Rising temperatures hinder Indian wheat production

Geographers at the University of Southampton have found a link between increasing average temperatures in India and a reduction in wheat production.Researchers Dr John Duncan, Dr Jadu Dash and Professor Pete Atkinson have shown that recent warmer temperatures in the country’s major wheat belt are having a negative effect on crop yield. More specifically, they found a rise in nighttime temperatures is having the most impact.Dr Jadu Dash comments: “Our findings highlight the vulnerability of India’s wheat production system to temperature rise, which is predicted to continue in the coming decades as a consequence of climate change. We are sounding an early warning to the problem, which could have serious implications in the future and so needs further investigation.”The researchers used satellite images taken at weekly intervals from 2002 to 2007 of the wheat growing seasons to measure ‘vegetation greenness’ of the crop — acting as an indicator of crop yield. The satellite imagery, of the north west Indo-Gangetic plains, was taken at a resolution of 500m squared — high enough to capture variations in local agricultural practices. The data was then compared with climate and temperature information for the area to examine the effect on growth and development of the crop.The study, published in the journal Global Change Biology, found that:warmer temperature events have reduced crop yield in particular, warmer temperatures during the reproductive and grain-filling (ripening) periods had a significant negative impact on productivity warmer minimum daily temperatures (nighttime temperatures) had the most significant impact on yield In some areas of the Indian wheat belt, growers have been bringing forward their growing season in order to align the most sensitive point of the crop growth cycle with a cooler period. However, the researchers have also shown that in the long-term this will not be an effective way of combating the problem, because of the high level of average temperature rise predicted for the future.Dr Dash comments: “Our study shows that, over the longer period, farmers are going to have to think seriously about changing their wheat to more heat tolerant varieties in order to prevent temperature-induced yield losses.”Currently in India, 213 million people are food insecure and over 100 million are reliant on the national food welfare system, which uses huge quantities of wheat. This underlines how crucial it is to consider what types of wheat need to be grown in the coming decades to secure production.”We hope that soon, we will be able to examine agricultural practices in even greater detail — with the launch of the European Space Agency’s Sentinel satellites which will provide regular data at even higher spatial resolution.”Story Source:The above story is based on materials provided by University of Southampton. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

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Satellite shows high productivity from US corn belt

Data from satellite sensors show that during the Northern Hemisphere’s growing season, the Midwest region of the United States boasts more photosynthetic activity than any other spot on Earth, according to NASA and university scientists.Healthy plants convert light to energy via photosynthesis, but chlorophyll also emits a fraction of absorbed light as fluorescent glow that is invisible to the naked eye. The magnitude of the glow is an excellent indicator of the amount of photosynthesis, or gross productivity, of plants in a given region.Research in 2013 led by Joanna Joiner, of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., demonstrated that fluorescence from plants could be teased out of data from existing satellites, which were designed and built for other purposes. The new research led by Luis Guanter of the Freie Universitt Berlin, used the data for the first time to estimate photosynthesis from agriculture. Results were published March 25 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.According to co-author Christian Frankenberg of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., “The paper shows that fluorescence is a much better proxy for agricultural productivity than anything we’ve had before. This can go a long way regarding monitoring — and maybe even predicting — regional crop yields.”Guanter, Joiner and Frankenberg launched their collaboration at a 2012 workshop, hosted by the Keck Institute for Space Studies at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, to explore measurements of photosynthesis from space. The team noticed that on an annual basis, the tropics are the most productive. But during the Northern Hemisphere’s growing season, the U.S. Corn Belt “really stands out,” Frankenberg said. “Areas all over the world are not as productive as this area.”The researchers set out to describe the phenomenon observed by carefully interpreting the data from the Global Ozone Monitoring Experiment 2 (GOME-2) on Metop-A, a European meteorological satellite. Data showed that fluorescence from the Corn Belt, which extends from Ohio to Nebraska and Kansas, peaks in July at levels 40 percent greater than those observed in the Amazon.Comparison with ground-based measurements from carbon flux towers and yield statistics confirmed the results.The match between ground-based measurements and satellite measurements was a “pleasant surprise,” said Joiner, a co-author on the paper. …

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NASA’s WISE survey finds thousands of new stars, but no ‘Planet X’

