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Posts Tagged ‘exploration

Scientists plan $1.5bn laser strong enough ‘to tear the fabric of space

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A laser powerful enough to tear apart the fabric of space could be built in Britain.

The major scientific project will follow in the footsteps of the Large Hadron Collider and will answer questions about the universe.

The laser will be capable of producing a beam of light so intense that it will be similar to the light the earth receives from the sun but focused on a speck smaller than a pin prick.

Extreme: A laser powerful enough to tear apart the fabric of space could be built in Britain

Extreme: A laser powerful enough to tear apart the fabric of space could be built in Britain.

Scientists say it will be so powerful they will be able to boil the very fabric of space and create a vacuum.

A vacuum fizzles with mysterious particles that come in and out of existence but the phenomenon happens so fast that no-one has ever actually been able to prove it.

It is hoped the Extreme Light Infrastructure Ultra-High Field Facility would allow scientists to prove the particles are real by pulling the vacuum fabric apart.

Scientists even believe it might help them to prove whether other dimensions actually exist.

This latest experiment will follow the footsteps of the Large Hadron Collider and be the next big scientific experiment

This latest experiment will follow the footsteps of the Large Hadron Collider and be the next big scientific experiment.

Professor John Collier, a scientific leader for the ELI project and director of the Central Laser Facility at Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Didcot, Oxfordshire, said the laser would be the most powerful on earth.

‘At this kind of intensity we start to get into unexplored territory as it is an area of physics that we have never been before,’ he told the Sunday Telegraph.

The ELI ultra-high field laser, which will be completed by the end of the decade, will cost £1bn and the UK is among a number of European countries in the running to house it.

The European Commission has already authorised plans for three more lasers which will become prototypes for the ultra-high field laser.

Scientists hope the laser will also allow them to see how particles inside an atom behave and it is hoped it might be able to explain the mystery of why the universe contains more matter than previously detected by revealing what dark matter really is.

HOW IT WILL WORK

  • The ultra-high field laser will be made up of 10 beams – each more powerful than the prototype lasers.
  • It will produce 200 petawatts of power – more than 100,000 times the power of the world’s combined electricity production but in less than a trillionth a second.
  • The energy needed to power the laser will be stored up beforehand and then used to produce a beams several feet wide which will then be combined and eventually focused down onto a tiny spot.
  • The intensity of the beam is so powerful and will produce such extreme conditions, that do not even exist in the center of the sun.

Powerful: The ultra-high field laser will be made up of 10 beams - each more powerful than the prototypes

Powerful: The ultra-high field laser will be made up of 10 beams – each more powerful than the prototypes.

Via DailyMail

The floating city that could become the future of life at sea

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  • Yacht island comes with 11 accommodation decks and four helipads
  • Designed to move on four platforms, each with thrusters to keep it stable

It looks like something straight out of a James Bond film – but a British firm believes this floating building could be the future of life at sea.

With 11 accommodation decks, a 360-degree observation area, four helipads, its own dock, several swimming pools and as much space as a cruise liner, it’s not so much a boat as a city.

Although it certainly does not fit the mould of a yacht, the design, called ‘Project Utopia’, was unveiled to stunned onlookers at the glitzy Monaco Yacht Show.

Fantasy island: As this artist's impression shows, Project Utopia is more like a floating city than a boat

Fantasy island: As this artist’s impression shows, Project Utopia is more like a floating city than a boat.

Designer BMT Nigel Gee, of Southampton, Hants, has not yet put a figure on how much the floating island might cost to create or what sort of customer would want to buy it.

The boat is designed to float on four platforms, each with thrusters to keep the whole yacht island stable, even in the extreme seas.

Able to move ‘at slow speeds’, it stretches 65m above the sea’s surface, providing visitors to the 13th floor observation deck with panoramic views.

Just below, the top deck of the main accommodation and service spaces – which could house shops, bars and restaurants – would be covered by a retractable canopy.

Yacht Design Director James Roy believes it challenges preconceptions of traditional naval architecture.

