Astronaut Builds LEGO Space Station Inside Real-Life Space Station

12:04:19 AM, Monday, February 27, 2012

“It took more than 200 astronauts from 12 countries more than a dozen years to build the International Space Station (ISS). Satoshi Furukawa, an astronaut from Japan, matched that feat in just about two hours — and he did it all while aboard the orbiting outpost itself.

It helped that his space station was made out of LEGO.

"It was a great opportunity for me to have built the LEGO space station," Furukawa, a Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) flight engineer, told collectSPACE.com in an interview after he returned to Earth. "I enjoyed building it."

"The ISS was put together in space, piece by piece," said Furukawa. "It's very similar to how you put together LEGO bricks on Earth."

The approximately two-foot (0.6-meter) long model, which replicated the nearly 360-foot (110-meter) space station was more than just a toy. Accompanied by other building brick sets that were launched last year, the LEGO space station was part of an educational collaboration between the Danish toy company and NASA.

After piecing together the toy brick-built station, Furukawa used it as a demonstration for a series of recorded videos aimed at engaging and educating children about living and working in space.

"Kids like LEGO and when they see LEGO floating in space, I'm sure they are excited," Furukawa said. "Well, I hope this experience inspires them to make greater efforts to study science and technology."

Not that the activity was all work and no play.

"He really enjoyed doing that and he kind of became 'the LEGO guy,'" NASA astronaut Michael Fossum said of his crewmate. Fossum was in command of the real station when Furukawa built the LEGO version.

Although building the LEGO space station was an activity aimed at students, it was not all child's play.

"There was actually some learning curve to that, believe it or not," Fossum told collectSPACE.com during a post-mission interview. "LEGOs are an example of something that is a lot of fun on the ground but it can be very frustrating when you have a lot of loose floating pieces."

To keep the bricks contained and to protect against some potentially serious dangers, Furukawa pieced together the model inside a glovebox — a sealed container with gloves built into its sides to allow the contents to be manipulated. Station crew members use a more complex glovebox to conduct science experiments with hazardous materials.

"A lot of the work dealing with the small pieces had to be done in an enclosure, like a simple payload glovebox," Fossum said. "A simple structural one with plastic sides so you could see inside, but a glovebox so you don't have all of these little pieces getting loose and becoming either lost or potentially getting jammed in equipment or even becoming a flammability hazard."

Fire is usually not one of the warnings that people find on the side of LEGO boxes.

"It's a little hard to comprehend, but there are flammability concerns about the LEGOs," Fossum said.

For Furukawa, he had his hands full just working with the enclosure without having to worry about it combusting.

"The challenging part was using the thick rubber gloves in the containment system because it made me clumsy in building the LEGO space station," he said. "I needed to use the system to put many small pieces of LEGO under control in microgravity."

Assembly complete

The real space station was declared "assembly complete" on May 29, 2011, during the penultimate mission of the space shuttle program. The same mission delivered the LEGO space station.

Furukawa, making his first spaceflight, arrived aboard the station a week later. Using a step-by-step building guide, he completed assembly of the LEGO station on Sept. 27.

Made up of hundreds of bricks, the model was launched in partially-preassembled "chunks" to help make up for the difficulties working with very small pieces in microgravity. The space station could not be launched fully-assembled, because like the real orbiting outpost, it could only be built in space.

"It's a solid model but I believe it can't bear its own weight under gravity," Furukawa said.

The LEGO station's time fully assembled was short lived however. Due to the flammability hazards, the toy bricks could only be exposed to the open cabin air for two hours.

Just like parents telling their kids to put away their toys when they are done playing, Mission Control instructed Furukawa to take the model apart and stow it after his educational videos were recorded.

"Per the ground's instruction, I needed to put it away," Furukawa said. "It is stowed in a drawer in the [European Space Agency's] Columbus module right now."

In addition to the ISS, Furukawa also built LEGO models of lunar exploration and Mars rovers, the Hubble Space Telescope and a communications and global positioning (GPS) satellite. He also constructed tools to demonstrate science principles, including a balance and fishing rod.”

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Playboy and Virgin Galactic Dream Up Cosmic Men's Space Club

12:05:34 AM, Saturday, February 25, 2012

“Playboy is about to launch into the final frontier, at least in its imagination.

The iconic adult-magazine company has dreamed up a vision of a Playboy Club in space — a sprawling sci-fi-inspired depiction of fun and games on a huge private space station – in conjunction with the space tourism company Virgin Galactic. The results appear in the March issue of Playboy magazine on newsstands now.