After searching hundreds of millions of objects across our sky, NASA’s Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) has turned up no evidence of the hypothesized celestial body in our solar system commonly dubbed “Planet X.”Researchers previously had theorized about the existence of this large, but unseen celestial body, suspected to lie somewhere beyond the orbit of Pluto. In addition to “Planet X,” the body had garnered other nicknames, including “Nemesis” and “Tyche.”This recent study, which involved an examination of WISE data covering the entire sky in infrared light, found no object the size of Saturn or larger exists out to a distance of 10,000 astronomical units (au), and no object larger than Jupiter exists out to 26,000 au. One astronomical unit equals 93 million miles. Earth is 1 au, and Pluto about 40 au, from the sun.”The outer solar system probably does not contain a large gas giant planet, or a small, companion star,” said Kevin Luhman of the Center for Exoplanets and Habitable Worlds at Penn State University, University Park, Pa., author of a paper in the Astrophysical Journal describing the results.But searches of the WISE catalog are not coming up empty. A second study reveals several thousand new residents in our sun’s “backyard,” consisting of stars and cool bodies called brown dwarfs.”Neighboring star systems that have been hiding in plain sight just jump out in the WISE data,” said Ned Wright of the University of California, Los Angeles, the principal investigator of the mission.The second WISE study, which concentrated on objects beyond our solar system, found 3,525 stars and brown dwarfs within 500 light-years of our sun.”We’re finding objects that were totally overlooked before,” said Davy Kirkpatrick of NASA’s Infrared and Processing Analysis Center at the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, Calif. Kirkpatrick is lead author of the second paper, also in the Astrophysical Journal. Some of these 3,525 objects also were found in the Luhman study, which catalogued 762 objects.The WISE mission operated from 2010 through early 2011, during which time it performed two full scans of the sky — with essentially a six-month gap between scans. The survey captured images of nearly 750 million asteroids, stars and galaxies. In November 2013, NASA released data from the AllWISE program, which now enables astronomers to compare the two full-sky surveys to look for moving objects.In general, the more an object in the WISE images appears to move over time, the closer it is. This visual clue is the same effect at work when one observes a plane flying low to the ground versus the same plane flying at higher altitude. …

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Mystery of planet-forming disks explained by magnetism

Astronomers say that magnetic storms in the gas orbiting young stars may explain a mystery that has persisted since before 2006.Researchers using NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope to study developing stars have had a hard time figuring out why the stars give off more infrared light than expected. The planet-forming disks that circle the young stars are heated by starlight and glow with infrared light, but Spitzer detected additional infrared light coming from an unknown source.A new theory, based on three-dimensional models of planet-forming disks, suggests the answer: Gas and dust suspended above the disks on gigantic magnetic loops like those seen on the sun absorb the starlight and glow with infrared light.”If you could somehow stand on one of these planet-forming disks and look at the star in the center through the disk atmosphere, you would see what looks like a sunset,” said Neal Turner of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.The new models better describe how planet-forming material around stars is stirred up, making its way into future planets, asteroids and comets.While the idea of magnetic atmospheres on planet-forming disks is not new, this is the first time they have been linked to the mystery of the observed excess infrared light. According to Turner and colleagues, the magnetic atmospheres are similar to what takes place on the surface of our sun, where moving magnetic field lines spur tremendous solar prominences to flare up in big loops.Stars are born out of collapsing pockets in enormous clouds of gas and dust, rotating as they shrink down under the pull of gravity. As a star grows in size, more material rains down toward it from the cloud, and the rotation flattens this material out into a turbulent disk. Ultimately, planets clump together out of the disk material.In the 1980s, the Infrared Astronomical Satellite mission, a joint project that included NASA, began finding more infrared light than expected around young stars. Using data from other telescopes, astronomers pieced together the presence of dusty disks of planet-forming material. But eventually it became clear the disks alone weren’t enough to account for the extra infrared light — especially in the case of stars a few times the mass of the sun.One theory introduced the idea that instead of a disk, the stars were surrounded by a giant dusty halo, which intercepted the star’s visible light and re-radiated it at infrared wavelengths. Then, recent observations from ground-based telescopes suggested that both a disk and a halo were needed. Finally, three-dimensional computer modeling of the turbulence in the disks showed the disks ought to have fuzzy surfaces, with layers of low-density gas supported by magnetic fields, similar to the way solar prominences are supported by the sun’s magnetic field.The new work brings these pieces together by calculating how the starlight falls across the disk and its fuzzy atmosphere. The result is that the atmosphere absorbs and re-radiates enough to account for all the extra infrared light.”The starlight-intercepting material lies not in a halo, and not in a traditional disk either, but in a disk atmosphere supported by magnetic fields,” said Turner. …

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Icy wreckage discovered in nearby planetary system