All at sea: Project Utopia is designed to float on four platforms, each with thrusters to keep the whole island stable

All at sea: Project Utopia is designed to float on four platforms, each with thrusters to keep the whole island stable.

He said: ‘Visions of the future are often constrained by familiarity with the present or a reflection on the past.

‘Much is made in today’s design community of starting with a blank sheet of paper yet many, if not all yacht concepts revert back to the traditional form.

‘Because of the perception that a yacht should be a form of transport it becomes an immediate design constraint.

‘Utopia is not an object to travel in, it is a place to be, an island established for anyone who has the vision to create such a place.’

A design for life: A graphic showing the schematics of the yacht island, which comes with with 11 accommodation decks, a 360-degree observation area, four helipads and several swimming pools

A design for life: A graphic showing the schematics of the yacht island, which comes with with 11 accommodation decks, a 360-degree observation area, four helipads and several swimming pools.

In the middle, a large column plunges down into the water, acting as a mooring system and housing a wet dock providing access from the sea.

James said the design, which has been created in partnership with Yacht Island Design, represents how the firm, which works on yachts, commercial and naval craft, uses state-of-the-art technology to bring innovation to the industry.

From fiction to reality: Project Utopia looks remarkably like Stromberg's lair in Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me

From fiction to reality: Project Utopia looks remarkably like Stromberg’s lair in Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me.

He added: ‘Pioneering design ideas such as Utopia are exactly the types of projects that our team excel in.

‘Our forward-thinking approach and unrivalled state-of-the-art engineering experience allows us to work closely with designers, stylists and shipyards, and bring these ideas to life.’

 

Via DailyMail

12 new species of frogs discovered in India

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Scientists have found 12 new species of night frogs living in the lush mountains of southwest India, and rediscovered three that had been thought extinct.

Evolution biologist Sathyabhama Das Biju from the University of Delhi says he hopes the discoveries draw attention to amphibians as important indicators of environmental health.

He said Saturday that there are now 336 known frog species in India, and that many are threatened by habitat loss.

Night frogs are hard to find as they come out only after dark and during the monsoon season. Biju and student researchers had to sit in dark tropical forests listening for frog sounds and shining flashlights under rocks and across riverbeds.

The research is published in the latest issue of international taxonomy journal Zootaxa.

 

Via DiscoveryOn

Written by Nokgiir

September 26, 2011 at 2:19 am

The mystery creature that nobody can identify

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If this cute little chap looks a wee bit confused, it’s no wonder.

His big wide eyes stare out at the world around him – which in turn is staring back at him.

Because nobody has seen a creature quite like this one before.

Who am I? The unidentifed animal sitting in his cage after being handed in to Wenling Zoo, in China

Who am I? The unidentifed animal sitting in his cage after being handed in to Wenling Zoo, in China.

With a nose that looks more like a rodent’s but long, pointy paws and white fur dappled with brown and orange, he is quite unique.

And zookeepers at Wenling, in eastern China, who were handed the animal by an anonymous man, have been unable to work out exactly what species he belongs to.

They think they are looking at some strange type of monkey – but other students of nature might recognise the characteristics of a bush baby.

As he sits in his cage, the creature therefore awaits an uncertain fate.

And the zookeepers sit and monitor his development and hopes he grows up into something slightly more recognisable.

Where did I come from? The rodent-like creature was handed in anonymously

Where did I come from? The rodent-like creature was handed in anonymously.

Via DailyMail

Written by Nokgiir

September 26, 2011 at 1:47 am

U.S. military drones that are so small they even look like insects

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They look like children’s toys that are left discarded in wardrobes around the world.

But these innocent-looking devices are actually some of the most sophisticated drones on the planet.

The U.S. Air Force is developing the miniature spy craft with the goal of making them so small that they resemble birds and even insects.

Causing quite a buzz: Lead researcher Dr Gregory Parker holds a small, winged drone that resembles an insect. The U.S. military's goal is to make the devices so small that they resemble birds and even insects

Causing quite a buzz: Lead researcher Dr Gregory Parker holds a small, winged drone that resembles an insect. The U.S. military’s goal is to make the devices so small that they resemble birds and even insects.

