cells could easily perish during the test.

The Climate Changing in UK


The first comprehensive report from the government into the potential effects of climate change has indicated both risks and opportunities for the UK.
On the one hand, flooding, heatwaves and water shortages are likely, but better shipping lanes through the Arctic, higher crop yields, and fewer cold-related deaths in the winter are potential benefits.



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The 2,000-page report has been in the works for three years and was prepared by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. It considers multiple climate change scenarios based on computer modelling that consider how 11 different areas of British life, including agriculture and transport, might react to different levels of global emissions cuts.

Assuming nothing is done in preparation, negative outcomes include between 580 and 5,900 deaths above the average per year by the 2050s, and water shortages in the north, south and east of England (and particularly in the Thames Valley area) and between £2.1 billion and £12 billion more damage from flooding by the 2080s.

On the other hand, shorter shipping routes to Asia would be opened up by melting Arctic sea ice, and milder winters should mean both 3,900 to 24,000 fewer premature deaths from cold-related causes and longer growing seasons yielding 40 to 140 percent greater wheat yields and 20 to 70 percent greater sugar beet yields.

Environment secretary Caroline Spelman said: "It shows what life could be like if we stopped our preparations now, and the consequences such a decision would mean for our economic stability."

Selasa, 17 Januari 2012

Which Volcanoes Will Erupt This Year?


After 50 days of silence, Sicily’s Mt. Etna rang in the New Year with a new eruption the morning of January 5. Plumes of black ash and lava rose 5,000 meters high in a style reminiscent of the volcano’s 18 eruptions last year.

Etna was not the first volcano to wake up in the first days of 2012 (scroll down for our Top Five New Eruptions of 2012), but it was certainly the most spectacular. Etna's snow-capped slopes enhanced the beauty of these latest fireworks; the snow also made the eruption smokier than some.

Europe’s tallest and most active volcano, Etna got its explosive start about half a million years ago as a series of submarine eruptions off the ancient coastline of Sicily. The restless mountain rose to its current grandeur via the accumulation of layer upon layer of erupted debris.

A similar process is just getting underway off the coast of El Hierro in Spain's Canary Islands, where ongoing eruptions are just beginning to break the ocean surface:

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This past week’s report from the Smithsonian/USGS Global Volcanism Program listed nine ongoing eruptions from last year, including El Hierro and Kilauea, on the Big Island of Hawaii.

Note that Germany's Laacher See was NOT on the official list of new activity, despite a recent Daily Mail story suggesting otherwise.
TOP 5 NEW ERUPTIONS OF 2012
  1. Etna (Italy): Plumes of black ash and lava began erupting in the early morning hours of January 5.
  2. Lewotolo (Indonesia):  Earthquakes intensified on January 2, following a month of white plumes rising 50 to 250 meters above the mountain’s summit; local officials raised the alert level from 1 to 3 in response to this change in activity.
  3. Tungurahua (Ecuador): A plume of gas and steam plume rose 200 meters above the crater on January 3. Explosions the previous week blanketed nearby villages with ash 2 to 4 millimeters deep.
  4. Galeras (Colombia): A webcam showed gas emissions, with steam rising from three separate craters.
  5. Callaqui (Chile): A pilot reported an ash plume above the volcano on January 2, but scientists could not confirm the presence of ash in satellite imagery under clear skies.

Healthier Planet with Zero Population Growth?



  • The world's population is expected to reach equilibrium by mid-century.
  • The stable growth rate will not mean a cure-all for the planet's health.
  • Generally, the more affluent a society, the more it consumes. 
By the middle of this century, the human population may reach an equilibrium, called the replacement level, where births equal deaths, according to UN projections.

But considering that two countries already at or below replacement levels, the United States and China, are also major polluters, will a stable population number really be better for the Earth?
"Population stabilization is not a cure all, but without it, it will be hard to solve much of anything else," John Seager of Population Connection, an organization dedicated to encouraging reduced global population growth.
Dealing with population increases while improving the living standard of the world's poor, yet avoiding environmental degradation, is like juggling chainsaws, said Seager. It's possible, but very difficult.


