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Thursday, 12 September 2019

Space Science: Water vapor — and maybe even rain — found on distant world twice the size of Earth

Water vapor has been found in the atmosphere of a distant planet that’s just over twice the size of Earth. It’s the smallest world yet found with water in its surrounding atmosphere, and it’s possible that it even rains liquid water there. That makes this world a tantalizing candidate in the ongoing search for extraterrestrial life outside our cosmic neighborhood.
a close up of a plate: An artistic rendering of K2-18b.
© Image by Alex Boersma An artistic rendering of K2-18b.

Finding water around an exoplanet (a world outside our Solar System) is particularly exciting for scientists because water is a critical ingredient for life on our planet. It could equally be pivotal for life that exists elsewhere in the Universe. Researchers have found this precious molecule around exoplanets before, but these worlds have not been suitable places for life to thrive.
They’ve been large balls of gas, similar in size to Jupiter or Neptune, lacking any kind of surface for life as we know it to exist.
This planet, detailed in a study accepted by the Astronomical Journal, is a bit more unique. Named K2-18b, it’s about nine times as massive as our own Earth, a type of world often referred to as a mini-Neptune. Worlds of this size are plentiful in our Galaxy but lacking in our own Solar System. K2-18b also orbits in a sweet spot around its host star known as the habitable zone where temperatures are just right for water to pool on a planet’s surface. That means this planet shares some very significant traits with our planet.
“For the first time, a planet in this temperature regime — a regime that is very, very similar to the Earth — we are demonstrating that there is actually liquid water,” Björn Benneke, an exoplanet researcher at the University of Montreal and lead author on the study published in the Astronomical Journal, tells The Verge.
While finding water is a big deal for exoplanet researchers, it’s unlikely that this world is awash in oceans. In fact, it seems unlikely that the surface of the planet is rocky because of its size. “These planets are not going to look a thing like Earth,” Sara Seager, an exoplanet expert and professor at MIT who was not involved in this research, tells The Verge. “It’s definitely not rocky as we know a rocky planet to be.” K2-18b also orbits around a star very unlike our Sun. Altogether, these factors significantly decrease the chances that life could survive there.
Researchers first found K2-18b, thanks to NASA’s Kepler space telescope, a spacecraft located nearly 100 million miles from Earth that hunted for exoplanets for most of the last decade. Whenever an exoplanet passes directly between its parent star and Earth, it slightly dims the star’s light, which is a minuscule change that Kepler could detect. By observing these transits, Kepler discovered more than 2,000 exoplanets. In 2015, the spacecraft caught K2-18b, which is located 111 light-years away from Earth.
Then, in 2016 and 2017, Benneke and his team used NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, currently in orbit around Earth, to learn more about K2-18b’s atmosphere. The chemicals and molecules that surround an exoplanet can tell us a lot about what might be lurking on the surface of the distant world. For instance, the significant amounts of methane in Earth’s atmosphere are a byproduct of the many biological organisms that live here.
Studying the atmosphere of an exoplanet is particularly tough for worlds that are similar in size to Earth. The light from these faraway space rocks is easily overpowered by the light coming from their parent stars, making them incredibly hard to see. And in order to figure out what’s in an exoplanet’s atmosphere, researchers need to observe light from the star as it filters through the “outer edges” of the world. When the light passes through the gas, it gets warped ever so slightly, indicating the types of molecules that are present. It’s an incredibly delicate — and challenging — measurement to make.
Researchers got lucky with K2-18b because it has an atmosphere that extends far out into space, making it a bit easier to observe. “It’s a bit like a hybrid planet that maybe has a rocky ice core, but then most of its volume is actually gas,” Benneke says. Additionally, it orbits around a type of faint, small star known as a red dwarf, which doesn’t have as much light as a star like our Sun. That makes it easier to study planets that might be orbiting nearby.
Benneke and his team observed the planet as it transited eight times, allowing them to detect water vapor in the atmosphere. Then they did some climate modeling and found that the vapor is likely forming into clouds where water condenses and then raining down onto the planet — just like on Earth. “If you talk to any biologist, they don’t care about vapor; they care about liquid water,” says Benneke. “Because biology only works when you have liquid water.”
Still, there’s quite a lot we don’t know about this planet, especially the composition of its surface. Seager notes that exoplanets that are presumed to be rocky like Earth, Venus, or Mars are typically less than 1.6 times the size of our planet. This one is 2.3 times the size of Earth, which means the surface is very likely not rocky. “It’s quite a bit above that threshold,” says Seager. Either it’s a rocky core surrounded by a giant envelope of an atmosphere, or it’s possible that half of it is made up of water ice. Either option is not very conducive to having oceans of water on a rocky ground like here on Earth. “These objects that are mini-Neptunes, they’re extremely common, and we don’t know what they are,” says Seager.
a close up of a device© Image: NASA
So while today’s findings are big, the search is still on for the biggest prize of all: a rocky exoplanet with water in its atmosphere. When that happens, it’ll be a big day for the exoplanet community, producing the closest analog to Earth we’ve found yet.
The next step is to learn more about what K2-18b looks like and what other gases might live in the planet’s atmosphere. Scientists could get this information as more powerful telescopes come online in the years ahead. Notably, NASA’s upcoming James Webb Space Telescope, which will be the most powerful observatory after it launches in 2021, could tell us more about the surface and atmosphere of K2-18b. The telescope will be able to study worlds that are smaller than K2-18b and more akin to our planet, in addition to mini-Neptunes and worlds orbiting in the habitable zones of their stars.
“This is the first step toward really kind of exploring planets that are at the right temperature around other stars to see what’s going on there,” says Benneke. For now, we know that whatever is going on there is likely wet, but it might not be very lively.

