Look to the heavens this week and you may see something no earthling has seen before – meteors from the comet Wirtanen.
The comet was discovered in 1948 and orbits the sun every 5.4 years, but 2012 will mark the first time the Earth's orbit will cross the comet's debris field, possibly producing meteors, according to a NASA press release.
"Dust from this comet hitting Earth's atmosphere could produce as many as 30 meteors per hour," Bill Cooke of NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office said in the release.
The Wirtanen meteor show could come any time between Tuesday and Friday as Earth will cross the comet's tail four times during that span, the NASA release said.
But just because you spot meteors this week, don't think they're automatically from Wirtanen. That's because the Geminid meteor shower is expected to peak Thursday night.
The Geminids, which come around every December, were first observed shortly before the Civil War. They come when the Earth passes through debris from the extinct comet 3200 Phaethon. NASA says an extinct comet is the rock that remains when a comet loses its ice. This meteor shower is called the Geminids because if you trace the path of the meteors, it looks as if they are coming from the constellation Gemini. And that's how you can distinguish these meteors from those that may be the product of Wirtanen. Wirtanen meteors would come from the constellation Pisces.
Cooke also said the meteors from Wirtanen should be visible early in the evening while Geminids should show up later.
Beginning at 11 ET Thursday night, Cooke and other comet experts at will hold an online chat about the meteor showers. NASA will also provide a Ustream feed of the meteor showers. As many as 120 meteors an hour may be visible, NASA said.
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.
Be prepared for smaller fish.
That's the warning from researchers at the University of British Columbia, who say that we could see the maximum body weight of fish shrink by as much as 20% by the middle of the century, according to a study published in the journal Nature Climate Change.
They blame global warming, which is heating up the world's oceans. Warm water holds less oxygen than cold water.
“A warmer and less-oxygenated ocean, as predicted under climate change, would make it more difficult for bigger fish to get enough oxygen, which means they will stop growing sooner,” Daniel Pauly, lead investigator in the University of British Columbia's Sea Around Us Project and co-author of the study, said in a statement.
The researchers looked at more than 600 species of fish around the world and used computer modeling to determine how the lower availability of oxygen would affect them. More than 75% of the species are expected to see a loss in size.
The models showed the greatest decrease in average size would be in the Indian Ocean, 24%. The Atlantic could see fish sizes fall by 20% and the Pacific by 14%.
Across all oceans, tropical regions are expected to see a decrease in fish size of 20%, the report said.
Among individual species, the biggest reductions in size can be expected in the Pacific, the researchers reported.
Because oxygen levels decrease at depth in the oceans, the size decrease is expected to affect fish that live at lower depths more. Those include popular species for human consumption, including cod, haddock, whiting and halibut.
The researchers also said that populations of bigger species of fish could be expected to migrate toward the poles in search of colder waters with more oxygen.
When coupled with the effects of humans on the oceans, such as overfishing and pollution, the researchers said the world could see a reduction in its protein supply.
“We were surprised to see such a large decrease in fish size,” William Cheung, an assistant professor at the university and the study's lead author, said in a statement.
"The unexpectedly big effect that climate change could have on body size suggests that we may be missing a big piece of the puzzle of understanding climate change effects in the ocean,” Cheung said.
British researchers say they've discovered a massive rift valley beneath the Antarctic ice sheet that rivals the Grand Canyon in depth and is contributing to ice loss on the continent.
“If you stripped away all of the ice here today, you’d see a feature every bit as dramatic as the huge rift valleys you see in Africa and in size as significant as the Grand Canyon," the lead researcher, Robert Bingham, a glaciologist at the University of Aberdeen, said in a press release.
Fausto Ferraccioli, Bingham's co-author and geophysicist from British Antarctic Survey, said the valley allows warmer ocean waters to contact glacial ice, contributing to the melting seen on the continent.
“What this study shows is that this ancient rift basin, and the others discovered under the ice that connect to the warming ocean, can influence contemporary ice flow and may exacerbate ice losses by steering coastal changes further inland,” Ferraccioli said.
The work of the researchers was reported this week in the journal Nature.
The valley is in West Antarctica, which is losing ice faster than other parts of the continent, the researchers say.
“Thinning ice in West Antarctica is currently contributing nearly 10% of global sea level rise. It’s important to understand this hot spot of change so we can make more accurate predictions for future sea level rise,” David Vaughan, of the British Antarctic Survey's Ice2sea program, said.
The researchers came across the valley, which lies below the Ferrigno Ice Stream, in 2010 during three months of fieldwork on Antarctic ice loss. The area had not been explored in five decades.
“For some of the glaciers, including Ferrigno Ice Stream, the losses are especially pronounced, and, to understand why, we needed to acquire data about conditions beneath the ice surface,” Bingham said in the University of Aberdeen release.
The team used ice-penetrating radar over a 1,500-mile flat stretch of ice sheet, an effort that revealed the massive valley.
“What we found is that lying beneath the ice there is a large valley, parts of which are approximately a mile deeper than the surrounding landscape," Bingham said.
In comparison, the Grand Canyon falls off 7,000 feet, or 2,100 meters, at its south rim in Arizona, according to the National Park Service.