The "Impact Population Affluence Technology" equation provides a model of the juggling act, said Seager. It goes like this: Impact = Population x Affluence x Technology.
"Generally, the more affluent a society is the more it consumes... Technology can work both ways. If you buy a brand new giant SUV, your impact goes up. If you buy a hybrid your impact goes down," said Seager.
As the population part of the equation goes down it can allow increases in the other two without increasing the net impact on the planet.

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"If the developing world reduces population, it provides more time for heavy resource use," Hania Zlotnik, Director of the United Nations' (UN) Department of Economic and Social Affairs Population Division.
"The dilemma about the billion people in Africa, is that they must increase production and consumption [to increase their standard of living]. They must consume more, and that means more strain on environment. [But] They deserve it because they haven't had the chance," said Zlotnik.
In nearly every country, the fertility rate, or average number of children per woman, is already dropping, said Zlotnik, and the UN's projections for continued reductions are fairly reliable since they are based on the central trend of computer models of 100,000 different possibilities.
"It's not like stock market, where anything can happen. The patterns are fairly stable over time," she explained.

But there are no guarantees.
"We are at a very important point, because relaxing on activities to reduce population growth will just bring greater challenges," Zlotnik said.
The practicalities of reducing population growth involve fulfilling the unmet family planning needs of millions of women. Over 35 percent of women in some nations, such as Ghana and Haiti, would like to use family planning but lack the resources, according to UN figures.
Access to voluntary, affordable and understood methods of birth control can bring about transformation in less than a generation, said Seager.
He mentioned the United States, Mexico and Iran as three examples of very different cultures that all reduced fertility rates through purely voluntary methods.
"As families become smaller, education improves. That leads to the human capital necessary to meet environmental challenges," said Seager.

Bee Collapse Because of the Pesticides?


More clues have been found in the case of the disappearing honey bees.
Powdery waste blown off from seed planters was found to contain up to 700,000 times the bee's lethal dosage of neonicotinoid insecticides in a Purdue University study. The study also found the insecticides clothianidin and thiamethoxam in dead bees laying in and around hives in Indiana.

"We know that these insecticides are highly toxic to bees; we found them in each sample of dead and dying bees," said Christian Krupke, associate professor of entomology at Purdue and a co-author of the study published in PloS One, in a press release.

The waste dust is mostly harmless talc, which is used to help coat corn, soy and cotton seeds with insecticides. Without the talc, the polymers used to bind the chemicals to the seeds clog up the seed coating machine and in the planters.

But the excess talc brings some of the pesticide with it when it gets blown off into the air when mechanical planters put the seed in the ground. The talc, along with the pesticides, then settles on nearby vegetation.
"Given the rates of corn planting and talc usage, we are blowing large amounts of contaminated talc into the environment. The dust is quite light and appears to be quite mobile," Krupke said.


"Whatever was on the seed was being exhausted into the environment," Krupke said. "This material is so concentrated that even small amounts landing on flowering plants around a field can kill foragers or be transported to the hive in contaminated pollen. This might be why we found these insecticides in pollen that the bees had collected and brought back to their hives."

The research also consistently found the pesticides at low levels in soil, even up to two years after treated seed was planted. Corn pollen also showed traces of the chemicals.

Greg Hunt, a study co-author, noted that the contaminated talc isn't the only threat to the bees. Parasites, pesticides, and other factors are pummeling the pollinators.
"It's like death by a thousand cuts for these bees," Hunt said.

A Low-Cost Mission to Europa


  • The 7-day mission would send two landers to Europa.
  • Spacecraft would be designed to compete their studies in a week, though they may be able to work longer.
  • Europa has a liquid ocean beneath its icy shell and is a prime candidate for life beyond Earth. 
In the search for life beyond Earth, few places beckon as strongly as Europa, an ocean-bearing, ice-covered moon circling Jupiter.
But how to pull off the mission, given today's tight science budgets and competing missions, such as a sample return from Mars?