Some even have moving wings that military chiefs hope will look so convincing that people won’t pay them any attention.

The Micro Air Vehicles (MAVs) are being developed at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio.

The base’s Air Force Research Laboratory mission is to develop MAVs that can find, track and target adversaries while operating in complex urban environments.

The engineers, led by Dr Gregory Parker, are using a variety of small helicopters and drones in the lab to develop the programs and software.

Testing takes place in a controlled indoor environment, during which data is gathered to analyse for further development.

An insect-sized drone. The U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory's mission is to develop MAVs that can find, track and target adversaries while operating in complex urban environments

An insect-sized drone. The U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory’s mission is to develop MAVs that can find, track and target adversaries while operating in complex urban environments.

You'll believe a toy can spy: First Lieutenant Greg Sundbeck (left) and Dr Parker watch a test flight of a drone

You’ll believe a toy can spy: First Lieutenant Greg Sundbeck (left) and Dr Parker watch a test flight of a drone.

The trials are the latest research into tiny drones funded by the U.S. military.

The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has spent years developing a whole host of cyborg critters, in the hopes of creating the ultimate ‘fly on the wall’.

Two years ago, researchers revealed that they had created cyborg beetles that can be guided wirelessly via a laptop.

Using implants, they worked out how to control a beetle’s take-off, flight and landing by stimulating the brain to work the wings.

First Lieutenant Sundbeck prepares a computer controlled drone for a test flight in the microaviary lab at Wright Patterson Air Force Base

First Lieutenant Sundbeck prepares a computer controlled drone for a test flight in the microaviary lab at Wright Patterson Air Force Base.

What on the outside appears cheap is actually camouflaged and sophisticated military equipment

What on the outside appears cheap is actually camouflaged and sophisticated military equipment.

They controlled turns through stimulating the basilar muscles on one side or the other to make the wings on that side flap harder.

The embedded system uses nerve and muscle stimulators, a microbattery and a microcontroller with transceiver.

They were implanted in the beetles when they were at the pupal stage.

Three types of large beetles from Cameroon were used in the experiments at the University of California in Berkeley. The smallest was 2cm long, while the largest was 20cm.

First Lieutenant Zachary Goff operates the control console during a test flight at the Micro Air Vehicles lab

First Lieutenant Zachary Goff operates the control console during a test flight at the Micro Air Vehicles lab.

Via DailyMail

‘Lost’ rainbow toad rediscovered

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Conservationists report that the Sambas Stream toad, one of their top 10 “lost” amphibian species, has been rediscovered in Malaysian Borneo 87 years after it was last sighted.

The find was made by scientists from Universiti Malaysia Sarawak who spent months looking for the toad in the remote Gunung Penrissen mountains of Western Sarawak, a natural boundary between Malaysia’s Sarawak State and Indonesia’s Kalimantan Barat Province on the island of Borneo. (Just writing those names makes me feel like Indiana Jones.)

Conservation International reports that the initial search was fruitless — so the expedition team, led by Indraneil Das, moved up to higher elevations and resumed the hunt. Eventually there came a night when one of Das’ graduate students, Pui Yong Min, spotted a small toad sitting 6 feet (2 meters) up a tree.

Das could hardly believe what he was seeing.

Indraneil Das

This picture of an adult female explains why it’s called a Bornean Rainbow Toad. The amphibian measures about 2 inches (51 millimeters) in size.

“Thrilling discoveries like this beautiful toad, and the critical importance of amphibians to healthy ecosystems, are what fuel us to keep searching for lost species,” Das said in a news release from Conservation International.  “They remind us that nature still holds precious secrets that we are still uncovering, which is why targeted protection and conservation is so important. Amphibians are indicators of environmental health, with direct implications for human health. Their benefits to people should not be underestimated.”

That’s the whole idea behind the “Search for Lost Frogs” campaign, which was launched a year ago by Conservation International and the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s SSC Amphibian Specialist Group. The groups drew up a “Ten Most Wanted” list in hopes of inspiring researchers to intensify the search for amphibians that have not been seen for decades.

