Tag Archives: Dark

Chinese lunar rover shows dark side of the Moon like you’ve never seen it before

China quietly released a new set of images provided by its Chang’e 4 lunar exploration mission. The rover, which became the first mission to ever land on the far side of the moon, shows some features of the lunar surface in unprecedented detail.

Image credits: CLEP/CNSA.

China’s mission has already gone as well as you could hope for — if not better. It became the first mission to perform a soft landing on the dark side of the moon, it carried geophysical studies of its landing surface, and it successfully grew potatoes and a few other plants on the moon — marking another impressive first.

The Yutu 2 rover has now traveled a total of 178.9 meters (587.9 feet), which far exceeds the record by its predecessor, Yutu 1, during the Chang’e 3 mission, which managed to travel 114 meters. Durings its latest travels, the rover also snapped a few photographs which it beamed back to Earth, and some of those images have now been released by China’s National Space Administration (CNSA).

The lunar surface, as seen by the Yutu 2 rover. Image: CLEP/CNSA.

The Von Kármán crater, close to where the rover landed, is believed to contain an intriguing mixture of chemical elements, including thorium, iron oxide, and titanium dioxide, which could provide important clues about the origin and evolution of the lunar surface. Researchers hope that the mission will help answer questions about the crater’s surface features and test whether plants could grow in lunar soil.

The mission is also observing low-frequency radio light coming from the Sun or beyond that’s impossible to detect on Earth because there is so much radio noise interfering with it.

Early tracks from Yutu-2 after its descent from the Chang’e-4 lander, visible in the top-left. Image: CLEP/CNSA.

More recent tracks. Image: CLEP/CNSA.

The rover is currently in hibernation mode until April 28. It has already survived for four lunar days and nights, or about 29.5 days on Earth. It’s still going strong, preparing for its fifth lunar night — despite being designed to last for three lunar nights only. Everything that happens now is just a bonus on this already excellent mission. The rover is also turning intermittent naps when it is facing the sun directly, as temperatures soar to 200 degrees Celsius.

Much of the scientific data gathered hasn’t been relayed back to Earth yet. It will take several more weeks before it is all sent back, and a bit more time to analyze it after that. In the meantime, we can all enjoy these crisp images.

Neptune.

Hubble captured the first evidence of a Great Dark Spot storm forming on Neptune

NASA has spotted one of Neptune’s Great Dark Spots as it was forming, a new study reports. This is the first time humanity has witnessed such an event.

Neptune.

“Does this picture make my spot look dark?”
Image credits NASA / JPL / Voyager 2.

By peering through the lens of the Hubble Space Telescope, NASA researchers have captured one of Neptune’s storms at is was brewing. While six such dark spots have been observed on Neptune in the past, this is the first time we’ve seen one during formation.

The findings will help us better understand our neighboring planets, as well as those far away — exoplanets — in general, as well as the weather patterns and nature of gas giants in particular.

There be a storm a’brewin!

“If you study the exoplanets and you want to understand how they work, you really need to understand our planets first,” said Amy Simon, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland and lead author of the new study.

“We have so little information on Uranus and Neptune.”

Jupiter’s Great Red Spot is perhaps the best-known alien storm — but it’s far from the only one. Neptune, as well as our other gaseous-if-somewhat-unfortunately-named neighbor Uranus also boast their own storms in the form of Great Spots.

Neptune’s storms take the shape of Great Dark Spots. Researchers have, so far, spotted six such Spots on Neptune since 1989, when Voyager 2 identified the first two. Hubble has spotted four more since its launch in 1990. The authors of this study have analyzed images Hubble has taken of Uranus over the past several years to chronicle the growth of a new Great Dark Spot that became visible in 2018. The wealth of data recorded by Hubble helped the team understand how often Neptune develops dark spots and how long they last, and gain a bit of insight into the inner workings of ice giant planets.

Voyager 2 saw two storms on Neptune, the (Earth-sized) Great Dark Spot and the Dark Spot 2, in 1989. Images taken by Hubble five years later revealed that both spots had vanished.

