'Tatooine' Planet With Two Suns Could Host Habitable Moon?

3:11:13 AM, Wednesday, January 11, 2012

“A new planet found last fall may be orbiting two stars, but it's far from a real-life Tatooine. Dubbed Kepler-16b, the world is a cold, Saturn-size gas giant with little chance of hosting desert farmers like the fictional Star Wars world.

But according to new computer simulations, the Kepler-16 stars may still shine on a world fit for life—a hypothetical Earthlike moon orbiting Kepler-16b.

Kepler-16b was discovered by NASA's Kepler spacecraft, which looks for dips in starlight as a planet transits—or passes in front of—a star, as seen from Earth.

For the new study, Billy Quarles, a doctoral student at the University of Texas at Arlington, and colleagues simulated several possible configurations for a theoretical Earth-mass world in the Kepler-16 system.

The team started by drawing up a "laundry list of parameters" for defining the habitable zone—the region around a star where a planet gets enough heat to host liquid water, essential for life as we know it—Quarles said Monday during ameeting of the American Astronomical Society in Austin, Texas.

The researchers assumed that the brighter of the two Kepler-16 stars is the main source of heat and light for any orbiting worlds.

Based on that star's size and temperature, the team determined that the main habitable zone possible around the Kepler-16 stars would extend from about 34 million to 66 million miles (55 to 106 million kilometers) out.

Capturing a Habitable Moon

With a roughly circular orbit about 65 million miles from the stars, the Saturn-like planet is on the outer edge of this main habitable zone. And while this "Tatooine" is uninhabitable, an Earthlike moon in Kepler-16b's orbit could sustain life, the researchers said.

The group isn't yet ready to say whether a moon could have formed alongside the planet. But their simulations suggest a moon could have arrived, fully formed, later in Kepler-16b's life.

According to the new models, a planet closer to the brighter star, squarely in the habitable zone, could have long ago been ejected from its orbit due to gravitational interactions with the other objects in the system.

Kepler-16b's gravitational pull could have attracted the Earthlike planet during its journey outward, turning the world from planet to moon.

Such a moon would technically be in the main habitable zone of the Kepler-16 system and—unlike Mars, on the outer edge of the habitable zone in our solar system—the moon would be massive enough to retain an Earthlike atmosphere, the team said.

First to Find an Alien Moon?

If astronomers were to discover an Earthlike satellite orbiting Kepler-16b—a bigif—it would be a major first.

More than 700 alien planets have been confirmed so far, and Kepler has identified more than 2,000 more potential planets.

As of yet, though, no moons have been detected outside our solar system.

With the new study, "we can say there are exomoons possible around Kepler-16b, and what's important about this is that they are detectable ... down to 0.2 Earth masses," Quarles said.

To do so would require looking for subtle irregularities in the gas giant's orbit that could be caused by a moon's gravitational pull—something Kepler is equipped to do…”

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Worm-Eating Plant Found - Kills via Underground Leaves

2:26:21 AM, Wednesday, January 11, 2012

“Scientists have solved an underground mystery: Why does a plant that survives on sunlight grow leaves beneath the earth?

Flowering plants of the genusPhilcoxia are the only known plants with the "awkward" feature of subterranean leave, said Rafael Oliveira, a plant biologist at the State University of Campinas in Brazil.

Oliveira's new research sheds new light on the oddity, showing that the leaves act as traps for tiny roundworms, or nematodes. This worm food is vital for the plant's survival in the nutrient-deprived savannas of central Brazil.

Plants may seem "boring for some people, because they don't move or actively hunt for their food," Oliveira said by email.

But "they have evolved a number of fascinating solutions to solve common problems, such as the lack of readily available nutrients or water."

Feeding Worms to Plants

Oliveira and colleagues had suspected that Philcoxia plants may be carnivorous, because their sandy habitats and their physical features—such as poorly developed root systems—resemble those of known carnivorous plants. The team had also recently observed roundworms on the plants' subterranean leaves.

To test their hypothesis, the researchers bred nematodes in nitrogen, a marker that would allow the scientists to know if the plant indeed digests worms.