A team of scientists may have the answer: Send a pair of landers directly to Europa and design the mission to last just seven days.
"When you're trying to design a mission to deal with the radiation environment (around Jupiter) one way to get around it is to have a lot of shielding and the other way is to not live very long," said Kevin Hand, an astrobiologist and planetary scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.


Radiation shielding adds to a spacecraft's size and cost. The National Research Council's recently released study to prioritize planetary science for the next decade estimated a mission to Europa at $4.7 billion.
An alternative mission, unveiled at the American Geophysical Union (AGU) conference in San Francisco this month, would cut mission costs down to less than $1 billion.

It features a pair of landers that would launch in 2020 and fly directly to Europa to assess the moon's suitability for life. They would be designed to complete their missions within seven days -- enough time to measure the ocean, look for organics and photograph the surface features.


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Europa is believed to have a global liquid ocean beneath its icy shell. New research shows Europa's ice and water might regularly mix, raising the prospect that traces of any ocean life could be found on the moon's surface.

"The best think you could probably do from the surface in a short time is to really nail down the composition of the non-ice material, particularly the organics," planetary scientist Paul Schenk, with the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, told Discovery News.

"Selecting the right landing site is critical because you want material that's been recently exposed or been brought up from as far down as possible," Schenk said.
"I think you can go just about anywhere on the surface of Europa and do revolutionary science." Hand told.

"Europa really does give us the opportunity to look for living life in the ocean that is there today and has been for much of the history of the solar system," he said.
The "Low-Radiation Europa Lander Mission Concept" is under review at NASA Headquarters.

Engineering in Antarctica



January 15, 2012-- Engineers with British Antarctic Survey have now made it possible to go where no human has gone before: three kilometers down through solid ice, to a buried lake that promises to reveal vital clues to past climate change -- and could harbor life-forms never known before.

Enduring whipping winds and temperatures of minus 35 degrees Celsius (not counting the wind chill), the engineers used powerful tractor-trains to transport nearly 70 metric tons of drilling equipment across Antarctica's ice, over deep snow and steep mountain passes, to one of the most remote and hostile locations on the planet.

The target of this grueling journey: a spot on the ice high above Lake Ellsworth, a mysterious and untouched pocket of liquid water deep inside the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.

Now that the equipment is in place, a research team will return in November to drill a three-kilometer borehole into Lake Ellsworth to collect water and sediment. If they succeed, Ellsworth will become the first of Antarctica's 387 known subglacial lakes to be measured and sampled directly..



A cargo plane carried the tractors and drilling equipment for the Lake Ellsworth mission as far as Union Glacier, a site in the Ellsworth Mountains that serves as the major hub for all scientific operations to Antarctica's remote interior.


To get the equipment from Union Glacier to the Lake Ellsworth drilling site, the engineers hitched powerful tractors to sledges and skis to haul the heavy blue containers containing the drilling equipment.

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Soft, deep snow and concrete-hard sastrugi snow forms slowed progress, but the tractor-train reached the Lake Ellsworth drilling site in three days.


Upon arrival, an engineer fits GPS locators at the corners of the equipment storage.

Windblown snow will partially bury the equipment over the coming Antarctic winter, making it otherwise difficult to find when the science team returns in November to start drilling. (Antarctic summers are too short to transport the equipment and accomplish the drilling in a single season.)

In the coming months, this precious cargo will endure wind chills reaching minus 70 degrees C and wind gusts up to 160 kilometers per hour.
Spectacular explosions of snow, like this one detonated at the Lake Ellsworth drilling site during a previous visit, helped scientists decipher the shape of the buried lake. Researchers set off the explosions and then use seismic equipment to record the sound waves reflecting off rock, ice, water and other materials within the ice.


Seismic studies have revealed that Lake Ellsworth is a long, narrow U-shaped lake approximately 12 kilometers by 3 kilometers. It is 150 meters deep at its deepest point and covers an area of 29 square kilometers.

Ellsworth and other subglacial lakes in Antarctica can persist in a liquid state because the overlying ice provides insulation for the heat rising up through the bedrock from the earth’s core, melting ice near the base of the ice sheet.