“It was certainly a surprise,” Simon said. “We were used to looking at Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, which presumably had been there for more than a hundred years.”

However, a new Dark Spot reared its head on the face of Neptune in 2015. While Simon’s team was busy analyzing Hubble images of this spot, they found some mysteriously-white clouds in the area where the Great Dark Spot used to be. Then, in 2018, a new Great Dark Spot splashed across its surface; it was nearly identical in size, shape, and position as the one seen in 1989, the team reports, right where those clouds used to be.

“We were so busy tracking this smaller storm from 2015, that we weren’t necessarily expecting to see another big one so soon,” Simon said.

These high-altitude white clouds, the team says, are made up of methane ice crystals. The team suspected they somehow accompany the storms that form dark spots, likely hovering above them the same way that lenticular clouds cap tall mountains here on Earth.

Lenticular cloud.

A lenticular cloud spotted over a mountain in the Snæfellsjökull National Park, Iceland.
Image credits joiseyshowaa / Flickr.

So the team set out to track these clouds from 2016 (when they were first spotted) to 2018 (when the Spot gobbled them up). They were brightest in 2016 and 2017, the team found, just before the new Great Dark Spot emerged. The team turned to computer models of Neptune’s atmosphere to understand what they were seeing. According to the results, these companion clouds are brighter over deep storms. The fact that they appeared two years before the Great Dark Spot and then lost some brightness when it became visible suggests dark spots may originate much deeper in Neptune’s atmosphere than previously thought, the team explains.

They also used data from Voyager 2 and Hubble to measure how long these storms last, and how frequently they occur, on which they report in a second study. Each storm can last up to six years, though most only survive for two, the paper reads, and the team suspects new storms appear on Neptune every four to six years or so. This last tidbit would make the Great Dark Spots of Neptune different from those on Jupiter, whose Great Red Spot is at least 350 years old (it was first seen in 1830).

Jupiter’s storms endure as they’re caged in by thin jet streams, which keep them from changing latitude (north-south) and hold them together. Neptunian winds flow in much wider bands, and instead push storms like the Great Dark Spot slowly across latitudes. They can generally survive the planet’s westward equatorial winds, and eastward-blowing currents close to the equator, before getting ripped apart in higher latitudes.

“We have never directly measured winds within Neptune’s dark vortices, but we estimate the wind speeds are in the ballpark of 328 feet (100 meters) per second, quite similar to wind speeds within Jupiter’s Great Red Spot,” said Wong.

Simon, Wong and Hsu also used images from Hubble and Voyager 2 to pinpoint how long these storms last and how frequently they occur. They report in a second study published today in the Astronomical Journal that they suspect new storms crop up on Neptune every four to six years. Each storm may last up to six years, though two-year lifespans are more likely, according to the findings.

The paper “Formation of a New Great Dark Spot on Neptune in 2018” has been published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

Man of bark.

The faults in our personalities are all expressions of our ‘dark core’

Traits of a feather flock together.

Man of bark.

Image credits Michael Cordedda / Flickr.

A new study published by a team of German and Danish researchers suggests that dark personality traits — Machiavellianism, egoism, narcissism, psychopathy, sadism, and spitefulness — all stem from a common, ‘dark core’. In other words, if you exhibit any of these tendencies, you’re also likely to have one or more of the others.

The findings could help researchers or therapists working with people exhibiting dark personality traits, the team writes, as they point to the common ground from which reckless and malicious human behavior and actions stems. The team calls this common ground the (tad unfortunately-named) D-factor.

Root of the issue

While each individual dark trait manifests itself in widely different ways, they seem to have much more in common than initially meets the eye, new research suggests.

Psychopathy (lack of empathy), narcissism (excessive self-absorption), and Machiavellianism (the belief that the ends justify the means), the so-called ‘dark triad’, along with egoism (maximizing one’s advantage at the expense of others), sadism (gaining pleasure from inflicting harm on others), and spitefulness (willingness to cause harm to others, even if one harms oneself in the process) are all variation on a single ‘dark core’ of personality, the team writes.

