Author Archives: Jordan Strickler

About Jordan Strickler

A space nerd and self-described grammar freak (all his Twitter posts are complete sentences), he loves learning about the unknown and figures that if he isn’t smart enough to send satellites to space, he can at least write about it. Twitter: @JordanS1981

Sun’s coronal loops could be optical illusions

An active region of the sun just rotating into the view of NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory gives a profile view of coronal loops over about a two-day period, from Feb. 8-10, 2014. (Image credit: NASA/Solar Dynamics Observatory)

Everyone knows the picture of the sun. A bright orange ball with jets of fire spewing out thousands of miles into space with temps soaring above a million degrees. However, a new study from the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) brings into question coronal loops existence at all.

The report, published in The Astrophysical Journal, found that these may actually be optical illusions. While the researchers were able to pinpoint some of the coronal loops they were looking for, they also discovered that in many cases what appear to be loops in images taken of the Sun may in fact be wrinkles of bright plasma in the solar atmosphere. As sheets of bright plasma fold over themselves, the wrinkles look like bright thin lines, mimicking the look of distinct and self-contained strands of plasma.  

“I have spent my entire career studying coronal loops,” said NCAR scientist Anna Malanushenko, who led the study. “I was excited that this simulation would give me the opportunity to study them in more detail. I never expected this. When I saw the results, my mind exploded. This is an entirely new paradigm of understanding the Sun’s atmosphere.”

Coronal loops are found around sunspots and across active regions of the Sun. These structures are associated with the closed magnetic field lines that connect attractive regions on the solar surface. Many coronal loops last for days or weeks, but most shift quite rapidly. The assumption that they exist is a normal one for scientists because it suits the most basic understanding of magnetism.

The findings, which have been coined the “coronal veil” hypothesis, could have substantial implications for solar research. These coronal loops have been used for decades as a way to garner info about density, temperature, and other physical characteristics of the solar atmosphere.

“This study reminds us as scientists that we must always question our assumptions and that sometimes our intuition can work against us,” Malanushenko said.

The research relied on a realistic 3D simulation of the solar corona produced by MURaM, a radiative magnetohydrodynamic model that was extended to replicate the solar corona in an effort led by NCAR several years ago. The model allowed the researchers to slice the corona in distinct sections in an effort to isolate individual coronal loops.

Since there is a significant magnetic field in the Sun, the existence of magnetic field lines that could trap a rope of plasma between them and create loops seems like an obvious explanation. And in fact, the new study confirms that such loops still likely exist.

However, the loops seen on the Sun have never really behaved exactly as they should, based on the knowledge of magnets. As an example, scientists would assume the solar magnetic field lines to expand as they move higher in the corona. Therefore, the plasma trapped between the field lines should also spread out between the boundaries, creating thicker, dimmer loops. But images of the Sun do not show this. Instead, they show the opposite. The loops further out still appear thin and bright.

The possibility that these loops are instead wrinkles in a coronal veil help explain this and other inconsistencies with scientists’ expectations of coronal loops. It also brings into question new mysteries such as what determines the shape and thickness of the folds and how many of the apparent loops in images of the Sun are actually real strands, and how many are optical illusions.

For the first time, the research group was also able to capture the entire life span of a solar flare, from the build-up of energy below the solar surface to the emergence of the flare at the surface, and finally to the fiery release of energy.

Malanushenko said that understanding the number of coronal loops which are actually optical illusions will require continued observations that probe the corona and new data analysis techniques.

“We know that designing such techniques would be extremely challenging, but this study demonstrates that the way we currently interpret the observations of the Sun may not be adequate for us to truly understand the physics of our star.”

Spooky “transient” object detected in our galactic neighborhood

Astronomers from the Curtin University node of the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) in Australia have found something unlike anything previously seen. Researchers suspect it could be a completely new type of star.

Artists depiction of what the unknown object might look like. (Credit: ICRAR)

A team mapping radio waves in the cosmos has discovered something unusual that releases a giant burst of energy every 18 minutes. They believe it could be a neutron star or white dwarf with an insanely strong magnetic field — something that hasn’t been observed until now (and researchers weren’t even sure can exist).

“This object was appearing and disappearing over a few hours during our observations,” said Natasha Hurley-Walker, who led the team that made the discovery. “That was completely unexpected. It was kind of spooky for an astronomer because there’s nothing known in the sky that does that.”

The object in question lies only 4,000 light-years away — technically far away, but still in our galactic neighborhood. It was discovered using the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) telescope in outback Western Australia. The MWA’s wild field of view made it perfect for detecting the unorthodox object. But even equipped with this tool, it was challenging to find it.

These strange patterns of behavior which can’t be physically observed are called ‘transients’. But no transient like this one has been discovered so far.

‘Slow transients’, such as supernovae, can appear over the course of a few days and disappear after a few months. The other side of the spectrum are ‘fast transients’, such as a pulsar. These flash on and off within milliseconds or seconds.

However, discovering something that illuminated for only a minute didn’t seem to fit with either of those. The new mysterious object was incredibly bright and smaller than the Sun, emitting highly-polarized radio waves, suggesting the entity had an extremely strong magnetic field.

Hurley-Walker said the observations match a predicted astrophysical object called an ‘ultra-long period magnetar’ — a magnetar being an exotic type of neutron star with an extremely powerful magnetic field. So far, it’s only been something thought to exist, but never actually observed.

“It’s a type of slowly spinning neutron star that has been predicted to exist theoretically,” she said. “But nobody expected to directly detect one like this because we didn’t expect them to be so bright. Somehow it’s converting magnetic energy to radio waves much more effectively than anything we’ve seen before. More detections will tell astronomers whether this was a rare one-off event or a vast new population we’d never noticed before.”

The study was published in Nature.

New AI improves orbit entry for Mars satellites

Bringing a craft to the right Mars orbit takes time, energy and money. Credit: Pixabay.

Putting a satellite into Mars orbit has never been easy. For the information and data they need to gather, probes must obtain a specific low-altitude orbit. To achieve this orbit, satellites utilize a technique called Aerobraking which brushes the craft against the top of a planetary atmosphere. To attain the maximum drag, the orbiter lowers the craft’s altitude with a little help from its solar panels. However, this procedure takes fuel and lots of time to complete, generally up to six months.

Now though, engineers at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign are improving upon the process to save both time, energy and money.

“The trip out to Mars takes somewhere between six to nine months,” said Zach Putnam, an aerospace engineering professor at the university. “We can’t really change that, but we think we can shorten the time it takes to aerobrake to a low-altitude orbit. And the propellant onboard we save can be used to do other things like keep the spacecraft alive longer.”

Engineers have created a real-time algorithm that rotates a satellite’s solar panels which can control how much drag is generated on the spacecraft. The algorithm includes control modes to limit heat rate or heat load — or both — while attempting to take advantage of energy reduction. The process can then be used to steer the craft during atmospheric passes in order to control heating and energy depletion. This process allows the satellite to fly much closer to operational constraints and aerobrake much faster.

“Being able to steer the satellite during each atmospheric pass enables us to ensure we don’t over temperature the solar panels while flying much closer to the thermal limit,” Putnam said. “This is a big improvement. Instead of aerobraking for three to six months, it might only take a couple of weeks.”

Aerobraking consists of three phases: Walk-In, Main Phase and Walk-Out.