Astronomers using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) telescope have discovered the splattered remains of comets colliding together around a nearby star; the researchers believe they are witnessing the total destruction of one of these icy bodies once every five minutes.The “smoking gun” implicating this frosty demolition is the detection of a surprisingly compact region of carbon monoxide (CO) gas swirling around the young, nearby star Beta Pictoris.”Molecules of CO can survive around a star for only a brief time, about 100 years, before being destroyed by UV radiation,” said Bill Dent, a researcher at the Joint ALMA Office in Santiago, Chile, and lead author on a paper published in the journal Science online at the Science Express website. “So unless we are observing Beta Pictoris at a very unusual time, then the carbon monoxide we observed must be continuously replenished.”Comets and other icy bodies trap vast amounts of CO and other gases in their frosty interiors. When these objects collide, as is common in the chaotic environment around a young star, they quickly release their stored gases. If these collisions were occurring randomly in this system, then the CO would be more or less evenly distributed.But the new images from ALMA show something else: a single compact clump of CO approximately 13 billion kilometers (8 billion miles) from the star — or about three times the distance of Neptune to the Sun. “This clump is an important clue to what’s going on in the outer reaches of this young planetary system,” says Mark Wyatt, an astronomer at the University of Cambridge and coauthor on the paper.Earlier observations of Beta Pictoris with other telescopes revealed that it is surrounded by a large disk of dusty debris and harbors at least one planet orbiting approximately 1.2 billion kilometers (750 million miles) from the star.The new ALMA data suggest, however, that there may be a second, as-yet-undetected planet orbiting much farther out. The gravity from such a planet would shepherd millions of cometary bodies into a relatively confined area. A similar phenomenon is seen in our own Solar System where the planet Jupiter keeps a group of so-called Trojan asteroids in a confined orbit around the Sun.”To get the amount of CO we observed — which is equal to about one-sixth the mass of Earth’s oceans — the rate of collisions would be truly startling, with the complete destruction of a large comet once every five minutes,” noted Aki Roberge, an astronomer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and coauthor on the paper. “To get this number of collisions, this would have to be a very tight, massive swarm.”The astronomers propose an alternate possibility for the origin of this swarm of icy bodies; two Mars-size icy planets smashing together within the past million years could have produced the compact, cometary debris around the star. Such an occurrence, however, would be rare and there is a low likelihood that it could have occurred recently enough for the remnants to still be so concentrated.Both possibilities, however, give astronomers reason to be optimistic that there are many more planets waiting to be found around Beta Pictoris, which is located a relatively nearby 63 light-years from Earth in the southern constellation Pictor.ALMA’s unprecedented resolution and sensitivity enabled the astronomers to detect the faint millimeter-wavelength light emitted by both the dust grains and CO in the system.”And carbon monoxide is just the beginning; there may be other more complex pre-organic molecules released from these icy bodies,” adds Roberge.The astronomers hope that further observations with ALMA will shed more light on this system and help us understand what conditions were like during the formation of our own Solar System.ALMA, an international astronomy facility, is a partnership of Europe, North America and East Asia in cooperation with the Republic of Chile. ALMA construction and operations are led on behalf of Europe by ESO, on behalf of North America by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), and on behalf of East Asia by the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ). …

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Hubble witnesses an asteroid mysteriously disintegrating

The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has photographed the never-before-seen break-up of an asteroid, which has fragmented into as many as ten smaller pieces. Although fragile comet nuclei have been seen to fall apart as they approach the Sun, nothing like the breakup of this asteroid, P/2013 R3, has ever been observed before in the asteroid belt.”This is a rock. Seeing it fall apart before our eyes is pretty amazing,” said David Jewitt of UCLA, USA, who led the astronomical forensics investigation.The crumbling asteroid, designated P/2013 R3, was first noticed as an unusual, fuzzy-looking object on 15 September 2013 by the Catalina and Pan-STARRS sky surveys. Follow-up observations on 1 October with the Keck Telescope on Mauna Kea, Hawaii, revealed three co-moving bodies embedded in a dusty envelope that is nearly the diameter of Earth.”Keck showed us that this thing was worth looking at with Hubble,” Jewitt said. With its superior resolution, the space-based Hubble observations soon showed that there were really ten distinct objects, each with comet-like dust tails. The four largest rocky fragments are up to 200 metres in radius, about twice the length of a football pitch.The Hubble data showed that the fragments are drifting away from each other at a leisurely 1.5 kilometres per hour — slower than the speed of a strolling human. The asteroid began coming apart early last year, but the latest images show that pieces continue to emerge.”This is a really bizarre thing to observe — we’ve never seen anything like it before,” says co-author Jessica Agarwal of the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Germany. “The break-up could have many different causes, but the Hubble observations are detailed enough that we can actually pinpoint the process responsible.”The ongoing discovery of more fragments makes it unlikely that the asteroid is disintegrating due to a collision with another asteroid, which would be instantaneous and violent in comparison to what has been observed. Some of the debris from such a high-velocity smash-up would also be expected to travel much faster than has been observed.It is also unlikely that the asteroid is breaking apart due to the pressure of interior ices warming and vaporising. The object is too cold for ices to significantly sublimate, and it has presumably maintained its nearly 480-million-kilometre distance from the Sun for much of the age of the Solar System.This leaves a scenario in which the asteroid is disintegrating due to a subtle effect of sunlight that causes the rotation rate to slowly increase over time. …

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Shocking behavior of a runaway star: High-speed encounter creates arc

Roguish runaway stars can have a big impact on their surroundings as they plunge through the Milky Way galaxy. Their high-speed encounters shock the galaxy, creating arcs, as seen in a newly released image from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope.In this case, the speedster star is known as Kappa Cassiopeiae, or HD 2905 to astronomers. It is a massive, hot supergiant moving at around 2.5 million mph relative to its neighbors (1,100 kilometers per second). But what really makes the star stand out in this image is the surrounding, streaky red glow of material in its path. Such structures are called bow shocks, and they can often be seen in front of the fastest, most massive stars in the galaxy.Bow shocks form where the magnetic fields and wind of particles flowing off a star collide with the diffuse, and usually invisible, gas and dust that fill the space between stars. How these shocks light up tells astronomers about the conditions around the star and in space. Slow-moving stars like our sun have bow shocks that are nearly invisible at all wavelengths of light, but fast stars like Kappa Cassiopeiae create shocks that can be seen by Spitzer’s infrared detectors.Incredibly, this shock is created about 4 light-years ahead of Kappa Cassiopeiae, showing what a sizable impact this star has on its surroundings. (This is about the same distance that we are from Proxima Centauri, the nearest star beyond the sun.)The Kappa Cassiopeiae bow shock shows up as a vividly red color. The faint green features in this image result from carbon molecules, called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, in dust clouds along the line of sight that are illuminated by starlight.Delicate red filaments run through this infrared nebula, crossing the bow shock. Some astronomers have suggested these filaments may be tracing out features of the magnetic field that runs throughout our galaxy. …