This dark core — or D-factor — can be defined as the general tendency to maximize one’s individual utility while disregarding, accepting, or malevolently provoking disutility for others, accompanied by beliefs that serve as justifications/excuses for their shadier actions.

In other words, the mental predisposition that enables all these dark traits is the belief that one’s goals and interests simply trump others’, even to the extent that an individual might take pleasure in hurting their peers. Associated beliefs and mental processes are used to prevent feelings of guilt or shame. The ‘final’ dark trait emerges depending on the exact ratio of each aspect — e.g., the justification-aspect is very strong in narcissism whereas malevolently provoking disutility is the main feature of sadism.

The team, composed of Ingo Zettler, Professor of Psychology at the University of Copenhagen, Morten Moshagen from Ulm University and Benjamin E. Hilbig from the University of Koblenz-Landau, has shown that this D-factor is present in nine of the most commonly studied dark personality traits.

The team worked with over 2,500 participants over a series of studies, asking them to what extent they agreed or disagreed with statements such as “It is hard to get ahead without cutting corners here and there”, “It is sometimes worth a little suffering on my part to see others receive the punishment they deserve”, or “I know that I am special because everyone keeps telling me so”. The studies also tracked other self-reported tendencies such as aggression or impulsivity and measured indicators of selfish and unethical behavior.

“With our mapping of the common denominator of the various dark personality traits, one can simply ascertain that the person has a high D-factor. This is because the D-factor indicates how likely a person is to engage in behaviour associated with one or more of these dark traits’, Zettler says.

In practice, this means that an individual who exhibits a particular malevolent behavior (such as enjoying to humiliate others) will have a higher likelihood to engage in other malevolent activities, too (such as cheating, lying, or stealing).

“We see it, for example, in cases of extreme violence, or rule-breaking, lying, and deception in the corporate or public sectors. Here, knowledge about a person’s D-factor may be a useful tool, for example to assess the likelihood that the person will reoffend or engage in more harmful behaviour”, he adds.

The paper “The dark core of personality” has been published in the journal Psychological Review.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Recently found exoplanet is so dark, it absorbs 99% of incoming light

Astronomers have investigated an exoplanet that’s so dark, it might as well be made completely out of charcoal (or more like Vantablack). The planet in question, called WASP-104b, is classed as a hot Jupiter — meaning it’s about as massive as Jupiter but orbits scorchingly close to its parent star — and absorbs nearly 99% of the light it receives.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Researchers at the Keele University in Staffordshire, England, didn’t discover WASP-104b, which was first described in 2014. Rather, the authors reviewed a pool of new data provided by the Kepler Space Telescope to learn more about the exoplanet, which is 466 light-years away. For instance, we now know that WASP-104b orbits so close to its parent star that it completes a full orbital rotation once every 1.76 days. However, the most striking characteristic of the planet is its extraordinary light response — or lack of it, for that matter.

Scientists estimate that the hot Jupiter absorbs nearly 99% of all the incoming light that reaches it, making it nearly invisible. It’s one of the darkest planets known to astronomers, the top spot belonging to a pitch-black exoplanet called TrES 2B, or Kepler-1b, located about 750 light-years away from Earth.

“From all the dark planets I could find in the literature, this is top five-ish,” study author Teo Mocnik,  a researcher at Keele University in Staffordshire, England, told New Scientist. “I think top three.”

The astronomers learned all of this by employing the transit method, which involves measuring the minute dimming of a distant star as a planet passes in front of it. Along with the transit method, the Keele astronomers also measured the subtle gravitational wobbling WASP-104b inflicts on its host star.

