Physicists a step closer to invisibility cloak
March 27th, 2013
05:54 AM ET

Physicists a step closer to invisibility cloak

Some scientists seem to take their cues from science fiction or fantasy novels.

Physicists in Texas have developed a method to make objects "invisible" within a limited range of light waves. It's not Harry Potter's invisibility cloak just yet, but scientists say it has a lot of potential.

The desire to become invisible dates back to the ancient Greeks, if not further. In mythological literature, gods and goddesses donned a headdress to disappear from sight. Like Potter's cloak, the "cap of invisibility" was imbued with magical powers.

A fixture in magic, the invisibility cloak has now advanced to science.

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Scientists more certain that particle is Higgs boson
A proton-proton collision produced in the Large Hadron Collider shows characteristics in line with the decay of a Higgs boson particle.
March 14th, 2013
04:10 PM ET

Scientists more certain that particle is Higgs boson

Just in time for Albert Einstein's birthday Thursday, scientists delivered exciting news about how the universe works.

Last summer, physicists announced that they had identified a particle with characteristics of the elusive Higgs boson, the so-called "God particle." But, as often the case in science, they needed to do more research to be more certain.

On Thursday, scientists announced that the particle, detected at the Large Hadron Collider, the world's most powerful particle-smasher, looks even more like the Higgs boson.

The news came at the Moriond Conference in La Thuile, Italy, from scientists at the Large Hadron Collider's ATLAS and Compact Muon Solenoid experiments. These two detectors are looking for unusual particles that slip into existence when subatomic particles crash into one another at high energies.

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Studying Earth's protective radiation belts
This illustration shows the Van Allen radiation belts and the positions of the twin Van Allen probes.
March 9th, 2013
07:00 AM ET

Studying Earth's protective radiation belts

Two regions of radiation encircle the Earth. They’re called the Van Allen belts, and they are a pair of dynamic regions of trapped radiation, separated by a void and held in place by the Earth's magnetic field. They protect the planet from the radiation of space and the effects of solar weather.

We’ve known about these two belts since James Van Allen, the eponymous astronomer, discovered them in 1958. It's important that we know as much as we can about the Van Allen belts and how they change, because most of Earth's satellites live in the region.

Two NASA probes detected a third radiation belt, which disappeared a few weeks later. It appears that solar weather caused its formation, and disappearance.

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Biology & evolution round-up, week of December 17
December 22nd, 2012
12:31 PM ET

Biology & evolution round-up, week of December 17

Human intelligence mysteries explained by chimpanzee brains

Even though humans and chimpanzees share 98% of their DNA, there is a great disparity in intelligence between the two species. Scientific American reports that a new study has revealed one reason why: During the first two years of life, human brains undergo a huge expansion in white matter - the connections between brain cells - at a rate twice that of chimpanzee brains.

Primate with venomous armpits discovered

National Geographic reports that a new species of slow lorises has been discovered in Borneo. Like other slow lorises, the N. kayan produces a toxic bite by rubbing its hands around venomous glands near its armpits and applying the poison to its teeth. Its bite can induce a predator into lethal anaphylactic shock.

Microbes ride troposphere from Asia to North America

ScienceDaily reports that more microbial species than ever thought before are traveling across the Pacific Ocean from Asia to North America via Earth’s troposphere. This layer of atmosphere pools and transports microbes, including several species of fungi and bacteria, during “plume events.”

During spring 2011, scientists collected samples in plumes originating in Asia to detect aerosols and pollutants. Now, using a newer culturing method that looks at biomass in the form of DNA, researchers are able to study bacteria and fungi in these samples that are thought to affect weather patterns. Many of these species are specially adapted to travel long distances in harsh conditions, challenging the old notion that the atmosphere is just a transient place for life.

Scientists use yeast to resurrect extinct enzymes

Scientists have reconstructed proteins and DNA from prehistoric yeast cells, Phys.org reports. By studying these enzymes, scientists can determine which types of sugars these ancient yeasts once digested, deepening their view of the evolutionary innovation of biological catalysts.

Read more on this story.

Goldenrod plant can smell danger

Many argue that plants are just as alive as we are. It is not news to scientists that plants are responsive to odors, but earlier instances of this were all plant-to-plant communication, phys.org reports. In a recent study, scientists determined that a tall goldenrod can sense a male fly’s sex attractant and start to prepare chemical defenses to protect itself from the female fly’s damaging eggs.

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Filed under: Discoveries • Human ancestors • On Earth
Hundreds of Earth-sized planet candidates discovered
December 4th, 2012
11:01 AM ET

Hundreds of Earth-sized planet candidates discovered

By Zaina Adamu, CNN

Could there be extraterrestrial life in our own Milky Way galaxy?