The Sambas Stream toad is also known as the Bornean rainbow toad, with the scientific name Ansonia latidisca. The long-legged, multicolored toad was described by European explorers in the 1920s, and was last seen in 1924. Das’ team identified three individuals — an adult female, an adult male and a juvenile, ranging in size from roughly an inch to 2 inches (30 to 51 millimeters).

Each of the toads was found in a different mature tree, in a region of the Penrissen range that’s outside Sarawak’s system of protected areas. The precise location is being kept secret in hopes of keeping pet collectors from going after the rainbow toads.

The toads are listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List, and Conservation International said they may be eligible for protection under Sarawak’s wildlife ordinances.

Conservation International’s Robin Moore, an expert on amphibians, said he was amazed to hear of the discovery.

“When I saw an email with the subject ‘Ansonia latidisca found’ pop into my in-box, I could barely believe my eyes,” he said in the CI announcement. “Attached was an image — proof in the form of the first-ever photograph of the colorful and gangly tree-dwelling toad. The species was transformed in my mind from a black-and-white illustration to a living, colorful creature.”

Moore said he considered it a privilege to be among the first to see the pictures of the toad.

“It is good to know that nature can surprise us when we are close to giving up hope, especially amidst our planet’s escalating extinction crisis,” he said. “Amphibians are at the forefront of this tragedy, so I hope that these unique species serve as flagships for conservation, inspiring pride and hope by Malaysians and people everywhere.”

The rainbow frog is the second of the “Ten Most Wanted” amphibians to be rediscovered. The first was the Rio Pescado stubfoot toad (Atelopus balios), a species native to Ecuador that is critically endangered.

Two down, eight to go … the search continues.

 

Via MSNBC

Flying car cleared for the road

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Terrafugia’s Transition roadable aircraft, shown here in an artists’ rendering, has cleared regulatory hurdles that make it street legal.

A flying car is being exempted from regulatory hurdles, meaning future owners of the vehicle will be able to drive it on public streets, the company behind it recently announced.

What this means is that you’ll be able to legally sit in traffic with the rest of the street-legal cars, but have a slight grin as you head home from the general aviation airport where you landed after flying over traffic for the first 20 miles of your commute.

“Think of it as an airplane that drives, not a car that flies,” Anna Mracek Dietrich, the chief operating officer of Terrafugia, the Woburn, Mass.,-based company that is making the Transition roadable aircraft, told me in an email Thursday.

“Once on the ground, the pilot can fold the wings on his Transition with the push of a button, drive home, and park in their garage.”

The exemptions granted from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration allow the company to use windshields made of lightweight polycarbonate materials rather than heavier traditional laminated automotive safety glass and tires that are not normally allowed on multi-purpose vehicles.

The Transition’s tires are rated for highway speeds and the vehicle’s weight and fit in the same classification as SUVs and light trucks, Dietrich explained, but they weigh only a fraction of other tires in its class. The exemption makes this OK.

Last year, the vehicle was granted a weight exemption that allows it to be classified as a Light Sport Aircraft by the FAA even though it is 110 pounds too heavy for that rating.

The clearing of these regulatory hurdles will allow Terrafugia to begin delivery of the Transition when it is ready for commercial production next year.

 

Via MSNBC

 

Inside NASA’s ‘Skunk Works’ lab

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With the space shuttle program ending, what does NASA have to look forward to? The future of deep-space exploration is already taking shape, inside the walls of Johnson Space Center’s Building 220, the space agency’s “Skunk Works” lab for human spaceflight.

This is where NASA once worked on the X-38, a snub-nosed space plane that might have carried astronauts down to Earth from the International Space Station. The project was canceled in 2002, and today the 12,000-square-foot building houses hardware for a succession of projects that are not quite ready for prime time. But some of them may be ready sooner than you think.

Take Robonaut 2, for example. The humanoid upper-body robot was shipped up to the space station in February, and taken out of its box at President Barack Obama’s urging. (“Unpack the guy,” he told Discovery’s astronauts jokingly, but NASA took the request seriously.)