During the Walk-In phase, engineers direct the spacecraft to lower the periapsis (the closest point to Mars in its orbit) one orbit at a time, moving the spacecraft from its Mars orbit insertion altitude to its aerobraking altitude. This phase is utilized as a calibration period to understand atmospheric densities and the way which the orbiter performs in and out of aerobraking. This generally lasts about a week or five orbits of the Red Planet.

The Main Phase is the longest and can last around five and a half months. Once the satellite reaches its operational altitude (where the desired atmospheric densities were found), the main stage of aerobraking commences. The orbiter is commanded to perform large-scale decreases in its orbit. If the altitude got too low, the craft would be in danger of overheating. If the altitude gets too high, aerobraking finishes too late. Therefore, small propulsive maneuvers are occasionally performed to keep the satellite within a specified “corridor” by raising or lowering its periapsis altitude.

The Walk-Out Phase is the shortest phase at about five days. Here the orbiter to increases its periapsis, causing the orbit to shrink more leisurely. When the apoapsis (the farthest away from Mars the spacecraft reached in its orbit) reduces to 280 miles (450 kilometers), the periapsis is raised out of the atmosphere and aerobraking is finished.

Putnam believes the new process will transform the way future Mars orbiters operate.

“This software would greatly reduce our reliance on ground stations,” he said. “If we can automate it onboard and only have to check in with the spacecraft once a week, that would really bring costs down. And, it could be done by many satellites at the same time.”

The study was published in the Journal of Guidance, Control and Dynamics.

Living in space destroys astronauts’ red blood cells

Astronaut Tim Peake’s first blood draw completed in space. (Credit: NASA)

Unsurprisingly, there are a lot of hazards when it comes to extended stays in space, both mental and physical. These include vestibular dysfunction, weight loss, upward fluid shift, anemia, cardiovascular deconditioning, muscle atrophy, bone loss, and even brain damage. Understanding such challenges are essential for future travel to Mars or staying on the moon. Now, a new study out of the University of Ottawa has discovered that space travel can also cause lower red blood cell counts.

The long-term study, published in Nature Medicine, of 14 astronauts over a six-month mission at the International Space Station showed their bodies destroyed 54% more red blood cells in microgravity than would normally occur on Earth. Previously, space anemia was just thought to be a quick adaptation to fluids shifting into an astronaut’s upper body when first arriving in space. It was also believed that astronauts rapidly destroyed 10% of their red blood cells to restore the balance, and that their red blood cell control returned to normal after 10 days in space. Now, those views are changing.

“Space anemia has consistently been reported when astronauts returned to Earth since the first space missions, but we didn’t know why,” said lead author Guy Trudel, a rehabilitation physician and researcher at The Ottawa Hospital and professor at the University of Ottawa. “Our study shows that upon arriving in space, more red blood cells are destroyed, and this continues for the entire duration of the astronaut’s mission.”

The destruction of red blood cells isn’t something just related to space though — it’s just that astronauts are losing much more red cells than they normally would on the ground. Here on Earth, human bodies create and destroy two million red blood cells every second. The researchers discovered that astronauts were killing off 54% more red blood cells during their extended stay. This resulted in the deaths of three million cells every second. These conclusions were the same for both female and males.

“Thankfully, having fewer red blood cells in space isn’t a problem when your body is weightless,” Trudel said. “But when landing on Earth and potentially on other planets or moons, anemia affecting your energy, endurance and strength can threaten mission objectives. The effects of anemia are only felt once you land, and must deal with gravity again.”

To determine their findings, the team measured the carbon monoxide breath samples of the astronauts. One molecule of carbon monoxide is produced every time one molecule of heme, the deep-red pigment in red blood cells, is destroyed.

No detrimental effects were recorded, though, and it is believed that the anemia is reversible. Three to four months after returning to Earth, counts were progressively returning, albeit slowly with destruction still 30% above preflight levels one year after coming home.

The fact that long-term stays in space kill off an inordinate amount of red blood cells does raise several red flags which need addressing. First, it supports screening astronauts or space tourists for existing blood or health conditions that are affected by anemia. Second, a recent study by Trudel’s team found that the longer the space mission, the worse the anemia, which could affect extended missions to the Moon and Mars. Third, heightened red blood cell production will require an adapted diet for astronauts. Finally, it is uncertain how long the body can sustain this elevated rate of destruction and production of red blood cells.

“This is the best description we have of red blood cell control in space and after return to Earth,” Trudel said. “These findings are spectacular, considering these measurements had never been made before and we had no idea if we were going to find anything. We were surprised and rewarded for our curiosity.”

Astronomers spy oblong-shaped planet

WASP-103b bucks the norm when it comes to planet shapes.
Artist impression of WASP-103b and its host star. (Image: ESU)

Most planets in this universe are spherical, and for good reason. Forces of gravity generally pull equally from all sides, from the center to the edges like the spokes of a bicycle wheel. This makes the overall shape of a planet a sphere. Some can be more spherical than others (Earth is flattened at the poles and bulges at the equator) depending on their distance from the sun and speed of rotation, but generally all are alike.

However, the European Space Agency’s exoplanet mission Characterizing Exoplanets Satellite (Cheops) has revealed a planet with a deformed shape more like that of a rugby ball than a sphere. This planet, coined WASP-103b and which has a density 1.5 times that of Jupiter, is located in the Hercules constellation approximately 1,225 light-years away from our oblate spheroid home.

“It’s incredible that Cheops was actually able to reveal this tiny deformation,” says Jacques Laskar of Paris Observatory, Université Paris Sciences et Lettres, and co-author of the research. “This is the first time such analysis has been made, and we can hope that observing over a longer time interval will strengthen this observation and lead to a better knowledge of the planet’s internal structure.”

The deformation is caused by gravitational tugs from WASP-103, its host star. The planet lies a mere 1.8 million miles away from WASP-103, which is both hotter and 1.5 times larger than our Sun (by comparison, Earth is around 93 million miles from the Sun). Astronomers have suspected that such close proximity would cause monumental tides, but up until now they haven’t been able to measure them.

Using new data from Cheops, which measures exoplanet transits — the dip in light caused when a planet passes in front of its star from our point of view — along with data already obtained by the Hubble Space Telescope and Spitzer Space Telescope, researchers were able to detect how tidal forces deform the exoplanet from a usual sphere into the rugby ball shape.

The team was able to utilize the transit light curve of WASP-103b to obtain a boundary—the Love number—that determines how mass is distributed within a planet. Understanding how mass is distributed can reveal details on the internal structure of the planet.

“The resistance of a material to being deformed depends on its composition,” explains Susana Barros of Instituto de Astrofísica e Ciências do Espaço and University of Porto, Portugal, and lead author of the research. “For example, here on Earth we have tides due to the Moon and the sun but we can only see tides in the oceans. The rocky part doesn’t move that much. By measuring how much the planet is deformed we can tell how much of it is rocky, gaseous or water.”

When they calculated the Love number for WASP-103b, the researchers discovered an exoplanet larger than our Solar System’s largest inhabitant, which suggested that the internal structure is similar, despite the exoplanet having almost twice the radius.

“In principle, we would expect a planet with 1.5 times the mass of the Jupiter to be roughly the same size, so WASP-103b must be very inflated due to heating from its star and maybe other mechanisms,” Susana said. “If we can confirm the details of its internal structure with future observations maybe we could better understand what makes it so inflated. Knowing the size of the core of this exoplanet will also be important to better understand how it formed.”