NASA’s Kepler mission, using an orbiting telescope equipped with a 95-megapixel camera and 42 charge-coupled devices, discovered that worlds, one-half to twice the size of Earth, exist in our galaxy.

Kepler is the first mission with the potential to identify Earth-sized planets that exist near the habitable zones of their stars, a landmark in astronomy because the finding could lead scientists to discover that, indeed, life exists in other places besides Earth.

The way Kepler detects planets is similar to how we detect Venus and Mercury from Earth. Every so often, there are events where Venus and Mercury pass the sun, briefly blocking a bit of the sunlight coming to Earth. From our perspective, each of these events, called a transit, is seen as a slow-moving black speck traveling across the sun.

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Superman's 'Krypton' found
November 9th, 2012
01:29 PM ET

Superman's 'Krypton' found

Superman has had an eventful few weeks. First he quit his job at the Daily Planet, and now he has discovered the location of his home planet Krypton.

In "Action Comics" No. 14, released on Wednesday, the iconic superhero is summoned to an observatory where he's met by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. In real life, Tyson is the director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

Tyson in the comic pinpointed Krypton, 27 years after it exploded. On that very night, its destruction is visible from planet Earth.

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Scientists measure the universe’s first starlight
Scientists used high-energy radiation from blazars to measure the light from the first stars.
November 1st, 2012
02:01 PM ET

Scientists measure the universe’s first starlight

By Elizabeth Landau, CNN

The universe was just a kid at 4 billion years old. Thursday, scientists said that they have a measurement for all of the light that was around at that time that’s still traveling to us.

It’s called the extragalactic background light. This includes light from stars that existed when the universe was even younger than 4 billion years old. Researchers report in the journal Science that this can help with understanding how stars formed and how galaxies evolved.

“I think it’s amazing to be able to probe our universe when it was so young, when the very first stars formed," said Marco Ajello, researcher at Stanford University and study co-author.

Researchers write in the study that there have been several attempts in the past to detect this phenomenon, but none were successful.

The finding is important for estimating the number of smaller, fainter galaxies that current telescopes cannot detect, said Claude-Andre Faucher-Giguere, researcher in the Department of Astronomy at the University of California, Berkeley, who was not involved in the study.

Here’s why: Every telescope has limitations, especially its size. So astronomers can use them to detect the big, luminous galaxies, but there are more galaxies that the tools will miss.

“Studying the extragalactic background light allows us to overcome this limitation, because the background light is the sum of the light produced by all galaxies, including the ones that are too faint to be detected individually by traditional methods,” he said.

How they did it

To study this, scientists focused their efforts at high-energy gamma rays using NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope. Specifically, they looked at “blazars,” which are galactic nuclei that spew jets associated with supermassive black holes.

When this extragalactic background light absorbs gamma rays, the process produces electron-positron pairs. A positron is an anti-matter particle.

This is the inverse reaction from what’s described in Dan Brown’s novel “Angels and Demons,” explains Faucher-Giguere. In that book, the villains’ bomb would harness the extraordinary energy from matter and anti-matter annihilating each other.

Based on how many gamma rays are expected to be present, compared to how many were observed, scientists calculated the number of gamma rays that appeared to be absorbed by the starlight from the early universe.

In that sense, these gamma-ray sources are like “lighthouses” and the starlight is like the fog, Ajello said. Scientists know that starlight is absorbing the gamma rays when the "lighthouse" is dimmer.

Scientists can therefore add up the light from the galaxies they can detect, and compare that to the extragalactic background light. This subtraction is a clue to how many galaxies we haven’t yet directly detected with our telescopes, and how luminous they are, Faucher-Giguere said.

According to this study, the galaxies observed directly via telescope accounts for most of the extragalactic background light measured. That means there cannot be much more light coming from fainter galaxies, Faucher-Giguere explains. This also puts limits on how many black holes and massive stars were in the early universe.

“This is a new and unique constraint that all future models of galaxy and black hole evolution will have to satisfy,” Faucher-Giguere said.

An extremely powerful telescope is required to support and complement these findings by directly observing the first galaxies. NASA's James Webb Space Telescope, whose launch is scheduled for 2018, may do the trick.

"The Webb telescope will open a completely new era," Ajello said at a NASA press briefing Thursday.

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A distant planet gets resurrected
Artist's impression of Fomalhaut b in orbit around its star.
October 31st, 2012
10:29 AM ET

A distant planet gets resurrected

Editor's note: Brian Williams is a space enthusiast and writer living in Salinas, California.

Back in 2008, something went bump in the night around Fomalhaut, a star in the constellation Piscis Austrinusa, 25 light-years away from Earth. Originally found by the Hubble Space Telescope, Fomalhaut b was announced as the first exoplanet (a planet outside our solar system)  found through direct imaging in visible light, instead of by the usual planet-finding methods.