WASP-104b orbits extremely close to its parent star and, ironically, it’s precisely due to this proximity that the alien world is so dark. WASP-104b is tidally locked, meaning that just like Earth’s moon it always shows the same side to its host star, with the opposite face always facing away from the parent star. As a result, on one side there is a permanent day, while the other side experiences an endless night. Being so close to its yellow-dwarf star, the day side of WASP-104b is way too hot to allow clouds or ice to form, which normally brighten a planet and reflect light outward. Instead, WASP-104 is thought to be covered in a hazy atmosphere comprising atomic sodium and potassium, which are known to absorb many colors in the visual spectrum.

The astronomers estimate that WASP-104b absorbs between 97% and 99% of all the light it receives, making it appear darker than coal. In reality, however, the planet likely has a dark purple or red halo surrounding it, due to incoming solar radiation — it’s just that we can’t really tell from our vantage point, 466 light-years away.

The study was reported in pre-print resource arXiv, and is awaiting peer review.

Physicists think they might have found a dark boson — a dark matter particle

The mountains of data retrieved back in 2012 when physicists were trying to confirm the existence of the Higgs boson could yield a new and unexpected find — a new particle dubbed the Madala boson.

Proton-proton collisions events in which 2 high energy electrons and two high energy muons are observed. Image credits Taylor L, McCauley T/CERN.

The first evidence of the Madala boson was seen in the data recorded at CERN in 2012 from the Large Hadron Collider (LHC,) says the High Energy Physics Group (HEP) from South Africa’s Withstander University. The new particle’s case has since been strengthened by repeat experiments in 2015 and 2016.

“Based on a number of features and peculiarities of the data reported by the experiments at the LHC and collected up to the end of 2012, the Wits HEP group in collaboration with scientists in India and Sweden formulated the Madala hypothesis,” says Professor Bruce Mellado, team leader of the HEP group at Wits.

“The experiments at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) display a number of hints in their data that are indicative of the existence of new bosons,” their report reads.

Its existence hasn’t yet been confirmed, but the group claims that if their ‘Madala hypothesis’ is correct, then we could finally begin to understand dark matter. This amounts to an estimated 27 percent of all the mass and energy in the observable Universe, but otherwise, it’s completely foreign to us. We can’t touch it, we can’t see it…the only way we know it’s there is because we can detect its gravitational pull — and nothing else.

So it’s hardly surprising that, despite years of trying to figure out, we have no clue what dark matter actually is. The way scientists are going about it today is to find out what it isn’t, hoping we’ll have enough data to explain it at some point in the future.

“Physics today is at a crossroads similar to the times of Einstein and the fathers of Quantum Mechanics,” said Mellado.

“Classical physics failed to explain a number of phenomena and, as a result, it needed to be revolutionised with new concepts, such as relativity and quantum physics, leading to the creation of what we know now as modern physics.”

When they confirmed the existence of the Higgs boson four years ago, physicists finally verified the Standard Model of Physics. But even the fully fleshed model can’t explain the existence or properties of dark matter. The Madala boson would do just that — if it’s real. As Mellado and his team explain, while the Higgs boson only interacts with known matter, the Madala boson seems to interact only with dark matter.

The four fundamental forces are gravity, electromagnetism and the weak and strong nuclear forces. Each force has a corresponding boson or force carrier that gives rise or mediates the forces between other particles. For instance, the electromagnetic force is carried by photons — perhaps the most famous particles — while weak and strong forces are carried by W bosons, Z bosons, and gluons, respectively. Though we’ve yet to find a force carrier particle for gravity, physicists predict there should be one, for now hypothetically called a graviton.

The discovery of the Higgs boson did not signify the discovery of a new force or family of particles, but the Madala boson might.

Details of the discovery are still scarce, but what we do know up to now has been outlined in the South African scientific collaboration with CERN’s 2015-2016 Annual Report (SA-CERN.) Here, the Madala boson is described as having a mass of around 270 giga electronvolts (GeV) – or roughly 270 billion electron volts. To put that into perspective, the Higgs boson has a mass of either 123.5 GeV or 126.5 GeV. The paper also details how the same repeat experiments that strengthened the case for the Madala boson also suggested there’s an even heavier potential new boson, weighing in at a whopping 750 GeV, waiting to be found…maybe. We don’t know. It’s all an educated guess at this point.

