Astronomical & Earthbound Oddities

May 18

5/17/12 - 10:58 pm (Taken with instagram)

5/17/12 - 10:58 pm (Taken with instagram)

Oct 02

Double Eruption, Coronal Mass Ejection - October 1st

On October 1st around 10:17 UT, widely-spaced sunspots 1302 and 1305 erupted in quick succession, revealing a long-distance entanglement which was not obvious before. NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) recorded the double blast:

Since it was launched in 2010, SDO has observed many “entangled eruptions.” Active regions far apart but linked by magnetic fields can explode one after another, with disturbances spreading around the stellar surface domino-style. Yesterday’s eruption appears to be the latest example.

The part of the eruption centered on sunspot 1305 hurled a coronal mass ejection toward Earth. The relatively slow-moving (500 km/s) cloud is expected to reach our planet on Oct. 4th, possibly causing geomagnetic storms when it arrives. High-latitude sky watchers should be alert for auroras.


10 Major Health Benefits Of Marijuana

10 Major Health Benefits Of Marijuana


Sep 29

New Life-Forms Found at Bottom of Dead Sea

 Middle Eastern salt lake a “fantastic hot spot for life,” scientist says.

Dead Sea life picture: A diver holds a rock from a Dead Sea spring.

A diver in the Dead Sea holds a rock sporting a thick microbial mat.

Photograph courtesy Christian Lott, Hydra Institute

Christine Dell’Amore / National Geographic News / Published September 28, 2011

Dozens of giant craters spewing fresh water and brimming with bacteria have been found at the otherwise barren bottom of the Dead Sea, new research shows.

In 2010 the first diving expedition to the springs revealed “a fantastic hot spot for life” in the lake, which lies on the border of Israel and Jordan (see map), said team member Danny Ionescu, a marine microbiologist for the Max Planck Institute in Germany.

The team found several craters—each about 33 feet (10 meters) wide and 43 feet (13 meters) deep—at 100-foot (30-meter) depths on the lake’s bottom. The craters were covered with films and sometimes surprisingly thick mats of new bacterial species, Ionescu said.

These tiny communities live near thin plumes of fresh water that shoot from undersea springs, whose presence has long been suspected based on peculiar ripples on the Dead Sea’s surface.

To reach the springs, divers searched for abrupt drops along the sea floor while contending with very low visibility.

"When you put your head in [a crater] you cannot see anything—you have to have faith and will to explore," Ionescu said.

But once the water cleared near the base of the crater, seeing the plumes jetting from the earth was “a fascinating feeling,” he said.

(See pictures: "Prehistoric American Skull Found in Sea Cave?")

Dead Sea Truly Almost Dead

Rivers and streams—most notably the Jordan River—once regularly infused fresh water into the Dead Sea.

The basin has no outlet, so water escapes only by evaporation. As fresh water evaporates, salty minerals dissolved in the water get left behind. Over time, this process made the Dead Sea much saltier than ocean water.

The lake’s saltiness means that larger organisms such as fish and frogs can’t survive in the Dead Sea. But a high concentration of magnesium also makes it surprising to find microbes in the lake.

"There are other hypersaline environments that are full of microbial life," Ionescu noted. "This, in my opinion, makes our discovery even more surprising."

In the 1950s countries in the Middle East, including Jordan and Israel, cut off the Jordan River’s supply to the Dead Sea to gain drinking water. The move severely lowered the lake’s water level—a loss that continues by up to a meter (four feet) a year, according to the research team.

Water in the lake, which already sits in the lowest place on Earth, has fallen by more than 80 feet (25 meters) in the past 40 years.

(See "Diverting Red Sea to Save Dead Sea Could Create Environmental Crisis.")

Few biologists have studied the water body in recent years, except following two major algae bloom events that colored the Dead Sea red in 1980 and 1992.

The surface blooms were caused by organisms different than those recently discovered at depth, Ionescu noted.