The team then "fed" the nematodes to plants in the lab, and harvested their leaves 24 and 48 days later. A chemical analysis revealed nitrogen from the worms had been incorporated into the plant's leaves.

The results add up to the first evidence of a carnivorous plant with specific adaptations for trapping and eating roundworms, he added.

More Killer Plants Out There?

Only 0.2 percent of flowering plant species are known to digest meat.

But "if we start to look closer at microorganisms [such as nematodes] as a prey type," Oliveira predicted, "we might find more carnivorous plants."

Many plant behaviors, he added, "operate hidden from our view."”

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Hackers Plot DIY Sputniks for Internet Freedom

10:01:08 PM, Monday, January 02, 2012

“(BBC) Computer hackers plan to take the internet beyond the reach of censors by putting their own communication satellites into orbit.

The scheme was outlined at the Chaos Communication Congress in Berlin.

The project's organisers said the Hackerspace Global Grid will also involve developing a grid of ground stations to track and communicate with the satellites.

Longer term they hope to help put an amateur astronaut on the moon.

Hobbyists have already put a few small satellites into orbit - usually only for brief periods of time - but tracking the devices has proved difficult for low-budget projects.

The hacker activist Nick Farr first put out calls for people to contribute to the project in August. He said that the increasing threat of internet censorship had motivated the project.

"The first goal is an uncensorable internet in space. Let's take the internet out of the control of terrestrial entities," Mr Farr said.

Beyond balloons

He cited the proposed Stop Online Piracy Act (Sopa) in the United States as an example of the kind of threat facing online freedom. If passed, the act would allow for some sites to be blocked on copyright grounds.

Whereas past space missions have almost all been the preserve of national agencies and large companies, amateur enthusiasts have in recent years sent a few payloads into orbit.

These devices have mostly been sent up using balloons and are tricky to pinpoint precisely from the ground.

According to Armin Bauer, a 26-year-old enthusiast from Stuttgart who is working on the Hackerspace Global Grid, this is largely due to lack of funding.

"Professionals can track satellites from ground stations, but usually they don't have to because, if you pay a large sum [to send the satellite up on a rocket], they put it in an exact place," Mr Bauer said.

In the long run, a wider hacker aerospace project aims to put an amateur astronaut onto the moon within the next 23 years.

"It is very ambitious so we said let's try something smaller first," Mr Bauer added.

Ground network

The Berlin conference was the latest meeting held by the Chaos Computer Club, a decades-old German hacker group that has proven influential not only for those interested in exploiting or improving computer security, but also for people who enjoy tinkering with hardware and software.

When Mr Farr called for contributions to Hackerspace, Mr Bauer and others decided to concentrate on the communications infrastructure aspect of the scheme…”

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Nasa's Gravity Twins Now Circling Moon

9:51:47 PM, Monday, January 02, 2012

“The US space agency (Nasa) has succeeded in placing two new satellites in orbit around the Moon.

Both spacecraft were put in elliptical paths around the lunar body over the weekend after performing braking manoeuvres following their more than 100-day journey from Earth.

The identical Grail twins are to map gravity variations across the lunar body in unprecedented detail.

This will help scientists refine our theories for how the Moon formed.

It will also enable them to test new ideas, such as the provocative suggestion made earlier this year that there were probably two moons in the sky above Earth billions of years ago.

Lead scientist Dr Maria Zuber is certainly hoping for some dramatic discoveries.

"Grail is a journey to the centre of the Moon and it will use exceedingly precise measurements of gravity to reveal what the inside of the Moon is like," the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researcher said.

"This information will be combined with the plethora of remarkable observations of the Moon that have been taken by other satellites before, and together they will enable us to reconstruct the Moon's early evolution."

The 300kg Grail spacecraft were launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, last September, and took a long spiral out to their destination.

This weekend, they approached the Moon over the south pole, 25 hours apart. Each satellite in turn fired its main engine to slow it and put it in an elliptical orbit around the lunar sphere.

This orbit has a period of 11.5 hours and must now gradually be reduced in size and circularised before any science can begin.

A series of further burns on each spacecraft should achieve this goal by March.

The twins will then map the small variations in gravity across the lunar surface from an altitude of 55km.