While it’s fairly certain that WASP-103b isn’t the only deformed planet out there, it is the most conclusive evidence to date. Researchers hope that further work, including from the James Webb Space Telescope, can provide more certainty on where those might lie within the vast universe.

The research was published in Astronomy & Astrophysics.

Supernovae could have helped create life on Earth

Illustration of the Milky Way seen from Earth where supernova accelerates cosmic rays to high energies. Credit: H. Svensmark/DTU Space.

Supernovae are the most powerful explosions in the universe. These massive events can occur during the last gasps of a massive star or when a white dwarf is prompted into runaway nuclear fusion. The star, in turn, either collapses upon itself to form a neutron star or black hole. Sometimes it might be just completely annihilated. The top luminosity of a supernova has been compared to that of an entire galaxy.

We now know that these extraordinary events could be partly responsible for life on Earth as we know it.

Evidence published in the scientific journal Geophysical Research Letters demonstrates a close correlation between the fraction of organic matter buried in sediments created by supernovae and changes in their occurrences. This connection indicates that supernovae have set essential conditions for life on Earth to exist. 

According to the study, when there are a high number of supernovae, the result can lead to the ingredients for a cold climate, as well as significant temperature differences between the equator and the planet’s polar regions. These differences create high wind speeds and ocean mixing, two very important factors for delivering nutrients to biological ecosystems. High nutrient concentrations lead to greater bioproductivity as well as a more broad burial of organic matter in sediments. 

“A fascinating consequence is that moving organic matter to sediments is indirectly the source of oxygen,” said senior researcher Henrik Svensmark of the Technical University of Denmark, lead author of the study. “Photosynthesis produces oxygen and sugar from light, water and CO2. However, if organic material is not moved into sediments, oxygen and organic matter become CO2 and water. The burial of organic material prevents this reverse reaction. Therefore, supernovae indirectly control oxygen production, and oxygen is the foundation of all complex life.”

Over the last 500 million years, supernovae frequency has measured nicely with the concentrations of nutrients on Earth. According to the study, estimating the fraction of organic material found in sediments is achievable by calculating carbon-13 relative to carbon-12. Since life prefers the lighter carbon-12 isotope, the amount of biomass in the world’s oceans changes the ratio between carbon-12 and carbon-13 measured in marine sediments.

While supernovae are now thought to have brought about life on this blue dot, what brings about these explosions capable of traveling at a speedy 9,000 to 25,000 miles (15,000 to 40,000 kilometers) per second? A supernova happens where there is a change in the core of a star. These changes can occur in two different fashions, with both resulting in a really, really big bang.

The first type of supernova occurs in binary star systems. Binary stars are two stars that orbit the same point. One of the stars, a carbon-oxygen white dwarf, steals matter from its companion star. Eventually, the white dwarf accumulates too much matter. Having too much matter causes the star to explode, resulting in a subsequent supernova. The second type of supernova occurs at the end of a single star’s life. As the star’s nuclear fuel gets closer to depletion, some of its mass flows into its core. Eventually, the star’s core is so heavy that it cannot withstand its own gravitational force, forcing it to collapse. This results in the giant explosion of a supernova.

Previous analyses by Svensmark and colleagues have demonstrated that ions help the formation and growth of aerosols, thereby influencing cloud fraction. Since clouds can regulate the solar energy that can reach the Earth’s surface, the cosmic-ray-cloud link is important for climate. Observational evidence shows that the planet’s climate changes when the magnitude of cosmic rays changes. Supernovae frequency can differ by several hundred percent on geological time scales, and the resulting climate changes are extremely noticeable.  

 “When heavy stars explode, they produce cosmic rays made of elementary particles with enormous energies,” Svensmark said. “Cosmic rays travel to our solar system, and some end their journey by colliding with Earth’s atmosphere. Here, they are responsible for ionizing the atmosphere.”

Venus’ clouds may be habitable to acid-neutralizing lifeforms

A volcano named Sapas Mons dominates this computer-generated view of the surface of Venus. (Image: NASA/JPL)

The expectations for life on Venus have gotten a little more possible in the past couple of years or so. In 2018, researchers put out a study that the atmosphere might just be favorable enough for microbial life. Later, in 2020, scientists found that phosphine, a gas associated with living organisms, could exist in the planet’s clouds. Now, a group of scientists is finding other ways that life could possibly exist in those clouds.

Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cardiff University and Cambridge University have detected a chemical pathway by which life could counteract the planet’s acidic world to create a self-sustaining, habitable pocket in the atmosphere.

The temperature on the surface of the second planet from the Sun generally hovers around 847 degrees Fahrenheit (453 degrees Celsius), enough to melt lead. It has 167 volcanos that are over 60 miles (100 km) across. Sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide levels are through the roof. The planet’s clouds blanket the planet in droplets of sulfuric acid caustic enough to burn a hole through human skin. Every lander sent to Venus has lasted minutes at most before melting or getting crushed by the harsh environment (and more probes are on their way). So, forgive one if they believe life as we know it might be hard to come by.

However, despite all of this, researchers have long been hopeful. This enthusiasm has especially been buoyed by puzzling anomalies with the planet’s atmosphere, like ammonia and small concentrations of oxygen and nonspherical particles, called Mode 3 particles, unlike sulfuric acid’s round droplets. By all accounts, ammonia, which was first detected in the 1970s, shouldn’t even be there since it isn’t thought to be produced through any chemical process known on Venus. So what gives?

The scientists attempted to find the answer by modeling a set of chemical processes to show that if ammonia is indeed present, the gas would set off a torrent of chemical reactions that would neutralize adjacent droplets of sulfuric acid and could also explain most of the variances observed in the planet’s clouds. As for the cause of ammonia itself, the authors recommend that the most likely justification is of biological origin, rather than a nonbiological source such as lightning or volcanic eruptions.

Essentially, life could be making its own environment.

“No life that we know of could survive in the Venus droplets,” says study co-author Sara Seager, Professor of Planetary Sciences in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences. Seager was also an author in the 2020 Venusian phosphine study. “But the point is, maybe some life is there, and is modifying its environment so that it is livable.”

The team discovered that if life were generating ammonia in the most effective way possible, the correlated chemical reactions would naturally produce oxygen. Once present in the clouds, ammonia would dissolve in beads of sulfuric acid, essentially neutralizing the acid to make the droplets relatively habitable. Introducing ammonia into the droplets would alter their formerly round, liquid shape into more of a nonspherical, salt-like slurry. Once ammonia is dissolved in sulfuric acid, the response would trigger any neighboring sulfur dioxide to dissolve as well.

The existence of ammonia then could indeed account for most of the major anomalies seen in Venus’ clouds. The authors go further and explain that sources such as lightning, volcanic eruptions, and even a meteorite strike could not chemically generate the amount of ammonia required to explain the anomalies.

Life, however, might.

Parker Solar Probe becomes the first ship to “touch” the Sun

The corona of the sun is two million degrees Fahrenheit (give or take). While exploring it was mostly regarded as a science fiction project, on April 28, NASA was able to put a spacecraft inside the flaming inferno. Using materials such as tungsten, niobium, molybdenum and sapphire, the Parker Solar Probe spent five hours in the sun’s extended solar atmosphere, marking a big leap for solar science.