In general, the “study really changes how we see the Dead Sea, from a biological perspective,” said Kelly Bidle, an environmental microbiologist at Rider University in New Jersey who studies bacteria that live in salty habitats.

That’s because “seeing this diversity in a place we had never thought was there before” is very exciting, she said.

"Impressive" Craters Unique to Dead Sea

The 2010 expedition mapped an “impressive” network of about 30 craters, a landscape that has no parallel elsewhere on Earth, said team leader Ionescu, whose research is soon being submitted for publication.

Preliminary analyses of samples collected in the craters suggest that the springs’ bacterial communities are very diverse—akin to what you’d find living on rocks in a regular saltwater sea, he added.

The top of the springs’ rocks are covered with green biofilms, which use both sunlight and sulfide—naturally occurring chemicals from the springs—to survive. Exclusively sulfide-eating bacteria coat the bottoms of the rocks in a white biofilm. (See marine-microbe pictures.)

Not only have the organisms evolved in such a harsh environment, Ionescu speculates that the bacteria can somehow cope with sudden fluxes in fresh water and saltwater that naturally occur as water currents shift around the springs.

The existence of such adaptable bacteria is an “intriguing” idea that needs more research, Rider University’s Bidle said.

As of right now, “there is no such documented species that exists that could fit this bill”—all highly salt-adapted bacteria die when placed in fresh water, and vice versa, she noted.

If “your machinery is wired for high salt, it’s very difficult to imagine that you could go from an extreme amount of salt to near-freshwater biology.”

Even so, Bidle doesn’t totally rule out the idea: “When it comes to inhabiting extreme environments, nothing surprises me when it comes to microbial life,” she said.

Dead Sea Diving Not for Everyone

Ionescu and colleagues will visit the underwater craters again in October to study more about the behaviors and life cycles of the newfound bacteria.

It’s no easy task—each diver has to carry 90 pounds (40 kilograms) of weight to lower his or her buoyancy, since the sea’s high salt content tends to make people float.

Divers will also need to wear full face masks to protect their eyes and mouths. That’s because accidentally swallowing Dead Sea salt water would cause the larynx to inflate, resulting in immediate choking and suffocation.

Likewise, the intensely salty water would instantly burn and likely blind the eyes—both reasons why Dead Sea swimmers rarely fully submerge their bodies, Ionescu noted.

"It’s a very unique experience," Ionescu said of diving in the Dead Sea, but "I wouldn’t recommend it for recreational diving."

via National Geographic News

The Massive Vertical Structures Towering Above Saturn’s Rings

This one is a 10 on the Galaxy wow meter: In images made possible only as Saturn nears equinox, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has uncovered for the first time towering vertical structures in the planet’s otherwise flat rings that are attributable to the gravitational effects of a small nearby moon.

The search for material extending well above and below Saturn’s ring plane has been a major goal of the imaging team during Cassini’s “Equinox Mission,” the two-year period when the sun is seen directly overhead at noon at the planet’s equator. This novel illumination geometry, which occurs every half-Saturn-year, or about 15 Earth years, lowers the sun’s angle to the ring plane and causes out-of-plane structures to cast long shadows across the rings’ broad expanse, making them easy to detect.


Cassini’s cameras spotted not only the predictable shadows of some of Saturn’s moons, but also the shadows of newly revealed vertical structures in the rings themselves. And these observations have lent dramatic support to the analysis that demonstrates how small moons in very narrow gaps can have considerable and complex effects on the edges of their gaps, and that such moons can be smaller than previously believed.

The Daily Galaxy via NASA/Cassini

Sep 28

Cosmic anti-matter enigma eyed in new CERN project

The Super Proton Synchrotron (SPS) tunnel, located at the CERN particle research centre near Geneva, is seen in this undated handout photograph. REUTERS/CERN-INFS/Handout 

By Robert Evans

GENEVA | Wed Sep 28, 2011 2:16pm EDT

(Reuters) - Unraveling one of the great enigmas of the visible universe, why it is made up largely of matter, will be the target of a ground-breaking research project kicked off on Wednesday at a meeting of leading physicists from eight countries.

