Atomic Oxygen Has Been Detected In Mars’ Atmosphere

As far as we know, were the only habitable planet in the Solar System. We have yet to discover life elsewhere, but Mars even today is a pretty good bet. Its got salty, liquid water on its surface, and although its atmosphere is thin and insubstantial, microbial life could lurk within the sediments, where its shielded from incoming solar radiation.

However, as researchers are continuously discovering, Mars was likely once far more habitable. Recent data from NASAs Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) mission revealed that its once-thick atmosphere, held in place by a wavering magnetosphere, was stripped away by major solar storms. Now, another NASA mission called SOFIA the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy has found that there are traces of atomic oxygen still lingering in the gaseous envelope thatsurrounds the Red Planet.

Atomic oxygen was first detected in the Martian atmosphere 40 years ago by the Viking and Mariner missions, but it hasnt been picked up since. Atomic oxygen in the Martian atmosphere is notoriously difficult to measure,said Pamela Marcum, SOFIA project scientist, in a statement.

SOFIA, a flying observatory attached to a Boeing 747SP, looks at the infrared part of the electromagnetic spectrum. Its designed to peer into the hearts of stars, the complex clouds of planetary nebulae, and the atmospheres of planets both outside the Solar System and those right next door to us.

To observe the far-infrared wavelengths needed to detectatomic oxygen, researchers must be above the majority of Earth’s atmosphere and use highly sensitive instruments, in this case a spectrometer, Marcum added. SOFIA provides both capabilities.

The abundance of atomic oxygen in Mars atmosphere peaks between 70 and 120 kilometers (44 to 75 miles). Rezac et al./Astronomy & Astrophysics

Flying between 11.3 and 13.7 kilometers (37,000 and45,000 feet) above ground, specialized detectors were able to spy atomic oxygen in the mesosphere (the upper atmosphere) of Mars, confirming it as not just an erroneous detection of Earths far more abundant atmospheric oxygen. The data from SOFIA was published in the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics.

Although this atomic oxygen is a far cry from the amount of molecular, breathable oxygen (O2) seen on a planet covered in photosynthesizing bacteria and plants like ours, its discovery is nonetheless important: It is the key element controlling several atmospheric processes, including energy and mass flow into and out of the planet; in addition, it controls how much heat is lost from Mars carbon dioxide.

Ultimately, its presence influences how fast the atmosphere is disappearing into space. Understanding the atomic oxygen segment of the Martian atmosphere will allow researchers to gain a better understanding of why it was all but obliterated over the last few billions of years.

The researchers actually found half as much oxygen as they expected to find, but they put this down to natural variations in the Martian atmosphere. Its not yet clear where this atomic oxygen originated from, but seeing as its the third most abundant element in the universe, its discovery wasnt entirely surprising.

It is worth pointing out that the ancient atmosphere of Mars probably did contain far more oxygen than it currently does. Whether it was produced by chemical reactions in the atmosphere, or primitive life at the surface, is currently unknown.

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Black Hole 100,000 Times The Mass Of The Sun Discovered In Our Own Galaxy

Astronomers from Keio University, Japan, have observed what looks like the largest intermediate-mass black hole within the Milky Way. The object is estimated to weigh 100,000 times the mass of the Sun and is located near the center of the galaxy.

The study, published in Nature Astronomy, focused on a large molecular gas cloud almost 200 light-years from the center of the Milky Way. The team was able to study how the gas is moving, which is consistent with having a massive compact object at its center, which they named CO–0.40–0.22*.

The researchers also noticed how the emissions from the gas cloud resemble the core of the Milky Way, where the supermassive black hole of our galaxy is located, although 500 times less luminous. There’s also quite a difference in size as the Milky Way’s supermassive black hole, called Sagittarius A*, is over 4 million times the mass of the Sun.

“This is the first detection of an intermediate-mass black hole (IMBH) candidate in our Milky Way Galaxy,” lead author Dr Tomoharu Oka told IFLScience. “This supports the merging scenario of the formation/evolution of supermassive black holes in galactic centers.”

The team already suspected the cloud hosted an IMBH, but this is the first detection of a point-like radio source. The new observations were possible thanks to Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array whose sensitive antennas were ideal to pick up the extremely cold emissions of interstellar carbon monoxide clouds. The team compared the observations to numerical simulations of the gas cloud and they agreed with the idea of an intermediate-mass black hole hiding within. The team believes CO–0.40–0.22* to be one of the most promising candidates for an intermediate-mass black hole yet.