What would your Honda Odyssey or Dodge Grand Caravan look like falling to the Earth from space?
Probably a lot like the picture above.
The picture taken in Reno, Nevada, on Sunday morning shows a meteor the size of a minivan plunging through the Earth's atmosphere, according to Bill Cooke of the Meteoroid Environments Office at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
Of course, this would have been one heavy minivan. Cooke said it weighed about 154,300 pounds. Your minivan probably weighs in at about 4,000 pounds.
It was that size and weight that made the fireball visible in the daylight, according to NASA scientists. It was seen from Sacramento, California, in the north to Las Vegas in the south.
"Most meteors you see in the night's sky are the size of tiny stones or even grains of sand and their trail lasts all of a second or two," NASA's Don Yeomans said in a press release. "Fireballs you can see relatively easily in the daytime and are many times that size."
Even then, count yourself lucky if you got to see it, said Yeomans, of NASA's Near-Earth Object Program Office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
"An event of this size might happen about once a year," he said. "But most of them occur over the ocean or an uninhabited area, so getting to see one is something special."
The meteor disintegrated before hitting the ground, releasing the energy of a five-kiloton explosion in the process, according to the NASA release.
[Updated at 5:26 p.m. ET] Eric Anderson and Peter Diamandis pioneered the business of sending millionaire tourists to space. Now they want to mine asteroids for what they say will be tens of billions of dollars worth of resources annually for use on Earth and beyond.
Seattle-area's Planetary Resources, backed by big-money investors including filmmaker James Cameron and Google executives Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, said Tuesday it plans to develop and launch a series of robotic systems and unmanned spacecraft, starting with its Arkyd-100 Earth-orbiting space telescopes that it hopes to launch by the end of 2013 to identify candidate near-Earth asteroids.
The company hopes to dispatch swarms of Arkyd-300 prospecting spacecraft, which would orbit candidate asteroids and finish the process of determining what they hold, within 10 years.
The Bellevue, Washington, company would then unveil a new system of spacecraft for the payoff: mining precious metal, such as platinum, for use on Earth; and extracting water, whose elements the company says can be used for fuel and life-support systems in space.
In short, Planetary Resources hopes it will be in a crucial and lucrative position of not only boosting terrestrial industry, but also setting up a network of fuel depots that humanity will need to better explore the solar system and beyond.
"The Earth is feeling a resource pinch, and ultimately we will have the ability to turn that which is scarce into abundant," Diamandis, who co-founded Planetary Resources with Anderson in 2009 but generally kept mum about the project until this month, said at a press event in Seattle on Tuesday.
Did the moon and sun conspire to sink the Titanic?
In a way, yes, researchers at Texas State University say.
Donald Olson and Russell Doescher, members of the physics faculty at the university in San Marcos, teamed up with Roger Sinnott, senior contributing editor at Sky & Telescope magazine, to determine how the iceberg the liner struck late on April 14, 1912, came to be in the North Atlantic shipping lanes. More than 1,500 people died when the liner sank less than three hours after hitting the berg.
A primate thought to be extinct or near-extinction has been spotted in the rainforest on the Indonesian island of Borneo, researchers report.
Images of Miller's grizzled langur, a subspecies of Asian monkey, were captured on a time-lapse camera last summer and confirmed by researchers at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia and the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh.
"When we found those first images, we were all pretty ecstatic," because many scientists had thought the creature was extinct, said Brent Loken, a doctoral student at Simon Fraser.
The Miller's grizzled langur is so rare that the researchers had trouble finding something to compare to their new pictures.
"There were no photographs that anybody else had taken of this monkey," Loken said.
Predatory wolves are helping restore the ecosystem in Yellowstone National Park more than 15 years after their reintroduction to America's oldest national park, researchers report.
The wolves eat elk, which mean the elk aren't eating young trees, and in turn there are more mature trees creating better living conditions for animals from fish to birds to beavers to bears, according to the report from researchers at Oregon State University.
“The wolves have made a major difference in Yellowstone,” Robert Beschta, an Oregon State professor emeritus of forestry and co-author on the study said in a statement.
Wolves historically inhabited the Yellowstone area, but they were considered dangerous predators to livestock and humans and were eliminated from the park by 1926, when the last known wolf in Yellowstone was shot.
Gray wolves were reintroduced to the park in 1995.
Since then, “Yellowstone increasingly looks like a different place,” the study's lead author, Oregon State professor William Ripple, said in a statement.
Meteor watchers in North America can expect to see 60 to 200 meteors an hour streak across the sky early Wednesday.
NASA says the Quadrantid meteor shower should be perfect for viewing around 3 a.m. local time Wednesday after the waxing gibbous moon sets.
But the light show won't last long, NASA says – only a few hours.
The Quadrantids were first noted in 1825 and got their name from the constellation of Quadrans Muralis, which is no longer considered a constellation by astronomers, according to NASA.
The material that is burning up in Earth's atmosphere during the Quadrantids likely comes from a comet that broke into fragments centuries ago, NASA says.
"After hundreds of years orbiting the sun, they will enter our atmosphere at 90,000 mph, burning up 50 miles above Earth's surface," a NASA press release says.