“This marks the achievement of the primary objective of the Parker mission and a new era for understanding the physics of the corona,” said Justin C. Kasper, coauthor of the study which was recently published in Physical Review Letters. “The concept of sending spacecraft into the magnetized atmosphere of the sun—sufficiently close that the magnetic energy is greater than both ion and electron kinetic and thermal energy—predated NASA itself.”

No craft has ever reached this close to the Sun. (Image: NASA)

The corona is the outermost layer of the Sun’s atmosphere where strong magnetic fields bind plasma and prevent turbulent solar winds from escaping. When solar winds top a speed fast enough to break free from the corona and the Sun’s magnetic fields, they have reached the so-called Alfvén point — the boundary where the point where the magnetic and kinetic energy of the plasma are equal. Many scientists believe that zig-zags in the sun’s magnetic field, called switchbacks, emerge from this area.

Previously, how and where they formed was a mystery. Prior to April 28, when the Parker Probe entered the corona three times, the spacecraft had been flying just beyond this point.

“If you look at close-up pictures of the Sun, sometimes you’ll see these bright loops or hairs that seem to break free from the Sun but then reconnect with it,” said Michael Stevens, an astrophysicist at the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian. “That’s the region we’ve flown into — an area where the plasm, atmosphere and wind are magnetically stuck and interacting with the Sun…We know that the energy comes from the churning magnetic fields bubbling up through the surface of the sun, but we do not know how the Sun’s atmosphere absorbs this energy.”

Surprisingly, the researchers noticed that the Alfvén critical surface is not smooth, but wrinkled. The data suggest that the largest and most distant wrinkle of the surface was produced by a pseudostreamer—a large magnetic structure more than 40 degrees across, and found back on the innermost visible face of the sun. It is not presently understood why a pseudostreamer would shove the Alfvén critical surface away from the sun.

Researchers observed far fewer switchbacks below the Alfvén critical surface than above it. The discovery could mean that switchbacks do not form within the corona. Alternatively, low rates of magnetic reconnection on the Sun’s surface could have pumped less mass into the detected wind stream, resulting in a smaller number of switchbacks.

Interestingly, the spacecraft also found some unknown physics that could be affecting the Sun’s heating and dissipation.

“We have been observing the Sun and its corona for decades, and we know there is interesting physics going on there to heat and accelerate the solar wind plasma,” said Nour E. Raouafi, the Parker Solar Probe Project Scientist at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. “Still, we cannot tell precisely what that physics is. With Parker Solar Probe now flying into the magnetically-dominated corona, we will get the long-awaited insights into the inner workings of this mysterious region.”

The Parker Probe was launched in 2018 with the goal of reaching humanity’s first star. This was its eighth interaction with the Sun. Other data gleaned from the probe include discoveries including explosions that create space weather and the dangers of super-speedy dust. In addition to the data inside the corona, thanks to solar winds, the probe will also be the fastest craft ever created, zipping along at 430,000 mph (690,000 kph) by 2025. That’s 0.064% the speed of light.

“It is hard to overstate the significance of both the event and the observations made by Parker Solar Probe,” said Gary Zank, a coinvestigator on the probe’s Solar Wind Electrons Alphas and Protons instrument. “For over 50 years, since the dawn of the space age, the heliospheric community has grappled with the unanswered problem of how the solar corona is heated to well over a million degrees to drive the solar wind. The first measurements of the sub-Alfvénic solar wind may represent the most major step forward in understanding the physics behind the acceleration of the solar wind.”

Possible planet-scorching superflare discovered in distant star system

EK Draconis was spotted emitting a coronal mass ejection. (Image: NAOJ)

If something nefarious were going to occur in the universe, it seems appropriate that it would come from a star named EK Draconis in the constellation Draco. That seems to be exactly what happened 111 light-years away from Earth last year when the distant star was observed to have ejected a massive burst of energy, charging particles much more powerfully than scientists have ever observed from a Sun-like star.

A study from a research group led by Kosuke Namekata and Hiroyuki Maehara at the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ) has been observing the young solar-type star using several satellites and telescopes, including the 3.8-meter Seimei Telescope in western Japan and NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS). The researchers observed EK Draconis for 32 nights in the winter and spring of 2020. On April 5, the team got lucky as they looked on while the star erupted.

What they observed was a superflare the size of which could scorch our own Sun’s orbiting planets if something similar currently happened in the solar system. In their study, the researchers found evidence of a coronal mass ejection, an eruption of a supermassive filament of plasma gas so hot that it breaks down into ions and electrons. This filament was large too, ten times more massive than any mass ejection ever recorded on the Sun. The monster ejection was caught speeding at 500 km / sec (roughly a million miles per hour). 

“Coronal mass ejections can have a serious impact on Earth and human society,” said Yuta Notsu, a research associate at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at Colorado University, Boulder, and the U.S. National Solar Observatory, who worked on the project. “This kind of big mass ejection could, theoretically, also occur on our sun. This observation may help us to better understand how similar events may have affected Earth and even Mars over billions of years.”

Coronal mass ejections often come right after a star lets loose a flare, or a sudden and bright burst of radiation that can extend far out into space. Recent research has suggested that on our Sun, this sequence of events may be relatively sedate, at least so far as scientists have observed. In 2019, for example, Notsu and his colleagues published a study that showed that young sun-like stars around the galaxy seem to experience frequent superflares — like our own solar flares but tens or even hundreds of times more powerful. Technically, this type of superflare could happen here, but isn’t something that should keep one up at night. Such an event might happen maybe once every several thousand years or so.

The researchers believe that such hot, high-speed filaments most likely happen in younger stars. In fact, if such a thing happened in our solar system during its infant years, it could have helped shape Earth and Mars into what they look like today.

“The atmosphere of present-day Mars is very thin compared to Earth’s,” Notsu said. “In the past, we think that Mars had a much thicker atmosphere. Coronal mass ejections may help us to understand what happened to the planet over billions of years.”

This new procedure could be a game-changer for epilepsy

PING could change the lives of those living with epilepsy. (Image: Pixabay)

Epilepsy is an odd beast. It can affect people of all ages and ethnicities. It can be caused by a variety of underlying issues, such as head trauma, or sometimes the person can just be a victim of hereditary happenstance. Sometimes, there is no apparent reason for it whatsoever. It’s just there.

Adding to that, there are many types of treatments from pharmaceuticals to electronic implants to brain surgery. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t — again, in a fashion that’s hard to predict. As a result, we now have a menagerie of treatments and drugs used to combat the illness, but none of them is perfect.

To add even more to this, people suffering from epilepsy are still stigmatized because of how bizarrely the disease sometimes manifests. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as of 2015 3.4 million people in the United States (1.2% of the population) had epilepsy. Expand your search to the entire globe and the number jumps to 50 million. But a new, revolutionary procedure could bring big changes.

Deep inside the brain

While brain surgery was always considered a last resort, a treatment left in a doctor’s back pocket to use only when absolutely necessary, research out of the University of Virginia School of Medicine and Stanford University may have found a way to make the operation less intrusive and more effective.

A procedure called PING, currently in pre-clinical research, has been created to treat neurological diseases without the invasiveness of regular surgery. If successfully translated to the operating room, it could revolutionize the treatment of some of the most challenging and complex neurological diseases.

The approach uses low-intensity focused ultrasound waves combined with microbubbles to briefly penetrate the brain’s natural defenses and allow the targeted delivery of a neurotoxin. This neurotoxin kills the culprit brain cells while sparing other healthy cells and preserving the surrounding brain architecture.