This melted water flows into hollows and valleys beneath the ice just as it does on the land surface to form lakes. The largest and most well known subglacial lake is Lake Vostok on East Antarctica, which Russian scientists have been trying to access, so far unsuccessfully.


Small planes can land safely at the Lake Ellsworth drilling site during the summer months. Getting people and basic supplies to the site in November will not take the extreme effort of delivering the drilling equipment. But that doesn't mean the work will be easy. The team will live in tents and work on location for about six weeks.


Researchers will use a stream of high-pressure hot water blasted from the end of this high-tech yellow hose to drill through the frozen ice sheet lying above the Lake Ellsworth. The hose is a continuous 3.4 kilometers (long enough to extend from the surface down into the buried lake) and strong enough to support its own weight and that of the drill nozzle.

Other equipment delivered by tractor-train included: (1) an industrial-sized boiler to heat 30,000 liters of hot water to 90 degrees C for the drill (2) 3 large surface tanks (each with a 5-meter diameter) to store water above freezing point in temperatures as low as minus 20 degrees C and (3) several large-scale generators to provide electrical power to the drill.

Through a borehole carved using hot-water drill, the team will lower a titanium probe to measure and sample the water, followed by a corer to extract sediment from the lake. They will have just 60 hours to collect water and sediment samples before the borehole re-freezes.

The hot water drill will use and recycle the existing ice on site for the drilling fluid, minimizing the potential for contamination of the lake. All equipment was designed and manufactured to meet space-industry standards for "clean" technology.


Soon the sun will set for the last time over the Lake Ellsworth drilling site, bringing several long weeks of darkness. The engineers and scientists will return with the light, ready to make history.

The waters of Lake Ellsworth have been cut of from all light for as long as half a million years. Also under high pressure all that time, the hidden lake may have evolved unusual forms of microbial life.

If such microbes turn out to exist, they could help explain how life managed to survive during global deep freezes of the Earth's distant past -- during the so-called Snowball Earth episodes, when most if not all of the planet was enshrouded in ice. And they might up the odds that life could have evolved in other extreme environments, such as the liquid water known to exist beneath the icy surface of Jupiter's moon Europa.

Now we just have to wait and see.


In a Radically Green Earthship



Earthships, like a lot of things that came out of the '70s, marked a radical departure from the norm. The brainchild of New Mexico architect Mike Reynolds, these houses look like the dwellings of uber-environmental aliens who crash landed in the desert and decided to make a go of it. Today, many of these residences are now offered as vacation rentals.

"It's extremely efficient, smart design for a building," Boulder-based journalist Rachel Cernansky, who stayed in an Earthship while visiting Taos, N.M., told Discovery News.

The Earth-conscious, autonomous, passive solar buildings are made from recycled materials. Reynolds designed his original structures using old tires, glass bottles, and cans rammed with earth that are plastered with stucco.


Horseshoe-shaped Earthships maximize solar gain in the winter while thick interior walls keep the inside temperature stable. Natural ventilation from skylights, windows, and underground tubes help as well. Earthships have solar panels and wind turbines that allow them to function off-grid.

Earthship Biotecture Reynolds' firm, rents out five different Earthship houses in Taos, N.M., for fees that range from $120 to $295 per night. Vacationers can rent a wing of the house or the whole home. Each home can sleep between one and four or six people. They all have private baths and full kitchens to boot.

Despite the scorching summer heat, the interior temperature naturally stayed at 67 degrees, she said. "You can naturally keep the building in the middle of the desert cool, in the sun, with no air conditioning."

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She also described the house's extensive graywater system as conserving and fully using every drop of rainwater harvested from the roof. The Earthship she stayed in had a banana tree thriving in the south-facing greenhouse. Water is filtered and recylced so it can be used in progression. 

Water from the sink is filtered so it can run through the shower, then it's processed again for the toilet, and the final filtration sends greywater to the plants. Sewage treatment is contained, leaving groundwater untouched.