Tuesday, 25 June 2019

Seals have been trained to sing the Star Wars theme and nursery rhyme Twinkle Twinkle Little Star

Grey seals have been trained to mimic human sounds
Grey seals have been trained to mimic human sounds
Three grey seals have been trained to copy speech, as well as notes from music including the Star Wars theme and the nursery rhyme Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.
Vincent Janik and colleagues at the University of St Andrews in the UK worked with the seals from birth, training them to copy new sounds by changing their formants. “Formants are emphasised frequency bands in our speech sounds,” says Janik. “They are parts of our speech sounds that we modify to encode information. For example, different vowels only differ in their formants.”
The seals were first trained to copy sequences of their own sounds, and then create melodies in their pitch. Human vowel sounds were later presented to the animals, which they then copied.
“It takes hundreds of trials to teach the seal what we want it to do, but once they get the idea they can copy a new sound pretty well at the first attempt,” says Janik.
One seal, named Zola, was particularly good at copying melodies played to her, including up to 10 notes of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.

“Since seals use the same neural and anatomical structures as humans to produce these sounds, they provide a good model system in which to study how speech sounds are learned,” says Janik.
This isn’t the first time that seals have copied human vocalisations. A seal called Hoover was documented copying human speech – including phrases like “how are you?” – at the New England aquarium in Boston, Massachusetts, in the 1980s.
But this is the first study to really demonstrate how flexible seal vocalisations are, says Amanda Stansbury, who led the team. “Previous studies just provided anecdotal evidence for this.”
Source: newscientist

Wednesday, 5 June 2019

Tech: NEW “FLYING-V” PLANE PUTS PASSENGER SEATS IN THE WINGS

                      
Airlines are testing all sorts of ways to make planes less of a drag on the environment. Virgin Atlantic recently used recycled waste to power a commercial flight, while Boeing and JetBlue have backed an effort to create hybrid electric planes.
The Netherland’s KLM Royal Dutch Airlines is taking a different approach.
It just partnered with a university to develop the “Flying-V,” a radical new airplane design that puts passenger seats inside the plane’s wings — and it could decrease the amount of fuel needed for flights by a substantial 20 percent.

