Category Archives: By Daniel Sternklar

This Distant Galaxy Is A Star-Forming Champion

An international team of astronomers has observed a galaxy that is churning out stars on an industrial scale, making it one of the most successful star-forming galaxies yet.

The object, SPT0346-52, is located 12.7 billion light-years from Earth and is forming about 4,500 stars every year, each the mass of our Sun. By comparison, our very average Milky Way produces only one Sun per year.

The analysis, reported in the Astrophysical Journal, is very important for our understanding of galaxy evolution. The light we get from SPT0346-52 comes from a time when galaxies were producing stars like there was no tomorrow.

“Astronomers call galaxies with lots of star formation ‘starburst’ galaxies,” said co-author Anthony Gonzalez, from the University of Florida, in a statement. “That term doesnt seem to do this galaxy justice, so we are calling it a ‘hyper-starburst’ galaxy.”

The galaxy was first discovered using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) thanks to its tremendous infrared signature (36 trillion times more luminous than the Sun). Infrared light is a telltale sign of star formation, but sometimes supermassive black holes can emit in infrared as well.

Using NASAs Chandra and other observatories, the team discovered a lack of X-rays and radio waves from SPT0346-52, which ruled out a black hole being responsible. Instead, all that infrared light comes from the monumental star formation.

The observations of SPT0346-52. X-ray: NASA/CXC/Univ of Florida/J.Ma et al; Optical: NASA/STScI; Infrared: NASA/JPL-Caltech; Radio: ESO/NAOJ/NRAO/ALMA

“We now know that this galaxy doesn’t have a gorging black hole, but instead is shining brightly with the light from newborn stars,” said Jingzhe Ma, also from the University of Florida, who led the new study. “This gives us information about how galaxies and the stars within them evolve during some of the earliest times in the universe.”

How galaxies came together is a fascinating area of astronomy filled with a lot of speculation due to the limits of our telescopes. Studies like this one provide much-needed insight into the mysterious epoch of galaxy formation. The observations were only possible because the light of SPT0346-52 has been gravitationally lensed by a large foreground galaxy, making the distant object six times brighter and visible to our instruments.

“For decades, astronomers have known that supermassive black holes and the stars in their host galaxies grow together,” said co-author Joaquin Vieira of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

“Exactly why they do this is still a mystery. SPT0346-52 is interesting because we have observed an incredible burst of stars forming, and yet found no evidence for a growing supermassive black hole. We would really like to study this galaxy in greater detail and understand what triggered the star formation and how that affects the growth of the black hole.”

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A New View of the Milky Way

If you want to explore the Milky Way without having to go into space, then look no further than GLIMPSE360, an incredible new interactive website that allows you to take a tour of the milky way with the click of a button. This is all thanks to a team of scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who used over a whopping two million images collected by NASA’s Spitzer Space telescope to allow us to be able to do this. This telescope was launched into space in 2003, and is still going strong, though it was only meant to last 2 and a half years. 

The images collected were used to generate an amazing 360 degree view the Milky Way, the spiral galaxy within which our solar system lies, looking through a slice of the galactic plane. The Milky Way is approximately 100,000 light years in diameter and contains up to 400 billion stars, and possibly a similar number of planets. 

The Spitzer telescope takes infrared pictures of space since interstellar dust obscures images taken using visible light. The results have been incredible; not only have the images provided new information on galactic structure, but more than 200 million objects have now been added to our map of the milky way that were previously unknown. The leader of the group at the U of W-Madison who put these images together, Edward Churchwell, says “We’ve established beyond the shadow of a doubt that our galaxy has a large bar structure that extends halfway out to the sun’s orbit. We know more about where the Milky Way’s spiral arms are.” Churchwell’s group have been compiling and analysing data collected from the Spitzer telescope for over a decade in a project called GLIMPSE (Galactic Legacy Infrared Midplane Survey Extraordinaire). 

Alongside giving us new insights into the Milky Way, the results have also raised some puzzling questions. For example, the project revealed that interstellar space is filled with a gas made from complex, aromatic (benzene ring containing) hydrocarbons, suggesting that carbon is far more abundant in space than originally believed. The images are also being used in the Milky Way Project, whereby citizens can dredge through these infrared pictures in order to gain better information on star formation and what lies inside our galaxy. There’s evidently going to be a lot more exciting data that can be pulled out from these images to build up an even bigger and comprehensive picture of the Milky Way; it’s certainly not over yet. 