“This novel surgical strategy has the potential to supplant existing neurosurgical procedures used for the treatment of neurological disorders that don’t respond to medication,” said researcher Kevin S. Lee, PhD, of UVA’s Departments of Neuroscience and Neurosurgery and the Center for Brain Immunology and Glia (BIG) in a statement. “This unique approach eliminates the diseased brain cells, spares adjacent healthy cells and achieves these outcomes without even having to cut into the scalp.”

Now, if a patient which does not respond to medications is at the end of the pharmaceutical rope (which happens in up to a third of those with epilepsy), the new procedure could provide a critical treatment without the angst and recovery time of normal brain surgery. In an email to ZMEScience, Lee explained that PING has recently been shown to reduce or eliminate seizures in two research models of temporal lobe epilepsy.

A key advantage of the approach is its incredible precision. PING utilizes the power of magnetic-resonance imaging (MRI) to let scientists peer inside the skull so that they can precisely guide sound waves to open the body’s natural blood-brain barrier exactly where needed. This barrier is designed to keep harmful cells and molecules out of the brain, but it also prevents the delivery of potentially beneficial treatments. Lee said that importantly, PING spares other non-target cells, such as glia, blood vessels and axons of passage, which are damaged with currently-available neurosurgical procedures.

“The hope for PING is that it will also be effective in reducing seizures, while reducing side effects that attend currently-available procedures,” Lee told ZME Science. “The operation requires a focused ultrasound (FUS) system that is combined with an MRI (which) allows accurate targeting of FUS to a brain area of interest. In current clinical practice, high-intensity FUS can be used to produce thermal lesions to treat essential tremor and Parkinson’s Disease. PING differs from that procedure because it uses low-intensity FUS to focally open the blood brain barrier to deliver a systemically-administered drug to destroy culprit neurons in a targeted area.”

Another huge advantage of PING is that it can be used on irregularly shaped targets in areas of the brain that would be almost impossible to reach through regular brain surgery. “If this strategy translates to the clinic,” the researchers write in their paper, which was published in the Journal of Neurosurgery, “the noninvasive nature and specificity of the procedure could positively influence both physician referrals for and patient confidence in surgery for medically intractable neurological disorders.”

The results could change the lives of millions of people around the world if its safety and efficiency are confirmed in larger trials.

Earth’s water most likely comes from space rocks weathered by the Sun

Extraterrestrial dust is probably responsible for most of Earth’s water. (Image: Pixabay)

About 71% of the Earth’s surface is covered by water, the most of any known rocky planet. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, there are 332,519,000 cubic miles of water on the globe. So, this brings about an interesting question. Where did it all come from? Turns out a lot of it probably originated from space dust.

In a study published in Nature Astronomy, a team of researchers from the UK, Australia and the United States studied samples collected by the Japanese space probe Hayabusa from the asteroid Itokawa. They concluded that extraterrestrial dust grains carried moisture to Earth as the planet formed, which resulted in Earth’s water. The water in the grains was produced by space weathering, a process by which solar winds, charged particles from the Sun, altered the chemical composition of the grains to produce water molecules.

“As recently as a decade ago, the notion that solar wind irradiation is relevant to the origin of water in the solar system, much less relevant to Earth’s oceans, would have been greeted with skepticism,” said John Bradley, of the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, a co-author of the paper. “By showing for the first time that water is produced in-situ on the surface of an asteroid, our study builds on the accumulating body of evidence that the interaction of the solar wind with oxygen-rich dust grains does indeed produce water.”

Solar winds are streams made of mostly hydrogen and helium ions that constantly flow from the Sun into space. When those hydrogen ions strike an airless surface such as an asteroid, they pierce tens of nanometres below the surface. From here they can change the chemical composition of the rock. Over time, the ‘space weathering’ effect of the hydrogen ions can eject enough oxygen atoms from materials in the rock to create H2O trapped within minerals on the asteroid.

A popular belief suggested that asteroids rich in carbon delivered water to the planet when they crashed into a just-forming Earth 4.6 billion years ago. To test the whole dust space/water hypothesis, scientists previously analyzed the isotopic ‘fingerprint’ of chunks of C-type asteroids that have fallen to Earth as water-rich carbonaceous chondrite meteorites. If the ratio of hydrogen and deuterium in the meteorite water lined up with that of terrestrial water, then it could be concluded that C-type meteorites were the most-likely source.

And that’s sort of what they found…sort of.

While some water-rich meteorites’ deuterium/hydrogen fingerprints did indeed match our planet’s water, many did not. On average, these meteorites’ liquid fingerprints didn’t line up with the water found in Earth’s mantle and oceans. Instead, Earth has a different, slightly lighter isotopic fingerprint.

In other words, the forming Earth must have received water from at least one more isotopically-light source which originated somewhere else in the Solar System. Now researchers have that missing piece.

Using an analytical process called atom probe tomography, the researchers scrutinized samples from Itokawa, which is an S-type asteroid. This enabled the team to measure the atomic structure of the grains one atom at a time and detect individual water molecules. Their findings suggest that a significant amount of water was produced just below the surface of dust-sized grains from Itokawa by space weathering.

“Our research suggests the solar wind created water on the surface of tiny dust grains and this isotopically lighter water likely provided the remainder of the Earth’s water,” said Phil Bland, a John Curtin Distinguished Professor at the School of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Curtin University and co-author of the paper. “Our world-class atom probe tomography system here at Curtin University allowed us to take an incredibly detailed look inside the first 50 nanometres or so of the surface of Itokawa dust grains, which we found contained enough water that, if scaled up, would amount to about 20 liters for every cubic meter of rock.”

The study has ramifications beyond what we find on our home planet though. Their estimates of just how much water might be contained in space-weathered surfaces also suggest a way future space explorers could manufacture supplies of water on even the most seemingly arid planets.

“One of the problems of future human space exploration is how astronauts will find enough water to keep them alive and accomplish their tasks without carrying it with them on their journey,” said Hope Ishill of UH Manoa. “We think it’s reasonable to assume that the same space weathering process which created the water on Itokawa will have occurred to one degree or another on many airless worlds like the Moon or the asteroid Vesta. That could mean that space explorers may well be able to process fresh supplies of water straight from the dust on the planet’s surface. It’s exciting to think that the processes which formed the planets could help to support human life as we reach out beyond Earth.”

European Space Agency launches new mission to measure climate change in unprecedented detail

Artist’s impression of TRUTHS. (Image: ESA and Airbus)

The European Space Agency (ESA) has new plans to study the Earth’s energy balance, in an effort to better understand and combat climate change. The Earth energy balance is the point between incoming energy from the Sun and outgoing energy from the Earth. As we emit more greenhouse gases, our planet’s atmosphere traps more heat, which is triggering global warming.

Named TRUTHS (Traceable Radiometry Underpinning Terrestrial- and Helio- Studies), the project is currently in the planning stages by the European Space Agency and its nations and will measure the amount of heat that gets trapped in the Earth’s atmosphere.

The plan for the small satellite mission was introduced at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland by the United Kingdom Space Agency (UKSA). Conceived by the UK’s National Physical Laboratory (NPL), it will enable a space-based climate observing system which will “set a benchmark to detect changes in Earth’s climate system.”

“The mission will play a vital role in improving how we monitor climate change using satellite data and support the decisive climate action that global nations are negotiating at COP26,” said Beth Greenaway, head of Earth observation and climate at the UK Space Agency.