Cernansky said she and her husband are keen to return. "We keep talking about when we'll go back to Taos," she said. "We were actually thinking about building one ourselves."

Senin, 16 Januari 2012

The Largest-Ever Quantum Calculation Uses 84 Qubits and Takes Just 270 Milliseconds



Vancouver-based quantum computer maker D-Wave Systems is the kind of company that often gets mixed reviews--either kudos for working on the very edge of a new and potentially groundbreaking technology, or dismissal for not exactly delivering the kind of Earth-shattering technology that people were perhaps expecting. Regardless, today D-Wave is marking one in the win column after announcing that it has achieved the world’s largest quantum computation using 84 qubits.

A quick quantum computing primer: qubits, or quantum bits, are the basic units of quantum information, comparable to (but quite different from) a classical bit. The main benefit of qubits is that they can exploit the laws of quantum mechanics to exist in two states simultaneously. In comparison to classical computing, that means a single superconducting qubit can exist as both a “one” and a “zero” at the same time, whereas a classical bit can only be one or the other.



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This vastly improves speed and computing power. It also has proven pretty difficult to execute. A decade ago quantum computers were using a handful of qubits to factorize numbers and do other grade-school level computations. And in recent years, they haven’t come much further forward, even as D-Wave released a $10 million 128-qubit quantum computer for sale.

To prove that quantum computing really is pushing forward, Zhengbing Bian at D-Wave used one of the company’s machines to tackle a very difficult calculation known as a “two-color Ramsey number.” This is somewhat explained by the “theorum on friends and strangers,” which you can feel free to read up on but will not be explained in detail here for reasons including, but not limited to, the fact that I can’t begin to adequately/coherently explain it. But the math isn’t the point here. The point is that the math is mind-numbingly difficult, and the quantum computer solved it in just 270 milliseconds.

The system required just 28 qubits to actually solve the Ramsey problem, using the other 56 for error correction. And, because this was a Ramsey problem that has already been solved by conventional means, Bian and company know that their D-Wave computer came up with the correct solution (it was 8).

Whether or not this glowing achievement is going to boost confidence in D-Wave’s technology and approach is yet to be seen, but the company already has some support in industry. A certain Mountain View-based Internet search company has taken an active interest in D-Wave’s computing technology, and last year Lockheed Martin bought one of D-Wave’s quantum computers for itself.

It Seems that Every Star Has at Least One Planet



Each star in the Milky Way shines its light upon at least one companion planet, according to a new analysis that suddenly renders exoplanets commonplace, the rule rather than the exception. This means there are billions of worlds just in our corner of the cosmos. This is a major shift from just a few years ago, when many scientists thought planets were tricky to make, and therefore special things. Now we know they’re more common than stars themselves.

“Planets are like bunnies; you don’t just get one, you get a bunch,” said Seth Shostak, a senior astronomer at the SETI Institute who was not involved in this research. “So really, the number of planets in the Milky Way is probably like five or 10 times the number of stars. That’s something like a trillion planets.”

Of course there’s no way to know, at least not yet, how many of these worlds could be hospitable to forms of life as we know it. But the odds alone are tantalizing, Shostak said.


Gravitational Lensing This image of galaxy cluster MACS J1206.2-0847 shows the gravitational lensing effect of dark matter on distant galaxies. In a new exoplanet population paper, astronomers used microlensing to sense the presence of planets around other stars. The lensing was not as extreme as this, but works somewhat like a magnifying glass, brightening the light of a star lined up behind the planetary system. Space Telescope Science Institute
“It’s not unreasonable at this point to say there are literally billions of habitable worlds in our galaxy, probably as a lower limit,” he said. “Maybe they’re all sterile as an autoclave, but it doesn’t seem very likely, does it? That would make us very odd.”
Other astronomers maintain that we are odd indeed, and that increasing the known planet population does not increase the odds of finding intelligent life on any of them.
“The numbers are huge by any human standard, but we are still looking at only a tiny bit of our galaxy,” said John Gribbin, an astronomer and science writer who just published a book called “Alone in the Universe.” “[This research] does further our understanding of how things like planets form and how stars form, but there is a long way to go before we can say there is life on any of these planets, and further to go before we get to civilization.”