Evidence of the Madala boson’s existance on the left, and for the heavier boson on the right. Image credits SA-CERN.

So right now, we just have to play the waiting game until the teams come up with more evidence and the physics community gets a chance to analyze them. But should these new particles be confirmed, it will set the world of physics alight.

“The significance of the discovery of new bosons goes beyond that of the Higgs boson. The Higgs boson was needed to complete the Standard Model of Particle Physics,” the SA-CERN report reads.

“However, this boson did not signify the discovery of a new force or family of particles. The discovery of new bosons would be evidence for forces and particles formerly unknown. Therefore, and without a reasonable doubt, the discovery of new bosons would be worth a Nobel Prize in Physics.”

Update:

Since we’ve written this article, CERN has tweeted this:

So does this mean there isn’t such a thing as the Madala boson? Not necessarily, it just means that there isn’t any data to support its existence in the LHC measurements. Something obviously went wrong here — someone from HEP jumped the gun or their findings just didn’t stand up to scrutiny.

Stay tuned for more updates.

Dark circles around eyes

Why we get dark circles around the eyes

Dark circles around eyes

Credit: Flickr user Anna Gutermuth

Dark circles under the eyes or periorbital dark circles, as they’re referred to in medicine, are a sign of fatigue. Some people, however, have these dark circles despite having a good night’s sleep — that’s simply the way they are, and not a cause for concern if it’s hereditary.

These periorbital dark circles are very conspicuous because the skin around the eyes is the thinnest in all the body, around four times thinner than the rest of the body to be more precise.

Since the skin can become so thin, blood vessels are easily seen. This is why a bruise around the eyes shows worse than any other place on the body — you can just see more easily the ruptured blood vessels through the thin skin.

It’s the blood that makes dark circles appear blue, most of the time. Even though blood isn’t blue, the skin only allows violet wavelengths of light to pass through, so only blue light is reflected back to hit retinas, making veins look bluish. People with darker skin tend to have veins which appear green or brown. As an oddity, people with very light skin, such as albinos, will have dark circles that appear dark red or dark purple, which more closely resembles the color of blood.

As we age, skin becomes thinner all over the body and loses elasticity, areas around the eyes included. This is why the elderly have prominent periorbital dark circles, even though they’re well rested. Jokingly or not, many say about the elderly that they’ve become tired by living such a long life, which is true to a certain extent but not in the way they think.

Some people are genetically predisposed to have dark circles all the time, young or old, because of a condition known as periorbital hyperpigmentation. The condition causes the skin below the eyes to produce more melanin —  the pigment that gives human skin, hair, and eyes their color — resulting in it appearing darker.

Periorbital hyperpigmentation doesn’t pose any medical risks, “however the development of dark circles under the eyes in any age is of great aesthetic concern because it may depict the individual as sad, tired, stressed, and old,” wrote dermatologist Roberts WE. He says the condition (which mostly affects people with darker skin) is challenging to treat, complex in pathogenesis, and lacking straightforward and repeatable therapeutic options, which is why many turn to cosmetics to cover up the skin around the eyes.

Other conditions that may cause dark circles:

  • Allergies
  • Nasal congestion
  • Medical conditions (eczema, thyroid problems, etc.)
  • Venous congestion in under eye blood vessels
  • Environmental exposure
  • Heredity

Lifestyle choices can also lead to prominent dark circles around the eyes. These may include:

  • Smoking
  • Hyperpigmentation caused by sun damage
  • Caffeine consumption
  • Alcohol consumption
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Dehydration
  • Dietary deficiencies
Bilateral periorbital ecchymosis (raccoon eyes). Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Bilateral periorbital ecchymosis (raccoon eyes). Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Raccoon eyes

Hand in hand with preorbital dark circles is periorbital puffiness, or saggy bags below the eyes. Allergies, excessive salt consumption, and diseases like the flu cause fluid to build up below the eyes. The saggy bags exert more pressure on the skin and blood vessels which surround the eyes making dark circles appear even more prominent. That’s for young people. As with dark circles, many old people get periorbital puffiness no matter what.