On Monday, KLM announced plans to collaborate with Delft University of Technology on the school’s in-development Flying-V airplane design. And it doesn’t just put passengers in the plane’s wings — the fuel tanks and cargo hold will also find a new home there.
Based on the researchers’ calculations, the new design should allow the Flying-V to transport approximately the same number of passengers as an Airbus A350 using 20 percent less fuel.
“We’ve been flying these tube and wing airplanes for decades now, but it seems like the configuration is reaching a plateau in terms of energy efficiency,” TU Delft project leader Roelof Vos told CNN. “The new configuration that we propose realizes some synergy between the fuselage and the wing. The fuselage actively contributes to the lift of the airplane, and creates less aerodynamic drag.”

Apple's new Mac Pro will be available with an insane 1.5TB of RAM

The 2019 Mac Pro and the new Pro Display XDR.
The 2019 Mac Pro and the new Pro Display XDR.

It took Apple six years to update the Mac Pro, but it looks like the wait was worth it. 
On Monday, during its WWDC keynote, Apple announced a new Mac Pro, and it's an immensely powerful machine that addresses many of the last Pro's drawbacks, such as lack of expandability and poor thermal performance. 
The company also launched a new 32-inch display called the Pro Display XDR, with matching design and 6K resolution. 
First, the obvious: Gone is the trash can design of the 2013 Pro, and it's been replaced with a rugged aluminum look that echoes the first generation of the Mac Pro. The aluminum case of the machine has a handle for carrying and wheels for pushing around. Inside, it's organized, well, like most pro-grade workstations, with three massive fans pushing air through the case and over the components.
Apple says the new Mac Pro will be as quiet as the iMac Pro.
Apple says the new Mac Pro will be as quiet as the iMac Pro.
                                    
In terms of power, the Mac Pro is what you'd expect: An immensely powerful machine, primarily aimed for professionals working with music and video. But this time, it feels like Apple is just showing off, because some specs of the new Pro are totally insane.
It's got an Intel Xeon processor with up to 28 cores, up to 1.5 terabytes of RAM — yes, terabytes — and graphics up to Radeon Pro Vega II Duo, which Apple calls the world's most powerful graphics card (and you can have your Mac Pro with two of those). And it's all powered by a 1.4kW power supply, which commended a gasp from the audience, although honestly, it isn't even that much for today's standards. The Mac Pro also comes with Apple Afterburner, an accelerator card that can decode up to three streams of 8K ProRes RAW video, or 12 streams of 4K ProRes RAW video in real time. 

Friday, 31 May 2019

Space Science: Astronomers in Neptunian Desert, found 'Forbidden Planet'

                    An artist's depiction of NGTS-4b, nicknamed "The Forbidden Planet" by its discoverers.
Astronomers have found an exoplanet so rare that they have deemed it "The Forbidden Planet," according to a new study.
Technically known as NGTS-4b, the planet is three times the size of Earth and 20% smaller than Neptune. It's also hotter than Mercury with a temperature of 1,832 degrees Fahrenheit. And the planet has its own atmosphere.
An international team of astronomers used the Next-Generation Transit Survey observing facility to spot the small rogue planet.
Astronomers used the Next-Generation Transit Survey telescope in the Atacama Desert of Chile to spot the newly identified planet. 
                    