The new planetary plenitude is derived from a six-year survey of millions of stars studied with an international network of southern hemisphere telescopes. Astronomers used a delicate detection method called gravitational microlensing, which is one of three trusty ways to find extrasolar planets. Kepler uses the transit method, detecting blips in star brightness as planets cross in front of them.

Other observatories use the radial velocity method, measuring the wobble caused by the gravitational tug of a planet on its star. Both of these are helpful for finding planets that are either huge or hug tightly to their stars. But the gravitational microlensing method can be used to find planets over a wider mass range and a wider orbital distance.

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La Silla Observatory: The Milky Way seen above the dome of the Danish 1.54-metre telescope at ESO's La Silla Observatory in Chile, used to search for exoplanets using the microlensing technique. The central part of the Milky Way is visible behind the dome of the ESO 3.6-metre telescope; on the right, the Magellanic Clouds.  ESO/Z. Bardon
 
It works by using the host star and its putative planets as a lens. The gravitational field of the host solar system magnifies the light of a star in the background. If the host star does have a planet, the planet essentially widens the lens, and this is an effect that can be measured. 
 
Such an alignment is incredibly rare, so an international team of researchers examined 100 million stars every night and noted ones with promising light curve amplifications, examining them in higher resolution. From 2002 to 2007, the team observed 500 such stars. In 10 cases, they could directly see the lensing effect of a planet.
 
A statistical analysis showed one in six of the stars studied hosts a planet of similar mass to Jupiter, half have Neptune-mass planets and two thirds have super-Earths. Combining the results suggests that the average number of planets around a star is greater than one, the astronomers say in a new Nature paper.
 
“Together, the three methods are, for the first time, able to say something about how common our own solar system is, as well as how many stars appear to have Earth-size planets in the orbital area where liquid what could in principle exist as lakes, rivers and oceans — that is to say, where life as we know it from Earth could exist,” said Uffe Gråe Jørgensen, head of the Astrophysics and Planetary Science group at the Niels Bohr Institute at the University of Copenhagen and an author of the paper.

With so many planets, it could be easy to assume the odds have just gotten much better for alien life hunters, but it’s not necessarily the case because scientists still don’t know what’s necessary for life to form, said Paul Davies, a cosmologist and astrobiologist at Arizona State University.

“How much real estate is out there doesn’t matter,” he said. “My guess is there would be some hundreds of millions of Earth-like planets in the Milky Way, but that is no good to you if the probability of life forming on one of them is one in a trillion.”

The lack of knowledge hasn’t stopped scientists from making educated guesses, however — take the Drake equation, devised by astronomer Frank Drake in 1961, which seeks to estimate the number of intelligent civilizations based on an equation of assumptions.


“All of the work that has been done since 1961 when this equation was concocted has gone in the same direction, namely, that our situation here is not so weird, not so strange, not so bizarre, not so special,” Shostak said. “We’re not unique, at least astronomically.”
We’re just one in millions.


A Plethora of Planets: This artist’s impression shows how common planets are around the stars in the Milky Way. The planets, their orbits and their host stars are all vastly magnified compared to their real separations. A six-year search that surveyed millions of stars using a technique called microlensing concluded that every star has at least one planet orbiting around it.  ESO/M. Kornmesser

"Nano-Ear" Can Listen to the Songs of Bacteria



German researchers have turned an optical tweezer device into the world’s first “nano-ear” capable of detecting sounds six orders of magnitude below the threshold of human hearing. Using an optically trapped gold nanoparticle as their listening device, the team says they can now detect sounds made at the bacterial level or use their device to tune (or perhaps to test?) the minuscule MEMS machines of the future.

The nano-ear is pretty simple, considering that it relies on technology that has been laying around in the lab for decades now. Optical tweezers are laser devices that use light to trap or manipulate a small particle in a particular point in space by drawing the particle to the most intense point in the laser beam’s electric field. By trapping a gold nanoparticle in just such a optical trap and measuring the influence of various sound waves on that particle, the found that they can “listen” to very small vibrations.





