Discovery of oldest known Mayan calendar
Never-before-seen artwork – the first to be found on walls of a Maya house – adorns the dwelling in the ruined city of Xultún. The figure on the left is one of three men on the house’s west wall who are painted in black and wearing identical costumes.
May 10th, 2012
06:50 PM ET

Discovery of oldest known Mayan calendar

Nestled in the deep trenches of the Guatemalan rain forest, at the largest-known Classic Mayan site, Xultún, scientists have uncovered the remnants of what appears to be the earliest known Mayan calendar and murals.

Contrary to popular myth, Mayan experts have known for a long time that this calendar is not a countdown to the end of the world on December 2012, the study researchers said in a press conference to reporters.

The Mayan used a series of cycles to track time in which there were 13 baktuns each representing a 400-year chunk.

Researchers of the study say rumors surrounding a projected apocalypse on December 21, 2012, is a misconception. It is just the benchmark when a cycle of 13 baktuns will be complete and a new cycle begins.

“There was a lot more to the Mayan calendar than just 13 baktuns," said archaeologist David Stuart of the University of Texas, who worked to decipher the hieroglyphics found on the walls of a house, dating back to the early part of the 9th century (813 A.D.-814 A.D.).

"The Mayan calendar is going to keep going for billions, trillions, octillions of years into the future," added Stuart.

Archeologists working in the region stumbled upon these ruins back in 2010, while exploring the site of Xultún. They say the artifacts were well preserved in a never before seen house-like structure, which appears to be a workspace for Mayan scribes.

“It was actually my student, Max Chamberlain, who discovered to the Mayan house, while poking around a looters’ trench,” said William Saturno, lead author and archeologist at Boston University.

Due to the fluctuations in the wet and dry climates of the tropical regions in the rain forest, scientists did not expect these artworks to preserve well.  At first glance, Saturno and his research team did not think their findings would amount to anything.

“Initially, when we went to verify this as a Mayan painting, all we could see at the time was a single red line on a really moldy, dilapidated piece of stucco that had been uncovered by looters about 30 years earlier," said Saturno.

“In order to gain a better understanding of the dimensions of the house, I began excavating the looters’ trench to the back wall, I was shocked to find a beautifully preserved image of a Mayan king on his throne, with a great blue feathered head dress streaming off his head,” added Saturno.

Preserved paintings were found on the ceiling and on three of the four walls, covering the west and north walls of a small 6.6-foot-by-6 foot room, with a vaulted roof.  On the east wall, someone had painted a series of small, complex hieroglyphics.  The newly discovered calendar, features bars and dots recording lunar cycles in six-month chunks of time. The markings tipped the researchers off,  suggesting that on top of the wall murals was actually a calendar.

“All around us were paintings, we saw many life-size human figures painted in black and red hieroglyphs,” said Saturno.

Despite the remarkable findings, this team of researchers say they have only scratched the surface.

“We have 99.9 % of Xultún left to explore,” said David Stuart.

“Its actual boundaries have yet to determined and we are going to be working on it for many decades to come,” said Stuart.

The findings, supported by the National Geographic Society, are set to be published in a forthcoming article in the journal Science on Friday.


Filed under: Discoveries • News • On Earth
May 10th, 2012
02:57 PM ET

Space rock Vesta promoted to ‘protoplanet’

Vesta, the second-largest object in our solar system's asteroid belt, is a protoplanet, according to research released Thursday. Scientists reviewed data from the Dawn spacecraft orbiting Vesta and concluded that Vesta is protoplanet that survived numerous collisions with other space rocks since it formed more than 4.5 billion years ago.

"Dawn’s mission at Vesta has been a spectacular success. It’s transformed Vesta from a fuzzy orb into a planetary body," said Carol Raymond, the deputy principal investigator for Dawn at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

Becoming a protoplanet is an upgrade from Vesta’s previous designation as an asteroid or minor planet. It means Vesta’s structure shows it has a dense, layered body and orbits the sun, like the Earth and other rocky planets. Vesta didn’t quite make it to full-fledged planet, but Raymond said it's more like a planet than an asteroid.

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Filed under: In Space
No bow shock for our heliosphere
Bow shock is visible in these telescope images of stars. New data shows that our sun likely does not produce bow shock.
May 10th, 2012
02:36 PM ET

No bow shock for our heliosphere

For decades, research into the heliosphere the bubble of solar-wind-blown particles that surrounds our solar system has assumed that the heliosphere's motion produces bow shock, a shock wave of ionized gas or plasma preceding the bubble as it moves through space.

New information from NASA's Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX) reveals that this phenomenon doesn't actually occur.

You might be familiar with bow shock in terms of the sonic booms caused by planes flying faster than the speed of sound. David McComas, lead investigator for the IBEX mission team that completed this new analysis, explains, "As the jet reaches supersonic speeds, the air ahead of it can’t get out of the way fast enough. Once the aircraft hits the speed of sound, the interaction changes instantaneously, resulting in a shock wave."

Though telescopes have observed bow shock preceding other stars, IBEX has shown that our heliosphere doesn't move fast enough in the galactic gas and dust to produce the same effect. In an article in the online journal Science, the IBEX team reports that the heliosphere moves about 7,000 miles per hour slower than previously thought.

Does this mean the sun itself is moving slower? Compared to the interstellar medium, yes, but compared to the other stars around it, not so much.

Moreover, IBEX and the Voyager spacecraft have both shown that the magnetic field in the interstellar medium is strong enough to require the heliosphere to move even faster in order to produce bow shock.

The new data means that years' worth of research needs to be re-examined, McComas said in a statement. "Already, we know there are likely implications for how galactic cosmic rays propagate around and enter the solar system, which is relevant for human space travel."

Humans traveling outside of the relatively safety of Earth's magnetic field, which deflects some radiation, would be exposed to cosmic rays and risk effects like cancer.

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Filed under: Discoveries • In Space • the Sun
Saturn's Brightly Reflective Moon Enceladus
May 10th, 2012
10:16 AM ET

Saturn's Brightly Reflective Moon Enceladus

"A brightly reflective Enceladus appears before Saturn's rings, while the planet's larger moon Titan looms in the distance.

Jets of water ice and vapor emanating from the south pole of Enceladus, which hint at subsurface sea rich in organics, and liquid hydrocarbons ponding on the surface on the surface of Titan make these two of the most fascinating moons in the Saturnian system.

Enceladus (313 miles, or 504 kilometers across) is in the center of the image. Titan (3,200 miles, or 5,150 kilometers across) glows faintly in the background beyond the rings. This view looks toward the anti-Saturn side of Enceladus and the Saturn-facing side of Titan. The northern, sunlit side of the rings is seen from just above the ringplane.

The image was taken in visible green light with the Cassini spacecraft narrow-angle camera on March 12, 2012. The view was acquired at a distance of approximately 600,000 miles (1 million kilometers) from Enceladus and at a Sun-Enceladus-spacecraft, or phase, angle of 36 degrees. Image scale is 4 miles (6 kilometers) per pixel on Enceladus."

Source: NASA

Filed under: Light up the screen

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