A Robonaut twin is set up in Building 220, and the team behind the project is putting the guy through its paces in preparation for the start of tests in orbit later this month. One of the first tasks is to figure out how the Robonaut and flesh-and-blood astronauts can work safely together in microgravity.

Nicolaus Radford, deputy project manager for the Robonaut team, demonstrated how the earthly Robonaut was programmed to ease up if a human got in the way. When one of the android’s arms knocks into you during a maneuver, it will push against you gently — as if it were a brother trying to elbow his way past you quietly. If you continue to block the arm movement, the robot will go passive in place.

Having robots programmed not to harm humans is important, not only because it will head off the robot apocalypse but also because it will lead to safer industrial robots. That’s one of the reasons why GM executives are partnering with NASA on Robonaut 2. “They spend more money on the safety for robots than they spend on the robots themselves,” Radford said.

However, the physics of hazard avoidance is different on the space station, where even a little bit of force could send an astronaut floating away. So Radford said Robonaut 2’s software will be fine-tuned to reflect that physics. “That’s specifically what we’re going to be looking at,” he said.

Looking further ahead, the team is already hard at work developing a pair of legs for Robonaut, so that it can carry objects from one space station location to another. “In the next 18 months or so, you’re going to see legs on a robot walking around the space station,” Radford said.

Project Morpheus
That will come as music to the ears of engineers working on another “Skunk Works” project on display in Building 220. Project Morpheus started out as “Project M,” a concept that called for landing a humanoid robot on the moon in 1,000 days. Then reality set in, and the project was redefined. “We narrowed it down to focus on lander technology,” said Jenny Mitchell, Project Morpheus’ systems engineering and integration lead.

The Morpheus team turned to Texas-based Armadillo Aerospace for help in getting a prototype lunar lander off the ground — in fact, a scaled-up version of the rocket-propelled craft that won some of NASA’s money in the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge. The methane-fueled Morpheus lander is designed to bring a 1,100-pound payload, such as a humanoid robot or a small rover, down to the surface of the moon from lunar orbit. What’s more, the lander would fly autonomously, without the need for human intervention.

Morpheus project manager Jon Olansen said the team is well into the testing stage after spending just $5 million. He said the lander should be ready to demonstrate autonomous flights on high-energy trajectories in the next year.

The project made headlines last month when a tethered flight test went slightly off, sparking a grass fire at Johnson Space Center. Now the team is setting up additional safeguards to reduce the fire risk. YouTube videos provide multiple perspectives on the Morpheus tests.

Alan Boyle / msnbc.com

Building 220 houses a series of Morpheus-related test items. In the far background is Armadillo Aerospace’s rocket-powered Pixel lander prototype. The larger Morpheus lander sits nearby. In the foreground is a small model lander that was built from hardware-store lighting globes to study how propellant sloshes around the lander’s four tanks. And a clear plastic tank at right shows how buffers were built into the full-size Morpheus tanks to minimize the slosh.

Morpheus’ team members are also widening their perspective on the eventual application of their technology. It isn’t just for the moon anymore. “At this point in time, we don’t need a specific destination to do this kind of work,” Olansen said, “because this work will be needed for any destination.”

Desert RATS
That philosophy carries over to next month’s Desert RATS exercise, which is due to be conducted in Arizona after months of preparation in Building 220. “RATS” stands for Research and Technology Studies, and past studies have focused on simulating surface operations on the moon or Mars using next-generation space exploration technologies. But now NASA’s vision for space exploration is focusing on sending humans to a near-Earth asteroid by 2025. That means the Desert RATS’ Habitat Demonstration Unit is being remodeled for a new role.

“This year we’re reconfiguring it for the deep-space habitat for an asteroid mission,” said Terry Tri, demonstration unit integration manager for Desert RATS.

The wheeled vehicle that was being tested as the prototype for an electric-powered lunar rover is now being looked upon as a make-believe “multimission space exploration vehicle,” or MMSEV. In an actual mission, the MMSEVs would not be rovers wheeling around the lunar or Martian surface, but would instead be thruster-powered pods designed to travel through space to make contact with an asteroid under low-gravity conditions.