As well as establishing a new benchmark, the mission will create a climate and calibration observatory that will reduce some of the uncertainty in the Earth-observing data, creating a sort of space-based calibration lab. The benchmark is important because the more heat that the Earth keeps in, the warmer it gets, so it’s probably a good thing if scientists knew that point. TRUTHS will build additional confidence in climate studies by providing an element of a space-based climate observing system tied unequivocally to international standards. It will also enable researchers to better calibrate existing climate satellites.

“TRUTHS is an important mission as it will provide the gold standard of calibration for space-based Earth observation – a kind of ‘standards laboratory in space’,” said Justin Byrne, Head of Earth Observation and Science at Airbus Defence and Space UK. “With TRUTHS we also have the opportunity to further develop important areas of industrial capabilities across the UK space sector.”

Two main instruments would piggyback aboard the satellite: the Cryogenic Solar Absolute Radiometer and the Hyperspectral Imaging Spectrometer. These two pieces of equipment will gauge the incoming and reflected solar radiation to help detect alterations in Earth’s climate more quickly as well as generate the super-accurate reference system employing the benchmark level for other measurements and climate models.

“TRUTHS meets calls from the world’s satellite and climate community for robust high accuracy SI traceability (SI is an internationally recognized reference system that supports comparability of chemical measurements across a broad range of industries and sectors),” said Nigel Fox, United Kingdom TRUTHS Mission Scientist, at NPL. “A recent publication from the Committee on Earth Observation Satellites has highlighted the urgency for improved accuracy of observations from space, to help ensure our actions are having the desired impact.”

If everything goes as planned, the satellite could launch in 2029.

New report calls for a newer, bigger, and better telescope

Forget the James Webb Telescope, that’s so yesterday (although its’ technically a month from now). We’re moving on to bigger and better things — hopefully. If we want to have a better look at the universe, we need a new $11 billion telescope — at least that’s one of the primary recommendations of a new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM).

A new recommended telescope would allow us to see farther than ever. (Image: Pixabay)

Released every 10 years by the NASEM, an independent group of advisors, the report (called the Decadal Survey on Astronomy and Astrophysics) outlines recommendations for the improvement of astronomy and astrophysics. It draws from the astronomical community through hundreds of white papers, town hall meetings, and the advice of 13 sub-panels over several years to produce its recommendations. Coined Astro2020, the new report serves two purposes: to try and gain support from government policymakers and to categorize public consensus on the future of astronomy from a ranked list of research priorities.

One of the primary proposals this go-around was a new telescope capable of taking images of potentially habitable worlds circulating distant stars.

“This report sets an ambitious, inspirational, and aspirational vision for the coming decade of astronomy and astrophysics,” said Fiona Harrison, chair of the division of physics, mathematics, and astronomy at the California Institute of Technology, and steering committee co-chair. “In changing how we plan for the most ambitious strategic space projects, we can develop a broad portfolio of missions to pursue visionary goals, such as searching for life on planets orbiting stars in our galactic neighborhood — and at the same time exploit the richness of 21st-century astrophysics through a panchromatic fleet.”

The new telescope would seriously outsize the Hubble and would be capable of blocking out a star’s light in order to capture dimmer light emitting from an orbiting planet. To do this, it would gather infrared, optical, and ultraviolet wavelengths so that it could detect a planet that’s 10 billion times fainter than its star.

The price tag is a billion more than for the James Webb Space Telescope. The telescope would have a primary mirror of about 19.7 feet (six meters) across. It would search for biosignatures in the atmospheres of approximately 25 potentially habitable exoplanets.

Five years after beginning this mission, the report recommends that NASA start preliminary studies of both a far-infrared strategic mission and a high-resolution X-ray large strategic mission with target costs of $3 billion to $5 billion.

The highest priority for large National Science Foundation projects, according to the report, is to invest in the Giant Magellan Telescope and Thirty Meter Telescope to ensure significant access to these tools for the entire U.S. astronomical community. The scientific potential of these observatories “is transformative, with the ability to address all three of the scientific priority areas and complement current and future space telescopes.”

Astro2020 also recommends that the NSF and Department of Energy should jointly pursue implementation of the Cosmic Microwave Background Stage 4 Observatory, which the report says is a “compelling and timely leap forward for ground-based observations of the emergent universe, as well as an important tool for understanding its evolution.” Astro2020 recommends that the Very Large Array and the Very Long Baseline Array, the world’s leading radio observatories, should be replaced by the Next-Generation Very Large Array — an observatory with 10 times the sensitivity — beginning technical planning soon in order to be considered for construction by the end of the decade.

This was the seventh edition of the decadal survey. Prior endorsements ended up bringing to fruition with the Hubble and JWST, scheduled to launch on Dec. 18.

Incentives rather than penalties work best to enact climate change policies

Incentives work best when trying to enact climate change policies. (Image: Pixabay)

What is a good way to get someone to care about the climate? Easy, you pay them in some way to care. In an important test of carrot versus stick, a series of studies out of Penn State found that people would not only be more willing to do their part to combat climate change if they were given an incentive, but that it wouldn’t really matter what political party they were a member of either.

Researchers for the university found that Americans would be willing to abide by policies emphasizing alternative energy sources which touted incentives – such as tax breaks or rebates — rather than those which forced penalties against those not compliant with eco-friendly guidelines. They also found that participants would rather prefer the policies to be targeted toward businesses than themselves.

Findings uncovered that reasons for policy support ended up going beyond whether or not the participants believed the policy effectively protected the environment.  They also revealed that the economy and its effect on society played a large role. This suggests people consider impacts on all “three pillars of sustainability” — people, planet, and the economy.

“Policies can’t mitigate climate change unless they’re put into action, so it’s important to consider public reactions to these policies if they’re going to be ultimately successful,” said Janet Swim, professor of psychology at Penn State. “Policymakers may choose to pursue policies that are more likely to be accepted by the public, but because many policies are needed, it’s also important to know sources of concern for less popular policies.”

Three studies as part of the research, which involved 444 individuals: one which focused on who the policies should target, individuals or businesses; another on what type of change was needed (transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources or reducing energy use); and a third compared motivating policy support by using incentives versus disincentives.

Eight hypothetical climate change policies were given to them. After studying each, the participants rated them on how likely they would be to support it and whether the policies would help or harm the environment, economy, and society.

One surprising finding that came to the researchers is that whether Democrat, Republican, or Independent, neither really cared if they got something out of it…sort of. Democrats still tended to support the policies over their conservative peers.

“It may be useful to focus less on political divides when it comes to climate change and more on how policies affect the things people care about, such as the environment, economy and social impacts, to help bridge partisan conflict,” Swim said. “By engaging more thoroughly with the public, policymakers may be able to uncover specific concerns regarding policies. This could improve communication and even result in changes to policies to alleviate concerns and help raise support.”

The study was published in the Environmental Science and Policy and the Journal of Environmental Psychology.

Blue Origin announces plans for “mixed use” space station

Just months after completing its first human space flight, Blue Origin has announced plans to build and operate a new space station to be operational by the late 2020s. The timeline is ambitious since the company has yet to put a manned flight in orbit, but Blue Origin swears by its plan.

Blue Origin hopes to have a space station operational by the end of the decade. (Image: Blue Origin)

Coined “Orbital Reef,” the station will be built to operate in low-earth orbit and the company bills it as a “mixed-use business park” which will be used for commerce, research, and tourism.