That means sound analysis at extremely low levels. The gold nanoparticle itself is just 60 nanometers (that’s 60 billionths of a meter, or roughly a thousand times smaller than a human hair), which makes it pretty sensitive to very small forces. The researchers used both a “loud” source--a tungsten needle glued to a speaker that vibrates at roughly 300 Hz--and a second source made up of bunches of other gold nanoparticles heated by a second laser to vibrate at just 20 Hz. 


The nano-ear could hear them both loud and clear. The sound waves nudge the trapped gold nanoparticle in the same direction that the waves are propagating, allowing for precise measurement of the sound itself based on the particle’s motion. Experiments showed the nano-ear could detect vibrations down to about -60 decibels--or six orders of magnitude lower than human hears can. That means the device could be used to identify microorganisms or processes at the microscopic level by their sound signatures, or to help design and tune microelectrical mechanical systems.

2012, the Interstellar Dating Service


2012 has only just begun, and already we have a contender for the stupidest press release of the year. A dating site has declared that it's planning on launching the "world's first intergalactic dating app".
Before we get into the meat of the release, I'm a bit hesitant as to whether I should mention the name of the company or not.

On the one hand, I know that this is a publicity attempt, and I don't want to give them the satisfaction. On the other hand, it seems only right to name and shame. As a compromise, I'll let you decide. This link goes to their site, and this is the PR agency that sent us the release. It's up to you as to whether you want to hover over, or even click, those links.

It begins with a pun. I have no complaints about that.
"Singletons should be over the moon. A British company yesterday announced plans to launch the world's first intergalactic dating app."
The world's first what?
"The smart phone application will be accessible to 'alien life forms' on planets up to one light year (six trillion miles) from Earth."

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Leaving aside the question of why alien life forms is in quotation marks, I'm trying to work out how the company has managed to limit the app's use to planets within a light year's radius of Earth. Has a ring of signal jammers been installed at that distance? Is this some form of intergalactic DRM?
"Extra-terrestrials will be able to download the app, for free, and make contact with humans by a form of 'space-age' email or futuristic type of text message."









The Space Age is widely considered to have begun with the launch of Sputnik in 1957. Given that arguably the first email system was MIT's CTSS MAIL, developed in 1965, it's hard to argue that email isn't "space-age" already. In which case, why bother mentioning it in the first place? What a "futuristic type" of text message is, is anyone's guess. Maybe it's in neon.


"A two-way GPS satellite -- armed with "Nasa-inspired" technology -- will transfer the communications between Earth and the far-flung corners of our galaxy, the Milky Way, almost instantly via radio waves."


This is my favourite paragraph of all -- there are so many moments of utter WTF. Let's pick through every single one. They've mysteriously picked out a GPS satellite, which is likely to be rather too busy with the GPS system to be sending love notes to aliens. I also love that the technology is "inspired" by Nasa. Just like the rockets I built from Lego when I was eight.

Then there's the "far flung corners of the galaxy" bit -- which clashes with the aforementioned galactic DRM clause. The Milky Way is about 100,000 light years across, and we're not in the centre, making the farthest flung corner around 75,000 light years away, give or take a few thousand light years. Again, though, there's nothing stopping the radio waves travelling any further, so it's not clear why they pick out the far-flung corners of the Milky Way as a limit here.


Finally, there's the claim that radio waves mean "almost instant" transmission. While it's true that the speed of light is pretty damn quick, it doesn't really seem fair to say it's nearly instant over distances like 75,000 light years. After all, it would take a radio wave 75,000 years to travel that distance. 75,000 years ago, humanity was only just starting to make its way out of Africa and into Asia. By the time your messages get to that cute alien on the Scutum Centaurus arm, humanity could well be extinct.


"Sending messages, and even romantic declarations, into space is nothing new. Professional alien hunters have been sending text messages into space in the hope of receiving a reply from extra-terrestrials for years."