    Its mass is 20 Earth masses and it whips around its star in a full orbit every 1.3 days. A study detailing the planet published Monday in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.
    The announcement comes on the heels of last week's discovery of 18 Earth-sized exoplanets.
    It's the first exoplanet like this to be found in the Neptunian Desert. To be clear, this isn't a barren region on the gaseous planet of Neptune. Instead, it's a region close to stars where Neptune-sized planets can't be found.
    Here, planets are blasted with radiation from stars, so the planets can't maintain their gaseous atmosphere. They evaporate and only a rocky core is left behind.
    Astronomers believe that either the planet moved into this region within the last million years, or the planet itself was once bigger and the atmosphere is in the process of evaporating.
    "This planet must be tough - it is right in the zone where we expected Neptune-sized planets could not survive,"said Richard West in a statement, study author and principal research fellow from the University of Warwick's department of physics. "It is truly remarkable that we found a transiting planet via a star dimming by less than 0.2% - this has never been done before by telescopes on the ground, and it was great to find after working on this project for a year."
    This has sparked a new search for more planets and missions like NASA's planet-hunter TESS could further explore the region.
    "We are now scouring out data to see if we can see any more planets in the Neptune Desert," West said. "Perhaps the desert is greener than was once thought."
    Source: CNN

    WHO: Snakebites kill at least 80,000 people per year and probably more

    A green rainforest snake hisses.
    A green rainforest snake hisses
                       
    Millions of people across the world read about the horrors of the Ebola virus in 2014, when the deadly disease rapidly spread from a small village in Guinea to the rest of West Africa, Europe and the United States, killing around 11,000 people. 
    The three-year outbreak attracted widespread international news coverage generating pervasive fear throughout the Western world.
    However, as international news anchors warned citizens of the risks of the Ebola virus, another far deadlier killer swept sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia and South Asia: venomous snakes.
    Snakebite took the lives of up to 400,000 victims between 2014 and 2016, making it almost 40 times deadlier than the Ebola virus. 
    Although there is a global medicinal cure for snakebite called "anti-venom," it still accounted for up to 130,000 deaths and over 300,000 paralyzing injuries and amputations last year.
    The World Health Organization (WHO) released an action plan on Thursday to change that.
    The organization wants to cut the number of snakebite deaths in half by 2030 via a $136.76-million (€122.67-million) bid to educate communities on how to prevent snakebites and provide more widespread anti-venom medication to impoverished communities historically incapable of receiving proper timely care.
    Most snakebites occur in developing countries
    Statesman and former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan once called snakebite "the biggest public health crisis you've never heard of."
    In Western countries, fear of snakes is often considered an irrational anxiety akin to phobias of plane crashes, spiders and heights.
    This makes sense: in the United States, venomous snakebites kill approximately five people per year. In Europe, the estimate is even smaller, at less than four deaths per year.
    Developing countries tell a different story.
                                      Python snake
    The global number of snakebite deaths, although estimated at anywhere from 81,000 to 138,000 by the WHO, is likely even higher than that, according to researchers.
    Most deaths occur in rural villages in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Southeast Asia.
    Because many of the villages are hours away from local hospitals, up to 80% of victims often try to heal the bites through home remedies or local healers, according to the WHO.
    Credit: DW

    Uber Technologies Inc. loses $1 billion in quarter as costs grow for drivers, food delivery