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Astronomers get first peek into core of supernova, using NuSTAR telescope

Astronomers for the first time have peered into the heart of an exploding star in the final minutes of its existence.The feat is one of the primary goals of NASA’s NuSTAR mission, launched in June 2012 to measure high-energy X-ray emissions from exploding stars, or supernovae, and black holes, including the massive black hole at the center of our Milky Way Galaxy.The NuSTAR team reported in this week’s issue of the journal Nature the first map of titanium thrown out from the core of a star that exploded in 1671. That explosion produced the beautiful supernova remnant known as Cassiopeia A (Cas A).The well-known supernova remnant has been photographed by many optical, infrared and X-ray telescopes in the past, but these revealed only how the star’s debris collided in a shock wave with the surrounding gas and dust and heated it up. NuSTAR has produced the first map of high-energy X-ray emissions from material created in the actual core of the exploding star: the radioactive isotope titanium-44, which was produced in the star’s core as it collapsed to a neutron star or black hole. The energy released in the core collapse supernova blew off the star’s outer layers, and the debris from this explosion has been expanding outward ever since at 5,000 kilometers per second.”This has been a holy grail observation for high energy astrophysics for decades,” said coauthor and NuSTAR investigator Steven Boggs, UC Berkeley professor and chair of physics. “For the first time we are able to image the radioactive emission in a supernova remnant, which lets us probe the fundamental physics of the nuclear explosion at the heart of the supernova like we have never been able to do before.””Supernovae produce and eject into the cosmos most of the elements are important to life as we know it,” said UC Berkeley professor of astronomy Alex Filippenko, who was not part of the NuSTAR team. “These results are exciting because for the first time we are getting information about the innards of these explosions, where the elements are actually produced.”Boggs says that the information will help astronomers build three-dimensional computer models of exploding stars, and eventually understand some of the mysterious characteristics of supernovae, such as jets of material ejected by some. Previous observations of Cas A by the Chandra X-ray telescope, for example, showed jets of silicon emerging from the star.”Stars are spherical balls of gas, and so you might think that when they end their lives and explode, that explosion would look like a uniform ball expanding out with great power,” said Fiona Harrison, the principal investigator of NuSTAR at the California Institute of Technology. “Our new results show how the explosion’s heart, or engine, is distorted, possibly because the inner regions literally slosh around before detonating.”Expanding supernova remnantCas A is about 11,000 light years from Earth and the most studied nearby supernova remnant. In the 343 years since the star exploded, the debris from the explosion has expanded to about 10 light years across, essentially magnifying the pattern of the explosion so that it can be seen from Earth.Earlier observations of the shock-heated iron in the debris cloud led some astronomers to think that the explosion was symmetric, that is, equally powerful in all directions. Boggs noted, however, that the origins of the iron are so unclear that its distribution may not reflect the explosion pattern from the core.”We don’t know whether the iron was produced in the supernova explosion, whether it was part of the star when it originally formed, if it is just in the surrounding material, or even if the iron we see represents the actual distribution of iron itself, because we wouldn’t see it if it were not heated in the shock,” he said.The new map of titanium-44, which does not match the distribution of iron in the remnant, strongly suggests that there is cold iron in the interior that Chandra does not see. …

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How evolution shapes the geometries of life

Why does a mouse’s heart beat about the same number of times in its lifetime as an elephant’s, although the mouse lives about a year, while an elephant sees 70 winters come and go? Why do small plants and animals mature faster than large ones? Why has nature chosen such radically different forms as the loose-limbed beauty of a flowering tree and the fearful symmetry of a tiger?These questions have puzzled life scientists since ancient times. Now an interdisciplinary team of researchers from the University of Maryland and the University of Padua in Italy propose a thought-provoking answer based on a famous mathematical formula that has been accepted as true for generations, but never fully understood. In a paper published the week of Feb. 17, 2014 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the team offers a re-thinking of the formula known as Kleiber’s Law. Seeing this formula as a mathematical expression of an evolutionary fact, the team suggests that plants’ and animals’ widely different forms evolved in parallel, as ideal ways to solve the problem of how to use energy efficiently.If you studied biology in high school or college, odds are you memorized Kleiber’s Law: metabolism equals mass to the three-quarter power. This formula, one of the few widely held tenets in biology, shows that as living things get larger, their metabolisms and their life spans increase at predictable rates. Named after the Swiss biologist Max Kleiber who formulated it in the 1930s, the law fits observations on everything from animals’ energy intake to the number of young they bear. It’s used to calculate the correct human dosage of a medicine tested on mice, among many other things.But why does Kleiber’s Law hold true? …

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Responding to potential asteroid redirect mission targets