A zero-gravity dance club, a casino featuring "human roulette" and a restaurant for fine dining are just some of the amenities envisioned by artist Thomas Tenery and released by Playboy Tuesday (Feb. 22). The magazine worked with several futurists and scientists, including Virgin Galactic head designer Adam Wells, to illustrate the potential space Playboy Club.

"As Virgin Galactic gets closer to becoming the world's first commercial space line, Playboy is eagerly pondering the creation of the ultimate intergalactic entertainment destination," Playboy editorial director Jimmy Jellinek said in a statement. "This heaven-in-the-heavens will exceed starry-eyed travelers' wildest dreams, and guests will truly experience a party that's out of this world."

Founded by British billionaire Sir Richard Branson, Virgin Galactic is a private space company seeking to become the world's first passenger spaceliner service. The company has built the first commercial suborbital spacecraft, called SpaceShipTwo, and is selling tickets for flights at $200,000 per seat.

The first rocket-powered test flights of SpaceShipTwo are expected later this year. The air-launched spacecraft has already performed a series of unpowered drop tests and captive-carry flights with its massive mothership, the WhiteKnightTwo.

Playboy's clubs were launched by magazine founder Hugh Hefner in the 1960s. But every Playboy Club has the same limitation: It's stuck on Earth.

"The Playboy Club in space will be on a station in orbit, like a cruise ship," Playboy writers A.J. Baime and Jason Harper explain in a description. "Orbiting Earth is one idea, but it could also travel around other celestial bodies."

Tenery's paintings suggest the club could be built on a vast wheel-shaped space station that would spin to create a sort of artificial gravity. Unmanned cargo ships could be shot up to the space station to keep the club stocked with supplies.

"You could literally swing around the dark side of the moon," Wells told Playboy.

A big selling point would be the restaurant, which would be built into the spinning section so diners (and their food) wouldn't float off their seats and tables, explained Baime and Harper, who also sought input from futurist Thomas Frey of the Davini Institute think tank, and former NASA scientist Stan Kent.

A plethora of windows (Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo rockets ships are covered with viewports) would also give diners the atmosphere – pun intended – of flying in space. In Tenery's depictions, the space game room would include a roulette system in which you are the ball, as well as zero-gravity bungee jumping and the obligatory space bar.

There would be no windows in the zero-gravity dance club, but there would be drinks, served by Playboy bunnies wearing jetpacks. And there would be exterior windows in the private "orbital pleasure dome," so clubgoers could gaze down at Earth during romantic interludes including, you guessed it, sex in space, the writers added.

"The entire Kama Sutra will have to be reimagined according to the rules of zero-gravity physics," Baime and Harper wrote.”

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First Photos of China’s 298-Million-Year-Old Buried Forest

6:57:50 PM, Thursday, February 23, 2012

“These are the first photos of some of the countless treasures found in the extraordinary 298-million-year-old forest discovered under coal mine in Wuda, Inner Mongolia, China.The beautiful images show "the exceptional preservation of the fossil plants of the peat-forming swamp forest." The research team has found entire plants and trees, allowing them to confirm previously published reconstructions. It's also the first time ever that they have found fossilized tree and plant communities arranged in a forest.

A volcanic eruption buried the entire forest under ash, preserving it in this exquisite state, never seen before. The lead scientists classify it as a "Permian vegetational Pompeii" in the title of their research. According to University of Pennsylvania paleobotanist Hermann Pfefferkorn, it's an extraordinary "time capsule."

“It's marvelously preserved. We can stand there and find a branch with the leaves attached, and then we find the next branch and the next branch and the next branch. And then we find the stump from the same tree. That's really exciting.”

Here is the excavation site, located on the northern Helanshan Mountains of Inner Mongolia, 5 miles (8 kilometers) west of Wuda. The ash-covered area itself is estimated to be 6.2 miles (10 kilometers) from North to South, but scientists have only been able to work in a 10,763-square-foot (1000-square-meter) area. The entire mine is 7.72 square miles (20 square kilometers).”

-- Follow the link for more images and details!

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Spectacularly Bright Object in Andromeda Caused by 'Normal' Black Hole

6:41:29 PM, Thursday, February 23, 2012

?(PhysOrg.com) -- A spectacularly bright object recently spotted in one of the Milky Way's neighbouring galaxies is the result of a "normal" stellar black hole, astronomers have found.