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Cassini Reveals We Live In A Smaller Bubble Than We Thought

If you feel like you live in a bubble, cut off from the wider universe, you’re right. The bubble is also smaller and more rounded than many suspected. The heliosphere, caused by the Sun’s solar wind, really is almost spherical, rather than having a long trailing tail.

The Sun spits out high-speed charged particles, whose motion drags out a component of the Sun’s magnetic field. The pressure from this wind produces a bubble known as the heliosphere, holding out the interstellar medium. Eventually, however, the answering pressure from the gas between the stars brings the wind’s motion to a halt. In 2012 the Voyager 1 spacecraft passed beyond the heliosphere to enter interstellar space, followed by Voyager 2.

Although this gave us a precise measurement of the location of the heliosphere’s boundary, it was only in two directions. The Sun orbits the galactic center, and a popular model had the heliosphere squashed in the direction of travel, while trailing out in a long tail behind the Sun.

However, a paper in Nature Astronomy contradicts this. “Instead of a prolonged, comet-like tail, this rough bubble-shape of the heliosphere is due to the strong interstellar magnetic field much stronger than what was anticipated in the past combined with the fact that the ratio between particle pressure and magnetic pressure inside the heliosheath is high,” said lead author Dr Kostas Dialynas of the Academy of Athens in a statement.

The conclusion is based on evidence from the Cassini spacecraft. Cassini’s travels around Saturn take it nowhere near the edges of the heliosphere. Nevertheless, it is far enough from the distractions of the inner Solar System to study the fast-moving neutral atoms produced when charged particles bounce off the heliosphere’s boundaries. The capacity to do so is an unexpected application of the Ion and Neutral Camera, intended to enable Cassini to study particles trapped by Saturn’s magnetosphere.

The strength of the solar wind varies with the Sun’s 11-year cycle, which is reflected, after a 2-3 year delay for traveling time, in the number of neutral atoms bouncing back. Astronomers expected the response to this cycle would be delayed in atoms coming from the trailing edge of the heliosphere compared to the lead.

This view was challenged by a 2009 study reporting that responses appeared almost simultaneous from all directions, suggesting a shape not far off from a sphere. Nevertheless, astronomers regarded that conclusion as preliminary, based as it was on Cassini data from just a snapshot in time.

Now, however, as Cassini prepares to end its mission, the craft has been orbiting Saturn for an entire solar cycle and Dialynas concludes the results confirm the near-circular shape, particularly when combined with observations from other spacecraft.

The bubble created by the solar wind is almost circular (left), rather than having a long tail behind the Sun as previously thought (right). Dialynas, et al. (left); NASA (right)

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How To View The Eclipse Safely If You Haven’t Managed To Get Hold Of A Pair Of Glasses

You might not have heard, but there’s going to be a total eclipse on Monday, August 21.

Of course, we’re kidding. For the last few weeks, you’ll have been met with a slew of advice on where to view the eclipse, when to view it, and how to view it safely so you don’t sear your eyeballs and go blind. And now we’re here to tell you that if you didn’t manage to get your mitts on some snazzy solar eclipse glasses you can still view it safely by using some basic household items.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory has a helpful guide to making a pinhole camera to view an eclipse, which doesn’t involve looking directly at the Sun during the partial eclipse, but projecting the image onto a surface you can look at safely.

All you need is some white card, aluminum foil, scissors, tape, and a needle. Cut a hole in the center of the white card (or stiff paper), place the foil over the hole and stick it down with the tape. Then, using the needle, pierce the center of the hole.

NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Then, place another piece of white card on the ground, and with your back to the Sun, hold the piece with a hole in it over the card. An image will appear projected onto the card on the ground. The farther you hold your “camera”, the bigger the projected image.

To get an even better image you can try holding binoculars up to the Sun (don’t look through them), and aiming the eyepiece at the white card.

Or an even better image involves slightly more effort, a telescope, and a saw, but is worth it. NASA, The Astronomical Society, and Nightwise created this handy guide to building a “Sun funnel”, which allows multiple people to enjoy viewing the image at once.