Alan Boyle / msnbc.com

A rover driver gets ready to climb down from a wheeled vehicle that has been used as the prototype for a lunar rover in past Desert RATS simulation. During this year’s simulation, the vehicle will play the role of a “multimission space exploration vehicle,” or MMSEV. An actual MMSEV would be propelled by thrusters rather than wheels.

During this year’s exercise, the rover drivers will be “pretending they don’t have wheels,” Tri said.

He said the 19-foot-wide habitat would serve as “the ‘mothership,’ if you will, that [astronauts] would return to.” The habitat’s lower floor has a glovebox for handling space samples, a mini-medical station, a telerobotics work station and a repair bench. The inflatable upper floor would provide living space for four astronauts.

This year, NASA held a college-level competition for the design of the inflatable part of the habitat, and the winning entry was submitted by students at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. The Badger X-Loft can be expanded from a 30-inch-high base into a 13-foot-high dome in about 15 to 20 minutes. Each astronaut gets a desk and a chair as well as private sleeping quarters.

Nicole Roth / UW-Madison

The fully inflated Badger X-Loft is perched atop the Habitat Demonstration Unit inside Building 220 at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

“Basically, everything’s modular,” team member Jordan Wachs, an engineering mechanics and astronautics and physics major, said in a university news release. “The whole design was intended that any eighth can be swapped entirely with any other eighth.”

As a reward for their efforts, the students will share an $10,000 prize and travel to Arizona to see their Badger X-Loft tested during the Desert RATS exercise. Who knows? In a few years, maybe they’ll be plotting NASA’s next giant leap, right here at Building 220.

 

Via MSNBC/Alan Boyle

Discovery Adds Mystery to Earth’s Genesis

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Artist's conception of a dusty planet-forming disk orbiting a stellar object known as IRS 46.

Earth and the other rocky planets aren’t made out of the solar system’s original starting material, two new studies reveal.

Scientists examined solar particles snagged in space by NASA’s Genesis probe, whose return capsule crash-landed on Earth in 2004. These salvaged samples show that the sun’s basic building blocks differ significantly from those of Earth, the moon and other denizens of the inner solar system, researchers said.

Nearly 4.6 billion years ago, the results suggest, some process altered many of the tiny pieces that eventually coalesced into the rocky planets, after the sun had already formed.

“From any kind of consensus view, or longer historical view, this is a surprising result,” said Kevin McKeegan of UCLA, lead author of one of the studies. “And it’s just one more example of how the Earth is not the center of everything.”

Salvaging the samples

The Genesis spacecraft launched in 2001 and set up shop about 900,000 miles (1.5 million kilometers) from Earth. It spent more than two years grabbing bits of the solar wind, the million-mph stream of charged particles blowing from the sun.

The idea was to give scientists an in-depth look at the sun’s composition, which in turn could help them better understand the formation and evolution of the solar system.

To that end, Genesis sent its sample-loaded return capsule back to Earth in September 2004. But things didn’t go well; the capsule’s parachute failed to deploy, and it smashed into the Utah dirt at 190 mph (306 kph).

While some of Genesis’ samples were destroyed in the crash, others were salvageable, as the two new studies show. Two different research teams looked at the solar wind particles’ oxygen and nitrogen — the most abundant elements found in Earth’s crust and atmosphere, respectively.

And they did so with a great deal of care, knowing that the crash had limited their supplies of pristine solar material.

“The stakes were raised on the samples that did survive well,” McKeegan told SPACE.com. “There wasn’t as much to go around.”

The Genesis return capsule slammed into the Utah dirt at nearly 200 mph on Sept. 8, 2004 when its parachute failed to deploy.