One year ago, on Feb. 15, 2013, the world was witness to the dangers presented by near-Earth Objects (NEOs) when a relatively small asteroid entered Earth’s atmosphere, exploding over Chelyabinsk, Russia, and releasing more energy than a large atomic bomb. Tracking near-Earth asteroids has been a significant endeavor for NASA and the broader astronomical community, which has discovered 10,713 known near-Earth objects to date. NASA is now pursuing new partnerships and collaborations in an Asteroid Grand Challenge to accelerate NASA’s existing planetary defense work, which will help find all asteroid threats to human population and know what to do about them. In parallel, NASA is developing an Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) — a first-ever mission to identify, capture and redirect an asteroid to a safe orbit of Earth’s moon for future exploration by astronauts in the 2020s.ARM will use capabilities in development, including the new Orion spacecraft and Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, and high-power Solar Electric Propulsion. All are critical components of deep-space exploration and essential to meet NASA’s goal of sending humans to Mars in the 2030s. The mission represents an unprecedented technological feat, raising the bar for human exploration and discovery, while helping protect our home planet and bringing us closer to a human mission to one of these intriguing objects.NASA is assessing two concepts to robotically capture and redirect an asteroid mass into a stable orbit around the moon. In the first proposed concept, NASA would capture and redirect an entire very small asteroid. In the alternative concept, NASA would retrieve a large, boulder-like mass from a larger asteroid and return it to this same lunar orbit. In both cases, astronauts aboard an Orion spacecraft would then study the redirected asteroid mass in the vicinity of the moon and bring back samples.Very few known near-Earth objects are ARM candidates. …

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Cosmic roadmap to galactic magnetic field revealed

Scientists on NASA’s Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX) mission, including a team leader from the University of New Hampshire, report that recent, independent measurements have validated one of the mission’s signature findings — a mysterious “ribbon” of energy and particles at the edge of our solar system that appears to be a directional “roadmap in the sky” of the local interstellar magnetic field.Unknown until now, the direction of the galactic magnetic field may be a missing key to understanding how the heliosphere — the gigantic bubble that surrounds our solar system — is shaped by the interstellar magnetic field and how it thereby helps shield us from dangerous incoming galactic cosmic rays. “Using measurements of ultra-high energy cosmic rays on a global scale, we now have a completely different means of verifying that the field directions we derived from IBEX are consistent,” says Nathan Schwadron, lead scientist for the IBEX Science Operations Center at the UNH Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans, and Space. Schwadron and IBEX colleagues published their findings online today in Science.Establishing a consistent local interstellar magnetic field direction using IBEX low-energy neutral atoms and galactic cosmic rays at ten orders of magnitude higher energy levels has wide-ranging implications for the structure of our heliosphere and is an important measurement to be making in tandem with the Voyager 1 spacecraft, which is in the process of passing beyond our heliosphere.”The cosmic ray data we used represent some of the highest energy radiation we can observe and are at the opposite end of the energy range compared to IBEX’s measurements,” says Schwadron. “That it’s revealing a consistent picture of our neighborhood in the galaxy with what IBEX has revealed gives us vastly more confidence that what we’re learning is correct.”How magnetic fields of galaxies order and direct galactic cosmic rays is a crucial component to understanding the environment of our galaxy, which in turn influences the environment of our entire solar system and our own environment here on Earth, including how that played into the evolution of life on our planet.Notes David McComas, principal investigator of the IBEX mission at Southwest Research Institute and coauthor on the Science Express paper, “We are discovering how the interstellar magnetic field shapes, deforms, and transforms our entire heliosphere.”To date, the only other direct information gathered from the heart of this complex boundary region is from NASA’s Voyager satellites. Voyager 1 entered the heliospheric boundary region in 2004, passing beyond what’s known as the termination shock where the solar wind abruptly slows. Voyager 1 is believed to have crossed into interstellar space in 2012.Interestingly, when scientists compared the IBEX and cosmic ray data with Voyager 1’s measurements, the Voyager 1 data provide a different direction for the magnetic fields just outside our heliosphere.That’s a puzzle but it doesn’t necessarily mean one set of data is wrong and one is right. Voyager 1 is taking measurements directly, gathering data at a specific time and place, while IBEX gathers information averaged over great distances — so there is room for discrepancy. Indeed, the very discrepancy can be used as a clue: understand why there’s a difference between the two measurements and gain new insight.”It’s a fascinating time,” says Schwadron. “Fifty years ago, we were making the first measurements of the solar wind and understanding the nature of what was just beyond near-Earth space. Now, a whole new realm of science is opening up as we try to understand the physics all the way outside the heliosphere.”Eberhard Mbius, UNH principal scientist for the IBEX-Lo instrument on board, is a coauthor on the Science paper along with colleagues from institutions around the country.Story Source:The above story is based on materials provided by University of New Hampshire. …

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With their amazing necks, ants don’t need ‘high hopes’ to do heavy lifting