More precisely, the program will aim to find why there is so little left of the anti-matter believed to have been present in equal quantities at the “Big Bang” 13.7 billion years ago but which then mysteriously disappeared, or all but.

The CERN particle physics research center said the program would be conducted with a new “Extra Low Energy Antiproton Ring,” dubbed ELENA, which will begin delivering large numbers of tiny anti-proton particles by 2016.

Attending this week’s meeting at CERN, which is leading the project to begin in 2013 with the ring’s installation, are scientists from Britain, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Japan, Sweden and the United States.

"This is a big step forward for anti-matter physics," said Walter Oelert, pioneer expert at CERN — home to the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) "Big Bang" machine — which said last week researchers had tracked particles traveling faster than light.

Anti-matter was discovered in 1932 after decades of theorizing, and was quickly absorbed into science fiction with its capacity to destroy any ordinary matter it touches.

The matter is converted into instant energy, a fact that has led to speculation that such reactions could fuel ultra-fast spacecraft for inter-stellar travel or be adapted for military use as a trigger for nuclear weapons.

Anti-matter — matter with negative gravity — has already been used in cancer treatments, some developed at CERN, but spokesman James Gillies said ELENA would focus on pure physics.


One of the prime questions facing researchers is why matter and anti-matter did not destroy each other at the time of the Big Bang, making creation of the universe and the emergence of life impossible, and why matter came out on top.

Gillies said ELENA was a low-cost project funded out of the 20-nation centre’s regular budget but would provide researchers with far more anti-protons than had been possible with earlier installations.

Project head Stephan Maury said ELENA, a small declerator ring to be housed alongside its existing but much less efficient anti-proton decelerator (AD), would deliver the anti-particles “at the lowest energies ever reached.”

From the AD, in operation since the early 1990s, the anti-protons must be slowed down by passing them through a series of foil filters, a process that leads to the loss of 99.9 percent before they reach the experiments.

The new ring through which they will travel will slow them down to under one 50th of the energy of the AD, trapping up to 50 percent of the particles or more.

Oelet said this would not only greatly enhance the research potential of current experiments at CERN but would also make it much easier to start a wider range of tests on the make-up and behavior of anti-matter.

(Editing by Louise Ireland)

via Reuters

Space Radiation Expected to Rise for Airline Passengers and Astronauts

by Charles Q. Choi, Contributor

Date: 27 September 2011

SUN Whips Out Massive Flare

SUN Whips Out Massive Flare CREDIT: NASA

Radiation hazards are likely to increase for air travelers and spacefarers in coming years due to changes in solar activity, researchers say.

Cosmic rays from deep space and high-energy particles from the sun can be hazardous to astronauts and also can expose airline crews and passengers to radiation, as well as damage spacecraft, aircraft and satellites. Solar magnetic fields protect Earth by repelling incoming galactic cosmic rays, but the period of high solar magnetic activity known as the grand solar maximum that persisted throughout the Space Age now appears to be coming to an end, and solar particle levels might start rising at the same time.

Cosmic rays constantly bombard the Earth from deep space, but solar activity is dependent on the sun’s regular weather cycle. The sun is currently approaching the peak of its current 11-year cycle, called Solar Cycle 24. That peak will occur in 2013, NASA has said. [Stunning Photos of Solar Flares & Sun Storms]

When powerful sunstorms are aimed directly at Earth, they can pose a serious threat to astronauts in orbiting spacecraft, damage satellites, interfere with communications systems and impact power plants and other infrastructure on the surface. Mild space weather events — such as yesterday’s (Sept. 26) geomagnetic storm, sparked by a weekend solar flare — can also supercharge Earth’s northern lights displays. 