These gravity differences are the result of an uneven distribution of mass. Obvious examples at the Moon's surface include big mountain ranges or deep impact basins, but even inside the lunar body the rock will be arranged in an irregular fashion, with some regions being denser than others.

All this will have a subtle influence on the pull of gravity sensed by the over-flying spacecraft.

The Grail twins will make their measurements by carrying out a carefully calibrated pursuit of each other.

As the lead spacecraft flies through the uneven gravity field, it will experience small accelerations or decelerations. The second spacecraft, following some 100-200km behind, will detect these disturbances as very slight changes in the separation between the pair - deviations that are not much more than the width of a human red blood cell.

When the gravity map is combined with comparable-resolution topographical information showing the surface highs and lows, scientists should be able to deduce the Moon's probable internal structure and composition. This is fundamental knowledge that will play into theories of how the lunar body formed and how it has changed through time…”

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LHC Reports Discovery of its First New Particle

12:03:27 AM, Friday, December 23, 2011

“(BBC) The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) on the Franco-Swiss border has made its first clear observation of a new particle since opening in 2009.

It is called Chi_b (3P) and will help scientists understand better the forces that hold matter together.

The as-yet unpublished discovery is reported on the Arxiv pre-print server.

The LHC is exploring some of the fundamental questions in "big physics" by colliding proton particles together in a huge underground facility.

Detail in the sub-atomic wreckage from these impacts is expected to yield new information about the way the Universe is constructed.

The Chi_b (3P) is a more excited state of Chi particles already seen in previous collision experiments, explained Prof Roger Jones, who works on the Atlas detector at the LHC.

"The new particle is made up of a 'beauty quark' and a 'beauty anti-quark', which are then bound together," he told BBC News.

"People have thought this more excited state should exist for years but nobody has managed to see it until now.

"It's also interesting for what it tells us about the forces that hold the quark and the anti-quark together - the strong nuclear force. And that's the same force that holds, for instance, the atomic nucleus together with its protons and the neutrons."

The LHC is designed to fill in gaps in the Standard Model - the current framework devised to explain the interactions of sub-atomic particles - and also to look for any new physics beyond it.

In particular, it is using the collisions to try to pin down the famous Higgs particle, which physicists hypothesize can explain why matter has mass.

Discoveries such as Chi_b (3P) are an important part of this quest because they add to the wider background knowledge, says Prof Jones, from Lancaster University, UK.

"The better we understand the strong force, the more we understand a large part of the data that we see, which is quite often the background to the more exciting things we are looking for, like the Higgs.

"So, it's helping put together that basic understanding that we have and need to do the new physics."

Prof Paul Newman, from the University of Birmingham, added: "This is the first time such a new particle has been found at the LHC. Its discovery is a testament to the very successful running of the collider in 2011 and to the superb understanding of our detector which has been achieved by the Atlas collaboration already."

And Andy Chisholm, a PhD student from Birmingham who worked on the analysis, said: "Analysing the billions of particle collisions at the LHC is fascinating. There are potentially all kinds of interesting things buried in the data, and we were lucky to look in the right place at the right time."”

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NASA's Kepler Finds Two Earth-Size Planets Around Sunlike Star

4:36:03 AM, Wednesday, December 21, 2011

“Two new planets found orbiting a sunlike star are the first truly Earth-size worlds discovered by NASA's Kepler mission, scientists announced today.

The find comes on the heels of Kepler's first potentially Earthlike planet orbiting squarely within its star's water-friendly "Goldilocks zone"—the region that's not too hot and not too cold for liquid water to exist on a planet's surface.

Designated Kepler-20e and Kepler-20f, the two new planets are comparable in size to Earth and Venus: At 0.87 times the size of Earth, Kepler-20e is slightly smaller than Venus, while Kepler-20f is 1.03 times Earth's radius.

But both new extrasolar planets—or exoplanets—orbit their star much too closely to be within the habitable zone.

In fact, the entire Kepler-20 system is believed to contain at least five planets all orbiting their star within a distance smaller than that between Mercury and the sun.