High hopes may help move a rubber tree plant (as the old song goes), but the real secret to the ant’s legendary strength may lie in its tiny neck joint.In the Journal of Biomechanics, researchers report that the neck joint of a common American field ant can withstand pressures up to 5,000 times the ant’s weight.”Ants are impressive mechanical systems — astounding, really,” said Carlos Castro, assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at The Ohio State University. “Before we started, we made a somewhat conservative estimate that they might withstand 1,000 times their weight, and it turned out to be much more.”The engineers are studying whether similar joints might enable future robots to mimic the ant’s weight-lifting ability on earth and in space.Other researchers have long observed ants in the field and guessed that they could hoist a hundred times their body weight or more, judging by the payload of leaves or prey that they carried. Castro and his colleagues took a different approach.They took the ants apart.”As you would in any engineering system, if you want to understand how something works, you take it apart,” he said. “That may sound kind of cruel in this case, but we did anesthetize them first.”The engineers examined the Allegheny mound ant (Formica exsectoides) as if it were a device that they wanted to reverse-engineer: they tested its moving parts and the materials it is made of.They chose this particular species because it’s common in the eastern United States and could easily be obtained from the university insectary. It’s an average field ant that is not particularly known for it’s lifting ability.They imaged ants with electron microscopy and X-rayed them with micro-computed tomography (micro-CT) machines. They placed the ants in a refrigerator to anesthetize them, then glued them face-down in a specially designed centrifuge to measure the force necessary to deform the neck and eventually rupture the head from the body.The centrifuge worked on the same principle as a common carnival ride called “the rotor.” In the rotor, a circular room spins until centrifugal force pins people to the wall and the floor drops out. In the case of the ants, their heads were glued in place on the floor of the centrifuge, so that as it spun, the ants’ bodies would be pulled outward until their necks ruptured.The centrifuge spun up to hundreds of rotations per second, each increase in speed exerting more outward force on the ant. At forces corresponding to 350 times the ants’ body weight, the neck joint began to stretch and the body lengthened. The ants’ necks ruptured at forces of 3,400-5,000 times their average body weight.Micro-CT scans revealed the soft tissue structure of the neck and its connection to the hard exoskeleton of the head and body. Electron microscopy images revealed that each part of the head-neck-chest joint was covered in a different texture, with structures that looked like bumps or hairs extending from different locations.”Other insects have similar micro-scale structures, and we think that they might play some kind of mechanical role,” Castro said. …

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Shadowing in Sensor Images: NASA study points to ‘infrared-herring’ in apparent Amazon green-up

For the past eight years, scientists have been working to make sense of why some satellite data seemed to show the Amazon rain forest “greening-up” during the region’s dry season each year from June to October. The green-up indicated productive, thriving vegetation in spite of limited rainfall.Now, a new NASA study published today in the journal Nature shows that the appearance of canopy greening is not caused by a biophysical change in Amazon forests, but instead by a combination of shadowing within the canopy and the way that satellite sensors observe the Amazon during the dry season.Correcting for this artifact in the data, Doug Morton, of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., and colleagues show that Amazon forests, at least on the large scale, maintain a fairly constant greenness and canopy structure throughout the dry season. The findings have implications for how scientists seek to understand seasonal and interannual changes in Amazon forests and other ecosystems.”Scientists who use satellite observations to study changes in Earth’s vegetation need to account for seasonal differences in the angles of solar illumination and satellite observation,” Morton said.Isolating the apparent green-up mechanismThe MODIS, or Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer, sensors that fly aboard NASA’s Terra and Aqua satellites make daily observations over the huge expanse of Amazon forests. An area is likely covered in green vegetation if sensors detect a relatively small amount of red light — absorbed in abundance by plants for photosynthesis — but see a large amount of near-infrared light, which plants primarily reflect. Scientists use the ratio of red and near-infrared light as a measure of vegetation “greenness.”Numerous hypotheses have been put forward to explain why Amazon forests appear greener in MODIS data as the dry season progresses. Perhaps young leaves, known to reflect more near-infrared light, replace old leaves? Or, possibly trees add more leaves to capture sunlight in the dry season when the skies are less cloudy.Unsettled by the lack of definitive evidence explaining the magnitude of the green-up, Morton and colleagues set out to better characterize the phenomenon. They culled satellite observations from MODIS and NASA’s Ice Cloud and land Elevation Satellite (ICESat) Geosciences Laser Altimeter System (GLAS), which can provide an independent check on the seasonal differences in Amazon forest structure.The team next used a theoretical model to demonstrate how changes in forest structure or reflectance properties have distinct fingerprints in MODIS and GLAS data. Only one of the hypothesized mechanisms for the green-up, changes in sun-sensor geometry, was consistent with the satellite observations.”We think we have uncovered the mechanism for the appearance of seasonal greening of Amazon forests — shadowing within the canopy that changes the amount of near-infrared light observed by MODIS,” Morton said.Seeing the Amazon in a new lightIn June, when the sun is as low and far north as it will get, shadows are abundant. By September, around the time of the equinox, Amazon forests at the equator are illuminated from directly overhead. …

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Kepler finds a very wobbly planet: Rapid and erratic changes in seasons