Viewing the eclipse will be a wonderful experience and a memory to treasure. Watch it safely, so you don’t end up with this date burned into your memory for the wrong reasons.

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Today Was A Good Day On The Internet Rap Song

Today Was A Good Day On The Internet Rap Song

The Internet is its own reality where dog memes, social networks, cats, and video games rule. It’s rare that everything online goes your way though. There’s always a jerk who downvotes your posts or teabags you after you’re KOed. But if everything goes your way on the Internet? Well then that was a good day. Animation Domination sings Today Was A Good Day On The Internet based on Ice Cube’s 1992 hit song. 


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Thousands Of Cameras Capture The Thriving Wildlife In World’s Protected Forests

The worlds tropical forests are thick with trees, rich in life, and dense with humidity. However, high-quality information and expansive data about the biodiversity within these understudiedwildlife hospots is scarce. This makes conservation initiatives all the more difficult to create.

So, to find out how effective protected forests are at helping wildlife, a recent study by the Tropical Ecology Assessment and Monitoring Network (TEAM) has captured an unbelievable amount of images documenting the intense biodiversity of protected sites in 15 tropical forests aroundthe world.

TEAM -a coalition led byConservation International, the Wildlife Conservation Society and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute – recently published theirfindings online in PLOS Biology.

For the study, TEAM set up a network of over 1,000 camera traps across forests in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. Each site was surveyed for at least three years, creating a total of over 500,000 images per year of 244 ground-dwelling vertebratespecies from African forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis) in the Republic of Congo to giant anteaters (Myrmecophaga tridactyla) in Ecuador.

The images were captured using motion-triggered cameras thatsnapaway if they detectan animal walking through their path. Each site had between 60 to 90 cameras set up, placed around every 1 to 2 kilometers squared (0.38 to 0.77 miles squared).

African bush elephants (Loxodonta africana) in Nouabale Ndoki National Park, Republic of Congo.TEAM Network and Wildlife Conservation Society.

Male Drill (Mandrillus leucophaeus) close-up in Cameroon, with a female and juvenile in the background. Image credit:TEAM Network and Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute

The jaguar (Panthera onca) is the largest cat in the western hemisphere and a near threatened species. This individual was photographed at Volcn Barva, Costa Rica. Image credit:Courtesy of TEAM Network and Conservation International

Using the images as data, the researchers created occupancy models of each species over a threeto eightyear period. Overall, the results were remarkably positive: 17 percent of the monitored populations were found to be increasing, 22 percent were remaining stable, and 22 percent showed some decline. The remaining 39 were animals not detected often enough for their population statistics. According to the authors, these results paint a more optmistic pictureabout the success of protected areas, contrasting earlier reports of widespread decline.

It’s hoped that the study will therefore verifythat protected areas are highly effective at preserving and indeed increasing numbers of endangeredwildlife.

“At a time when environmental concerns are taking center stage, these results show that protected areas play an important role in maintaining biodiversity,” said Jorge Ahumada, executive director of the TEAM Network and a coauthor of the study said in a press release.

“Our study reflects a more optimistic outlook about the effectiveness of protected areas. For the first time we are not relying on disparate data sources, but rather using primary data collected in a standardized way across a range of protected areas throughout the world.

With this data we have created a public resource that can be used by governments or others in the conservation community to inform decisions.”

Make sure you check outthe officialTEAM galleryfor more of their incredible photographs.

Two rarely-seen bush dogs (Speothos venaticus) are captured for the first time in YanachagaChemilln National Park, Peru. TEAM Network and Wildlife Conservation Society

Photo Gallery

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El Nio Has Definitely Ended, But Climate Change Nightmares Are Here To Stay

The world has definitively escaped one of the most powerful El Nios on record. After a stalled beginning, it commenced its wicked ways in March 2015 and lasted until sometime earlier this summer.

Its driving mechanism warm water upwelling and spreading into the eastern Pacific Ocean was thought to have terminated back in June according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Now, NASA has also declared that Pacific sea surface temperatures have officially stabilized. Their cutting-edge models indicate that the equatorial Pacific Ocean should be at normal temperatures from September onwards.

Most potent El Nios are followed by an opposing La Nia, wherein the eastern Pacific experiences far colder than normal water temperatures. However, perhaps due to the extreme nature of this particular El Nio, these cold waters wont be appearing this time around.