                     
    Uber Technologies Inc reported a $1 billion loss on Thursday as the ride-hailing service spends heavily to build up its food delivery and freight businesses, sending revenues up 20% in its first quarterly report as a public company.
    Revenue of $3.1 billion matched the high end of the range Uber forecast for the quarter and the loss of $1.0 billion compared with the company's forecast of $1.0 billion to $1.11 billion.
    Shares rose 2.6% following a conference call with executives in which Chief Executive Dara Khosrowshahi cited business improvements, such as fewer consumer promotions in the second quarter, but called 2019 an "investment year."
    With its share price trading more than 10% below its IPO price of $45, Khosrowshahi will have to convince investors Uber can turn a profit, given its reliance on rider incentives and competition in all parts of its business, from its core business of ride hailing to food delivery to freight.
    "Our story is simple. We're the global player," Khosrowshahi told analysts on his first earnings call after the company's IPO earlier this month. "Our job is to grow fast at scale and more efficiently for a long, long time."
    The results indicate the newly public company was able to hit its own financial targets, likely to offer some assurance to investors.
    Costs went up 35% in the quarter, as the company spent heavily in the run-up to its IPO earlier this month. Gross bookings, a measure of total value of rides before driver costs and other expenses, rose 34% from a year ago to $14.6 billion. Bookings were up 3.4% from the previous quarter, showing the difficulty of recruiting new riders in saturated markets.
    But Wedbush analyst Ygal Arounian said he was encouraged by improvements in take rates, and accelerating revenue growth. Uber's take rate is the revenue pocketed by the company after subtracting driver or restaurant pay and incentives.
    "We're still a while away from profitability, but Uber is expecting strong signs of improvement across many of its key metrics and that is an important sign for investors."
    Uber was the biggest of a group of Silicon Valley startups that have gone public this year against the backdrop of a global stock market sell-off sparked by renewed trade tensions between the United States and China. Uber also faces increased regulation in several countries and fights with its drivers over wages.
    In the mature U.S. market, where Uber's main rival is Lyft Inc, Khosrowshahi said two levers for growth were the expansion of rides into suburbs and a generational wave, in which millennials show little interest in car ownership.
    Executives said signals from Lyft during its recent earnings call that its rival was focused less on price and more on brand and product was a positive. Khosrowshahi called it a "healthier mode of competing than just throwing money at a challenge."
    Overall, incentives paid to drivers more than doubled from a year earlier, outpacing revenue growth, as the company invested in its growing food delivery service, Uber Eats. In that unit, driver incentives tripled to $291 million while revenue rose 89 percent.
    Uber was "very early in the stages" of exploiting how ride-hailing can help its Eats business, where take rates would improve over 2019, he said.
    The company had begun to "upsell" riders to Eats deals, with encouraging early signs, Khosrowshahi said.
    Uber said its monthly active users rose to 93 million globally, from 91 million at the end of the fourth quarter.
    A net loss was $1.01 billion, or $2.26 per share, in the first quarter ended March 31 compared with net income of $3.75 billion, or $1.84 per share, a year earlier, when results were helped by its sale of operations to Grab and Yandex.
    In its fourth quarter, Uber's net loss was $887 million and revenue was $2.97 billion.
    Uber previously said it expected first-quarter revenue in the range of $3.04 billion to $3.1 billion while seven analysts polled by Refinitiv IBES on average expected revenue of $3.04 billion.
    Credit: Reuters

    Thursday, 30 May 2019

    SPACE SCIENCE: NASA JUST GOT $125 MILLION TO DEVELOP NUCLEAR ROCKETS

                         
    For the first time since the 1970s, NASA is developing nuclear propulsion systems for its spacecraft.
    NASA didn’t request any money for a nuclear propulsion program, but it will get $125 million for the research as part of the space agency’s $22.3 billion budget that Congress approved last week, Space.com reports. If the program succeeds, nuclear propulsion could significantly cut down on travel time during missions to Mars and beyond.
    TEST LAUNCH
    Republican leadership sees nuclear propulsion as an important step along the way to deep space missions and the 2024 Moon landing with which Congress has tasked NASA, per Space.com. Alabama Representative Robert Aderholt described nuclear propulsion as “critical” for the 2024 launch in a budget meeting last week.
    “As we continue to push farther into our solar system, we’ll need innovative new propulsion systems to get us there, including nuclear power,” Vice President Mike Pence told the National Space Council in March.
    Source: Futurism

    Tuesday, 28 May 2019

    MacKenzie Bezos pledges to give away more than half her $37B fortune to charity and philanthropy