The Genesis return capsule slammed into the Utah dirt at nearly 200 mph on Sept. 8, 2004 when its parachute failed to deploy.
CREDIT: NASA/JPL

Analzying oxygen

McKeegan and his team measured the abundance of solar wind oxygen isotopes. Isotopes are versions of an element that have different numbers of neutrons in their atomic nuclei. Oxygen has three stable isotopes: oxygen-16 (eight neutrons), oxygen-17 (nine neutrons) and oxygen-18 (ten neutrons).

The researchers found that the sun has significantly more oxygen-16, relative to the other two isotopes, than Earth. Some process enriched the stuff that formed our planet — and the other rocky bodies in the inner solar system — with oxygen-17 and oxygen-18 by about 7 percent.

While scientists don’t yet know for sure how this happened, they have some ideas. The leading contender, McKeegan said, may be a process called “isotopic self-shielding.”

About 4.6 billion years ago, the planets had not yet coalesced out of the solar nebula, a thick cloud of dust and gas. Much of the oxygen in this cloud was probably bound up in gaseous carbon monoxide (CO) molecules.

But the oxygen didn’t stay bound up forever. High-energy ultraviolet light from the newly formed sun (or nearby stars) blasted into the cloud, breaking apart the CO. The liberated oxygen quickly glommed onto other atoms, forming molecues that eventually became the rocky building blocks of planets.

Photons of slightly different energy were required to chop up the CO molecules, depending on which oxygen isotope they contained. Oxygen-16 is far more common than either of the other two, so there would have been much more of this substance throughout the solar nebula, researchers said.

The result, the self-shielding theory goes, is that many of the photons needed to break up the oxygen-16 CO were “used up,” or absorbed, on the edges of the solar nebula, leaving much of the stuff in the cloud’s interior intact.

By contrast, relatively more of the photons that could strip out oxygen-17 and oxygen-18 got through to the inner parts of the cloud, freeing these isotopes, which were eventually incorporated into the rocky planets. And that, according to the theory, is why the sun and Earth’s oxygen isotope abundances are so different.

“The result that we’re publishing this week gives support to the self-shielding idea,” McKeegan said. “But we don’t know the answer yet.”

Nitrogen, too

In a separate study, another research team led by Bernard Marty of Nancy University in France analyzed the nitrogen isotopes in Genesis’ samples. (Nitrogen has two stable isotopes: nitrogen-14, which has seven neutrons, and nitrogen-15, which has eight.)

Marty and his colleagues found an even more dramatic difference than McKeegan’s group did: The solar wind has about 40 percent less nitrogen-15 (compared to nitrogen-14) than do samples taken from Earth’s atmosphere.

Previous studies had hinted that the sun’s nitrogen might be very different from that of Earth, Mars and other rocky bodies in the inner solar system, Marty said. But the new study establishes this firmly.

“Before Genesis and the present measurement of the N isotopic composition of the solar wind and by extension of the sun, it was not possible to understand the logic of such variations,” Marty told SPACE.com in an email interview. “Now we understand that the starting composition, the solar nebula, was poor in 15N, so that variations among solar system objects are the result of mixing with a 15N-rich end-member.”

As to how this enrichment of nitrogen-15 could have happened, Marty as well suggests some type of self-shielding as a possible mechanism. But it’s not a certainty.

“This is a scenario that is consistent with present-day observations,” he said. “We cannot eliminate yet the possibility that these 15N-rich compounds were imported from outer space as dust in the solar system.”

The new results also suggest that most nanodiamonds — tiny carbon specks that are a major component of stardust — likely formed in our own solar system, because they share similar nitrogen isotope ratios with the sun. Some scientists have regarded nanodiamonds as being primarily presolar, thinking they were ejected from other stellar systems by supernova explosions.

Both studies appear in the June 23 issue of the journal Science.

Genesis’ legacy

The two new studies should help scientists get a better understanding of the solar system’s early days, researchers said.

And the results should help rehabilitate the reputation of the $264 million Genesis mission, showing that the capsule crash didn’t render it a failure, McKeegan said.

“We managed to accomplish all the science that we set out to do, all the important stuff,” he said. “The enduring image in everybody’s mind — the picture of the crashed spacecraft in the desert — will be more of a footnote instead of the primary thing that people remember. That’s my hope, anyway.”