“The station will open the next chapter of human space exploration and development by facilitating the growth of a vibrant ecosystem and business model for the future,” Blue Origin said in a statement.

The company states that the new space station will be comparable in size with the International Space Station, at 29,311-cubic-feet (for comparison, the ISS has 32,333 cubic feet). Initially complementing the International Space Station, Orbital Reef would eventually replace the ISS which is expected to retire by 2030. Russian officials have previously warned that they could jump ship by 2025 over fears that outdated equipment on the ISS poses a danger to those aboard.

However, the station would also have a commercial component. It would provide an ideal setting for film-making in microgravity alongside cutting-edge research and even a space hotel.

“For over 60 years, NASA and other space agencies have developed orbital spaceflight and space habitation, setting us up for commercial business to take off in this decade,” said Brent Sherwood, senior vice president of advanced development programs.

While Blue Origin will be responsible for a few modules and the New Glenn heavy-lift rocket (scheduled to make its first launch attempt in late 2022), it will also partner with four other organizations to operate the space station. Boeing will be in charge of operations and maintenance and will provide a few of the science modules and the use of the Starliner capsule; Sierra Space’s expandable Large Integrated Flexible Environment modules will serve as Orbital Reef’s primary living quarters; if needed, Sierra’s Dream Chaser space plane will be used for cargo and crew delivery; the solar arrays will be provided by Redwire Space; and Genesis Engineering Solutions will contribute a single-person craft allowing for visitors to take spacewalks outside the station.

“Like real reefs, the Orbital Reef will touch many, many countries throughout the world,” Mike Gold, executive vice president for civil space and external affairs at Redwire, said during a news conference. “This isn’t an American station. This will be a global station that will carry on the proud international legacy of the ISS.”

Whether with Blue Origin or a different company, NASA plans to allocate up to $400 million to private space companies to kick-start construction on an ISS replacement, which celebrated the 20th anniversary of the initial move-in day last year.

The Low Earth Orbit may be getting a bit congested in the coming decades: Lockheed Martin and Nanoracks unveiled their own space station last week called Starlab while Axiom Space works on their own concept. China’s Tiangong station could be finished as early as next year. The new space race is becoming more and more interesting with each passing day.

American diets consisting of even more ultra-processed foods than thought

Heart disease is one of the largest killers in the United States. (Photo: Pixabay)

Let’s face it, Americans have never been famous for their healthy diets and slender physiques. Now a new study out of New York University published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition has found that the diet of the average United States citizen is including more ultra-processed foods than ever.

Ultra-processed foods are defined as industrially manufactured, ready-to-eat or heat foods that include additives and are largely devoid of whole foods. These ingredients form an equation that leads to obesity and heart disease.

“The overall composition of the average U.S. diet has shifted towards a more processed diet. This is concerning, as eating more ultra-processed foods is associated with poor diet quality and higher risk of several chronic diseases,” said Filippa Juul, an assistant professor and postdoctoral fellow at NYU School of Public Health and the study’s lead author. “The high and increasing consumption of ultra-processed foods in the 21st century may be a key driver of the obesity epidemic.”

The study looked at 41,000 adults who took part in the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey from 2001 to 2018. The survey asked the participants about their diet in the previous 24 hours. Despite movements to decrease intakes of processed foods and transition to a diet with more whole foods, the results didn’t appear to show any such trend towards healthiness.

Ultra-processed food consumption grew from 53.5% of calories at the beginning of the period studied (2001-2002) to 57% at the end (2017-2018). The intake of ready-to-eat or heat meals, like frozen dinners, increased the most, while the intake of some sugary foods and drinks declined. In contrast, the consumption of whole foods decreased from 32.7% to 27.4% of calories, mostly due to people eating less meat and dairy.

Processing food changes it from its natural state. Processed foods, for the most part, only have two or three ingredients. They are also essentially made by adding substances such as salt, oil, or sugar. Examples include canned fish or canned vegetables, fruits packaged in syrup, and freshly made bread.

Some foods go a step further in their unhealthiness. These are highly processed or ultra-processed foods. These most likely have many added ingredients such as added sugar, salt, fat, and artificial colors or preservatives, as well as substances extracted from foods, starches, and hydrogenated fats. They may also contain additives like artificial flavors or stabilizers. These are your frozen meals, soft drinks, hot dogs and cold cuts, fast food, packaged cookies, cakes, and salty snacks.

Juul says that one of the best – and maybe only ways – to improve diets is to implement policies to reduce their intake, such as revised dietary guidelines, marketing restrictions, package labeling changes, and taxes on soda. The political landscape being what it is, however, it would be a very curvy and pothole-filled road to implement any of those changes.

“In the current industrial food environment, most of the foods that are marketed to us are in fact industrial formulations that are far removed from whole foods,” said Juul. “Nevertheless, nutritional science tends to focus on the nutrient content of foods and has historically ignored the health implications of industrial food processing.”

The study didn’t see any correlation between income or ethnicity. The one outlier was Hispanic adults, who ate significantly less ultra-processed foods and more whole foods compared with non-Hispanic white and Black adults.

The study took into account diets pre-COVID-19, and Juul says that diets probably only got worse throughout the pandemic.

“In the early days of the pandemic, people changed their purchasing behaviors to shop less frequently, and sales of ultra-processed foods such as boxed macaroni and cheese, canned soups and snack foods increased substantially. People may have also eaten more packaged ‘comfort foods’ as a way of coping with the uncertainty of the pandemic. We look forward to examining dietary changes during this period as data become available.”

Poop found in ancient Austrian mine shows humans consumed beer and blue cheese 2,700 years ago

Credit: Pixabay.

Thanks to some Austrian salt mines, scientists have been able to learn more about Iron Age diets. Some of those findings have revealed that the ancient Europeans had diets that resembled a few things you might find at your Super Bowl party.

The study published in the journal Current Biology discovered ancient fecal samples in salt mines in the Austrian UNESCO World Heritage area Hallstatt-Dachstein/Salzkammergut, some of which are at least 2,700 years old. When researchers analyzed the remarkably preserved samples, they were surprised to find fungal species used in the production of blue cheese and beer — Penicillium roqueforti and Saccharomyces cerevisiae.

“Genome-wide analysis indicates that both fungi were involved in food fermentation and provide the first molecular evidence for blue cheese and beer consumption during Iron Age Europe,” says Frank Maixner of the Eurac Research Institute for Mummy Studies in Bolzano, Italy.

This lends belief that prehistoric diets were more sophisticated than we probably give them credit for.

This image shows paleofeces samples from Hallstatt salt mines analyzed in this study. Credit: Eurac Research/Frank Maixner.

“These results shed substantial new light on the life of the prehistoric salt miners in Hallstatt and allow an understanding of ancient culinary practices in general on a whole new level,” says Kerstin Kowarik of the Museum of Natural History Vienna. “It is becoming increasingly clear that not only were prehistoric culinary practices sophisticated, but also that complex processed foodstuffs as well as the technique of fermentation have held a prominent role in our early food history.”

Earlier studies have also shown prehistoric fecal samples – also called paleofeces — can offer important insights into early human diet and health. In the new study, Maixner, Kowarik, and their colleagues added a collection of in-depth microscopic, metagenomic and proteomic analyses to their agenda in order to explore the microbes, DNA, and proteins that were present in the samples.