An international team of scientists, led by Dr. Matt Middleton, of Durham University, analysed the Ultraluminous X-ray Source (ULX), which was originally discovered in the Andromeda galaxy by NASA's Chandra x-ray observatory. They publish their results in the journals Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society and Astronomy and Astrophysics.

Many ULXs are too far away for astronomers to study, but the relatively close proximity of Andromeda to the Milky Way ? around 2.5 million light years ? gave the team opportunity to study the phenomenon.

The researchers say their study could begin to answer the question about what causes ULXs. Some scientists believe they are caused by relatively small black holes, a few times the mass of our Sun. These black holes rapidly pull in gas and dust which forms an "accretion disc" and heats up causing the material to emit X-rays.

Other scientists say ULXs are caused by material being dragged in by an intermediate-sized black hole formed from the merger of many stellar black holes with a mass perhaps 1,000 times bigger than the Sun.

The Durham-led findings link the ULX spotted in Andromeda to a normal stellar black hole formed after a massive star exploded as a supernova.

Dr Middleton, of Durham University's Department of Physics, said: "ULX sources are still pretty exotic.

"But our work shows that at least some are linked to the normal black holes left behind after the death of massive stars, objects that are found throughout the Universe, and the way that they drag in surrounding material.

"The ULX in Andromeda flared up because of the black hole's voracious appetite for new material."

Using data from Chandra, the XMM-Newton X-ray observatory, the Swift gamma ray observatory and the Hubble Space Telescope the research team were able to watch a sharp decline in the outburst from the ULX that took place over the next few months.

This decline had not been seen in any ULX before, but is common in stellar-mass X-ray binaries in the Milky Way where a normal star is in close orbit around a black hole. Measurement of energy emissions from the ULX also allowed the team to rule out low rates of accretion that would be expected from an intermediate-mass black hole.They concluded that the Andromeda ULX had the mass of a large star, in this case about 13 times the mass of the Sun.

Dr. Middleton said: "We would like to follow up this work by watching another outburst from the Andromeda ULX. The problem is that these are likely to happen only every few decades so we could be in for a long wait before this source erupts again."

The team hope that the ongoing monitoring of Andromeda by orbiting X-ray observatories may find other ULXs in the same galaxy, giving them another chance to test their theory.Dr. Middleton said: "If we do manage to spot another ULX outburst in Andromeda it will be a big help in understanding the extreme behaviour ofblack holes and the way they pull in matter ? something of great importance in shaping the wider universe."

The research work in the UK was funded by the Science and Technology Facilities Council.?

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Faster Than Light Neutrinos? More Like Faulty Wiring

8:53:47 PM, Wednesday, February 22, 2012

“You can shelf your designs for a warp drive engine (for now) and put the DeLorean back in the garage; it turns out neutrinos may not have broken any cosmic speed limits after all.

Ever since the news came out on September 22 of last year that a team of researchers in Italy had clocked neutrinos traveling faster than the speed of light, the physics world has been resounding with the potential implications of such a discovery — that is, if it were true. The speed of light has been a key component of the standard model of physics for over a century, an Einstein-established limit that particles (even tricky neutrinos) weren’t supposed to be able to break, not even a little.

Now, according to a breaking news article by Edwin Cartlidge on AAAS’ScienceInsider, the neutrinos may be cleared of any speed violations.

“According to sources familiar with the experiment, the 60 nanoseconds discrepancy appears to come from a bad connection between a fiber optic cable that connects to the GPS receiver used to correct the timing of the neutrinos’ flight and an electronic card in a computer,” Cartlidge reported.

The original OPERA (Oscillation Project with Emulsion-tRacking Apparatus) experiment had a beam of neutrinos fired from CERN in Geneva, Switzerland, aimed at an underground detector array located 730 miles away at the Gran Sasso facility, near L’Aquila, Italy. Researchers were surprised to discover the neutrinos arriving earlier than expected, by a difference of 60 nanoseconds. This would have meant the neutrinos had traveled faster than light speed to get there.

Repeated experiments at the facility revealed the same results. When the news was released, the findings seemed to be solid — from a methodological standpoint, anyway.

Shocked at their own results, the OPERA researchers were more than happy to have colleagues check their results, and welcomed other facilities to attempt the same experiment.

Repeated attempts may no longer be needed.