This orbital distance makes the planets very hot. For instance, Kepler-20e is estimated to have an average surface temperature of 1,400ºF (760ºC), while Kepler-20f is a "cooler" 800ºF (427ºC).

By contrast, Earth's average surface temperature is 57.2ºF (14°C).

Still, this is the first confirmation of truly Earth-size planets by the Kepler team—a key goal of the overall mission.

"December 2011 may be remembered as the first time humanity was able to discover an Earth-size planet in orbit around another star," lead author Francois Fressin, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, said today during a NASA teleconference.

The discovery "demonstrates for the first time that Earth-size planets exist around other stars, and that we are able to detect them."

New Planets a Tight-Knit Group

Previously discovered exoplanets have all been considerably larger than Earth.

Even the just announced Goldilocks world, Kepler-22b, was estimated to be 2.4 times Earth's radius and is thought to have a fairly low density, meaning it could have a thick atmosphere and a surface quite unlike Earth's.

With the new Kepler discovery, we now have confirmation of planets that "are exactly the right size [to be Earthlike] ... but are too hot" for life as we know it, team member David Charbonneau, also with the CfA, told National Geographic News…”

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In Memoriam: Writer Christopher Hitchens Dies, 1949-2011

1:03:49 AM, Friday, December 16, 2011

-- An intellectual champion among us lowly primates. Below is a very recent video that sums it all up really well. I raise my glass to you, Hitch! Thank you.

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Baby Seal Breaks Into House and Curls Up on Sofa

9:04:44 PM, Thursday, December 15, 2011

"New Zealander Annette Swoffer got the surprise of her life when she found a baby seal in her kitchen, who later began to snooze on her couch, the New Zealand Herald reports.

According to the report, the seal wandered from the bay waterfront, through a residential area, across busy roads, under a gate, through a cat door, and up some stairs before he was found at around 9:30 p.m.

"I thought 'I'm hallucinating, this is just wrong,'" Swoffer told the paper. "Then it looks at me with those huge brown eyes. It was so cute..."

Swoffer then called the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), who called the Department of Conservation. According to a report by Stuff.co.nz, the department was already looking for the pup.

When biodiversity program manager Chris Clark came to pick up the animal, he told Swoffer he'd been looking for the seal all afternoon and that it had likely just been weaned from its mother.

Department of Conservation's Katrina Knill elaborated on the state of the New Zealand fur seal population in an email to The Huffington Post:

"NZ fur seal populations are starting to recover in the western Bay of Plenty, and are believed to be breeding on Motuanau (Plate) Island, which is approximately 12km offshore.

At this time of year, young seals are dispersing from the rookeries. Seal pups may often spend days at a time alone, whilst the mother is away foraging for food.

Seals usually occupy rocky shores in places that have some protection from heavy seas and are often found resting on Bay of Plenty beaches.

Occasionally they travel inland (usually via estuaries and waterways). When on land they can become disoriented and have been found on previous occasions in unexpected places such as backyards, drains and streets.

Seals are wild animals and the Department's policy is to return them to the care of their natural habitat."

Knill went on to write that seals can carry infectious diseases and injure humans, so members of the public should contact authorities (0800DOCHOT in NZ) if they see a seal in trouble or in an odd location. Click here to learn more about New Zealand's fur seals."

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Supermassive black hole will 'eat' gas cloud

4:06:08 AM, Thursday, December 15, 2011

"Researchers have spotted a giant gas cloud spiralling into the supermassive black hole at our galaxy's centre.

Though it is known that black holes draw in everything nearby, it will be the first chance to see one consume such a cloud.

As it is torn apart, the turbulent area around the black hole will become unusually bright, giving astronomers a chance to learn more about it.

The cloud, which is described in Nature, should meet its end in 2013.

Researchers using the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope estimate that despite its size, the cloud has a total mass of only about three times that of Earth.

They have plotted the cloud's squashed, oval-shaped path and estimate it has doubled its speed in the last seven years - to 2,350km per second.

It should spiral in to within about 40 billion kilometres of the black hole in the middle of 2013.

Our local supermassive black hole, dubbed Sagittarius A*, lies about 27,000 light-years away, and has a mass about four million times that of our Sun.