 

Via Space

Ice spray shooting out of Saturn moon points to a giant ocean lurking beneath its surface

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Scientists have collected the strongest evidence yet that Saturn moon Enceladus has a large saltwater ocean lurking beneath its surface.

Samples of ice spray shooting out of the moon have been collected by the Nasa’s Cassini spacecraft during one of its frequent Saturn fly-bys.

The plumes shooting water vapor and tiny grains of ice into space were originally discovered emanating from Enceladus – one of 19 known moons of Saturn – by the Cassini spacecraft in 2005.

Samples of ice spray shooting out of Saturn moon Enceladus have been collected by Nasa's Cassini spacecraft. Scientists believe it is the strongest evidence yet that Enceladus has a large saltwater ocean lurking beneath its surface

Samples of ice spray shooting out of Saturn moon Enceladus have been collected by Nasa’s Cassini spacecraft. Scientists believe it is the strongest evidence yet that Enceladus has a large saltwater ocean lurking beneath its surface

They were originating from the so-called ‘tiger stripe’ surface fractures at the moon’s south pole and apparently have created the material for the faint E Ring that traces the orbit of Enceladus around Saturn.

During three of Cassini’s passes through the plume in 2008 and 2009, the Cosmic Dust Analyser (CDA) on board measured the composition of freshly ejected plume grains.

The icy particles hit the detector’s target at speeds of up to 11miles-per-second, instantly vaporising them. The CDA separated the constituents of the resulting vapor clouds, allowing scientists to analyse them.

The ice grains found further out from Enceladus are relatively small and mostly ice-poor, closely matching the composition of the E Ring. Closer to the moon, however, the Cassini observations indicate that relatively large, salt-rich grains dominate.

Lead researcher Frank Postberg, of the University of Heidelberg in Germany, said: ‘There currently is no plausible way to produce a steady outflow of salt-rich grains from solid ice across all the tiger stripes other than the salt water under Enceladus’ icy surface.’

Plumes, both large and small, spray water ice from multiple locations along the 'tiger stripes' near the south pole of Enceladus

Plumes, both large and small, spray water ice from multiple locations along the ‘tiger stripes’ near the south pole of Enceladus.

Co-author Sascha Kempf, of the University of Colorado Boulder, added: ‘The study indicates that “salt-poor” particles are being ejected from the underground ocean through cracks in the moon at a much higher speed than the larger, salt-rich particles.

‘The E Ring is made up predominately of such salt-poor grains, although we discovered that 99 per cent of the mass of the particles ejected by the plumes was made up of salt-rich grains, which was an unexpected finding.

‘Since the salt-rich particles were ejected at a lower speed than the salt-poor particles, they fell back onto the moon’s icy surface rather than making it to the E Ring.’

According to the researchers, the salt-rich particles have an ‘ocean-like’ composition that indicates most, if not all, of the expelled ice comes from the evaporation of liquid salt water rather than from the icy surface of the moon.

When salt water freezes slowly the salt is ‘squeezed out’, leaving pure water ice behind. If the plumes were coming from the surface ice, there should be very little salt in them, which was not the case, according to the research team.

Dwarfed: Enceladus can be seen near Saturn's south pole at the bottom of this image

Dwarfed: Enceladus can be seen near Saturn’s south pole at the bottom of this image

 The scientists believe that perhaps 50 miles beneath the surface crust of Enceladus a layer of water exists between the rocky core and the icy mantle that is kept in a liquid state by gravitationally driven tidal forces created by Saturn and several neighboring moons, as well as by heat generated by radioactive decay.

It is thought that roughly 440lbs of water vapor are lost every second from the plumes, along with smaller amounts of ice grains.

Calculations show the liquid ocean must have a sizable evaporating surface or it would easily freeze over, halting the formation of the plumes.

‘This study implies that nearly all of the matter in the Enceladus plumes originates from a saltwater ocean that has a very large evaporating surface,’ said Dr Kempf.

The team’s study is published in the journal Nature.

 

Via DailyMail