We are consistently predicting a more neutral state, with no La Nia or El Nio later this year, said Steven Pawson, chief of NASAs Global Modeling and Assimilation Office, in a statement.

If you havent noticed, things have been pretty warm recently, and the ex-El Nio is partly to blame. NASAs original modeling for the 2015-16 climatic phenomenon wasinitially seen to be incredibly excessive, but as it unfolded before them, they were proven right.

It exacerbated extreme weather across the world, and 100 million people were left without food and water. It also contributed towards the unbelievably consistent temperature highs.

Indeed, we’vebeen running out of different ways to tell youthat, month on month, it has been the hottest on record. In fact, according to NASA, August is the 11th consecutive record-breaking month in terms of temperature. The NOAA data set indicates that itcould be the 15th in a row.

Sea surface temperature anomalies, tracking the upwelling of warmer-than-average water in the Eastern Pacific Ocean. NASA

So far, 2016 is the hottest year in recorded history by quite a margin, and already its featured some pretty unusual events. Back-to-back Hawaiian hurricanes, typhoons that are 15 percent stronger than ever before, massive wildfires, extremely early melting in Greenland, and brand new meltwater pools over in the normally frigid Eastern Antarctic are but a few examples.

El Nio certainly played its part in some of these events. However, climate scientists agree that even one of the strongest El Nios on record pales in comparison to the way humanity is altering the climate.

Thanks to our remarkably efficient ability to pump greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, we are changing the worlds climate at an unprecedented rate. As a result, we are reaping the whirlwind through sea-level rise, powerful natural disasters, crop failure, economic losses and even war.

Sure, ocean temperatures have risen thanks to El Nio, and higher temperatures fuel stronger tropical cyclones. However, if we didnt have the oceans to absorb 90 percent of the excess heat wed generated, the rate of temperature change in the 20th century wouldnt have been 10 times above what would naturally be expected, but a devastating 360 times.

Make no mistake we are the culprits here. Still, the groundbreaking (if imperfect) Paris agreement has been ratified by China and the US, renewable energy sources are on the rise, and support for climate change mitigation is at an all-time high.

Were steering the ship in the right direction, but that waters rising awfully quickly. By the looks of things, some powerful climate change deniers are actively trying to sink it.


Global temperature anomaly tracking, based on the 1980 – 2015 annual average. NASA

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Is Black Pudding Really A Superfood? Err No!

Long a firm favourite in the cooked breakfast, black pudding has now apparently joined the likes of blueberries, quinoa and kale as a superfood. The mainstream media have picked up on a claim by online retailer Musclefood that black pudding, high in iron and protein and low in carbohydrates, is a healthy option especially compared to its processed plate-mates bacon and sausages. But does black pudding really deserve the superfood accolade?

Blood puddings are eaten in various forms in many countries morcilla in Spain or boudin noir in France, for example. One of the best known is the Stornoway black pudding from the Isle of Lewis, off the west coast of Scotland, where it originated as a means of avoiding food waste: crofters kept only small numbers of animals, so it was essential that when one was slaughtered, every part was used. Before the days of refrigeration, the blood was immediately mixed with fat, oatmeal and seasonings, and packed into a length of the animals intestine. This was then boiled and could be stored for a few weeks.

Offal, not awful Ian West/PA

In more recent times, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has extolled the virtues of eating offal. He thinks meat eaters ought to eat all parts of an animal, not just the pretty bits. But the key feature that led to black pudding being named as a superfood is the blood, which makes it a rich source of iron. A portion of two slices weighs around 60g-120g. From 100g you get around 12mg of iron, whereas the needs of most adult men would be met by 9mg a day.

Several population groups in the UK take in too little iron, but it is women of childbearing age, who need more than anyone else, who are particularly prone to deficiency.

Dietary iron comes in the form of haem from the blood and muscle in animal meats, which is well absorbed; and non-haem, mainly from plant foods, which is not so well absorbed. This helps to make black pudding a rich and easily absorbed source of iron for those in need of a boost, even if some of the haem iron is likely to be converted to non-haem in the cooking process.