Imagine living on a planet with seasons so erratic you would hardly know whether to wear Bermuda shorts or a heavy overcoat. That is the situation on a weird, wobbly world found by NASA’s planet-hunting Kepler space telescope.The planet, designated Kepler-413b, precesses, or wobbles, wildly on its spin axis, much like a child’s top. The tilt of the planet’s spin axis can vary by as much as 30 degrees over 11 years, leading to rapid and erratic changes in seasons. In contrast, Earth’s rotational precession is 23.5 degrees over 26,000 years. Researchers are amazed that this far-off planet is precessing on a human timescale.Kepler 413-b is located 2,300 light-years away in the constellation Cygnus. It circles a close pair of orange and red dwarf stars every 66 days. The planet’s orbit around the binary stars appears to wobble, too, because the plane of its orbit is tilted 2.5 degrees with respect to the plane of the star pair’s orbit. As seen from Earth, the wobbling orbit moves up and down continuously.Kepler finds planets by noticing the dimming of a star or stars when a planet transits, or travels in front of them. Normally, planets transit like clockwork. Astronomers using Kepler discovered the wobbling when they found an unusual pattern of transiting for Kepler-413b.”Looking at the Kepler data over the course of 1,500 days, we saw three transits in the first 180 days — one transit every 66 days — then we had 800 days with no transits at all. …

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Greenland’s fastest glacier reaches record speeds

Jakobshavn Isbr (Jakobshavn Glacier) is moving ice from the Greenland ice sheet into the ocean at a speed that appears to be the fastest ever recorded. Researchers from the University of Washington and the German Space Agency (DLR) measured the dramatic speeds of the fast-flowing glacier in 2012 and 2013.The results are published today in The Cryosphere, an open access journal of the European Geosciences Union (EGU).”We are now seeing summer speeds more than 4 times what they were in the 1990s on a glacier which at that time was believed to be one of the fastest, if not the fastest, glacier in Greenland,” says Ian Joughin, a researcher at the Polar Science Center, University of Washington and lead-author of the study.In the summer of 2012 the glacier reached a record speed of more than 17 kilometres per year, or over 46 metres per day. These flow rates are unprecedented: they appear to be the fastest ever recorded for any glacier or ice stream in Greenland or Antarctica, the researchers say.They note that summer speeds are temporary, with the glacier flowing more slowly over the winter months. But they add that even the annually averaged speedup over the past couple of years is nearly 3 times what it was in the 1990s.This speedup of Jakobshavn Isbr means that the glacier is adding more and more ice to the ocean, contributing to sea-level rise. “We know that from 2000 to 2010 this glacier alone increased sea level by about 1 mm. With the additional speed it likely will contribute a bit more than this over the next decade,” explains Joughin.Jakobshavn Isbr, which is widely believed to be the glacier that produced the large iceberg that sank the Titanic in 1912, drains the Greenland ice sheet into a deep ocean fjord on the coast of the island. At its calving front, where the glacier effectively ends as it breaks off into icebergs, some of the ice melts while the rest is pushed out, floating into the ocean. Both of these processes contribute about the same amount to sea-level rise from Greenland.As the Arctic region warms, Greenland glaciers such as Jakobshavn Isbr have been thinning and calving icebergs further and further inland. This means that, even though the glacier is flowing towards the coast and carrying more ice into the ocean, its calving front is actually retreating. In 2012 and 2013, the front retreated more than a kilometre further inland than in previous summers, the scientists write in the new The Cryosphere study.In the case of Jakobshavn Isbr, the thinning and retreat coincides with an increase in speed. …

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Dramatic thinning of Arctic lake ice cuts winter ice season by 24 days compared to 1950

The research, sponsored by the European Space Agency (ESA) and published in The Cryosphere, also reveals that climate change has dramatically affected the thickness of lake ice at the coldest point in the season: In 2011, Arctic lake ice was up to 38 centimetres thinner than it was in 1950.”We’ve found that the thickness of the ice has decreased tremendously in response to climate warming in the region,” said lead author Cristina Surdu, a PhD student of Professor Claude Duguay in Waterloo’s Department of Geography and Environmental Management. “When we saw the actual numbers we were shocked at how dramatic the change has been. It’s basically more than a foot of ice by the end of winter.”The study of more than 400 lakes of the North Slope of Alaska, is the first time researchers have been able to document the magnitude of lake-ice changes in the region over such a long period of time.”Prior to starting our analysis, we were expecting to find a decline in ice thickness and grounded ice based on our examination of temperature and precipitation records of the past five decades from the Barrow meteorological station,” said Surdu “At the end of the analysis, when looking at trend analysis results, we were stunned to observe such a dramatic ice decline during a period of only 20 years.”The research team used satellite radar imagery from ESA to determine that 62 per cent of the lakes in the region froze to the bottom in 1992. By 2011, only 26 per cent of lakes froze down to the bed, or bottom of the lake. Overall, there was a 22 per cent reduction in what the researchers call “grounded ice” from 1992 to 2011.Researchers were able to tell the difference between a fully frozen lake and one that had not completely frozen to the bottom, because satellite radar signals behave very differently, depending on presence or absence of water underneath the ice.Radar signals are absorbed into the sediment under the lake when it is frozen to the bottom. However, when there is water under the ice with bubbles, the beam bounces back strongly towards the radar system. Therefore, lakes that are completely frozen show up on satellite images as very dark while those that are not frozen to the lake bed are bright.Researchers used the Canadian Lake Ice Model (CLIMo) to determine ice cover and lake ice thickness for those years before 1991, when satellite images are not available.The model simulations show that lakes in the region froze almost six days later and broke up about 18 days earlier in the winter of 2011 compared to the winter of 1950. Shorter ice-cover seasons may lead to shifts in lake algal productivity as well as thawing of permafrost under lake beds.”The changes in ice and the shortened winter affect Northern communities that depend on ice roads to transport goods,” said Surdu. “The dramatic changes in lake ice may also contribute to further warming of the entire region because open water on lakes contribute to warmer air temperatures, albeit to a lesser extent than open sea water.”The ice regimes of shallow lakes were documented using radar images from ESA’s ERS-1 and -2 satellites. More information on the ESA is available online.Story Source:The above story is based on materials provided by University of Waterloo. …