Once the aforementioned fiber optic cable was readjusted, it was found that the speed of data traveling through it matched the 60 nanosecond discrepancy initially attributed to the neutrinos. This could very well explain the subatomic particles’ apparent speed burst.

Case closed? Well… it is science, after all.

“New data,” Cartlidge added, “will be needed to confirm this hypothesis.””

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Physicists Create a Working Transistor From a Single Atom

7:29:42 PM, Tuesday, February 21, 2012

“(NYT) Australian and American physicists have built a working transistor from a single phosphorus atom embedded in a silicon crystal.

The group of physicists, based at theUniversity of New South Wales andPurdue University, said they had laid the groundwork for a futuristic quantum computer that might one day function in a nanoscale world and would be orders of magnitude smaller and quicker than today’s silicon-based machines.

In contrast to conventional computers that are based on transistors with distinct “on” and “off” or “1” and “0” states, quantum computers are built from devices called qubits that exploit the quirky properties of quantum mechanics. Unlike a transistor, a qubit can represent a multiplicity of values simultaneously.

That might make it possible to factor large numbers more quickly than with conventional machines, thereby undermining modern data-scrambling systems that are the basis of electronic commerce and data privacy. Quantum computers might also make it possible to simulate molecular structures with great speed, an advance that holds promise for designing new drugs and other materials.

“Their approach is extremely powerful,” said Andreas Heinrich, a physicist at I.B.M. “This is at least a 10-year effort to make very tiny electrical wires and combine them with the placement of a phosphorus atom exactly where they want them.”

Dr. Heinrich said the research was a significant step toward making a functioning quantum computing system. However, whether quantum computing will ever be harnessed for useful tasks remains uncertain, and the researchers noted that their work demonstrated the fundamental limits that today’s computers would be able to shrink to.

“It shows that Moore’s Law can be scaled toward atomic scales in silicon,” said Gerhard Klimeck, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Purdue and leader of the project there. Moore’s Law refers to technology improvements by the semiconductor industry that have doubled the number of transistors on a silicon chip roughly every 18 months for the past half-century. That has led to accelerating increases in performance and declining prices. “The technologies for classical computing can survive to the atomic scale,” Dr. Klimeck said.

Demonstrations of single-atom transistors date from 2002, but the researchers from Purdue and New South Wales said they had made advances on two fronts: in the precision with which they placed the Lilliputian switch; and in the use of industry-standard techniques to build the circuitry, making it possible to read and write information from the tiniest conceivable switch.

The results were reported on Sunday in the journal Nature Nanotechnology.

Until now, single-atom transistors have been created on a hit-or-miss basis, the scientists said.“But this device is perfect,” Michelle Simmons, a group leader and director of the ARC Centre for Quantum Computation and Communication at the University of New South Wales, said in a statement. “This is the first time anyone has shown control of a single atom in a substrate with this level of precise accuracy.”In the 1950s, the physicist Richard P. Feynman predicted a world where there would be “plenty of room at the bottom,” opening new vistas into engineering disciplines that would use individual atoms as bricks and mortar in fields as diverse as computing and biology.

Since then, computer designers have moved ever closer to the smallest components that are possible to fabricate. Now, with the publication of the New South Wales and Purdue research, the scientists said they had shown the fundamental limits to which the components of silicon-based computers would be able to shrink in the future. Currently, the smallest dimension in state-of-the-art computers made by Intel is 22 nanometers — less than 100 atoms in diameter.

If the semiconductor industry remains on its current pace, it might be possible to reach that limit within two decades, Dr. Klimeck noted.

The scientists placed the single phosphorus atom using a device known as a scanning tunneling microscope. They used it to essentially scrape trenches and a small cavity on a surface of silicon covered with a layer of hydrogen atoms. Phosphine gas was then used to deposit a phosphorus atom at a precise location, which was then encased in further layers of silicon atoms.

While offering astounding precision for research, these microscopes are not currently applicable as manufacturing tools to make chips that contain billions or even trillions of transistors. Moreover, the devices now operate at very low temperatures…”

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Russians Revive Ice Age Flower from Frozen Siberian Burrow

2:52:29 PM, Tuesday, February 21, 2012

“It was an Ice Age squirrel's treasure chamber, a burrow containing fruit and seeds that had been stuck in the Siberian permafrost for over 30,000 years. From the fruit tissues, a team of Russian scientists managed to resurrect an entire plant in a pioneering experiment that paves the way for the revival of other species.