The discovery of potential new black hole is always an exciting affair but this is particularly important because it provides us with important clues to how supermassive black holes formed. Black holes form in supernova explosions but their size is very much related to their stellar progenitors. So how can black holes exist that are millions, if not billions, of times the mass of our Sun?

One main theory suggests that in the early universe black holes formed a lot more often because the stars were a lot bigger and burned through their fuel more quickly. These black holes would merge, eventually reaching hundreds of solar masses in size. At that point, they would merge with other similar sized black holes and become supermassive black holes.

The team is continuing observations of the source, and they hope that within just a decade of observations they’ll be able to describe how it’s moving across the galaxy and if it’s going to merge with Sagittarius A*.  

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Nearby Star May Be A Young Version Of Our Solar System

A star just 10 light-years away may provide a fascinating glimpse into the beginnings of our own Solar System.

The star, called Epsilon Eridani, is similar to our Sun but about one-fifth the age, and contains debris disks that are the hallmark of the formation of a planetary system.

A new study by Iowa State University, published in The Astronomical Journal, examined the disks of debris around the star. They found that the star has separate inner and outer disk structures, similar to the asteroid belt between Earth and Mars and the Kuiper Belt beyond Neptune in our own Solar System.

This star hosts a planetary system currently undergoing the same cataclysmic processes that happened to the Solar System in its youth, at the time in which theMoon gained most of its craters, Earth acquired the water in its oceans, and the conditions favorable for life on our planet were set, co-author Massimo Marengo said in a summary of the study.

This period is known as the late heavy bombardment (LHB), when its thought that comets from the Kuiper Belt and possibly the Oort Cloud further out too were sent flying inwards. This is thought to have happened between 4.1 and 3.8 billion years ago in our Solar System, which is about 4.6 billion years old.

We can see evidence for this period today in the age of craters on the Moon and other bodies. Samples from the Apollo missions found that many lunar craters heralded from this time period. The migration of Jupiter and Saturn to different orbits is thought to have caused the event, kicking Neptune further out and sending comets inwards.

A model of epsilon Eridani compared to our own Solar System.NASA/SOFIA/Lynette Cook

Its not clear what process is taking place in Epsilon Eridani. But we do know theres a Jupiter-mass planet there, called Epsilon Eridani b, at the edge of an inner asteroid belt roughly at the same position as our own. A second asteroid belt is at about the same position as the orbit of Uranus in our system.

The similarity of the structure of the Epsilon Eridani system to our Solar System is remarkable, although Epsilon Eridani is much younger than our Sun, NASA said in a statement.

These latest findings were made using NASAs Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), a plane equipped with a telescope that flies at about 13,700 meters (45,000 feet) to observe the universe.

[W]e can now say with great confidence that there is a separation between the stars inner and outer belts, Marengo said ina statement. There is a gap most likely created by planets. We havent detected them yet, but I would be surprised if they are not there.

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‘Esquire’ Launches Weekly iPad Publication


A little something extra is now arriving on the iPads of Esquire subscribers every week.

The monthly men’s lifestyle magazine launched a weekly, ad-supported edition dubbed Esquire Weekly, which will be automatically delivered to tablet subscribers at no additional charge. The issue will arrive every Thursday, except the Thursdays when the monthly magazine is released. Non-subscribers can pick up a copy for $0.99 per issue.

Each installment promises to contain seven pieces of original writing spanning culture, politics, humor and food, alongside some repurposed content from Most of that repurposed content will be fresh for tablet subscribers, since the overlap between tablet subscribers and readers is “nominal,” Joe Keohane, senior editor of Esquire Digital, told Mashable. (David Granger, editor-in-chief of Esquire, has previously said the overlap is less than 10%.)

The aim of the weekly edition, says Keohane, is to attract new subscribers and “help keep existing ones.”

The issue is surprisingly meaty and beautifully produced. The first installment contains a crowdsourced advice column, a review of Star Trek: Into Darkness, instructions on grilling a steak, speculation on how the latest White House scandals will play out this summer, a first-person account by a freelance war reporter who was hit by a grenade launcher and an article on the life of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. There are also a mattering of smaller news items, slideshows, etc.