Nothing comes close, however, to periorbital ecchymosis, also known as “raccoon eyes” or “panda eyes”. This condition typically occurs when a person suffers a nasty blow to the head, and the resulting skull fracture or ruptured meninges causes blood to flood the soft tissue around the eyes. Sometimes cancer may be involved. Raccoon eyes are serious business and require urgent medical attention which often leads to surgery.

The Universe expands much faster than we thought, and current models can’t explain why

Scientists have completed the most precise measurement of the Universe’s rate of expansion to date,  but the result just isn’t compatible with speed calculations from residual Big Bang radiation. Should the former results be confirmed by independent techniques, we might very well have to rewrite the laws of cosmology.

Data from galaxies such as M101, seen here, allow scientists to gauge the speed at which the universe is expanding.
Image credits X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO; Optical: Detlef Hartmann; Infrared: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“I think that there is something in the standard cosmological model that we don’t understand,” says astrophysicist Adam Riess, a physicist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, who co-discovered dark energy in 1998 and led the latest study.

This discrepancy might even mean that dark energy — thought to be responsible for observed acceleration in the expansion of the Universe — has steadily been gaining in strength since the dawn of time. Should the results be confirmed, they have the potential of “becoming transformational in cosmology” said Kevork Abazajian, cosmologist at the University of California, Irvine.

In our current cosmological model, the Universe is the product of a tug of war of sorts between dark matter and dark energy. Dark matter uses its gravitational pull to slow down expansion, while dark energy is pushing everything apart, making it accelerate. Riess and others suggest that dark energy’s strength has been constant throughout the history of the Universe.

Most of what we know about dark matter-dark energy interaction and how each of them affects the Universe comes from studying remanent Big Bang radiation, known as the cosmic microwave background. The most exhaustive study on this subject was done by the European Space Agency’s Planck observatory. Those measurements essentially give researchers a picture of the Universe when it was really young — 400.000 years of age. Based on them, they can determine how the Universe evolved up to now, including the rate of expansion at any point in its history. Knowing where it was and where it is now, they can also predict those two parameters in the future.

But here’s the thing: they don’t add up to the observed rate of expansion. These predictions are invalidated by direct measurements of the current rate of cosmic expansion — also known as the Hubble constant. This constant is calculated by observing how rapidly nearby galaxies move away from the Milky Way using stars of known intrinsic brightness called ‘standard candles’. Until now the errors were small enough that the disagreement could be ignored, but Riess and his team warn that the discrepancy is too great to ignore any longer.

Riess’s team studied two types of standard candles in 18 galaxies using hundreds of hours of observing time on the Hubble Space Telescope.

“We’ve been going gangbusters with this,” says Riess.

They managed to measure constant with an uncertainty of 2.4%, down from a previous best result of 3.3%. Based on this value, they found that the actual rate of expansion is about 8% faster than what the Planck data predicts, Riess reports.

If both the new Hubble constant and the earlier Planck team measurements are accurate, then there’s a problem with our current model. Either we misunderstood dark energy, or we got it right but it just got stronger as time progressed. Planck researcher François Bouchet of the Institute of Astrophysics in Paris says he doubts that the problem is in his team’s measurement, but that the new findings are “exciting” regardless of what the solution turns out to be.

However, when working on such (forgive the pun) astronomical scales, a lot of things can go wrong. One last possibility is that standard candles aren’t that reliable when it comes to precision measurements, says Wendy Freedman, astronomer at the University of Chicago in Illinois. In 2001 she led the first precision measurement of the Hubble constant. She and her team are working on an alternative method based on a different class of stars. We’ll just have to wait and see.

The full paper, titled “A 2.4% Determination of the Local Value of the Hubble Constant” has been published on the arXiv online repository on and can be read here.