    Jeff and MacKenzie Bezos
    MacKenzie Bezos, the world’s third-richest woman following her divorce from Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, has signed the Giving Pledge — a commitment that will see her giving away more than half her wealth to philanthropy or charitable causes, either during her lifetime or in her will.
    Bezos recently made headlines when she gave ex-husband Jeff 75% of their joint Amazon stock, and voting control, in their divorce, along with their interests in The Washington Post and Blue Origin. However, that still left her with an at least $35.6 billion stake in Amazon. Bloomberg’s Billionaires Index now estimates her net worth at $36.6 billion.
    “We each come by the gifts we have to offer by an infinite series of influences and lucky breaks we can never fully understand,” wrote MacKenzie Bezos, in a letter published by the Giving Pledge today, announcing her intention to give away her wealth.
    “In addition to whatever assets life has nurtured in me, I have a disproportionate amount of money to share. My approach to philanthropy will continue to be thoughtful. It will take time and effort and care. But I won’t wait. And I will keep at it until the safe is empty,” she said.

    Wildlife: Malaysia's last male Sumatran rhino dies

    The Sumatran rhino is one of the rarest large mammals on earth
    The Sumatran rhino is one of the rarest large mammals on earth
    Malaysia's last surviving male Sumatran rhino died Monday, wildlife officials said, leaving behind only one female in the country and pushing the critically-endangered species closer to extinction.
    Once found as far away as eastern India and throughout Malaysia, the Sumatran rhino has been almost wiped out, with fewer than 80 left, according to the World Wildlife Fund.
    Only a handful of the creatures remain in the wilds of Indonesia.
    Sabah Wildlife Department director Augustine Tuuga said the Malaysian male, Tam, had lived in a nature reserve on Borneo island.
    The cause of the animal's death was not immediately clear, but previous media reports have suggested it was suffering from kidney and .
    Tam's death puts pressure on an ongoing effort for conservationists hoping to use in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) techniques to create offspring from Malaysia's last female Sumatran rhino, Iman, and an Indonesian male.
    Tuuga said there were problems with Iman's uterus and that she was incapable of becoming pregnant, but was still able to produce eggs.
    "We just have to look after the last remaining rhino. That's all we can do, and try if possible to work with Indonesia," he said.

    Space Science: Lightning Strikes Russian Rocket During Satellite Launch


    A bolt of lightning struck a Russian Soyuz rocket during a satellite launch Monday (May 27), but did not hinder the booster's trip into space, Russian space officials said. 
    The lightning strike occurred during the launch of a Glonass-M navigation satellite from Russia's Plesetsk Cosmodrome about 500 miles (800 kilometers) north of Moscow at 9:23 a.m. Moscow time (0623 GMT). In a statement, officials with Russia's space agency Roscosmos announced that the rocket successfully reached orbit. 
    main article image
    "Lightning is not an obstacle for you!" Roscosmos Director General Dmitry Rogozin wrote on Twitter while congratulating the Glonass-M launch team and military Space Forces. He shared a wild video of rocket as it was struck by lightning. 
    Source: Space.com

    Rare albino Giant Panda discovered in China

    Albino panda
    A unique, completely white giant panda has been discovered in the woods of southwestern China, according to footage published by state media.
    The animal was caught on camera wandering through Wolong National Nature Reserve in Sichuan province in mid-April.
    The panda must be between 1 and 2 years old, bear specialist Li Sheng of Peking University told Xinhua news agency.
    About 80 percent of wild giant pandas live in Sichuan province. The rest are in Gansu and Shaanxi.
    Since reaching a historically low population of less than 1,000 pandas in the wild in the early 1980s, China has taken several measures to protect the country's most beloved animal.
    Today, there are over 1,800 pandas in the wild and 548 in captivity. The animal's notoriously low-energy diet and difficulty breeding have been just some of the obstacles conservationist have overcome in taking giant pandas from the endangered to "vulnerable" list.
    In 2018, Beijing announced a massive 10 billion yuan ($1.45 billion) investment in the Giant Panda National Park. The park, meant to link up existing wild populations to promote breeding, will be 27,100 square kilometers (10,500 square miles) when completed.
    Source: DW