Images courtesy of Esquire Weekly

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Metallic Hydrogen Achieved For The First Time

Researchers have finally been able to produce metallic hydrogen, a complex and elusive state that was firstly theorized more than 80 years ago.

Dr Ranga Dias and Professor Isaac Silvera from Harvard University were able to achieve this impressive feat by cooling down hydrogen to 5.5 Kelvin (-268C/-450F), while compressing it to astaggering pressure of 4.8 million atmospheres. The breakthrough is reported this week in Science.

The incredibly high pressure was achieved by using diamond anvil cells. But it was not a straightforward approach. Scientists have been trying to get to this pressure for many years, and although they’vealmost got there, only now have scientists got the right set up.

“Metallic hydrogenwas never made before because diamonds failed before a sufficiently high pressure was attained,” Professor Silvera told IFLScience. “We do not use natural diamonds but rather synthetics which are very homogeneous, while naturals have inhomogeneities and internal defects and impurities.”

In its standard form, hydrogen is a molecular gas with its atoms bound in pairs, each sharing an electron with theother. When hydrogen was placed between the anvils, the pressure mounts and things get weird.

At a pressure of 3.2 million atmospheres, hydrogen becomes opaque (hence the nickname black hydrogen) and is also a semiconductor. But only a much higher pressure can break the molecular bonds and create the metallic hydrogen phase. The gas was turned into a metal, with the expected properties an atomic metal has. The two researchersbelieve metallic hydrogen is a solid, but the team wasnt able to confirm itexperimentally.

Photos and molecular representation of the compressed hydrogen going from transparent gas to black molecular to metallic hydrogen. R. Dias and I.F. Silvera

This peculiar phase of hydrogen was first predicted in 1935 by E. Wigner and H.B. Huntington, and since then achieving this has become the holy grail of high-pressure physics. But Wigner and Huntington were wrong in their estimation of the necessary pressures. They thought metallic hydrogen could be achieved with a pressure of 250,000 atmospheres, almost 20 times smaller than what has been necessary to make it in real life.

Creating metallic hydrogen is not just a triumph of science for the sake of science. Understanding the metallic properties of the most abundant element in the universe has a multi-disciplinary impact. Metallic hydrogen is thought to be metastable at room temperature after the pressure is removed, so it could be used in nuclear fusion.

It is also believed to be a high-temperature superconductor, which would be an incredible breakthrough if confirmed. And even astronomy might benefit from this the core of Jupiter, Saturn, and exoplanets could be made of metallic hydrogen.

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2028 To Provide Rare Opportunity For Planet Hunting Around Alpha Centauri

In twelve years time the universe looks set to offer us an exceptionally rare opportunity to discover if there are any planets orbiting Alpha Centauri A, one of the two nearest Sun-like stars to our own.

General relativity predicts that gravity can distort the path of light. When correctly positioned, a heavy object bends light around it to act as a lens, giving us a better view of whatever is behind it. The nature of the bending also tells us a lot about the distorting object. One of the ways we have discovered planets around other stars is by watching the parent star act as a gravitational lens for objects towards the center of the galaxy, and noticed the extra blip provided by the planet itself.

Usually, however, even the closer star is a long way from Earth. Discovering their planets has been useful in building statistics on planetary size and locations, but interest in individual discoveries was more muted. One of the closest stars to Earth passing in front of an object that would allow it to act as a gravitational lens would be a different matter entirely.

In Astronomy and Astrophysics, a team led by Professor Pierre Kervella of the Universidad de Chile decided to see whether Alpha Centauri will give us any such opportunities before 2050.

Kervella’s team plotted the movements of both stars in the double system across our field of view. They made an extensive study of the background objects they will pass, and concluded that in May 2028 Alpha Centauri A will pass almost directly in front of the star 2MASS 14392160-6049528 (nicknamed S5). The timing is particularly fortuitous, since Alpha Centauri will be high in the sky at night, and the two stars will be widelyseparated, so that Alpha Centauri B’s light will not interfere.

The paths of Alpha Centauri A (orange) and B (red) across the sky, with the objects one or the other star will pass in front of marked. Kervella et al Astronomy and Astrophysics

Little is known about S5, a previously disregarded star whose magnitude of 7.8 makes it visible in binoculars or small telescopes. It is thought to be a red giant at a distance of several thousand light-years.

As seen from Earth, Alpha Centauri A is predicted to pass just 0.015 arc seconds from S5, creating a lensing effect sharp enough that we should be able to detect any large planets near it at the same time. Kervella estimates a 45 percent chance of the approach being close enough to produce an Einstein Ring, the most dramatic form of lensing.

