Neanderthals lived in Europe and parts of Asia until they became extinct about 40,000 years ago. For more than a hundred years, paleontologists and anthropologists have been striving to uncover the evolutionary relationship of Neanderthals to modern humans. What does the Neanderthal genome divulge about modern humans, and how do we differ from each other? Which human capacities and characteristics hark back to Neanderthals? Why did our closest relative become extinct? One thing is now certain -- the Neanderthal and modern humans interbred -- and today we are far more closely related than we previously believed. Recently, Stanford University scientists have found that interbreeding between Neanderthals and modern humans may have given modern humans some important genetic tools needed to survive – One being the ability to combat viral infections.
What happens when a new technology is so advanced and precise that it operates on a scale beyond our ability to accurately characterize and measure? That happens when lasers used to produce ultrashort pulses in the femtosecond range (10 ^-15 seconds) are far too short to visualize. Although some measurements are possible, nothing beats a clear image according to researchers at INRS (Institut National de la Recherche Scientifique), a part of the Universite du Quebec network in Canada. Working with colleagues at Caltech, they have developed T-CUP, the world’s fastest camera, capable of capturing ten trillion (10 ^13) frames per second. This new camera literally captures photon pulses in mid-air and makes it possible to freeze time and see phenomena in extremely slow motion.
Welcome to the night sky report for October 2018 -- Your guide to the constellations, deep sky objects, planets, and celestial events that are observable during the month. Look for Pegasus, the great winged horse of Greek mythology, prancing across the autumn night sky. Binoculars and small telescopes will reveal the glowing nucleus and spiral arms of our neighbor, the Andromeda Galaxy. Don’t miss the Orionid meteor shower, which peaks on the night of October 21 to 22. The night sky is truly a celestial showcase. Get outside and explore its wonders from your own backyard.
Galaxies rotate so quickly that they should fly apart according to the existing laws of physics. Two current theories attempt to explain this anomaly – the first places a halo of an imaginary and as of yet undetected substance called “Dark Matter” around every galaxy. The second, Modified Newtonian Dynamics (MOND), explains this by applying a mathematical compensation to Newtonian physics that strengthens the visible material’s gravity, but only where it gets very weak. Otherwise, gravity follows Newton’s conventional laws, as in our Solar System. Recently, an international group of astrophysicists has concluded that MOND provides a very viable explanation for the galaxy rotation anomaly and that Dark Mater does not exist. Their summary: It is remarkable that MOND continues to make such successful predictions based on equations written down 35 years ago. Throughout history, we have seen many examples where scientists have simply invented ideas out of thin air to help explain away things that are just not understood at the time. In some ways, Dark Matter and Dark Energy bring to mind another imaginary concept -- the so called "Aether Wind" of the 1800s. Back then, everybody just "knew" that space was filled with an "Aether Wind." The problem was that no one had ever seen it or measured it… And in 1887, when Albert Michelson and Edward Morley set out to prove the existence of Aether Wind once and for all, their experiment failed spectacularly -- There was no such thing. Michelson eventually won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1907 for this work and became the first American to do so. Will the concepts of Dark Matter and Dark Energy meet the same fate as the Aether Wind of the 19th century? Time will tell.
What is a planet? For generations the answer was easy -- A big ball of rock or gas that orbited the Sun... And there were nine of them in our Solar System. But then astronomers started finding more Pluto-sized objects orbiting beyond Neptune. Then they found Jupiter-sized objects circling distant stars -- First by the handful and then by the hundreds. Suddenly the answer wasn't so easy. Were all these newly found things planets? The International Astronomical Union (IAU), the organization that is in charge of naming newly discovered worlds, tackled the question at their 2006 meeting. They tried to come up with a definition of a planet that everyone could agree on. But the astronomers couldn't agree, so they voted and picked a definition that they thought would work. The results have been mixed. In the end, the IAU did accomplish one thing -- They figured out a way to turn something simple into something complex. Now, a recent study by the University of Central Florida concludes that the reason Pluto lost its status as a planet is not valid and that a proper definition of a planet should be based on its intrinsic properties rather than ones that can change, such as the dynamics of a planet’s orbit -- the rationale that was used by the IAU to strip Pluto of its planetary status.
The start of hard rock excavation for the Giant Magellan Telescope’s massive concrete pier and the foundations for the telescope’s enclosure has started in Chile's Atacama Desert. Using a combination of hydraulic drilling and hammering, the excavation work is expected to take about five months to complete. The Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) is slated to be the first in a new class of extremely large telescopes, capable of producing images with 10 times the clarity of those captured by the Hubble Space Telescope. The GMT aims to discover Earth-like planets around nearby stars and the tiny distortions that black holes cause in the light from distant stars and galaxies. It will reveal the faintest objects ever seen in space, including extremely distant and ancient galaxies, the light from which has been travelling to Earth since shortly after the Big Bang, 13.8 billion years ago. The telescope is being built at the Carnegie Institution for Science's Las Campanas Observatory in the dry, clear air of Chile's Atacama Desert, and will be housed a structure 22 stories high. GMT is expected to see first light in 2024.