The Silene stenophylla is the oldest plant ever to be regenerated, the researchers said, and it is fertile, producing white flowers and viable seeds.

The experiment proves that permafrost serves as a natural depository for ancient life forms, said the Russian researchers, who published their findings in Tuesday's issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States.

"We consider it essential to continue permafrost studies in search of an ancient genetic pool, that of pre-existing life, which hypothetically has long since vanished from the earth's surface," the scientists said in the article.

Canadian researchers had earlier regenerated some significantly younger plants from seeds found in burrows.

Svetlana Yashina of the Institute of Cell Biophysics of the Russian Academy Of Sciences, who led the regeneration effort, said the revived plant looked very similar to its modern version, which still grows in the same area in northeastern Siberia.

"It's a very viable plant, and it adapts really well," she told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from the Russian town of Pushchino where her lab is located.

She voiced hope the team could continue its work and regenerate more plant species.The Russian research team recovered the fruit after investigating dozens of fossil burrows hidden in ice deposits on the right bank of the lower Kolyma River in northeastern Siberia, the sediments dating back 30,000-32,000 years.

The sediments were firmly cemented together and often totally filled with ice, making any water infiltration impossible - creating a natural freezing chamber fully isolated from the surface.

"The squirrels dug the frozen ground to build their burrows, which are about the size of a soccer ball, putting in hay first and then animal fur for a perfect storage chamber," said Stanislav Gubin, one of the authors of the study, who spent years rummaging through the area for squirrel burrows. "It's a natural cryobank."

The burrows were located 125 feet (38 meters) below the present surface in layers containing bones of large mammals, such as mammoth, wooly rhinoceros, bison, horse and deer.

Gubin said the study has demonstrated that tissue can survive ice conservation for tens of thousands of years, opening the way to the possible resurrection of Ice Age mammals."If we are lucky, we can find some frozen squirrel tissue," Gubin told the AP. "And this path could lead us all the way to mammoth."

Japanese scientists are already searching in the same area for mammoth remains, but Gubin voiced hope that the Russians will be the first to find some frozen animal tissue that could be used for regeneration.

"It's our land, we will try to get them first," he said.”

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Vega Rocket Set for Maiden Voyage

12:57:35 AM, Friday, February 17, 2012

“(BBC UK) Europe's Vega rocket is finally set to make its maiden flight on Monday.

The 30m-tall vehicle, first conceived in the 1990s, will launch on what is termed a qualification flight from the Kourou spaceport in French Guiana.

It will carry nine satellites into orbit but the object of the mission is really to prove the rocket's systems all work as designed.

Vega has been developed to assure European access to space for payload classes weighing less than 2.5 tonnes.

At the moment, these smaller satellites tend to ride converted Russian ICBMs to get into orbit and they can sometimes wait many months to get a launch slot.

Vega should allow European operators to have more control over the schedules of their space projects. It also means that the value of what it is an immensely high-tech enterprise will return to the European economy, not to foreign industry.

"Vega gives Europe the ability to launch small satellites," said Jean-Jacques Dordain, director general of the European Space Agency (Esa).

"New technologies - and in particular the miniaturisation of technologies - are making for more and more small satellites. This is particularly true of scientific satellites such as Earth observation spacecraft. So, Vega has a fantastic perspective in front of it provided we succeed," he told me.

The launch in French Guiana is scheduled to take place between 10:00 and 12:00 GMT.

There will inevitably be a degree of nervousness in launch control at Kourou come lift-off time. According to statistics compiled by the Ascend aerospace consultancy, 58% (11 out of 19) of new rockets since 1990 have experienced a major anomaly on their first flight.

It is for this reason that the satellites carried on Vega's maiden voyage have all been given a "free ride...""

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Athens Protest Photos

12:53:04 AM, Friday, February 17, 2012

-- 12 February 2012

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Inspired by Gecko Feet, Scientists Invent Super-Adhesive Material

12:44:33 AM, Friday, February 17, 2012

“For years, biologists have been amazed by the power of gecko feet, which let these 5-ounce lizards produce an adhesive force roughly equivalent to carrying nine pounds up a wall without slipping. Now, a team of polymer scientists and a biologist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst have discovered exactly how the gecko does it, leading them to invent "Geckskin," a device that can hold 700 pounds on a smooth wall.