Every message that you have ever sent over a wireless electromagnetic medium (mobile phone, SMS, email, or plain ol' radio or television) has gone into space. Most of them won't have made it much further than a few tens of light years away, because wireless communications haven't been with the mass market for that long, but that still reaches more than 50 other solar systems.


"But according to dating website [redacted], its new app will open up the possibility of communicating with alien life forms to 'normal, broadminded people' - rather than just the scientific community."

I particularly love the implication here that the scientific community aren't "normal, broadminded people". 

"In a statement the American firm, which has offices in London, admits the as yet un-named app is still in its 'conceptual infancy' and that it could take up to five years before it becomes available."


Leaving aside the question of why someone couldn't come up with a name for this thing, the big story here is that within five years, a dating site is not only going to make first contact with an alien species, but also work out how to flirt with them.

"It fails, however, to mention the two obvious pitfalls - that aliens will need a smart phone or computer to download the app, and that the journey to meet the little green man of our dreams could take up to 100 years."


The question of how fast we can go in space isn't an easy one, because there's not much air resistance in space, so you have to look at acceleration instead. The fastest outward-bound spacecraft yet sent, Voyager 1, has covered 1/600th of a light-year in 30 years and is currently moving at 1/18,000th the speed of light. At this rate, a journey to Proxima Centauri -- the nearest other solar system to us -- would take 72,000 years.

From that, you might be thinking that you won't meet your little green man unless he lives in our solar system. But you're forgetting about time dilation. The closer you get to the speed of light, the slower time appears to pass to you, so you won't age as quickly. If we can build a powerful-enough ship, and it doesn't crash into anything, then it's possible to get to anywhere in the galaxy within a human lifespan. You won't be able to come back for him to meet your parents, though -- if you returned to Earth, you'd find that thousands of years had elapsed.


"A spokesman said: 'The intergalactic dating application will be a first in many ways. It will give normal, broadminded people the opportunity to communicate with other life forms, and could open the doors to true universal dating.'




"In 2008, the social networking site Bebo arranged to have more than 500 images and text messages transmitted into deep space. The signal was aimed at a planet known as Gliese 581C, which was selected because scientists believe it is capable of supporting life. The messages sent included one from Radio One DJ Scott Mills."


The idea that an alien's first human contact might be with Scott Mills is a terrifying one.


"A spokesman for [redacted] said the new app would, 'theoretically', be available to life forms on planets even further away from Earth. Possible locations include Jupiter's moon Europa - which, according to a study, could support complex life - and Enceladus, one of Saturn's moons."

While it's true that the app would technically be available to aliens on planets throughout the Universe (that aforementioned DRM notwithstanding), it's depressing that this dating site reckons that Jupiter and Saturn's moons are further away from Earth than Gliese 581C.


There's also the conflation of "complex life" with "a creature you'd actually want to sleep with". While it's possible that the former lies under the ice of Europa or Enceladus, the prospect of the latter being down there is minute. At best, it would be a soggy experience.


"It is unclear who will fund the app -- a satellite alone costs tens of millions of pounds -- or whether the 'dream' will become a reality. But the spokesman confirmed it has hired a team of experts to begin the 'research and exploratory phase of the mission'."


Leaving aside the ethics of press releasing a "dream", I would like to know the name, qualifications and work history of every single member of the team of experts that have been hired to do this. And why the company didn't talk to any of them before writing this press release. And how they've managed to dispense of their sense of shame.


"He added: 'There are tens of thousands of single people who have scoured the Earth looking for love but have been unsuccessful in their quest. This is their chance to boldly go where no one has gone before -- to literally look to the stars for love.'"


All joking aside, I totally get why this dating site has written this catastrophe of a press release. It's supposed to be tongue-in-cheek, and no product will ever be released. It's just a vehicle for -- they hope -- a few bits of press coverage.

I don't mind silly press releases, but spouting nonsense as fact just isn't on. Most of this stuff is covered in GCSE Physics, and it's definitely all available with a quick Google search. Either way, it sets the awful-press-release bar extremely high for the rest of the year. Here's hoping something arrives later in the year that can beat it.