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Nature can, selectively, buffer human-caused global warming, say scientists

Can naturally occurring processes selectively buffer the full brunt of global warming caused by greenhouse gas emissions resulting from human activities?Yes, find researchers from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Johns Hopkins University in the US and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.As the globe warms, ocean temperatures rise, leading to increased water vapor escaping into the atmosphere. Water vapor is the most important greenhouse gas, and its impact on climate is amplified in the stratosphere.In a detailed study, the researchers from the three institutions examined the causes of changes in the temperatures and water vapor in the tropical tropopause layer (TTL). The TTL is a critical region of our atmosphere with characteristics of both the troposphere below and the stratosphere above.The TTL can have significant influences on both atmospheric chemistry and climate, as its temperature determines how much water vapor can enter the stratosphere. Therefore, understanding any changes in the temperature of the TTL and what might be causing them is an important scientific question of significant societal relevance, say the researchers.The Israeli and US scientists used measurements from satellite observations and output from chemistry-climate models to understand recent temperature trends in the TTL. Temperature measurements show where significant changes have taken place since 1979.The satellite observations have shown that warming of the tropical Indian Ocean and tropical Western Pacific Ocean — with resulting increased precipitation and water vapor there — causes the opposite effect of cooling in the TTL region above the warming sea surface. Once the TTL cools, less water vapor is present in the TTL and also above in the stratosphere,Since water vapor is a very strong greenhouse gas, this effect leads to a negative feedback on climate change. That is, the increase in water vapor due to enhanced evaporation from the warming oceans is confined to the near- surface area, while the stratosphere becomes drier. Hence, this effect may actually slightly weaken the more dire forecasted aspects of an increasing warming of our climate, the scientists say.The researchers are Dr. Chaim Garfinkel of the Fredy and Nadine Herrmann Institute of Earth Sciences at the Hebrew University and formerly of Johns Hopkins University, Dr. D. …

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Rings, dark side of Saturn glow in new Cassini image

Oct. 21, 2013 — The gauzy rings of Saturn and the dark side of the planet glow in newly released infrared images obtained by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft.”Looking at the Saturn system when it is backlit by the sun gives scientists a kind of inside-out view of Saturn that we don’t normally see,” said Matt Hedman, a participating scientist based at the University of Idaho, Moscow, Idaho. “The parts of Saturn’s rings that are bright when you look at them from backyard telescopes on Earth are dark, and other parts that are typically dark glow brightly in this view.”It can be difficult for scientists to get a good look at the faint outer F, E and G rings, or the tenuous inner ring known as the D ring when light is shining directly on them. That’s because they are almost transparent and composed of small particles that do not reflect light well. What’s different about this viewing geometry?When these small particles are lit from behind, they show up like fog in the headlights of an oncoming vehicle. The C ring also appears relatively bright here; not because it is made of dust, but because the material in it — mostly dirty water ice — is translucent. In fact, in the 18th and 19th centuries, it was known as the “crepe ring” because of its supposed similarity to crepe paper. The wide, middle ring known as the B ring — one of the easiest to see from Earth through telescopes because it is densely packed with chunks of bright water ice — looks dark in these images because it is so thick that it blocks almost all of the sunlight shining behind it. Infrared images also show thermal, or heat, radiation. While a visible-light image from this vantage point would simply show the face of the planet as dimly lit by sunlight reflected off the rings, Saturn glows brightly in this view because of heat from Saturn’s interior.In a second version of the image, scientists “stretched” or exaggerated the contrast of the data, which brings out subtleties not initially visible.Structures in the wispy E ring — made from the icy breath of the moon Enceladus — reveal themselves in this exaggerated view. …

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Brain may flush out toxins during sleep; Sleep clears brain of molecules associated with neurodegeneration: Study

Oct. 17, 2013 — A good night’s rest may literally clear the mind. Using mice, researchers showed for the first time that the space between brain cells may increase during sleep, allowing the brain to flush out toxins that build up during waking hours. These results suggest a new role for sleep in health and disease. The study was funded by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), part of the NIH.”Sleep changes the cellular structure of the brain. It appears to be a completely different state,” said Maiken Nedergaard, M.D., D.M.Sc., co-director of the Center for Translational Neuromedicine at the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York, and a leader of the study.For centuries, scientists and philosophers have wondered why people sleep and how it affects the brain. Only recently have scientists shown that sleep is important for storing memories. In this study, Dr. Nedergaard and her colleagues unexpectedly found that sleep may be also be the period when the brain cleanses itself of toxic molecules.Their results, published in Science, show that during sleep a plumbing system called the glymphatic system may open, letting fluid flow rapidly through the brain. Dr. …

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