As the name implies, beyond a certain threshold point - the event horizon - nothing can escape its pull, not even light itself.

But outside that regime is a swirling mass of material, not unlike water circling a drain. In astronomical terms, is a relatively quiet zone about which little is known.

That looks set to change, though, as the gas cloud approaches.

Spaghetti tester

It does not comprise enough matter to hold itself together under its own gravity, as a star might, so the cloud will begin to elongate as it meets its doom.

"The idea of an astronaut close to a black hole being stretched out to resemble spaghetti is familiar from science fiction," said lead author of the study Stefan Gillessen, from Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Germany.

"But we can now see this happening for real to the newly discovered cloud. It is not going to survive the experience."

It is likely that about half of the cloud will be swallowed up, with the remainder flung back out into space.

But this violent process will literally shed light on the closest example we have of an enigmatic celestial object.

The acceleration of the cloud's constituent material will create a shower of X-rays that will help astronomers learn more about our local black hole.

As astronomer Mark Morris of the University of California Los Angeles put it in an accompanying article in Nature, "many telescopes are likely to be watching"."

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Atom Smasher's Higgs Particle Findings: Physicists React

12:35:32 AM, Wednesday, December 14, 2011

"Scientists at the world's largest particle accelerator announced today (Dec. 13) that they'd narrowed down the possibilities for the existence of the elusive Higgs boson particle. This particle, long theorized but not yet detected, is thought to explain why particles have mass.

The data so far from the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) indicate that if it exists at all, the Higgs must weigh between 115 and 130 times the mass of a proton (a unit denoted by gigaelectronvolts, or GeV). Two experiments at LHC, called ATLAS and CMS, also show hints that they've seen a particle weighing about 124 or 125 GeV that could be the Higgs boson.

Though it's too soon for physicists to declare a definite discovery of the Higgs, experts said the findings so far represent an important step forward. Here's what some leading physicists have to say about today's announcement:

"This is not the end, but the beginning. The Higgs was just the last missing piece of the Standard Model of particles. But that theory is ugly; it is a theory only a mother can love. The real breakthrough is when the LHC discovers dark matter or strings. That would be spectacular. So there is a whole new universe beyond the Higgs."

—Michio Kaku, City College of New York theoretical physicist, told LiveScience

"Both experiments showed a very impressive turnaround in processing the data and very good understanding of their detectors. It is unprecedented to have full data samples from such complex experiments to be analyzed in a fairly sophisticated way in just one month since the end of the proton-proton run.

—Greg Landsberg, Brown University physicist, CMS physics coordinator at the LHC, told LiveScience

"ATLAS data, just like CMS ones contain interesting excesses. Whether what we both see is a real signal or just a funny game [that] statistics often play with us, remains to be seen.

"This looks to me like a lot more than 'intriguing hints': it's about what you would expect if a Higgs was there at 125 GeV, highly unlikely to see if there is no Higgs there."

— Peter Woit, Columbia University mathematician, from his blog "Not Even Wrong"

"Essentials: what we're seeing is pretty consistent with the existence of a Higgs boson around 123-126 GeV. The data aren't nearly conclusive enough to say that it's definitely there. But the LHC is purring along, and a year from now we'll know a lot more.

"It's like rushing to the tree on Christmas morning, ripping open a giant box, and finding a small note that says 'Santa is on his way! Hang in there!' The LHC is real and Santa is not, but you know what I mean."

—Sean Carroll, California Institute of Technology physicist, from his blog "Cosmic Variance," hosted by Discover Magazine

"All in all, it's a definite maybe. Putting the results together in the way only a frequentist can the result is a 2.4 sigma detection. In other words, nothing any serious scientist would call convincing."

—Pete Coles, Cardiff University theoretical astrophysicist, from his blog "In The Dark"

"Two independent (and highly competitive) research teams, involving thousands of scientists, using each of these detectors have seen moderately convincing evidence that the elusive Higgs particle has been created in some of the proton–proton collisions.

"This is a challenging experiment as the detectors can't see the Higgs particle directly — it is a short-lived particle that quickly falls apart (decays) — but, rather, they infer its presence by seeing its decay products."