Doctoral candidate Michael Bartlett in Alfred Crosby's polymer science and engineering lab at UMass Amherst is the lead author of their article describing the discovery in the current online issue of Advanced Materials. The group includes biologist Duncan Irschick, a functional morphologist who has studied the gecko's climbing and clinging abilities for over 20 years. Geckos are equally at home on vertical, slanted, even backward-tilting surfaces.

"Amazingly, gecko feet can be applied and disengaged with ease, and with no sticky residue remaining on the surface," Irschick says. These properties, high-capacity, reversibility and dry adhesion offer a tantalizing possibility for synthetic materials that can easily attach and detach heavy everyday objects such as televisions or computers to walls, as well as medical and industrial applications, among others, he and Crosby say.

This combination of properties at these scales has never been achieved before, the authors point out. Crosby says, "Our Geckskin device is about 16 inches square, about the size of an index card, and can hold a maximum force of about 700 pounds while adhering to a smooth surface such as glass."

Beyond its impressive sticking ability, the device can be released with negligible effort and reused many times with no loss of effectiveness. For example, it can be used to stick a 42-inch television to a wall, released with a gentle tug and restuck to another surface as many times as needed, leaving no residue.

Previous efforts to synthesize the tremendous adhesive power of gecko feet and pads were based on the qualities of microscopic hairs on their toes called setae, but efforts to translate them to larger scales were unsuccessful, in part because the complexity of the entire gecko foot was not taken into account. As Irschick explains, a gecko's foot has several interacting elements, including tendons, bones and skin, that work together to produce easily reversible adhesion.

Now he, Bartlett, Crosby and the rest of the UMass Amherst team have unlocked the simple yet elegant secret of how it's done, to create a device that can handle excessively large weights. Geckskin and its supporting theory demonstrate that setae are not required for gecko-like performance, Crosby points out. "It's a concept that has not been considered in other design strategies and one that may open up new research avenues in gecko-like adhesion in the future."

The key innovation by Bartlett and colleagues was to create an integrated adhesive with a soft pad woven into a stiff fabric, which allows the pad to "drape" over a surface to maximize contact. Further, as in natural gecko feet, the skin is woven into a synthetic "tendon," yielding a design that plays a key role in maintaining stiffness and rotational freedom, the researchers explain.

Importantly, the Geckskin's adhesive pad uses simple everyday materials such as polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS), which holds promise for developing an inexpensive, strong and durable dry adhesive.

The UMass Amherst researchers are continuing to improve their Geckskin design by drawing on lessons from the evolution of gecko feet, which show remarkable variation in anatomy. "Our design for Geckskin shows the true integrative power of evolution for inspiring synthetic design that can ultimately aid humans in many ways," says Irschick.”

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Restoring Vintage Vehicles with New Modern Drivetrain and Mechanics

4:08:54 AM, Thursday, February 16, 2012
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Two Earth-Size Planets Born of Battered 'Jupiter'?

9:05:43 PM, Sunday, February 12, 2012

“Two Earth-size worlds orbiting perilously close to their dying star may be the fractured remnants of a Jupiter-like gas giant, a new study suggests.

The planetary pair—discovered using NASA's Kepler space telescope andannounced in the journal Nature last December—are just under Earth's radius. Both orbit a so-called subdwarf B star dubbed KIC 05807616, which sits about 4,000 light-years away.

When sunlike stars run out of hydrogen fuel, they enter a red giant phase, in which their gas envelopes can swell to several hundred times their original size.

Eventually a red giant's gas envelope will slough off entirely, leaving behind a dense stellar corpse known as a white dwarf. Sometimes, however, a red giant will lose its gas envelope prematurely to form a subdwarf B star, like KIC 05807616.

The scientists who discovered the roughly Earth-size planets in Kepler's data had proposed that both worlds were once gas giants, like Jupiter or Saturn, that had been pulled nearer to their star when it ballooned during the red giant phase.

Plowing through the dying star's swollen atmosphere burned away the planets' liquids and gases, that team suggested, leaving behind the two rocky pits that Kepler sees as Earth-size worlds.

But a new study, by astrophysicists Ealeal Bear and Noam Soker of the Israel Institute of Technology, offers an alternate explanation.

It's possible that both worlds actually come from a single gas giant planet at least five times more massive than Jupiter that was stripped naked by the dying star, the researchers say.

The lone planet's rocky core was then ripped apart by the star's gravity into several Earth-size chunks.

Planets' Resonance a Problem?

Bear and Soker developed the new theory because of their concerns over the Earth-size planets' orbital resonance, a gravitational interaction that involves two objects orbiting a third body in a predictable pattern.