Hold The Second Helping

Black pudding is also proposed to be a good source of other minerals, such as magnesium, zinc and calcium, as well as providing protein. Having said that, obtaining enough protein and minerals is not an issue for most healthy people in developed countries. Most of us actually consume at least one-and-a-half to twice as much protein as we require.

Then we come to the potential downsides, the first of which is the fat content. A low-fat food is usually considered to contain less than 3g of fat per 100g, while a high-fat food contains more than 17.5g. The black puddings made by different manufacturers span this range, with some containing less than 3g/100g and others up to 22g. Up to half of this fat is saturated, which has long been linked to heart disease albeit some studies have raised doubts. It also means that the calorie content varies almost threefold, from 120kcal per 100g to more than 300kcal.

Another ingredient of note is salt, which has been linked with high blood pressure and heart disease. The UKs public-health target is a maximum of 6g/day (a teaspoon), but it has been reported that intakes average around 8g, largely as a result of eating so many processed foods, which are high in salt. A high-salt food is classified as having more than 1.5g salt (or 0.6g sodium) per 100g and black pudding has between 1.5g and 2.4g of salt per 100g.

Interestingly, there is work underway in Ireland to reduce the salt and fat content of black pudding. Initial testing suggested it was possible to produce a reduced-fat version containing only 0.6g salt (per 100g pudding) that still tasted acceptable.

But be that as it may, black pudding is also a processed meat. Like sausages and bacon, this means it is linked to bowel cancer. The exact cause is still being debated, but either the preservatives or the processes involved in smoking, curing or salting are thought to produce carcinogens. As such, the World Cancer Research Fund has suggested we should avoid these foods altogether.

Just when I thought I was out they pull me back in. GrahamMoore999

In truth, black pudding is perhaps less processed than some other meat products. Yet it has another negative, which is unfortunately linked to its claim to superfood status: haem iron is thought to promote cancer by damaging the lining of the bowel, particularly in those with poor-quality diets who consume high quantities of meat.

If after weighing up the risks you decide to enjoy black pudding in moderation, there are still ways to limit the damage. Instead of serving it as an accompaniment to sausage and bacon, it could be grilled and added to a warm tomato salad or a barley risotto accompanied with seasonal greens. Alternatively you could avoid the haem and source a vegetarian black pudding just dont expect it to do as much to boost your iron stores.

Jennie Jackson, Lecturer in Human Nutrition and Dietetics, Glasgow Caledonian University

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This One Gif Is Better Than Anything Else You’ll See Today

This one gif is better than any you can show me on the Internet. I guarantee it. Keep your weird cats or dancing hot dogs. This cant be beat.

Whats it showing? This is the moment that the next target for NASAs New Horizons mission, a small rock in the outer Solar System, passed in front of a star as seen from Earth.

The event in the early morning of July 17 lasted a split-second, but it will give us more information about this rock than weve ever gleaned before. All from the shadow that was cast over our planet.

It was the most historic occultation on the face of the Earth, NASAs director of planetary science, Jim Green, told the team in a statement.

The Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) is called 2014 MU69. It measures roughly 22 to 40 kilometers (14 to 25 miles) across, but we dont know for sure because its so far away and faint. It orbits 40 times further from the Sun than Earth.

We also dont really know what it looks like. Its thought to be leftover from the formation of our Solar System 4.6 billion years ago, but its exact characteristics are a mystery. Some artists impressions show it as a reddish place, other estimations say it will look more like a grey asteroid.

Watch the star in the middle as MU69 passes in front of it.NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

New Horizons will be flying past the object on January 1, 2019. Before then, the team want to get as much data on MU69 as possible, which is why these events known as occultations are so important.

This was the third occultation to occur, after previous events on June 3 and 10. On this event, at least five mobile telescopes in Argentina are thought to have seen the shadow of the object as it passed over Earth, from which data will be gleaned. Other telescopes also observed the shadow, including NASAs mobile flying observatory, SOFIA.

Alan Stern, the principal investigator on the New Horizons mission, told IFLScience that they expected to have the first results from these events in a few weeks.

We spied the shape and size of 2014 MU69 for the first time, a Kuiper Belt scientific treasure we will explore just over 17 months from now, he said in a statement. Thanks to this success we can now plan the upcoming flyby with much more confidence.

“We did it!” he added. Jolly good.

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