The samples identified bran and glumes of different cereals as one of the most common plant remains. The researchers say this highly fibrous, carbohydrate-rich diet was supplemented with proteins from broad beans and occasionally with fruits nuts, or animal food products.

In keeping with their plant-rich diet, the miners up to the Baroque period also found to have a gut microbiome structure similar to those of modern non-Westernized individuals, whose regimens are mainly composed of unprocessed foods like fresh fruits and vegetables.

“The Hallstatt miners seem to have intentionally applied food fermentation technologies with microorganisms which are still nowadays used in the food industry,” Maixner said.

Strange radio waves picked up from center of Milky Way baffle astronomers

The Milky Way still contains plenty of unknowns. (Photo: Pixabay)

The Milky Way offers up a lot of unknows, one reason that scientists are always on the lookout for new stuff. An international team of researchers might have just found some when they discovered unusual radio waves coming from the direction of the galactic core. The waves fit no current pattern of radio sources and could mean a brand spanking new class of stellar objects.

“The strangest property of this new signal is that it is has a very high polarization. This means its light oscillates in only one direction, but that direction rotates with time,” said Ziteng Wang, lead author of the new study and a Ph.D. student in the School of Physics at the University of Sydney. “The brightness of the object also varies dramatically, by a factor of 100, and the signal switches on and off apparently at random. We’ve never seen anything like it.”

Many types of stars emit some sort of variable light across the electromagnetic spectrum. Radio waves have become a larger part of discoveries with ongoing advances. Some of the more significant finds from radio telescopes are pulsars, supernovae, flaring stars and fast radio bursts (and even Apollo landing sites).

“At first we thought it could be a pulsar – a very dense type of spinning dead star – or else a type of star that emits huge solar flares,” said Wang. “But the signals from this new source don’t match what we expect from these types of celestial objects.”

An artist’s impression of the ASKAP J173608.2-321635 source. Image credit: Sebastian Zentilomo.

Wang and his group found the unknown waves using the CSIRO’s ASKAP radio telescope in Western Australia. Follow-up observations were performed with the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory’s MeerKAT telescope. They had been surveying the universe since 2020 through a project known as Variables and Slow Transients (VAST).

Coined “ASKAP J173608.2-321635” after its coordinates (which doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue), the object started out invisible, became bright, faded away and then reappeared, a behavior that Tara Murphy, Wang’s Ph.D. supervisor called “extraordinary.”

After detecting six radio signals from the source over nine months in 2020, the astronomers tried to find the object in visual light. They found nothing. So they turned to the Parkes radio telescope in Australia. Again nothing.

After a switch to the more sensitive MeerKAT radio telescope in South Africa, they were able to pick up the lead.

“Luckily, the signal returned, but we found that the behavior of the source was dramatically different – the source disappeared in a single day, even though it had lasted for weeks in our previous ASKAP observations,” said Murphy.

The astronomers plan to keep their eyes peeled to look for more clues as to what it might be. They hope to learn more with the unveiling of the transcontinental Square Kilometre Array radio telescope. The total collecting area of the new telescope will be a square kilometer, making it 50 times more sensitive than any current radio instrument.

The findings appeared in the Astrophysical Journal.

Astronomers find hidden planets in distant radio signals

Radiowave telescopes have the advantage that sunlight, clouds, and rain do not affect observations. (Photo: Pixabay)

Benjamin Pope and his Dutch team at the observatory ASTRON, home to the world’s most powerful radio antenna, found some unexpected radio waves coming from distant stars. Does this mean that there are some hidden planets out there? Turns out there could be.

While searching for red dwarf stars using the Low Frequency Array, the world’s most powerful radio telescope, the team discovered four magnetically inactive stars, a finding which bucked the conventional understanding of what astronomers can find with radio waves.

“We’ve discovered signals from 19 distant red dwarf stars, four of which are best explained by the existence of planets orbiting them,” Pope said. “We’ve long known that the planets of our own solar system emit powerful radio waves as their magnetic fields interact with the solar wind, but radio signals from planets outside our solar system had yet to be picked up.”

Leiden University professor Joseph Callingham, lead author of the report, said that the team is confident these signals are coming from the magnetic connection of the stars and unseen orbiting planets, similar to the interaction between Jupiter and its moon, Io. The duo contains strong aurorae due to Io’s volcanic activity which blasts material out into space, material that fills Jupiter’s environment and creates a strong magnetic pull between the two bodies, not unlike aurorae here on Earth.

“Our own Earth has aurorae, commonly recognized here as the northern and southern lights, that also emit powerful radio waves – this is from the interaction of the planet’s magnetic field with the solar wind,” said Callingham. “Our model for this radio emission from our stars is a scaled-up version of Jupiter and Io, with a planet enveloped in the magnetic field of a star, feeding material into vast currents that similarly power bright aurorae.”

Radio telescopes study the radio waves originating from planets, comets, giant clouds of gas and dust, stars and galaxies. Astronomy using radio waves has the advantage that sunlight, clouds, and rain do not affect observations. The method of discovery has found many new types of objects including pulsars, the rapidly spinning neutron stars that are collapsed cores of massive stars that have exhausted their fuel.

Since radio waves are longer than optical waves, radio telescopes are made differently than the telescopes used for visible light. Radio telescopes must be physically larger than an optical telescopes in order to make images of comparable resolution.

Next on the team’s docket is verification that planets are indeed there and the observed signals aren’t some anomaly.

“We can’t be 100% sure that the four stars we think have planets are indeed planet hosts, but we can say that a planet-star interaction is the best explanation for what we’re seeing…This discovery is an important step for radio astronomy and could potentially lead to the discovery of planets throughout the galaxy.”

William Shatner is headed to space

William Shatner is going where, well, where a few hundred have gone before — but it’s impressive nonetheless. At the age of 90, Shatner, famous for playing Captain Kirk in Star Trek, is headed to space.

William Shatner portrayed Captain Kirk in Star Trek. (Image: WikiMedia Commons)

Shatner will head toward the void aboard a Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin capsule New Shepard NS-18 after the founder offered him a seat as a guest of the company. Bezos, a long-time fan of the series (which may or may not make him a Trekkie), even had a cameo as a high-ranking alien in the 2016 film “Star Trek Beyond.”

“So now I can say something. Yes, it’s true; I’m going to be a ‘rocket man!’” Shatner tweeted on Monday.

Once he reaches space, Shatner will be the oldest person to pass the Karman line, the official boundary between Earth and space at 62 miles (100 kilometers). He will join three paying customers aboard the capsule. He would have been the first actor to make the trip to space, however, that honor will be taken by a Russian actress and film director who will go aboard the International Space Station for two weeks to film a movie; the launch is set for October 5th. While the moviemakers will be making a trip to orbit, Shatner will just reach official space when his capsule reaches 66 miles up (106 kilometers). Shatner’s flight will take 11 minutes.

“I’ve heard about space for a long time now. I’m taking the opportunity to see it for myself,” Shatner said in a statement.

Accompanying Shatner is a former NASA engineer who founded a nanosatellite company as well as co-creating a software company that specializes in clinical research and Blue Origin’s vice president of mission and flight operations, Audrey Powers. Reports in 2013 said he had turned down Sir Richard Branson’s offer to fly him into space with Virgin Galactic.

Shatner’s most famous role was that of Captain Kirk of the USS Starship Enterprise from 1966 to 1969. In addition to the series, he portrayed the commander in seven movies, directing one of them. Currently, he hosts the show “The UnXplained” on the History Channel.