The Kepler planets have an orbital resonance that's almost exactly 3:2—that is, one of the planets completes three orbits around the star in the time it takes the other planet to complete two orbits.

The planets' discoverers had suggested at the time that the worlds had already been in a 3:2 resonance before they were engulfed by their star's envelope of hot gas.

But Bear and Soker argue that such a scenario is improbable, because the act of being swallowed by the bloated star would likely have destroyed any existing resonance between the planets.

The engulfment process "is a violent one that proceeds rapidly," Soker said.

According to the new study, the lone giant planet would have also played a major role in the evolution of its parent star.

As it was consumed, the planet deposited energy into the stellar envelope, which helped strip away the star's gas layers, leaving behind a naked stellar core.

In this scenario, at least two of the pieces of the gas giant's core survived and continued to orbit the star, while the others may have fallen into the star or been ejected out of the system altogether…”

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'Vampire' Parasite Found Entombed in Amber

8:54:37 PM, Sunday, February 12, 2012

“The first known fossil of a rare bloodsucker called the bat fly has been found in 20-million-year-old amber. What's more, the ancient bug was host to batmalaria, an even rarer find, according to a new study.

George Poinar, Jr., an expert on insects preserved in amber at Oregon State University, discovered the bat fly in a mine in the Dominican Republic.

Although the newfound genus is extinct, bat flies still exist today, feeding exclusively on bats' blood. Some of the insects have even become specialized to live on specific bat species.

While there are hundreds of known bat fly species, most are poorly understood.

"First of all, it's hard to catch bats," Poinar said, "and [combing the bats for parasites is] like looking for fleas on mice. You don't see them."

Before Poinar discovered the amber containing the fossilized fly, nobody knew how recently the bugs had evolved to prey on bats alone. But even the 20-million-year-old fossil shows interesting bat-specific modifications, he said.

"The front legs are flattened, and they're held up between the head. These flattened legs kind of act as a plowshare, so as they are plowing along, they kind of part the hair of the bats so the [fly's] body can move all over the bat."

When Poinar examined the ancient fly under a microscope, he also found a new species of bat malaria, a parasitic disease so rare that perhaps five or six scientific papers have discussed it to date, he said.

The fossilized fly shows that bat malaria existed and was carried by bat flies as far back as 20 million years ago.

No Ancient Bats to Be Resurrected

Bat flies rarely leave their hosts, but they do roam in order to mate. This specimen was likely on the hunt for a partner when it got trapped in tree resin, which then fossilized to become amber.

Before he became a specialist in ancient diseases inside equally ancient bugs, Poinar had worked on attempting to extract DNA from insects trapped in amber—work which author Michael Crichton has acknowledged as part of his inspiration for Jurassic Park.

But no ancient bats will be reconstructed from this specimen, even if it were possible.

"As far as I'm concerned," Poinar said, "this specimen is so rare that we wouldn't want to attempt to try it."”

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Higgs Signal Gains Strength

3:39:37 PM, Tuesday, February 07, 2012

"Today the two main experiments at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the world’s most powerful particle accelerator, submitted the results of their latest analyses. The new papers boost the case for December’s announcement of a possible Higgs signal, but let’s not get too excited.

First, there are no new data in there — the LHC stopped colliding protons back in November, and these latest results just rehash that earlier run. In the case of the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS), physicists have been able to look at another possible kind of Higgs decay, and that allows them to boost their Higgs signal from 2.5 sigma to 3.1 sigma. Taken together with data from the other detector, ATLAS, the overall Higgs signal now unofficially stands at about 4.3 sigma. In other words, if statistics are to be believed, then this signal has about a 99.996% chance of being correct.

It all sounds very convincing, but keep your hat on, because the fact is that statistical coincidences happen every day. Over at Cosmic Variance, Sean Carroll points out that there is a 3.8-sigma signal in the Super Bowl coin toss. Does that mean that they’ve discovered a super-partner to the bowl? No. (If you don’t get that joke, don’t worry, it was written only as punishment for those who would).

After the LHC starts this spring, we’ll be much closer to knowing what’s actually going on. Right now, scientists are meeting in Chamonix, France to decide at what power to run the collider this coming year. The latest rumours are that the machine will push from 7 to 8 tetraelectronvolts, and it will also increase its luminosity (the number of collisions per pass).

For a little context more about what’s going on, check out this video of my trip back in November:"

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