—Brian Greene, Columbia University physicist, on the "World Science Festival" blog

"The proof will come in the next year. The spectacularly successful LHC accelerator (which the Europeans built when the U.S. killed the superconducting super collider in Texas) will produce 4 times more Higgs particles in the next year. The significance of the hints reported today could turn into proof beyond a doubt come next October..."

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Meteor Crater Helps Unlock Planetary History

11:20:50 PM, Thursday, December 08, 2011

"The Barringer meteorite crater — known popularly as "Meteor Crater" — near Winslow, Ariz., was formed some 50,000 years ago in the flat-lying sedimentary rocks of the Southern Colorado Plateau in Arizona. Now, scientists are using the crater to study mysteries near and far.

This out-of-the-blue geological feature is considered a prime example of a young, well-preserved and well-documented simple impact crater.

That means it represents one of the most common morphological features on planetary surfaces, both on Earth, and elsewhere in our solar system. Scientists are using this crater to probe not just our own planetary history, but the mechanics of space rock impacts throughout the universe.

Meteor Crater is one of very few impact sites on our planet where the geologic details of crater excavation and ejecta emplacement are preserved. While the outline of most simple craters is circular, the shape of Arizona's Meteor Crater strongly deviates from a circle and resembles a quadrangle.

"Hole Earth" catalog

The bowl-shape crater is surprisingly well preserved by terrestrial standards. That makes it a "kiss and tell" terrestrial feature that is being plumbed by researchers far and wide.

The crater is roughly 0.75 miles (1.2 kilometers) in diameter. That giant hole in the ground sports a rim that rises up to 196 feet (60 meters) above the surrounding landscape. The crater floor falls to a depth of 590 feet (180 meters).

The upper crater walls have average slopes of 40 to 50 degrees, although they also include vertical to near-vertical cliffs. The rock ejected from the crater forms a debris blanket that slopes away from the crater rim out to a distance of 0.6 miles (1 km).

This impact crater is viewed as a treasured scientific site, not only here on Earth but in shaping future moon and Mars exploration plans. It has become a training ground for astronauts and robot hardware as well as a learning lab for planetary geologists who are investigating impact cratered terrains on other planets.

Indeed, it's a "hole Earth catalog" of processes that keeps on giving.

Honing exploration skills

When a cosmic interloper slammed into Earth tens of thousands of years ago, more than 175 million metric tons of rock were excavated and deposited on the crater rim and the surrounding terrain in a matter of a few seconds, said David Kring, a senior staff scientist and geologist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston.

Kring has been engaged in studies of the crater for decades. He uses the site as a teaching tool for students, as well as a locale for honing the exploration skills to lunge beyond Earth.

"Those rocks and the processes they record remain the focus of our studies next year," Kring told SPACE.com. "At the same time, we will conduct training activities that are designed to enhance the success of exploration of the moon and planetary surfaces throughout the solar system."

There are a lot of activities at the crater, Kring said. He made two trips there in October alone, he added..."

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Halliburton 'Destroyed' Gulf of Mexico Spill Evidence

2:05:22 AM, Thursday, December 08, 2011

"(BBC) Oil giant BP has accused oilfields services firm Halliburton of destroying damaging evidence relating to last year's oil well blast in the Gulf of Mexico in which 11 people were killed.

At a hearing in a New Orleans' court, BP said Halliburton had "intentionally" destroyed test results on its cement product used at the Macondo well.

Halliburton denied this, saying the claims were "without merit".

Cement was a key factor in causing America's worst offshore oil spill.

The blast that followed at the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in April led to the release of 780m litres (206m gallons) of crude oil in the Gulf of Mexico.

BP and Halliburton are locked in a legal battle ahead of a trial on damages early next year.

Through their lawyers, the former partners in the venture are seeking maximum pre-trial advantage, the BBC's Steve Kingstone in Washington reports.

Trading allegations

BP made its accusations in a court filing on Monday.

It said that after reviewing the test results, Halliburton "destroyed records of the testing as well as the physical cement samples used in the testing".

The company also said that Halliburton had failed to produce computer modelling evidence, which showed how the cement performed.