There will be four previous times when one of Alpha Centauri’s stars pass in front of a background object, and many more before 2050. These are at least a thirty times fainter, greatly reducing the chance of detecting planets, although some may prove useful as test runs.

Trajectories of Centauri A (orange curve) and B (red curve) superimposed on an image Alpha Centauri. Kervella et al/Astronomy and Astrophysics

The recent discovery of a planet orbiting Proxima Centauri has put the focus on our nearest stellar neighbor, but the twin stars of Alpha Centauri A and B are almost as close, and bear a much greater resemblance to the Sun.

Kervella’s technique could be applied to other nearby stars. However, Alpha Centauri’s location near the galactic plane means that it will pass in front of stars that are bright enough to be useful unusually often. For planet-hunting astronomers, 2028 could be a true once in a lifetime opportunity.

[H/T:The Register]

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Young, Very Hot Stars May Be A New Source Of Gamma Rays

The release of a catalog of more than 70 galactic gamma-ray sources has been accompanied by a flurry of papers. One proposes a young, very hot star might be a powerful gamma-ray emitter, which would force a rethink of ideas about the conditions around one of the rarest categories of stars.

Gamma rays are the highest-energy part of the electromagnetic spectrum, which has radio waves at the opposite end and visible light towards the middle. As such, their astronomical sources include the most powerful objects in the universe, such as neutron stars and the births of black holes. For the last 15 years, the High Energy Stereoscopic System (HESS) has been surveying the Milky Way at extreme gamma-ray frequencies from Namibia.

The results have been reported in Astronomy and Astrophysics, along with 14 papers discussing some of the most interesting new finds. One paper deals with a strong gamma-ray source in a cluster of stars that includes LBV 1806-20, a blue giant star some 20-30 times the mass of the Sun, one of only a dozen luminous blue variable stars in the entire galaxy.

“The cluster of stars also harbors a rare, extremely magnetic, neutron star known as a magnetar,” Dr Gavin Rowell of the University of Adelaide said in a statement. Magnetars are major gamma-ray sources; “but we think the gamma-ray emission could be linked to the luminous blue variable star. If the source is the luminous blue variable star, it is the first time that gamma-ray emission has been linked to such a massive star.”

Rowell explained to IFLScience that the distribution of gamma-ray intensity HESS found closely matches the distribution of radio waves, where LBV 1806-20 is known to be the dominant local source. This makes it, rather than the magnetar, the most likely source. Rowell added that stars similar to LBV 1806-20 have been seen associated with gamma-ray emissions before, but since these stars usually exist in clusters with other extreme objects, such as supernova remnants, astronomers have attributed the emissions to known sources. This case could shake that belief.

LBV 1806-20 has a stellar wind 10,000 times as powerful as the Sun’s. Rowell told IFLScience there was speculation decades ago such winds could accelerate particles to the speeds needed to release gamma rays when they collide. Since then attention has shifted to other possible sources, but Rowell thinks it might be time to revive that work.

Among the associated papers, Rowell highlights one describing three new circular features that are invisible to telescopes operating at other wavelengths. Rowell described these as a mystery, but said they might reflect the energy from supernova remnant shockwaves, possibly indicating a previously unknown stage in the evolution of supernova remnants.

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This Robot Will Let Kids In Hospital Explore Zoos Through Virtual Reality

A community called Robots for Good has come together to help kids stuck in Great Ormond Street Hospital in London visit the zoo. If the name hasnt given it away, the project involves robots, but perhaps not in the way you might be thinking.

The group is 3D printing a life-size humanoid robot that strolls, or more accurately rolls, around London Zoo, all under the control of a child back at the hospital. But its a bit more immersive than that: The robot is hooked up to an Oculus Rift virtual reality (VR) headset, so children can treat the robot as an avatar and feel like theyre interacting with the animals themselves.

Much like the increasing trend for journals to provide open access papers, more and more technology is going opensource, and its thanks to this movement that this venture has been possible. It was born out of two such existing projects: Gael Langevins 3D-printed robot called InMoov and Boris Landonis Segway-style vehicle called OpenWheels. As open hardware, anyone with Internet accesscan download the blueprints for the tech and share, modify and develop them however they so wish. And thats exactly what Robots for Good has been doing.