To see what future levels of space radiation might be like, researchers analyzed a 9,300-year record of galactic cosmic ray and solar activity in the form of ice extracted from Greenland and Antarctica. [Related: New Forecast: Sun’s ‘Superstorms’ Could Doom Satellites]

Atoms can be transmuted from one element to another by the cosmic rays and solar particles that slam into them, events that scientists can detect in these ice samples. Researchers supplemented these ancient records with present-day data from a global network of neutron monitoring stations.

Based on these past records, the researchers predicted future variations in galactic cosmic ray levels, the near-Earth interplanetary magnetic field, sunspot number and large solar storms. They found the risk of hazardous space weather is likely to rise noticeably over the next century from the level in recent decades.

One should not necessarily put off air travel, said study co-author Michael Lockwood at the University of Reading in England.

"However, it is good to be aware that one is exposed to more hazardous particles, particularly on trans-polar flights," Lockwood told "For really frequent, lifelong fliers, it might become wise to be like workers in the radiation industry and have more-frequent and more in-depth health checks. Also, to reduce exposure for passengers and crew to higher doses during solar events, flights may be diverted to lower latitudes and altitudes, with delay and cost implications — those extra costs will be reflected in ticket prices, of course."

The scientists detailed their findings online Aug. 19 in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.


NASA’s Falling UARS Satellite Explained - Infographic

by Karl Tate, Contributor 

Date: 23 September 2011

Get a snapshot view of NASA's Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (UARS), which will fall to Earth in 2011, in this infographic.


Sep 27

The Sunspots That Kicked Off This Week’s Solar Storm May be Just Warming Up

By Clay Dillow Posted 09.27.2011 at 3:55 pm

AR1302 Alan Friedman via Bad Astronomy

That gigantic solar flare that lashed out toward Earth on Saturday is “the geomagnetic storm that just won’t go away,” the NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) in Boulder, Colo., said via its Facebook page today. And that appears to be true. Active Region 1302, pictured above, continues to pummel earth with solar energy and could disrupt satellite communications as it continues turning toward us in the days to come.

AR1302 unleashed a massive coronal mass ejection on Saturday that struck a glancing blow off Earth’s atmosphere yesterday, triggering brilliant auroras across the Northern Hemisphere. So far, the storm hasn’t caused any serious trouble here on the ground. Saturday’s solar explosion didn’t connect with a direct hit, and it is expected to do nothing more than continue to provide electrifying light shows to sky-gazers in Europe and Asia this evening.

But AR1302 is also not slowing down, and as the week wears on it will turn to face Earth more directly. An SWPC bulletin yesterday warned that for the next 3-5 days, we’re squarely in the solar storm’s sights. Another blast like Saturday’s and we may feel it here on Earth in the form of disrupted communications. A larger blast could do even more damage to the power grid and other infrastructure.

Just another thrilling week in the buildup to 2013’s solar maximum. See the sun as NOAA’s GOES-15 sees it today below.

Today’s Solar Activity, Captured by NOAA’s GOES-15:  NOAA


Sep 20

Six CMEs in 24 Hours

This movie from the SOlar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) shows the sun’s atmosphere – the corona – from September 17 to September 20. Numerous CMEs blasted off the sun during this period. Credit: ESA/NASA/SOHO
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The sun let loose with at least six coronal mass ejections (CMEs) — solar phenomena that can send solar particles into space and affect electronic systems in satellites — from 7 PM ET on September 18, 2011 until 1 PM on September 19. The ejections appear to come from points scattered over the surface of the sun. Two CME’s dissipated quickly, but four continue to spread outward from the sun. NASA models suggest that the leading edge of one CME will pass by Earth at around 5 PM ET on Sep 21, at which point sky watchers should be on the lookout for auroras. 

Additional info will be posted if warranted.

What is a coronal mass ejection?

For answers to these and other space weather questions, please visit the Spaceweather Frequently Asked Questionspage.

Karen C. Fox
NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center