In its motion, BP asked for sanctions against Halliburton, claiming that the company's cement slurry was "unstable".

In its turn, Halliburton rejected the claim, saying it would contest it in court.

The world's second-largest oilfields services provider also accused BP of fraud and defamation in the investigation.

The contractor alleged that BP had ordered last-minute changes to the cement.

The two companies traded allegations ahead of the trial over the spill disaster in February.

The trial is expected to apportion blame and quantify damages arising from the spill.

There will also be other phases of the case over clean-up costs and other claims."

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500 Million-Year-Old Super Predator Had Remarkable Vision

1:20:00 AM, Thursday, December 08, 2011

"South Australian Museum and University of Adelaide scientists working on fossils from Kangaroo Island, South Australia, have found eyes belonging to a giant 500 million-year-old marine predator that sat at the top of the earth's first food chain.

This important discovery will be accompanied by an artist's impression of the super predator on the front cover of the 8 December 2011 issue of Nature.

Palaeontologists have discovered exceptionally preserved fossil eyes of the top predator in the Cambrian ocean from over 500 million years ago: the fearsome metre-long Anomalocaris.

The scientists show that the world's first apex predator had highly acute vision, rivalling or exceeding that of most living insects and crustaceans.

The international team behind this discovery includes two Adelaide researchers, Dr Michael Lee (SA Museum and University of Adelaide) and Dr Jim Jago (SA Museum and UniSA), and was led by Dr John Paterson (University of New England).

The World's Oldest Apex Predator

Anomalocaris is the stuff of nightmares and sci-fi movies. It is considered to be at the top of the earliest food chains because of its large body size, formidable grasping claws at the front of its head and a circular mouth with razor-sharp serrations.

Supporting evidence of this predator's dominance includes damage to contemporaneous trilobites, and even its fossilised poo (or coprolites) containing the remains of its prey.

The discovery of its stalked eyes - showing astonishing details of its optical design - from a 515 million-year-old deposit on Kangaroo Island in South Australia now confirms it had superb vision to support its predatory lifestyle.

All The Better To See You With…

The fossils represent compound eyes - the multi-faceted variety seen in arthropods such as flies, crabs and kin - and are amongst the largest to have ever existed, with each eye up to 3 cm in length and containing over 16,000 lenses.

The number of lenses and other aspects of their optical design suggest that Anomalocaris would have seen its world with exceptional clarity whilst hunting in well-lit waters. Only a few arthropods, such as modern predatory dragonflies, have similar resolution.

The existence of highly sophisticated, visual hunters within Cambrian communities would have accelerated the predator-prey 'arms race' that began during this important phase in early animal evolution over half a billion years ago.

The discovery of powerful compound eyes in Anomalocaris confirms it is a close relative of arthropods, and has other far-reaching evolutionary implications. It demonstrates that this particular type of visual organ appeared and was elaborated upon very early during arthropod evolution, originating before other characteristic anatomical structures of this group, such as a hardened exoskeleton and walking legs."

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NASA Vows $8.8 bn Space Telescope on Track for 2018

12:43:04 AM, Thursday, December 08, 2011

"After a series of delays and billions spent over budget, the potent James Webb Space Telescope is on track to launch in 2018 at a total project cost of $8.8 billion, NASA vowed on Tuesday.

The project, which aims to build the world's most powerful telescope, 100 times more sensitive than the Hubble space telescope, has been riddled by poor management and cost overruns.

Though a Congressional subcommittee threatened to ax the project altogether earlier this year as lawmakers grappled with how to reduce a more than $15 trillion national deficit, Congress has since agreed to fully fund it at the level NASA requested.

But NASA's new JWST program manager Rick Howard who came on board last year, still faced an acrimonious grilling on Tuesday from lawmakers in the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology.

Committee chair Ralph Hall described the project as "another case study of NASA mismanagement" and said the NASA reshuffle was "the agency's last opportunity to hold this program together."

"We have changed the management, the priority and the approach," Howard told the committee hearing. "We can deliver JWST within costs."

In February, NASA inspector general Paul Martin told lawmakers that the telescope had gone way over its initial budget of $3.5 billion and was likely to come in at around $6.5 billion.