Welcome to the night sky report for September 2018 -- Your guide to the constellations, deep sky objects, planets, and celestial events that are observable during the month. Spot Venus, Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars with the naked eye. This month your binoculars will reveal the rusty surface of Mars, iconic rings of Saturn, the waxing Moon, and the comet Giacobini-Zinner, which passes through the constellation of Auriga. Then, set your sights beyond the Solar System and take a late summertime road trip of the constellations along the Milky Way. The night sky is truly a celestial showcase. Get outside and explore its wonders from your own backyard.
The Milky Way Galaxy has experienced a much more dramatic history than originally thought. It appears that our galaxy died once before and we are now in what can be considered its second life, according to Masafumi Noguchi of Tohoku University in Japan. His research shows that stars in our galaxy formed over a 10 billion year period in two different epochs through very different mechanisms, with a long dormant period of 5 billion years in between. During that time, star formation ceased and the galaxy was essentially void of stellar life. The history of our galaxy is inscribed in the elemental composition of its stars… And there are two groups of stars in the solar neighborhood with very different compositions. One group (the first generation) is rich in alpha elements such as oxygen, magnesium, and silicon. The second generation contains a lot of iron. Our Sun is a second generation star.
After some 400 years of relative stability, Earth's North Magnetic Pole has moved nearly 1100 kilometers out into the Arctic Ocean during the last century and at its present rate could move from northern Canada to Siberia within the next half century. Scientists have determined that Earth's magnetic field has flipped its polarity many times over the millennia -- Reversals are the rule, not the exception. Earth has settled into a pattern of a pole reversal about every 200,000 to 300,000 years, although it has been more than twice that long since the last reversal. The last time that Earth's poles flipped in a major reversal was about 780,000 years ago. Does the unexpectedly fast rate of movement in the North Magnetic Pole signal the beginnings of an impending reversal?
Supergiant Fast X-ray Transients (SFXTs) are a baffling type of X-ray binary system discovered with ESA’s INTEGRAL space telescope. These binaries were first noticed because of their occasional flare-ups in the X-ray portion of the spectrum. The transient activity, which lasts only a few hours, enhances the brightness of these otherwise very faint sources dramatically. Over the years, INTEGRAL has discovered numerous SFXTs. Previously thought to be extremely rare, it turns out that these are actually quite common in our galaxy.
A unique observatory in a remote location in Argentina is starting to unravel the mysteries of High Energy Cosmic Rays. There is no scientific consensus on the source of these particles, some of which shower the Earth at energies a million times higher than that produced in particle accelerators like CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC), but the Pierre Auger Observatory is shedding new light on these energetic particles from space and using them as messengers to tell us more about the wider Universe. Something out there -- no one knows what -- is hurling incredibly energetic particles around the Universe. Do these particles come from some unknown super-powerful cosmic explosion? From a huge black hole sucking stars to their violent deaths? From colliding galaxies? Researchers at the Pierre Auger Observatory have concluded that the most extreme and energetic of these cosmic rays are not originating in our Milky Way Galaxy, but rather in extra-galactic objects far, far away.
This summer, NASA’s Parker Solar Probe will launch on a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. It will travel closer to the Sun and deeper into the solar atmosphere than any mission before it. Over the course of seven years of planned mission duration, the spacecraft will make 24 orbits of the Sun. On each close approach, it will sample the solar wind, study the Sun’s corona, and provide unprecedented close-up observations. On the final three orbits, Parker Solar Probe will fly to within 3.8 million miles of the Sun's surface. For comparison, Mercury is, on average, about 36 million miles from the Sun and Earth’s average distance is 93 million miles. Inside the part of the solar atmosphere known as the corona, the spacecraft will travel through material with temperatures greater than a million degrees Fahrenheit while being bombarded with intense sun light. Yet it won’t melt… Here’s why.
Welcome to the night sky report for August 2018 -- Your guide to the constellations, deep sky objects, planets, and celestial events that are observable during the month. Mid-month, the Perseid meteor shower—an always-anticipated feature of the August night sky—will peak. Backyard telescopes will also reveal sunlight reflecting off the clouds of Venus’s thick atmosphere and the Ring Nebula, an expanding shell of glowing gas in the constellation Lyra. The night sky is truly a celestial showcase. Get outside and explore its wonders from your own backyard.
Since cosmic rays were discovered in 1912, scientists have sought the origins of these mysterious particles. In September 2017, a flash of blue light in the ice deep beneath the South Pole set researchers on a path to resolving this century-old riddle. With the help of an icebound detector situated a mile beneath the South Pole, an international team of scientists has found the first evidence of a source of high-energy cosmic neutrinos, a ghostly subatomic particle that can travel in a straight line for billions of light years, passing unhindered through galaxies, stars and anything else nature throws in its path. The observation, made by the IceCube Neutrino Observatory at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, helps resolve a more than century-old riddle about what sends subatomic particles such as neutrinos and high-energy cosmic rays speeding through the universe. Since they were first detected more than a hundred years ago, cosmic rays – highly energetic particles that continuously rain down on Earth from space – have posed an enduring mystery: What creates and propels the particles across vast distances? Where do they come from?
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