Moving through a dusty oblong ring surrounding its star, Fomalhaut b was thought to be a planet as much as three times Jupiter’s mass, carving a path through the ring.

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NASA’s NuStar gets first look at black hole at the center of the Milky Way
October 25th, 2012
04:57 PM ET

NASA’s NuStar gets first look at black hole at the center of the Milky Way

Editor's note: Brian Williams is a space enthusiast and writer living in Salinas, California.

NASA’s Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array, called NuSTAR, has taken its first glimpse of our galaxy’s supermassive black hole, thanks to a recent flare-up at the galactic core.

NuSTAR, a state-of-the-art, space-based X-ray telescope, was aimed at Sagittarius A*, a compact radio source identified as a black hole, for two days in July. The goal was to better understand just what makes our galaxy's central black hole so different from others.

Compared to other galaxies, the Milky Way’s black hole is relatively calm. While other supermassive black holes devour gas and stars around them, releasing large amounts of energy in the process, ours only seems to have the occasional light snack, showing just a bit of activity as matter is consumed: the tell-tale burst of energy seen in X-ray and radio emissions.

According to Fiona Harrison, NuSTAR’s principal investigator at CalTech in Pasadena, California, fortuitous timing plays no small role in observing the activity.

“We got lucky to have captured an outburst from the black hole during our observing campaign. These data will help us better understand the gentle giant at the heart of our galaxy and why it sometimes flares up for a few hours and then returns to slumber," she said in a written statement.

Thanks to the instruments aboard NuSTAR, the team was able to see the X-rays created by matter being heated up to approximately 180 million degrees Fahrenheit (or 100 million degrees Celsius) in regions where particles are accelerated close to the speed of light.

"Astronomers have long speculated that the black hole's snacking should produce copious hard X-rays, but NuSTAR is the first telescope with sufficient sensitivity to actually detect them," team member Chuck Hailey of Columbia University said in a written statement.

Fred Baganoff, a NuStar team leader at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, stressed in an e-mail the importance of the NuSTAR data for getting a clearer picture of the dark heart of our galaxy.

“Understanding such a complex and alien environment from so far away is like piecing together a jigsaw puzzle when you do not know what the final image should look like; most of the pieces are missing and the whole puzzle is too small and far away to be seen by the human eye. What NuSTAR has done is give us more of the pieces. Until 2000, the only pieces we had were on the left-hand side of the puzzle in the radio and millimeter wave bands, where Sagittarius A* had been studied since its discovery in 1974. The entire right-hand side of the puzzle, visible only in the soft X-rays, hard X-rays and gamma-rays, was completely missing. ... The center of the puzzle was missing, too, since vast clouds of gas and dust completely block our view of the center of our galaxy in optical and ultraviolet light. Only one in a trillion optical photons makes it through that dark haze.”

Taken with data from other observatories (NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii were also pointed at Sagittarius A*), scientists hope NuSTAR can shed light on the activity cycles and evolution of black holes. There is also a wealth of non-black hole related data that the X-ray space telescope will help scientists understand,  Harrison said.

“NuSTAR will look at a wide range of phenomena from exploding stars to neutron stars and black holes. NuSTAR will even study our own sun!”

Four months into its two-year mission, NuSTAR is off to a promising start. Launched in June 2012, NuSTAR’s mission is to conduct a survey of black holes throughout the universe that are millions of times more massive than our own sun. As for what's next for NuStar, Harrison said it is working on other targets.

“NuSTAR has already moved on to look at the evolving remnant of a supernova explosion that happened in 1987 nearby, in the Large Magellanic Cloud (a satellite of the Milky Way) called SN1987A. NuSTAR will next look at very luminous objects in nearby galaxies, called ultraluminous X-ray sources. The source of their X-ray brilliance is not understood. NuSTAR looks at a new target every few days.”

Wonders from Malaysian mountain
October 4th, 2012
12:12 PM ET

160 new species found on Malaysian peak

About 160 new species have been discovered on a mountain in Borneo, researchers reported Thursday.

Fungi and spiders dominate the new species on Mount Kinabalu, the Malaysian and Dutch researchers said, but there are also new beetles and snails on the creature list and ferns on the plant list.

A frog the researchers found may also prove to be new once DNA testing is done, they said.

"While the detailed scientific work will take years, we already know that many of these species are new to science," researcher József Geml said in a press release.

The research was conducted by Sabah Parks, a Malaysian conservation organization, and Naturalis Biodiversity Center in the Netherlands.

They went to the mountain to collect DNA samples and try to determine whether species there evolved recently or long ago on the Malaysian peak.

At 13,435 feet, Kinabalu is the largest mountain in the Malay archipelago. It is a Malaysian national park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

All told, about 3,500 DNA samples were collected from more than 1,400 species. Researchers plan a publication on how evolution works in Borneo by the middle of next year.

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