NASA has also pushed back its scheduled launch -- initially set for 2013 -- numerous times. It is now set for October 2018.

Garth Illingworth, an astronomer and professor at University of California, Santa Cruz, was part of an independent comprehensive review panel (ICRP) that reviewed NASA's work on the JWST and issued a report last year.

"I feel that NASA has actually done a very good job on this replan. They have developed a plan that is I would say uniquely conservative for NASA in the level of reserves and the approach that they are taking," Illingworth told lawmakers.

"They realized that they had seriously flawed management before the time of the ICRP and are trying to rectify it, as Rick said," he added.

"I am highly encouraged by what I have seen over the last six to nine months on this program."

Republican lawmaker James Sensenbrenner asked how the US space agency would carry out any repairs on the telescope, recalling how the orbiting Hubble needed numerous service missions by the space shuttle program, which retired this year.

"We don't have the shuttle anymore. What is going to happen if we need to repair the James Webb Space Telescope or if we find out some the parts were not properly done?" he asked.

Howard responded that NASA was already in the process of testing and checking the mirrors at operating temperature, and noted that the telescope's path would take it beyond where the world's spacecraft have the capacity to carry humans, anyway.

"We know that we only have one chance to get this right," Howard said.

"It is not going to be in orbit around the Earth, it is going to a distance four times further away than the moon. So we are taking every step we can to mitigate the risks to make sure that we do have a system that can work."

"You've just increased my skepticism given the history, and I have been on this committee longer than anybody else," Sensenbrenner answered.

"I can see another money pit coming up.""

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Silicon Rival MoS2 Promises Small, Low-Energy Chips

7:43:25 PM, Monday, December 05, 2011

"The first computer chip made out of a substance described as a "promising" alternative to silicon has been tested by researchers.

The Switzerland-based team used molybdenite disulfide (MoS2) - a dark-coloured, naturally occurring mineral.

The group said the substance could be used in thinner layers than silicon, which is currently the most commonly used component in electronics.

It said MoS2 could make smaller, more flexible chips that used less energy.

The substance is currently used as an ingredient in engine lubricants, ski waxes and as a strengthening agent for plastics.

Prof Andras Kis, the director of the Laboratory of Nanoscale Electronics and Structures (LANES) in Lausanne, published details of the research in the latest edition of the ACS Nano journal.

He said the team chose to experiment with this semiconductor, rather than another material, in part because it was easily available.

"There is something like 19 million metric tonnes around," Prof Kis told the BBC.

"You can just go on some websites on the internet and buy a 1cm by 1cm crystal for around $100 [£64]."

Surfaces oxidise

To obtain a thin layer of the material to work with, Prof Kis's team put a strip of sticky plastic over the crystal, peeled it off and then attached the sliver to a support. The plastic was then peeled off to leave the very thin layer of MoS2 exposed.

Using this, the team built a prototype microchip circuit to which they attached up to six serial transistors allowing them to carry out simple logic operations.

Although the integrated circuit was basic, Prof Kis said it proved that more complex designs would be possible on thinner chips than could be produced with silicon.

"The problem with silicon is that you cannot make very thin things from it because it is very reactive," he said.

"The surface likes to oxidise - to bind with oxygen and hydrogen - and that makes its electrical properties degrade when you want to make a very thin film."

As a result the thinnest usable layers of silicon used in computer chips have been around two nanometres thick. MoS2, by contrast, can be used in layers just three atoms thick, allowing chips to be made at least three times smaller.

Stiff as steel

A key advantage of having a thinner material is that the transistors can also be shrunk in size.

"If you have a transistor that is very thin it will also automatically dissipate less power - so it spends less power. So in a nutshell it allows you to make electronics that spend less electrical energy," Prof Kis said.

MoS2 also has the advantage that it is as stiff as stainless steel, but is also capable of being flexible.

"It can be bent to large angles and can be stretched a lot," said Prof Kis.

"If you take a sheet of molybdenite you can stretch it so that it increases its length by 10% - that is a lot in this context.

"If you did the same with silicon it would break like glass."

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