We really saw this as a way to show people what open hardware is, Richard Hulskes, co-founder of Wevolver, the startup that initiated and is hosting the project, told IFLScience. Its available to anyone to build and contribute, but at the same time its really affordable.

Image credit: Robots for Good, courtesy of Richard Hulskes

Since the projects inception in 2012, Wevolver has been getting people together from all across the world and making sure they communicate and share their knowledge. Contributors have been keen to turn this dream into a reality, but its not just individual people chipping in: Companies have also offered their services, donating material and bringing in their expertise on virtual reality.

I think that distinguishes us asa platform. That we bring together not just hackers and geeks, but people from all different fields, said Hulskes. Not only that, but Wevolver is doing this out of their own pocket, costing the team around 3,000 ($4,500).

So far, the community has finished the torso of the robot, but there is still a long way to go. Next on the list are the wheels, which are based around the open-source Segway mentioned earlier. Sounds easy, but Segways are built for people to stand on and balance; this robot has no legs. The community is working on overcoming this hurdle by restructuring it so that it can be reliably maneuvered by a game controller, which would be operated by a remote user. There is also the fact that a robot torso plonked on a Segway looks rather ridiculous; a grammar school has offered their help with this issue bypitching 3Dprintable redesigns for the base.

At the moment, there is no way for the arms to be controlled, but Hulskes says Wevolver is now working with a pair of developers to create a pair of sensor-lined gloves so that the robots hands will replicate movements of the user. And here is another tricky part: Users will maneuver the robot using a remote control, which obviously requires hand movement, so they have to make the gloves in such a way that both operations can be performed without interfering with one another. The robots head movements are slightly easier, following those of the headset-wearing user.

Image credit: Robots for Good, courtesy of Richard Hulskes

The robot has to be fully assembled in time for a launch at the zoo next Easter, but in no way will that signal the end of this venture. My vision with this project is that we create the prototype, create the idea and then just let it go, said Hulskes. We want others to pick it up.

What I hope is that more and more people start building this robot so that kids in London can check out a robot in New York, for example. There could be a network of robots that people can check in with all across the world. This isnt just a concept, but were gonna let it go.

If a 3D printer is something youre lucky enough to own, there is nothing stopping you joining in or building your own version ofone of these robots. If youve got time to spare, itll take you a couple of months.

Currently there are about two or three hundred people building this thing at home its a huge community, Hulskes said. And theyre all giving the robots their own identities. Some people even put wigs on them. I wouldnt recommend it, they look super weird

Of course, it doesnt have to be zoos that these robots frequent. London Zoo is already thinking about what they can do next with the robot, and is hoping to deploy one or several in a wildlife park they own in Africa. Moving away from animals, Hulskes envisions them also being put in nursing homes for the elderly. Needless to say, this is the start of something very beautiful, and we cant wait to see where it goes.

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New Pokemon Go Game Based on The Movements of Real Animals

A ferociously fun game that brings you closer to wildlife and lets you get involved in its conservation

  • 1

    National parks and conservationists rely on GPS data to understand the resource needs and patterns of animals living in the wild.

    Via: Safari Central on Kickstarter

  • 2

    Now, that data is going into a mobile game where players track animals, based on their natural movements, in their own cities.

    Via: Safari Central on Kickstarter

  • 3

    In the augmented reality game, Safari Central, players follow real animals like Manyara, a 26-year-old elephant in Tanzania, WHO traveled 695 kilometers with her herd of elephants, in the last 5 months.

    Via: Safari Central on Kick starter

    “Think of it as Pokemon Go, but where the animals are real animals, and where they move around a city based on their actual movements, not where we tell them to go,” told Qartz Africa Gautam Shah, founder of Internet of Elephants, a US and Kenya-based start up, making Safari Central.

  • 4

    The game is the first to use real tracking data

    Via: Safari Central on Kickstarter

    The company have data on elephants, lions, grizzly bears, jaguars, wolves, giant anteaters, frigate birds, vultures and other animals from organizations like WWF Brazil, Conservation International in the US, the Chicago Zoological Society, as well as conservation groups and parks based in Kenya and South Africa.

  • 5

    The goal is to connect more people with the daily lives of animals and raise support for conservation efforts.

    Via: Safari central on kickstarter

    The startup, which is currently holding a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for the game, plans to release a preview of the app in August and a full launch in December of 2018.

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